Image by 🇸🇮 Janko Ferlič



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.

Grecian amphora, The British Museum

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.

Cooking Vessels Harappan, 2300-2200 BCE Baluchistan

Roman Amphoras

Harappan Burial Pottery C 1900 BCE

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.


Detail from Masjid-ul-Islam

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.

Kalash with spikes

From Alamash’s extension to the Mosque

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.

Detail from south gate of Ala’i Darwaza

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.

Detail from Mosque built by Qutub-ud-Din Aibak

Detail from Ala’i Darwaza

Detail from Jamali Kamali Mosque

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.

Sheesh Mahal ceiling, Delhi

Lotus shaped fountain inside the Rang Mahal, Delhi

Mosque at Lahore

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.