WE have already seen that the religious idealism and philosophy of the Arabs were summed up in the pointed arch. What the mihrâb was to the Musulman, the lotus was to the Buddhist and Hindu. The shining lotus flowers floating on the still dark surface of the lake, their manifold petals opening as the sun’s rays touched them at break of day, and closing again at sunset, the roots hidden in the mud beneath, seemed perfect symbols of creation, of divine purity and beauty, of the cosmos evolved from the dark void of chaos and sustained in equilibrium by the cosmic ether, akâsha. Their colours, red, white, and blue,1 were emblems of the Trimûrti, the three Aspects of the One red for Brahma, the Creator; white for Siva, the Divine Spirit; blue for Vishnu, the Preserver and Upholder of the Universe. The bell-shaped fruit was the mystic Hiranyagarbha, the womb of the Universe, holding the germ of worlds innumerable still unborn. The lotus was the seat and footstool of the Gods, the symbol of the material universe and of the heavenly spheres above it. It was the symbol for all Hinduism, as the mihrâb was for all Islâm.
Closely connected with the symbolism of the lotus was that of the water-pot—the kalasha or kumbhu—which held the creative element, or the nectar of immortality churned by gods and demons from the cosmic ocean. These two pregnant symbols were employed in Indian architecture and art, both structurally and decoratively, in an infinite variety of ways. The open lotus flower is used as a sun-emblem on the Buddhist rails of Bharhut, Sânchi, and Amarâvati; the so-called “horse-shoe” arch of early Buddhist gables and windows, derived from bent bambu, suggested the lotus leaf; Buddhist and Hindu domes, constructively derived from the bambu also, were made to imitate the bell-shaped lotus fruit and sculptured with the petals of the flower. The combination of the lotus flower, the bell-shaped fruit, and the water-pot forms the basis of the design of most Hindu temple pillars (fig. 20), the prototypes of which were doubtless the carved wooden posts marking the sacrificial area, in the ancient Vedic rites, to which the victims were, bound.
Though the sacrificial element was excluded from Muhammadan symbolism, there was nothing in the latter, either in the abstract or in its concrete artistic applications, which would seem new and strange to the Hindu. A Hindu craftsman would instantly recognise it as part of his own. If the Musulman preferred to concentrate his thoughts on the Unity of the Godhead rather than on Its infinite manifestations, Hindu philosophy would not dispute with him on that account. The pointed arch was only the familiar lotus petal, the eye of the Gods, used constructively in a way the Hindu craftsman did not usually follow, except in the construction of shrines for his deities, for he preferred the beam and bracket as a structural device; yet he could easily construct it by placing two brackets, or two series of brackets, opposite to each other. The Musulman dome in construction did not differ materially from the Hindu dome. All varieties of it had their Buddhist or Hindu prototypes, and were classified in the Silpa-sâstras, the canonical books of Indian craftsmen. Fergusson made a great mistake when, after suggesting Timûr’s capital at Samarkand as the place of origin of the style which the Moguls “introduced into India,” he states that the “bulbous” dome which appears everywhere at that place was not known in India in the fourteenth century, unless it was in the quasi-Persian province of Sind. The “bulbous” or so-called Tartar dome was common in Indian, Buddhist, and Hindu buildings centuries before it appears in Persia in Saracenic buildings, and that most typical feature of Mogul architecture was certainly not first introduced into India by Muhammadan builders.
The dome which is distinctively Saracenic is not the bulbous one, but the stilted Arab form characteristic of the tombs of the Mameluks at Cairo (fig. A, Plate V). The distinguishing characteristic of this, which we may call the pure Arab dome, is the perfect purity and simplicity of its whole contour; except for surface ornament in low relief, it is quite unbroken; only the springing of it from a circular drum or polygonal base is sometimes marked by a plain band. This type of dome is also sometimes fluted or ribbed. The finial, as in all Arab and true Persian domes, is very inconspicuous, being only a more or less ornamental spike projecting from the crown of the dome, and not, like the Indian one, an important member forming an integral part of the dome itself. We shall see the importance of this for distinguishing the Hindu element in Mogul design later on.
The prototype of this Arab dome is to be found in the mud huts of ancient Mesopotamia, which are sculptured on Assyrian bas-reliefs and are still found in village dwellings of the present day in the neighbourhood of the ruins of Babylon and Nineveh.
The Muslim Arabs perfected the primitive form, used more permanent and costly materials, and lavished ornament in relief and gorgeous colour upon it, but hardly varied the form itself otherwise. The other types of Arab domes in Egypt and elsewhere were borrowed either from Roman, Byzantine, or Persian buildings.
Now, this type of dome, the only one in Saracenic buildings not borrowed from Roman, Byzantine, or Persian architecture, never established itself permanently in India. Indian builders under Muhammadan rule borrowed largely Arab geometric patterns and the splendidly decorative Tughra and Kufic characters; they used also to some extent the Arab stalactite pendentive and the Arab pointed arch, which was also their own; but the structural forms of Muhammadan buildings in India, whenever they can be called Saracenic, were nearly always Hindu adaptations of, and often great improvements upon, the Saracenic types: The greater engineering problems with which they had to deal, notably in dome building, were solved in their own way. Neither the Arabs nor the Persians had previously attempted them.
From this general analysis let us proceed to discuss in detail the marks of their dominating creative genius which Hindu master-builders have left on the great monuments of the Indo-Muhammadan styles. It will make the point clearer if we take first a typical and supreme example of the Mogul period which exhibits the peculiar characteristics of Muhammadan buildings of that epoch in their highest perfection namely, the Tâj Mahall at Agra. It will better illustrate my thesis because no authority, European or Indian, has yet discovered in it the smallest suggestion of Hindu influence. The whole controversy connected with the building of the Tâj has been concentrated on the story related by the Augustinian friar, Father Manrique, that its chief architect was an Italian adventurer in Shah Jahân’s service, one Geronimo Veroneo. As I have dealt with this question fully elsewhere, 2 I will not discuss it further here.
Fergusson, as noticed above, expressly excludes Hindu influence from any of Jahângir’s or Shah Jahân’s buildings. The characteristic Hindu roof of the upper pavilion in Itmad-ud-daulah’s tomb and of the Golden Pavilion in the Agra palace are sufficient proof that this statement is not precisely accurate. But the Tâj in its superb simplicity and purity of form seems at first sight so great a contrast to anything that Indian builders had created at any time before the Musulmân conquest that the suggestion of Hindu influence might be ridiculed as absurd. Every one would regard the Tâj as a typical example of pure Muhammadan art.
On the other hand, when we come to examine it more closely, there is one thing which has struck every writer about the Tâj, and that is its dissimilarity to any other monument in any part of the world. There is only one other building which has been regarded as its prototype, and that is another Indian monument, Humâyûn’s tomb at Delhi (Pl. LXVIII). So whether the designer of it was an Italian or of any other nationality, the unique combination of excellences which Western critics find in the Tâj belongs to no Saracenic building outside of India. We may analyse its details archæologically and say this came from Persia, that from Arabia, and here is something which dimly suggests the Italian Renaissance. But when the archæologists have had their say, the fact remains indisputable that whether we regard it as a whole for the perfection of its proportions, the symmetry and just balance of its structural masses, or for the exquisiteness of its decorative details, we shall find no Saracenic building to compare with it. Whatever it may be it is Indian, for even if its chief architect were an Italian, he discarded European models entirely and took those which India herself had created.
What is the significance of the fact that India is the classic land of Muhammadan architecture? For it can hardly be disputed that there are certain fine qualities in the best Indo- Muhammadan buildings qualities which are not confined to the Tâj alone, but are characteristic of all the best examples of Muhammadan work in India which entitle it to be regarded as such.
An enthusiastic admirer of Muhammadan architecture in Egypt and in Spain, Mr. Stanley Lane Poole, is constrained to admit that the mosques of Cairo owe their peculiar charm not to architectural form or sound constructive principles, but to their decorative beauty, “to tone and air, to association, to delicacy and ingenuity of detail.” He quotes as a criticism which is generally just the following words of another good authority, Franz Pasha, architect to the Khedive’s Government. “While bestowing their full meed of praise on the wonderfully rich ornamentation and other details of Arabian architecture, one cannot help feeling that the style fails to give entire æsthetic satisfaction. Want of symmetry of plan, poverty of articulation, insufficiency of plastic decoration, and an incongruous mingling of wood and stone are the imperfections which strike most northern critics. The architects, in fact, bestowed the whole of their attention on the decoration of surfaces; and down to the present day the Arabian artists have always displayed far greater ability in designing the most complicated ornaments and geometrical figures than in the treatment and proportion of masses. Although we occasionally see difficulties of construction well overcome, as in the case of the interior of the Bâb-en-Nasr, these instances seem rather to be successful experiments than the result of scientific workmanship.”3
Exactly the same criticism may be applied to Saracenic architecture in Persia. Very few of the existing buildings, however magnificent they may be in the decorative use of painted tiles and tile-mosaic, can be compared with Indian for beauty of architectural structure, scientific engineering, skilful planning, and perfect masonic craftsmanship. The one constructive feature of Muhammadan mosques in Persia, the great semi-domed portal, is praised by Fergusson as being “a perfectly satisfactory solution of a problem which exercised the ingenuity of architects in all ages, but was more successfully treated by the Saracenic architects than by any others.”4 If Persian ingenuity first devised this most admirable structural application of the Arab mihrâb, the Indian architects improved greatly upon their use of it, as one can easily see by comparing the entrance of the mausoleum of the Tâj, or the Buland Darwâza of Akbar’s great mosque at Fatehpur-Sîkrî (PL LXXI) with any Persian examples. The grandly recessed portals of Indo-Muhammadan buildings never seem out of harmony with structural intentions; they are so finely proportioned and perfectly adjusted to the whole building as never to disturb the balance of the architectural design with their colossal dimensions. In Persian mosques their effect is equally imposing in a decorative sense, but structurally their design is vastly inferior to Indian examples, for the whole facade to which they belong looks more like a temporary screen or hoarding put up to make a display of gorgeous colour than any part of the building itself.
“Stalactite” pendentives and similar structural or ornamental devices were also borrowed frequently by Indian builders; but in this again the superiority of the Hindu to the Saracenic craftsman is conspicuous, for the adaptation is always used in India with perfect taste and structural propriety. In the Alhambra the pendentives and the soffits of arches were overloaded with ornaments in such a way as to destroy entirely the appearance of strength and stability which is essential to good building design. One might imagine that vast swarms of wild bees had built gigantic nests under the arches and domes. Indian builders knew the ethics of their art too well to perpetrate such an outrage.
There can be only one explanation of the manifest architectural superiority of Muhammadan buildings in India to the monuments of Saracenic art in other parts of the world, whether it be in Egypt, Arabia, Persia, or Central Asia. It is that in the eighth and ninth centuries of the Christian era, the time of the first Muhammadan invasions of India, the Hindus were—as both Arberuni and Mahmûd of Ghaznî bore witness later—the master-builders par excellence of Asia, and probably of the whole world. The impact of Islâm upon India brought new ideas and stirred Indian builders to new creative efforts, but Hinduism was as superior to Islâm in the arts of peace as Islâm was to Hinduism in the arts of war. The Arabs, Tartars, Mongols, and Persians who came into India had much to learn from Hindu civilisation, and it was from what they learnt and not from what they taught that Muhammadan art in India be- came great. The Tâj Mahall belongs to India, not to Islâm.
Obviously it is necessary to find something more than general proofs to make such an assertion acceptable. The specific proofs which are necessary the Tâj itself also supplies. The Indianness of the general impression made by the Tâj is borne out by a detailed examination of its structure. First one may remark that the weakness which is found in most Saracenic monuments, except when they are based upon Roman, Byzantine, or Hindu models, namely that in the massing of structural form they are only completely satisfactory from one point of view—the direction in which the believer turns towards Mecca—is not apparent in the Tâj and is seldom found in Indo- Muhammadan buildings. It has what the sculptor calls a good all-round design artistically pleasing from all points of view. This sculpturesque or architectonic quality, which is generally lacking in pure Saracenic buildings, belongs pre-eminently to Hindu architectural design: the Hindu builder was a sculptor as well as mason, having acquired his skill at Elephanta, Ellora, and Ajantâ in many generations from dealing with great masses of living rock.
Next we can see that the arrangement of the roofing of the mausoleum itself consists of five domes one large one, and four small cupolas. That this is not an after-thought, as Mr. R.F. Chisholm has suggested, but an integral part of the whole structural design, will be evident from an examination of the plan of the mausoleum, in which the four chapels, surrounding the central chamber in which the cenotaphs are placed, are shown.
Now, this structural arrangement is not Saracenic, but essentially Hindu. It is known in Hindu architecture as the panch-ratna, the shrine of the five jewels, or the five-headed lingam of Siva, symbolising the five elements, earth, water, air, fire, and ether. A typical example of it is found in one of the small shrines of Chandi Sewa at Prambânam in Java, which has an arrangement of domes strikingly similar to that of the Tâj. I think it will be obvious that this temple (Plate V, B), and not Humâyûn’s tomb, supplies the true prototype of the Tâj mausoleum. The date of the completion of the Chandi Sewa, given by Sir Stamford Raffles and accepted as approximately correct by Mr. Phene Spiers, is A.D. 1098, nearly five and a half centuries before the Tâj was begun and more than a century before any Muhammadan dynasty had established itself in Hindustan. The design of Chandi Sewa was even at that time an old Indian tradition: it had its Javanese prototype in the great Buddhist temple of Bôrôbudûr of about the eighth century A.D. The planning and roofing of the Tâj mausoleum were therefore based upon old Indian masonic symbolism, recognised in Buddhist art, adopted by generations of builders throughout the Hindu revival of the Middle Ages, and finally transmitted by them to their descend- ants in the reign of Shah Jahân. The tradition survives in Hindu temple-building of the present day.
The beauty of the Tâj, so far as the structure is concerned, culminates in the supreme grace of the central dome. The dome of Humâyûn’s tomb differs from that of the Tâj in many essential points. The former is of the Saracenic type of Persia and Central Asia i.e. it is not stilted, like the domes of Arab tombs in Cairo, and instead of springing directly from the drum in which it is built, it is corbelled out so as to overhang the drum slightly at the base. Otherwise it resembles the Arab type of dome in having an unbroken contour from the springing to the crown; the pinnacle or finial being only an insignificant metal spike coming out of the crown.
The dome of the Tâj, on the other hand, is that which is commonly described as a “bulbous” one not aggressively so, like a typical Tartar dome, but growing up from the base with exquisite tenderness and subtlety, as if the master-craftsman would sum up in its perfect contours all the grace of ideal womanhood. We shall see that the curve is not a single unbroken one, as in the typical Arab dome, but has three marked divisions: first, the incurving at the base, where a band of inlaid decoration marks the springing, and suggests a lotus flower holding the dome within its unfolded petals; secondly, the main structure or centre of the dome; and, thirdly, the pinnacle, which does not rise abruptly from the crown, but is connected with the centre of the dome by another lotus-like member which has the petals turned downwards instead of upwards.
Now, these marked characteristics do not belong to the pure Saracenic style of architecture: they are distinctly Indian, and, like the panch-ratna grouping of the domes, are based entirely upon Buddhist-Hindu masonic traditions. The dome of the Tâj is not related to that of Humâyûn’s tomb; it is not an Italian, but a Hindu or Indian tvpe.
With regard to “bulbous” domes generally and Fergusson’s statement that they were not known in India until after the Muhammadan invasions, the simple fact is that the “bulbous” form is essentially an Indian one. Many examples of it exist to this day in the Buddhist rock-cut temples; and for every rock-cut example now extant we may safely assume that, when Buddhism flourished as a State religion, there were a hundred or a thousand built of clay, sun-dried bricks, and other impermanent materials. The dâgabs in the interior of the chaityas numbered XIX and XXVI at Ajantâ have “bulbous” domes (Plate VI).
PI. VI, B shows a domed canopy of “bulbous” form represented in the exterior of Cave No. XIX. Here one can see plainly the lotus-flower moulding at the springing of the dome: it is found also in the Chandi Sewa dome. The prototype of the lotus member connecting the Hindu pinnacle with the dome can be seen in fig. 3, a Buddhist stupa with lotus petals springing from the tee and covering the whole dome.
Now, if we refer to the orders of Hindu classic architecture embodied in the Sanskrit technical books known as the Silpa-sâstras, a summary of which is given in Râm Râz’s valuable but fragmentary “Essay on the Architecture of the Hindus,” we shall find the connecting links between the dome of the Tâj and its Buddhist prototypes, and see the derivation of its three divisions, or members. The different parts of the dome of a Dravidian temple vimána are there set forth in minute detail.
Above the ad' histhâna or base which contains the cell. or shrine of the deity there are three main groups of members. First there is the griva, the neck of the dome, which is the drum or polygonal base on which it rests. The griva is crowned by a projecting cornice called the lupa-mula. Above this is the sikhara, or main portion of the dome itself, which is bulbous-shaped like that of the Buddhist dâgaba, and springs from a composite lotus moulding consisting of three parts, two rows of lotus petals connected by a bead-moulding called the máld-baddha.
The sikhara is surmounted by the stûpi or pinnacle, which has two principal members, the Mahá-padma, or great eight-petalled lotus5 ‘joined to the sikhara by a moulding called the pattica; and the kumbha or kalasha, the symbolic water- pot (fig. 4).
This Dravidian type of a Hindu vimâna, early examples of which are found at Mâmallupuram in Madras, and in the Kailâsa temple at Ellora, is, as Fergusson has shown, only an elaboration of the early Buddhist many-storied monastery, or assembly-hall, surmounted by a domed shrine. A reference to the illustrations will show clearly that the constituent elements of the Tâj dome follow exactly in form and in symbolism the old Buddhist-Hindu canon based upon the lotus flower and the water-pot, and have no connection with either Arabian or Italian architectural types.
It may, however, be urged quite reasonably and plausibly that, in spite of this Buddhist-Hindu derivation and resemblances in matters of detail, there is in the whole conception, especially in the purity, simplicity, and subtlety of the contours of the domes, a wide world of difference between the Tâj or the Motî Masjid at Agra and the fantastic elaboration of most Hindu temples. That may be granted, but no one who has entered deeply into the spirit of Buddhist-Hindu art will admit that it excludes the qualities which most appeal to Western taste in Indo-Muhammadan monuments. It will be apparent to every student of Indian painting and sculpture that in their pursuit of the divine ideal and in their treatment of the human figure Buddhist and Hindu artists invariably sought for and realised that same refinement of line and simplification of surfaces which we find so admirable in the Muhammadan monuments of Agra, Delhi, and Bijâpur. When Indian artists wished to simplify, they simplified as grandly as they elaborated, for they possessed in a high degree both the synthetical and analytical faculty. The vivid imaginative power and consummate executive skill which traced the wonderful outlines of the Ajantâ frescoes, and wrought in stone, bronze, or clay the Indian divine ideal, in which perfect simplicity is joined to sublime strength and dignity, would not find the exquisite tenderness and subtlety of the Tâj beyond its artistic range.
The Tâj has its prototype also in the Ajantâ paintings; in the Mother and Child before Buddha, in the noble Buddha of the first Cave temple, as well as in the sculptured Buddhas of Anuradhapura and Bôrôbudûr. I have pointed out elsewhere that in several of the great Mogul monuments, notably the Tâj, the tomb of Itmad-ud-daulah and that of Akbar at Sikandra, there is a characteristic personal touch which differentiates them from other monuments of the orthodox Saracenic styles. Neither Akbar nor his son and grandson were strict Muhammadans; all three had more or less strong Hindu leanings. The tomb of the orthodox Musulmân is always impersonal in its testimony to the glory of God and of the faith of Islâm. But Akbar’s tomb is a monument to the great statesman and thinker—one of the few who have tried to harmonise the jarring discords of the world’s contending sects and creeds, and to found a universal religion upon a synthesis of all of them. It was a happy idea to plan his monument upon the Indian tradition of a many-storied assembly hall, where the philosophers of old had been wont to meet for debating metaphysical and religious questions the same plan which Akbar himself had taken for his audience-hall at Fatehpur-Sîkrî, where he met all the doctors of Islâm, of Hinduism, Judaism, and of Christianity, and listened to their disputations. The monument which Nûr Mahall, Jahângir’s favourite wife, raised to the memory of her father, the Itmad-ud-daulah, shows us equally plainly of the refined eclectic tastes of the scholar and polished courtier, the Lord High Treasurer and Prime Minister, and those of his beautiful and accomplished daughter the Empress.
The Tâj itself is still more pregnant with human feeling. It is India’s Venus de Milo; the apotheosis of Indian womanhood. It may be that this personal or human quality is something too vague and intangible to analyse architecturally, though it has been felt by every European who has entered into the spirit of the Tâj. One feels instinctively that the builders tried to rise above the ordinary canons of architectural law: the Tâj is a great ideal conception which belongs more to sculpture than to architecture; and in this respect certainly it is more closely related to Hindu than to Saracenic art, for such an idea is altogether repugnant to the puritan sense of Islâm. It is true that the Shia sects did not observe the strict letter of the Quran, which forbids the representation of animate nature in art, but anything which suggested idolatry in a building of a religious character would not be tolerated by any true believer. We find it in the Tâj just because its builders were inspired by Hindu rather than by Saracenic masonic traditions and symbolism. The Hindu master-builder was both a sculptor and a mason; his æsthetic vision was more intense, more sensitive and wider than that of the Musulmân brought up in the dry geometric tradition which kept anthropomorphic idealism beyond the range of artistic expression. The religious prejudices of Islâm prevented the Hindu master-builders from exercising their skill in the usual form of sculpture; but this tomb of Mumtâz Mahall, whose personal qualities had endeared her to Hindu and Musulmân alike, gave them an unique opportunity. If they could not carve her statue, they could satisfy Shah Jahân’s desire for a monument which should be one of the world’s wonders by creating an unique architectonic symbol of her loveliness.
We need not suppose that the builders of the Tâj were consciously and deliberately working with this end in view, but only that—consummate artists and craftsmen as they were—being filled with Shah Jahân’s passionate desire to create a monument worthy of his beloved consort, the Tâj grew up under their hands a living thing with all the æsthetic attributes of perfect womanhood, more subtle, romantic, and tender in its beauty than any other building of its kind.
From a technical point of view we need only note in the result achieved the careful selection of fine materials, of marble drawn from the best quarries of Rajputana, contrasted with the rich colour of red sandstone, its surface sometimes delicately carved in low relief, sometimes inlaid with all manner of precious stones as if to simulate a matchless loom-embroidered sari. Secondly, the avoidance of all strong, rugged contrasts either in decoration, in the general disposition of masses, or in the rhythmical spacing of architectural details: all heavy mouldings and deep projecting cornices, such as are found in most other Mogul buildings of the time, are omitted, and the contours of the domes are drawn with extraordinary subtlety and fineness. Lastly, exquisitely finished craftsmanship throughout the building.
It might be assumed from my line of argument that I am trying to prove that there is no connection between the design of the Tâj and the building already mentioned, which Fergusson assumes to be its prototype, Humâyûn’s tomb at Delhi, commenced by Humâyûn’s widow nearly a century before the Tâj was begun, and completed by Akbar in 1565. It would be foolish to make such an attempt, for the connection between the two buildings is obvious. Fergusson’s mistake is in not recognising that Humâyûn’s tomb is only one link in the evolution of the Tâj, and that the remaining links must be sought for in India, not in Persia or Central Asia. In this monument Indian building tradition, both as regards structure and symbolism, is to a certain extent departed from. Humâyûn had been too little in India to adapt himself to his intellectual environment. His court was a Persian court, and his tomb is only an Indian imitation of a Persian tomb. Humâyûn’s architects were trying obsequiously to follow the court traditions of the time, which was entirely a Persian one, just as “progressive” Indian princes of the present day follow European example in building, without considering whether it may be good or bad. But in the century which had nearly elapsed between the commencement of this building and that of the Tâj, this eclectic Persian influence had been assimilated by Indian builders. The Hindu builders of Akbar, Jahângir, and Shah Jahân had taken the Persian court tradition and revitalised it by joining it with their own. The link in the chain of the Indian masonic tradition which was weakened in Humâyûn’s tomb is forged anew in the Tâj.
The effect of the Persian art tradition as imported into India may be compared with that of the Italian Renaissance in Europe, well described by Professor Lethaby as “the art of scholars, courtiers, and the connoisseurship of middlemen.”6 Akbar made Mogul art great not by setting up a new standard of architectural taste, as Babar and Humâyûn did, and as we foolishly do in India to-day, but by allowing the Hindu builders to weld the Persian and Arabian art tradition on to their own. It was because the Hindu craftsmen inherited a strong unbroken tradition, founded upon long centuries of practical experiment and devotion to their art, that they could so easily assimilate all the foreign elements which were imported into India by successive changes of dynasty and religion. Their architecture, whether it was Buddhist, Jain, Hindu, or Musulman in dogma, was always noble as art, because, like all true architecture, it was “ not a thing of will, of design, or of scholarship, but a discovery of the nature of things in building, a continuous development along the same line of direction imposed by needs, desires, and traditions.”7 The Tâj, then, though related in some ways to Humâyûn’s mausoleum, was even more closely connected with its Hindu prototype, the Chandi Sewa at Prambanam, and with the latter’s Buddhist prototypes. In architecture” it is unique, but neither Arabs, Persians, nor Moguls can claim it as their own, for it is Indian in body and in soul.
The method followed by Shah Jahân in making his arrangements for the building of the Tâj is fully described in the official records of the time, and is very interesting for the light it throws upon the building tradition of the seventeenth century. The Emperor called together a council of all the best master-builders and craftsmen to be found in India and in Central and Western Asia. There were specialists in every branch of building and decorative craft. There was a master-mason from Kandahar, one Muhammad Hanif, with a salary of 1,000 rupees a month; another, Muhammad Sayyid from Multan, who received 590 rupees, and Abu Torah from the same place paid 500 rupees. Ismail Khan Rûmi, an expert in dome construction, also received 500 rupees. Two specialists for making the pinnacle surmounting the dome, whose names were Muhammad Sharif of Samarkand and Kazim Khan of Lahore, were paid respectively 500 rupees and 295 rupees a month.
Here we may note in the Persian MS.8 an interesting etymological proof of Hindu influence in Saracenic masonic traditions. We have seen already that one of the distinctive characteristics of the Arab or Persian dome is that the pinnacle, or finial, is a comparatively insignificant ornamental feature, generally nothing more than a metal spike carrying the ensign of Islâm. In Hindu buildings, on the contrary, it is always treated as an important part of the dome’s structure, and as a symbol called in Sanskrit the kalasha, or water-pot. Curiously enough, though the water-pot has no symbolic meaning to the Musulmân, the technical name for a pinnacle, kalsa, in Persian is the Indian word borrowed directly from the Sanskrit. So in this detail of Saracenic architecture it is clear that Persia and not India was the borrower.
Three master-masons from Delhi were paid from 400 to 375 rupees a month. A master-carpenter, probably employed in the erection of the scaffolding and centering of the dome, whose name was Pira, was also a citizen of Delhi. With regard to the decorative work, there were four calligraphists who drew out the inlaid marble inscriptions. The first, Amanat Khan, from Shirâz, a writer of the Tughra character, drew a salary equal to the highest, namely, 1,000 rupees a month. Qader Zaman, “proficient in every branch of Arabic,” drew 800 rupees. Muhammad Khan from Baghdad was paid 500 rupees, and Raushan Khan from Syria received 300 rupees. At the Mogul court, as in Persia and Arabia, calligraphists were artists of the highest repute and were paid accordingly. The masons who executed the inlay work, including the so-called pictra dura, which is distinctly Persian in character, were Indians and Hindus who came from Kanauj. The chief worker, Chiranji Lai, received one of the highest salaries, 800 rupees a sufficient proof that he was not a mere artisan working under supervision, but a master-craftsman of high position among Shah Jahân’s experts. His chief subordinates were Chhoti Lal, Mannu Lal, and Manuhar Singh, whose salaries ranged from 380 rupees to 200.
Though the extensive use of marble and stone inlaid decoration in Indian buildings was most probably a fashion introduced by the Arabs, who had themselves borrowed it from the Byzantines, it seems that the practice had become a part of the Hindu craft tradition so long before the building of the Tâj as effectually to dispose of the theory that the pietra dura of the latter was derived from the Florentine work of the sixteenth century, to which it has no resemblance except in technique. Apparently the Indian pietra dura had been practised in Rajputana as early as the beginning of the fifteenth century, for Colonel Tod mentions that Kumbha, the Rânâ of Mewar, in 1438 laid the foundation of a Jain temple costing over a million sterling in the Sadri Pass, in which the interior is inlaid with mosaics “of cornelian and agate… This temple is an additional proof of the early existence of the art of inlaying in India.” 9
Among other decorative craftsmen, two “flower carvers” from Bokhara, Ata Muhammad and Shaker Muhammad, are mentioned as drawing salaries of 500 and 400 rupees respectively. There were three others from Delhi—Banuhâr, Shah Mal, and Zorâwar whose salaries are not given. Lastly, there was a specialist in garden design, one Ram Lai Kashmiri.
The chief architect who co-ordinated the work of all these master-craftsmen was Ustad Îsâ, “the best designer of his time.” According to one account he was a citizen of Agra, but in another he is said to have come from Shiraz. His salary was 1,000 rupees it is significant of his position towards the whole work that he received no more than the chief mason, for he was only one among many master-craftsmen carrying on a great living building tradition; not, as would be the case now, a highly paid expert archæological draughtsman of the literate caste in command of an army of workmen skilled in copying paper patterns but with no artistic interest in their work. The different method of working accounts for all the difference between seventeenth-century and modern building.
Tradition, in those days, was not, as is often assumed, a stereotyped line of thought out of touch with the practical needs of the times. These Oriental master-craftsmen were as keenly sensitive to new ideas as any budding architect-draughtsman of the present day, for we are told that before the final design was approved by Shah Jahân they had seen and discussed drawings of all the most famous buildings of the world. When after long consultation the design was settled, a model of it was made in wood. Modern architectural practice has not been able to improve upon this excellent method.
The strong influence which the Indian building tradition exercised over the whole of Western Asia, the tolerant attitude of the Mogul Emperors towards Hinduism, and the wonderful adaptability of Hindu craftsmen are evident in the result arrived at by this remarkable assemblage of experts. A Muhammadan craftsman from Rûm, which may mean Constantinople or any part of Western Asia, is employed to supervise the construction of the dome; yet the dome itself is not in the slightest degree Byzantine, nor is it Arabian or Persian, but Hindu both in form and in symbolism. The design of the floral mosaic work seems to be inspired by Persian art; but the master-craftsmen were all Hindus who had probably practised the same craft for many centuries. The plan of the Tâj garden (fig. 5)10 is according to the Mogul tradition; yet the garden expert was also a Hindu.
The student of Indian architecture and archæology would do well to remember that Persian or Arabian names do not always indicate Persian or Arabian craftsmen; on the contrary, the probability is that most craftsmen working on Indian buildings, whether they be Muhammadan or Hindu in religion, are of Indian race. Similarly, a Persian or Arabian motif in the design or decoration of an Indian building is no more proof that the designers were foreigners than would be the case in an Italian building.
The procedure which Shah Jahân adopted in the design of the Tâj seems to have been the traditional practice on such occasions. Akbar had done the same at Fatehpur-Sîkrî, and likewise Timur, the founder of the Mogul dynasty, when he rebuilt Samarkand; probably Mahmûd of Ghazni also. It will be instructive to note how different was the architectural aim of these conferences of master-builders to that of an Anglo-Indian departmental committee of the present day. In the first case, although the master-builders represented many different countries and many different styles of building, the question of style did not enter into the discussion at all. Every great monument or new capital city had a proper style of its own, for the traditions which were the craftsmen’s common heritage was a universal craft language understood by all, though every craftsman tried to prove his skill in his own special craft. So, in spite of the cosmopolitan composition of these committees of experts, a city built in Persia naturally became a Persian city, a city in China a Chinese city, and in India an Indian city. Timur, the Tartar, when he conquered Central Asia, sent to China and to India for expert builders, but he meant Samarkand to be the first city in Asia, not a second-hand Pekin or Delhi. Neither Akbar nor Shah Jahân wasted time in futile archæological discussions which act as a dead weight on the building craft of the present day, both in India and in Europe. The constant interchange of constructive ideas among the master-builders of different countries acted as a real stimulus to creative effort. Architectural style came from the natural organic growth of the art of building, instead of being dictated by the caprice of individual taste, by the arbitrary ruling of bureaucratic decrees, or by the sordid impulse of commercial greed.
Incidentally it may be said that the artistic proofs, general and particular, which establish the perfect Indianness of the Tâj, also dispose of the legend regarding its Italian architect more effectually than any judicial decision based upon an examination of Father Manrique’s statement of Veroneo’s claims. So long as the Tâj could be regarded as an isolated phenomenon in what we call Indo-Saracenic architecture, only distantly related to one other building of the same style and epoch, the assumption might seem plausible though contrary to all historical precedent that Veroneo was a genius of extraordinary artistic gifts who, with the aid of Indian craftsmen, had succeeded in improving on the model provided by the mausoleum of Humâyûn by adapting the canons of Western architectural taste to an Oriental building. One might say that here was an exception to the rule stated by Professor Lethaby that “nothing great or true in building seems to have been invented in the sense of wilfully designed…. A whole building, indeed any work of art, is not a product of an act of design by some individual genius; it is the outcome of ages of experiment.” But when it can be shown that the Tâj, though unique in itself, is only one link in a long chain of Indian tradition going back to Buddhist buildings of the sixth and seventh centuries, Veroneo’s claim becomes on the face of it absurd. When architecture is a living art, buildings are not “designed”—they grow. The Tâj was not of our modern “architects’ architecture.” It was of a living organic growth, born of the Indian artistic consciousness.
It will be interesting to observe that soon after the completion of the Tâj, when Shah Jahân’s successor, Aurangzib, usurped his father’s throne, he placed a ban upon the fine arts as being contrary to the injunctions of the Quran, and dismissed from his court all but orthodox Musulmân craftsmen. The effect upon Mogul buildings was most significant. The chain of the Hindu tradition was thus broken, for only the true believer was considered fit to be employed in designing Muhammadan monuments. Fergusson observes that “there are few things more startling in the history of this style than the rapid decline of taste that set in with the accession of Aurangzîb.” As an example of it he cites the mausoleum which one of the sons of Aurangzîb caused to be built in memory of his mother, Rabia Daurâni, intended, it is said, to be an exact copy of Shah Jahân’s famous monument to Mumtâz Mahall. “The difference between the two monuments,” says Fergusson, “even in so short an interval [about thirty years] is startling. The first stands alone in the world for certain qualities that all can appreciate; the second is by no means remarkable for any qualities of elegance or design, and narrowly escapes vulgarity and bad taste.”
As Fergusson failed to observe any Hindu influence in the buildings of Jahângir and Shah Jahân, it is not surprising that he should overlook the fact that the difference in two buildings was not due to decline in taste at the Imperial court, but to the break in the Mogul building tradition caused by Aurangzîb’s dismissal of Shah Jahân’s Hindu artists and craftsmen. The effect of this break affords yet another strong proof of the commanding influence of Hindu tradition in the creation of the great monuments of the Mogul dynasty in India. Neither the inferiority of Aurangzîb’s buildings nor the superiority of Akbar’s, Jahângir’s, and Shah Jahân’s had anything to do with a decline or improvement in the taste of the Mogul court; it was merely a question of bad or good government. In the latter case the best builders and craftsmen in Asia were employed, without distinction of race or creed; in the former the best were excluded by the arrogant bigotry of Aurangzîb, who may have been well aware that his buildings were badly designed, but was satisfied by the knowledge that they were not polluted by the hands of the idolatrous infidel.
After Aurangzîb’s accession the Hindu master-builders had no choice but to seek patronage from the princes of their own religion, and nothing can be more significant than the fact mentioned by Fergusson that the only Indian buildings which kept up the great tradition of the reigns of Akbar, Jahângir, and Shah Jahân were the fine palaces of Central India and Rajputana, built for Hindu princes, like those of Datiyâ and Urcha in Bundelkund (Plates XCVII-XCIX), and that of Dîg at Bharatpur described by Fergusson as a “fairy creation” (Plates CVII-CVIII). All of these were erected in the eighteenth century by Hindu builders for Hindu princes.
- 1. The lotus in Hindu ritual must be taken to include the water-lily (Nymphæa) as well as the sacred lotus of Egypt (Nelumbium).
- 2. See “Handbook to Agra and the Tâj,” revised edition 1912 (Longmans).
- 3. “Art of the Saracens in Egypt,” Stanley Lane Poole, pp. 89-90.
- 4. “Indian Architecture,” vol. ii. p. 297 (edit. 1910).
- 5. The divisions between the petals marked the four cardinal and intermediate points.
- 6. “Architecture,” p. 233 (Home University Library).
- 7. “Architecture,” W. R. Lethaby, p. 207.
- 8. The manuscript from which most of these particulars are taken is preserved in the Imperial Library, Calcutta.
- 9. “Annals of Rajasthan,” vol. i. p. 289.
- 10. The garden was replanted about ten years ago, but without any regard to Indian symbolism or recognition of the relation of the garden scheme to the design of the buildings.