Ustad Mansur was the leading animal painter at the court of the Mughal Emperor Jahangir (reg.1605-27), who bestowed upon him the honorific Nãdir-al-’Asr, ‘Wonder of the Epoch’. Jahangir was a great patron of miniature painting, taking artists on his travels and priding himself on his attributional skills. He was also fascinated by the exotic, and commissioned his servant Muqarrab Khan to buy rarities from the Portuguese, who had established a colony in Goa on the west coast of India in the early sixteenth century. In 1612 a consignment of animals and birds arrived at Jahangir’s court from Goa, and he ordered his artists to include ‘portraits’ of these beasts in his illuminated biography.
This chameleon may have been one of the animals acquired in 1612. It has been identified as the flap-necked chameleon (Chamaeleo dilepis), a (usually) bright green species widely distributed throughout east Africa, and could have been bought as a curious pet by Portuguese traders on their voyages to India around the African coast. But the drawing does not show the occipital lobes as the back of its head, and is thus more likely Chamaelo zeylanicus, a closely related species distributed in India (information kindly supplied by Charles Klaver, 2011).
Mansur’s miniature is a scientifically precise depiction: he accurately recorded the pale stripe at the corner of the mouth, the line of white scales running along the underside of the body, and the unusual digitation of the chameleon - on each foot the digits are fused into two opposed ‘bundles’, two outer digits opposed to three inner on the forelimb, and vice versa on the hindlimb.