The medieval period in India witnessed certain significant developments in the field of art and architecture. As mentioned in the previous article, our discussion on the architecture of this period will be divided into two sections; whereby while in the first article we focussed on the architectural developments of the Sultanate period, this one will be concentrating on those that took place during the reigns of the Mughal and Sur rulers. The Mughal period was marked by a cultural outburst noticeable in different spheres, architecture being no exception. On the one hand, the Mughals brought with them the rich Turko-Mongol cultural traditions; on the other, they absorbed the ones existing in the country that had developed during the reign of the Delhi Sultans and also the various provincial kingdoms that grew up during the 14th and 15th centuries. This process of mingling ultimately culminated in the emergence of a culture that constituted of the contributions of people having diverse ethnic, regional, and religious affiliations. Various magnificent structures such as forts, palaces, gates, public buildings including sarais, hamams, mosques, baolis, i.e., water tanks or wells, and others were built by the Mughals. Furthermore, they also laid out many formal gardens having running water, a typical feature of not just these gardens but also the various palaces and pleasure resorts. Unfortunately, only very few among the Mughal gardens have survived. These include the Nishat Bagh in Kashmir, the Shalimar Garden at Lahore, the Pinjore garden located in the foot-hills near Kalka, and lastly, the Arambagh, which is now known as Ram Bagh, near Agra.
However, Babur did not find enough time to build many structures in India but nevertheless had a fine aesthetic taste. However, most of what he built has not survived. Babur was of the opinion that the most important aspect of architecture is regularity and symmetry, which he felt was absent in the buildings existing in India. Historians are of the opinion that this dissatisfaction of Babur was possibly directed at the Lodi buildings, which he saw at Lahore, Delhi, and Agra. The mosques at Ayodhya and Sambhal, albeit attributed to him but these nevertheless being primarily adaptations of earlier buildings, fail to give us an idea of Babur’s own architectural concepts. Babur is also known to have been very fond of gardens and laid out a few in the neighbourhood of Agra and Lahore.
The reign of Sher Shah, too, witnessed a lot of building activity whereby many structures were built at Sasaram and Delhi. In the case of the former, we can see a series of mausoleums that were modelled on the octagonal Lodi tombs at Delhi. Special mention may be made of the mausoleum of Sher Shah, which is undoubtedly the most outstanding amongst the various tombs at Sasaram, built in the centre of a large pond. This octagonal building is based on a high square platform that is again linked to the main building by means of graceful kiosks at the corners. Another important feature of this building is its terraced effect which can be attributed to the arched verandah around the building and the massive dome that rises in stages. The massive dome is again covered by a lotus finiale. It must be noted here that, indeed, many features of this mausoleum were carried forward with certain modifications to the Taj Mahal. However, contrarily to the latter’s light and airy appearance, the former gives an impression of strength and solidity that are not only considered by many as important features in architecture but, even more importantly, echoes Sher Shah’s character. Among the various other structures built during his reign, mention may be made of the ‘Purana Qila’ or ‘Old Fort’, which might have also been a part of Humayun’s Jahanpanah. This is a massive structure with walls made of grey stone and also has an impressive gateway made of red sandstone with white marble inlay and occasionally inset with blue gaze. Unfortunately, none of the palaces and public buildings built by Sher Shah have survived, the only exception being the royal chapel called the Qila-i-Kuhna mosque located inside the fort. The most notable feature of this mosque is its pleasing treatment of the façade consisting of five arched entrances of graceful proportions and each of them being set within a rectangular frame. The decorations are simple, consisting of white marble inlay and inset patterns of coloured gaze. There is a mosque-cum madrasa called Khair-ul-Majalis located outside the fort, which was built by Maham Anga in 1561.
The reign of Akbar undoubtedly constitutes one of the most glorious phases of Mughal architecture. Akbar, who had both the means and the strong desire to undertake construction on a large scale, not only supervised such constructions but at times even engaged in the work himself. His prime concern was to bring together the fine architectural traditions existing within the country. Indeed, during his reign, we can notice two architectural traditions working parallelly, namely the Persian tradition with which Humayun became familiar during his stay at the court of Shah Tahmasp and the existing traditions of the country. The synthesis of these traditions is clearly echoed in the mausoleum of Humayun, a square building made of red sandstone and topped by a white marble dome of graceful contours that was started by his widow Haji Begum perhaps in 1564 and completed in eight years’ time. Some historians are of the opinion that it represents an Indian interpretation of the Persian conception. While the Persian influence is noticeable in the double dome and the arrangement of the rooms, whereby instead of one enclosure, there were separate rooms in the corridors linked by passages; the Indian features include the entire building being placed in a formal garden with a large gate, the slender minarets that supported the dome being borrowed from Gujarati style of architecture, and graceful kiosks noticeable in Rajasthani tradition.
The fort at Agra, that was started in 1565 and completed in eight years’ time is undoubtedly one of the most notable structures built during the reign of Akbar. According to Abul Fazl, there were five hundred edifices of red stone within the fort that were in the fine style of Bengal and Gujarat. Although most of these buildings were swept away by Shah Jahan, but the remaining Akbari Mahal and Jahangiri Mahal give us a substantial idea of the architectural style of this period. These palaces had flat roofs and were supported by exquisitely carved pillars. This palace which, according to some historians, was based on the Man Mandir in Gwalior fort, indeed reflects many Rajasthani features such as the heavy red sandstone brackets and balconies that are carved with peacock and serpent motifs. As far as decorations are concerned, the walls and staircase have geese, flamingos, lotus carvings and also other mythical animals like winged dragons and half elephants.
Another very important construction of this period was the building at Sikri, that was later named Fatehpur following the victory at Gujarat. Its construction was initiated in 1568-69 when the Kachhawaha princess was expecting Salim. The entire complex is situated on the top of a hill by the side of an artificial lake, and the city was circled by a wall built on the plains below where most of the buildings have disappeared. The palace complex has a gate with three arches at the entrance called the Naubat Khana, while the royal karkhanas and mint are located on the right, and lastly, the vast courtyard that formed the diwan-i-am, behind which again is located what came to be known as the diwan-i-khas. The latter, however, according to some scholars, was basically a part of the whole complex of buildings consisting of the treasury for copper, silver, and gold coins. Behind the diwan-i-am, one can find a double storeyed building called the Daulat Khana or royal palace. The rooms at the lower level constituted the diwan-i-khas or private consultation room. On the first floor was a room which acted as Akbar’s resting room in the afternoon, or at times books were read to him in this room. In front of this is located the Anup Talao, which along with the lower rooms in the palace, functioned as the venue for the philosophical debates or musical parties which were sometimes held by Akbar. The buildings at Sikri can be divided into two groups, namely secular and religious. The former are mostly of trabeate character. Among the various secular buildings, mention may be made of one of the palaces within the haram known as Jodha Bai Palace, which might have housed the Emperor’s Hindu wives. This palace is quite large, having suites of rooms arranged around the courtyard. There is also a chapel or puja room inside. As far as the religious buildings are concerned, mention may be made of the Jama Masjid. This had a large interior courtyard, and within the courtyard, there was the tomb of Shaikh Salim Chisti with an exclusively carved stone screen and also a marble verandah outside it that was later added by Shah Jahan. Apart from this, the main sanctuary had arched entrances and domes with pillared kiosks all along the parapet. Another important structure within the Sikri complex is the massive gateway called the Buland Darwaza that was started by Akbar in 1573 to commemorate his victory at Gujarat. Its designed in the style of a half-dome portal, a feature which though borrowed from Iran but later emerged as one of the most distinct features of Mughal architecture.
The consolidation of the empire was paralleled by the developments in Mughal architecture, which reached its climax. The later part of Jahangir’s reign witnessed the initiation of the practice of constructing buildings entirely of marble and decorating the walls with floral designs made of semi-precious stones. This technique of decoration that is popularly known as pietra dura is noticeable in the tomb of Itimad-ud-Daula, that was built during Jahangir’s reign. This building is rectangular in shape and has octagonal towers at the corners with graceful cupolas.
Shah Jahan’s reign witnessed the construction of some of the most important structures that are usually associated with the Mughal period. Among these one of the most important is undoubtedly, the Taj Mahal, which has been concluded by some scholars to be the jewel of the builder’s art. It was designed by an Italian named Geronimo Veroneo. Other architects included Ustad Isa Effendi and Ustad Ahmad from Lahore. However, mostly scholars are of the opinion that the Taj Mahal cannot be assigned to any single designer. The Taj Mahal clearly reflects the synthesis of all the architectural forms adopted by the Mughals earlier, which they made their own. These include the placement of the mausoleum in a formal garden with streams of water and fountains, erection of the main building on a lofty platform to impart solidity to the building, and the beautiful sky-line to the dome. One of the most beautiful aspects of the Taj Mahal is undoubtedly the massive dome and the four slender minarets linking the platform to the main building. The decorations are minimal, and the delicate marble screens, pietra dura inlay work, and kiosks contributed to the effect. Important developments also took place in the field of mosque architecture during this period. Mention may be made of the Moti Masjid in Agra Fort, that was made entirely of marble, and the Jama Masjid at Delhi, which was made of red sandstone. Lofty gate, tall, slender minarets, and a series of domes are some of the other important features of the latter. Another very important structure of this period is the Red Fort at Delhi. The most impressive part of this fort is undoubtedly the flat roofed diwan-i-am.
Aurangzeb, though not much of a great builder, yet the Mughal architectural traditions, which were essentially a melange of Hindu and Turko-Iranian forms and decorative designs, continued without a break well into the 18th and 19th centuries. The Mughal traditions indeed even had a major impact on the palaces and forts of the many provincial and local kingdoms.
- Chandra, Satish. Medieval India: From Sultanate to Mughals, Part Two- Mughal Empire (1526-1748). Delhi. Har-Anand Publications Pvt Ltd, 2012.
- Singhania, Nitin. Indian Art and Culture. Chennai. McGraw Hill Education (India) Private Limited, 2020.