ALL who have seen the great masterpiece of Indian architecture, the Taj at Agra, or know it by illustration and description, are familiar with the legends which ascribe its conception to the genius of some obscure Italian architect, and its exquisite inlaid decoration to Austin de Bordeaux, a French adventurer, who was employed for some years at the Court of Shah Jahan. The readiness with which the tradition has been accepted as history by European writers is comprehensible, for every European who gazes at the ethereal beauty of the Taj must feel some pride if he can bring himself to believe that the crowning glory of one of the most brilliant epochs of Indian art owed its inspiration to Western minds. Nevertheless, it must be confessed that the credence generally given to this vague romance does more credit to our imagination than to our historical sense, or artistic judgment. Indian art is still very little understood by Europeans. We feel and admire the decorative element in it, but deny to it higher imaginative qualities. The Indian art which we know and understand best is the least important part of it. It only comprises those accessories of Indian domestic life which, however beautiful they may sometimes be, lose all their artistic significance when detached from the surroundings for which they are intended, and invariably suffer artistically from the interest we take in them. We have been unable to follow the trend of Indian artistic thought beyond this decorative constituent quality, because from this point it becomes much more abstract and abstruse than our own. And no one will ever get further in his understanding and appreciation of Indian art without forsaking that stolid attitude of ignorant condescension with which the ordinary European, and more especially the Anglo-Saxon, treats everything Oriental which he does not understand. If, throwing aside pre-conceived notions and insular prejudices, we approach Indian art with the same spirit as animated the European pioneers of Sanskrit research, we shall like them find ourselves revelling in new fields of wonder and beauty, the fairyland of Eastern romance and poetry. We should then see how ridiculous we, and the educated Indians who follow our example, make ourselves by importing European pictures and sculpture in the belief that we are thereby throwing a flood of Western light upon the darkness of the East. The spirituality of Indian art permeates the whole of it, but it shines brightest at the point where we cease to see and understand it.
Everything connected with the history of the Taj is important to the student of Indian art, for the Taj is the consummation of a great artistic development, the traditions of which remain alive even at the present day. The truth or otherwise of the legends I have referred to is of cardinal importance, for if it be accepted that an Italian or French artist designed the masterpiece of the Mogul epoch, there would be much force in the theory that the Indian requires the aid of a higher Western intelligence to perfect his artistic ideas. Let us then consider carefully the historical and artistic grounds on which those traditions rest. The circumstances which led to the building of the Taj are well known and need not be given in detail. The death in childbed of Mumtaz Mahal—‘the Crown of the Palace’—Shah Jahan’s favourite wife in A. D. 1629; the distracted grief of the Emperor and his resolve to build her a monument which should be one of the wonders of the world. He sent for all the best architects of his Empire, in consultation with whom he inspected and rejected many hundreds of designs. At last one design was accepted, a model of it was made in wood, and from this model the Taj was built.
So far all accounts agree. But as to the name of the architect selected we have, on the one hand, the unanimous statements of contemporary Indian writers, and on the other, a story related by a Spanish priest, Father Manrique, who visited Agra ten years after the Taj was begun. The former agree that the design was made by Ustad Isa, a celebrated architect who, according to one account (preserved in the Imperial Library, Calcutta), came from Shiraz, and according to others, from Rum, which may mean either Constantinople or some part of Asiatic Turkey. The style of the Taj points to the probability that his native place was Shiraz, though it is quite possible that he may have been employed by the Sultan of Turkey at Constantinople. Father Manrique in his description of the Taj, then under construction, relates the following story, told to him by Father Da Castro of Lahore, who was the executor of of the will the obscure Italian who thus claimed to have designed the Taj:
The architect was a Venetian, named Geronimo Verroneo, who came to India with the ships of the Portuguese, and who died at Lahore a little before my arrival. Of him a report was current that the Padsha, having sent for him and made known to him the desire he felt to build there (at Agra) a sumptuous and grandiose monument to his defunct consort, the architect Verroneo obeyed, and in a few days produced various models of very fine architecture, showing all the skill of his art; also that, having contented his Majesty in this, he dissatisfied him—according to his barbarous and arrogant pride—by the modesty of his estimates; further ‘that, growing angry, he ordered him to spend three krors, and to let him know when they were spent.
Now in estimating the comparative historical value of these two versions it must be allowed that the absence of any mention of Verroneo in the contemporary Indian accounts does not necessarily discredit his story, for it is well known that Muhammedan writers often omitted from their works any facts which might bring honour to their religious opponents. On the other hand, Verroneo’s story contains so many of the wildest improbabilities that it is extraordinary that Anglo-Indian writers should have accepted it with so little hesitation. In the first place, it is necessary to consider that in the type of adventurers ‘who came with the ships of the Portuguese’ to India in the seventeenth century and entered the service of the Great Mogul, one would not expect to find the transcendent artistic genius such as the designer of the Taj possessed. Bernier, the French physician, who resided several years at the Mogul Court during the reign of Aurangzebe, incidentally throws a side-light on their character in his description of the famous Peacock Throne, a part of which was designed by a Frenchman (supposed to be Austin de Bordeaux) who, ‘having circumvented many Princes of Europe with his false gems, which he knew to make admirably well, fled to the Mogul Court where he made his fortune.’ Verroneo seems to have been less successful in the latter respect, but he certainly contrived to emulate Austin in making for himself a fictitious fame, which has lasted to the present day. At the time when the Taj was built the position of the Franks, as Europeans were called, was by no means what it was in the days of Akbar and Jahangir, the two preceding Emperors. They were mostly employed in the artillery or in the arsenals, and Bernier tells us that in his time they were admitted with difficulty into the service; and that, whereas formerly, when the Moguls were little skilled in the management of artillery they received as much as two hundred rupees a month and upwards,, their pay was now limited to thirty-two rupees. The Jesuits, who had enjoyed great favour under his father and grandfather, were bitterly persecuted by Shah Jahan. He deprived them of their pension, destroyed the Church at Lahore and the greater part of that of Agra, demolishing a steeple which contained a clock heard in every part of the City. Only a short time before her death Mumtaz Mahal, who was a relentless enemy of the Christians, had instigated Shah Jahan to attack the Portuguese settlement at Hooghly. After a desperate resistance the Portuguese were overwhelmed. Two thousand, including women and children, took refuge on a warship and perished with the crew, as the Captain blew up the vessel rather than surrender. Five hundred prisoners, among them some Jesuit priests, were sent to Agra. With threats of torture the Empress endeavoured to persuade the priests to renounce their religion. On their refusal they were thrown into prison, but after some months they were released and deported to the main Portuguese settlement at Goa. Their books, pictures, and images were destroyed by orders of Mumtaz Mahal. Her hatred for the Christians is perpetuated on her tomb in the mausoleum itself, which bears the significant inscription, ‘Defend us from the tribe of unbelievers!’ From Bernier we learn that no Christian was allowed inside the mausoleum, lest its sanctity be profaned.
In the face of these facts it would require the very strongest corroboration of Verroneo’s story to make it credible that Shah Jahan, whose lifelong devotion to his wife was the strongest trait in his character, had chosen one of these hated unbelievers to be the chief designer of her monument. As a matter of fact Father Manrique’s account is entirely uncorroborated by any other contemporary European writer. Neither Tavernier, who saw the commencement and completion of the Taj, nor Bernier, make any mention of Verroneo, or suggest that the building was in any way the work of a European. Bernier, in his description of it, expressly implies that he looked upon the Taj as a purely Indian conception, fur he naively confesses that though he thought ‘that the extraordinary fabric could not be sufficiently admired,’ he would not have ventured to express his opinion if it had not been shared in by his companion (Tavernier), for he feared that his taste might have been corrupted by his long residence in the Indies, and it was quite a relief to his mind to hear Tavernier say that he had seen nothing in Europe so bold and majestic. Thevenot, who saw the Taj in 1666, affirms that this superb monument is sufficient to show that the Indians are not ignorant of architecture; and though the style may appear curious to Europeans, it is in good taste, and though it is different from Greek or other ancient art, one can only say that it is very fine. The absence of any reference to Veerroneo in the accounts of these three minute and impartial chroniclers of the Mogul times is very strong evidence that his story was partly or wholly a fabrication; otherwise it is impossible to believe that they would not have known and mentioned the fact that the chief architect was a European. Verroneo’s finishing touch regarding the spending of ‘three krors’ is in itself suspicious. If he really had been in such a position his fame would have been known far and wide among his fellow-Europeans, for it was only the highest nobles of the Court who were entrusted with the expenditure on the construction of the principal Mogul buildings. The Badshah Nama mentions the names of the two nobles who actually superintended the building of the Taj—Makramat Khan and Mir Abdul Karim.
Father Manrique and the three writers I have mentioned are the only Europeans who have recorded contemporary knowledge of important facts connected with the Taj. It is unnecessary to refer to later accounts, borrowed more or less from them. While history affords practically no evidence in support of Verroneo’s claim to immortal distinction, the Taj itself is the most convincing proof of the impudence of the assumption. The plan follows closely that of Humayun’s Tomb, built by Akbar nearly a century earlier. Neither in general conception nor in the smallest detail does it suggest the style of the Italian Renaissance, which a Venetian architect of the seventeenth century would certainly have followed. If Verroneo’s design had been executed we should doubtless have had some kind of Orientalised version of the Church of Santa Maria della Salute at Venice, instead of the Taj. It is inconceivable that Shah Jahan, a man of cultivated artistic taste, surrounded as he was by all the most accomplished architects of the East, would have engaged a European to design a building in a purely Eastern style.
The Indian records relating to the Taj are unusually precise and detailed in the information they give with regard to the architects and workmen. The artistic history of the period, and the style and workmanship of the Taj, all testify in a remarkable way to their accuracy and the improbability of the theory that Europeans directed the design of the building. The places given in the Calcutta Imperial Library manuscript as the native towns of the principal architects and decorators namely,—Shiraz, Baghdad, and Samarkand—indicate precisely that part of Asia which was the cradle of the art represented by the Taj. The mention of Samarkand is especially interesting, for it is known that Tamerlane, after his invasion of India in A. D. 1398, carried off all the masons who had built the famous Mosque at Ferozabad (since destroyed), in order that they might build another like it at Samarkand. Most probably they were the descendants of those masons who came back to India to build the Taj.
Before dismissing Verroneo’s story, it will be interesting to analyse it in order to separate the truth which may be in it from the falsehood. It is highly probable that Verroneo was one of the many architects who submitted designs for the Taj. His were doubtless in the style of the Renaissance, which was then the architectural style of Italy. Shah Jahan examined them with curiosity and expressed some qualified praise, which Verroneo mistook for approval. The anger of the Padsha on hearing of the estimates and his order ‘to Spend three krors’ clearly point to the indirect Oriental method of rejecting a proposal, and it is quite certain that Verroneo heard nothing more of his commission from Shah Jahan. He returned to Lahore and poured the garbled account of his doings into the too credulous ears of Father Da Castro, who retailed it as history to his fellow-priest.
Father Manrique is also responsible for the statement that Augustin, or Austin de Bordeaux, was employed in the ‘internal decorations’ of the Taj. Hitherto every European writer has taken this to mean that Austin superintended the magnificent inlaid work technically known as pietra dura, which is the most striking feature in the decoration of the building, external and internal. There is a good deal of plausibility in the theory, though most authorities have been puzzled by the manifest inconsistencies which tell against it. At the back of the Throne Chamber in the Diwan-i-am at Delhi there is a large piece of very realistic pietra dura work, undoubtedly Florentine in style. But, except for the silly chapter of native guides, who used to point out the panel of Orpheus as the portrait of Austin himself, there is not a vestige of historical evidence to connect him with it. Fergusson has shown that this panel (lately brought back from South Kensington and restored to its place by Lord Curzon) is a traditional Italian rendering of the classical story which can be traced back as far as to the catacombs at Home. Sir George Birdwood, however, in his Industrial Arts of India, accepts the theory that Austin was responsible for the Taj decorations, as well as for the pietra dura work at Delhi, though in a later article in the Journal of Indian Art he says that “it is quite impossible that the men who devised such artistic monstrosities (the Delhi panels) could have been the same as those whose hands traced in variegated pietra dura the exquisite arabesques of the Taj.
Whoever the designer may have been, it is certain that the Delhi pietra dura was directed by some fourth-rate European artist. They are just as ill-adapted and out of harmony with the place they occupy, as the Taj decorations are marvellously contrived to beautify it. It is impossible to explain away the inconsistency of attributing the authorship of the magnificent Taj decorations, which are, as Sir George Birdwood says, ‘strictly Indian of the Mogul period,’ and the commonplace Florentine work at Delhi to one and the same person. This statement of Father Manrique can be explained in another and much more satisfactory way. We know from Tavernier that Austin was a silversmith, for he mentions that Shah Jahan had intended to employ him in covering with silver the vault of a great gallery in the palace at Agra. The French jeweller mentioned by Bernier in connection with the Peacock Throne is generally supposed to be Austin. Now the Taj originally possessed two silver doors, said to have cost 127,000 rupees, which were taken away and melted down when the Jâts sacked Agra. Before the existing marble screen was erected, the sarcophagus of the Empress was surrounded by a fence of solid gold, studded with gems. Surely the obvious and most satisfactory explanation of Austin’s connection with the ‘internal decorations’ of the Taj is that he was occupied with gold and silver work? Such work would be part of the internal decoration, and yet it would have been executed outside, so that the sanctity of the tomb would not have been profaned by an unbeliever. Why should we make a French jeweller, goldsmith, and silversmith responsible for Italian and Indian pietra dura work, when there were both jewellers’ work and gold and silver work on which he might have been employed?
In my opinion the Delhi pietra dura has been wrongly attributed to Shah Jahan’s reign. It has all the appearance of eighteenth century work, and, as far as I am aware, there is no evidence worth considering to show that it existed previous to the reign of Aurangzebe. It could not have been executed in the latter reign, because the naturalistic representations of birds and animals was a violation of Musalman law, and would not have been permitted by that bigoted monarch. If the date ascribed to it is correct, it is more than astonishing that Aurangzebe, who mutilated all such representations at Fatehpur Sikri, should have spared them at the back of his own throne in the Delhi palace, for an old drawing, still in existence, shows that most of the inlay was in a good state of preservation down to 1837. It would certainly coincide with all the probabilities of the case to attribute it to one of the later Mogul Emperors, or the early part of the eighteenth century.
If we dismiss from our minds all these obscure and inconsistent legends about Austin de Bordeaux, it will be quite easy to see that the inlaid work of the Taj was the natural consummation of a great artistic movement purely Oriental in character, initiated by Akbar, the progression of which can be traced in existing Mogul buildings. Arabian workmen first introduced mosaic work into India. The kind of mosaic generally practised by the Arabs was tesselated work, technically known as Alexandrinum opus, which consisted of thin pieces of marble, coloured stones, glass, or enamelled tiles cut into geometric patterns, and closely fitted so as to cover the surface of a wall or floor. The technical difference between this and pietra dura, or true mosaic, is the difference between overlay and inlay. The Arab buildings were generally of brick, and the original intention of the mosaic was to give a surface of more precious material to a building of brick or common stone. The preference of the Arabs for geometric patterns is explained by two reasons: First, the Arabs belonged to the Sunni, or orthodox sect of Musalmans, observing the strict letter of the law which forbade the representation of ‘the likeness of anything which is in heaven above, or in the earth beneath.’ Secondly, the geometric design lent itself admirably to the character of the materials employed, and to the speedy and effective covering of a surface by this process. Now when the Arabs, or those who had learnt from them, began to work on buildings constructed chiefly of marble or fine stone, the inlaid work would naturally take the place of the other, because it would be superfluous and inartistic to decorate marble or stone with an overlay of the same material. Again, when the Arabian art of the orthodox Sunni school came into close connection with the unorthodox Shia, or naturalistic school of Persia, we should certainly expect to find representations of natural forms taking the place of geometric patterns. These are exactly the conditions which prevailed in India in the century which preceded the building of the Taj. Even long before that time, in the oldest Saracenic mausoleum in India, the tomb of Altamsh, which belongs to the thirteenth century, the red sandstone of the walls is inlaid with geometric tiles of white marble. In the buildings of Fatehpur Sikri (date about 1571 A. D.) we find frequent examples of overlay and not a few of inlay. A little later, in the gateway of Akbar’s tomb at Sikandra, inlaid work is extensively used, though as yet still confined to geometric patterns. But twenty years afterwards, in the tomb of the Persian adventurer, Itmad-ud-daulah, the grandfather of Mumtaz Mahal, at Agra, the style is so far technically perfected that the inlaid work not only includes elaborate scrolls of conventional Arabian design, but the familiar motifs of Persian painted decoration, such as rosewater vessels, the cypress, the tree of life, and various other flower forms. The date of this building is about A. D 1622.
The similar progression from geometric to naturalistic forms may be traced in Italian mosaic. But the synchronous development of two similar schools in Italy and in India is nothing more than one of those coincidences which often lead historians to wrong conclusions. The later Italian inlayers imitated the work of Italian fresco and oil painters. The Indian inlayers likewise imitated the work of the Persian artists who founded the Indian school of painting of the Mogul period. The step from the Itmad-ud-daulah to the Taj is simply the change from a conventional school of Persian painting to a more developed and more realistic one. This is only what we might expect if we remember Shah Jahan’s resolve that the Taj should surpass every other building in the world. That there was a strong naturalistic tendency in the Indian painting of the Mogul period is known to all who have studied this interesting phase of Mogul art. It is very clearly shown in a series of exquisite miniature paintings of Jahangir’s time, now in the Government Art Gallery, Calcutta, which I fortunately rescued from the unappreciative hands of a Muhammedan bookseller a few years ago. They include portraits of the nobles of Jahangirs Court and some studies of Indian birds, drawn and painted with a fidelity and delicacy which would do credit to a Japanese master. On one of them, pealed and signed by Jahangir himself, there is a note, written by the Emperor, to the effect that it was painted by Ustad Mansur, ‘the most celebrated painter of this time,’ in the nineteenth year of his reign (A. D. 1624, six years before the Taj was begun). The borders of three of these paintings are ornamented with floral designs which, making allowance for the different technical treatment required by a different material, are of the exact type of the Taj decorations. No one who studies these remarkable paintings and compares them with the floral decoration of the Taj would hesitate to say that it was the work of this Persian school, and not any European model, that the Indian mosaic workers were imitating. It might possibly have been these same paintings, prized so much by his father, that Shah Jahan gave as patterns to the workmen.
No doubt it is true that here and there in Mogul art one meets with a detail which suggests European influence. It was a time of great artistic activity, and in such times any living art which comes into contact with another exchanges ideas with it. But the European element in the Mogul style is far less strongly marked than is the Oriental in Italian art. During the whole period of Italy’s close commercial intercourse with the East, her art and industries were very strongly impressed with Oriental ideas. It would be easy to find in Italian art a dozen instances just as striking as the similarity (which is a similarity of technique and not of style) between the pietra dura of Florence and that of the Taj. No one suggests, on that account, that Indian artists came to Italy to instruct the Italians.
It is probable that long before the building of Itmad-ud-daulah’s tomb the art of inlaying had been learnt by Hindu workmen and become absorbed into Indian art through that wonderful power of assimilation which Hinduism has always shown. Some Indian records of the Taj mention the name of one Mannu Beg, from Rum, as the principal mosaic worker; but, in the list of the principal workmen given by the Imperial Library manuscript, five mosaic workers from Kanauj, all with Hindu names, are entered. That they were artists of great reputation may be gathered from the fact that their salaries ranged from 200 rupees to 800 rupees a month. The best Agra mosaic workers of the present day are also Hindus, and in many parts of northern India the artistic traditions of the Moguls are still kept alive by Hindu workmen.
The Mogul style is a symphony of artistic ideas formed into an interchanging harmony by the fusion of Hindu thought with the art of the two rival sects of Muhammedanism, the Sunni and the Shia. Ruskin’s criticism of Mogul architecture as an ‘evanescent style’ is a very superficial one. The great development of Mogul art represented by the Taj died out because during Aurangzebe’s long reign the bigotry of the Sunni sect was in the ascendant, and the Shia and Hindu artists were banished from the Mogul Court. But before Aurangzebe’s accession the traditions of Mogul architecture were firmly established in the more distant parts of his dominions, and there they survive to this day, absorbed into the great synthesis of Indian art, and only prevented from continuing their natural evolution through the fatal want of artistic understanding which has made the dead styles of Europe the official architecture of India.
The Taj has been the subject of numberless critical essays, but many of them have missed the mark entirely, because the writers have not been sufficiently conversant with the spirit of Eastern artistic thought. All comparisons with the Parthenon or other classic buildings are useless. One cannot compare Homer with the Mahâbhârata, or Kalidâs with Euripides. The Parthenon was a temple for Pallas Athene, an exquisite casket to contain the jewel. The Taj is the jewel—the ideal itself. Indian architecture is in much closer affinity to the great conceptions of the Gothic builders than it is to anything of classic or Renaissance construction. The Gothic Cathedral, with its sculptured arches and its spires pointing heavenwards, is a symbol, as most Eastern buildings are symbols. But the Taj stands alone among Eastern buildings: for it represents in art the same effort towards individualism, the struggle against the restraints of ritualism and dogma which Akbar initiated in religion.
Every one who has seen the Taj must have felt that there is something in it, difficult to define or analyse, which differentiates it from all other buildings in the world. Sir Edwin Arnold has struck the true note of criticism in the following lines:
Not architecture! as all others are,
But the proud passion of an Emperor’s love
Wrought into living stone, which gleams and soars
With body of beauty shrining soul and thought;
.... as when some face
Divinely fair unveils before our eyes—
Some woman beautiful unspeakably—
And the blood quickens, and the spirit leaps,
And will to worship bends the half-yielded knees,
While breath forgets to breathe. So is the Taj.
This is not a mere flight of poetic fancy, bat a deep and true interpretation of the meaning of the Taj. What were the thoughts of the designers, and of Shah Jahan himself, when they resolved to raise a monument of eternal love to the Crown of the Palace—Taj Mahal? Surely not only of a mausoleum—a sepulchre fashioned after ordinary architectural canons, but of an architectonic ideal, symbolical of her womanly grace and beauty. Those critics who have objected to the effeminacy of the architecture unconsciously pay the highest tribute to the genius of the builders. The Taj was meant to be feminine. The whole conception, and every line and detail of it, express the intention of the designers. It is Mumtaz Mahal herself, radiant in her youthful beauty, who still lingers on the banks of the shining Jumna, at early morn, in the glowing mid-day sun, or in the silver moonlight! Or rather, we should say it conveys a more abstract thought, it is India’s noble tribute to the grace of Indian womanhood—the Venus de Milo of the East.
To the art student nothing can be more fascinating than the endeavour to analyse the artistic thoughts of different countries and different races. But England as a nation has a concern in trying to understand Indian ideals. For it is neither by railways and canals, sanitation and police, coal-mines and gold-mines, factories and mills, nor by English text-books, and the real or imaginary fusion of Western and Eastern culture, that we shall build for ourselves a permanent Indian Empire. Nor should we flatter ourselves that British justice is creating in India a lasting sense of gratitude for British rule. The very uprightness of our rule is slowly but surely creating an Indian question which; though it seems smaller than a man’s hand to-day, may fill the Eastern horizon to-morrow. When India has grown out of its political infancy it will yearn for something more than just laws and regulations. India is governed by ideas, not by principles or by statutes. Concrete justice, as represented by the complicated machinery of the British law, is to the Indian a gamble in which the longest purses and most successful liars win. Abstract justice, as it was personified in the Great Queen, the mother of her people,, touches India to the quick. That one idea has done more for Indian loyalty than all the text-books of the Universities or Acts of the Governor-General in Council. It was only an idea that roused India in 1857, and before an idea which touched the profounder depths of Indian sentiment all the Western culture in which we believe might be swept away as dust before a cyclone and leave not a trace behind.—Nineteenth Century and After, June, 1903.