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Indian ArtEssay

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Indian Art

The Taj Mahal is "a supreme culmination of many experiments that went before, and that's why it's so perfect," (cited in "Architectural Antecedents to the Taj Mahal," n.d.). Primary precursors to the Taj Mahal include the Mughal architecture of Central Asia prior to the irconquest of India; pre-Mughal Muslim Indian architecture in the Delhi region, and also earlier Hindu architecture. In other terms, the Timurid, the Sultanate, and the Indian each offered cultural and architectural predecessors to the Taj Mahal (Tillotson). The Timurid predecessors can be seen in the capitals of Central Asia, particularly Samarkand and Bukhara. Sultante-era Muslim architecture had existed in northern India for centuries prior to Mughal conquest, which is why there was ample precedent as well as thematic continuity already in place. Finally, Hindu Indian architecture made its mark on the Taj Mahal.

As a mausoleum, the Taj Mahal also has ample precedence as an Indian, a Muslim, and a Mughal construct. The first monumental Muslim tomb was built for Qubbat al Sulaybiyah in the year 862 in Samarra, modern-day Iraq. This tomb is octagonal in shape, and therefore alluding strongly to the Dome of the Rock's structure (Tillotson). Since the Dome of the Rock, many other Muslim edifices would assume an octagonal design. "The octagon represents a middle state between a circle (symbolic of the divine world) and square (symbolic of a human world) and is used to designate sacred areas," (Raezer). For this reason, the octagonal design element makes its way into both secular and sacred structures throughout the Muslim world incuding mausoleums like the Taj Mahal.

The design of the Qubbat al Sulaybiyah and its counterparts also ended up influencing Indian tombs from the 14th century onward, as warring Muslim tribes from Central Asia began to encroach into Northern India long before the Mughals (Tillotson). The first octagonal Muslim tomb in India is likely to be the one in Multan from the eyar 1320 (Tillotson). By the time the Mughals conquered India and drove out the poorly organized sultanates that predated it, there was already a large corpus of Muslim architecture in the region. Since the 13th century, the Delhi sultanate erected Muslim edifices that merged the principles and aesthetics of Islam with the local tools, materials, and architectural and engineering expertise of local Indians. By 1526, when the Mughals first took control of Delhi, there were forts, palaces, mosques, and tombs already in place (Tillotson).

The most immediate and recognizable predecessor to the Taj Mahal was the Tomb for Humayun in Delhi. It was quintessentially Mughal in that it evoked "the architecture of the lost city of Samarkand" especially in the "lines of its domes and of its recessed arches," (Tillotson 47). It also evokes tomb designs from Bukhara (Tillotson). The underlying principles of the mausoleum follow Muslim burial traditions including the internment of the body along the north-south axis, with the head of the deceased turned to face Mecca (Tillotson). Moreover, the entry point into the mausoleum is in the south, purposefully at the feet of the deceased. In the Western section of the tomb is the mihrab, offering the qibla, or direction of Mecca (Tillotson). The tomb for Humayun was commissioned under his son Akbar's rule, and was the first "major edifice" constructed by the Mughal dynasty, and the "first major construction of the distinctly Mughal style of architecture," ("Architectural Antecedents to the Taj Mahal"). Humayun's Tomb was built by the Mughal dynasty in Delhi during the years 1562 and 1571, which was about 85 years before the Taj Mahal was constructed between 1632 and 1652). The Taj Mahal is believed to be a "refined and perfected" version of the Humayun Tomb (Raezer).

The comparisons between the Taj Mahal and Humayun's Tomb are based on their form and function. Functionally, they both serve as mausoleums but much more. Humayum's tomb was constructed not just to house the body of one ruler, but for the entire dynasty in his wake. It was therefore a political edifice as much as a personal and spiritual one. Akbar's construction was a firm "declaration of permanence" on the landscape of northern India (Tillotson 47). This was the Mughal way of saying that they would remain firmly in control of the region for generations to come, and that their control was divinely ordained given the religious import of mausoleum architecture and its formal similarities to mosques. Raezer also notes that the tomb of Humayun, the second of India's Mughal emperors, had "a clear prototype…in the earlier Timurid Madrasa of Ulegh Beg, which was built between 1417-1420 in Samarkand," (1). As Humayun's tomb is not a mausoleum but madrasa, there is clear continuity of architectural elements within the Mughal aesthetic.

The similarities between the tomb of Humayun and the tomb for Mumtaz Mahal are visually as well as thematically apparent. Both boast a large rectangular pishtaq at the entrance gate, " the tops of which break above the rest of the facade," and also serve to "frame the pointed-arch iwan niches," (Raezer). The "pistaq-iwan niche combination" is therefore repeated on both facades," and is a defining feature of Mughal architecture seen also in the Madrasa of Ulegh Beg (Raezer). Furthermore, the large bulbous domes are characteristic features of Mughal architecture and especially in the two tombs, that of Humayun and that of the Taj Mahal. The domes dominate the spatial footprints of the mausoleums.

One interesting feature of Mughal mausoleums like the Tomb of Humayun and the Taj Mahal is that they incorporate some Hindu design features. One of those features is the Hindu-inspired chhatri pavilions with their "chamfered corners that give the impression of depth," (Raezer). Local building materials were used to construct both the Taj Mahal and the Humayun tomb, but the Taj Mahal becomes far more opulent in its appearance due to the exclusive reliance on white stone. The Humayun uses white marble as well, but far more conservatively, to highlight the dome and other architectural features. Finally, they both sit on elevated platforms that are "symbolic of their importance," (Raezer). The elevation of the Taj Mahal is more geometrically precise and aesthetically pleasing because it forms "a perfect cube" with a 1:1 ratio between its horizontal extension and its vertical elevation (Raezer). The eye is drawn upward, as if to heaven. In the Humayun tomb, the wings extend far further to the left or right. Its sprawling complex draws the eyes outward instead of up. Likewise, the dome of the Taj Mahal is extended upward, and is more elongated than its predecessor.

Unique to Mughal architecture is its Central Asian flavor, borrowing from Turkish and Persian domains. The most important of these influences on the Taj Mahal in particular is the "hasht bihisht," the nine-fold plan derived from Persian architectural precedents." ("Hasht Bihisht and the Central Chamber," n.d.). According to this layout, eight rooms surround a central chamber. It is directly evocative of the octagonal structures in the Dome of the Rock and the tomb of Qubbat al Sulaybiyah in Samara and thus has a symbolic and sacred purpose as well as an architectural and aesthetic one. The difference between the Humayun hasht bihisht and that of the Taj Mahal is the way the visitor is encouraged to move through the multiple spaces. In both, the tomb rests in the center space and represents the primary function of the edifice as a tomb. In Humayun's tomb, the visitor is encouraged to start from the tomb in the center and move outward as in rays emanating from the sun. The body is central. In the Taj Mahal, the visitor moves in a circle around the central tomb, encouraging freer flow of movement without detracting from the core element of hasht bihisht architecture. In both cases, the mausoleum serves both a private and a public function. Visitors are encouraged to worship.

The Taj Mahal bears both Hindu and Muslim design and decorative inspirations. Although the master stone carvers from the Rajput era of Hindu temple construction might have included anthropomorphic forms that are verboten in Islam, traditions like the inlaying of brick and marble with semiprecious stones and other embellishments find antecedents in Hindu art. The Taj Mahal, however, is quintessentially Muslim in its aesthetic, featuring floral forms and calligraphy. Shah Jahan's inscriptions on his wife's tomb are from the Quran, and "communicate a clear narrative to the visitor…They convey an apocalyptic message focused on judgment and the potential for salvation," (Raezer). In this way, the Taj Mahal makes a clear statement as to its function even if some of the formal elements bear resemblance to related structures like madrasas, mosques, and palaces. Indeed, the Taj Mahal complex does include a mosque made of red sandstone, thus thematically and functionally linking the mausoleum to pre-Mughal Indian mosques with their sandstone construction. The pillars adjoining the mausoleum echo their formal counterparts, the minarets.

Persian influences in the Taj Mahal are obvious. Mughal art and architecture is essentially Persian owing to the Central Asian homeland… [END OF PREVIEW]

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