Emergence of Mughal School of Architecture under Akbar

It was the period of Akbar which laid the foundation of the Mughal Architecture as it developed in India. Traditionally speaking, there are a number of architectural features which are associated with the reign of Akbar. According to Percy Brown these salient features were:

The structures were chiefly executed in red sandstone with insertions of white marble introduced for purposes of emphasis.

The construction, in principle, was of the trabeate order, and the use of arcuate and trabeate was in almost equal proportions.

The technique of building construction was not far removed from a wooden archetype, a method of construction that was still practised in the more northern parts of the country, like Punjab and Kashmir.

 The dome was of the “Lodi” type, sometimes built hollow but never technically of the true double order.

 The pillar shafts were usually many-sided and the capitals were almost invariably in the form of bracket supports.

As to the ornamentation, carved or boldly inlaid patterns were common while painted designs were often introduced on the interior walls and ceilings.

As the Mughals considered themselves to be the heirs of the Timurid tradition, they borrowed heavily from the Iranian style which had developed under the Ilkhanids, Timurids, and Muzaffarids. When Babur came, he brought along with him two Iranian architects, Ustad Mir Mirak Ghiyas of Herat and Ustad Shah Muhammad of Khurasan. Recent researches have also shown that the Indo-Muslim architecture, as it developed in Medieval India, heavily borrowed stylistic, idiomatic (characteristic forms, architectonic and decorative), axiomorphic (form appropriate to the purpose of the structure) and aesthetic traditions from Iranian, Trans-Oxonian and regional Indian styles. Mughal architecture borrowed extensively from Delhi Sultanate, Sharqi, Gujarat, Malwa, Bengal,and Rajasthani styles as well as from styles abroad, so much so that it has itself been defined as a synthesis of this foreign and indigenous styles.

It should be borne in mind that much of this borrowing and the synthesis of the Iranian and Central Asian style with the Indo-Muslim style of architecture in India took place especially during the reign of Akbar. It was a period when a large borrowing of ‘Indian’ traditions in the field of art, literature, painting, music and architecture takes place. These were seamlessly diffused in the newly emerging Iranian and Timurid idiomatics, axiomorphics and aesthetics.

During this reign structures were generally constructed on Central Asian and Iranian plans while the surface decorations, more or less, were as per the traditions more closer at hand.

The Iranian / Timurid Influences:

1. The Iranian four- centred (as well as the two centred) pointed arch which came to be identified as the typical Mughal arch during the reign of Akbar.

2. A plan which has been labelled hasht bihisht or nonipartite plan. [Humayun T – chamfered, square etc]

3. the ‘arch-and-panel’ articulation

4. The stellate vaults (the Chahar taq) based on cruciform domed-chambers [a square vaulted chamber spanned by four large intersecting arches, resting on massive wide piers, form a cruciform with an open square in the centre. This square is then turned into a polygon or circle with the help of smaller arches, supplemented by the decorative ribs rising from the main arches. In this chahartaq plan, the Iranian architects improvised a new type of a vaulting system, now generally known as the Khurasanian vault. The Khurasanian (multi-partite) vault was invoked by the Timurid architects by reviving the Ilkhanid and Seljuq stelliform vault on the system of intersecting arches

The Indegenous Influences:

1. As far as the residential structures are concerned, it appears that the Akbari architects preferred the indigenous plan known in India since the Mauryan times, the well known catuhśālā plan. [Jodhbai Palace, Jahangiri Mahal]

2. The surface decoration: carvings, ‘Lodi domes’, the use of trabeate roofs etc

3. Templar Mosques: the triplication of the sanctuary, Secondly we find the placement of the mosque on a high plinth or platform, Thirdly greater sacrality is given to the western liwan through a gradual hierarchy starting from the portals.

4. This process, however, a two way process: if the temple architecture had its influence on the mosque construction, the Akbari temples were not left far behind in this process of shared heritage and feature exchange. The Govind Dev Temple at Vrindavan, Mathura has a typical cruciform plan covered with a well developed Timurud chahartaq Khurasanian vault. This temple along with Madan Mohan Temple and Jagat Kishore temple resemble the elevations and surface decorations of Akbari red sand stone structures at Fathpur Sikri and else where.

5. The most distinguishing feature of the Akbari architecture was the use and combination of the post-and-beam trabeate technique of construction with the arcuate. From the ‘Akbari Mahal’ and ‘Jahangiri Mahal’ at Agra Fort to almost all the structures at Fathpur Sikri to the Vrindavan temples, this blending of the two very diverse techniques is encountered. So much so that even when a building is domed or vaulted, the dome or the vault is deliberately hidden below a flat platform giving the structure a classic trabeate shape. The trabeate style is further accentuated by providing heavy brackets to the drooping eaves. It seems that the Akbari architects were trying to hide the arcuate elements of the structures.

6. Secondly the Akbari architect dispersed these visually hidden vaulted and domed chambers around vast open spaces which were linked to each other through elaborate post-and-beam colonnades. Some of these colonnaded structures were super-imposed to form two or more stories. Two examples of such constructions are the Khilwatkada structure in the daulatkhana-i Anuptalao and the chaharsuffa (Panch Mahal) in the buffer-zone between the Shabistan-i Iqbal and the daulatkhana.

7. The Khilwatkada structure is a double-platformed post-and-beam construction on top of which is constructed the khwabgah with a covered (hidden) circular vault. This structure appears to have been loosely based on the palace of Mahmud Begra at Sarkhej.

8. However the most distinguishing feature which can be discerned from the study of the development of architecture under Akbar is that though the post-and-beam tradition might have been derived from the local indigenous trabeated examples, the Akbari architects, known as muhandis (geometricians), tempered it with their recently acquired geometrical knowledge of weights and measures. The trabeate structures of Akbar are lighter and slimmer as compared to their cousins in Rajasthan-Gujarat-Malwa tradition. Secondly, as Koch puts it, the use of red sand stone, apart from its symbolic connotation of being the colour of the sovereign, ‘glossed over stylistic clashes resulting from the amalgamation’ of heterogenous architectural traditions of the Timurid, Central Asian and the more indigenous styles of the Delhi Sultanate, Bengal, Rajputana, malwa and Gujarat. The symbiotic result was the secular architecture of Akbar which was ultimately to result in the Taj, the most indigenous and famous of the Mughal monuments.

Akbar’s strive at religious and cultural reconciliation, in particular between his Hindu and Muslim subjects, has been used to explain the arts created for him, especially his architecture. Akbar built more and on a larger scale than any Indian ruler before him, we owe to his patronage the great Mughal fortress palaces of Agra (1564-1570s), and Lahore (completed 1580), the suburban residence Fathpur Sikri with its monumental mosque (1571-85), and Humayun’s tomb at Delhi (1562-71), to name just the most outstanding architectural achievements of his reign.  It is however not quite clear to which extend Akbar was personally interested in architecture; Abu’l Fazl has remarkable little to say about it, and the Jesuit observer Monserrate refers to it as an occasion for Akbar to demonstrate his physical prowess, when he mingled with his builders and carried blocks of stones.  The official Akbari view on architecture can be obtained from Qandahari, another historian, who claimed that Akbar designed parts of Fatehpur Sikri, and who represented the architecture of his emperor as a testimony to his rule:

“…a good name for kings is [achieved by means] of lofty buildings …That is to say the standard of the measure of men is assessed by the worth of [their] building (`imarat) and from their high-mindedness is estimated the state of their house.”


“Whosoever saw the spacious expanse of that place (makan) and the arrangement of ornament (nuzhat) of that edifice (bunyan) [ the Agra fort]  found the affairs of the kingdom and means of authority in full accord with this order and the high and low, in consonance with allegiance and obedience.”

           These statements of Qandahari justify the interpretation of Akbar’s architecture as a “lithic expression of his policies,” to borrow a phrase from Giles Tillotson who argues against it. However, art historians have too easily drawn an equation between the forms of Akbar’s architecture and his Weltanschauung (philosophy of life). A common practice, which goes back to British notions of the nineteenth century, is to describe arches and vaults as “Muslim”, and brackets and beams as “Hindu”, and their common use in one building as an expression of Akbar’s tolerance. 

         Abu’l Fazl saw the use of Indian forms rather in regional terms; he tells us that the buildings of the Red Fort of Agra “were built in the beautiful styles of Gujarat and Bengal.” Gujarat in particular had, as no other region of India,  absorbed older local  forms in its Muslim architecture, thus  the Gujarati  buildings types and  forms adopted in Akbari architecture could be read as “Hindu”, if one wanted to disregard their historical development. A particular telling example comes from the so called Astrologer’s Seat at Fathpur Sikri. Its prominent caterpillar (ilika-valana) or serpentine brackets are a characteristic element of the architecture of Gujarat and thus they have caused this pavilion frequently to be cited as evidence of the direct imitation of Gujarati Hindu or Jain religious architecture. But the structure has a much nearer forerunner in an Islamic building of Gujarat, in the mukabbar kiosk in the courtyard of the Jami` Masjid in Cambay, constructed in 1325.  This means that Akbar’s builders made with the Astrologer’s Seat a reference to what they considered a trans-culturally successful regional style of India.

Another Indian style which was highly influential for the architecture of Akbar was the ornamental sandstone tradition of the early Delhi sultanate. It had gone out of fashion during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries in Delhi but continued   uninterrupted in provincial centers like Bayana or Kannauj, creating an architectural heritage from which early Mughal architecture could draw its inspiration.

When we want to regard Akbari architecture as a testimony of his rule, it seems more likely that its intention was to bring “the regional” on to a supra regional imperial level. Selected styles and forms of Hindustan were merged with building principles and forms of Timurid Central Asia, and these components were given new emphasis by magnified proportions, by a new approach to structural logic, reflected in décor and detail, and, at least in the heartland of Mughal building activities at Delhi, Agra and Fathpur Sikri, by the unifying medium of the red sandstone which had a high symbolic value. Red had been since ancient times the color of kings and was also used exclusively for imperial Mughal tents. In India, the old Shastric texts, such as the Vishnudharmottara (probably eight century), recommended red stones for the buildings of the kshatriyas, the warrior and kingly caste, and white for Brahmins, the priestly caste. By adopting red sandstone as their preferred building material and by highlighting it with white marble, the Mughals revived a practice of the early sultans of Delhi and associated themselves architecturally with what they considered their counter parts, the uppermost ranks in the Indian social hierarchy. Since the red sandstone had royal properties linked to both the Muslim and Hindu tradition, it worked, if we are allowed to make this cross disciplinary comparison, even better than the Persian language as an unifying appropriating element.

• Syed Ali Nadeem Rezavi