Home Sites Essays Monuments

Fatehpur Sikri, 16th c, © M Leiter

Mughal Architecture

After the initial phase of monumental and innovative Islamic architecture under the Mamluks, north India went through a somewhat uninspired phase under the Tughlaks and the Afghans. In the early 16th century, Sher Shah Sur refined upon the Tughlak style, the Qalah-e Kuhnah Masjid and his tomb at Sasaram being the finest of a series of distinguished works that were created during his reign. The recovery of the Mughal dynasty under Akbar marked the beginning of a striking resurgence of the arts, music, and architecture in Islamic northern India. In all these cultural pursuits, Persian, Indian, and the various provincial styles were successfully fused to produce works of unusual refinement and quality. While it is clear that Mughal architecture derived from Persia and from earlier Indo-Islamic structures such as Iltutmish's tomb, successive Mughal rulers and architects refined these components to produce a unique and consistent style exemplified in later Mughal buildings like the Taj Mahal and Itmad-ud-daula's tomb in Agra.

The tomb of Humayun, begun by Akbar in the mid-16th century, inaugurates the new style. Built entirely of red sandstone and marble, it shows considerable Persian influence. The great fort at Agra (late 16th century) and the city of Fatehpur Sikri (mid-16th century) also represent the building activities of the emperor Akbar. The Jami Masjid at Fatehpur Sikri, with the colossal gateway known as the Buland Darwaza, for example, is one of the finest mosques of the Mughal period. Other notable buildings include the palace of Jodha Bai, which has a strongly indigenous aspect, the exquisitely carved Turkish Sultana's house, the Panch Mahal, the Divan-e Amm, and the hall of private audience. The patrons interest in Hindu architecture is clear, as most of the buildings are of post and lintel construction, arches being used very sparingly.

Buland Darwaza, Fatehpur Sikri, 1576

Architectural undertakings during the reign of Akbar's son Jahangir were not very ambitious, but some fine buildings were built by Jahangir within the Lahore fort. The tomb of Akbar at Sikandra near Agra, also completed by Jahangir, is of an unusual and somewhat confused design with five terraces, four of red sandstone and the uppermost of white marble. The tomb of Nur Jahan's father Itimad-ud-Dawla, at Agra, is the accomplishment of this reign. This small tomb of exquisite workmanship is built entirely of delicately inlaid marble.

The next Mughal emperor, Shah Jahan was the most prolific builder. His interest in architecture developed at an early age and he commissioned several buildings, particularly at Lahore, even before he became emperor. Once emperor, he built a new citadel at Delhi within the great Red Fort, with its dazzling hall of public audience, the flat roof of which rests on rows of columns and pointed, or cusped, arches, and the Jami Masjid which is among the largest and finest mosques in India. Through the course of his reign, Shah Jahan's architectural projects became both more ambitious and more elegant as well, and it is the Taj Mahal built in the late 17th century as a tomb for Queen Mumtaz Mahal, that is the greatest masterpiece of his reign. Other notable buildings of the reign of Shah Jahan include the Moti Masjid and the Jami Masjid at Agra.

Panel, Itimad Ud Daulah's Tomb, 1628

Architectural monuments of the reign of Aurangzeb are usually considered to represent a distinct decline in architectural achievement. This emperor spent considerable energy in the battlefield both before and after he ascended the throne leaving little time for artistic pursuits. The tomb of his wife Rabiah Begam at Aurangabad is often cited as a poor copy of the Taj Mahal, although the building is impressive on its own. That the Mughal architects still had the calibre to produce beautiful monuments is proved by the royal mosque at Lahore which retains the grandeur and dignity of earlier work, and the Moti Masjid at Delhi which is a small marble building that possesses much of the early refinement and delicacy. The tomb of Safdar Jang at Delhi built in the mid-18th century was among the last important works to be produced under the Mughal dynasty. While this and other sub-imperial buildings such as those at Dhaka in were excellent monuments on their own, the coherence and balance characteristic of mature Mughal architecture was lost.

Hindu kingdoms, in particular the Rajput dynasties of Rajasthan, managed to retain varying degrees of independence during the long period of Islamic supremacy in North India. They commanded significant resources and so were able to produce lavish secular works in a style that was primarily Islamic but incorporated many elements of traditional Indian architecture. Among the Hindu structures of this period are the extensive series of palaces, all in ruin, built by Rana Kumbha in the 15th century at Chitor, and the superb Man Mandir palace at Gwalior (late 15th century), a rich and magnificent work that influenced the development of Mughal architecture at Fatehpur Sikri.

Bangalore, 2006

Photos and Text © Amit Guha