Akhilesh Mithal

Indian Architecture
(Upto the Colonial Period)


Hit Counter


Passion transforms and colors whatever it touches and charges it with its energy. Under the influence of passion, words and notes, neutral in themselves, become iridescent and incandescent and form new magnetic fields which are poems and songs in praise of the Beloved whether human or devine.

In architecture the flood of energy generated by passion transforms hitherto inert building materials such as mud, bamboo, timber, brick or stone into dynamic structures and shapes which explore new juxtapositions of light and shadow, mass and space.

Sthaapatis / meymaars or master architects and builders create new monuments which appear fancy though they serve ordinary, everyday needs of human beings such as a space to pray and worship or a crypt to serve as a final resting place.

The unstated objective would appear to be to make the space resonate -- make it glow with the perfection that comes when objects and structures of great quality are placed in perfectly maatched surroundings. To illustrate te ideal we can take two examples from the Indian heritage.

The first is a 6th centry AD off the Maharashtra coast knowld as Elephanta and the second the Taj Mahal, which is a 17th century mausoleum on the banks of the Yamuna river at Agra.

The temple is dedicated to the worship of Shiva, the Mahadeva (great God; Maha = great, Deva = God). Situated on an eminence, the temple is approached by a huge flight of steep stairs which wind around the hill. The top has been levelled and the temple carved out of living rock. Once on level land the visitor / devotee walks up to the steps leading to the sanctum through the courtyard and the porch.

As the last step brings the devotee on the level floor of the entrance, the great icon can be seen filling the other end of the cavity. The space is 130 x 130 x 15 feet. The icon is a massive head of the Lord with three faces, each with a distinct and different expression. In terms of the Indian asthetic, each of the three faces holds a rasa or stimulus designed to evoke a specific response or bhaava in the beholder. The rasas evoked by the three faces of the icon are terror, awe, and silent communion or contemplation. The devotee / visitor is mesmerized, enchanted and enthralled by the mastery of the sthaapati.

To excavate 130 x 130 x 15 feet of the main sanctum, the builders would have been required to quarry nearly a quarter million (238,000) cubic feet of rock. Additionally there are two subsidiary shrines with their individual courtyards flanking the main sanctum.

The seemlingly effortless and tension-free shrine of Shiva Mahadeva at Elephanta has been achieved by the removal of over half a million cubic feet of rock in the 6th century AD when explosives were unknown to man.

The Taj, on the other hand, is a 17th century white marble mausoleum set in a formal garden with red sandstone walls and lofty gateways using both red sandstone and white marble. It had all its stone quarried in faraway Makrana or Fatehpur Sikri or Dholpur. The precious and semi-precious stones used for the pietra dura inlay came from all over the world. The wood filling the thousand wells which make its foundation in the river bed were ebony, mahagony, and other imaarti (structure building) timber.

Today's visitors to the Taj are unaware that they are entering what was a private building, a place where rested a greatly beloved Empress.

The Muslims believe that on the Day of Judgement, at the sound of a trumpet all the dead shall arise from their graves and present themselves before the Almighty to reveive their dues for the good and evil deeds committed during their lifetimes.

The mausoleum was coneived as a resting place between the end of life and the Day of Judgement. It was a palace for the dead empress, just as the Rang Mahal (palace of colors; Rang = color, Mahal = palace) was for her living days. It was carpeted, curtained and hung with drapes. It had candle stands, chandeliers, incense burners, perfume holders to keep the place well lit, perfumed and alive with scented smoke. The dresses, turbans, ordhnees (shawls), jewels, mirrors and combs of the empress were kept ready at hand so that she could face the ordeal of Judgement in her best raiment and finery.

There were people reciting the Holy Book and attendants distributing charity to the indigent and wayfarers. The gardens were heavy with fruit trees yeilding fruit in every season so that the beggar at the gate could partake of exotica that would delight even the palates of kings and emperors.

The sarcophagus of the Empress was covered with a sheet of kabir or large Basra pearls. They symbolized the grief of the Emperor and all the court. For the Empress was only 38 years old when she died in 1631. She had been married to her husband in 1612 when they were only 19 and 20 years old respectively.

At the time of their wedding, the groom was called Mirza Khurram and he was the third son of the Mughal Emperor Jahangir. The bride was called Arjumand Bano Begum. Her aunt Mehrunnissa had married the Emperor dispite her age (35 years) and the fact of being a widow with a teenage daughter, had captivated the Emperor with her quite intelligence, talent and extraordinary personality. He had coins issued in her name and entrusted the custody of the Imperial Seal to her. He bestowed the title of Nur Jahan (light of the world) upon her.

She built a tomb over the remains of her father and called that building Itmad-ud-Daula after him. It stands in Agra in witness of Noor Jahan's great and glorious good taste.

The years of the happy married life of  Mirza Khurram and Arjumand Bano Begum extending from 1612 to 1631 saw a great vicissitudes of fortune. Khurram became a successful general and succeeded in getting the hitherto unbent Rana of Udaipur to accept the overlordship of the Mughals. This earned him the title Shah Jahan (Emperor of the World) and unprecedented ranks, both zaati (personal) and sowaar (cavalry to be kept ready for command in battle). The fickle fates soon put and end to the happy days. Khurram was relieved of his command estates, and when he protested, he was accorded cavalier treatement which drove him off to half-hearted rebellion. A number of battles occurred and the Prince and his lady were often fugitives facing hardships and desolation in the jungles of Central India and Orissa. Khurram lost battles to lesser generals because his heart was not in the fight.

Finally, a peace was patched up and the three elder sons of Khurram and Arjumand were detained at court as surety for good behavior. Jahangir died in October 1627 and Shah Jahan became Emperor in February 1628. There was a double celebration. Enghronment and reunion with the boys were celebrated together.

Arjumand Bano Begum was given the title of Mumtaz Mahal. She died in 1631 and everyone was struck by the grief and tragedy that the Imperial couple had shared just three years of the pomp, pageantry and luxury of power.

It is recorded that the Shah Jahan's beard turned white. He could not bear to eat for days. Music and all forms of entertainment came to a halt. A search was ordered to seek and find the best design for a masoleum befitting the memory of the late Empress.

According to legend, Mumtaz had an alabaster skin. It was almost translucent. When she swallowed sherbet or paan (betel leaf with lime, catechu and arecanut), the passage of the colored liquid could be seen in its transit down her throat. Another legend says that the palms of Mumtaz's hands always smelled of apple blossom. This arom had deserted her just before her death. The cause was that the child in her womb spoke and that was believed to be a certain portent of omimous foreboding and tragic outcome. Thus Mumtaz died in child-bed at her fourteenth pregnancy. The Taj Mahal is a monument to love in matrimony or wedded bliss.

The achitects of the Taj went to see earlier masterworks and have left an inscription at Bijapur expressing their admiration at the Gol Gumbaz.

(more to follow...)


Akhilesh Mithal, 1991-1999. All rights reserved.
Back to the Itihaas Home Page