Mughal Architecture in India: Techniques, Inspirations and Influences

Aerial view of Fathpur Sikri

•Syed Ali Nadeem Rezavi

Aligarh Society of History and Archeology [ASHA]

From the analysis of the actual builders as mentioned in our sources as well as some modern works done on them by the present author, amongst others, it becomes clear that the architects and engineers, who planned and designed the buildings were generally Central Asians, Iranians or Timurids, whereas the “master-craftsmen” like the masons, bricklayers, carpenters and others, if not all non-Muslims, were generally Indians. This was bound to have impact on the architecture that they jointly created.

New techniques of building construction and new building materials were introduced by the time that Mughal Empire came to be established.[1] The constructional principle applied in India before the Ghurian conquest of the late twelfth and thirteenth centuries was trabeate, in which all spaces were spanned by means of beams laid horizontally. Through this technique, the resultant structures would be flat-roofed and low. No building or open-halled structure could be constructed without raising the roofs to excessive heights through stepped inclining walls (as in śikhara).[2] Heaviness, not lack of durability, was the consequence of trabeate architecture. Built of heavy building material, generally stone, they would also not be in need of mortar or cementing material: the law of gravitational pull would help in holding them together.

This had, during the Sultanate period been replaced by the arcuate technique with its consequent use of bricks and lime mortar. The use of these new building materials: the lime-mortar, gypsum, surkhī and the brick which they helped to bind, led to cheaper costs of construction. There was a proliferation in the building constructional activity. With cheaper costs, men of lesser means could also indulge in the luxury of building activity. Thus if previously only public structures and places of worship were generally constructed, now a large variety of buildings, both religious (mosques, temples, tombs, Khānqahs) and secular (palaces, sarāis, bazars and residential structures, works of hydraulics etc) sponsored both by king and laity resulted.

Some other aspects of Mughal Architecture worth our consideration include the digging of foundations and the techniques of lifting stones and other heavy material and their transportation from one place to another.

From Shāhjahān’s reign we have some information as to how the foundations were laid to give a firm base to the superstructures, especially on river-fronts. At the time of laying the foundation, the chief architects, the muhandis and/or the mi‘mār first chalked out the plan on the ground and then the diggers (bēldār) excavated the foundations to considerable depths.[3] The foundations of the Tāj Maḥal were “built of stone (sang) and [watertight] mortar (saruj).”[4] Abū Ṭālib Kalīm gives us the details of how the foundation near the river bank was laid out:

Since there is sand where there is a river, it is difficult to lay down foundations: As sand is removed, it fills in again.

They dig a well (chāh) to manage the work and firmly set in wood, all the while taking out sand from inside until they reach the solid ground below.

This well they fill up with stones and iron up to the surface.

Another well is similarly sunk nearby in the same fashion so that the building may be erected on them, which rises like a mountain.[5]

From this it is clear that the foundations were secured through double-well constructions, each cased with wood and filled with rubble and iron and bound with a leak-proof mortar. Such wells filled with rubble were not only encountered during the excavations of the Archaeological Survey of India on the foundations of the Tāj Maḥal[6], but have also been encountered during subsequent surveys and explorations at a number of places along the river at Agra.[7]

As far as the lifting of heavy building material and transporting large blocks of stone is concerned, it appears that the Mughal architects resorted to certain techniques which probably had been in existence at least from the late fourteenth century.

A perusal of the Mughal miniatures depicting constructional activity fails to provide any evidence of the use of wheel barrows or pulleys, which latter however are witnessed in Persian miniatures. The simplest way of lifting weights was through wicker-baskets carried on labourer’s heads climbing the wooden ramps.[8] But there is no depiction of the capstan nor that of a pulley in the Mughal miniatures. However we do hear of a device, jarr-i saqīl, which was used for dragging, hoisting or hauling heavy objects.[9] Was this just a general term for a device or was it a technique for lifting heavy objects? Or was it indeed the ‘capstan’ which was being referred thus? When Jahangir ordered the re-erection of an Aṣokan Pillar at Allāhabād Fort, and had his inscription put over it, his engineers would have certainly used a device other than a ramp to erect a 40 to 50 ton heavy and 10.7 m long pillar.

We have some evidence regarding this from a manuscript of an anonymous text, Sīrat-i Fīruzshāhi copied and illustrated in 1002 AH / 1593-94 AD during the reign of Akbar.[10] The series of illustrations in this manuscript not only explain the text, but show capstans being used to lift and transport the heavy stone pillars.[11] The text applies the term charkh for these capstans. Their use and depiction in this illustrated text is not surprising as we know that capstans had been used in the operation of military devices known as manjanīq (mangonel or trebuchet). These machines were first used by the Chinese in 5th-6th Century. The first image of such a machine originates from a wall painting in the Pendzhikent palace in Central Asia in Samarqand, and dates back to the end of the 7th or the beginning of the 8th century. It depicts a human-operated machine employing a sling.[12] The most important surviving technical treatise on these machines is Kitāb anīq fi al-Manajanīq (An Elegant Book on Trebuchets), written in 1462 AD by Yūsuf ibn Urunbugha al-Zaradkash. One of the most profusely illustrated Arabic manuscripts ever produced, it provides detailed construction and operating information. These writings are particularly significant because they offer a unique insight into the applied mechanics of pre-modern societies.[13] This mechanical device consisted of a wooden beam pivoted on a wooden stand. The short arm of the beam has a counterweight put on it, while the long arm had a sling suspended at its far end which carried the missile or projectile which was usually in the form of a large piece of stone. In the hands of the Mongols a winch or a capstan had been added to it which made it possible for lesser number of men to pull down the long arm. Probably this was the type of the machine which was used in the battle of Sind during the thirteenth century.[14] A drawing by Thomas Bowrey and a description of a hauling of ship during repairs in 1679 at Narsapur in Coastal Andhra also brings to light the use of ‘crab’, which was a form of capstan and tackles which are used to concentrate hauling power by slowing down the movement.[15] This device has also not been mentioned by any of the contemporary indigenous sources.

The series of illustrations of Sīrat-i Fīruzshāhi also depict boats and carts which were used to carry heavy loads from one place to another. Manrique, who witnessed the construction of the building of the Tāj Mahal in 1640-41 too mentions the use of the bullock cart to transport the building blocks:

Some of these blocks, which I met on the way…were of such unusual size and length that they drew the sweat of many powerful teams of oxen and of fierce-looking, big-horned buffaloes, which were dragging enormous, strongly made wagons, in teams of twenty or thirty animals.[16]

From the Akbarnāma paintings we come to know that once these heavy slabs arrived on the construction site, they were sectioned with the help of iron wedges and sledgehammers.[17] The double-page illustration of the Construction of the Agra Fort depicts not only a bullock-cart bringing a heavy slab, but also the process of cleaving and splitting of the stone slabs with the use of hammers and iron wedges, as well as the wooden ramp on which labourers are shown carrying heavy blocks with the help of rope slings tied to bamboo poles. They support themselves using a walking stick.

It was not that the local artisans, engineers and architects were only learning from the newcomers. A number of scholars like E.B. Havell have emphasized the indigenous influences and sources for the emerging architecture. To Havell, the mihrāb was a Buddhist loan of the niche to Islam. Even the term butkhāna used by the Arabs for the temples was a corruption of ‘Bud-khāna’ or Buddha-house.[18] In fact he went on to argue that the ‘Saracenic’ art which came to India had been Indianized before it crossed the Indus.[19] Thus the bulbous dome, as at the Tāj Mahal, was a derivation from the Buddhist Stupa tradition.[20]

The recent scholarship on Mughal Architecture can be broadly divided into two ideological groups: One, which like Havell emphasise the indigenous influences and sources, and the other, to whom the Medieval Indian architecture was basically derived from Persian and Central Asian traditions.

The first group may be represented by the voluminous contributions of R. Nath and R. Balasubramaniam amongst others. According to the former, the source of architectural design and elements was the ancient Indian knowledge as ingrained in the śilpasāstras and other traditional texts.[21] To Balasubramanium, a dimensional analysis of Mughal monuments, like the Tāj Mahal reveal a modular planning executed using traditional measurement units mentioned in the Arthaśāstras.[22] This may be so, as the actual builders of these monuments, the master-masons and stone-cutters were generally indigenous craftsmen.[23] To Balasubramaniam an analysis of the measurements at the Mughal monuments like the Tāj Mahal point to the fact that the team of architects were well versed in the civil engineering tradition of the subcontinent. The measurements at the Tāj accord with the measures listed by Kautilya, with aṅgulam considered constant at 1.763 cm. [24]

Ebba Koch, Catherine Asher and a number of others have laid emphasis on the foreign sources as inspirations for the Medieval Indian Architecture. To Ebba Koch, while the Mughal Architecture was a supremely confident style created through a synthesis of heterogeneous elements (viz. Trans Oxanian, Timurid, Indian, Persian and European), its sustaining element, especially during its initial phase, was Timurid.[25] She went on to make a study of the symbolic forms and motifs.

Indo-Muslim architecture, as it developed in medieval India, heavily borrowed stylistic, idiomatic (characteristic forms, architectonic and decorative), axiomorphic (forms appropriate to the purpose of the structure) and aesthetic traditions from Iranian, Trans-Oxanian and regional Indian styles. This borrowing was much heavier after the establishment of the Mughal dynasty. Mughal architecture bor­rowed extensively from the Delhi Sultanate, Sharqi, Gujarat, Malwa, Bengal and Rajasthani styles, as well as from styles abroad, so much so that it has itself been defined as a synthesis of these foreign and indigenous styles.[26]

Extracted from the Sectional Presidential Address by Professor Syed Ali Nadeem Rezavi given to Medieval India Section, Indian History Congress JNU session, 2014


[1] For details see S. Ali Nadeem Rezavi, “Medieval Indian Architecture: Its History and Evolution”, Symposium: History of Visual Arts-Architecture, Sculpture and PĀ’intings, Symposia Paper 29, Indian History Congress 73rd Session, Mumbai, 29 December 2012

[2] This technique of upright posts supporting the horizontal lintels or beams was basically derived from timber constructions. To make the construction more firm, brackets were employed. See Charles Fabri, An Introduction to Indian Architecture, Bombay, 1963, p.13

[3] Muhammad Salih Kanboh, Amal-i Sālih, Ghulam Yazdani, Bib.Ind., Calcutta, 1912-46, vol. III, p. 21, Abdul Hamid Lahori, Padshahnama, ed. Kabiruddin Ahmad, Abdur Rahim & W.N. Lees, Bib. Ind., Calcutta, 1867-68, vol. I, p. 223

[4] Lahori, op.cit., I, p. 223

[5] Abu Talib Kalim, Pādshāhnāma, Ms. Ethe, BL 1570, f. 116a

[6] Indian Archaeological Review (1957-58), p. 83 & Indian Archaeological Review (1958-59), p. 95

[7] Ebba Koch, The Complete Taj Mahal, op.cit., pp. 22-81

[8] See for example, ‘The Construction of Agra Fort’, Akbarnama, V & A Museum, London, no. IS-2-1896, f. 46/117; ‘Construction of Fathpur Sikri’, Akbarnama, V & A Museum, London, no. IS-2-1896, f. 91/117

[9] Abul Fazl, Akbarnama, vol. II, Bib Ind, Calcutta, 1873, p. 337; Amal-i Salih, op.cit., III, p. 38

[10] Sīrat-i Fīruzshāhi, Ms. Khuda Bakhsh Oriental Library, Patna, facsimile edition, 1999, ff. 91(b) – 105(b)

[11] For a detailed discussion on this issue, see S. Ali Nadeem Rezavi, “Medieval India: The Relocation of Ashokan Pillars by Firuzshah Tughluq”, Proceeding of the Indian History Congress, 70th Session, Delhi, 2009-10, Kolkata, 2010, pp. 994-1010

[12] H. Nickel, The Mutual Influence of Europe and Asia in the Field of Arms and Armour – Companion to Medieval Arms and Armour, ed. D. Nicole,  The Boydell Press, Rochester, 2002, p. 124; See also Paul E. Chevedden, “Artillary in Late Antiquity: Prelude to the Middle Ages”, in The Medieval City under Siege, ed., Ivy A. Corfis and Michael Wolfe, Boydell Press, Suffolk, 1995

[13] Paul E. Chevedden, Les Eigenbrod, Vernard Foley and Werner Soedel, “The Tribuchet”, Scientific American, Special Issue The Science of War: Weapons, February, 2002, online issue no. 3

[14] Ali Kufi, Chachnāma, tr. Mirza Kalich Beg, Commissioner’s Press, Karachi, 1900. See Irfan Habib, Technology in Medieval India c. 650-1750, Being no. 20 of The Peoples History of India Series, New Delhi, 2008, p. 88

[15] Thomas Bowrey, A Geographical Account of Countries Round the Bay of Bengal, 1669 to 1679, ed. RC Temple, Cambridge, 1905. Cf. Irfan Habib, Technology in Medieval India, op.cit., pp. 58, 114-15

[16] Sebastien Manrique, Travels of Fray Sebastien Manrique, 1629-1643, transl., C.E.Luard & H.Hosten, vol. II, Hakluyt Society, London, 1927, p. 172

[17] See ‘The Construction of Agra Fort’, Akbarnama, V & A Museum, London, no. IS-2-1896, ff. 45- 46/117

[18] EB Havell, Indian Architecture: Its Psychology, Structure, and History from the First Muhammadan Invasion to the Present Day, London, 1913, pp.5-6

[19] Ibid., p. 11

[20] Ibid., pp. 23-24

[21] See for example R. Nath, Colour Decoration in Mughal Architecture, Bombay, 1970; idem, History of Decorative Art in Mughal Architecture, 1976; idem, Some Aspects of Mughal Architecture, New Delhi, 1976; idem, History of Mughal Architecture (2 vols.), New Delhi, 1982-85

[22] R. Balasubramanium, “New Insights on Metrology during the Mughal Period”, Indian Journal of History of Science, 2008, no. 48, pp. 569-88; idem, “New Insights on the Modular Planning of the Taj Mahal”, Current Science, 2009, vol. 97, no. 1, pp. 42-49

[23] See S. Ali Nadeem Rezavi, “Marks and Symbols of Professionals on Mughal Monuments”, in Himanshu Prabha Ray (ed.), Sacred Landscapes in Asia: Shared Traditions, Multiple Histories, New Delhi, 2007, pp. 107-67; See also S. Ali Nadeem Rezavi, Fathpur Sikri Revisited, OUP, New Delhi, 2013, pp. 176-202

[24] R. Balasubramanium, “New Insights on Metrology during the Mughal Period”, Indian Journal of History of Science, 2008, no. 48, pp. 569-88

[25] Ebba Koch, Ebba Koch, Mughal Architecture: An Outline of its History and Development (1526-1858), Prestel-Verlag, Munich, 1991 (reprint Delhi, 2014), p.14

[26] See, for example, Ebba Koch, Mughal Architecture: An Outline of its History and Development (1526-1858), Prestel-Verlag, Munich, 1991(reprint, Delhi, 2014); and Catherine B. Asher, Architecture of Mughal India, being Vol. I, pt. 4 of’ The New Cambridge History of India, Oxford University Press, 1995. See also Lisa Golombek, ‘From Tamerlane to the Taj Mahal’, in Essays in Islamic Art and Architecture in Honor of Katherina Otto-Dorn,(ed.) Abbas Daneshwari, Malibu, 1981 (reprinted in Monica Juneja, Architecture in Medieval India, New Delhi, 2001, pp. 315-27).

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nadeemrezavi

A history buff interested to unravel the past as it was!

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