Five styles of medieval building decoration

Some months back, I’d posted an article here about some interesting architectural elements you can find in medieval monuments in North India, including Mughal monuments. Kangura battlements, for instance, and damaagas, from which boiling pitch could be poured on to invaders.

Along the same lines as that post is this one: introducing five different forms of ornamentation that was used to embellish buildings back in medieval India (and, more specifically, medieval Northern India).

Painted ceiling, Tomb of Makhdum Shah, Delhi.

Painted ceiling, Tomb of Makhdum Shah, Delhi.

While the houses of the common people were mostly built of reeds and mud (known, in architectural terms, as ‘wattle-and-daub’), the wealthy could afford to build more lasting houses, of brick or stone, or both. These more durable materials, used in the construction of everything from forts and palaces to mosques, tombs, baolis, and more, allowed for more lasting decoration: a stone wall with carvings or inlay has a much better chance of enduring for decades, if not centuries, than a mud wall.

Here, therefore, are some of the more commonly used techniques of ornamentation that you’ll find on medieval monuments across North India (and, in some cases, even in other parts of the country).

1. Carving: The sangtaraash, or stonecarver, played an important part in the embellishment of buildings, because carved stone was one of the easiest ways to make a building look more than merely functional. In Delhi, the stone that was locally quarried (and therefore commonly used) was what is known as Delhi gray quartzite: it’s a very hard stone, and therefore very difficult to carve, which is why buildings made from this quartzite (including Tughlaq structures like the madrasa at Hauz Khas, or Tughlaqabad fort) were very sparingly carved.

In contrast, marble and red sandstone were far easier to carve. Marble, of course, was expensive (and harder than sandstone), but even then, the carvers at buildings like the Taj Mahal or the Red Fort managed to carve stunning patterns in it.

Carved marble at the Red Fort.

Carved marble at the Red Fort.

Sandstone, especially the abundant red sandstone, was the perfect material for carving, allowing very fine and intricate patterns to be created (as at Fatehpur Sikri, or at the Qutb Archaeological Complex).

Carved stone at the Alai Darwaza, Delhi.

Carved stone at the Alai Darwaza, Delhi.

2. Incised Plaster: Another technique, used to create an effect similar to carved stone—but far cheaper—was that of incised plaster. For this, lime plaster used to be thickly slathered onto a surface (typically, a brick wall). Then, before the plaster could harden, it was worked into patterns. Incised plaster was used in a number of buildings, especially during the reign of the Lodhis, whose monuments can often be recognised by the abundance of incised plaster work (as in the Bada Gumbad mosque at Lodhi Gardens).

The Bada Gumbad Mosque, Lodhi Gardens: a fine example of incised plaster.

The Bada Gumbad Mosque, Lodhi Gardens: a fine example of incised plaster.

Later, too, incised plaster was used to decorate tombs: Safdarjang’s tomb, built at a time when the Mughal Empire had lost much of its wealth, uses lots of incised plaster (in lieu of expensive carved white marble—sadly, even the marble used at the tomb was stolen).

A chamber with incised plaster at Safdarjang's Tomb.

A chamber with incised plaster at Safdarjang’s Tomb.

My favourite example of incised plaster work in Delhi is at the little-known Sundarwala Burj at Sundar Nursery. All finely wrought stars and delicate decoration, this one’s a gem.

Incised plaster at Sundarwala Burj.

Incised plaster at Sundarwala Burj.

3. Inlay: Also known by its Italian name of pietra dura, and known in India as parchinkari. Parchinkari requires various skills: at the Taj Mahal (probably the finest example in India of parchinkari on such a large scale), for instance, the inlay work would begin with an artist drawing the required pattern on the polished stone surface (such as white marble). The pattern, drawn with henna, would then be used to carve grooves in the stone. The materials for the inlay—semi-precious stones and minerals such as jade, malachite, coral, lapis lazuli, turquoise, mother-of-pearl, etc—would be sliced (using copper wires) into very thin pieces, which would then be fitted into the grooves to form a composite image: a flower, for example.

Parchinkari at the Taj Mahal.

Parchinkari at the Taj Mahal.

Some of the inlay at the Taj Mahal is mind-bogglingly intricate: studies have shown that the tomb of Mumtaz Mahal and the screen that surrounds it have parchinkari so fine, it consists of fifty different pieces of coloured stone fitted into a section of just one square inch.

Not that all parchinkari was this fine; more basic, yet pleasing, inlay work was used to embellish plenty of other buildings, such as Sikandra.

White and black marble inlay on red sandstone, at a gate in Sikandra.

White and black marble inlay on red sandstone, at a gate in Sikandra.

4. Tiles: The art of using ceramic tiles to decorate buildings came to India from Central Asia. These tiles were coloured with minerals such as lapis lazuli (which gave them a distinctive deep blue colour); other popular colours used were green, white, and deep yellow.

Compared to stone, of course, tiles are far less durable, which accounts for the fact that one can’t see too much of this technique today. Often, tiles can be seen forming a trim for monuments (the Sheesh Gumbad at Delhi’s Lodhi Gardens, for example).

…but there are occasional buildings where tile work has survived, as in the Neela Gumbad behind Humayun’s Tomb, and the Sabz Burj in front of Humayun’s Tomb. (Note: ‘Sabz’ means ‘green’, an indication of the original colour of the tiles on this dome. The present tiles, a deep blue, were put in by the Archaeological Survey of India in the early 1900s).

The Sabz Burj, named for the tiles on its dome, originally green.

The Sabz Burj, named for the tiles on its dome, originally green.

Agra’s superb Chini ka Rauza is even named for its tile work (‘chini’ meaning ‘ceramic’, derived from ‘China’, which was renowned for its ceramic).

Tiles at Agra's Chini ka Rauza.

Tiles at Agra’s Chini ka Rauza.

An example of tile work and incised plaster, at Jamaali-Kamaali.

An example of tile work and incised plaster, at Jamaali-Kamaali.

5. Painting: One of the more common forms of decoration—possibly partly because it could be used extensively, and did not require the hard physical labour or the heavy expenses that went into stone work—was painting. Sadly, because paint is so relatively fragile, it doesn’t withstand the passage of years well.

Despite that, lots of medieval monuments in Delhi (especially tombs) are home to some beautifully ornate painting, much of it in the form of geometric shapes (the typical red bands, crossing each other, and enclosing a circular pattern, is almost cookie-cutter, seen all the way from Firoz Shah Tughlaq’s tomb to Mohammad Shah’s tomb in Lodhi Gardens).

The ceiling of Mohammad Shah's tomb.

The ceiling of Mohammad Shah’s tomb.

The most commonly used colours in painting (which was done on plaster, using natural colours derived from mineral or plant matter) included blue, red and ochre, though other colours—such as black and white, which dominate at Sabz Burj—are also seen.

Painted panels at the Sabz Burj.

Painted panels at the Sabz Burj.

The painted ceiling of the Mehmaan Khaana at the Taj Mahal.

The painted ceiling of the Mehmaan Khaana at the Taj Mahal.

My favourite Delhi example of a beautifully painted medieval monument is the exquisite Tomb of Jamaali-Kamaali, at the Mehrauli Archaeological Park. The little chamber that houses the twin graves here is completely painted, walls and ceiling, in lovely patterns, primarily in blue. It also has some examples of tile work, and filigree (known as ‘jaali’), made from plaster.

A view of the painted ceiling at the Tomb of Jamaali-Kamaali.

A view of the painted ceiling at the Tomb of Jamaali-Kamaali.

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6 thoughts on “Five styles of medieval building decoration

  1. So informative as usual.
    I was hoping you would mention the inlay work at Taj Mahal. You had written about it so nicely in Engraved in Stone. The novel was great to read. You have described the times so well, one feels transferred to that era. Very beautiful description of details, which enchanted me totally.
    I digress!
    Lovely article, Madhu. Loved going thro it!

  2. Lovely article!
    How were you able to visit Subz Burj? The guard just wouldn’t let me in even after repeated requests. :(

    • Thank you! It’s been years since I visited Sabz Burj, actually – these photos were taken back in 2008. But I know what you mean; there’s another tomb on Lodhi Road (next to the Centenary Methodist Church) that I want to see – because my sister, who’s been inside, told me it contains some medieval graffiti. But the guard flatly refused to let me in.

  3. Very informed article.. Having visited most of these monuments I can now relate to the various decorative styles and how these works of art progressed over the centuries.

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