It is a privilege to gaze on "The Imperial Image: Paintings for the Mughal Court," which goes on view today at the Freer Gallery of Art. The magnificently detailed album leaves on display fascinate and frighten. They were not made for the eyes of folks like you and me but for the leisurely perusal of the emperors of India, men who lived like gods.

They were connoisseurs, executives, sybarites -- and butchers. Their license knew no bounds. Their wealth was immeasurable, their power absolute. When touched, they might decide to memorialize a loved one with the filigree and spires of the marble Taj Mahal. When angered, they might order red-hot needles drawn across the eyeballs of a disobedient son. The 74 paintings at the Freer -- all of which are drawn from that Gallery's collection -- awed those headstrong rulers, informed them, entertained them, and reinforced their pride.

These pictures tell of battles, miracles and monsters, feasting and romance. Set in lavish borders and flecked with gold and silver, they weave a spell of opulence. They offer us a vision of the sumptuous and scary realms of the imperial mind.

Such extraordinary images as "Jahangir Embracing Shah Abbas," painted by Abu'l Hasan, and "Jahangir Preferring a Sufi Shaikh to Kings," a picture by Bichitr, manage to combine the strongly scientific with the wildly grandiose. Each detail is sharply seen. We are shown each single hair of the monarch's sideburns, the huge pearls at his ear-lobes, the bulk of his large body, and the awesome lightness of his gown of sheerest gauze. Yet these objects are as full of flattery as fact. They are wish-fulfillment pictures. The emperor is shown ruling the whole globe; the sun-disc and the crescent moon halo his strong head. Jahangir, in fact, never once embraced Shah Abbas of Iran (who here seems meek, submissive); the two men were bitter enemies. His imperial deference to the Sufi sage is another exaggeration. The gracious, radiant emperor is portrayed in these pages as he wished to see himself.

The Mughals were not Indian. They were descendants of Babur, a warrior of mixed ancestry who, marching from Kabul in what is now Afghanistan, conquered northern India in 1596. The exhibition at the Freer focuses on three of the most commanding of the early Mughal emperors: Akbar the Great, Jahangir the World Seizer, and Shah Jahan, the builder of the Taj Mahal. Moslems in a Hindu land, they spoke Turkish in their harems, Persian in their courts.

They were practical and prideful men, full of curiosity, sometimes tolerant, sometimes wrathful. Their appetites were unrestrained and their piety was flawed. The early Mughal emperors were devoted to the harem, to alcohol and opium, and -- despite their faith's proscription of the figurative image -- to painted works of art.

Akbar the Great was just 13 when he took the throne in 1556. Though his father (who was something of a lush) had died in a fall down the staircase of his library, Akbar ignored the omen. He loved books, and he used them for both politics and pleasure. He gathered in his court the finest scribes and painters. When he died in 1605, Akbar left Jahangir, his son, an extraordinary library of 24,000 handmade volumes, most ornamented lavishly with astonishingly delicate, astonishingly accurate painted works of art.

The few leaves from his library in the Freer's collection indicate the gradual evolution of his taste. The Hindu painters of the region long had used the image as a spur to ecstasy, and Akbar, when a youth, also employed painting for escape and delight. When old, he esteemed fact.

The young Akbar was so taken by the story of Amir Hamza, a long, fantastic tale of imprisonments, escapes, miracles and murders, that often he'd recite verses from that saga to the women of his harem. When told to illustrate that book, the artists of his court produced 1,400 paintings. Four are in this show. (The most recently acquired sheet was discovered a few months ago by scholar Marvin Sadik in a summer house in Maine.) These pictures are pure fantasy. They pleased Akbar only briefly. The emperor, as he matured, came to feel -- as had Babur, his grandfather -- that the Hamza story was "one long, far-fetched lie." Rebelling against fancies, Akbar commanded his court artists to avoid invention and to fill their works with objective information. One of them, Mansur, who is represented here, became a kind of Mughal Audubon, painstakingly portraying the strange birds of the region. Others were assigned the task of illustrating histories. In one amazing sheet here -- a view of Noah's Ark, circa 1590 -- the viewer is confronted with detailed portrayals of some 60 different, strangely smiling beasts. As Mughal art developed, its images become almost photographic. By 1600, the painters of the court, inspired by imported art from Iran and Europe, began to represent the real world -- its cloths of gold and gauze, its dishes of rock crystal, its faces and foods -- with a precision and fidelity that the art of India had never known before.

The portraits here are awesome. The best of them were made in the court of Jahangir, the rebellious son of Akbar, who (two brothers having died of drink) ascended to his father's throne in 1605. Though Jahangir the World Seizer, at the sight of shivering elephants, gave them heated baths, he was not a pleasant man. He had his eldest son blinded with hot needles, he mixed opium with his wine, and ordered awful punishments for trifling offenses. He had his recorder flayed alive in his presence; he castrated his page. He also enjoyed pictures, particularly portraits. Perhaps the most impressive paintings he commissioned are pictures of himself.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the Emperor Shah Jahan, who reigned from 1627 to 1658, warred against his father. Shah Jahan was more conservative, although not more modest, than Akbar and Jahangir. He, too, liked to think himself accompanied by angels and ruling the whole world. A more orthodox Moslem than his predecessors, both of whom had welcomed Christians, Zoroastrians and Hindus to their courts, Shah Jahan set about persecuting Hindus and pulling down their temples. In his most impressive portrait here, "Shah Jahan Honors the Religious Orthodoxy," his actions are applauded by scores of turbaned mullahs gathered at his court.

This show calls for leisure. The viewer could spend hours, as did the emperors of India, examining the details, the scenes of daily life, the birds and bees and flowers, that ornament the borders which surround these paintings. Milo Cleveland Beach's exemplary catalogue -- it's filled with information and fine colored illustrations -- accompanies the show. The Freer's collection of old Mughal art, though not large, is choice. It will remain on view through Jan. 10.

Crimes against Washington-area retailers cost more than $500 million last year. A story in yesterday's Business & Finance section gave an incorrect figure.