AFTER the first century of Muhammadan rule in India, when the ruthless wholesale destruction of Buddhist and Hindu buildings had diminished, the Indian Musulmân builders, with the help of their Hindu brethren, were engaged in grafting a new building tradition upon the old one. Their chief efforts were directed towards giving the arched screens of their mosques a more Indian or Hindu character, though they adopted the Saracenic method of arch construction (with radiating voussoirs) whenever they found it convenient to do so. The screens of Delhi and Ajmîr, beautiful as they are in themselves, are too ill-fitted to the rest of the building and too much of a structural afterthought to satisfy the eye of a good craftsman. The result of these efforts may be seen in some of the fourteenth-century mosques in Gujerat, the rich and fertile Hindu kingdom which was made a viceroyalty to the Delhi Sultanate in 1311, under a converted Rajput, Muzaffar Shah. Gujerat was at that time, as the magnificent remains of Hindu temples at Mudherâ, Dabhoi, and elsewhere testify (see Illustrations), exceptionally rich in architectural material and in craftsmen. The Muhammadans made no attempt to impose any Saracenic ideas upon them. The entrance to the Jâmi’ Masjid at Cambay, built about 1325, is almost copied from the porch of the great sun-temple at Mudherâ (Plates XII-XIII), built in the neighbourhood three centuries before. The arched screen in front of the sanctuary is the only variation on the ordinary structure of Hindu builders. The mosque of Hilâl Khân Qâzî at Dholkâ (Pl. XIV), about twenty-three miles from Ahmadâbâd, and the Tâka or Tanka Masjid at the same place, belong to the same century and style, the former being dated about 1333 and the latter 1361. These mosques have also Hindu entrance porches and ordinary Hindu roofs and colonnades without any further structural development.
In the meantime the Muhammadans who had established themselves at Gaur, the ancient Hindu capital of Eastern Bengal, as early as the end of the twelfth century, were engaged, by the same methods as at Delhi and Gujerat, in forming a local style of architecture of strong characteristics and of very great interest, though the early stages of its development are more difficult to trace on account of the wanton destruction of architectural monuments both by the Afghan iconoclasts and by their successors. When the capital fell into decay on the decline of Muhammadan rule, Gaur was used as a brickfield and quarry by the builders of Dacca, Murshidabad, and Calcutta; the right to dismantle Gaur of its enamelled bricks being farmed out to the landholders of the district in the early days of our revenue administration. 1 It is only quite recently, under Lord Curzon’s administration, that the few remains of the splendid monuments of Gaur and the neighbourhood have been adequately conserved and protected.
Enough still remains, however, to show that, owing to the more general use of brick instead of stone in the construction of their mosques and tombs, the builders employed by the Muhammadans at Gaur, as early as the middle of the fourteenth century, were using the pointed arch for constructive purposes much more extensively than they were doing elsewhere in India at that time. This is evident at the Adînah mosque, built at Pandua, near Gaur, during the reign of Sikandar Shah (1358-89): a superficial survey of this building with its Arabic inscriptions and radiating arches might lead one to suppose that the design and construction of it were largely in the hands of foreign architects. But the plan of it (fig. 7) is evidently of Buddhist-Hindu origin; the mihrâbs (PL XXXIV) are converted Hindu shrines, and it is much more than probable that in this brick-building country Indian builders were using radiating arches, either round or pointed, for structural purposes before the Muhammadans came. The pointed arch was not an invention of Saracenic builders, and per se cannot be taken to prove Saracenic influence in any country. It was used in Egypt, Syria, and in Asia Minor centuries before the time of Muhammad. India had had intimate relations with these countries from time immemorial, and it is most improbable that Indian builders, skilled craftsmen as they were, remained in total ignorance of the principle of the radiating arch until the time of the Muhammadan invasions. There must have been at one time thousands of Buddhist chapter-houses in Bengal, where their barrel-vaulted roofs and “horse-shoe” windows, frequently built of brick as well as of wood and plaster or thatch, could hardly have been constructed otherwise than by radiating courses.
Fergusson explains why, in some parts of Bengal at least, the trabeate style of building was never in vogue. “The country is practically without stone, or any suitable building material for forming either pillars or beams. Having nothing but brick, it was almost of necessity that they employed arches everywhere, and in every building that had any pretensions to permanency.” 2 This being the case, it is difficult to understand why he should have assumed that the radiating arches inside the great temple of Bodh-Gayâ could not have been part of the original structure, but must have been introduced in the course of the Burmese Buddhist restorations of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. It seems more logical to assume that the Bengali builders, being bricklayers rather than stonemasons, had learnt to use the radiating arch whenever it was useful for constructive purposes long before the Muhammadans came there.
One important fact which leads to this conclusion is stated by Fergusson,3 though characteristically he tries to explain it away. The arch and vault were systematically used by all the Buddhist builders in Burma, who adopted many of the forms of architecture originating in Bengal, together with the religion of Sâkyamuni, at a very early date. Burmese tradition says that many of the oldest temples and monasteries were built by Indian architects; if this is true, they would have come from Bengal. Fergusson says that “Indian” may be taken to mean “foreign,” but suggests no reason for rejecting the evidence—such as it is—that the arch and vault were used in Bengal, as they were in Burma, before the Afghans came there. The Afghan invaders were not likely to have brought many builders with them. Gaur was a great Hindu capital, in the heart of the Magadhan country, and its Hindu craftsmen were the direct heirs of the building traditions of the Buddhists. Fergusson, in trying to prove his theory that Hindu builders never under any circumstances used the radiating arch until the Muhammadan builders taught them to do so, seems to ignore the fact that all the Muhammadan buildings at Gaur are just as obviously adaptations of the local Hindu building tradition as are all the mosques in Western India.
Assuming that both the Buddhist and Hindu builders of Bengal were familiar with the structural use of arches in brickwork, it is inconceivable that in the course of many centuries of great building operations they should have refused, from mere prejudice or lack of intelligence, to put bricks on edge instead of laying them flat, whenever a wide span of arch made it expedient to do so. Having adopted that simple expedient, the next would naturally follow—the construction of perfect arches with brick wedges.
Fergusson’s theory that the radiating arch is “Saracenic” and the horizontal beam and bracket “Hindu” always seems to imply that the former was a great gift of Western science to India. It has led archæologists to attribute every Indian building with radiating arches in it to foreign inspiration without further investigation.
From a craftsman’s point of view there were good practical reasons why Indian builders should prefer the beam and bracket to the arch when they had plentiful supplies of wood and fine building stone. As these conditions obtained in early times over the greater part of India, it naturally followed that the arch was not so commonly used as it was in countries where wood and stone were less abundant. But in brick-building districts like Bengal one would expect the radiating arch to occur at least occasionally. Since it does occur, there is no reason to attempt to explain it away on archæological grounds. In the absence of any proof to the contrary, therefore, I shall assume that the arches in the Bodh-Gayâ temple were, as they seem to be, part of the original internal structure; that all the early Muhammadan buildings at Gaur are, as they seem to be, adaptations of the local Hindu-Buddhist building tradition, both structurally and decoratively; that the brick builders of Bengal, like the brick builders of Persia, used the radiating arch before there was any architecture to be called “Saracenic”; that the Burmans did use Indian architects, as their traditions say and as might be expected from the relations between the two countries; and that Fergusson was mistaken in asserting that “ up to the time of the first Sultans of Delhi and for some centuries afterwards the Hindus had never built arches.”4
The general character of the Muhammadan buildings at Gaur differs as widely from the true Saracenic type as any Hindu temple. Moreover, they closely resemble the local Hindu temple architecture. The striking similarity will be seen by comparing the façade of the Qadam-i-Rasûl mosque with that of the Hindu temple at Vishnupur (Plates XVI-XVII). They are both rather late examples, the former having been built in 1530 and the latter about 1643. But though the Hindu temple is a century later than the other, there can be no mistaking the fact that both belong to the local Hindu tradition of building.
I take it that the real difference between the Muhammadan and Hindu method of construction at Gaur was only this—that the Hindus had used the pointed arch occasionally on a small scale for connecting their massive brick piers and in constructing in brick the curvilinear roofs derived from the earliest Indian roofs of bamboo, thatch, or wood. As the Muhammadans required more spacious buildings for their religious services than the Hindus needed for their individualistic ritual, their craftsmen naturally developed the use of the arch on a larger and bolder scale. But there is no reason to suppose that Indian builders were not capable of doing this for them without any outside assistance, although occasionally, no doubt, the Muhammadan rulers preferred to employ foreign architects. At Gaur there is no more evidence that they did so than there is at Delhi or Ajmîr, for in spite of the decorative elements which betray the influence of Arabic scholars, calligraphists and illuminators, rather than that of foreign craftsmen, and in spite of the bolder use of radiating arches, the Muhammadan buildings there retain the same strongly marked indigenous character which they have in other places where the usual Hindu constructive methods were employed. The Muhammadan buildings at Gaur, Panduâ, and Maldâ are Bengali, not Arabian or Persian.
The curvilinear cornices and roofs at Gaur undoubtedly belong to the ancient Buddhist-Hindu tradition, and the forms of the smaller arches, or those which are used decoratively instead of structurally, so far from being Saracenic, are all derived from Buddhist-Hindu prototypes, as will be explained farther on. Though Persian encaustic tile-work shows foreign influence, or rather gives evidence of the mutual exchange of artistic ideas which is natural between two countries so closely connected in race, language, and religion as India and Persia, the beautiful terra-cotta and moulded brickwork is characteristic of Bengal and must have been the work of local craftsmen.
The middle of the fourteenth century saw the armies of Islâm pressing southwards as well as eastwards and westwards, and by 1347 a new Musulmân dynasty had established itself at Kulbarga, another ancient Hindu capital in the Dekhan, not far from the great Hindu city of Vijayanagar, the remains of which still testify to the splendour of the civilisation which Islâm set out to destroy but ended by being brought under its spell, just as Rome in the pride of conquest had been finally led captive by the art and civilisation of Greece.
The great mosque of Kulbarga, built at this time, is, as Fergusson observes, one of the most remarkable of its class in India, and in some respects unique. The Muhammadan builders, dispensing with the use of materials provided by the Hindu temples they despoiled, here began to build for themselves, and by way of experiment they varied the arrangement of the roof and arched screens. Instead of placing the latter in the usual way in front of the lîwân, or sanctuary, and sometimes in front of the corridors on the side facing the courtyard, they roofed over the whole area of the courtyard, about 126 feet by 100 feet, by a series of 63 small domes of the usual Hindu construction supported on columns, the corridors on three sides of the quadrangle being covered by a similar series of transverse vaults. To admit light into this covered area the usual screens of quasi-Saracenic arches had to be placed on the outside of the quadrangle, the four corners of the latter being roofed by domes of 25 feet in width. The sanctuary was roofed by one large dome of 40 feet, raised on a clerestory, and flanked on either side by six small domes similar to those which covered the inner courtyard.
The placing of the pointed arches on the exterior of the quadrangle makes this mosque appear to be more Saracenic in its design than usual, but as a matter of fact Saracenic designers had no more to do with the construction of the Kulbarga mosque than they had in other Indian buildings. In the history of Indian craftsmanship this mosque only marks the point where the screen of pointed arches was definitely accepted by Indian builders as a structural device in buildings for Muhammadan use. Although in the case of the Kulbarga mosque the appearance of the exterior was greatly altered by this addition to the resources of the builder, the structure of the building was not otherwise modified, and the craftsmanship remained Indian throughout.
For some reason or other the experiment here made in the interior arrangement was never repeated in other mosques. From an æsthetic point of view it was successful enough: the placing of the great arches on the outside walls improved the ventilation of the whole building greatly, and the roofing of the whole area afforded much better protection from sun and rain to the congregation. So thorough was the craftsmanship and so excellent the Indian cement used in the roof that in Fergusson’s time the mosque “stood in seemingly good repair after four centuries of comparative neglect,” though, as he observes, any settlement or crack in the building would have been fatal. With the miserable leaking roofs, designed only for a European climate and often constructed according to the directions of Thomas Atkins or non-commissioned officers acting as amateur builders, most of our modern public buildings in India would, under similar circumstances, fall into ruin in twenty years.
Probably the true reason why this precedent of Kulbarga was not followed afterwards was the conservatism of the mullahs, who objected to a departure from the traditional arrangement of a mosque which exposed the congregation so much to the inquisitive gaze of infidels.
So far we have only dealt with the evolution of the Indian mosque from the prototypes at Old Delhi and at Ajmîr. It is necessary now to refer to another type of building which had a very important influence on the development of Indian architecture from the thirteenth century onwards, namely, the Muhammadan tomb. I have already alluded to the survival of Buddhist-Hindu traditions in the wonderful tomb of Mumtâz Mahall at Agra. In another chapter I will endeavour to trace more exactly the evolution of the domes of Saracenic tombs in Persia from Buddhist dâgabas, or canopied pavilions in the form of dâgabas, such as that which is sculptured in the façade of the great chapter-house at Ajantâ (Plate VI, B).
The Hindu builders, who were not relic worshippers and who usually cremated their dead, when they were called upon to construct Muhammadan sepulchral monuments,5 began by making them in a similar style to their own domed pavilions, or the porches of Hindu temples. These Hindu pavilions were also directly derived from similar Buddhist structures, the domes of which were supported on four, eight, or twelve piers or columns, according to their size, the plan of the pavilions being either square or octagonal. The domes were built in the usual Indian fashion in horizontal layers of stone, brought to an approximately circular plan at the springing of the dome by cutting off the angles of the base of it, in the same way as a square column or pier was changed to a polygonal shape or circular one. Very many old Pathân tombs of this type, built by Indian masons, are to be seen in the neighbourhood of Delhi.
The next step was precisely similar to that which took place in the Indian mosque—the whole structure was enclosed by screens of quasi-Saracenic arches, forming corridors round the sanctuary of the tomb, which served both to protect the pilgrims who resorted thereto and to give more sanctity to it. The dome gradually became larger and higher in proportion to the importance of the saint or other personage it commemorated, and then the roofs of the surrounding corridors were surmounted by four or eight small kiosks or domed pavilions like those which surrounded the upper floors of the many-storied Buddhist monasteries.
In later times the custom which the Moguls had of building tombs for themselves, or for their saints or heroes, in lovely gardens which had served as pleasure-resorts in their owners’ lifetime, added a peculiar charm to their monuments which has not quite faded, though the art of the Indian formal garden with its beautiful symbolism is probably now lost.
From a structural point of view the Muhammadan tomb played an important part in the development of the Indian building craft, because the gradual increase in the size and weight of their domes, built of stone and brick and more massive and solid than any which other builders, except the Romans and Byzantines, had before attempted, forced Indian builders to solve the greater engineering problems of dome construction. They did so, as we shall see, in an entirely original way, by an application of constructive principles different to those employed by the Saracenic, Byzantine, or Roman builder. But this was not fully achieved until several centuries later.
- 1. Ravenshaw’s “Gaur,” p. 40, note.
- 2. “Indian Architecture,” vol. ii. p. 253 (edit. 1910).
- 3. Ibid. p. 353.
- 4. “Indian Architecture,” vol. ii. p. 203 (edit. 1910).
- 5. Fergusson assumes that the Rajput custom of building cenotaphs, or chhatris on the site of a chieftain’s funeral pyre, was borrowed from the Muhammadans. I do not believe that this was the case; though the magnificence of Muhammadan tombs induced the Rajput princes to make a similar display with their chhatris, the custom itself was of much greater antiquity.