Historicity and Religious Sanctity of Architecture in Islam – Part 4: Islamist Extremists Should Learn From the Most Preserved Islamic Heritage in India




By Ghulam Rasool Dehlvi, New Age Islam

22 November, 2014

It is a common knowledge that the Islamic architecture flourished and reached at its peak in the Indian subcontinent. The major architectural buildings built in the Mughal India are mosques, minarets and other citadels of Muslim civilization. The unique part about the architectural mosques in India is that they are open to one and all, irrespective of faith and creed, something which is quite unlikely in the major mosques of other countries. Besides, mosques were often integrated with educational seminaries and madrasas   offering both religious and secular education with different levels of schooling facilities. This architectural tradition is still alive in the South Indian Muslim community, particularly in Kerala.

Most interestingly, the architecture of Indian Muslims does not confine itself to only mosques, minarets, domes, mausoleums, shrines or other similar religious structures, but it reflects an approach of openness and flexibility that the Muslim architects adopted in India. Keeping pace with the composite and multicultural civilisation of the country, Indian Muslims shunned rigid rules regarding the external expressions of their architectural features.  They took the national, cultural, climatic and local conditions into great consideration and encouraged regional craftsmanship utilising the available materials in the then India.

The Islamic architecture of India is so valuable in the treasure of world heritage that even European and Muslim countries took it as a source of inspiration. It is the Taj Mahal of India that introduced the all-embracing Muslim tradition of architecture to the world at large. Surprisingly enough, the second oldest mosque in the world is also situated in India, in Kerala. It should be, therefore, a common knowledge that India has a rich architectural heritage of Islam, from Kerala in the South till Kashmir in the North, and from Tripura in the East till Gujarat in the West. Besides, Indian mosques, tombs, madrasas, palaces and fortresses are a beautiful and invaluable treasure of the Islamic architecture. These monuments are valuable assets not only to Islam and Muslims but also to India’s culture and heritage. Many of them are recognized today as World Heritage Monuments. The confluence of local talent with influences from Iran, Arabia, and Central Asia worked wonders in the building of Islamic architecture in this multicultural country.

A focused survey of Islamic architecture in India explores the glorious world of mausoleums, tombs, palaces, caravanserais, mosques and other spiritual citadels. There has been multifaceted relation of Muslim architecture to Indian society. Since most of the Indian sub-continental parts were under Muslim domination between the 12th and the mid-nineteenth centuries, a unique architectural blend of Islamic, Turkish, and Persian influences is deeply entrenched in this multicultural and pluralistic country. A sweeping panorama of the history of Islamic architecture in the Indian subcontinent refreshes us with the beautiful memories of Muslims’ excellence in the art and architecture. Most importantly, India is the only country where the key Islamic monuments of each period and region are still preserved in their original shape and splendour, be it the magnificent Taj-Mahal at Agra, Humayun’s tomb at Delhi or the old Sufi shrines in different parts of the country.

What makes Indian Islamic architecture stand out in the world heritage is the Mughal architecture. It gives us a deep insight into the historic past of Muslims, as rulers, in India. Mughals propelled Islamic architecture to a remarkable hybrid that fuses building forms and decorative schemes from Iran and Central Asia with age-old Indian Vedic traditions. Truly innovative with an instant impact, these impressive groups of monuments, built in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, exhibit the staggering wealth and power Muslims possessed during their rule in India. The unforgettable Muslim emperors like Akbar, Jahangir and Shah Jahan were the pioneers of the Islamic architecture in India. Majority of the key monuments and gardens of the Mughals are situated in the imperial centres of Mughal power i.e. Delhi, Agra and Fatehpur Sikri. Two examples that will hold out evergreen in memories are the Red Fort in Delhi and the Taj Mahal in Agra.

Majority of the Islamic architectural sites in India are mausoleums, tombs, mosques or palaces, some kept up in sound condition, others requiring great and urgent attention. Although, some of them may be showing neglect, they are preserved in some way or the other and not jeopardised or vandalised as in the present-day Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Syria, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Even many old magnificent forts and fortified citadels that were built for protection against invaders are kept intact, with much more splendour resulting into thriving boom in the Indian tourism.  One such example is the Purana Quila (the old fort) constructed by Humayun and Sher Shah in the 16th century. It is an archetypal example of the Indo-Islamic architecture that flourished in India during the Mughal period. Located on the banks of Yamuna, it happens to be the oldest surviving fort in Delhi. Interestingly, as the story goes on, the fort was initially built by the Pandavas in the ancient city of Indraprastha (Delhi) of the Mahabharata. The Archaeological Survey of India has confirmed its date back to at least 1000 B.C. The ruins of the fort were built by the second Mughal emperor Humayun during the 1530s.

Inside the old fort there is a mosque namely Quila-e-Kuhna (the old fort), which is one of the finest examples of the Islamic architecture in the pre-Mughal era. At a time when many Islamic buildings have not been protected, rather purposefully destructed and vandalised, in the Muslim countries, age-old mosques like the Quila-e-Kuhna mosque are the best preserved monuments in the oldest fort of Delhi, the capital of India.

From the Lucknow in Uttar Pradesh of India to the capital, Delhi, Indian architects have had telling effect on the Islamic tradition of architecture. India’s history is witness to the unprecedented Mughal architecture and gardens, from stylistic developments under different emperors, to the geometric origins of Mughal design and decoration. One gets overwhelmed with joy and excitement to come to India and visit the Islamic architectural buildings and monuments, their marvellous structures and layouts, the favoured varieties of colourful flowers and scented plants. The surrounding lands of the Indian Islamic architecture often consist of minarets, gardens, pillars, terraces, friezes and arches, all presented in an amazingly distinctive fashion. Many of them exhibit incredibly intricate artwork of flowers and geometric designs.

Ghulam Rasool Dehlvi is an Alim and Fazil (classical Islamic scholar) with a Sufi background. He has graduated from a leading Sufi Islamic seminary of India, Jamia Amjadia Rizvia (Mau, U.P.), acquired Diploma in Qur’anic Arabic from Al-Jamiat ul Islamia, Faizabad, U.P., and Certificate in Uloom ul Hadith from Al-Azhar Institute of Islamic Studies, Badaun, U.P. He has also graduated in Arabic (Hons) and is pursuing his M. A. in Comparative Religion from Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.

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