Mughal Architecture and Gardens

October 6, 2011

This lavish and beautiful volume, illustrated with colour photographs by Amit Pasricha, surveys one of the world's most sumptuous groups of buildings and gardens erected under the aegis of an imperial lineage. These marvellous works of architecture, dating from the 16th and 17th centuries, include masterpieces erected under the Emperors Akbar (reigned 1556-1605), Jahangir (reigned 1605-), and Shah Jehan (reigned 1628-58), recorded here in some of the best architectural photographs this reviewer has ever seen.

The student of classical architecture will be aware of how fitted is Roman lettering (especially that derived from exemplars of the time of Trajan) for inscriptions on friezes and monuments. However, the observer of Islamic architecture cannot avoid being bowled over by admiration for the glories of calligraphy incorporated as part of the decorative scheme in Mughal buildings, notably the mausoleum called the Taj Mahal: the Koranic inscriptions in black stone inlay are perfectly suited to the design, just as are the elegant arabesques in pietra dura (inlaid work with hard-coloured stones featuring stylised floral decorations). The integration of such calligraphy with the architecture is even more complete than that of inscriptions in classical design.

One of the most striking aspects of Mughal monumental architecture is how it was linked with geometrical layouts of gardens, often featuring pools and canals: an excellent example is the complex of the Taj Mahal itself. Although many Mughal gardens are in a very poor state of preservation, their geometries are still discernible, all carefully related to gateways, pavilions, and so on, but hardly anything of the original planting remains. George Michell, however, here describes schemes of planting, with their fruit trees and flowers, and the irrigation provided by ingenious systems of cascades, canals, channels and fountains.

The whole was pulled together in a satisfying, serene and balanced scheme of geometries, something that Modernism has completely jettisoned in its all-too-successful creation of dystopia, now made infinitely worse by Deconstructivism, with its jagged, threatening and alien forms. Architecture that eases, that pleases, that brings balm to the spirit, that arouses wonder and stimulates aesthetic pleasure, is illustrated and described here: the contrast with so-called "iconic" (a misuse of the word if ever there was one) and outrageously expensive structures, designed to assault and create profound unease, could not be more painful.

A fine specimen of a sophisticated geometrical layout is that of the garden and mausoleum of Jahangir (1637): the garden, a perfect square on plan, is divided into further squares by water-channels and pathways, and in its centre is the mausoleum with corner-towers rising as minarets crowned with chhatris. Each facade of the tomb is constructed of red sandstone inlaid with white marble geometrical patterns and panels embellished with vases, dishes and rosewater-sprinkler motifs, while the interior is decorated with exquisite coloured-tile patterns. The emperor's tomb itself is adorned with perfect pietra dura floral designs, and around the sarcophagus-like top are the 99 names of God: it is one of the most beautiful things ever created.

Of course, mausolea give the architect immense scope to create finished objects unlikely to be ruined by later "changes of use". A wonderful example is the tomb of the Sultana Nisar Begum (d.1625) at the Khusrau Bagh (Bagh being a garden), Allahabad: its stupendous interior is roofed by a petalled medallion around which are arch-net motifs all in painted plaster, a supreme work of the purest geometry. This book offers examples of other building types, including pavilions, towers, bridges: all are stunning, and the production is beyond praise.

Mughal Architecture and Gardens

By George Michell and Amit Pasricha. Antique Collectors' Club. 402pp, £45.00. ISBN 9781851496709. Published 30 September 2011.

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