The Mughal Empire has earned universal praise for its architectural achievements. Its buildings combine strength with refinement and delicacy. It has been rightly said that “the Mughals built like Titans and finished like jewelers.” The Mughals brought with them the Turko-Iranian cultural traditions, which were amalgamated with Indian traditions to form the composite Mughal culture.
The Mughals were great patrons of art and architecture. They took a keen interest in the planning of forts, palaces, mosques, tombs, and even new townships. They had their own ideas about the construction of buildings. The Indian subcontinent had already developed traditions of Muslim architecture that produced great buildings like the Qutb Minar and Alai Darwaja in Delhi, and the Screen in the Mosque of Quwwat-ul-Islam, before the Mughals began their building programs.
Babar – The history of Mughal architecture begins with Babar, who had left behind the magnificent architecture of the Timurids in Central Asia. He was not impressed by the urban lifestyle and buildings of the Indians. It is said that the only place that moved him to any degree of enthusiasm was Gwalior, where he was thrilled to see the magnificent fort, palaces, and other public buildings constructed by its Rajput rulers.
Babar records in Tuzuk-i-Babri that he employed thousands of masons, stone-cutters, and unskilled laborers at Delhi, Agra, Dholpur, Gwalior, Bayana, Panipat, and Koil for the construction of public buildings and mosques. The work on these buildings was in progress when he breathed his last after a rule of merely four years. Of the buildings erected during his reign, only two mosques have survived the wear and tear of time, namely Panipat and Sambhal. None of these possesses any outstanding architectural beauty. He did not introduce any new style or movement and left hardly any impression on Indian architecture. Babar intended to invite a pupil of the once-renowned Albanian architect Sinan from Constantinople to take charge of the building activities, but the plan did not materialize due to his untimely death.
Humayun – The adverse political circumstances did not afford much opportunity for Humayun to undertake any significant architectural activity. In the early years of his reign, he built a palace for himself in Delhi named ‘Dinpanah’. It was razed to the ground by his political rival Sher Shah, probably to wipe out the symbols of Mughal rule in India. Two mosques from Humayun’s period, one in Agra and another in Fatehabad in Hissar, are also partially in ruins. Thus, the contribution of Humayun and his father to the growth of Mughal architecture is almost negligible.
Akbar – The Mughal architectural style began as a definite movement under Akbar. He was a great builder, and his department for the construction of buildings seemed to have been well organized and extensive. Abul Fazl talks about the construction of forts, palaces, tanks, inns, wells, schools, and places of worship. The emperor took a personal interest in the department. Abul Fazl emphasizes that architecture reflects the ideals of the builder and says about Akbar that he “gives expression to his heart and soul in the garment of stone and clay.” The mausoleum of Humayun in Delhi heralded the new movement under Akbar. In spirit, the structure of Humayun’s tomb stands as an example of the synthesis of two great building traditions of Asia, namely Persian and Indian, and the full efflorescence of Mughal architecture depended on this happy synthesis. But Akbar’s policy and ideals regarding architecture were fundamentally different from those reflected in the tomb of Humayun. He wanted to create a style with an independent Indian character.
Akbar was the founder of several fortified royal residences, each of which served as his capital during that period. He built three formidable forts, one each at Agra, Lahore, and Allahabad. Each one was adorned with the most impressive and expensive buildings for use by the imperial household and the nobility. The first of these royal residences to be erected was the fort at Agra, which was completed in 1573. Akbar laid the foundation of this impregnable fort on the site where the brick fort of Sikandar Lodi previously stood. Only a few of the numerous buildings at Agra have survived. Among those that have escaped destruction, mention may be made of two palatial buildings known as the ‘Jahangiri Mahal’ and ‘Akbari Mahal’. In general character, the fort of Lahore greatly resembles the Fort at Agra, which was built at the same time but was even more splendid in plan and execution. The fort at Allahabad was erected at a later stage.
In the construction of these forts, Akbar extensively used red sandstone with the intermingling of white marble in his building structures. The salient features of his buildings were an ideal synthesis of Hindu and Muslim art traditions, giving them a perfectly homogeneous shape, construction of magnificent domes, arches, imposing gateways, portals, and the wholesale incorporation of Hindu decorative art designs.
Fatehpur Sikri – Akbar’s most ambitious and magnificent architectural undertaking was the new capital city that he built, 36 km away from Agra, which was abandoned after being occupied for only fifteen years. The capital city was named to commemorate his conquest of Gujarat in 1572. The buildings of Fatehpur Sikri fall into two broad categories: (a) The Secular monuments and (b) The religious monuments.
(a) The Secular Monuments included palaces, pavilions, inns, and office buildings, which were by far the most numerous, illustrating various designs and shapes. The main buildings included the imperial secretariat, Diwan-i-Khas, Diwan-i-Aam, Panch Mahal, the palaces of Jodha Bai, Turkish Sultana, Mariam Makani, and Birbal, the sleeping chambers, Library, Ibadat Khana, and the Imperial treasury of Akbar.
(b) The Religious Monuments – The most impressive creation of Fatehpur Sikri is the magnificent Jama Masjid, which has been described as the glory of Fatehpur Sikri. Jama Masjid is one of the largest mosques in Northern India with the biggest courtyard. The southern entrance to the Jama Masjid is a lofty and impressive gateway known as the Buland Darwaza. It was erected to commemorate the victory in the south. The total height of this gateway, including the supporting terrace, is 53 meters. The fabric of this gateway is made of red stone, which is relieved by carving and discreet inlaying of white marble, emphasizing the bold features of the composition. With its towering height and immense bulk, the Buland Darwaza presents an imposing appearance from any angle it is viewed.
The two other important monuments within the enclosure are the tombs of Shaikh Salim Chisti and his grandson Islam Khan. The mausoleum of Shaikh Salim Chisti, the patron saint of Sikari, is a beautiful square and small structure built of white marble. The pierced corridors of this tomb are finely carved.
Fatehpur Sikri took about eleven years to complete (1569 to 1580), and though it is now a deserted place, it still presents an impressive revelation of a mighty personality. According to Fergusson, it is a reflection of the great man who built it.
Chief Characteristic of Akbar’s Architecture – Akbar made a conscious effort to amalgamate the two existing styles and laid the foundation of the national Indian character. The management of monuments erected during his reign fully justified Abul Fazl’s remark that “His Majesty plans splendid edifices and inquires into every detail connected with the architecture department, which is so difficult to be managed and requires such large sums. He has passed new regulations, kindled the lamp of honesty, and put a stock of practical knowledge into the hands of simple and inexperienced men.”
According to Monserrate, “the splendor of Akbar’s palaces approaches closely to those of the royal buildings of Europe. They are magnificently built, from foundation to cornice, of hewn stone and are decorated both with painting and carving. Unlike the palaces built by other Indian kings, they are lofty, and the palaces are also decorated with many pinnacles supported on four columns, each of which forms a small covered portico. In conclusion, we can say that in Akbar’s buildings, there is a predominance of indigenous designs, motifs, and practices. His architectural style, built upon the traditions of the soil, was a truly national art movement.
Jahangir – With Akbar’s death, the style of architecture took a turn. Islamic elements began to dominate, and arches, domes, and vaulted roofs came into greater use than pillars, beams, and brackets. The silhouette became more calligraphic with the flowing lines of minarets and domes.
Jahangir’s contribution to the building art is insignificant compared to the projects of his father. The earliest project of Jahangir was the completion of the mausoleum of Akbar at Sikandara. It is an unconventional type of tomb and is unimpressive because it lacks the quality of mass, which is one of the principles of beauty, and coherence, which is the basis of the style. Jahangir was rather fond of laying gardens. Some of the gardens in Kashmir and Lahore were laid out at his orders. One of the most famous gardens laid by him was Shalimar Bagh in Kashmir. Itmad-ud-Daulah’s tomb near Agra, constructed under the direction of Nur Jahan, is one of the finest buildings of its kind in the country and is adorned with mosaic work and painting inside. Under Jahangir’s patronage, a great mosque was built in Lahore, which rivals that at Delhi built by his son Shah Jahan.
In the history of Mughal architecture, the reign of Jahangir marks the period of transition between the phase of his father Akbar and his son Shah Jahan. The most important feature of his reign is the substitution of red sandstone with white marble. He also loved colors, and this was imparted to the buildings of his period through encaustic ling and the practice of ‘pietra dura’ (the Italian art of inlaid mosaic work of hard and precious stones of various hues and shades), which began towards the end of his reign and reached its culmination in the days of Jahangir.
Shah Jahan – Shah Jahan’s reign is, without a doubt, the golden age of Medieval India from the point of view of the development of art and architecture. During his reign, Mughal architecture reached its supreme exuberance. He was a builder par excellence. He had an inborn taste for it. From his early youth, he never felt contented until he had suitably altered and renovated the apartments assigned to him for his residence. The two natural traits of Shah Jahan’s character, vanity, and ambition, were primarily responsible for his devotional attachment to architectural activity.
Shah Jahan chose marble as the chief medium for all his architectural undertakings and adorned them with a lavish display of rich and sumptuous ornamentation. He procured pure white marble from the quarries of Makrana in Nagaur. The architectural changes in his reign can be summed up in the following words: “There is a preference for curved lines, replacing the rectangular aspect of the buildings in the previous phase, particularly noticeable in the curved outlines of the roofs and cornices. The preference for bulbous domes with constricted necks, pillars with tapering outlines and voluted brackets and foliated bases, and the foliated shape of arches all reflect the emphasis on curved lines.”
With a refined taste for architectural designs and a passionate love for white marble, Shah Jahan did not appreciate the massive buildings erected by Akbar in Red Sandstone at Agra, Lahore, and elsewhere. He actually pulled down some of Akbar’s buildings and erected new ones of white marble in their place. He made a substantial contribution to the vast building complex of the fort by constructing the Diwan-i-Khas, Diwan-i-Aam, Moti Masjid, Jasmine Burj, Khas Mahal, Shish Mahal, Machchi Mahal, and other apartments for the royal ladies.
The Jasmine Burj, popularly known as Musamman Burj, is a beautiful marble building. It faces the river Yamuna and was originally adorned with precious stones. It was here that Shah Jahan spent the last days of his life under the captivity of his son and successor, Aurangzeb. The Moti Mosque is by far the most beautiful of all the architectural monuments of the Agra Fort. Made of white marble, it is situated on an elevated terrace in the courtyard to the north of the Diwan-i-Aam. It measures 187 by 234 feet and was built in seven years at a cost of three lakhs of rupees. It represents the Mughal architectural style at its zenith.
In 1638, Shah Jahan began the construction of a new capital city, Shahjahanabad, in Delhi because he did not want Agra to be his imperial residence. Founded in 1638 and carefully planned to be a “veritable heaven on earth,” Shahjahanabad was perhaps the last important city to be built by an imperial ruler in medieval India. He erected a fort at Delhi in 1648, which is known as the Red Fort because of the red sandstone fabric of its rampart walls. The Shah Mahal and the Rang Mahal are the two most important buildings inside the Red Fort. The magnificent Jama Masjid, the largest and most well-known in the whole country, also forms part of the city’s scheme. The Diwan-i-Khas of the Red Fort, which housed the ‘Takhat-i-Taus’ or the peacock throne, was one of Shah Jahan’s most richly ornamented buildings, depicting his grandeur at its height.
Among the most important architectural structures of Shah Jahan, we can mention the marble tomb of Nizam-ud-Din Auliya in Delhi, the mausoleum of Jahangir in Lahore, the dome of the shrine of Shaikh Muin-ud-Din Chisti in Ajmer, and the magnificent Anasagar Lake in Ajmer.
All the architectural structures of Shah Jahan pale in comparison to the superb conception of the mausoleum of his wife, Mumtaz Mahal, in Agra. It is known as the Taj Mahal after the title of the empress. A vision of Shah Jahan, embodied in milk-white marble, it represents one of the finest specimens of cultural heritage for mankind. It has been poetically described as a “tender elegy in marble.” The theory that the Taj owes its design to a Venetian, Geronimo Verroneo, is misleading. It is now universally acknowledged that the Taj is the work purely of Indian architects, artisans, and craftsmen, representing the climax of the Indian style, true to Asian traditions and unaffected by European influence. Its chief designer was Ustad Ahmad Lahori, who was honored by the emperor with the lofty title of ‘Nadir-ul-Asar.’
Besides the chief architect, there were Mukarramat Khan and Mir Abdul Karim (architects), Ismail Khan Rumi (maker of the chief dome), Imanat Khan Shiraji (engraver of the Arabic inscriptions), Banuhar, Zorawar, and Jhat Mal (the sculptors), Isa Khan (mason), Pira (carpenter), and Ram Mal Kashmiri (gardener). The structural work of the building was primarily handled by Muslims, while the decoration was mainly the work of Hindu craftsmen. The most difficult task of preparing the pietra dura was entrusted to a group of Hindu craftsmen from Kannauj. It took twenty-two years to complete the entire structure at a cost of three crores of rupees; the main marble dome alone took twelve years to finish.
The Taj Mahal, with its associated garden and building complex, is in the form of a rectangle measuring 1,900 by 1,000 feet. The structure is enclosed by a high wall, surmounted by four arcaded marble pavilions, one at each of its four corners. The main gateway to the mausoleum within the courtyard is a magnificent red sandstone structure of architectural value. Its facade contains beautiful calligraphic inscriptions in Arabic. The main structure of the mausoleum stands on a rectangular marble platform with a plinth level of 22 feet. It is adorned with a cupola at each corner, while the main dome of pearl-white marble in the center is supported on a tall marble drum and rises to a height of 187 feet. The dome is spherical in shape and rests on the drum like a ball on the top of a cup. On each of the four corners of the platform, there is a minaret crowned by a kiosk.
To sum up, we can say that the buildings constructed in Shah Jahan’s reign stand as a living monument of unsurpassed engineering skill. They have maintained their charm and freshness in full vigor and they sumptuously feast the eyes of visitors from all corners of the world. Their sublimity, peace, elegance, and though over-elaboration in some of them may appear a little grotesque to an expert, yet the untrained eye is simply enchanted by their all-round beauty. Even if the entire mass of historical literature had perished and only these buildings remained to tell the story of Shah Jahan’s reign, there is little doubt that it would still be pronounced the most magnificent in history.
Aurangzeb – The golden age of Mughal architecture withered away with the death of Shah Jahan. An age of decadence followed under Alamgir I, Aurangzeb, who could not contribute any new ideas or forms to the Mughal style of architecture. The Deccan wars during his reign did not permit any extensive building program. The buildings constructed during his period are few and of a decidedly inferior quality. No doubt, it was difficult to surpass the Taj Mahal and the Jama Masjid, yet the Padshahi Mosque in Lahore and the Moti Masjid in Delhi are not insignificant contributions to architecture.
Erected in 1679, the tomb of Aurangzeb’s queen Raba-ud-Durrani in Aurangabad is an example of the rapid deterioration of Mughal architecture. This tomb is a very mediocre production which, according to Fergusson, “narrowly escapes vulgarity and bad taste.” With the demise of Aurangzeb, even the outer shell of Mughal architecture collapsed.