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Indian Art of masonry#

One wrong strike and all is ruined#

By Günther Jontes

All photos were taken on the occasion of several stays in India from 1974 to 2012, and are part of the author’s archive „Pictureflood Jontes“

Half of the federal state of Rajasthan in western India is the desert of Thar, leaving only poor agricultural land and small pastures for agriculture. On the other hand, Rajputana, formerly called "Land of the Princes," has many natural resources. One particularly important one is beautiful marble, ideally pure white marble and red sandstone, as the most valuable natural stones for the art of construction and masonry.

Natural stone
Natural stone
Natural stone

The palaces and grave sanctuaries characterized by Islamic architecture deserve particular attention. Islam does not allow its followers to portray living beings such as man, beast and plant. This rule was not always strictly obeyed. Otherwise, there would be no virtuoso miniature or monumental painting and the Turks, Persians and Indian Muslims would not have left examples here to show their excellence. Free-standing figurative works do not exist. But there are amazing abstract reliefs and incredibly beautiful calligraphies. The latter are surely only accessible to people with good knowledge of Arab and Persian language. The visitors of the West can only admire the pure decorative aesthetics.

One of the most beautiful examples can be found in a former but later abandoned residence of the Great Mogul Akbar the Great, the most individual and capable ruler of India. Fatehpur Sikri was the main residency from 1571 to 1585. The religious-cultic part of the city consists of the huge mosque and the largest city gate in India together with other buildings. Next to it there are the palace town with the residence of Akbar and his wives, the audience halls and areas for playful relaxation and entertainment.

A few years after the foundation, water scarcity not predicted earlier forced to abandon the town.

Gravesite
Gravesite

The colour is determined by the red sandstone of Rajasthan which was quarried close by. However, in the midst of a large court near the main mosque a graceful tomb of pure white marble rises as one of the finest that the architecture of Muslim India has to offer.

It is the tomb of the Shaikh Salim Chisthi- an Islamic Sufi mystic- which was completed in 1581. Once, Akbar had visited this wise man in the village of Sikri. The ruler was worried about not having a male heir to the throne. But Salim Chisthi prophesied an heir, and the desired event came soon. In gratefulness, Akbar built a tomb after Chisthi's death that was completed in 1581.

Underneath the dome lies the real grave surrounded by marble barriers with the pseudo-sarcophagus. Women with the still unfulfilled wish for children come on pilgrimage to this place and tie fabric threads to the barriers as a sign of their prayers.

A walkway, as can also be found in palace complexes, surrounds the grave and is closed outwards by incredibly refined marble grids. As a result, there is a constant cooling breeze in the building in which there are crowds of people on pilgrimage days.

Grave site
Grave site
Grave site

The penetration from the inside and the outside shows in the incredibly virtuosic window fillings with their often alternating abstract patterns which are more like a textile fabric or a curtain than a marble barrier. They are constructed in such a way that viewing the reality of the day and its changing phenomena is possible from the inside through a fine-meshed stone grid.

Window fillings
Window fillings
Window fillings
Window fillings
Window fillings
Window fillings

The geometrical construction of the surface which consists of mesh-like patterns that can be extended in all directions to infinity is intriguing when taking a close look.

Window fillings
Window fillings
Window fillings
Window fillings
Window fillings
Window fillings
Window fillings
Window fillings
Window fillings
Window fillings
Window fillings
Window fillings
Window fillings
Window fillings
Window fillings
Window fillings
Window fillings

From the outside, the stone curtain represents a viewing barrier which takes its beauty from the finished delicate "sculptural infinity."

Midday light
Midday light
Midday light
Midday light
Midday light
Morning light
Morning light
Morning light

Even in present Indian culture there are many craftsmen who still master the traditional methods of stone work. Therefore, the restoration of architecturally valuable buildings can still be done quite authentically. Thus, work of the Muslim Qutb Minar in Delhi which was the tallest building in India until recently is carried out- here in red sandstone - with the same tools as they were used centuries ago.

Works from sandstone
Works from sandstone

In the municipal area of Jaipur, the capital of Rajasthans, the fortress of Amber rises on a mountain range. It was the residence of Hindu Rajput princes before today's megapolis Jaipur was established in 1727 and the residence moved here.

Parts of the fortress Amber were once a splendid and luxurious home of the Maharajas and still show clearly the high residential culture of this dynasty. Gardens and water games, temples and isolated residential complexes for women in the Hindu tradition are now accessible to masses of strangers as a "must" tourist attraction. Tourists can even ride on elephants from the valley bottom up to the fortress.

Architecturally speaking, the delicacy of the decor comes from the details of the so-called mirror palace that emanates beauty. Again, the virtuosic marble grid is an element of the connection from the inside to the outside. The view, however, need not remain on the same level but is allowed to explore the open space and depth.

Gardens and water games, temples and isolated residential complexes for women in Hindu tradition are now accessible to masses of strangers as an absolute tourist attraction. They can also ride on elephants from the valley bottom to the fortress.
Marble grid

The large tomb palace of the Mogul Akbar the Great in Sikandra belongs to the world of Islam. It is situated near the residential city Akbar. It connects this mortal world and the next world in an artfull fashion, and combines building ideas of Moslems and Hindus. Akbar (1542-1505) was the most important ruler of the Mogul dynasty. Here, too, there are the finest marble grids as fillings of archways and airy roof galleries.

Marble grid
Marble grid
Marble grid

As the name suggests, the most economically important city in the state of Gujarat is essentially dominated by Islam. The windows "grids" are on the boundary between abstraction and depiction of naturally growing plants, i.e. they are not grids in a very abstract sense. They close the Siddi Saiyid Mosque, founded in 1573, to the outside. It is a good idead to first look at the grids from the outside: Viewing them against the light reveals great beauty.

Marble grids
Marble grids
Marble grids
Marble grids
Marble grids

The windows with purely abstract decorations are less lavish.

Marble grids
Marble grids
Marble grids

In the desert town of Jaisalmer with its spectacular fortress hill, there is a separate type of bourgeois house buildings of the formerly prosperous resident trade people at the then most important west-east caravan road of India. They are the so-called Havelis, whose uplifted outlines appear to dissolve in the most refined sculptured decor.

Finely sculptured decor
Finely sculptured decor
Finely sculptured decor

There are also window fillings of painstakenly accurate stone-masonry technique. In this old town which has long been ranked world cultural heritage by UNESCO, work was done in light sandstone.

Finely sculptured decor
Finely sculptured decor

It is almost like a miracle to see that these filigree works still are here for us today. The artistic prerequisites are great patience coupled with a comprehensive knowledge of the characteristics of the stone to be processed. Others are skills such as to put patterns side by side according to own designs or designs of others. The fact that we can still see and experience all this despite earthquakes and fire disasters, wars and fanatical destruction leaves a lasting impression on us. It is better not to know what has been lost forever.