Even when viewing the Taj from afar, apart from the white marble beauty, there are two features that are distinct. One is the calligraphy band on the face of the doorway.
The other are the colourful patterns of inlaid stone (known as Pietra Dura) on the spandrels of the arch.
The pietra dura creates beautiful flowing patterns on the spandrels. These patterns are known as arabesques and usually consist of rhythmic formations of flowers, leaves, creepers and foliage.
It is used commonly in Islamic architecture as a decorative technique. In fact it’s the high-point of symbolism that is permissible in Islamic architecture. Why is it the high point? And why is it used so frequently? Because they can go no further…
For us to appreciate Mughal art, we have to understand their constraints first.
They could not visually depict any animal or human forms in public art or architecture, since these are regarded as God’s creation in Islam.
Imagine – no paintings like that on the Sistine Chapel, no intricate sculptures like those in Hindu temples.
In an imaginary competition between the three, it would be almost as if the Mughals were competing with Hindu and Christian art with one hand tied behind their back!
And so, they decided to make the remaining hand count. A lot. Their redeeming subject: botany.
In the 2015 Hollywood movie, ‘The Martian’, Matt Damon plays a botanist (coincidence!) who gets accidentally left behind on Mars, and vows to make the most of his meagre resources, saying ‘I’m gonna have to science the shit out of this’.
With their restrictions on display of human or animal forms, it’s almost as if the Mughals decided to (excuse our language) ‘art the s#!t out of botany and geometry!’
And so, you will find an absolute profusion of flower, leaf and plant forms all over the monument, including those stunning arabesques on the spandrels.
You gotta hand it to the Mughals, for making the best of their constrained situation!