Updated: Nov 28, 2020
This talk was delivered on 5 August, 2018, as part of the 4th annual History for Peace conference, The Idea of Culture, in Calcutta.
I am grateful to PeaceWorks for having given me the opportunity to be here, but before I begin, I want to place all my cards on the table. I am not only, not a historian but I am also a geographer. This is perhaps the kind of situation that Mark Twain’s Connecticut Yankee found himself in, when he landed up in King Arthur’s court, for he was not only, not from the Isles, he was an American! No wonder then, that in the presence of all these historians, many of whom I have grown up revering, I am more than a little diffident.
My presentation is titled ‘Songs Sung by Stones’ and through it, and the accompanying images, I will try to draw your attention to some common elements, actually minor details, in medieval architecture, which we tend to overlook. Somebody has said that God is in the details, but I am trying to locate the Devil in the details.
We begin with the pitcher, image of a Pitcher needed I don’t have to introduce the pitcher to you, nor do I have to point out to you that perhaps from the time that we learnt to fashion the earthen pot and learnt to fire it and acquired, for the first time, the capability to transport water to our huts and hovels, the task of fetching water, at times across miles, has been entrusted to women, men only consume the water, they don’t fetch it. This assignment has received official sanction, the fact that the officials were all men, is a minor detail.
Archaeological evidence suggests that fine terracotta vessels were in use for cooking in the early Harappan period. The Harappans also produced large vessels that were used, perhaps for storage of grains. A large number of small pieces of pottery have been excavated from Harappan burial sites probably indicating a belief in after life, just as such pieces of pottery have suggested similar beliefs in other ancient civilisations. Each civilization was defined through the pottery it made, the Roman and Grecian Amphorae and Urns, and our own terracotta and painted grey-ware.
I believe that once we began to settle down along the riverbanks and initiated agricultural activities, we also began to make pottery—pitchers, cooking vessels, vessels for votive offerings and for rituals of birth and death, large storage urns to store the harvest and also small vessels to store seeds for the next crop. Those small pitchers—the kalash—that stored seeds, because it contained life in it, came to be associated with the womb and came to be called Garbh Kalash. The coconut too came to represent the womb, both had life in them, but we will talk about the coconut later.
Very soon the Kalash began to be used in fertility rituals and continues to be so used even today. The use of the Garbh Kalash in wedding ceremonies, is nothing but the continuation of that tradition during the weddings as we will see later.
The kalash had a large number of other uses as well. A few years ago, while travelling through Kutch in Gujarat, I saw four or five stacks of pitchers, like little minarets, lined against one of the walls inside a hut the pitchers contained grains, pulses as well as money, the family’s savings, buried in the rice or flour pitcher, other pitchers served as almirahs for clothes.
In my childhood, if you arrived at school in a set of crumpled clothes, one of your teachers was sooner or later going to ask: ‘Ghade se Nikaal ke Pehne hain?’ (Have you taken them out of a pitcher?) The pitcher continues to be thus used till today, at least in places untouched by ‘development’.
If you visit the Jami Masjid built by Qutub-ud-Din Aibak in Mehrauli, you will read or be informed by the guides that the pillars that have been used in the mosque, once belonged to Jain temples. The temples were demolished and the material reused.
Each conqueror did this to the places of worship of the defeated king. This was the only way feudal order could survive. Each victor had to establish that his God was more powerful than the god of the vanquished, this was one method of ensuring uninterrupted flow of land revenue, but this is not what we are discussing today, may be on another occasion we will take this up.
We know this mosque, as Masjid Quwwat-ul-Islam, a name given by the British. Qutb-ud-din Aybak never called it that. Let us go back to the stone pillars, in the middle of the pillars, there is a kalash.
The large number of pillars with kalash-es carved into them helped archaeologists identify these as Jain temples. Kalash-es, Nagas—creatures with bodies of snakes and human faces, bells on rope strings and mask like demonic faces were elements commonly carved on pillars in Jain temples. These pillars were reused for building the first mosque in Delhi in 1192. Images of gods were disfigured because faces are not permitted in a mosque, interestingly, mask like demonic faces were left intact, maybe the defacers did not realise what they were.
This kalash is one of the most interesting things that one begins to notice in the sultanate period structures of the late 12th century. There is this kalash with spike, this one from the time of Aibak has spike like things lining the neck of the kalash, and also this from Alamash’s extention to the mosque, symbolic perhaps of the mango leaf, the large petals etched on the upper half of the kalash are lotus petals. Each of the stones used in the base of the three arches that form the western side of the mosque is adorned by a kalash and topped with what could be mango leaves.
Next to the kalash we see some text in Arabic. Verses from the Quran were drawn on the stone slabs for the stone masons to carve in high relief, so you have the kalash and the text, 'Bismillah – Begin in the name of Allah' a symbol of veneration of the Indians and the venerated text of the new arrivals—Turks and Central Asians, placed next to each other.
We have a few more images to illustrate this trend further. Here is the detail from the Ala’i Darwaza, the massive gate erected by Ala-ud-Din Khilji, as part of his extension to the Jami Masjid of Aibak. The south gate of the darwaza has a profusion of kalashes, we then have an image of a Kalash from the mausoleum of Adham Khan (died 1562) and from the Khazanchi ki Haveli (19th century) from Shahjahanabad . So from the thirteenth century to the nineteenth century—the kalash is a common motif. The kalash at Khazanchi ki haveli is covered with lotus petals, just as it was in the case of the Kalash from the arch in the Jami Masjid of Aibak and this brings us back to the lotus.
The veneration of the lotus as a symbol of purity perhaps goes back to a time when we were still following animist practices. I am not a historian, so this is all guesswork. I would like to believe that somebody – and I would like to believe that it was a woman, because women notice these things much before men do – was walking through an open space when she came across a pool of stagnant water with a whole lot of rotting vegetation, with frogs and snails and mud and in the middle of all that she saw this lotus, she perhaps said to herself, ‘You may rise above all this muck and be pure.’ And I think that is the day the lotus became a symbol of purity.
Later, much later we imagined anthropomorphic gods. These were gods with human traits, they walked on two feet, had families, loved, procreated, hated, fought, ate, got angry and had to be placated, at times with gifts at others with sacrifice, all in all despite their godliness they were in many ways like us and so, once in a while they needed to sit, but since they were gods they could not sit on the ground like mortals and so we placed them on a throne, an exalted throne, the lotus.
Brahma, Mahesh and Vishnu, the Creator, the sustainer and the destroyer each had their own lotus throne and so did all the other gods and goddesses. In fact, Brahma, the creator is born out of a lotus that grows from the navel of Vishnu, with Brahma seated inside. Lakshmi, Saraswati, Kartikeya, Ganesha, Mahavir and Gautam – each sit on a lotus. Mahaveer and Buddha are historical figures but when we deify them we install them on the lotus as well. Subsequently, Buddhism travels and the Tibetans create Tara, the female Buddha, she too sits on the lotus, there is Avaloketeswara, the earthly manifestation of the Buddha, and Maitreya, the Buddha-to-be, each seated on a lotus.
The Lotus is everywhere in Buddhist mythology and iconography, one of the two Bodhisatvas invariably depicted with the image of the Buddha is always shown holding a lotus and that is what he is known as Padmapani -The one who holds the Lotus.
Let us go back, once again, to the Mosque built by Qutub-ud-Din Aibak. The masons who were asked to carve the verses from the Quran were also perhaps asked to embellish the text. The masons knew it was the holy text of the new arrivals. The text therefore could only be embellished with something that was considered pure, associated with the divine, and so the text was decorated with the holiest of all flowers, the Lotus. Another image from the base of one of the arches shows us a partially broken word in Arabic carved in stone; it says al-masjid or ‘the mosque’. The embellishments in this image are lotus buds. The Alai Darwaza, part of the extension of the Mosque of Aibak and built almost a hundred years later continues the same tradition. At the lower end in the white marble portion, you see a kalash flanked on either side with text in Arabic, bordered with Lotus Buds. At the entrance to Firoz Shah Tughlaq’s mausoleum, we see lotuses carved on the spandrels — the triangular space on either side of the arch. This image of the lotus inside the motif of the sun is from the central arch at the sixteenth-century Jamali Kamali Mosque, the motif is repeated on the spandrels of the North gate of Arab ki Sarai.
The Muslims do not venerate the sun, they do not venerate the lotus, yet these motifs are everywhere. They were not seen as Hindu motifs, they were seen, understood and appreciated as Indian or shall we say South-Asian motifs.
My submission is that while the building was designed, perhaps by a Turk or Iranian architect, the masons were all local. They knew it was a place of worship or a place of veneration or somebody’s sacred grave, and so they carved the symbols that they associated with these precepts. Nobody objected because these were not seen as Hindu symbols: they were Indian symbols. Those who commissioned the building could have had problems with images or carvings like the head of an elephant, but not with these. Later, I will also discuss what happens to the head of the elephant.
Look a little closely at the Ala’i Darwaza, you will notice a profusion of lotuses. All the exterior walls are covered on all sides with countless lotus buds. Ala’i Darwaza, incidentally, is the earliest surviving dome in Delhi. There were domes that were older but those have collapsed.
Both the dome and the arch, the true arch that is, were introduced to India by the Turks. The Turks also introduced the technique of building with rubble masonry, instead of building with large, precisely cut stones, something that was the prevalent technique of building in India.
In the eye of the Indian mason the hemisphere of the dome appeared as something that ended abruptly, there was nothing on top, it looked unfinished. And so began an exercise that lasted for 300 years: the masons continued to experiment, trying to decide what to place on top of the dome, to make it look complete. One of the things that they did was to cover the dome with lotus petals and you can see this in this image from the Mehrauli Archaeological Park.
Another experiment was to place an inverted lotus as a crown atop the Dome. You can see both embellishments on top of the dome on this Chhatri at Masjid Moth in South Delhi – the dome covered in lotus petals and an inverted lotus as a crown. You can also see new construction happening with in the prohibited zone in this photograph taken on 22.Sept, 2012—so much for conserving our heritage.
We now come to three structures, two from Delhi and the third from Lahore. The ceiling, with glass inlaid in the shape of lotuses at the Sheesh Mahal, and the lotus shaped fountain inside the Rang Mahal were commissioned by Shahjahan, while the mosque at Lahore was built in the reign of Aurangzeb; each of the small minarets is topped with a dome, emerging from a lotus.
The temple Shikhar or pinnacle is normally topped with an Amalaka (a wheel with a serrated edge), I have been told that the amalaka represents the seat of gods, the sun; and, because it is the seat of gods, it is also a lotus.
In their effort to find something to place above the dome in order ‘to complete the unfinished structure’ the masons had started, as we have already shown, to cover the entire dome with lotus petals or to top it with a crown framed by an inverted lotus, they now began to use the Amalaka.
We first bring you three images of the Amalaka from the ruins of votive temples at Bateshwar near Morena in MP, and from Ashapuri in Raisen district MP, you can also see the Amalaka atop almost every old temple in Khajuraho, Konark, Megheswar, Puri, Konark and elsewhere.
Let us return to Delhi: to the second oldest dome in Delhi-the mausoleum of Zafar Khan in Tughlaqabad. You can see the Amalaka on top of the dome. Above the amalaka was perhaps placed a kalash, the top of which is now broken, but you can see both the kalash and the Amalaka atop the mausoleum of Ghyas-ud-Din Tughlaq, built nearby within a couple of years.
Finally, it all begins to come together: the lotus and the Amalaka and there are numerous examples in Delhi. The Nila Gumbad, one of the two Timurid domes we find in Delhi, this is behind Humayun’s tomb. When you see the Amalaka atop the dome you realize that they had begun to play with the lotus motif. There is the lotus shaped crown atop which is placed an upright lotus; above which there is an inverted lotus and finally an upside-down lotus-four of them midway through all this is placed an Amalaka. The same thing is repeated at Isa Khan Niyazi’s tomb dating back to the mid-sixteenth century.
Isa Khan Niyazi was a senior commander of Sher Shah Suri. Between 1640 and 1656, when Humayun was wandering through the wilderness, Delhi was ruled by Sher Shah Suri. Isa Khan died during that time and his mausoleum was built near the Shrine of Nizam-ud-Din Aulia. The Mausoleum is the first building you encounter on your right as you enter the Humayun’s Tomb Complex. Look at the details in this image, taken after the restoration carried out by the Agha Khan Trust, you will once again notice the interplay of upright and upside down lotuses separated by an Amalaka.
We now move to structures built in the time of Akbar, what is interesting in this period is the fact that with the exception of the Tomb of Humayun, designed and built by the Iranian architect Mirak Mirza Ghyas and his son Sayiyad Mohammad, all the other structures built in this period in Delhi continue to follow the prevailing Sultanate style.
The first of these is the Khair-ul-Manazil mosque built by Maham Anga, the foster mother of Akbar, the second is the mausoleum of her son, Adham Khan (died 1562), in the former you see the lotus as crown and in both you see the Amalaka. Atop the Amalaka, in the mausoleum of Adham Kha one notices, perhaps the earliest representation of two kalash-es and a cone used in the style of a finial. Humayun’s Tomb completed in 1569, uses the same design in the finial not in standstone, but in copper covered in gold foil this shape was to then become the standard in all mausoleums and mosques built subsequently.
We have now a few more examples of the use of the two kalashes and a cone as finial on mosques and mausoleums. We see this motif in use in the mausoleum of Nizam-ud Din Aulia, who died in 1325, but the mausoleum that we see today was built in 1562, in the reign of Akbar, the Dome is topped with a kalash. So the Kalash as part of a finial, that we see first in the time of the Tughlaqs, returns 250 years later to gradually become a permanent fixture on domes, by the mid-16th century.
There is a post marriage ritual, known as godh bharai during which a coconut is placed in the lap of the newly married girl. The coconut is also a symbol of fertility because it contains life within and therefore these two kalash-es and the cone—and I reiterate this is all guesswork—were symbols associated with fertility.
Some of the earliest temples would have been temples to gods of fertility. life was something that we did not understand, just as we did not understand death, and so all ancient mythologies created gods of birth and death, some of our earlier temples would thus have been dedicated to mother goddesses, to goddesses of fertility and the kalash, seen as a symbol of the womb, would have gradually become a permanent fixture at these temples eventually growing into a motif that became common to all temples.
This is the modern Sun Temple in Chandni Chowk, Look at the finial atop the Sun Temple. Two kalash-es and a cone -the cone, I am sure, symbolizes the coconut. The same atop the Gauri Shankar Mandir in Chandni chowk built by a Maratha chieftain, Apa Gangadhar, when the Marathas ruled Delhi, the same finial is visible atop the adjacent, but older, Digambar Jain Lal Mandir.
You will also find the same Kalash and Coconut motif atop Gurdwara Sis Ganj Sahib at Chandni Chowk and at Gurdwara Dera Sahib in Lahore built by Maharaja Ranjit Singh.
So what do we see now, from the mausoleum of Adham Khan to Fatehpur Sikri Mosque at Sikri near Agra to the Fatehpuri Mosque, the Digambar Jain Mandir in Delhi and the Gurudwaras at Delhi and Lahore the domes have different shapes but each one of them has the same finial. Temple, Mosque, Gurudwara—it did not matter. They sported the same crown.
And now we come to the kalash and the coconut. You would remember the Kalash, Garbh Kalash and fertility connection that I had alluded to in the beginning on this presentation. I don’t know whether it is used in other parts of India, but in North India this is standard during weddings. You have a large kalash topped by a smaller kalash and then you have the coconut on top. This has to have its roots in fertility rituals and that is why it has pride of place in a wedding—a fertility ritual solemnised.
Perhaps the most easily recognised early use of two kalashes and a cone on a dome is at the Mausoleum of Humayun. The die is now cast and the arrangement becomes like an idée fixe, you can now see it everywhere, at the Jama Masjid built by Shah Jahan, at the Moti Masjid built by Aurangzeb inside the Red Fort, at Zeenat-ul-Masajid, built by the daughter of Aurang Zeb, Zeenat-un-Nisa Begum and the Fakhr-ul-Masajid built at Kashmiri Gate by Fakhr-un-Nisa Begum, widow of one of the commanders of Aurangzeb and hundreds of other mosques.
The next motif I wish to draw your attention to is the swastik. We say that the Swastik originated here. It did not come into being with Hitler using its mirror image, but much before that. Even tribal communities in South America, who have had no connections with Brahmanical or Semitic traditions, have been known to use it. People in ancient Egypt, Greece, Malta, Tibet, Japan, and Lapland have used it and so have the Aztecs, the Balinese, the Hopi . . . the Swastik is everywhere.
The Swastik too manifests itself in Mughal architecture. One sees it in Mehrauli Archaeological Park at the mausoleum of Quli Khan, brother of Adham Khan, There are four arched openings the interiors have delicate stucco work, each arch bordered with Swastiks.
ccccThe Swastik is there at The mausoleum of Shams-ud-Din Mohammad Atagha Khan. Each face of the square structure has beautifully carved designs, the central arch on each face is flanked by a beautifully carved sandstone mehrab, with 6 Swastiks carved in the embellishments, some of the carvings, eroded due to weathering, have been recently restored as part of the restoration led by the Agha Khan Trust.
The Swastik is to be found also at Fatehpur Sikri, in the two storey palace of his senior queens, Ruqaiya Sultana and Salma Sultan. The Swastik also adorns the mausoleum of Akbar at Sikandra. You can see the Swastik given pride of place at the imposing gate, right in the middle of the inlay bands along the arch and at the two ends of the gate-four Swastiks on the outer face of the gate and four on the inner.
We end our exploration of the use of the Swastik at one of the gates of the Lahore Fort. A mosaic mural, 1,500 feet long and about 55 feet high, known as the picture wall was commissioned by Shah Jahan for the Hathi Pol (Elephant Gate) built for the exclusive use of the Royal Family. The mural is bordered with a band of Swastiks in glazed-tiles especially designed to be placed along the colourful tile mosaic murals of Angels, Humans, Animals, Birds and Flowers.
What I am trying to underscore through these images is the fact that the characterization of these symbols as Hindu symbols is of fairly recent antiquity.
Those who have been working on the history of human navigation have a theory about the origin of the Swastik: they believe it is linked to the Pole Star and the four cardinal positions of the Big Dipper around the Pole Star. When people began to navigate the seas or crossed the deserts they noticed how the Big Dipper appeared to rotate around the North Star. And we know that navigation started very early. That is how the indigenous Africans travelled and reached Australia 50,000 years ago. On the way, they also settled parts of India 60,000 years ago and another branch moved across Europe and across a land bridge to the Americas about 30,000 years ago. It were these people who discovered America, not a sailor funded by Isabela and Ferdinand of Spain. It is through the journeys of these pioneers that the Swastik could have travelled all over.
And now we come to the Star of David. We have been told that it is the Star of David and it is on the Israeli flag, but in ancient Jewish lore David is not a major player. David is perhaps first mentioned in the Hebrew Bible: Jesus mentions the name of David as an ancestor and a just king but at that time David is not a prophet, Islam came later and David has risen to the status of a prophet-Hazrat Dawood Alaihissalaam, one of the most venerated prophets in Islam, like Ibrahim, like Yakub (Abraham and Jacob, respectively).
Incidentally, it is only in the 19th century that the six cornered star begins to be used by the Jewish communities across the globe. (The Star of David: Between Judaism and Zionism Lily Gelman)
But it was not an exclusively Jewish symbol, Christians and Muslims made free use of both the Pentagram and the hexagram before it began to be identified with the Zionist movement. Aside from the Arabs and Christians, the ancient civilisations of Mesopotamians, the Japanese and the Indians had used the six cornered star. Incidentally those practicing black magic and the worshippers of the Devil also use the 6 cornered Star, the latter inscribe 666 in the hexagonal space inside the star.
We return to the first surviving dome, the Ala’i Darwaza. Here you can see the six-cornered star. There is a difference between how the star of David is usually depicted and how you see it here. Here, it is a six-cornered star inside a circle. In the Indian tradition, the two triangles represent two distinct forces, the triangle with the base placed to the south represents paurush or male energy and the triangle with the base facing north represents shakti or feminine energy; both placed inside a circle represent universe in harmony -masculine energy balanced with feminine energy. This is the Indian yin and yang. Now the question is: Is this the Star of David, the Kagome of the Japanese or the Aadi Yantra or the Shakti Chakra of the Indians?
On Adham Khan’s tomb, you see a lotus inside the Hexagram or the six cornered star of David, if indeed it is the Star of David. If, however it is the Aadi Yantra, then both are Indian symbols. You see them again on the mausoleum of Humayun. What I find intriguing is that the six-cornered star first makes an appearance in the East, South and West facing arches of the Ala’i Darwaza, then you don’t see it again for a while, it reappears in a mosque next to the Bada Gumbad at Lodi Gardens, above the central Mehrab (Arch), but it is covered in flowers and it is shifted on its axis by 45 degrees. Its next appearance is on the buildings built by Humayun and in the time of Akbar. You see it in the Purana Qila, in the tomb of Humayun, in the mosque of Jamali Kamali. But one rarely notices the hexagram in later buildings.
This makes me wonder if perhaps the symbol is connected to Humayun’s interest in astronomy; that would explain its presence in structures built during his reign and immediately afterwards. The six-cornered star is all over Humayun’s tomb, almost a dozen on each face, but one does not see them subsequently, not in such profusion in any case.
And now the Arch.
This is one of the earliest arches I have seen, (aside from the ones at Ephesus) in the foundation of the hippodrome in Istanbul. Constantine built the hippodrome when he shifted the Roman Capital here and named the city Constantinople. You can clearly see the keystone in the brick-work arch. There is some dispute about when it was built—it could have been the early third century or the first quarter of the fourth century.
The true arch is first used in the medieval period in Delhi in 1287. It is the Turks who brought the true arch to India in medieval times. What is clear is that we begin to see the use of the arch in the post-slave dynasty period because the true arch was first used on the mausoleum of Gyas-ud-Din Balban who died in 1287. So the true arch that has been known to the Turks .at least from the 4th century takes almost nine hundred years to reach India.
The shape of the arch is there in Ajanta—all the Chaitya Grihas have the shape of a vaulted roof for their ceilings. However, these are not based on an arcuate structure, because there is no keystone. These were cave like structures carved into the rock face. What they achieved were large halls, some with ornamental pillars, since they were not load bearing members. But the true arch was still to be invented.
I think the inspiration for the chaitya grihas came from an inverted boat—perhaps a builder spent a night beneath an inverted boat when he was caught in a storm and he was struck by the thought that one could build a roof like that . . .
Before the arch came into existence, there were other methods of spanning space. One of the first was the Trabeated opening. The five-storey-deep Gandhak ki Baoli had Trabeated openings towards the well at every level. The Gandhak ki Baoli was commissioned by Shams-ud-Din Altamash for the visitors to the hospice of Qutub-ud-Din Baktyaar Kaaki. Considered the patron saint of Delhi, he was the first Chishti Sufi to settle in the city.
The Trabeate was two posts supporting a beam or a lintel. The problem with the Trabeate was that it could not withstand loads. So buildings, with more than one floor, that used Trabeated openings as doors tended to collapse because the lintel on the ground floor broke under the weight of the superstructure.
ccccThe corbel was invented to solve this problem. In the Corbel, the beam or the lintel was supported by stone slabs placed upon the two posts, one atop the other in two or three layers, in such a way that they faced each other. With each layer, the distance between the stones facing their counterpart was gradually reduced and thus the lintel, now supported from beneath, could withstand a bigger load. This was the corbel.
We had been making the corbel in India for a few centuries by the time the true arch arrived. With the arrival of the true arch, a very interesting transformation began to take place. The Indian mason, used to building with huge stones and with minimal use of binding material, was not familiar with the rubble-and-mortar-based construction techniques introduced by the Turks and Central Asians and the true arch put together with wedge-shaped stone pieces made no sense to him.
His response to it was a stroke of genius: he cut the corbels in the shape of the true arch and put together a large array of arches that are really corbels impersonating the true arch. The arches in Jami Masjid built by Aibak, those on the mausoleum of Altamash’s son Nasir-ud-Din Mahmood and those on the mausoleum of Altamash and many others, built from 1192 to 1287, are all false arches.
The Indian masons did not understand the physics of the true arch and so they stuck to their tried-and-trusted Trabeate and Corbel. They inserted a lintel inside a true arch at Mohammad bin Tughlaq’s Bijay Mandal and made a corbelled arch look like a true arch at the mosque of Daulat Khan Lodi at the Rajon ki Baoli the architect gave the builders a design of a true arch but since the builders did not trust the true arch, they reasoned that the important thing was to get the shape right, and not be concerned with the engineering principles. So they built false arches, corbels that looked like true arches.
There are hundreds of examples like this in Delhi—false arches trying to look like true arches. at the mausoleum of Shams-ud-Din Altamash, you see the false arch. Instead of a key stone at the top of the arch, there is a slab of stone with a little niche cut into it to look like the peak of the arch and then there are all the separate stones, all of them buried into the wall like a corbel and totally unlike a true arch and yet, unless you look closely, you would think it is a true arch.
Adilabad in Delhi, was the palace of Muhammad bin Tughlaq when he was still a prince. This huge corbelled arch was the next step in the evolution of the arch from the Trabeate. Stone slabs, placed above the posts projected towards the opposite post and on top was placed the beam. This is how one made large gates. The beam or lintel supported the weight of the superstructure, and, if you tried to build another floor, the beam used to crack. The corbel was the solution; it supported the beam from beneath. The true arch was the next step.
Muhammad bin Tughlaq’s fort was, built in the 1320s, the true arch had arrived 33 years earlier and yet the corbel continued to rule the roost. The results of a kind of division of labour is visible throughout the Tughlaq and Lodhi periods: whenever there is a load-bearing structure, the mason inserts the corbel inside the true arch and whenever the structure is not load bearing, the masons tolerate the true arch This practice continues till the time of Akbar. You see this co habitation of the corbel ensconced within the true arch can be seen at the mausoleums of Ghyas ud Din Tughlaq, Kabir Ud Din Aulia and Isa Khan Niyazi to name a few.
You will see corbel arches at several places at Agra and Sikri for instance inside the Bengali Mahal at the Agra Fort, popularly known as Jahangir Mahal and in Sikri. You don’t see a corbel in Humayun’s tomb you only have true arches. The architect of Humayun’s Tomb sat in Delhi for nine years and said: This is how you are going to build it. But the moment the architect died, the masons got back to using the corbel! And all through the reigns of Akbar and the early phase of Jahangir’s life, the corbel is constantly inserted inside the true arches.
Let us look at the corbelled arch a little closely. One form that is constantly carved on the projecting slabs, that are used to support the lintel from below, is the head of the elephant, popularly known as the Gajalakshmi. In most temples, you will find that the first projecting stone in the corbelled arch is the lotus, in some places it is the bud of the plantain, then the lotus, then the head of the elephant – the Gajalakshmi. In many places, the Gajalakshmis hold a garland in their trunks.
But the Central Asians, did not build temples, they built Mausoleums and Mosques, the Central Asian or Iranian architects designed and the Indian masons built. One of the many structures resulting from this joint endeavour is a grand gate to the adjacent Mosque – the Bada Gumbad in the Lodi Garden, Delhi. The masons have been told that due to religious restrictions, animal figures cannot be carved in mosques and mausoleums and so the elephant-head is not permitted.
The masons have been carving the Gajalakshmi in their corbels for centuries. Sons, fathers, grandfathers, great-grandfathers have all carved this icon for generations. The man who is paying them doesn’t want it, so what do the masons do? They remove the details—the tusk, the eye and the ear, but the shape of the trunk remains. This does not happen only here, this accommodation and adaption is visible in hundreds of structures built throughout the Sultanate period.
But what is the modified Gajalakshmi and the corbel doing inside a true arch? Clearly the mason was not happy: he was convinced that the structure was going to fall. So he either inserted a beam and made it a Trabeate as at Bijay Mandal and at the Serai opposite the Mosque at the Lodi Gardens, or he inserted an entire corbel inside a true arch as at Bada Gumbad and Sheesh Gumbad at Lodi Garden.
Can you see the head of the elephant in the inserted corbel inside the true arch at the Bada Gumbad, and can you see this chess-board like carving in the middle? This is the perpetual Chinese knot. What is it doing here?
The pattern must have travelled through the Silk Route, from China to the Middle East and Central Asia, and, with the Turks, it reached India. The masons like it and they begin to carve it everywhere. You see it in Chinese paintings, in their embroidery, it is on their menus in every Chinese restaurant, it’s on their paper lanterns, it’s everywhere, including the cheek of the sandstone elephant at the Bada Gumbad. That is how things travel, can anyone claim ownership of such motifs?
Just as the Chinese knot has travelled from China to India, the true arch too has travelled, from Rome to Byzantium to Turkey, to Iran to Afghanistan to India.
It arrives and our masons begin to engage with this new form and this new building technique. They modify the corbel to look like a true arch, they quietly insert the lintel or the corbel inside the true arch. They perhaps told the architect ‘You want this? We’ll make it. If it breaks, you’ll hold us responsible, so we’ll make sure it doesn’t.’ For 300 years, they continued to “strengthen” the true arch. It is only around Shah Jahan’s time that the masons were finally convinced that ‘this will also do’.
And this is my favourite arch. It’s not visible anymore because the ASI has repaired it. But the real magic of the arch is here: can you see the sun through it? All the plaster is gone! I saw this first in 1967 when I ran away from school and spent a day in Adilabad. Then, in the first decade of the twenty-first century, when I was able to buy a camera, I went back once again, and this is the image I took. This is the magic of the arch.
Back to the mausoleum of Isa Khan: look at the pillars. This massive pillar is built with just four pieces of stone! And this one is the size of a queen-sized bed—two people can sleep on it! This base stone has two holes, these pillars have projections at both ends and the stone on top has holes. They were fitted into each other like Lego toys, very little, if any, plaster was used. This is a technique of building that prevailed and I think it was the dominant technique of building before the Turks arrived.
What you see here is perfect harmony. The entire foundation is built using techniques that were already in existence. The entire superstructure is built using rubble, limestone and brick mortar that begins to be used on a large scale after the arrival of the Turks and Central Asians. So, when two civilizations meet, they don’t spend all their time killing each other-they are also involved in creating.
I was running a creative-activity centre for kids and realized that children growing up in Delhi didn’t know anything of the city. So I started the Discover Delhi Walks for them and began to show them the city, the way my father had shown it to me. He dabbled in archaeology and other things, so he showed us how the dome, the arch and the minaret had evolved and that is what I began to do. And then, a nine-year-old boy from Kerala, with young working parents, asked me, ‘Sir, aap yeh musalmano ki building kyun dikhate hain?’ (Sir, why do you show us the buildings built by Muslim?) That is the day when I started looking at architecture closely and realised that one can perhaps dispel the idea of ‘musalmano ki building’ (‘Muslim’ buildings).
All of us have come across the term ‘Islamic architecture’, but most of us have never asked the question ‘If there is Islamic architecture, then there should be Christian architecture also. But no, out there, from where our colonisers came, you have Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, Neoclassical, you have Gothic, Prussian, Slavic, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese architectures, you even have Welsh, Scottish, Irish and English architecture. But is there any Christian architecture?’ The term does not exist, so how can we have Islamic architecture, why have we not asked this question? The term ‘Hindu architecture’ is seldom used. We have now begun to talk of Parihar, Hoysala, Bengal, Gujarat and Rajasthan architectures. But we insist that there is a bird called Islamic architecture.
The dome was built first by pre-Christian Romans for the Roman Senate, a space where everybody had equal status. Inside the Senate, Caesar and Brutus had equal power. It had to be a space where everybody could see everybody else, therefore a pillar-less structure. This process must’ve started centuries before, but eventually, in pre-Christian times, the first dome was built. Christianity was yet to be born; Islam is several centuries in the future. The first use of the dome for worship was by the Jews in their synagogues because they are a congregational religion. The shape is there, they put it to this use. Then the Christians began to use it and finally the Muslims began to use it for their congregational prayers. The Muslims are the last to use it but the dome is described as Islamic.
ccccWhat about Saint Peter’s Basilica and that white dome in Washington? Muslims have nothing to do with those. How is it that the dome suddenly becomes Islamic when it reaches Central Asia or South Asia? All over the world, all over Europe, when you look at arches or domes you don’t think of Islam but of Gothic, Neoclassical, Renaissance, Baroque. Only in South Asia or Central Asia, does it become Islamic.
ccccNow, if there was something called Islamic architecture, the most likely place to find it would be a mosque, you can’t get more Islamic than the mosque can you?
ccccSo let us look at a few mosques, we begin with the Cheraman Mosque at Kodungallur in Thrissur, Kerala This is the second mosque built in India, the first is at Ghogha in Bhavnagar Gujarat both built, if popular tradition is to be believed, at a time when Prophet Muhammad was alive. Cheraman from Kerala, it is said, travelled to Mecca, met the Prophet, converted and was on his way back home when he died. His travelling companions are the ones who are believed to have built this mosque. This is what it looked like in 1958. Subsequently, several repairs were carried out, but it continued to look like any large house in Kerala, without arches, without a dome and minarets, and a sloping tiled to face the heavy monsoons the region is subject to.
A few decades ago people from Kerala began travelling to the Gulf in search of work aside from earning petro dollars they also acquired the knowledge that the mosques in Kerala were not Islamic enough and so two squished domes and two spindly minarets were fixed to this mosque. I have learnt recently that the present management committee has decided to remove them and go back to the original shape. I hope this is true.
From Kerala to Kashmir is how we describe this land and our next halt is Srinagar in Kashmir. On the right bank of Jhelum between two of the seven bridges on the Jhelum, namely Fateh Kadal and Zaina Kadal is located one of the most famous shrines in Kashmir, known as Shah-e-Hamdan. The structure is dedicated to the memory of Saiyad Meer Ali Hamadani, the 14th century Sufi from Iran who visited Kashmir thrice and is credited with introducing papier mache, namda making and carpet and shawl weaving to Kashmir, through hundreds of his disciples who are believed to have migrated with him. Khanqa e Mu’alla (the exalted shrine) or Shah-e-Hamdan is one of the the earliest mosques in Kashmir.
Look at the crown, that is what many pagodas look like. The Fourth Buddhist Conference, I believe, was held by the Kushan King Kanishk at Kundalban at Harwan, near Srinagar in Kashmir perhaps during the 1st century CE Perhaps this design, that looks so much like a Pagoda travelled from Kashmir to China; or maybe the Chinese were already making these kinds of buildings. So you have this great similarity in the design of temples like the Shankracharya and other temples and mosques in the Kashmir Valley. You must have noticed the Absence of Arches, Minarets and Domes in this Kashmiri Mosque, just as these elements were absent in the Kerala Mosque.
Noor Jahan built a mosque in Srinagar—it is built with stone, unlike most structures in Kashmir that were built primarily with wood—so you see arches, but you do not see a dome or a minaret.
The Jama Masjid of Srinagar was built by Sultan Sikander in 1394 and extended by his son Zain-ul-Abideen. The mosque was damaged in fires three times and was rebuilt but the original layout and appearance has been retained. The earlier wooden roof was replaced with metallic corrugated sheets in the early part of the twentieth century.
The last three images in this presentation were to be the 300-year-old Talo Mano Mosque in Thailand, the fifteenth century Demak Mosque in Indonesia and the seventeenth century mosque in Beijing. I have seen images of the mosques, please go online and look for them. You will notice that all the so called elements of Islamic architecture, namely the Arch, the Minaret and the dome are missing and yet they are all Mosques. Incidentally Islam reached China in the middle of the 7th century, in Indonesia and Thailand in the 13th century. More Muslims live in Indonesia than any other country but if you look at their mosques, most will not qualify as Islamic buildings.
I rest my case about the falsity of the term ‘Islamic Architecture.’
Architecture is our response to our climate, what we build is determined by the kind of building technology we possess, the building materials available and the intended use of the proposed structure. It is not religion but these things that determine the shape of buildings that we build. The dome needs a flat roof and we build flat roofs in areas of low precipitation. In areas of high rain or snowfall, we have sloping roofs, people belonging to different religions live in all parts of the world, the architecture that has evolved in these areas is influenced by climate and not by the religion they follow.
All images courtesy: Sohail Hashmi
Sohail Hashmi graduated with honours in Geography from Delhi University and Masters and M.Phil. from JNU, gave up his Ph.D. mid way to work full time for 10 years with the CPI(M) between 1981 to 89. From 1991 to 2000 he worked as Media consultant to the National Literacy Mission and in Electronic media with PTI TV, Home TV, BiTV and Kingfisher.com, before starting his own documentary making company. From 2004 to 2008 he worked as director of Leap Years and started his heritage walks and shortly thereafter began writing on Delhi and on issues connected to culture, language and communalism.