THE detailed analysis of structure given in the last chapter will, I hope, enable the reader to follow more closely the history of the Indian building craft from the sixteenth century down to modern times. It will enable him to see that the principal structural forms of Indian architecture, in the Mogul period and all other periods of Indian history, as well as the creative inspiration which lay behind these forms, were essentially Indian; that Indian architecture, like Indian sculpture, painting, and music, forms a great original school which worked out its own ideals, borrowing from foreign sources less than any of the great European schools have done. “Indo-Saracenic” as applied to Muhammadan architecture in India is an unscientific classification, based on the fundamental error which vitiates the work of most European historians of Indian civilisation. It is as if a Muhammadan historian of European architecture would describe French Gothic as “Franco-Arabian.” With equal justice Italy might claim Shakespeare as an Anglo-Italian poet because the plots of his dramas are frequently based on Italian stories. The cultural basis of Muhammadan architecture in India was essentially Indian, not Saracenic—the buildings which may be regarded as an exception to this rule are few and unimportant as regards their influence on the history of Indian architecture. Indian craftsmen, like those of all other countries, learnt other languages besides their own, but they remained always true to Indian ideals, whether they were Buddhists, Hindus, or Muhammadans. Persian, Arabian, Central Asian, and Chinese craftsmen came into India in the Mogul period, as Byzantine and other craftsmen came into Italy for the building of St. Mark’s at Venice; but there is no epoch-making Muhammadan monuments in India entirely inspired by Saracenic culture in the same way as the Duomo of Venice was entirely inspired by Byzantium.

It is a travesty of Indian history to represent Arabian culture as a great creative force which transformed the ideals of Indian art and taught Indian builders the true principles of architecture. Muhammadanism in India, even as a religion, is essentially different to the creed professed by the Western school of Islâm: as art it belongs almost entirely to Hinduism. The mainspring of the great development of Muhammadan architecture in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in India is really to be found in the eagerness with which cultured Muhammadans of Arabian, Persian, Turkish, or Mongolian race, when the passion of warfare and the heat of religious hatred had subsided, applied themselves to the study of the art, literature, and religion of the land of their adoption, establishing a neutral ground on which Hindu and Musulmân might meet fraternally. Though Persian and Arabic were ceremonial languages at the Imperial Court of the Moguls, so that even Hindu rajahs and pandits often found it expedient to become proficient in them, the study of Sanskrit by Muhammadan scholars and poets gave a great impetus to indigenous literature also. Mr. Dînesh Chandra Sen, in his very valuable “History of Bengali Language and Literature,”1 tells us how a great Sanskritic revival in Bengal in the seventeenth century was heralded by a Muhammadan writer, Syed Âlâol, “with a mastery of the Sanskrit tongue, the like of which we rarely find among Hindu poets in the Bengali literature.” The rapprochement between Hindus and Muhammadans on a religious ground was even more remarkable. Akbar was not the only Musulmân monarch who endeavoured to found a religious cult to which both Hindus and Muhammadans could subscribe. Nearly a century before the promulgation of the “Divine Faith” at Fatehpur-Sîkrî, Husain Shah of Gaur had either originated or given imperial sanction to the worship of Satya Pîr—a name compounded of a Sanskrit and an Arabic word—as the common God of both communities.2 The fact mentioned by Mr. Sen that there are many poems in old Bengali in honour of Satya Pîr, both by Muhammadan and Hindu poets, proves that the cult at one time had a strong hold on popular imagination.

The common religious sentiment and ties of nationality which brought the two creeds together manifested their influence in many ways. “Many a Mahomedan offered puja at Hindu temples, as the Hindus offered sinni at Mahomedan mosques. In the North-West Provinces the Hindus celebrated the Mahorum festivities with as great enthusiasm as the Mahomedans. Mirza Hosen Âli, a native of the Tippera district who lived a hundred years ago, not only composed songs in praise of the goddess Kâlî, but worshipped her at his house with great éclat. Hindus have borne Mahomedan names and the Mahomedans are often called by Hindu names, and such instances are very common in this country even now.

The Indian Musalman goes through a long series of festivities and ceremonies, most of which are bodily importations from the Hindus, while others are adapted with slight modifications to give them the colour of Mahomedanism. From birth to death, at every stage of life, says Mr. Mazhal-ul-Haque, the Mahomedans in India perform ceremonies which are of purely Hindu origin.”3

Nothing is more clear to the student of Indian architecture who can read the language of the Indian craftsman, that it was the willingness of the Musulmân rulers to adopt the art and culture of Hindustan—their genius for learning rather than for teaching, which made Indo-Muhammadan architecture great. The willingness to learn may in itself be regarded as a proof of high intelligence and an innate artistic instinct, and undoubtedly many of the Muhammadan sovereigns had great artistic gifts, like many exalted patrons of art in medieval Europe; but the great architects of India were Indians by birth and instinct.

When the subject is rightly understood, I have no doubt that the sixteenth century, rather than the seventeenth, will be appreciated as the classic epoch of Muhammadan architecture in India. The Tâj Mahall, the Motî Masjid at Agra, and a few other buildings of Shah Jahân’s time are unique in themselves and surrounded by a halo of romance which appeals strongly to popular imagination. But exquisite as these are both in art and craftsmanship, they belong to the lyric rather than the epic school of architecture, and many of the buildings contemporary with them betray a weakness of design—a prettiness approaching insipidity—which was a faithful reflection of the approaching decadence of the Mogul Empire. It is unfortunate for Indian art that nearly all Western historians have seized upon this later school, tinged with the voluptuousness and extravagance of a dissolute Court life, as the truest and most characteristic expression of Muhammadan art in India, while the robust and virile art of the early pre-Mogul period, which bears the same relation to the later phases as a Sanskrit epic does to a Persian sonnet, is relegated to an inferior place as belonging to a Hindu or “mixed” style.

In the beginning of the sixteenth century Gaur and Gujerat, the former chiefly in brick and the latter mostly in stone, were the great creative centres of the architecture of Northern India; for in the north the Muhammadans had acquired such a firm hold upon the country that there was little activity in Hindu temple-building or in secular public works. Moreover, the Muhammadan rulers showed such a tolerant spirit towards the religious feelings of their Hindu subjects that to assist in the building of a Muhammadan mosque might well have been regarded by the latter as an act of devotion equal to a gift to a Hindu shrine. Husain Shah, the reputed author of the Satya Pîr cult in Bengal, was emperor at Gaur, and Musulmân sovereigns of Rajput descent ruled in Gujerat.

These two localities, far more than any beyond the Indus, were the true formative centres of the early and later Muhammadan styles in India, and of the modern Indian building tradition in the north. Just as the temples of Hindu Gaur had carried on the traditions of early Magadhan architecture, with modifications adapted to the Hindu ritual and symbolism, so the mosques of Musulmân Gaur were modifications of Hindu temples adapted to the ritual of Islâm. And just as a Hindu pandit at the Musulmân Courts became a good Persian and Arabic scholar without ceasing to be a Hindu, so the Indian craftsmen who built Muhammadan mosques, tombs, palaces, and public works acquired the artistic culture of Persia and Arabia as a second language, without becoming Indo-Persians or Indo-Arabs. The Arabian and Persian element was, as in other parts of India, decorative rather than constructive, for the Arabian and Persian craftsmen who came into India were mostly calligraphists, painters, decorators, and upholsterers—not builders. It was thus that the constructive forms used at Gaur and in Gujerat by Indian builders came to predominate in the Mogul architecture of Fatehpur-Sîkrî, Agra, and Delhi. The cusped arches of the early sixteenthcentury buildings at Gaur (Plate XXXI) are of the same type as those of Shah Jahân’s palace at Delhi and many other of his buildings—both derived from Buddhist-Hindu prototypes. The bent cornices and curvilinear roofs of Gaur, derived from the bambu construction of the Buddhists of Bengal, are found in many of the buildings of the Moguls and belong to the building tradition of modern Rajputana. The history of Indian craftsmanship thus repeated itself, for many centuries previously similar features in the early Magadhan style had been carried by the Buddhist craftsmen throughout the greater part of Asoka’s empire. The style of the roofs and gables sculptured at Bharhut and Sânchî and painted at Ajantâ must have been formed originally on the bambu construction of Bengal.

Some day, possibly, when official architects in India throw aside the narrow professional prejudices which are their stumbling-block, both in an engineering and artistic sense, they may realise that in picking up the threads of this great tradition which survives to this day, they may find many suggestions for the use of modern European building material. Even in the primitive bambu construction, adapted by Buddhist and Hindu builders to wood and stone, which the European expert affects to despise as primitive and unscientific, there is the same principle as in the construction of most modern and up-to-date European building; for the elasticity of the bambu has its modern analogue in the elasticity of steel—a material in the use of which the Hindu craftsman had no rival until quite modern times.4

Though there are no ancient Hindu temples now existing at Gaur itself, there is ample evidence that Husain Shah (1493-1519), and his son Nasrat Shah (1519-32), in whose reigns the finest buildings now remaining at Gaur were erected, employed the local Hindu builders to design their architectural works, and that the development of style which took place there was the natural outcome of the practical requirements of Muhammadan ritual, rather than an improvement in taste or advance in architectural skill due to the importation of foreign builders.

Externally the general characteristics of the Gaur mosques of the sixteenth century, when the style was fully formed, are shown in the façade of the Qadam-i-Rasûl Masjid (Pl. XVI). It is only necessary to compare this with a typical Bengali temple (Pl. XLI)5 to see that the design of the Muhammadan building is identical with the local Hindu style, which in itself is founded upon the earlier Buddhist tradition. There is not the slightest trace of Saracenic influence in the design of the Hindu temple: the arches are Buddhist-Hindu arches, and technically seem to be as natural to the brick construction of Bengal as the horizontal beam and bracket were to the purely lithic construction of Gujerat. They are, in fact, a Hindu modification of the lotus-leaf arches of the Buddhists, which in the lithic Hindu styles were reduced to an ornament on the great curved cornices or dripstones, as the Hindu stonemasons had no structural use for the arch. In Bengal the arch of the Buddhist builders remained in structural use because brick was the material instead of stone. The size of the arches diminished because Hindu worship was individualistic, not communal, and, except when a large crowd of pilgrims congregated at some specially venerated shrine, did not require the same floor-space as the religious services of the Buddhist Sangha demanded.

The same practical reason operated in the interior of Muhammadan mosques at Gaur, as in other places in India, in the contrary direction. The congregation of the faithful, like the Buddhists, required a wide open floor-space in their places of worship, and their Indian builders provided this for them by widening the space between columns and piers and walls, and thereby increased the size and number of the arches and vaults required; but the essential characteristics of the architectural style remained Indian throughout.

It is difficult to realise from the comparatively few ruined buildings which now remain of the once great city of Gaur that its influence upon the building craft of Northern and Western India, both before and after the Muhammadan conquest, must have been far greater than that of any city of Persia, Arabia, or Mesopotamia. Under the name of Lakshmanavati, or Lakhnauti, it had long been the Hindu capital of Bengal with a tradition going back many centuries before Christ.

In the sixteenth century it was known to the Portuguese as one of the greatest cities of India, the population being estimated at over a million. The ruins of it now existing cover an extent of country over ten miles in length and between two and three in breadth. Situated, as it was originally, on the banks of the Ganges, it was in easy communication with the greater part of Northern and Western India; and as it was one of the two first centres of Muhammadan rule in India, the permanent school of craftsmen established there must have greatly influenced the building of later Muhammadan cities in India. In studying the development of Muhammadan architecture in Gujerat, Mâlwâ, and in the Dekhan, it will always be more profitable to look to Gaur rather than to Persia for the origin of forms, especially those in brick, which are not accounted for by the local Hindu craft tradition.

The Sonâ Masjid, or the Golden Mosque—so called from the gilding of its domes—was commenced by the Emperor Husain Shah and completed by Nasrat Shah in the early part of the sixteenth century. It is one of the largest buildings now remaining at Gaur. The plan of it resembled that of the older Adînah mosque (fig. 7), but little now remains of the courtyard. The lîwân, mainly built of brick, was faced in front with a nearly black hornblende stone, finely sculptured in low relief with designs adapted from the local Hindu terra-cotta work. Traces of gilding still remain. The façade, a corner of which is shown in Pl. XLII, has eleven doorways, each 14 feet high and 8,1-2. feet wide, which have cusped Hindu arches and are framed with carved architraves adapted in design from the doorways of Hindu shrines. Eleven corresponding brick arches inside the lîwân form an aisle covered by the same number of domes, and behind this aisle three others are formed by twenty stone pillars of Hindu design (Pl. XLIII, B), connected with brick arches and dividing the remaining area of the lîwân into thirty-three compartments also covered by domes. The upper part of the minarets at the four corners of the lîwân have fallen. Their appearance when complete can be seen in Plate XLV.

The curved cornices of the exterior and the vaulting of part of the side aisles with its beautiful stucco decoration shown in Pl. XLIII, A, are reminiscences of the ancient bambu roofing still used in the cottages of Bengal. “To understand this,” says Fergusson, “it may be as well to explain that the roofs of the huts in Bengal are formed of two rectangular frames of bambus, perfectly flat and rectangular when formed, but when lifted from the ground and fitted to the substructure they are bent so that the elasticity of the bambu, resisting the flexure, keeps all the fastenings in a state of tension, which makes a singularly firm roof out of very frail materials. It is the only instance I know of elasticity being employed in building, but is so singularly successful in attaining the desired end, and is so common, that we can hardly wonder when the Bengalis turned their attention to more permanent modes of building they should have copied this one.”6

The details of the Chota Sonâ Masjid, a smaller version ofthe Sonâ Masjid, have been described in the previous chapter. Pl. XLIV shows the usual method of building the brick domes of Gaur.

The beautiful moulded brickwork which until recent times was one ofthe indigenous crafts of Bengal can be seen in Plate XLV, the Jâmi’ Masjid of Akhi Serâj-ud-Dîn, one of the latest buildings at Gaur, and one of the most complete, for the minarets remain intact and the domes retain their Hindu finials. It will be useful to compare this building with Alif Khan’s Masjid at Dholkâ (Plate XXVII).

Though the motifs of the decoration in Muhammadan buildings at Gaur are, as I have shown, all of Buddhist-Hindu origin and similar to the indigenous terra-cotta work of Bengal, it has a distinction of its own for which due credit must be given to the exquisite taste of the Arabian and Persian calhgraphists, who must have directed some at least of the decoration of the early Muhammadan buildings at Gaur. But the fact that Indian craftsmen widened the basis of their art tradition by adding to it the culture of Persia and Arabia proves the greatness of their artistic capacity, but does not reduce Indo-Muhammadan art to a provincial form of Saracenic.

In 1537 Gaur was sacked by the Afghan ruler of Bihâr, Shêr Khan, and in 1576 became part of the empire of the Moguls. About the same time a great plague ravaged the city, so that it was gradually deserted, and its splendid buildings were buried in the jungle. Gaur is important in the history of Indian architecture not so much for the monuments it bequeathed to posterity as for its influence on the living tradition of Indian architecture. It was one of the great brick-building centres of Northern India which carried on the traditions of the Buddhist builders, both under Indian and Musulmân rulers. Such a great local school of craftsmanship would be the natural centre for supplying the demands of other city builders. A country so rich in architectural resources as India was in medieval times had no need to import foreign builders, neither is there any historical evidence that she ever did so to the same extent as Italy imported from Byzantium, England from France, or the Saracens in Egypt from all sides.

When Gaur was absorbed into Akbar’s empire, its craftsmen were dispersed and many, no doubt, migrated to the Mogul capitals, where, in conjunction with the builders of Gujerat, Rajputana, and other Indian craft centres, they assisted in forming the new Indian style adapted to the habits and tastes of their Mogul masters—a style with which certain structural and decorative elements from Persia and Arabia were combined, but yet remained essentially Indian. The argument that there is a common craft tradition, embodying a creative impulse which is wholly Indian, underlying not only Buddhist, Jain, and Hindu architecture, but also the thirteen styles of Muhammadan building classified by Fergusson as “Indo-Saracenic,” each having a marked individuality of its own, may seem absurd to those who regard architectural history merely as a classification of “styles” according to a scheme in which the superiority of West to East is the starting-point. It may be less incomprehensible when it is considered that though India contains a congeries of diverse races speaking several hundred distinct dialects, the whole of its literature and folklore belong to a synthesis of thought which can only be described as Indian. The contribution of Islâm to this synthesis made no exception to the rule; it was a contribution which gave a new impulse to Indian creative imagination without changing the spirit of it or imposing upon it another craft tradition.

The effect of Islâm upon Indian craftsmanship was this: it detached a great number of craftsmen from the service of orthodox Hinduism, and thus set them free from the strict observance of the religious artistic canons—the Silpa-sâstras—which under the domination of a priestly literary caste had become too meticulous and inelastic, invaluable though they were as embodying the practice of a great craft tradition. Islâm preserved the principles of this great tradition for its own purposes, and, except for the restriction regarding anthropomorphic symbolism, allowed free play to Indian creative imagination in the many different centres of Muhammadan rule in India. Each group of city builders made use of the local craft tradition for developing its architectural ideas, creating a true Indian Renaissance on this foundation. There was at the same time an interchange of ideas between the different local centres, and, as in all great art movements in all countries, an inflow of ideas from outside which compensated to some extent for the narrow restriction which the law of Islâm placed upon the sculptor’s art. Thus the first three and a half centuries of Muhammadan domination, subject to this important limitation, became a period of wonderful creative activity in Indian art and architecture, but the impulse was always from within.

Though, as I have said, there was an interchange of ideas between these different local centres, we must not expect to find the manifestation of it in the direct imitation of “style” which, most disastrously for art and craft, belongs to modern architectural practice in Europe. Such imitation did not exist in Europe until the sixteenth century, when the dilettante architect began to usurp the functions of the master-builder, and never existed in India before the days of the Public Works “expert.” We shall not be able to find in the buildings of the Moguls any attempt to reproduce those of Gaur or of Gujerat, but we shall see the survival of the Gaur craft tradition in the bent roof of the Golden Pavilion in Shah Jahân’s palace at Delhi (Pl. CI) and in the planning of the mausoleum of the Tâj Mahall, which reproduces the panch-ratna grouping of the domes of a contemporary Bengali temple (Pl. XLI). The craftsmanship of brick-built mosques and tombs in India owed far more to Bengal than to Persia.

  • 1. P. 622.
  • 2. “History of Bengali Language and Literature,” pp. 796-7.
  • 3. “History of Bengali Language and Literature,” pp. 793-4.
  • 4. For interesting notes on the use of wrought-iron girders in Orissan temples, see “Orissa and her Remains: Ancient and Mediæval,” by Manumohan Ganguly, B.E., M.R.A.S. (Thacker & Co.).
  • 5. The temple here illustrated is actually a century later in date than the mosque at Gaur, but there is no doubt that it represents a very much older type. It belongs to the old Buddhist panch-ratna type of temple, like the Javanese shrine of Chandi Sewa of the eleventh century (Plate V), which was the prototype of the Tâj Mahall.
  • 6. “History of Indian Architecture,” vol. ii. pp. 159-60.