One of the great vanishings of the modern age is the hunt. Many people around the world still go into the wild to kill animals because they need to or want to, but hunting is no longer the standard recreation of ruling classes that it was for millennia. Just as urbanised societies are estranged from agricultural life, so too are urbanised elites distanced from the passions of blood sport. Golf now serves that purpose, enacting the royal hunt in metaphor: swap the caddy for attendant huntsmen, replace the arc of the ball with the flight of the arrow, and what you have left is the same age-old drama of man’s swaggering conquest of nature.

In India, as in western Asia, Europe, and elsewhere, the hunt was a pre-eminent ritual and metaphor of political power. The Met is now hosting a small but lively exhibition of Indian depictions of royal hunting. Shown alongside antique hunting daggers and matchlock guns, the paintings originate mostly from Mughal and Rajput ateliers between the 16th and early 19th centuries.

The hunt was a ritualised version of war. Before embarking on the chase, sultans and maharajas assembled their retainers as they would mobilise an army. In an 18th-century painting from Udaipur, Jagat Singh’s entourage spreads out across the tumbling landscape in divisions of cavalry and footmen as the monarch — squarely in the middle of the frame — launches a hawk against a regiment of cranes. In the field, the court would deploy cunning manoeuvres to outflank and trap their prey. A 17th-century Mughal painting depicts camouflaged huntsmen using leafy screens to guide antelope into the path of the approaching hunting party; the viewer can just about make out the party in the upper right corner of the page, hazy and indistinct save for a robust elephant and a clutter of war-like banners.

The hunt was an occasion for nobles to exhibit the valour they had yet to show (or would never show) on the battlefield. Its martial analogy could teeter into farce. In one image from 18th-century Mewar, Sangram Singh II leads a bright cavalcade of men on horseback. They all gallop bravely towards their quarry on the far right of the page: a few despondent rabbits.

The symbolism of the hunt was still deadly serious. A page from an Akbarnama shows the swirling action within a qamargha , a cordoned-off area in which animals were confined so as to make their slaughter a little less strenuous. (In a similar stockade set up in Lahore in 1567, Akbar managed to kill a veritable Noah’s Ark of creatures, including jackals, blackbucks, and hare. He used trained cheetahs to expedite the massacre.) At the centre, Akbar lashes out at animals from horseback. Beneath the futile scamper of musk deer, a disgraced noble, Hamid Bhakari, is led away on a donkey, his head bowed and shaved, his body naked. It is a vision of absolute power, the monarch’s terrible sway over both the natural world and the affairs of mankind.

Hunting wasn’t only the province of men. Several Rajput paintings show women on the chase. Two ladies in flowing robes ride after blackbucks in 18th-century Bikaner. Elsewhere, a female sitar player enchants an antelope with her music. A huntress shoots deer from the back of a horse in one image from 19th-century Kangra; in the same painting, she makes love to a hunter who, mid-coitus, aims at a tiger with his bow, melding sexual and martial prowess.

The Mughal paintings in the exhibition tend to surpass their Rajput counterparts. There is a stiffness to the work of the Rajput ateliers, with greater emphasis on form and pattern. That formality still conjures striking images like the tiger hunt of Rawat Gokul Das II of Devgarh, who sits in the foreground of a dense and detailed landscape of forest, mountains, towns, and ascetic holy men, while an unsuspecting tiger comes into the range of his bow. But Mughal miniatures (particularly those of Akbar’s period) are subtler in their movement and colour, in the depth of expression on individual faces, and in their balance of diaphanous light and shadow.

Nevertheless, the most remarkable images in the exhibition come from the Rajput court at Kota. Both are ‘studies’, sketches drawn by an artist in preparation for a fuller painting. Their incompleteness is appealing to the modern eye. In one study of a hunt from 1690, an elephant wraps its trunk around the neck of a rhinoceros. It is only a partial image, uncoloured save for sporadic splashes of blue, orange, and white that the artist used to test the palate. The viewer’s attention focuses on the thicket of brush strokes around the elephant’s alarmed eye and the straining of the rhinoceros. In the other study from 1760, a tiger roars within a snaking lattice of trees. The hunter is barely visible at the edge of the painting, only a feathering of lines around the solid beard. Man is marginal and the forest and tiger take centre stage. It is a scene of phantasmagoric wonder, of the wild mystery that inspired every hunt and that every hunt sought to extinguish.

(‘Royal Imagery of the Hunt in Indian Art’ runs till December 2015 at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)

Kanishk Tharoor is the author of the forthcoming Swimmer Among the Stars: Stories