Making Scents of Empire

An artist turns the gardens of Mughal paintings into fragrances that tell a story

By Naib Mian

Photos By Dylan Hausthor

Photograph of purple flowers
Four o’clock (Mirabilis jalapa). Though originating in the American tropics, this night-flowering plant had become common enough in South Asia by the 17th century to appear frequently in paintings and even textile designs.

Tucked away within the vast storage of the Metropolitan Museum of Art is a 17th century folio of the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan and his son, depicted in dazzling watercolor and gold, admiring emeralds and rubies. It’s a gorgeous representative of the rich tradition of imperial Mughal manuscripts and miniatures, and when Bharti Lalwani came across the image on the Met’s website, she was immediately drawn in. “I’m salivating looking at this,” she recalled. But it wasn’t really the painting that caught her eye. It was its border: a sumptuous menagerie of birds, florals, and fruiting trees. 

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