THE student who tries to thread his way through the some- what bewildering mazes of Indian art is often confused by the classifications and analysis of European writers. First, by the Græco-Roman or Gândharan theory of the inspiration of Buddhist sculpture; next by a misunderstanding of the whole theory of Indian art in the medieval or Puranic period, and by the sectarian classification of Buddhist-Hindu architecture; and thirdly by the attribution of the masterpieces of painting and architecture in the Muhammadan period to the superior creative and constructive genius of Islâm, or, as in one notable instance, the Tâj Mahall, to the art of Europe.

All of these misconceptions have their root in one fixed idea, the belief that true æsthetic feeling has always been wanting in the Hindu mind, and that everything really great in Indian art has been suggested or introduced by foreigners.

Fergusson, though generally far in advance of his time in the appreciation of Indian art, was by no means free from these prejudices, and his analysis of Indian architecture of the Muhammadan period confirms the general belief of the present day that between Hindu and Saracenic ideals there is a great gulf fixed, and that the zenith of Mogul architecture in the reigns of Jahângir and Shah Jahân was only reached by throwing off the Hindu influences which affected the so-called “mixed” styles of Indo-Muhammadan art. Fergusson distinctly declares that “there is no trace of Hinduism in the works of Jahângir and Shah Jahân.”1 Though he does not lend his great authority to the legend I have discussed in detail elsewhere, which makes the Tâj Mahall the creation of an Italian adventurer in Shah Jahân’s service, he treats all of Jahângir’s and Shah Jahân’s buildings as not being of Indian origin, but as entirely conceived by architects of Western Asia, and suggests Samarkand, rebuilt by Timûr (A.D. 1393-1404), as the locality which would throw light on “the style which the Moguls introduced into India.”

This persistent habit of looking outside of India for the origins of Indian art must necessarily lead to false conclusions. One may find primitive types, or any of the forms and symbols which Indian artists moulded to their own desires, and trace them back to their archaic roots in Chaldæa, Babylon, Assyria, Persia, or Greece; but for the vital creative impulse which inspired any period of Indian art, whether it be Buddhist, Jain, Hindu, or Muhammadan, one will only find its source in the traditional Indian culture planted in Indian soil by Aryan philosophy, which reached its highest artistic expression before the Mogul dynasty was established, and influenced the greatest works of the Muhammadan period as much as any others. The TâJ, the Motî Masjid at Agra, the Jâmi’ Masjid at Delhi, and the splendid Muhammadan buildings at Bijâpur were only made possible by the not less splendid monuments of Hindu architecture at Mudhera, Dabhoi, Khâjuraho, Gwalior, and elsewhere, which were built before the Mogul Emperors and their Viceroys made use of Hindu genius to glorify the faith of Islâm.

The Anglo-Indian and the tourist have been taught to admire the former and to extol the fine æsthetic taste of the Moguls; but the magnificent architectural works of the preceding Hindu period, when Indian sculpture and painting were at their zenith, but rarely attract their attention, though in massive grandeur and sculpturesque imagination they surpass any of the Mogul buildings. Even the term “Mogul” architecture is misleading, for as a matter of fact there were but few Mogul builders in India. The great majority of the builders employed by the Moguls—including not only the humbler artisans but the masterminds which directed them—were Indians, or of Indian descent. Some were professed Muhammadans, but many were Hindus. Mogul architecture does not bear witness, as we assume, to the finer æsthetic sense of Arab, Persian, or Western builders, but to the extraordinary synthetical power of the Hindu artistic genius.

The truth of this statement can be demonstrated not only from documentary evidence, which may or may not be trustworthy, but from the incontrovertible record of the buildings themselves. Western writers have been so eager to seize upon the divergences between Muhammadan and Hindu civilisation, that the common basis which underlies them both generally fails to impress them. Even the main point of difference which divided Muhammadans and Hindus—the use of anthropomorphic symbols—was not by any means essential to Hinduism; and but for the differences, sectarian and racial, which drove many Hindus into the service of Musulmân states beyond the north-west frontier, the Muhammadan conquest of Hindustan would have been hardly possible.

The fundamental antagonism between Hindu and Musulmân religious beliefs which we so often assume, never existed at any time. The basis of Muhammad’s idealism was the concept of the Unity of the Godhead —“There is One God”—which is only a condensation of the Hindu concept of the Godhead manifesting Itself in all things animate and inanimate. To the simple-minded Arab, either a mariner on the wide ocean or living in tents in the vast expanse of the lonely desert, the idea of the Divine Unity made an irresistible appeal: it sufficed to explain that infinite vastness of sky and earth and sea which surrounded him everywhere by day and night. His whole instinct of art creation was to draw everything in pure outline silhouetted against the sky, as he saw things in the glare of the open desert by day, or in the mysterious splendour of star- and moon-light, like the rocky coasts of Arabia seen from ships at sea.

All Arab design, whether in architecture, in the forms of domestic utensils, or in surface decoration, was distinguished by this feeling for pure outline and colour, rather than by a plastic treatment of surfaces or the massing of forms for contrast of light and shade in which the Hindu architectural genius especially asserted itself. Practically all Saracenic symbolism in architecture was borrowed directly or indirectly from India, Persia, Byzantium, or Alexandria, though devout Muhammadans put their own reading into the symbols they borrowed, just as the early Christians did with those they borrowed from paganism.

Even the pointed arch only acquired from India the religious significance which eventually led the Saracenic builders to adopt it as their own, through the contact of the Arabs with the Buddhists of Western Asia; and thus the very feature by which all Western writers have distinguished Saracenic architecture from the indigenous architecture of India was originally Indian. If this proposition is opposed to all architectural authority in Europe at the present day, it is only because Western writers, through treating Indo-Muhammadan architecture as a subdivision of the Saracenic schools of Egypt, Spain, Arabia, and Persia, have left out of account the great mass of historical evidence bearing upon the arts of the West which is afforded by the architectural monuments of India.

It is of course a recognised fact that a certain type of the pointed arch was in use in Egypt and in Asia Minor even before the days of Buddhism, and long before the Hegira. But the mihraâb of Muhammadan mosques—the niche in the wall of the sanctuary—and all its religious associations from which the structural application of Saracenic arches started, was not in any way connected with this early type.

The permanent mosques of the first Arab disciples of the Prophet, like the churches of the early Christians, were in most cases not buildings specially constructed for their own ritual, but those belonging to rival creeds reconsecrated for the worship of Allah. When the Arabs started on their career of conquest, the first objects of their iconoclastic zeal were the temples and monasteries of the hated idolaters—the Buddhists of Western Asia. After smashing the images and breaking as much of their sculptured ornamentation as offended against the injunctions of their law, the buildings with the empty niches the—quondam Buddhist shrines—remaining in their solid walls were often converted into mosques.

The hallowed associations of generations of Buddhist worshippers still clung to these desecrated shrines, and the doctors of Islâm found it necessary to explain them in a Muhammadan sense. Hence the mihraâb—the niche of the principal image of Buddha—came to indicate the direction of the holy city of Mecca; it was traced in the sand or woven in the prayer-mat as a symbol of the faith. The idea appealed strongly to the Arab race, for every mariner saw the mihrâb in the bow of his ship and every desert nomad in the door of his tent. The sentiment of devotion which the image in the niche formerly inspired in the worshipper was thus transferred to the niche itself, and especially to the arch of the niche. The arrangement of niches in Muhammadan houses and palaces (Plate CII) was a secular adaptation of the shrines of Buddhist monasteries. Here, then, was the psychological germ of the pointed style of architecture Saracenic and Gothic or of the idealism which was the motive force behind it.

All the forms of the pointed arch which characterise Saracenic buildings in the West are found in the niches of the temples of the various Brahmanical sects in India which inherited the early Buddhist traditions. Remove the images and the sculptured ornament of the niches, and you find the ordinary Arab arch, the stilted arch, the foliated arch, etc. The process of adaptation by which Indian arches were converted into Saracenic, begun by the Arabs in Western Asia in the first centuries after the Hegira, were continued in successive centuries by all the Muhammadan invaders of India—Arab, Afghan, Turk, and Mongol.

The contemptuous name which Arabian historians gave to all the temples of the infidel in India—Boud-khâna, or “Buddha-house” is one of the many proofs of the early connections of Buddhism with Islâm. Buddhist influence penetrated much farther west than the borders of Asia and Europe. Professor Flinders Petrie has found evidences of the presence of Asoka’s missionaries at Alexandria; and the resemblance of the so-called horse-shoe arch in Moorish palaces and mosques of the eighth century A. D. and later to the lotus-leaf arches of the seventh-century Buddhist chapter-house at Ajantâ (Plate I) can easily be accounted for by the presence of the Indian craftsman in Egypt. Seeing that Indian mariners carried on a regular trade with Egypt even before the third century B.C., it is reasonable to assume that Indian craftsmen often found their way there in later times. No Western structural process by which this form of arch, derived from bent cane or bambu, might have been evolved independently is known to archæologists.

Modern European writers who try to trace the derivation of architectural style entirely from constructive or technical processes would do well to note that the pointed arch in Arab architecture was a purely religious symbol before it became a distinctive structural feature in Saracenic building. The symbolic idea connected with the pointed arch preceded the general use of it as an organic structural feature in place of the round arch and horizontal beam. It appealed to the devout Musulmân not because it was architecturally useful and beautiful, but because it symbolised the two fundamental concepts of his faith God is One, and Muhammad is His Prophet. It was the architectonic symbol of the hands joined in prayer; it pointed the way to Mecca and to Paradise, and demonstrated mathematically the divine truth that all things converge towards and meet in the One the inverse of the Hindu proposition.

M. Prisse d’Avennes, in his work “L’Art Arabe,” adopts the ingenious theory put forward by M. Salzmann that the different varieties of the Arab dome and the characteristic “stalactite” pendentives which supported them were originally derived from the form and structure of the water-melon. He places sections of the latter and details of Arab buildings in Cairo side by side to show the striking similarity between them. We can very well admit the similarity without adopting the conclusion which the author derives from it—a conclusion which ignores entirely the religious idealism which lies behind both Saracenic and Hindu art. If the Arab domes and pendentives were derived from naturalistic motifs only we should see the resemblance more marked in the earlier examples than in the later. As a matter of fact there is no such resemblance in any of the earliest existing examples; the illustrations given by M. Prisse d’Avennes are all of late date, and merely indicate that some Arab builders, struck by the similarity between their traditional architectural forms and the structure of the water-melon, made the resemblance more complete. When a Hindu recognised a resemblance between his sacred symbols and any natural forms he dedicated the latter to the deity represented by the symbol. Thus the bel tree and many others became sacred to Siva on account of the resemblance between its compound leaves and the three-pronged trident of Mahâdeva ; but the latter symbol was not derived from the natural forms.

There is nothing to show that the Arabs attached any religious significance to the water-melon, either before or after the time of Muhammad. On the other hand, the pointed arch, or mihrâb, was a religious symbol before it was used architecturally by the Arabs. The so-called stalactite pendentive is simply an agglomeration of miniature mihrâb niches2 geometrically arranged to perform the structural purpose for which it was intended. The pointed domes, pendentives, and other characteristic features of pure Saracenic architecture are therefore not to be derived from any natural motifs, but simply from the application of their religious symbolism to all the ancient constructive forms, Roman, Byzantine, Egyptian, Babylonian, Assyrian, Phoenician, Buddhist, and Hindu, used by the builders of the many different races and creeds whom the Arabs employed.

For understanding the development of architecture in different countries it is most important to realise that the conventional nomenclature now given to different styles is apt to be very misleading unless we recognise the very cosmopolitan organisation of the building craft in the Middle Ages as well as in previous periods. No class of society has stood so strongly for religious tolerance and the principle of the universal brotherhood of man as the master-builders, and none have done more for the spread of civilisation, peace, and goodwill among all men. However bitter religious and racial animosities might be, the building fraternity knew none of them. Pagan craftsmen built for Christian, Christian for Musulmân, Buddhist for Jain and Hindu, Hindus for every sect. The same rule applied to craftsmen of different races. In times of peace the master-builders wandered far and wide in search of lucrative employment wherever it might be found. In times of war their lives were often the only ones that were spared by the victors in battle or in the sack of cities, for their services were highly valued by all combatants, even by barbarian marauders like the Huns and Mongols. Every new city that was founded or great monument that was built drew to it builders and craftsmen even from far-distant countries. Thus we read of an architect from Ferghâna in Central Asia building the Nilometer in Egypt, of Chinese craftsmen assisting in the building of Baghdad, of Indian craftsmen in Japan, and of Persian architects employed in Cairo. If the master-builders of the East had left written records of their travels, we should probably know many Indian Marco Polos who journeyed westwards as well as eastwards when Buddhism was spreading its civilisation all over Asia.

When therefore we speak of Arab architecture and Arab art, it is necessary to remember that few builders and craftsmen were Arab by race: we simply mean the different phases of art and architecture which were evolved in different countries and by different races under the influence of Arab culture. Dr. Gustave le Bon distinguishes twelve different styles of Arab architecture, of which the only two which can be considered pure i.e.—not dominated by Byzantine, Romanesque, Persian, or Hindu influences—are an Egyptian style, represented by the series of mosques dating from the tenth to the fifteenth centuries, and a Spanish style, represented by Saracenic buildings in Seville and Grenada. But even in Egypt and Spain, the sources of inspiration of all that is typical of pure Arab art and architecture were in India, Mesopotamia, Persia, and Central Asia.

Though Saracenic and Indian art had this much in common, it is essential to remember that if India, from the time of Asoka down to the early centuries of the Christian era, had borrowed much artistic material from the countries with which she had had intimate commercial and political relations from time immemorial—Mesopotamia, Persia, and Central Asia—she was at the time of the Muhammadan invasions no longer a borrower, but a lender. Buddhist art had spread all over Western Asia in the previous centuries, and Buddhist-Hindu art was at its zenith when India received the first shock of the Muhammadan invasions. As the armies of Islâm, largely recruited from Tartary and Central Asia, came nearer to the north-west frontier of India, Saracenic art came into closer contact with Buddhist-Hindu civilisation and became more and more impregnated with Indian influences, until at last Arab, Persian, and Central Asian art lost their own individual identity as creative forces, and merged themselves into different local phases of Indian art of which the æsthetic basis was essentially Hindu, and only Arab, Mogul, and Muslim in a political, ritualistic, and dogmatic sense.

History was, as usual, repeating itself in this; for exactly similar circumstances had arisen in the early centuries of the Christian era, when the art of Gandhâra, from being a provincial phase of Buddhist art with a strongly developed Græo-Roman dialect, became gradually Indianised and merged itself into the Indian æsthetic synthesis. The Saracenic art which came into India had likewise been Indianised before it crossed the Indus; for it was upon the basis of Buddhist-Hindu civilisation that the two earliest styles of Indo-Muhammadan architecture, which Fergusson calls the Ghaznavide and the Pathân, had been built. It was in the Gandhâra country that Mahmûd of Ghaznî and his successors had the centre of their power, and Indian builders were employed in constructing  “the palaces and public buildings, mosques, pavilions, reservoirs, aqueducts, and cisterns’ with which Mahmûd’s capital was adorned “beyond any city in the East.’ The builders were not the fighting Afghans, but descendants of the peaceful Buddhist builders adapting their art structurally as well as decoratively to the needs of a militant instead of a monastic community, and to the symbolism of a monotheistic creed.

The Muhammadan invaders of Hindustan certainly did not have the same opinion with regard to the inferiority of Hindu art and architecture, as compared with their own, which is commonly held by Europeans to-day. The Arabs, before they came to India as conquerors, had drunk deeply at many sources of Hindu culture; and though they detested Hindu sculpture and painting on religious grounds, they had the highest respect for the skill of Indian architects and artists. Alberuni, the Arab historian who visited India in the beginning of the eleventh century and knowing all the architectural splendour of Baghdad at the height of its glory, before it was laid waste by the Mongols, expressed his astonishment at and admiration for the works of Hindu builders. “Our people,” he said, “when they see them, wonder at them and are unable to describe them, much less to construct anything like them.”

With this we may compare the admiration of a later Musulmân writer, Abûl Fazl, Akbar’s chronicler, for Hindu painting. “It passes our conception of things: few indeed in the whole world can compare with them.” Alberuni’s contemporary, the great Sultan Mahmûd of Ghazni, in spite of his detestation of Hindu idolatry, could not refrain from expres ing his admiration for Hindu builders. Ferishta tells us that after the sack of Mathurâ he wrote to the Governor of Ghaznî extravagantly extolling the magnificence of the buildings and the city. “There are here,” he said, “a thousand edifices as firm as the faith of the faithful; nor is it likely that this city has attained its present condition but at the expense of many millions of deenars nor could such another be constructed under a period of two centuries.”3 When he returned to Ghaznî he brought back 5,300 Hindu captives, doubtless the greater number of them masons and craftsmen, for building the magnificent mosque of marble and granite known by the name of the Celestial Bride, which he caused to be built to commemorate his triumphs. Seeing how great the reputation of Hindu craftsmen was, and since we know that Hâroûn-al-Rashîd renewed the ancient intercourse of Mesopotamia with India and had Indian ambassadors at his Court, we may safely assume that Indian builders, artists, and craftsmen were among those of other nations which the great Khalif and his successors employed in the building of Baghdad, just as Timur, the founder of the Mogul dynasty, used them five centuries later in the building of Samarkand.

When the Muhammadan dynasties Arab, Turk, or Mongol established themselves firmly in Hindustan, the reversion of what we may call the pure Saracenic or Arabian characteristics to the old Indian or Buddhist-Hindu types becomes more and more evident. The stern simplicity of the Pathân fortress style, which at first sight seems so very un-Indian in conception, gave way to the luxury and elaboration of Akbar’s and Jahângir’s palaces. Of the thirteen local divisions of Indo-Muhammadan architecture enumerated by Fergusson, those of Gujerat, Gaur, and even that of Jaunpur, in spite of its pointed arches, are so conspicuously Hindu in general conception and in detail that it is evident at first glance that the builders and craftsmen must have been almost entirely Indian, and probably many of them Hindus. The Jâmi’ Masjid and other mosques of Ahmadâbâd are, as Fergusson says, “Hindu or Jain in every detail,” only here and there an arch is inserted, not because it is “wanted constructively, but because it was a symbol of the faith.” At first sight the essential Indianness of the remaining Indo-Muhammadan styles, as classified by Fergusson, is not so apparent. In two of the most important, namely the Mogul and Bijâpur styles, Fergusson and all other writers have ignored the Hindu element entirely and treated them both as foreign to India. Here, I think, they are as mistaken as the archæological experts who have attributed the inspiration of Indian sculpture to the Græco-Roman craftsmen of Gandhâra. It is Indian art, not Arab, Persian, or European, that we must study to find whence came the inspiration of the Tâj Mahall and great monuments of Bijâpur. They are more Indian than St. Paul’s Cathedral and Westminster Abbey are English.

  • 1. History of Indian Architecture,” vol. ii. p. 288 (edit. 1910).
  • 2. The structure of the stalactite pendentives was in all probability derived from the use of semi-cylindrical tiles, set in mortar, in place of brick corbelling, or arches, for the support of light domes
  • 3. Ferishta, Briggs’s translation, vol. i. p. 59.