This dagger, one of the masterpieces of Mughal art, demonstrates in one piece so many different elements which, when fused together, gave Mughal Art its character. The jade stone that was used for the hilt would have come from Kashgar in present-day Xinjiang, western China; the trade that brought the jade to the Mughal court is well documented (Markel, 2008: note 5 details the principal sources). The scrolling designs inlaid in gold at the top of the blade, together with the nasta'liq script in which the short inscription is written, are, both stylistically and technically, imports from the Iranian world, part of the substantial artistic input from there to India in the early Mughal period. A recently rediscovered dagger made in Herat in the late 15th century, now in the Wallace Collection shows both these features (Sotheby's, London, 26 May 1933, lot 65).
The carved jade head represents the European contribution, both in its three-dimensional carving, which is thought to have been influenced by and also in the subject matter itself. It has been suggested that it was either created by or else heavily influenced by the work of European lapidaries working at the Mughal court. What is certain is that the subject is of European origin. One scholar posits that it derives from an Indo-Portuguese head of Christ as the Good Shepherd (San Francisco, 2018, no.26). Another suggests that the source was the classic depiction of a young European man, complete with earring, showing its resemblance to an Indian drawing after a European print dating from 1600-1610 now in the Bodleian Library, Oxford (London, 2015). It has also been thought to derive from depictions of cherubs which, having been imported from Europe, appear in royal context in many Mughal paintings. None of these options however really account for what is clearly a ruff around the neck; in some ways the most European feature of all. Whatever the most immediate source, there is no doubt that it is a real masterpiece of hardstone carving, entirely consistent with royal Mughal work of the highest quality.
Two Mughal paintings depict a dagger of this form with a human head terminal, in a scabbard hanging from a royal waistband. One is a historical portrait of Prince Salim, the future emperor Jahangir, examining a mirror of very European taste, painted by Bichitr in around 1630, shortly after the subject had died (Minto Album, V -1925; New York, 2014, p.27). A second depiction, again a historical representation, painted about 5 years later, shows a dagger with human head terminal in the waistband of Prince Khurram (the future Shah Jahan) as he greets his father in a depiction in the Padshahnama in Windsor Castle attributed to 'Abid (Jaffer, 2013, p. 22). The blade of the dagger is inscribed with the title sahib qiran thani, the Second Lord of the [Celestial] Conjunction, a title taken by Shah Jahan that also enforced the Mughal lineage since the original Sahib Qiran was Timur, back to whom the Mughals traced their lineage. The parasol (chhatri) motif inlaid on one side of the blade is a further royal indicator. It is an ancient Indian motif indicating royalty or divinity, appearing above the heads of many central figures in mediaeval stone sculpture. Its absence of further titles emphasizes the personal nature of this dagger. The earliest blade yet noted that bears this motif is a sword made for Jahangir dating from early in his reign in 1027/1608; under Shah Jahan and Aurangzeb it was frequently employed on royal edged weapons.
Previous descriptions of this dagger have noted that the closest depiction of a human headed dagger is depicted in the waistband of the young Jahangir, and that the use of a very pale green jade rather than a pure white is another indication of a Jahangiri rather than a Shah Jahani commission for the jade. They have tried to resolve this with the clear inscription on the blade that indicates Shah Jahan. It has been suggested that the blade was replaced when it was inherited by Shah Jahan (London 1982 and others), that the inscription was added to an earlier plain blade (London 2015) or that the commission took place at the start of Shah Jahan’s reign 1629-1636 (Paris 2017 and others). It is true that the taste of the hilt with its color and its use of the human face (Elgood, 2004, pp.83-85) is more what one would expect of the reign of Jahangir. A further possibility is that the hilt was indeed carved under Jahangir, but had not had a blade added at the time that he died. The blade having just been added under his son Shah Jahan would also explain why the posthumous painting of Prince Salim by Bichitr honours him showing him wearing the extraordinary and unparalleled dagger which had just appeared in complete form at the court of Shah Jahan.