Main Thrusts of the Royal Funerary Architecture of the Mughals (Part One)

Assoc. Prof. Dr. Spahic Omer
Kulliyyah of Architecture and Environmental Design
International Islamic University Malaysia

mariam tomb agra india

The tomb of Mariam uz-Zamani, one of emperor Akbar’s powerful wives and the mother of his son and successor, Jahangir. The tomb is located in Agra, India.

Following the advent of the Mughals, their positions and reactions to the existing royal funerary architecture culture in the Muslim world in general and in India in particular, varied. For sure, there was no standardized approach to the matter. There were no established behavioral patterns that were strictly followed. On the whole, it all depended on the personal disposition of each and every emperor and his personality, as well as on the dispositions of some of his immediate family members. Hence, one cannot speak of an evolutionary process or a growth in Mughal royal funerary architecture where, for example, Humayun’s tomb is described as “an outstanding landmark in the development of the Mughal style”, or as a “successful foretaste” of the “perfection” of the Taj Mahal.[1] A careful examination of Mughal royal monuments highlights a number of important facts which defy the laws of purported Mughal type evolution or development in relation to its stylistic homogeny, rationality and chronology, as elaborated by Michael Brand. The first fact is that the Mughals did not construct a single dynastic mausoleum. “If, as is quite possible, Humayun’s tomb was intended by Akbar to serve such a function, then Jahangir’s construction of a tomb for Akbar at Sikandra was an implicit rejection of the notion.” Secondly, none of the Mughal emperors were buried in the same city. Thirdly, there was no one form or style adopted for all the tombs, “although Humayun’s tomb and the Taj Mahal do share similar forms, and certain themes, such as the use of white marble and garden settings, do occur. Furthermore, this diversity of form does not even develop a single direction. There are clearly too many missing links and throwbacks to support a theory of evolution marching resolutely towards the Taj Mahal.”[2]

Moreover, with the exception of Shah Jahan who built the Taj Mahal in memory of his third wife, Mumtaz Mahal, no Mughal emperor of the first six who are the subject of our discussion has been buried in a tomb designed and built during his own lifetime. Behind this Shah Jahan’s deviation from established Mughal practice lay his wife’s premature death. Building the tomb, it stands to reason, was prompted by accident, rather than by design. There are no indications that the tomb was ever meant for Shah Jahan himself. Hence, it is rather unsafe to say that Shah Jahan departed from established Mughal practice. On the face of it, he actually did under the given atypical circumstances, but such was rather an exception that could not invalidate the rule. When he died following a lengthy house arrest, Shah Jahan was buried in the Taj Mahal next to his wife. Inside the Taj Mahal, in the middle of it and right under its central dome, there is an octagonal marble screen orjaliwhich surrounds the cenotaphs of Mumtaz Mahal at the precise centre of the inner chamber, and that of Shah Jahan which is beside Mumtaz’s to the western side. Beneath those cenotaphs, at garden level, lie the true sarcophagi. Shah Jahan’s cenotaph is slightly larger in size than Mumtaz’s. It is placed “parallel and slightly offset (sheared) in relation to Mumtaz’s cenotaph.”[3] “It is the only visible asymmetric element in the entire complex.”[4] The respective positions of the two cenotaphs suggest that the majestic mausoleum was meant only for Shah Jahan’s wife, and that his own interment inside it was an “addition” or an “addendum” originally unplanned, resulting in the perfect symmetry and structural equilibrium of the mausoleum, for which it is famed most, to be somewhat impinged on. Surely, out of sheer convenience did the newly crowned emperor Aurangzeb, Shah Jahan’s third son who earlier had ousted his father and placed him under house arrest, inter his father inside the Taj Mahal. The existence of the Taj Mahal, in some ways, was a blessing for Aurangzeb. It presented him with an opportunity to make the royal funerary procedures a short and less ceremonious affair, something that could greatly benefit him considering the acrimonious conditions under which the reins of power had passed to him, and to avoid funerary rites ostentation and extravagance which had been initially planned by Shah Jahan’s first daughter, Princess Jahanara Begum Sahib, who nursed him most when he in his advanced age was under house arrest. The presence of the marvelous and luxurious Taj Mahal might even have sparked off in Aurangzeb a conscience and passion for orthodoxy and austerity for which he eventually became so legendary.

Additionally, there was no homogeneously established and followed Mughal royal funerary architecture style, both as a concept and sensory reality. Each emperor’s practice signified an individual and private reaction to the phenomenon that existed in the Muslim world in various forms and to various degrees for more than a thousand years. There are no even two emperors who could be grouped together as faithful adherents to a pattern. In reality, diverse Mughal emperors’ royal funerary architecture legacies, to a great extent, echoed and exemplified the whole world of Muslim funerary architecture heritage, as well as the people’s sundry perceptions of and approaches to the subject matter. The culture highlighted perennial conflicts between orthodoxy and repugnant religious innovations, and how it was not always easy to draw a clear line between the two domains in some life aspects such as art and architecture. Similarly, it highlighted frequent conflicts between powerful individual and collective visions and interpretations of certain fundamental ideas and events, and which side was likely to prevail.

Ever since funerary architecture started to afflict the Muslim conscience, there was hardly any unanimous consensus about it owing to a range of agendas, objectives and factors. The Mughals and their funerary architecture perceptions and pursuits represented a microcosm of a millennium old Muslim tradition. Almost all dimensions of that tradition could be identified in the viewpoints and routines of the first six Mughal emperors whose reins constitute the golden era of the Mughal empire. Firstly, Babur, having inherited many of the religious policies from the Lodis where the second last ruler Sikandar Lodi’s religious fanaticism must have featured prominently,[5] insisted to have an orthodox burial with no structures whatsoever marking his grave. Then Humayun came who, perhaps on account of his vulnerability and tumultuous times, had to stay indifferent to the prospect of royal funerary architecture. He is known to have neither erected any funerary structures for anybody, nor asked or planned for his own mausoleum. Following Akbar’s coronation, royal funerary architecture suddenly sprang to life. He and his mother most probably together planned and built a grand mausoleum for Humayun. Akbar’s son, Jahangir, followed in the footsteps of his father and built for him a remarkable mausoleum, notwithstanding an indication that the planning and initial construction commenced during Akbar’s time. However, Jahangir himself willed to be buried in a grave over which no construction shall be raised, a position akin to Babur’s. He wanted his grave to be erected in a manner that “rain and dew of heaven might fall on it”.[6] Thus, Shah Jahan, Jahangir’s son, while building somewhat an imposing mausoleum for his father had to strike a delicate balance between the requirements of open-air orthodoxy and the fundamentals of novel Mughal monumentality.[7] Shah Jahan also built the splendid Taj Mahal for his wife Mumtaz Mahal wherein he too was subsequently interred. After Shah Jahan’s death, tug-of-war between the proponents of royal funerary architecture and its opponents intensified with the latter gaining the upper hand. When Aurangzeb, Shah Jahan’s son, assumed the leadership of the Mughal state, and towards the end of his rein, he insisted to be buried in a modest open-air sepulcher which he had built in his own lifetime. He was buried in the courtyard of the tomb of a Sufi saint in the city of Khuldabad. This way, the cycle of the Mughal golden age that went on for about 181 years and which commenced with Babur’s fervent orthodoxy was brought to a close by the even more rigorous orthodoxy and the anti-royal funerary monumentality sentiment of Aurangzeb.

Thus, the Mughals were the victims of the millennium old contagion that was recurrently plaguing many regions of the Muslim world. They were no originators of the phenomenon. They were rather followers. Their originality and innovation in the whole thing revolved only around a few landscape, artistic and architectural aspects. Their reactions were individually crafted, following no uniquely established and decipherable Mughal type, as there was none. One of the most remarkable, and ingenious, things about Mughal royal funerary complexes is that they were laid out in the classical charbagh pattern, with bisecting perpendicular paths. Subsidiary water channels and paths subdivided the quadrants of the gardens into smaller sections. Main entrances to the complexes were through large gates which themselves often represented monumental structures with ornately decorated archways. The vast complexes were normally bound on all sides by massive often crenellated walls, unless there were some solid natural boundaries in which case the projected sections of the walls where those boundaries stood might have been omitted, like in the case of the Taj Mahal where red-stone walls bound it on three sides with the fourth river-facing side left open.

Garden settings for Mughal royal mausoleums were preferred because the Mughals were innately fond of gardens as places for a number of religious, recreational and celebratory purposes. According to James Dickie (Yaqub Zaki), the Mughal garden was an imitation of the Timurid garden. For the reason that the Mughals were the direct descendents of Timur, “the civilization of which Babur was the vehicle was the Timurid civilization of Central Asia, North India, Persia, Mesopotamia, Syria and Asia minor in a single empire with its capital at Samarkand, and subsequently Herat. To this metropolis, Timur transported artists and craftsmen from all over Asia and there under Arab, Persian, Central Asian and even Chinese influence Islamic civilization assumed its decisive form. One art which flourished notably at the Timurid court was the art of landscape design…The garden type that we think of today as characteristically Islamic is in fact the Timurid garden.”[8] It was partly due to this intimacy between the two boughs of the same Mongol tree, and partly due to his understood conscious revival of the Timurid funerary architecture style with its inherent political symbolism, that Shah Jahan viewed himself as the “second Timur”.[9] Akbar too perceived himself to be, and was seen by his contemporaries as, a Timurid.[10]

Babur is said to have called his empire-in-making “Timurid”. He was regarded as the savior of the Timurid dynasty.[11] When he arrived in India, one of the first things he missed back home, naturally, was Timurid gardens. This was compounded by the fact that he found India unlikable, desolate and without much running water. He and his company suffered most from the heat, the biting winds and the dust. Surely, creating planned and geometric gardens with lots of cooling and purifying gushing water and rich vegetation to become integral to the morphology of human settlements as well as to both governmental and private royal infrastructure and facilities, was the most sought after solution. However, since the topography of India could hardly meet the selective requirements of the Mughals with embedded Timurid cultural and civilizing dispositions, they had to carry on satisfying their yearnings with whatever natural resources and provisions were at hand.[12] Babur explains in his “Babur-Nama”: “I always thought one of the chief faults of Hindustan was that there was no running water. Everywhere that was habitable it should be possible to construct waterwheels, create running water, and make planned, geometric spaces. A few days after coming to Agra, I crossed the Jumna with this plan in mind and scouted around for places to build gardens, but everywhere I looked was so unpleasant and desolate that I crossed back in great disgust. Because the place was so ugly and disagreeable I abandoned my dream of making a charbagh. Although there was no really suitable place near Agra, there was nothing to do but work with the space we had…Thus, in unpleasant and inharmonious India, marvelous regular and geometric gardens were introduced.”[13] Babur’s charbagh gardens in Agra served as the prelude to the legendary Mughal heritage in landscape architecture.

It appears that this avid passion of the Mughals for gardens was not confined only to this world, but was also extended to the eschatological phase of existence. They with different degrees of success sought to turn their funerary gardens into spirituality generators and amplifiers, benefitting along the lines of the Islamic worldview not only the dead but also those who for different legitimate reasons would frequent the places. Babur is thus reported to have willed to be buried in a simple grave but in a garden, as a result of which, partly, his body was carried to Kabul and was buried there in “the sweetest spot” on a hill-side, amidst beloved surroundings, a cool-running stream and sweet-smelling flowers.[14] For Akbar’s final resting place, too, a “sacred” garden known as Bihishtabad was fixed upon in order to serve the purpose.[15] The area where Jahangir’s tomb stands was his and his wife’s favorite spot when they resided in Lahore. It was thus chosen as his final resting place. It follows that in virtually all the Mughal royal mausoleums, gardens served as complexes’ highlights, almost as spectacular and as appealing as the funerary structures themselves. Gardens, i.e., special burial locations, were selected first. Funerary and other auxiliary buildings came second. They finely complemented each other in creating some of the most dazzling sites that oozed grandeur, elegance and serenity. In those gardens, as one would expect, the significance and role of water element were second to none. Thus, for example, in Humayun’s funerary complex, in the center of the northern enclosure wall, there was a beautiful pavilion which was used to introduce water from a large well outside into the intricate network of channels in the funerary garden. The presence of abundant water in the building has in the past led to the erroneous belief that the building was a bathhouse. On the side, Humayun’s tomb-garden had over four kilometers of water channels, a number of tanks, wells and fountains.

Much has been speculated as to the spiritual reasons for which Mughal gardens were created. One of them is related to the Islamic notion of paradise which the Qur’an calls jannah or garden. James Dickie (Yaqub Zaki) rightly opines that burial in a garden amounts to a material anticipation of and longing for immaterial bliss, and the closer the garden approximates the Qur’anic model the more effective is the analogy.[16] In addition, the serenity of funerary gardens could also evoke the ultimate spiritual serenity, fulfillment and contentment towards which every believer’s life streams. It stimulates meditation, self-evaluation and penitence. It humbles one’s corporeal achievements and merit, but advances one’s spiritual awareness and worth. It promotes the glory and greatness of God, and the inconsequentiality and smallness of man. Although from the perspective of Islamic mainstream beliefs and practices funerary garden complexes denoted serious religious innovations (bid’ah), their authors never went so far as to attempt to imitate the gardens, or jannah, of the Hereafter; nor did they envisage to bury particular persons inside the transitory and man-generated jannah, or bliss, of this world before they were interred inside the actual one in the Hereafter. Subscribing to either of these two designs would attest to one’s seriously flawed faith, bordering almost on blasphemy. Funerary gardens further invited and facilitated the visitation of the family members, friends and the public to the deceased and their graves, thereby soliciting and intensifying their fond remembrance of and supplications for them. Both the dead and the alive were set to gain from the funerary garden complexes and their meticulously hewed ambiances. It was mainly due to this that over the entrance to Akbar’s garden at Sikandra is written: “These are the gardens of Eden; enter them to dwell therein eternally.”[17] As one of the auxiliary buildings, in most of those delightfully landscaped royal funerary centers stood mosques, albeit somewhat away from the chief mausoleums.

For the same spiritual reasons does the Qur’anic chapter Ya Sin adorn in bands the pishtaqs (a pishtaq is a high arch set within a rectangular frame, or a portal projecting from the façade of a building) of the Taj Mahal. The Ya Sin chapter is distinctively important because it is the heart of the Qur’an. Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) once said that everything has a heart and the heart of the Qur’an is the Ya Sin chapter. It is a chapter which the Prophet (pbuh) recommended to be read over those who are dying, for its content is all about life, death and afterlife. It helps a dying person by soothing his soul and by reminding and preparing him for what is forthcoming. By reciting Ya Sin, divine blessings and clemency descend from the Heavens on earth. It helps a dying person to die as a true Muslim.[18] Some believe, furthermore, basing their arguments on several weak traditions of the Prophet (pbuh), that the Ya Sin chapter should be read to the deceased as well. In doing so, the conditions of the dead in their graves are bound to improve, such as their punishments will be lessened, also on account of divine blessings and compassion descending on earth as a result of such recitation.[19] It was due to that conviction that, for example, during a first assembly at Babur’s tomb, sixty Qur’an reciters had been assigned.[20]

Apart from Ya Sin, many other chapters from the Qur’an embellish the interior and the exterior of the Taj Mahal and its supplementary buildings. Noteworthy is a fact that the following three chapters have also been employed for decorating in bands three outer door and window frames of the Taj Mahal, one chapter decorating one frame: al-Inshiqaq (the Sundering, Splitting Open — of the sky), al-Infitar (the Cleaving, Bursting Apart — of the sky) and al-Takwir (Wrapping things – the sun — up). The usage of these chapters must have been prompted by the verity that they in the most compelling and vivid manner describe the dramatic events of the Day of Judgment and the Hereafter. They thus could be called the chapters of the Hereafter, or of the Day of Judgment. The Prophet (pbuh) is reported to have said about the chapters that whoever would be pleased to look at the Day of Judgment with his own eyes, then let him recite the chapters of al-Inshiqaq, al-Infitar and al-Takwir.[21] The precedent of combining those three Qur’anic chapters similarly into the decorative system of a building is unique only to the Taj Mahal. The same is yet to be detected elsewhere.

The other Mughal funerary complexes do not really use the contents of the Qur’an for decoration purposes as much as the Taj Mahal does. Principally, exquisite meditative floral and geometric patterns, together with clever manipulation of colors, light and sounds, dominate their decorative themes and strategies. Subtle enlightening and inspiring calligraphy is reduced to a bare minimum. As a few additional decoration examples, the white marble sarcophagi where Jahangir’s and Shah Jahan’s remains lie are decorated with magnificent pietra dura designs and the ninety-nine names of God inlaid with black marble.[22] The lid of Jahangir’s sarcophagus is further decorated with several excerpts from the Qur’an concerning the meaning of life, death and the Hereafter, and about repentance and God’s forgiveness and infinite mercy. Further, Humayun’s white marble sarcophagus is devoid of any inscriptions, Qur’anic or otherwise. However, several other sarcophagi found inside his tomb-complex are engraved with the words “There is no god but Allah and Muhammad is His Messenger” which signify a declaration and a sign of one’s belonging to the Islamic faith and Islamic community; with Allah’s words from the Qur’an: “All that is on earth will perish, but will abide (for ever) the Face of your Lord, full of majesty, bounty and honor” (al-Rahman, 26-27), which are self-explanatory; and with the Ayah al-Kursi (the Verse of the Throne) which, as the Prophet (pbuh) asserted, is the greatest Qur’anic verse.[23] Similarly, Akbar’s white marble sarcophagus – just like his father’s — is devoid of any writings. However, another grave inside his tomb is adorned with the Ayah al-Kursi (the Verse of the Throne). Also, a recessed white marble panel in a chamber not far from the entrance to the room with Akbar’s sarcophagus is inscribed with the ninety-nine names of God. Most remarkably, though, a vestibule before the long corridor which leads to the room with Akbar’s sarcophagus is adorned with the Qur’anic chapter al-Mulk (the Sovereignty or Power – of God) in bands and in stucco. The vestibule contains a myriad of other painted decorative floral motifs and geometric designs. About the extraordinary merits of the al-Mulk chapter, the Prophet (pbuh) said that it will defend on the Day of Judgment whoever recites it until it will put him into Paradise, that it will be a protector from the torment of the grave, and that it will intercede for those who recite it until they are forgiven.[24] The Taj Mahal also contains this same Qur’anic chapter as part of its exquisite interior adornment.

Most of Mughal buildings stood as a synthesis, or a hybrid, of several historically and socially generated models, the most perceptible ones being the model of their Timurid forebears and the indigenous Indian model. The former, as a rule, is always pinpointed as the key factor; however, the role of the latter cannot be underestimated either – it in actual fact was as compelling as the Timurid factor – in that the Indian subcontinent with all its cultural and civilizational strengths and resources served as the locus of, as well as the catalyst for, exceptional Mughal imperial ambitions and programs.  On that score, the form of major Mughal royal mausoleums, especially their domes with bulbous profiles raised on cylindrical drums, elegant iwans and side pishtaqs, usually decorated with calligraphy bands and geometric arabesque designs, and readily symmetrical floor plan point conclusively to Timurid models. However, their use and handling of red sandstone and white marble, often juxtaposingly so as to create a striking interplay of colors, tones and textures, instead of cloaking brick structures with vividly colored ceramic tiles as the Timurids had done in Samarkand and Herat, accentuate that the Mughals did not hesitate to depart from their Timurid standards and invoke whenever considered necessary some indigenous Indian models and the models of some preceding Muslim dynasties in India.[25]

Towards the same end of integrating some indigenous Indian models into their art and architecture, including royal funerary architecture, is the Mughals’ extensive use of decorative corner, roof and frame turrets, as well as domed and vaulted canopies supported by carved stone pillars which were employed either as sheer or somewhat serviceable ornaments in main funerary buildings, most commonly at their upper platforms, or as independent structures with their independent but auxiliary utilitarian or ornamental functions. Both the turret and canopy elements were common to Hindu temple architecture, some elaborate forms of the latter somewhat bearing a resemblance to Hindu temple mandapas.

taj mahal agra tomb

The Taj Mahal seen in distance from Agra Fort. 

[1] Michael Brand, Orthodoxy, Innovation and Revival: Considerations of the Past in Imperial Mughal Tomb Architecture, in “Muqarnas X: An Annual on Islamic Art and Architecture”, p. 324.

[2] Ibid., p. 332.

[3] Taj Mahal Complex, (accessed March 29, 2013).

[4] Taj Mahal, (accessed March 29, 2013).

[5] Sri Ram Sharma, The Religious Policy of the Mughal Emperors, p. 9.

[6] Jahangir’s Tomb, (accessed April 1, 2013).

[7] Michael Brand, Orthodoxy, Innovation and Revival: Considerations of the Past in Imperial Mughal Tomb Architecture, in “Muqarnas X: An Annual on Islamic Art and Architecture”, p.328-329.

[8] James Dickie (Yaqub Zaki), The Mughal Garden: Gateway to Paradise, in “Muqarnas III: An Annual on Islamic Art and Architecture”, edited by Oleg Grabar, (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1985), p. 128-129.

[9] Michael Brand, Orthodoxy, Innovation and Revival: Considerations of the Past in Imperial Mughal Tomb Architecture, in “Muqarnas X: An Annual on Islamic Art and Architecture”, p. 333.

[10] Glenn D. Lowry, Humayun’s Tomb: Form, Function and Meaning in Early Mughal Architecture, in “Muqarnas IV: An Annual on Islamic Art and Architecture”, p. 140.

[11] Ibid., p. 140.

[12] The Baburnama, Memoirs of Babur, p. 359-360.

[13] Ibid., p. 359.

[14] Sri Ram Sharma, The Crescent in India, vol. 1 p. 264, 269.

[15] Abu al-Fazl, The Akbar-Nama, vol. 3 p. 1262.

[16] James Dickie (Yaqub Zaki), The Mughal Garden: Gateway to Paradise, in “Muqarnas III: An Annual on Islamic Art and Architecture”, p. 131.

[17] Ibid., p. 133.

[18] Mukhtasar Tafsir Ibn Kathir, Ikhtasarahu Muhammad ‘Ali al-Sabuni, (Beirut: Dar al-Qur’an al-Karim, 1981), vol. 3 p. 154.

[19] Ibid., vol. 3 p. 154.

[20] Michael Brand, Orthodoxy, Innovation and Revival: Considerations of the Past in Imperial Mughal Tomb Architecture, in “Muqarnas X: An Annual on Islamic Art and Architecture”, p. 325.

[21] Mukhtasar Tafsir Ibn Kathir, Ikhtasarahu Muhammad ‘Ali al-Sabuni, vol. 3 p. 604.

[22] Michael Brand, Orthodoxy, Innovation and Revival: Considerations of the Past in Imperial Mughal Tomb Architecture, in “Muqarnas X: An Annual on Islamic Art and Architecture”, p. 329, 331.

[23] Mukhtasar Tafsir Ibn Kathir, Ikhtasarahu Muhammad ‘Ali al-Sabuni, vol. 1 p. 228.

[24] Ibid., vol. 3 p. 526.

[25] Michael Brand, Orthodoxy, Innovation and Revival: Considerations of the Past in Imperial Mughal Tomb Architecture, in “Muqarnas X: An Annual on Islamic Art and Architecture”, p. 326. George Michell, The Majesty of Mughal Decoration, (London: Thames and Hudson, 2007), p. 23-28.

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