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All That Shapes Us
Bridges: Cross-Cultural Conversations

All That Shapes Us

A Composite Elephant with Rider and Groom

A Composite Elephant with Rider and Groom. Signed “the work of Dawlat Khan”
India, Agra, ca. 1600; borders: ca. 1640. Opaque watercolour and gold on paper. H. 24.9 cm × W. 39 cm
AKM143. Courtesy The Aga Khan Museum.

By Dr. Ulrike Al-Khamis
October 20th, 2022

When we think about our identity, we often forget that it is not one-dimensional but has in fact many different layers and components – social, religious, cultural, local, national, and global/ized. It can also be shaped and made more complex by a whole host of circumstances, experiences, and indeed people, who impact us in a myriad of ways as we move through life.

Looking at this intricate miniature painting from 17th century India, it always reminds me of all the kaleidoscopic aspects that give shape to who we are and ultimately make us the unique individuals we are. If you look closely, the majestic elephant in this image, and even his master, are made up of dozens of different animals, humans, and birds – a profound mystical reference to the ultimate coming together of all aspects of the universe – human, animal, worldly, otherworldly – in every living being, as well as the interconnectedness of all things. 

To find their way through existence, the elephant and the rider are led by a guide dressed in white, sure of the path towards true knowledge and enlightenment.


Written by Special Guest Contributor Dr. Ulrike Al-Khamis, Director and CEO at the Aga Khan Museum, Toronto. In each issue, we feature a special treasure from The Aga Khan Museum, one that tells a story, captures a moment and inspires conversation.

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