Islam in South Asia

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    Glorious achievements of Islamic architecture in the South Asian sub-continent

    The most famous artistic architectural tradition of Muslims in South Asia is known to Europeans as "Mogul architecture". Everyone is familiar with one of the climaxes of this tradition: the Taj Mahal in the northern Indian city of Agra.

    Of the various Mogul emperors in Hindustan, Shah Jahan (who ruled from 1628 to 1658) was the most active building contractor. He not only had the Taj Mahal constructed as a monument to his favourite wife Arjumand Banu Begum after her death in 1629, but was also responsible for the replanning of the imperial residence in Delhi, named Shahjahanabad after him. While Shah Jahan ruled over a mighty and culturally extremely creative empire in northern India, almost at the same time as the Thirty Years War in Germany, a local mixed architectural style had already developed there, called the Mogul style by art historians.

    The model of the Mogul architecture

    The Mogul style’s characteristics derive on the one hand from the area of origin of the Turko-Mongolian imperial dynasty, Timuridish Central Asia, with its former capital city of Samarkand, and on the other hand from the indigenous architectural tradition resembling that of neighbouring Persia. Pavilion-shaped roof decorations, either as a balustrade element or freely attached, may have derived from the architectural tradition of Rajasthan in western India. The models for these roof decorations of Mogul buildings are the local vaulted pavilions (chattris), e.g. the ones in Gwalior or the ones above the graves of local potentates in the Rajasthan desert near Jaisalmer. The gate formation with interior vaulting (iwan) and the symmetrical enclosed gardens divided into four parts (char bagh) were taken over from Persia. One interpretation of the concept of the Paradise Garden in the Koran was taken over by the Moguls, e.g. in the garden tombs of Humayun in Delhi, Akbar in Sikandra and Mumtaz Mahal in Agra.

    Just as in India’s heartland there was a synthesis of various stylistic elements at the time of the Mogul emperors, a similar dialogue developed between the building contractor’s functional demands and the craft traditions of those carrying out the work in the regions on the fringes of the Indian sub-continent. Historical mosque constructions of the most northerly and most southerly states in the Indian union may serve as examples, mosques in Kashmir and Kerala. The two regions are characterised by what are for India extreme levels of precipitation. In Kerala, the south-westerly monsoon begins in early June each year with its daily, very heavy rain showers. This meteorological drama is repeated in Kerala in the autumn, this time coming from the north-east. Kashmir also has precipitation, but of a quite different kind. It has a high altitude climate, which often brings considerable quantities of snow in the winter months.

    These weather conditions have led to special roof forms in the two regions. Although the pyramid roofs are formally independent in the two regions, their constructions also have significant parallels. Roofs with a very acute angle are useful to drain off heavy rainfall or transfer large amounts of snow, as are gabled and pyramid-shaped roofs. In Kottayam in Kerala, there is a mosque with an impressive gabled roof and very intricate gable ornamentation. In Kochi, which is not far away, however, there is a type of building that is also to be found in Kashmir: a mosque with a pyramid-shaped roof.

    Landscape Gardening in India

    GardenWhile there are great similarities between the shapes of roofs in Kerala and Kashmir, there are major differences with regard to another characteristic of Islamic architecture in India. In Kashmir, impressive gardens from the Mogul period have survived. In Kerala, there is not a single magnificent Islamic garden of the kind that served in the north as Paradise Gardens surrounding tombs or recreational gardens for the royal family. There were no such contractors in Kerala. The Muslim population here consisted primarily of trading families, and no Islamic dynasty reigned here with such imperial claims to power as the Moguls did in the north.

    The oldest garden in Kashmir is a palace garden in the citadel of Hari Parbat on Sharika mountain, of which today only fragments survive, but which once had great emotional significance for three Mogul emperors (Akbar, Jahangir und Shah Jahan) - the Bagh-i Nur Afza (i.e. the Nur Afza Garden). Indisputably the most famous gardens, and one of the most popular destinations for Indian couples on their honeymoons before the outbreak of civil war in Kashmir in the 1980s, are the Shalimar gardens, which were created for the Mogul Empress Nur Jahan by her husband Jahangir from 1616.

    Seen in formal terms, there are two basic types of Islamic gardens in India, most of which were created during the Moguls’ rule (1526 – 1858): firstly the char bagh (the garden with a square plan divided symmetrically into four smaller squares of the same size) and secondly the terraced garden. The garden that is certainly the most significant from the point of view of its aesthetic and political conception is the one in the Red Fort (Shahjahanabad) of “Old” Delhi inspired by Shah Jahan. The Viennese Professor Ebba Koch believes that the garden had a political function – it was created as a vision of the ideal dynasty, as a symbol of eternal spring, a paradise on earth.

    The outstanding achievements of Islamic master builders and garden architects in the South Asian sub-continent are impressive evidence of the creativity and magnificence of Islamic artists in the cultural biotope of South Asia, which was and continues to be marked by diverse religiously-orientated artistic influences.

    Ebba Koch: Mughal Art and Imperial Ideology - Collected Essays. New Delhi, 2001.

    Falk Reitz
    is an art historian and teaches at the Institute for Indian Literature and Art History at the Free University of Berlin.

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