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Pluralistic & Inclusive Character Of Mughal Architecture

When Cambridge University Press decided to publish The New Cambridge History of India in four volumes with contents to be written by over 30 authors, editors thought that it would be sufficient to include summarised facts of Indian history (till the time of publication) in the book. The authors were asked to proceed accordingly. However, a 44-year-old Professor of Art History at the University of Minnesota in the US refused to follow the instruction when the publisher asked her to pen a chapter on Mughal architecture. By that time, Catherine Ella Blanshard Asher (1946 – April 14, 2023) had completed her PhD on Indo-Islamic Architecture in the 16th Century: The Patronage of Sher Shah Suri under Dr David Lelyveld, apart from publishing several articles on Islamic architecture in India. Catherine, along with her husband Frederick M Asher (May 25, 1941 – June 26, 2021), also visited India to experience the Islamic architecture. It may be noted that Frederick M Asher was the Professor Emeritus of Art History at the University of Minnesota, as he had a specialisation in South Asian art. As Catherine had more than enough information about the history of India, she refused to follow the instruction of Cambridge University Press.

Catherine’s Architecture of Mughal India was published in 1992. The title of the publication is interesting, as it is Architecture of Mughal India, and not India’s Mughal Architecture. In this work, she discussed different aspects of 332-year-long Mughal Rule (1526-1858), including the development of Mughal architecture, the evolution of Mughal architecture over time, and its impact on Indian culture in the post-Mughal period. It is a fact that British Scholar and Historian Percy Brown had penned Indian Architecture (the Islamic Period) way back in 1942. However, Catherine’s publication is completely different.

Architecture of Mughal India has become a must read in the 21st Century, as future generations may not get a chance to know about those 332 years of India’s history in detail. For a long time, a section of Indians has been promoting this particular period as the Dark Period of Indian history. Coincidentally, the Babri Masjid (or the Mosque of Babur situated in the northern Indian city of Ayodhya) was demolished in 1992, the year Catherine’s book was published. No one knows how long the Islamic architectures, dating from the late 12th Century, shall survive. The colonial British rulers had destroyed many buildings in New Delhi and Lucknow after the Indian Mutiny, also called Sepoy Mutiny or First War of Independence (against the British Rule in India), in 1857-59. Similar sort of revenge has resurfaced in different parts of the South Asian nation in recent times. Therefore, it has become important to read Catherine’s Architecture of Mughal India yet again. In her book, Catherine was able to bring to light the so-called Dark Age.

Zahīr ud-Dīn Muhammad Babur (February 14, 1483 – December 26, 1530), the great-great-great grandson of Turco-Mongol conqueror Timur, was born at Andijan in the Fergana Valley (in present-day Uzbekistan). He defeated Ibrahim Lodi, the Sultan of Delhi, at the First Battle of Panipat in 1526 and founded the Mughal Empire. Babur could not reign even for five years, as he had to fight a number of wars during that short span of time. However, he used to love gardens, trees, flowers and fruits. He built the Timuri style garden Char Bagh in Delhi, and it became the hallmark of Mughal architecture later. Although the first Mughal Emperor built just one mosque near the northern Indian city of Panipat, his generals constructed another two mosques… one in Sambhal and the other one in Ayodhya. They certainly contain some elements of Timurid style architecture; however, Babur had no skilled architects to work with that complex technology. He also had little money to build large-scale architecture, as the Emperor used to spend a huge amount to pay his soldiers. Therefore, he had to depend on local artisans, who were accustomed to the architectural style of the Sultanate Period.

The same applies to his son Humayun (born Mirza Nasir-ud-Din Baig Muhammad Khan; March 6, 1508 – January 27, 1556). It was not possible for Humayun to construct large-scale architecture during his short tenure as Emperor. Except the Sher Mandal (Sher Shah’s Pavilion) in Delhi’s Purana Qila (Old Fort) and the Humayun’s Mosque in Kachhpura village near Agra, nothing built by the second Mughal Emperor has survived. The last notable architecture of the Timurid style is Humayun’s Tomb in Delhi. Persian architect Mirak Mirza Ghiyas (also referred to as Mirak Ghiyathuddin) designed the first garden-tomb in the Indian subcontinent, as the tomb of Humayun was built by the orders of his first wife and chief consort, Empress Bega Begum (also known as Haji Begum). The construction began in 1565 and completed in 1572. According to historians, the tomb cost 1.5 million Indian Rupees, and the Empress spent the entire amount. Interestingly, there was considerable influence of Humayun’s Tomb on other Mughal architectures. In fact, the massive construction projects, initiated by third Mughal Emperor Akbar the Great (born Abu’l-Fath Jalal-ud-din Muhammad; October 15, 1542 – October 27, 1605), gave birth to a new Indian architectural style. The Agra Fort, the main residence of the rulers of the Mughal Dynasty (until 1638) built by Akbar in 1565-73, is one of them. It would be wrong to label it as a mere Mughal architecture.

The architecture of the Delhi Sultanate from the late 12th Century to the early 16th Century incorporated much of the earlier Indian style. One can find the style of temple architecture in various mosques built in the 12th Century. The Qutb Mosque (1191-92) in Delhi and Adhai Din Ka Jhonpra (literally Shed of 2½ days, a historical mosque in the city of Ajmer in Rajasthan, India built in 1192) are fine examples of this. It may be noted that Adhai Din Ka Jhonpra is one of the oldest mosques in India, and the oldest surviving monument in Ajmer. In an article written in 1972, Architect Michael Mester mentioned that not all pillars used in mosques in Ajmer were part of Hindu or Jain temples. The Indian artisans had created many plain pillars, imitating ornate temple pillars. Those were placed at a normal height, and topped by two rows of ornate pillars. Later, Finbarr Barry Flood discussed more such precedents in detail in his 2009 publication Objects of Translation, Material Culture and Medieval Hindu-Muslim Encounter.

Catherine had an opportunity to visit one such mosque at Bari Khatu in northern Indian Province of Rajasthan. The direct use of temple architecture is minimal in those mosques, which include Shahi Mosque (1203). No real arches or domes were used anywhere in those mosques. Instead, domes were placed with the help of lintel and corbel systems. According to historians, the Muslim rulers hardly built any mosque after destroying a temple in India. Catherine mentioned in her book that whenever the State decided to demolish a temple, people challenged the Emperor’s political authority. Interpreting this as a religious frenzy would be a great mistake.

Catherine further discussed this issue in another article on the basis of research works carried out by Mester. She analysed how various styles of pre-12th Century temple architecture were used by Muslim rulers while implementing construction projects. This new form of Indian architecture was nourished by elements from a wide area, ranging from Central Asia and Persia to the Bay of Bengal. The roots of this cultural influence lie in the historical context of India. A section of researchers has identified it as the Renaissance of Indian architecture, and not as a Dark Age.

In addition to explaining this pluralistic and inclusive character of Mughal architecture, Catherine drew attention to two other aspects. Firstly, to look beyond the capital or centre of royal rule. The regional influence is evident in huge architectural projects sponsored by the royal generals or high officials in different provinces of the Mughal Empire, including Lahore, Delhi, Agra, Fatehpur Sikri, etc. Catherine called this sub-imperial patronage or sub-royal patronage, and discussed the construction of palaces, temples and mosques by Mirza Raja Man Singh I (December 21, 1550 – July 6, 1614) in this context. Man Singh was a Kachhwaha-Mughal General and Minister, who served as the 24th Ruler of Amber from 1589 to 1614, as well as the Subahdar of Bengal for three terms from 1595 to 1606. He also served in the Imperial Mughal Army under Emperor Akbar. Secondly, Catherine also discussed the architecture of the late Mughal Empire. Previously, researchers ignored this particular aspect of Indian architecture.

Experts are of the opinion that Catherine’s attempt to uncover the vast heritage of Islamic architecture in the eastern Indian Province of West Bengal and neighbouring Bangladesh would guide researchers in the coming years. This is an ideal time to go through her works.

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