The architecture & literature of India on the eve of arrival of Turks

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The Turks who conquered India were not mere barbarians. They had a genius for architecture. According to Fergusson, “Nothing could be more brilliant, and at the same time more characteristic, than the commencement of the architectural career of these Pathans in India.

A nation of soldiers equipped for conquest and that only, they of course brought with them neither artists nor architects, but, like all nations of Turanian origin, they had strong architectural instincts, and, having a style of their own, they could hardly go wrong in any architectural project they might attempt.”

According to Sir John Marshall, “By the close of the twelfth century, then, when the Muslims established their power permanently to India, it was not longer a case of their having to be tutored by their new subjects in the art of building; they themselves were already possessed of a highly-developed architecture of their own, as varied and magnificent as the contemporary architecture of Christian Europe; and the Muslims, moreover, who conquered India-men of Afghan, Persian and Turki blood-were endowed with remarkably good taste and a natural talent for building.

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The picture that some writers have drawn of them as wild and semi-barbarous hill-men descending on an ancient and vastly superior civilisation, is far from the truth. That they were brutal fighters, without any of the chivalry, for example, of the Rajputs, and that they were capable of acts of savagery and gross intemperance, may be conceded. But these were vices common in those ages to most Asiatic nations and did not preclude them any more than they had precluded the Ghaznavids from participating in the prevalent culture and arts of Islam.

Qutb-ud-Din Aibak was ruthless enough to enslave en masse the population of Kalinjar, but he also had the genius and imagination to create a mosque as superb as any in Islam; and though Ala-ud-Din Khalji slaughtered thousands of Mongols in cold blood at Delhi, he was the author of buildings of unexampled grace and nobility.

Doubtless it was due in a great measure to this inborn artistry, coupled with a natural catholicity of taste, that the new-comers were so quick to appreciate the talent and adaptability of the Indian craftsmen and to turn these qualities to account on their own buildings.”

It is not correct to describe the architecture of the Sultanate period as “Indo-Saracenic” or “Pathan” as done by scholars like Fergusson. Likewise, it is not correct to describe it as entirely Indian in “soul and body” as done by Havell.

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As a matter of fact, there was a blending of Indian and Islamic styles. Sir John Marshall rightly points out that “Indo-Islamic art is not merely a local variety of Islamic art.” Likewise, it is not merely “a modified form of Hindu art…. Broadly speaking, Indo-Islamic architecture derives its character from both sources, though not always in an equal degree.”

Before the coming of the Muslims to India, there already existed in this country what are known as Brahmanical, Buddhist and Jain styles of architecture. The Muslims also brought with them the arts of different parts of Western and Central Asia, Northern Africa and South-Western Europe. The mingling of the styles brought into existence a new style of Indian architecture.

In the case of Delhi, the Islamic influence predominated. “At Jaunpur, on the other hand, and in the Deccan, the local style enjoyed greater ascendancy, while in Bengal the conquerors not only adopted the fashion of building in brick but adorned their structures with chiseled and molded enrichments frankly imitated from Hindu prototypes.

So too in Western India they appropriated to themselves almost en bloc the beautiful Gujarati style, which has yielded some of the finest buildings of medieval India; and in Kashmir they did the same with the striking wooden architecture which must have been long prevalent in that part of the Himalayas.”

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The amalgamation of the foreign and native styles of architecture was made possible by certain factors. The Turks in India had to employ Indian craftsmen and sculptors who had their own ideas about the form and method of construction and consequently they were able to introduce into Muslim buildings their own ideas. Moreover, the Muslims used the materials of Hindu and Jain temples for their mosques, tombs and palaces and this fact also affected the Muslim buildings in the country.

There were also certain resemblances in the Muslim and Hindu buildings which enabled the Muslims to convert the temples into mosques by demolishing their flat roofs and providing domes and minarets in their places. Sir John Marshall has rightly pointed out that one feature common to Hindu temples and Muslim mosques was “the open court encompassed by chambers of colonnades, and such temples as were built on this plan naturally lent themselves to conversion into mosques and would be the first to be adapted for that purpose by the conquerors.

Again, a fundamental characteristic that supplied a common link between the styles was the fact that both Islamic and Hindu arts were inherently decorative. Ornament was as vital to the one as to the other; both were dependent on it for their being.”

About the architecture of the Sultanate period, it is stated that the earlier buildings with the exception of the Qutub Minar were built on defective and crude architectural principles and lacked correct proportions and symmetry.

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The arches were faulty. The domes were stunted, ugly and crude. The front walls or facades of the mosques were disproportionately high giving an air of disharmony. However, when we observe the buildings of the middle and later Sultanate period, such as Khalji buildings, the Lodi Tombs, Moth-ki-Masjid, Jamali Masjid and the Purana Quila harmony, symmetry and grace greet our eyes.

The arches are now more correctly built, the domes are higher and well-proportioned, the front walls of the mosques are lower and match well with the general scheme of buildings, ornamental devices are varied, newer forms of structures such as balconies, kiosks are neatly blended with the general building pattern.

A happy blending of Hindu motifs and building devices with the Islamic architectural style is noticeable. The use of bricks, beams, balconies, flowery designs on stones, etc., is extensive. The use of marble as a building material is rare. Grey stone, lime and rubble are the stock materials used. The Sultanate monuments are singularly devoid of grace. There is not a single minaret of the Mughal type in the entire range of Sultanate buildings.

According to Sir Henry Sharpe, “The monotheistic puritanism of Islam delighted in the simplicity of the unbroken dome, the plain symbolism of the pointed arch and the slenderness of the minaret. Hindu polytheism, on the other hand, invited to variety and complexity of form and the decoration of every part with deep bas-relief and the human figure. The conquerors could not fail to be influenced by the arts which had flourished around them.

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Hindu ornament began to invade the simple Islamic forms. The plain severity of the dome submitted to the imposition of the Kalasha or ornate lotus-cresting, and its metal finial gave place to an elaborate carving in stone. Moreover, the Muhammadans learned from the Hindus lessons in the proportionate massing of buildings and the disposition of their parts. Lack of symmetry was remedied; and in the tombs of Isa Khan and Humayun, we find a splendid synthesis of Muslim ideas and Hindu methods of treatment.”

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