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Excerpt from: Taj Mahal

Introduction

One name remains closely associated with the Taj Mahal and more especially with the superb calligraphy displayed in the geometric friezes on the white marble--that of one of the most accomplished of calligraphers, Amanat Khan, whose real name was Abd ul-Haq. An incomparable calligrapher, he had come to India from Shiraz in 1608, his renown already great in the days of Jahangir. On June 13, 1632, Shah Jahan conferred on him the title of Amanat Khan as a reward for his dazzling virtuosity. Entrusted in all probability with the entire calligraphic decoration of the Taj Mahal, during the preceding reign he had also been responsible for the calligraphy of the mausoleum of Akbar at Sikandra, completed in 1613, and for that of the Madrasa Shahi mosque at Agra, two or three mihrab (niches) of which bear his name.

Apart from the calligraphy proper, for which he received the gift of an elephant from the sovereign in December 1637, it is possible that Amanat Khan was also responsible for the choice of the epigraphs of the Taj Mahal, that is, the verses and Quranic quotations appearing on the mausoleum. Indeed, there is an undeniable similarity in the text of the inscriptions on the tomb of Akbar at Sikandra, chosen by Abd ul-Haq Amanat Khan, and those of the Taj Mahal. In both cases the calligraphic inscriptions underscore unequivocally the paradisaic nature of the sepulchral complex, conceived as an earthly replica of the Garden of Paradise. At Sikandra this parallel is made by drawing heavily on quotations of a poetic nature, whereas for the Taj Mahal the calligrapher almost exclusively chose Quranic verses. Nevertheless, the inscription on the Main Gate of the Taj Mahal, which invites the assuaged soul to find ultimate refuge in the Garden of Paradise, bears witness to the evident parallel between the epigraphical conceptions of Sikandra and the Taj Mahal. It would seem that in both mausoleums-built, however, some twenty years apart--Amanat Khan intentionally chose to highlight, through appropriate quotations, a symbolic vision of Paradise that has ever since been mirrored by the mausoleum of Akbar at Sikandra, and even more so by that of Mumtaz Mahal at Agra, in all their sober magnificence.

In the Taj Mahal, Amanat Khan signed his work inside the calligraphic inscription on the left side of the southern iwan--Amanat Khan al-Shirazi, followed by the date: in the year 1048 of the Prophet (1638-39, or during the twelfth year of the emperors reign). However unusual it may be in this august site of imperial grandeur, the calligraphers signature bears witness to his status and renown at the court, for many of his peers remained anonymous. Indeed, Amanat Khan is the only one of Shah Jahans artists whose name appears on the mausoleum at Agra, although many talented craftsmen from the imperial workshops contributed to it.

If in the Islamic world calligraphy has always been deemed the most noble and accomplished of artistic expressions--since the calligrapher, when transcribing the Quran, reproduces the word of God--it is nonetheless true that these decorative qualities, and notably those of architectural calligraphy, often eclipse the text itself. The sinuous and austere letters in black marble inscribed with heraldic precision on the walls of the mausoleum heighten the whiteness of the marble and undeniably contribute to the ornamental richness and beauty of the edifice, but they are first and foremost a message of faith whose source is in the word of God. Therefore it is not immaterial that twenty-two different Quranic quotations (fourteen suras, or chapters, of which are unabridged!) have been recorded in the calligraphic plan of the Taj Mahal--more than were inscribed in other Mughal mausoleums and mosques built during the reign of Shah Jahan, which makes the Taj Mahal an exceptional funeral monument. It goes without saying that the text of the passages chosen, as well as their location in the mausoleum, are not haphazard; rather, they correspond to a precise iconographic plan, in part defined by the chief calligrapher, Amanat Khan, perhaps even by the monarch himself.

The Taj Mahal certainly owes a lot to the cursive and harmonious beauty of its calligraphy, but the splendor of the edifice owes still more to the extraordinary delicacy of the floral motifs embellishing the marble surfaces. Whether sculpted in marble in sober relief (munabbat kari) or inlaid with semiprecious stones (parchin kari) that produce incandescent reflections, the various kinds of flowers that open out in graceful arabesques and cover in profusion the imperial cenotaphs and their enclosures all bear witness to the dazzling virtuosity of the Mughal lapidaries.

Depicted with the stamp of realism, yet with a soft lyricism, the stone flowers of the Taj Mahal captivate us with their grace and colorful freshness. From the floral friezes, as from the foliated scrollwork that decorates the tympanums of the iwan and the marble plinths, there emanates a delicate, serene poetry clearly inspired by a discreet symbolism. In Islamic culture flowers are often seen as symbols of the kingdom of God; the Persian poets describe them as springing forth from the waters of Paradise. The allusion to Paradise is particularly clear when one examines the motif of flowers in vases represented in the funerary chamber of the mausoleum, on the plinths of the inner iwan. These vases of flowers, sometimes accompanied by fruit or bunches of grapes, express the abundance that awaits the faithful in Paradise. Moreover this iconographic motif, dear to Persian art, that makes of the mausoleum, or whatever other edifice it appears on, a reflection of an earthly Paradise, is to be found in other places besides the Taj Mahal: vases of flowers are painted inside the tomb of the vizier Ltmad ud-Daulah and also in the decoration of certain chambers of the Red Fort at Agra.

But the basic ornamental motif of the Taj Mahal consists of uncut flowers, sometimes depicted as emerging out of mounds of earth. Indeed, this motif dominates the artistic productions of Shah Jahans reign, not only in architecture but in the textile, graphic, and lapidary arts as well. Incredibly fertile in imagination, Mughal artists in the Taj Mahal and elsewhere depicted in opaline marble, whether with chisel or with semiprecious stones, the delicate forms of the lily, narcissus, iris, and tulip, their frail corollas gracefully curved, their leaves and petals delicately outlined. The eclecticism of their inspiration is noteworthy, allying rare imaginary species with bouquets treated in a naturalistic manner where rigorous symmetry prevails, revealing non-Indian and, more precisely, Western influences.

The beauty and profusion of the flowers painted, sculpted, or inlaid with semiprecious stones in the marble or red sandstone of the monuments built during the reign of Shah Jahan were often evoked in glowing terms by the chroniclers of the time. The court poet Abu Talib Kalim, wishing to pay homage to the virtuosity of the imperial lapidaries, wrote these verses to glorify their art:

They set stone flowers in the marble/That by their color, if not their perfume,/surpass real flowers.

The flowers that bloom with artistry on the walls of the Taj Mahal and variegate with iridescent reflections the cenotaphs of the monarch and his spouse are of diverse origins. The spirit, if not the form, of these pleasing bouquets, which suggest flowerings of Paradise, has its roots in distant Safavid models painted in the margins of Persian miniatures during the fifteenth century and in the floral decorations of Timurid architecture as well. Mughal flowers from the first decades of the seventeenth century on, however, reveal a naturalism that owes nothing to the Persian heritage, but undoubtedly draws on Western sources. Indeed, we know that herbalists from Europe were present at the Mughal court, in the wake of proselytizing Jesuit missionaries. The latter in 1580 offered the emperor Akbar, whom they were trying in vain to convert, several volumes of the polyglot Bible commissioned by Philip II of Spain and printed in Anvers between 1568 and 1572 by Christophe Plantin--the same Plantin who had printed numerous herbariums such as those of Clusius and Doddens. The Jesuit missionaries, who may have had recourse to herbariums to study medicinal plants with healing properties, themselves helped circulate herbariums at the court. But other herbariums and diverse works on botany, such as Le Jardin du Roy Très-Chréstien Henry IV by Pierre Vallet (1608), the Florilegium Novum by Johann Theodor de Brey (1611), and the Hortus Floridus by Crispian Van de Passe (1614-17), were no doubt brought in by British agents of the East India Company.

The artistic influence of the European floral motifs on Mughal art began to make itself felt from the reign of the emperor Jahangir (1605-27) on, and is especially apparent in the marginal ornamentation of the pages of albums (muraqqa), where flowers are treated with delicate realism. Still more marked during the reign of Shah Jahan, the influence of the West shows in more ways than one in the treatment of floral motifs: as in European herbariums, insects or butterflies are sometimes depicted gathering honey from flowers; more significant still, certain species portrayed with infinite precision by Mughal artists--in particular by the lapidaries entrusted with the ornamentation of the Taj Mahal--do not grow in India or even in western Asia.

Yet it would be a mistake to think that the Mughals owed this fondness for floral motifs to the distant West. In point of fact, a brilliant line of monarchs passionately interested in nature had occupied the Mughal throne. Babur, who founded the empire in 1526, expatiated at length in his memoirs (Vaqi at-i Baburi) on the incredible variety of Indian flora and fauna and laid out artfully conceived gardens in arid Hindustan. His great-grandson Jahangir also was a passionate lover of flowers, as his memoirs (Tuzuk-i Jahangiri) attest. During a journey to Kashmir in 1620, the emperor commanded the celebrated animal painter Ustad Mansur to depict by the hundreds the flowers growing in profusion in the "Happy Valley."

Shah Jahan, too, was sensitive to the beauties of nature. He ordered the court artists--painters, goldsmiths, lapidaries--to adorn the elegant products of the imperial workshops lavishly with exquisite flowers. The discovery of European herbariums conferred a new dimension on this ancestral--not to say atavistic--predilection for floral motifs. The Mughal artistic vocabulary was accordingly enriched by a hybrid and naturalistic decorative motif, albeit subtly rethought and transformed by the imperial artists. For if, at least in part, the stylized and invariably repeated flowers of Mughal India derive from botanical plates imported from Europe, they are essentially composite creations, blending Persian or Indian reminiscences with the rich influence of the West.

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