For the queen’s paradise: Taj Mahal’s exquisite floral inlay work

Taj Mahal’s exquisite floral inlay work was the result of meticulous medieval craftsmanship.

Written by Rana Safvi | Published: October 29, 2017 12:00 am
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When Mumtaz Mahal passed away, Bebadal Khan wrote the chronogram for her that yielded 1040 — the Hijri year of her death, corresponding to 1631 AD: “Ja-i-Mumtaz Mahal jannat baad [May the abode of Mumtaz Mahal be Paradise].” And so, the grief-stricken husband took it upon himself to build a veritable paradise as her resting place.

Persian architecture, to begin with, was replete with paradisiacal tombs. Humayun’s tomb was the first such in India. Such a tomb typically has a garden known as char bagh, with water streams, chutes, fountains, pools, trees and flowers to produce a heavenly atmosphere. So, the Taj architects were tasked with first making a plan for a hasht bahisht tomb [an irregular octagonal architectural plan which symbolises the eight levels of heaven] in the char bagh. However, for the emperor who mourned his wife so greatly that he wore white clothes for two years and shunned jewellery and itr, just getting the design right was not enough. Physical flowers are ephemeral — there had to be flowers cast in stone to last forever. And so, the best talent was gathered to make it happen. In fact, the carving of the flowers and their inlay work went on for much longer, even after the main tomb itself had been built.

The chief architects involved in this grand project were Ustad Ahmad Lahori, who later designed the Red Fort, and Mir Abdul Karim. Supervision was by Makramat Khan, who was also in charge of the Red Fort’s construction. However, the names of the craftsmen who came from all parts of the Mughal empire, aren’t known. These included troops of skilled stonecutters, inlayers and those who carved in relief. One is reminded of Sahir Ludhianvi’s verse:

Mere mahboob unhe’n bhi to mohabbat hogi/Jin ki sannai ne baksha use shakl-e-jameel/Unke pyaaro’n ke maqabir rahe benaam o numood/Aaj tak un pe jalai na kisi ne qandeel (My Love, even they must have loved/They whose craftsmanship gave this beautiful appearance/The tombs of their loved ones remain in nameless neglect/No one has ever lit a single lamp on it, even perchance.)

Indians were already familiar with inlay work — the insertion of stone on stone in prepared grooves — at the time. This was called parchinkari in Persian. The Taj Mahal, though, didn’t just have parchinkari, but elaborate and intricate inlay work where precious stones were inlaid into marble to create beautiful flowers.
According to historian Ebba Koch, this technique originated in Florence and was called commeso di pietre dure (composition of hard stones), abbreviated to pietra dura. The Mughals had become acquainted with the technique through European visitors. This involved cutting the precious and semi-precious stones into fine pieces and shapes, and then inlaying these innumerable pieces into marble to create a single flower pattern. Koch writes, “This technique was soon mastered to such perfection by the lapidaries of Shah Jahan that in its complexity, subtlety and elegance their pietra dura work far surpasses that of the Italian artists.”

Fanny Parkes, a British woman who lived in India from 1822-1845 and kept a journal of her stay, had the patience to count the number of pieces that went into the making of each flower in the marble screen surrounding the cenotaphs on the upper level of the Taj. A mind-boggling 72 pieces went into each flower and there were 50 such flowers on the screen around each cenotaph!

The inlay artists had plenty of riches to work with — agates were brought from Yemen, cornelians from Arabia, amethyst from Persia, malachite from Russia,  turquoise from upper Tibet, diamonds from central India, onyxes from the Deccan and garnets from Bundelkhand. The plinth and exterior walls of the mausoleum, too, had floral designs carved on them, embellished with hanging vines and interlaced stems.

In fact, the first thing that strikes the visitor to the Taj Mahal are these flowers which are carved till the dado or eye level. The queen’s cenotaph is enclosed by an octagonal marble screen, with exquisite arabesque plant designs and spectacular flowers made of precious stones — all of which created the heavenly garden her husband so desired for her.

Rana Safvi is a Delhi-based writer.

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