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Architecture - Indian Saracenic

( Originally Published 1921 )

Saracenic architecture passed into India from Persia, where it had been influenced by the architecture of the old Sassanian Empire (A.D. 226—642) (p. 58). The Pathan Dynasty (A.D. 1193—1554), with the various independent kingdoms which arose from time to time (p. 835), and the Mogul Dynasty (A.D. 1526-1857) include the two main periods of Indian Saracenic architecture, covering the whole time since the Mahometan conquest of Delhi in A.D. 1193.


Saracenic buildings in India are rendered more monumental in style, and show more genius in solving constructive problems than those of other countries, owing to the use of sandstone and marble. The Mahometan conquerors adapted existing Jaina temples, with their colonnaded courts, to Moslem use by the removal of the central Jaina shrine and by the addition of the Mecca wall for the " mihrab " ; while grandeur of scale was sometimes given to the scheme by a great screen of pointed arches, enriched with the elaborate decoration in which Hindu craftsmen excelled. It is only possible here to describe a few outstanding examples of the multitudinous buildings of various types found throughout Mahometan India.

The Kutub Mosque, Delhi (A.D. 1193), was one of the most celebrated buildings in the capital of the Pathan Dynasty, which became the capital of the Indian Mahometan Empire, and was perhaps comparable in architectural importance with Athens, Rome, and Constantinople. This mosque, with the " minar " and several noble tombs, standing on the hill-side, forms a wonderful group with the ruins of the old Pathan fort. The widespread but scanty ruins indicate a series of extensions from the original plan, The inner court of the mosque, 142 ft. by 108 ft., has the unique " Iron Pillar " in the middle. On the east the domed entrance is in the centre of a corridor of four rows of columns enclosed by a wall and with a pavilion at either end. The north and south sides had three rows of pillars with central entrances, and at the west is the screen wall with arches opening into the mosque itself, which is now in ruins. In the great enclosing court, of which some colonnades remain, stands the famous " Kutub Minar," 240 ft. high, which outrivals all others, and is conspicuous for its tapering design and delicacy of ornamental detail. This greatest of all Indian " minars " (of which there is a model in the Indian Museum, South Kensington), beautiful in the glow of red sandstone and white marble and encircled with Arabic inscriptions, may be said to bear the same relation to Indian Saracenic as does Giotto's Campanile to Italian Gothic.

The Tomb of Sher Shah, Sahsaram (A.D. 1539), one of many Pathan tombs, rises from the middle of a sheet of water on a platform with four angle pavilions. The building is octagonal on plan and a deep gallery is thrown around the central tomb chamber, which is crowned by a great dome 71 ft. in diameter, while there are smaller domes over octagonal kiosks at the angles of the two receding stages.

The Jami Masjid, Jaunpur (A.D. 1438), is raised on a platform 20 ft. above the ground. The mosque proper forms one side of a court with double and two-storeyed colonnades, and is entered through a massive pyramidal gateway, 86 ft. high, which serves as a minar. The central space is covered by a dome 40 ft. in diameter, and on either side are two storeyed compartments, again flanked by two others, roofed with pointed ribbed vaults showing externally. One great gateway is still indicative of the imposing dimensions of the mosque precincts.

The Atala Masjid, Jaunpur (A.D. 1408), has five-aisled colonnades round the outer court, of which the inner and outer rows are of double columns with bracket capitals supporting a roof of flat slabs on the Hindu plan, which, with the great arched gateways, show the usual mingling of Hindu and Saracenic styles ; while the interior domes and roofs, with their pointed keel arches, are unusually beautiful in design and decoration.

The Jami Masjid, Ahmadabad (A.D. 1411), shows the influence of Hindu trabeated architecture, in conjunction with the pointed arch, the symbol of Islam. This very beautiful mosque, approached through a court flanked by colonnades, has 15 domes grouped in different heights with 260 supporting columns.

The Jami Masjid, Champanir (A.D. 1500), is another remarkable building with large court and many-domed sanctuary.

The Jami Masjid, Mandu (A.D. 1405-32), occupying a space of 290 it. by 275 ft., has a square courtyard enclosed on each side by arcades of eleven pointed arches supported on red sandstone piers, while numberless pointed domes crown the spaces above.

The Adinah Mosque, Gaur (A.D. 1358), the ancient capital of Bengal, has arcades surrounding the court crowned by 385 domes, producing a somewhat monotonous effect, only broken at one point by the super-imposed columns of the royal gallery. The architecture of this province is influenced by the absence of stone, and as brick is the building material, an essentially arcuated style is the result.

The Mosque, Kulbarga, erected in the fourteenth century, is a deviation from the normal type, as it lacks the usual open court, and the whole area of about 100 ft. square is covered by a series of 75 small domes, with larger domes in front of the mihrab and at the four angles, light being introduced through pointed arched openings in three of the outer walls, thus resembling the Mosque, Cordova (p. 843).

The Jami Masjid, Bijapur (A.D. 1557–79) (p. 841 H, 7), is one of many buildings in the city which were erected under the Adil Shahi dynasty. It occupies a rectangle of 26o ft. by 330 ft., and consists of a series of square compartments, each covered with a flat dome formed in the thickness of the roof, while in front of the mihrab is the great dome, nearly 6o ft. in diameter, supported on interlacing pointed arches, which spring from every third pier—a remarkable instance of the constructive skill of Saracenic architects.

The " Ibrahim Rouza," Bijapur, is a remarkable group of buildings, including mosque and tomb.

The Tomb of Malmud, Bijapur, has a dome 97 ft. in diameter, placed on a platform formed by intersecting pendentive arches, by which means the space to be covered is reduced, and the weight of the pendentives acts inwards to counteract the outward thrust of the dome, as at the Jami Masjid, Bijapur.

THE MOGUL DYNASTY (A.D. 1526–1857)

All previous Saracenic architecture was eclipsed by that of the Mogul Emperors who, from the time that Babar captured Delhi (A.D. 1526) and declared his Empire at Agra, proved themselves the rivals of Egyptian Pharaohs as monumental tomb-builders, but the tombs of the Mogul Emperors were used as festal halls during their life and formed their resting-place in death. It has been said that, while the great Moguls designed like Titans, they finished like jewellers. This unusual combination gives the special character to the architecture of these palace-tombs which, rising from a garden platform, were laid out with ornamental fountains, while the angles and entrances were accentuated by domed pavilions.

The Mosque of Sher Shah, Delhi (A.D. 1541), without courtyard or " minars," is beautiful in the simplicity of its design and is a prototype of later buildings. It has but one hall, 168 ft. by 145 ft., with five entrance portals of somewhat flattened pointed arches and panelled piers, inlaid with coloured marbles ; while along the roof line of the facade there runs horizontally a carved cresting, behind which the single dome, circled with twelve small windows, rises in the centre.

The Tomb of Humayun Shah, Old Delhi (A.D. 1565), standing on an arcaded platform inlaid with marble, is an octagon 47 ft. in diameter, crowned by a glistening marble dome of delicate contour, while the marble walls enhance the general purity of the design. There are great recessed arched entrances on four sides with four supplementary octagonal chambers between them for tombs of the dynasty.

The Tomb of Mahomet-Ghaus, Gwalior (A.D. 1562), is a typical tomb monument, Too ft. square on plan externally, with hexagonal domed towers at each angle, and octagonal internally with pointed arches across the angles to carry the central Pathan dome. The deep surrounding gallery has a screen of exquisitely pierced stone tracery, which is the great glory of this tomb, even in the city of Gwalior, which is famous for its fine craftsmanship. .

The Palace of Akbar, Allahabad, now a British arsenal, must have been on the grand scale, with its two-storeyed pavilion, girt about with forty pillars standing octagonally in outer and inner rows of twenty-four and sixteen respectively ; while a similar number above carried the dome. Nothing, however, remains of these palace buildings but the square audience hall with its sixty-four columns, eight rows deep, enclosed by a verandah of double columns, which, with elaborate bracket capitals, sup-port the wide-eaved roof.

The Mosque, Futtehpore-Sikri (pp. 841 D, E, 842 A, 855 A, n), is one of a group of important buildings erected in this city, founded by King Akbar (A.D. r556—1605). It is a three-domed structure, 290 ft. by 8o ft., occupying one side of an open court (p. 842 A), the whole enclosure measuring 550 ft. by 470 ft., and containing two royal tombs. The southern gateway is of a style which prevailed throughout the period, and may be contrasted with the Greek, Roman, and Gothic styles in the treatment of monumental entrances. The entrance gateway (p. 841 E) has a recessed centre, crowned with high enclosing arch and semi-dome and with an outer square frame, while the doorways leading to the mosque are of normal height and occupy the lower part of the recess. By this means the doorways give scale and lead the eye by an easy gradation to the high enclosing arch of the gateway, and thus the size and dignity required for a noble portal is obtained without disturbing the aesthetic qualities of scale. This mosque is glorious in its triple domes, its great tombs, its carved doors (p. 855 C) and marble cornices, ornate pillars and fantastic brackets (p. 855 F), but most of all in its monumental gateway, which is in itself a triumph of Saracenic genius. The marble Tomb of Selim Chistee (pp. 841 F, G, 842 n), one of the two tombs in the court, has a square cenotaph chamber crowned by a dome and lit by windows with pierced geometric tracery, while the surrounding ambulatory has over-elaborated bracket capitals and broad spreading eaves.

The Diwan-i-Kas, Futtehpore-Sikri (p. 855 G), formed the private audience hall of the great King Akbar (A.D. 1556--1605). The walls, encrusted with precious stones, support a flat roof over a space in which there is an amazing central column, with an intricately bracketed capital (p. 855 D) carrying the throne of the potentate who presided over religious discourses, and from which passages radiate to the angles of the gallery where sat his four ministers. There is a reproduction of this curious throne in the Indian Museum, South Kensington.

The Tomb of Akbar, Sikandara (A.D. 1593—1613), has a vaulted tomb chamber, in which rests the royal builder who reared for himself this great edifice near Agra, unique among the tombs of India. A massive gateway of red sandstone, inlaid with white marble, leads through the surrounding garden to the four-storeyed pyramidal tomb, encircled by an arcaded cloister with angle pavilions and domed entrance portal. From this terrace rises another with its pavilions and again a third and a fourth, all decreasing in size, while on the topmost terrace, surrounded by dazzling marble trellis-work, is the cenotaph of Akbar, raised high in the air above his tomb beneath.

The Palace, Delhi, erected by Shah Jehan (A.D. 1628—56) in the Fort, was of great size, but only portions in the midst of British barracks now remain. It occupied a space of 1,600 ft. by 3,200 ft., and had immense portal, entrance hall, courtyards, bazaars, audience and music halls, baths and gardens, besides accommodation for distinguished guests and court attendants. The Palace would appear to have been designed on one uniform all-inclusive plan, and must have been the vastest and probably the most magnificent of all royal palaces.

The Taj Mahal, Agra (A.D. 1630) (pp. 841 A, B, C, 847 A), also erected by Shah Jehan, is one of the most famous architectural monuments in the world. It is a royal mausoleum in white marble, placed in the centre of a platform 18 ft. high and 313 ft. square, each angle being marked by a minaret 133 ft. high. It is symmetrical in plan, being a square of 186 It. with the angles taken off, and has a central dome 8o ft. high and 58 ft. in diameter, surmounted by an outer dome nearly zoo ft. above the platform (p. 841 C). Around the central dome are two-storeyed aisles, each angle being provided with a small dome supported on pillars. The entrance in the centre of each face is of the usual recessed type, crowned with a four-centred arch set in a square frame. The light to the interior is introduced through two pierced marble screens in the upper storey, producing a dim and subdued effect. The Taj in all the gorgeousness of oriental splendour is a dream among tombs and a miracle in marble. Here, too, the Eastern love of colour runs riot in covering the beautiful marble-work of the architect with the inlay of the jeweller who wrought his gems—jasper, bloodstone, and agate—into scrolls, fretwork, and wreaths in the glistening surface of the marble. As a palace of pleasure it enchants alike by its perfection of symmetry, beauty of design, and delicacy of decoration. It stands by the waters of the Jumna amidst marble terraces, fountains and lakes, and is invested with the solemnity suitable to a mausoleum by the dark sentinel cypresses which stand around.

The Jami Masjid, Delhi (A.D. 1644–58) (p. 847 B), occupies one side of a colonnaded court and was erected for Shah Jehan. It is of red sand-stone and white marble, and was designed for external effect. It is raised on a lofty basement, and the three gateways, angle pavilions, noble minarets, and triple bulbous domes combine to produce an imposing group.

The Moti Masjid, Agra (A.D. 1646–53), is another three-domed mosque in white marble, known also as the Pearl Mosque, similarly arranged with a court 150 ft. square.

We have seen that, after Akbar the builder, the great Mogul tradition had been continued by his grandson, Shah Jehan, who is memorable as the author of that gem of Indian architecture, the world-famous Taj Mahal. The example set by these Mogul Emperors was, as we should expect, followed by the nobles of their courts, who vied with one another —somewhat as did contemporary Italians in Europe—in erecting princely palaces and monumental tombs rich in Oriental splendour. We have seen, too, that Saracenic architecture had, according to its custom, adapted itself in India to the country it invaded. There it discovered types eminently suitable to its own needs ; it founded new shrines on old models and flourished amazingly, and displayed for a while the full vigour of a progressive style, until it came to maturity under Akbar, after which it rapidly degenerated into a style which was sweet rather than strong, and dainty rather than dignified. Saracenic architecture in India had indeed run its course. It paid the penalty of its own adaptability and gave way before the influx of ideas brought to India from Europe, where the Renaissance movement was at its height. But beyond this new insidious influence there was something on the spot to account for its decline ; for the power of the Great Moguls, those giant patrons of architecture, now began to be undermined ; no longer did they rule as unchallenged potentates ; no longer had they the same zeal for monumental building, and Saracenic architecture in India declined pari passu with the political power of the Mogul Empire, of which it was the material expression.

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