Islamic heritage

Published : Oct 07, 2011 00:00 IST

Taj Mahal, Agra, Uttar Pradesh, 17th century. -

Taj Mahal, Agra, Uttar Pradesh, 17th century. -

From Kerala to Kashmir and from Tripura to Gujarat, India has a vast and rich heritage of Islamic architecture.

INDIA is an enchanting land watered by the streams of compassionate philosophies since ancient times. Flourishing communities of the Islamic, Christian, Zoroastrian and Jewish faiths exist here. The Hindu, Buddhist, Jaina and Sikh faiths were born here. It has a great cosmopolitan heritage of culture and art.

Although Mughal architecture of north India is famous, the fascinating richness of Islamic architectural heritage in other parts of the country is not so well known. The vastness of India's Islamic architectural heritage is unbelievable. India has more beautiful medieval Islamic architectural heritage than any other country. This is a fact which neither Indians nor the rest of the world is fully aware of.

It is a known fact that the most famous Islamic monument of the world, the Taj Mahal, is in India. But what is not equally well known is that one of the oldest mosques in the world is also in India, in Kerala. In fact, India has a vast and rich Islamic architectural heritage, from Kerala in the south to Kashmir in the north, from Tripura in the east to Gujarat in the west.

Islamic architecture is characterised by a few visible symbols. One is the arch, which frames the space; the second symbol is the dome, which looms over the skyscape; and the third is the minaret, which pierces the skies. Minarets were actually symbols in the middle of deserts. They represented fire, which was lit atop them to guide travellers. The dome represents the infinite and also the sky. As tomb architecture represents both the finite and the infinite, the dome has a very important role to play.

Islam did not come to India from the north as is commonly believed. It came through Arab traders to the Malabar region in Kerala, and Muslims flourished as a trading community there. You can still see traces of that community amongst the Moplas of Kerala, who trace their ancestry to the Arabs.

Since ancient times, India has had considerable trade contact with the Arab world. In the 1st century A.D., the Roman historian Pliny the Elder wrote about the existing routes to India and the July monsoon winds that traders used to catch to reach the Indian coast. He spoke about a ship that left the coast of Arabia and took 40 days to reach Muziris, which was then the name of present-day Kodungalloor.

With the advent of Islam, Arab traders became the carriers of the new faith. The first mosque in India was built at Kodungalloor by the Chera King Cheraman Perumal in A.D. 629, within the lifetime of the Prophet. This is one of the oldest mosques in the world.

Kayalpattnam is an ancient town about a kilometre from the mouth of the Tamiraparani river. Arab traders built the Kodiakarai Mosque here as early as Hijri 12, or A.D. 633. It is the first mosque to be built in Tamil Nadu and ranks among the oldest mosques in the world. Kayalpattnam has many other early mosques. In fact, Kerala on the west coast of India and Tamil Nadu on the east coast have numerous mosques, made through the ages. At Nagore, on the east coast, is one of the grandest dargahs ever made.

Islam came to the north of India through different invasions, starting with the invasion of Mahmud of Ghazni, who came as far as Gujarat. Thereafter, there was the peaceful contribution of different Sufi saints, traders and other individuals who moved to the northern region of India because of political instability or dynastic changes that were taking place in and around Central Asia and Afghanistan at that time. Gradually, a small community developed and increased its strength once Turkish rule was established in north India.

The Quwwat-ul-Islam Mosque was the first mosque built in north India, in A.D. 1193. A number of Quranic verses are beautifully etched on the mosque. Some medieval writers say they are so beautifully carved that it looks as if they are written on wax.

The most impressive monument in the Qutb complex in present-day Delhi is the Qutb Minar itself. It was made in the early 13th century by Qutbuddin Aibak, the sultan of Delhi. At 72.5 metres, it is one of the tallest minarets in the world. The traveller Ibn Batuta, who came to India after journeying all over the Islamic empire, starting from Africa and covering Samarkand and Damascus, has recorded that nowhere in the world has there been a minaret as impressive as the Qutb Minar.

Close to the Qutb complex is the tomb of Ghiyasuddin Balban, another 13th century ruler of Delhi. Balban ruled from 1266 to 1286. His tomb marks a very important development in the field of architecture. Before this tomb was built, a number of arches had been made in Indian Islamic buildings, but these were not true arches. In Balban's tomb, for the first time in India, a keystone, which is fundamental to the true load-bearing arch, was used at the top of the arch. Subsequently, the true arch began to be used in numerous structures across the country.

The Alai Darwaja was built by Allauddin Khilji as part of the extension of the Qutb complex in 1305. It is very fascinating from the point of view of architecture. In the 13th century, owing to Mongol attacks in West Asia and Central Asia, a large number of craftsmen had to flee from their lands. Many of them were given refuge in this part of India and were very fruitfully employed in the making of the Alai Darwaja. We see here the introduction of the horseshoe arch in Indian monuments.

The Deccan

Meanwhile, Islamic influence continued to grow further south, in the Deccan. The end of the 15th century saw the establishment of five sultanates in the Deccan: Ahmadnagar, Bijapur, Golconda, Bidar and Berar. The sultan of Bijapur was a descendant of the Ottoman dynasty of Istanbul. The sultan of Golconda was a Turkman prince who had taken refuge in India. The sultans were followers of the Shia sect of Islam and were close allies of the Safavid rulers of Iran. A distinct culture thus developed in the cosmopolitan community of the Deccan.

The streets of the Deccani sultanates were filled with Turks, Persians, Arabs and Africans. In India, the Deccan became the greatest centre of Arabic learning and literature. In fact, Iran and Central Asia only had single courts. If you were a soldier, a religious figure, an intellectual or an artistic person and you could not find a sponsor in what is now Iran or Uzbekistan, chances were that you could find some sort of patronage in the Deccan. Thus there was a continuous migration of people, ideas and artistic devices from the Near East to the Deccan.

A remarkable example of an architectural transplant from Central Asia is the madrassa of Mahmud Gawan, in Bidar, built at the end of the 15th century. It would be very hard to tell the difference between this and the madrassas of Uzbekistan or eastern Iran. The similarities between the two are not only in form or in other architectural elements such as corner minarets, the square courtyard in the middle and four great arched portals, but also in the decorations of the exterior with blue-and-white tiles.

Sultan Ibrahim Adil Shah II ruled Bijapur from 1580 to 1627. He was a contemporary of the Mughal emperor Akbar. A visit to his rauza, or tomb, is a pilgrimage for someone deeply interested in Indian art, for some of the finest miniature paintings ever made in India were made during his rule.

The Gol Gumbaz in Bijapur is the tomb of Sultan Muhammad Adil Shah, who ruled from A.D. 1627 to 1657. This is the largest dome ever built in the Islamic world. It is the second largest dome in the world, after the one at Saint Peter's Basilica in Rome. It measures 37.92 metres on the inside.

The massive Bidar fort was built in the 14th and 15th centuries. It is one of the most formidable forts in the country. It has walls that run for 5.5 km around. Inside, it has beautiful palaces, two mosques, a madrassa, ornamental gardens and hamams.

Timur, when he came to India, was struck by the beauty of its historical cities. In his autobiography, Malfujaate Taimoori, he says, I ordered that all the artisans and clever mechanics who are masters of their respective crafts should be picked out from among the prisoners and set aside. And accordingly some thousands of craftsmen were selected to await my command. I had determined to build a Masjid-e-Jami in Samarkand, the seat of my empire, which should be without rival in any country. So I ordered that all the builders and stonemasons of India should be set apart for my own special service. In some other records it is said that he took about 3,000 artisans from India and employed them in the construction of the Jami Masjid at Samarkand.

Mughal architecture

The dynasty founded by Babur became one of the greatest the world had seen. It ruled a vast empire whose fame spread far and wide. The culture and the art it created helped shape future developments in all spheres of life in the Indian subcontinent.

Humayun's Tomb, which might be considered the first great masterpiece of the Mughals, is very much related to the previous architecture of Delhi. It is closely linked to the Lodhi and Tuglaq architectures of the 14th and 15th centuries. Mughal architecture presents us with a fusion of local elements, building techniques, styles and traditions with imported traditions and styles. The genius of Mughal architecture is that it sustained this incredibly rich mingling of different traditions throughout its history.

Agra was the imperial capital of Akbar in the mid-16th century. The fort here was one of the most powerful in north India. In 1565, Emperor Akbar ordered the reconstruction of the fort. The fort has palaces of Akbar, Jahangir and Shah Jahan. The most prominent among all the structures are the white marble buildings of Shah Jahan. The Khas Mahal, made of pure marble, is one of these elegant buildings. It is flanked by the palaces of Shah Jahan's daughters Roshanara and Jahanara.

In 1571, Emperor Akbar decided to build a new capital city. And a magnificent city was built at a site not very far from Agra. It was called Fatehpur Sikri. This was Akbar's most ambitious architectural project. By the end of the 16th century, there were a quarter of a million people living in the new city.

In the building of Fatehpur Sikri, no cost was too much, no effort too great, for Akbar. He wished to build the city true to his conception. As a matter of fact, miniature paintings of that period show the emperor amidst the workers, supervising the construction of the city himself. Fatehpur Sikri is one of the best ordered and symmetrically laid-out cities of the entire medieval world.

The world's best-known tomb stands testimony to a timeless love story. The Taj Mahal was built in 1648 by the Emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his beloved wife Arjumand Banu Begum, known to the world as Mumtaz Mahal. The construction of the Taj Mahal was a stupendous engineering feat. It is built of marble and is finely inlaid with semi-precious stones. As many as 20,000 workers and master craftsmen laboured for 17 years to erect this magnificent edifice. Several hundreds of mosques and Islamic tombs of great beauty are spread throughout India.

Coming to the west of the country, in Gujarat is the World Heritage Site of Champaner of the 15th century. In the east there is the impressive Nakhoda Masjid and several others in Kolkata. There are famous dargahs in Hajo and other places in Assam. In the north-eastern region of India, in Agartala in Tripura is the beautiful Gedu Mia Ki Masjid.

In the mountainous State of Kashmir, Islamic architecture was influenced by ancient Hindu and Buddhist traditions. The resultant form was combined with influences from Persia and Turkistan. Wood was used extensively in the mosques and tombs of Kashmir.

India has a vast, living heritage of Islamic architecture. These monuments are a great treasure of India's culture and many of them are recognised as World Heritage Monuments. We see in these the confluence of local talent and inspiration from Iran, Arabia and Central Asia. These mosques, tombs, madrassas, palaces and fortresses are a unique heritage of Islamic architecture.

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