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Iltutmish's Tomb, Delhi, 12th c, © graeme

Pre-Mughal Islamic Architecture

The earliest examples of Islamic architecture to survive in the subcontinent were built at Delhi in the late 12th century. These include the Quwat-ul-Islam mosque, a simple structure consisting of cloisters around a courtyard. The pillars of the cloister were constructed with material from demolished Jaina temples and although a massive arched fašade was later built in front to give the building an Islamic aspect, its rich floral decoration arches remained Indian in character. The Qutb Minar, a tall, fluted and intricately decorated sandstone tower provided with balconies, was built outside this mosque, an impressive reminder of the power and wealth attained by this new dynasty. Both these buildings were started by Qutb-ud-din Aibak, a Turkic ex-slave of who rose to command the armies and administer the territory of Muhammad Ghori in India. He later declared independence and thus started the Mamluk or Slave dynasty in India.

Another mosque also started by Qutb-ud-din Aibak was the Arhai-din-ka-jhompra built at Ajmer, similar to the Delhi mosque, except that the facade arches were decorated with greater restraint than the Qutb example. The next Mamluk ruler, Iltutmish, expanded and further embellished all of Qutb-ud-din's monuments but his finest creation is his own tomb whose interior, covered with Arabic inscriptions, displays a strong Indian quality in its richness. Indeed the tomb of Iltutmish would inspire many elements in the architecture of Sher Shah and the Mughals four centuries later. The hand of Indian artisans were evident in all Islamic buildings upto this point, not only in embellishment but also in construction. The arches for example were all built in the Indian corbelled style, the first use of the true arch arriving only in the late 13th century tomb of Balban.

The provinces of the Mamluk and the succeeding Khalji dynasty, gradually became independent sultanates, and often proclaimed their independence with ambitious architectural projects. One such example in Bengal is the immense Adina Masjid built at Pandua, in the mid-14th century which utilized remains of Indian temples. This remains the largest mosque in this region unsurpassed even by Mughal buildings in Bengal. Elements in the mosque's architecture such as cloisters around an open courtyard (completely incompatible with the climate) point to an attempt by a new dynasty to align itself with a Persian-Islamic culture that was starting to dominate both Asia and Europe at this time. Later Bengali mosques would have covered prayer halls and adopt local elements such as a curved cornice.


Rukn-e Alam, Multan, 14th c, © visitpakistan

In Jaunpur, Uttar Pradesh, are a group of elegant mosques, notably the Atala Masjid (late 14th century) and the Jami Masjid (mid 15th century), characterized by entrance facades that have the aspect of imposing gateways. The sultans of Malwa also built elegant structures at Mandu and at Chanderi in the middle of the 15th century. The sultanate of Gujarat, notable for its great contribution to Islamic architecture in India, built monuments in a style, which reinterprets foreign elements into an indigenous style, producing works notable for their integrity and unity. The city of Ahmadabad is full of elegant buildings. The Jami Masjid (early 15th century), for example, is a masterly exposition of the style. Fine examples dating from the second half of the 15th century are the small but exquisite mosques of Muhafiz Khan and Rani Sabrai at Ahmadabad and the handsome Jami Masjid at the city of Champaner.

In contrast to this early phase, the style of the 14th century at Delhi, ushered in by the Tughlak dynasty, is impoverished and austere. The buildings, with a few exceptions, are made of coarse rubble masonry and overlaid with plaster. The tomb of Ghiyas-ud-Din Tughluq (early 14th century), placed in a little fortress, has sloping walls faced with panels of stone and marble. Also ascribed to his reign is the magnificent tomb of Shah Rukn-e Alam at Multan in Pakistan, which is built of brick and faced with exquisite tile work. The Kotla Firuz Shah (mid 14th century), with its mosques, palaces, and tombs, is now in ruins but represents the major building activity of Firuz Shah, who took a great interest in architecture. Many mosques and tombs of this period and of the 15th century are found in Delhi and its environs. The most notable of them are the Begampur and Khirki mosques and an octagonal tomb of Khan-e Jahan Tilangani. An interesting group of monuments were built in the austere Tughlak style faraway Bengal by the energetic governor Khan-Jahan. The brick mosques and tombs built by him in and around Bagerhat, retain the thick sloping walls and bulky minarets but add local elements such as curved cornices and vaulted (chala) superstructures.

Bangalore, 2006


Photos and Text © Amit Guha