With its bulbous domes, skyscraping minarets, and endless rows of calligraphy, the Taj Mahal remains one of the most important masterpieces of Islamic architecture in the world. A synthesis of Indian style with Islamic influence, this monument speaks of India’s rich history. Commissioned by Emperor Shah Jahan in 1631 to immortalize his love for his most favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal, after her death, this white marble mausoleum was coined the “jewel of Muslim art in India” by UNESCO. The cenotaphs of the emperor and his wife display Arabesque and floral patterns in the most spectacular pietra dura technique. Elsewhere, it boasts nearly 1,000 meters of Koranic inscriptions in the thuluth script of Islamic calligraphy. Centuries before the Taj Mahal existed, the crossover between Arabic and Indian architecture had already begun, giving rise to a new and important chapter in Indian history.
While the presence of Arabs in India can be traced back to the 7th century, it wasn’t until the Ghurid dynasty in the 12th century that Indo-Islamic architecture really started picking up. “The influence of Islamic architecture on indigenous building traditions in the subcontinent reflects the long-standing presence of Muslims in the region, whether as merchants or conquerors. Muslim dynasties established their rule over much of India in the early modern period, bringing with them influences in culture — whether cuisine, language, fashion or architecture,” says Amin Jaffer, author, art historian and director of the Al Thani collection in Paris.
Dominating Delhi’s skyline is the Qutub Minar, a 73-meter tall minaret built by the first ruler of the Delhi Sultanate empire in 1192 to mark his victory over a Rajput king. Made primarily from red sandstone, it features circular bands of calligraphy in the Naskh style — a 10th-century script developed by Ibn Muqla in Baghdad. Completed several years after the ruler’s death, the monument is one of the earliest examples of Indo-Islamic architecture and the use of Islamic calligraphy in India. “The buildings resulting from this fusion of style and tradition possess unique qualities that reflect multiple traditions, reflecting the diversity and richness of India’s heritage,” he adds.
Domes were crucial to ancient Islamic structures. “The Hagia Sophia Mosque in Turkey is an undeniably magnificent historical building defined with a central dome, supported by two semi-domes on either side, celebrating the symmetry that continues to create conversations within the Indo-Islamic architectural sphere in India,” says award-winning Mumbai-based architect Ashiesh Shah. Other significant references to the dome in Islam include the historic Dome of Rock in the Old City of Jerusalem, which dates to the late 7th century. In India, they are abundant on most monuments built during the Islamic rule — on tombs, mosques, or forts.
From India came ornately decorated doors. In Saudi Arabia’s Hejaz region, which includes Makkah and Medina, spectacular, ancient doors speak of the country’s deep roots and its historical connection with India. Pilgrims journeyed from all over the world, including India, bringing with them their rich culture and craftsmanship. Affluent homeowners regularly imported intricately carved doors from the Indian subcontinent — seeing traditional Gujarati and Rajasthani style doors in typical Hejazi homes was common. In 1921, on a trip to Jeddah, archeologist T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) acquired a set of doors from the 1600s and sent them back to England; they are now on display at the Ashmolean Museum at the University of Oxford. According to the museum, the wood used to craft the doors came from India.
Through centuries, the confluence of architecture styles flourished, but it wasn’t until the Mughal Empire that it thrived. With Mughal rule came the era of decadence — buildings became grander, decorations more ornate, and Arabic influence was at its peak. To celebrate his victory over the state of Gujarat, emperor Akbar built the very elaborate Buland Darwaza (Door of Victory) at Fatehpur Sikri, which was completed in 1575. The marble inlay in the sandstone, the Naskh calligraphy, and the abundant floral and geometric motifs make it hard not to be impressed with this imposing 15-story-high gateway. “Indo-Islamic architecture is rather distinctive through its archetypal elements — arches, domes, and vaults layered with geometrical patterns, florals, and inscriptions on marble inlay,” adds Shah.
In Agra lies the tomb of Itmad-ud-Daulah — a mausoleum commissioned by empress Nur Jahan in memory of her father. Inside, diverse geometric designs dominate in the form of colorful stones set in marble or via the jali screens that play hide-and-seek with the light entering the tomb. These motifs are important in the Islamic art world as the religion forbids the depiction of human figures. “Ornamental, perforated lattice screens with arabesques, star motifs, pentagons, hexagons, octagons, and circles are among some of the quintessential Islamic decorations,” explains Shah. The earliest form of these designs in Islam was seen in the Great Mosque of Kairouan in Tunisia back in the 9th century before spreading to different parts of the world.
Despite the decline of the Mughal Empire in the 18th century and its eventual collapse, the influence of Islamic architecture continued during the British Raj. “So many of India’s most visible modern monuments draw upon its Muslim heritage. Think of the Gateway of India in Mumbai and how it mimics the minarets of a Gujarati Mosque. Or one could look at how colonial-period architecture drew upon Mughal styles,” explains Vivek Gupta, research associate in Islamic Art at the University of Cambridge. According to him, Indo-Islamic architecture allowed builders to innovate new traditions from older models. While there are no 21st-century buildings with this style in India now, the last 800 years (or more) have informed of the sheer magnitude of Islamic culture in India and the glorious legacy it left behind.
Originally published in the July/August 2022 issue of Vogue Arabia