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!

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*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 ( [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Arabesques on spandrels (the almost triangular space at the top, between the arch and the calligraphy band)

If you get lemons, make lemonade

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.

Arabesques on spandrels (the almost triangular space at the top, between the arch and the calligraphy band)

Arabesques on spandrels (the almost triangular space at the top, between the arch and the calligraphy band)

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!

Hierarchy of symbols

Hierarchy of symbols

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!