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Mughal Aesthetics

Mughal Aesthetics
in ERA 6: The First Global Age, 1450–1770 / Society and Culture / Society and
Culture in the Age of Accelerating Contact
from World History Encyclopedia
View article on Credo
Over the long period of Mughal rule (ca. 1526-1857), Mughal architecture and art revealed an evolving
artistic aesthetic. The term "aesthetic" refers to a prevailing philosophy of "the beautiful" that underpins
taste and determines the style and range of artistic productions. While the Mughal aesthetic evolved
over time, the purpose and function of this art and architecture remained relatively constant. The
common will to commission and create monuments with distinct purposes—whether to promote religious
ritual or to represent the government, embodying its power, dignity, and splendor—is recognizable in
the art. Nevertheless, Mughal architecture changed and evolved; indeed, it was constantly renewing
shapes and decorative details, enriched by the combining of elements inherited from different traditions,
particularly as the Mughal's Persian heritage blended with Indian culture and tastes over the centuries.
The resulting blend of once-distinct cultures and forms is an example of syncretism.
Emperor Akbar's Mughal pavilion known as Diwan-i-Khas at Fatehpur Sikri, India. (Dennis Richardson)
In Mughal artistic production there is a clear preliminary line of demarcation of style, approximately
identifiable with the midpoint of the sixteenth century. The previous need felt by the sovereigns to
extend and fortify the new kingdom did not allow them to dedicate and concentrate efforts in the
definition of an aesthetic taste. Current research suggests a general division, usually unanimously
recognized and accepted, of two main phases of Mughal architectural and artistic production, each
marked by a different general aesthetic. The first period is identified with Akbar (1556-1605), the third
ruler of the Mughal empire and an influential patron of cultural and artistic development. Akbar founded
a royal atelier and became the first great patron of the empire. Akbar's patronage culminated in the
construction of the city of Fatehpur Sikri (1571-1585). This new fortified residence for the court embodied
all the features that characterized this period, constituting a perfect example of Akbar's taste. The
predominance of red sandstone and the shapes' affinity with wood from a construction point of view
aided its deep integration with indigenous elements that came from Hindu and Jain architecture and
from the dominant influence of the Indian region of Gu-jarati. This structure offered a new syncretism (or
fusion of distinct styles) evident in the truss supported by pillars, heavy brackets, capitals, and the
symmetrical frameworks that enriched the Timurid tradition inherited from Central Asia and accompanied
the structural rhythm. The building combined rationality with vigor, solidity, and power, balancing and
harmonizing its masses. In painting, Akbar created a studio in his court and promoted the Persian
miniature painting that utilized Indian, Hindu, and even European elements.
The second phase in Mughal aesthetics, begun during the rule of Jahangir (1605-1627), became
pronounced with the accession to the throne of Shah Jahan (1628-1657). The new architecture showed
a preference for white marble over red sandstone, which required a change in construction techniques
and even of the decorative patterns. The decoration schemes became lighter and more delicate, but at
the same time these were embellished with the introduction of semiprecious stones in exquisite inlaid
work; the new style perfectly expressed a new hierarchical conception in which specific decorative
motifs were used to emphasize salient structural elements, creating a return to an equilibrium and an
elegance closer to the Western conception. Styles of painting also became refined: realistic portraits of
courtly scenes were the favorite subjects of painters, who emerged now as individual talented
personalities. Even the reversion to Islamic religious orthodoxy helped consolidate the new artistic
purposes. This transition culminated undoubtedly in the Taj Mahal (1632-1647), whose elegance and
refinement is the highest result of Shah Jahan's strenuous insistence on artistic and architectural
perfection. The Taj Mahal represents the perfect incarnation of the imperial splendor and magnificence
of the Islamic court.
From the beginning of their empire, the Mu-ghals' art was strongly characterized by very complicated
cultural and artistic backgrounds. Many elements contributed to the formation of these aesthetic canons
and, in time, evolved with the manifestation of the power. A primary role in the formation of the new
taste for beauty was certainly held by the whole artistic production of the many previous Islamic
dynasties that reigned mainly in northern India. They perhaps provided the first models, but these
antecedents could not entirely define the new style that had deeply drawn from the Islamic world, from
India's background, and from Islamic regional styles.
These early factors were soon transformed by the personal tastes of the many emperors who
succeeded to the Mughal throne. Their interest in construction and patronage, often associated with
their charismatic personalities and active supervision of artistic production, was able to impress their
own personalities on each monument. The typology of the buildings, the plan, and the choice of
materials, decorative elements, and schemes were all aspects that contributed to the formation of
aesthetic canons.
Nevertheless, a crucial factor enabling the Mughals to reach such a high level in artistic and architectural
production was the dependence on local workers and craftsmen. Unconsciously but inevitably, in the
realization even of new shapes and in construction techniques, they constantly transmitted and
transposed to the Mughal monuments the traditional aesthetic canons unique to indigenous Hindu or
Jain architecture. Thus, this syncretism, the confluence of all these elements, was the basis for the
remarkable aesthetic results reached in this period perfectly expressed in the most famous of Mughal
monuments, the Taj Mahal.
Commissioned by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan (r. 1628-1657) to commemorate his favorite wife,
Arjumand Banu Begum (also known as Mumtaz Mahal), construction of the Taj Mahal began at Agra
in 1632 and was completed, according to historical records, in 1647. The mausoleum, perhaps the
most beautiful and famous monument in the world, perfectly epitomizes Mughal aesthetics and
represents the syncretism of the Mughals.
The mausoleum is the heart of an extensive architectural complex along the Yamun River. Carefully
planned, the Taj Mahal overlooks an enormous chaharbagh, or garden complex, and includes many
different structures: a residential court for the tomb attendants, a bazaar, subsidiary tombs, and a
mosque. The mausoleum was built in white marble, carved and decorated with refined inlaid stones
that depict images of flowers. The structure perfectly assimilated Islamic and Persian motifs as well
as Hindu elements as part of its larger synthesis.
Although art historians for many years studied the Taj Mahal as a poignant and romantic symbol of
eternal love, it reveals an unexpectedly complex cosmological conception. According to a more
recent interpretation, the general plan, the garden, the decorative scheme, and the accurate choice
of the inscriptions—Quranic verses relating to the Day of Judgment—all clearly refer to the Garden
of Eden. In this interpretation, the Taj Mahal may represent the Throne of God and implies Shah
Jahan's celebration of himself as a semidivine ruler.
—Sara Mondini
Allien, B. M. Islamic Architecture of the Indian Subcontinent. London: Laurence King, 2000.
Asner, C. B. Architecture of Mughal India. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992.
Fergusson, J. History of Indian and Eastern Architecture. 2 Vols. Revised and edited with
additions. Indian Architecture by Burgess, J. and Eastern Architecture by R. Phené S., F.S.A.,
F.R.I.B.A. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publisher, 1998.
Koch, Ebba. Mughal Architecture. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2002.
Koch, Ebba. Mughal Art and Imperial Ideology: Collected Essays. New Delhi: Oxford University
Press, 2001.
Nath, R. Some Aspects of Mughal Architecture. New Delhi: Abhinav Publications, 1976.
Sara Mondini
Copyright 2011 by ABC-CLIO,LLC
Mondini, S. (2011). Mughal aesthetics. In A. J. Andrea, World history encyclopedia. Santa Barbara, CA: ABCCLIO. Retrieved from http://ezproxy.lib.ucalgary.ca/login?
Mondini, Sara. "Mughal Aesthetics." In World History Encyclopedia, by Alfred J. Andrea. ABC-CLIO, 2011.
Mondini, S. (2011). Mughal aesthetics. In A.J. Andrea, World history encyclopedia. [Online]. Santa Barbara:
ABC-CLIO. Available from: http://ezproxy.lib.ucalgary.ca/login?
[Accessed 19 October 2018].
Mondini, Sara. "Mughal Aesthetics." World History Encyclopedia, Alfred J. Andrea, ABC-CLIO, 1st edition,
2011. Credo Reference, http://ezproxy.lib.ucalgary.ca/login?
Accessed 19 Oct. 2018.
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