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Orpheus

A Greek mythical hero behind the Mughal throne

One of the most striking buildings in the Red Fort in Delhi is the grand, pillared Diwan-e-Aam.

Diwan-e-Aam Pillars

Diwan-e-Aam Pillars

The Diwan-e-Aam or Hall of Public Audience, was where ordinary people could get an audience with the Emperor. They would come to air their grievances, settle disputes and complaints, and the Emperor would proclaim his judgment.

The Emperor would be seated on a grand throne on the huge marble platform in the centre of the hall (at the back).

Marble Throne

Marble Throne

If you observe the wall at the back of the marble throne, there are some beautiful Pietra Dura motifs. They aren’t clearly visible though, because of the protective glass.

You can see birds on trees, flowers and one very peculiar motif – what seems like a very European-looking youth playing a stringed instrument, with some intently listening animals at his feet!

Pietra Dura with Orpheus

Pietra Dura with Orpheus

We have enlarged that picture for you:

Orpheus

Orpheus*

That is Orpheus – the legendary Greek musical hero whose beautiful singing and playing were supposed to soothe all animals.

But wait – what was a Greek mythical hero doing in the palace of a 17th century Mughal ruler?!

Well, the simple answer is that this was the influence of European artists working under Mughal patronage. But still, why choose such a foreign-looking motif?

This question intrigued one particular European architectural history student – her name is Ebba Koch (and she’s now acclaimed as a leading authority on Mughal architecture) – and she decided to do her entire PhD thesis on this one symbol!

The key message of her thesis is this: If you look closely at the animals in the Orpheus motif, it conveys something surprising – both wild animals and their prey are sitting with each other in peace and harmony.
And that was the message that Shah Jahan wanted to convey to his subjects: that in his reign, everyone – the powerful and the weak – can live with each other in peace.

Think of it as the then ruler assuring his subjects, that with his rule, “Achhe din aane waale hai” 🙂

*Orpheus (Public domain, accessed from British Library, Online Collection: http://www.bl.uk/onlinegallery/onlineex/apac/addorimss/t/largeimage55392.html)
Images of Gods*

Whats the big deal with this symbol?

Here’s a quiz question. Observe the images on your screen.

Images of Gods*

Images of Gods*

What is one common factor across all these pics?

Another clue: India’s prestigious national civilian awards are named after this, as is the election symbol of the current ruling party.

 

You’re right, that’s way too easy – the lotus flower. But why is it so prominent in these pics, and in Indian life in general?

Ah, time for some botany. The lotus is usually found in muddy ponds and swamps. The flowers or the leaves do not get affected by the wet and muddy environment; instead they offer their beauty and fragrance to everyone, regardless.

This behaviour fascinated the ancients in India and the lotus became their favourite to symbolise certain desired principles and attributes. Especially one particular principle: detachment.

In Hinduism, the theme of detachment features profusely in the Bhagwad Gita (one of Hinduism’s holiest books). And the lotus was a favourite analogy. For example in this succinct verse:

“One who performs his duty without attachment, surrendering the results unto the Supreme Lord,

Is unaffected by sins, just as the lotus leaf is untouched by water”

In Buddhism too, the lotus represents purity and renunciation, floating above the muddy waters of attachment and desire.

So the lotus (which is now India’s national flower) was not just a big deal to Hindus and Buddhists since ancient times, it was a defining symbol.

Perhaps recognising that importance, and the underlying message, Islamic architects began using the lotus across structures.

And now, observe the top of the Taj’s main dome, or the domes on the mosque or mehman khana on the other side, or most other domes in Islamic monuments… All of them have one distinctive feature – an inverted lotus placed on its apex.

Inverted Lotus on Domes

Inverted Lotus on Domes

Perhaps the next time you see a lotus, you would be reminded of its simple message – of detachment and focus on your karma!

For more such fascinating stories, download the Taj Mahal CaptivaTour in Android or iOS.

You can read more stories in our blog.

 

*Goddess Lakshmi: Raja Ravi Varma [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons ; Buddha By Alexander E. Caddy (The British Library – Online Gallery) [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons ; Sheshashayee Vishnu: By Ramanarayanadatta astri (http://archive.org/details/mahabharat05ramauoft) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Isa Khan Niazi's Tomb#

My Tomb is way cooler than yours

Tombs were status symbols in medieval India. Houses could be demolished, but a tomb, given its sacred nature, was a permanent structure. So rulers and noblemen strove to leave a lasting legacy by building grand tombs for themselves and their dear ones.

But how did they differentiate? How did they showcase their tomb as cooler than the others? Let’s find out!

The era of tomb building in India began with the arrival of the Muslim rulers in the late twelfth/early-thirteenth century. The first tomb was built in Delhi in 1231.

The initial tombs – think of them as Version 1 – had a typical design: a semi-circular dome mounted on a square base. There were some variations, but it was broadly similar.

Version 1 Tombs - Dome on Square

Version 1 Tombs – Dome on Square*

In this design, the square base represented earth and the circular dome represented heaven – symbolising the soul’s ascent from earth  to paradise.

By the late fourteenth century, this standard ‘dome-on-cube’ structure – our version 1 – had become really common and ubiquitous! The ‘status-symbol’ was losing its value.

Along came a set of rulers who decided to shake things up a bit. And sometime in the late 1300s, India’s first octagonal tomb was built – in the Nizamuddin locality. Some believe that the inspiration for this was from the octagonal Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem.

These eight-sided tombs were preferred by the Sayyids and Lodis (both pre-Mughal dynasties) and you can see some great examples in Lodi Garden in Delhi.

Version 2 Tombs - Octagonal

Version 2 Tombs – Octagonal**

Another stunning example is the tomb of Sher Shah Suri in Sasaram (Bihar).

Sher Shah Suri's Tomb

Sher Shah Suri’s Tomb***

During this period, the octagonal tomb design (our Version 2), was reserved only for kings. Other noblemen could only use the Version 1 dome-on-cube design.

One such nobleman from Sher Shah Suri’s court was Isa Khan Niyazi. Despite not being a king, he must have felt entitled to build a Version 2 for himself (perhaps because, by that time, there was no strong ruler to stop him!). And so he built this striking octagonal tomb in 1547 (which lies within the Humayun’s Tomb complex).

Isa Khan Niazi's Tomb#

Isa Khan Niazi’s Tomb#

And then came the Mughals. Their reaction must’ve been like “Alright boys and girls, you’ve had your fun. Now we’ll show you how it’s really done”!

(Quick history recap: Babur was the first Mughal who captured territory in India in 1526. His son Humayun was driven out by Sher Shah Suri in 1540. Later, the Mughals regained their empire and Akbar became the emperor in 1556. Famous buildings of Mughal architecture as we know them, essentially began under Akbar.)

The first major opportunity to showcase the Mughal style was Humayun’s Tomb (which commenced in 1565). Desiring to build a grand, never-seen-before monument, Akbar got in expat talent – a Persian architect called Mir Mirak Ghiyas.

Ghiyas ditched the octagonal tomb design, in favour of a radical new design – hasht-behisht (or eight paradises) –  our Version 3 tomb.

In previous tombs, there would be only a single chamber inside. In Humayun’s Tomb, however, the central chamber, (itself shaped like an irregular octagon) has eight ancillary structures surrounding it. There are four octagonal rooms at the corners and four arched niches in the cardinal directions. These eight rooms are supposed to evoke the eight gates or levels of paradise in Islamic belief.

Humayun’s Tomb Floor Plan; By Ebba Koch, in ‘The Complete Taj Mahal’

Humayun’s Tomb Floor Plan; By Ebba Koch, in ‘The Complete Taj Mahal’

 

It is an incredibly sophisticated design that achieves the objectives of having eight rooms surrounding the central octagonal chamber; with passageways connecting to the central chamber and to other rooms too. Just imagine – this achievement of sheer architectural genius was executed without any CAD or 3D imaging software, in the 16th century!

And guess what, when Emperor Shah Jahan built the Taj Mahal seventy years later, he took the same hasht-behisht concept and modified it for his masterpiece.

And from then on, no one could say, ‘My tomb is cooler than yours’ – the Taj had settled that question once and for all.

Taj Mahal

Taj Mahal

 

 

*Dadi-poti ka Gumbad by By http://www.flickr.com/photos/varunshiv/ (http://www.flickr.com/photos/varunshiv/3547827938/) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons ; Bada Gumbad By Anupamg (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

** Mohd Shah Tomb By Lucido22 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons ; Sikander Lodi’s By Tanmay Kumar Photography (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

*** Sher Shah Suri’s Tomb at Sasaram, By Nandanupadhyay (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

# Isa Khan Niyazi’s Tomb in Delhi; By CaptivaTour
Qutub Minar

Medieval Meritocracy

The Qutub Minar was built during the Delhi Sultanate period. A stone plaque in the Qutub complex says that the first 90-odd years of this era is known as the Slave Dynasty, since the most prominent rulers then were former slaves.

Wait a minute. You mean slaves – like bonded labour – were being given a chance to rule an empire? Was this some crazy medieval social experiment?!

Um, no.

The word ‘Slave’ here (translated from the Arabic word Mamluk) is a bit of a misnomer – it doesn’t mean the slavery of ‘Django Unchained’ or ‘Amistad’. It refers to a fascinating practice that was prevalent in Central Asia for centuries – that of the slave trade for military & administrative purposes.

Normally in history, (especially in the US) slaves were used for labour-intensive tasks like farming and mining. They had abysmal rights and led a sorry existence.

However, there was a different need in the rich trading cities (like Bukhara, Samarkand) of medieval Central Asia, on the old Silk Route. The merchants wanted reliable soldiers for guarding their goods caravans. And so, they encouraged the practice of buying child slaves from the nomadic tribes of the region (the Central Asian steppe had always been an area of nomadic tribes, since it supported grazing and not settled agriculture).

Over time this practice morphed to form extensive slave markets across cities. These markets would be patronised by royalty, who would ‘buy’ the best slaves.

They would then do something that you would never expect to be done for a slave – groom them for leadership positions in their army and administration!

Remember how you may have heard that cliched line from HR in interviews – “We have a great career path for new entrants – anyone can become the CEO!”

Well in this case, the ‘slaves’ could and did become the CEO! This was meritocracy at work in medieval times. A modern equivalent would be an ‘Early Talent Identification and Grooming’ program (with a fancy acronym, ETIG) to get gifted kids onto a fast-track.

And these medieval kids did get onto the fast track! Let’s get back to our Delhi Sultanate story.

The Sultanate was established when Mohammed Ghori defeated Pritiviraj Chauhan in 1192. After conquering Delhi, when Mohammed Ghori left for Afghanistan, he left one such Turki slave, Qutub-ud-din Aibak in charge here.

But hang on, you may ask – what happened to family? What about handing over the throne to your descendants or close family members?

In Ghori’s case, he had no children. But even otherwise a key factor that drove the preference for slaves by royals was their distrust of family. A saying in Persian captures the thought succinctly:

‘One obedient slave is better than three hundred sons;

for the former desires his master’s glory; the latter, their father’s death.’

So it was a ‘slave’ who started rule as Delhi’s first Sultan. All right, but one Sultan does not a dynasty make! Why was this called the Slave ‘Dynasty’?

That’s because the Sultan after Aibak was not a son, but a slave of his – Shams-ud-din Iltutmish.

Now, Iltutmish had an interesting story. Apparently he was known for his good looks and intelligence as a boy, making his brothers jealous. One day they enticed him away from their home in Central Asia, on the pretext of a horse show, and sold him off to a slave trader!

After being resold a few times, he ended up in front of Mohammed Ghori. Ghori rejected him as he found the asking price too high. Qutubuddin Aibak however took a fancy to him and purchased him.

From that time, Iltutmish steadily rose up the ranks – he even married Aibak’s (i.e. his boss’) daughter. (Ah, the perks of being on the fast track)!

Iltutmish ruled for around 25 years. After him, the next few rulers were his descendants. But soon enough, another slave (of Iltutmish) named Balban ascended the throne. No wonder the Slave Dynasty name stuck.

Slave Dynasty

Slave Dynasty

 

Anyway, after the ‘Slave Dynasty’ period, normal service resumed. Family became supreme again (perhaps the practice of buying child slaves too discontinued).

After that we have had an almost uninterrupted line of family dynasties (save for the British period!) ruling Delhi – the Khaljis, the Tughluks, the Sayyids, Lodis, the Mughals, (Brits – brief interlude) and the Nehru-Gandhis (at least till recently)!

Be that as it may, the Slave Dynasty remains a brief and interesting experiment in medieval meritocracy!

***

To know more, listen to our Qutub Minar Guide 🙂

Agra

Did Shah Jahan Read ‘Good to Great’?

If you cringe at statements describing the Taj Mahal as  “the ultimate expression of love” or “man’s greatest ode to a woman”, here’s some solid logic to back that up!

For those who believe in parallel universes, how about a thought experiment.

Imagine multiple universes –each with a different kind of Taj Mahal:

Taj in Parallel Universes

Taj in Parallel Universes

  1. A universe with a Shah Jahan who wasn’t rich and powerful, but who was a good architect and loved his wife: In such a universe, while he would have the passion and talent to build the tomb, he couldn’t have afforded the materials and the skilled men. A Taj in this universe, if at all, would’ve been a beautiful but small memorial.
  2. A universe with a rich, wife-loving Shah Jahan, but without the architectural talent: Here we would’ve surely had a Taj Mahal – but most likely it’d been a pompous and garish creation. You know, the money-can’t-buy-class-type? (we’re looking at you, Donald Trump!)
  3. A universe with a rich, talented Shah Jahan, but without that love for Mumtaz: In such a universe, the Taj simply would not have existed. Monuments were rarely made for wives by husbands, even if they had the means and talent to do it.

What we’ve used here is a modified form of the ‘hedgehog framework’ from Jim Collins’ famous management book ‘Good to Great’. This framework states: To achieve greatness, focus on that specific activity for which you have three strengths – insane ability, unending passion, and a strong economic driver.

Let’s look at each of the three, vis-a-vis Shah Jahan.

1. Architectural ability: For the design of the Taj, you may imagine that Shah Jahan would’ve undertaken a country-wide, nay global search for the best architect. Here’s a fun imaginary recreation of that brief conversation:

Emperor Shah Jahan: Spare no expense. Search high and low, across all the oceans… but get me the best architect on earth..

Minister: Uh, Sir…

Emperor Shah Jahan:… oh wait, that’s me!

Yes, Shah Jahan was an accomplished architect himself. In fact this passage from Shah Jahan’s biography lays out clearly the completely hands on role of the Emperor in the design: “The building superintendents along with the architects bring the architectural designs before the exalted sight of the Emperor. And … he attends to it fully by creating most of the designs himself and also by making appropriate changes to whatever the architects have thought out

2. Unending passion: Shah Jahan’s love for Mumtaz is the stuff of legend. But he was no one-woman-man, especially after her death. He had a vigorous sexual appetite, and stories about the same abound in some of the gossipy European chronicles of that time.

However, we have to keep the context in mind here. In medieval times it was very common for rulers to have a significant harem of wives and concubines. Even Shah Jahan’s illustrious grandfather Akbar had a large harem, like most other kings.

But, what was not common was for such rulers to develop an overwhelming affinity for any one woman. And that was truly the case when Mumtaz was alive.

Peter Mundy, an Englishman visiting Agra in the 1630s, writes this about their love: “This Kinge is now buildinge a Sepulchre for his late deceased Queene …. whome hee dearely loved, haveing had by her 9 or 10 children, and thought, in her life tyme to use noe other woman (which is strange if true consideringe their libertie in that kinde).

There you have it – their love made even a classic understated Brit raise his eyebrows in mild surprise!

Apart from the love, what was also very uncommon was grand tombs built for women.

Mughal emperors would usually build grand tombs for their fathers (think Humayun’s Tomb, Akbar’s Tomb, Jahangir’s Tomb), palaces for themselves (think Red Fort, Agra Fort) and mosques for the general public (Jama Masjid). But nothing really for their wives or mothers.

A few exceptions like the tomb of Shah Begum in Allahabad, or Bu Halima’s spartan tomb in Delhi exist. But till the 1630s, the equation of Mughal tombs was overwhelmingly in favour of the males

 

Mughal Tombs for Men and Women

Mughal Tombs for Men and Women

Enter, the Taj.

Shah Jahan had his flaws. But for a guy who spent more than 12 years, and a significant amount of his empire’s resources on creating an achingly beautiful piece of marble heaven-on-earth for his departed wife, one thing was for certain – that love was genuine.

Economic Driver: Ideally ‘economic driver’ in the hedgehog framework refers to the value that the activity generates. In that sense, the activity of architecture wasn’t an economic driver; but we have interpreted the framework here in the sense that Shah Jahan had ample resources to undertake that activity.

Those resources came from Mughal India being the world’s second largest economy then. The Mughal Emperor was probably  the richest guy on earth at that time. The money spent on the Taj (Rs. 5 Mn then; around $250 Mn in today’s money) was financed from this rich empire.

*****

And so, ladies and gentlemen, we are fortunate to be living in that parallel universe, where we got the whole package!

A Shah Jahan who was rich and powerful, an incredibly talented architect, and madly in love with his wife.

And you know what was the most vital ingredient? That clichéd, worn-out, word: Love! 🙂

 

And for more such stories and insights, on India’s most famous monument, experience our Taj Mahal CaptivaTour! Available in Android and coming soon on iOS.

Photo Credits:

Trump Taj Mahal: By Jrballe (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Ataga Khan tomb By Gaur.rameshwar (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons ;

Akbar’s tomb By *_* (originally posted to Flickr as Akbar’s Tomb) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons ;

Jahangir’s tomb by By Jugni (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons ;

Rest Own pics