Development of the Sultanate Architecture in Hindustan

The article in print in the Sunday Guardian (14-03-2021)

With the advent of Islam in Hindustan, came the voguish Arcuate style of architecture which was notably first observed in the imperial designs of the monuments commissioned by the Mamluk Sultans.

Northwestern India, as it primarily prevailed until the early medieval times, was a country with well delineated territories, each of which was ruled over by an autonomous royal and at times, a semi-royal ‘Raj-poot’ (in the more widely known term, a Rajput), who belonged to the majority Hindu community and the more popular religious division that came later, was then limited, only to the various dimensions of Hinduism itself. Architectural patterns followed in the different states that existed, were quite similar, if not in their entirety.
Hinduism was the primary faith practised, followed by Buddhism and Jainism, all of which had carved out architecturally similar temples to revere their respective lords. As scholar Julia Hegewald has put the postulate forward in her book ‘The International Jaina Style? Māru-Gurjara Temples Under the Solaṅkīs, throughout India and in the Diaspora’, a characteristically similar style can be found in all the Hindu and Jaina temples throughout Gujarat and Rajasthan that correspond to or widely resemble the Maru-Gurjara style of architecture, the reason behind this probably being the fact that these religious ideals were mostly patronised together by a local ruler or chieftain, who was often a Hindu himself!
Thus, as art historians have concluded, furthering the research and moving on to investigate the various regional styles as well, it can be demented that the same carvers or masonry workers were commissioned to build temples for both of these faiths. As for Buddhism however, most Buddhist viharas and stupas remain a bit unique due to them having been built ages ago, mostly under the Mauryan and the Kushan hegemony in the ancient Indian timeframe.
Trabeat was an architectural pattern that came to be popularised around the late 7th century CE and the massive usage that followed, soon made it universal, for almost every Hindu rajah had taken up to this style by the end of the 8th century CE.
Temples began to be constructed with a shikhara (generally a towering conical or curvilinear structure on top), the entrance to the doors and windows with an additional support or lintel and commissions mostly made for building stone monuments (possibly due to the durability and the strength stone provides).
Within the next five centuries that followed, Trabeat was everywhere: from temples and palaces and forts to noble mansions and royal retreats and rest houses!
However, Islam, a considerably newfound religious order that had been eyeing the throne of Hindustan for centuries, marched on forward in 1192 CE, for an ultimate face off against the mighty Prithviraj of the Chahamana dynasty, under the able leadership of Muhammad Ghori of Ghur as his generals (slaves as they were better known: Qutbuddin Aibak, Nasiruddin Qabacha, Yalduz and Ikhtiaruddin Bakhtiyar Khilji) swept through the northwestern boundaries and devastated any relic that would belong to a belief that was not theirs.
A decisive victory against Prithviraj in 1192 CE formally marked the Islamic ascendancy to the throne of Hindustan. With that, came in the voguish Arcuate style (in historical terms called the Indo-Saracenic architecture) that replaced the existing Trabeat pattern and was notably first observed in the imperial designs of the monuments commissioned by the Mamluk Sultans (Aibak and his successors, as they were referred to).
Although the Delhi Sultans never really commissioned a project that could match the grandeur and the imperiousness of the later Mughals, their structures do boast of a number of architectural elements that were previously outlandish in the Indian perspective.
The initial developments of architecture during the Mamluk phase can be most prominently found in certain significant monuments that include the Adhai din ka Jhopra in Ajmer, the free standing brick minaret (Qutub Minar) at Delhi and the Quwat-ul-Islam mosque, constructed in the premises of the Qutub Minar complex, again at the imperial capital. A crucial feature observed in the Mamluk design was that it tended to remodel the already existing Hindu and Jain temples (the way Quwat-ul-Islam mosque had been converted into a mosque from a Jain place of worship and the Qutub Minar complex had been built from the ruins of a pre-existing Hindu temple) but evidences also prove that the towering Qutub Minar was an original concept laid out by the first Sultan Qutbuddin Aibak (in reverence of a learned Sufi mystic named Qutbuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki) and completed later by Iltutmish, his son-in-law and another of the most influential Sultans of Delhi (who had also, surprisingly, built his own tomb), which is why the importance of the Mamluks in laying the basic foundations of the Indo-Islamic architecture in Delhi, cannot be completely negated.
A widely recognised feature (and probably the most popular) of the Islamic architecture is however, its hemispherical dome, constructed atop a monument, supplying it a symmetrical look as well as durability, strength and protection, the first example of which was observed in the Alai Darwaza, constructed around 1311 CE under the auspices of the second Khalji and one of the most powerful rulers that ever ruled Delhi, Alauddin! The Alai Darwaza, first of its kind to have been constructed completely out of red sandstone and white marble, can rightly be referred to as a three dimensional cube (although it appears to be a cube, the dimensions slightly differ from one another) with a hemisphere on top. Arches are seen in the interior with extensive arabesque calligraphy on the walls and marble lattices for the windows. With his coronation in 1296 AD, Alauddin formulated plans for the construction of regal doorways on all the four directions of the Quwat-ul-Islam mosque, in an attempt to further sanctify its image as one that was revered by the Seljuk royals (Seljuk was the Turkish ancestry of the Khaljis in the similar way as Ilbari was for the Mamluks and Qaraunah for the Tughlaqs). But before his demise in 1316 CE, the ambitious Alauddin could only complete constructing the southern gateway to the mosque, the one that we today, know as the Alai Darwaza.
Alauddin’s other projects included the defensive and well battered Siri Fort at Delhi (on which Mongol premier Timur, in his memoir, stated, “the Siri is around city. Its buildings are lofty. They are surrounded by fortifications built of stone and brick, and they are very strong – from the fort of Siri to that of Old Delhi, which is a considerable distance – there runs a strong wall built of stone and cement. The part called Jahanpanah is situated in the midst of the inhabited city. The fortifications of the three cities (old Delhi, Siri and Tughlaqabad) have thirty gates. Jahanpanah has thirteen gates, Siri has seven gates. The fortifications of the old Delhi have ten gates, some opening to the exterior and some towards the interior of the city.”) and the fragmentary Alai Minar (originally intended to be double the height of Qutub Minar but completed only up to a height of 80 feet and abandoned soon after Alauddin’s death in 1316 CE).
The batter (strength giver) system, first employed by Alauddin in building up the Siri Fort, was popularised later by the Tughlaqs who succeeded the Khaljis and were the ultimate Turks to rule the Sultanate. Although Nitin Singhania IAS, in his work entitled ‘Indian art and culture’ refers to the time period of the Tughlaq dynasty as the ‘crisis period’, it should be taken into consideration that Orientalist James Marshall, in his work entitled, “Cambridge History of India” points out that the Tughlaq monuments and tombstones, besides employing the orthodox Turkish architecture, did have Hindu influences in it as well. The trabeat lintels again came to be used instead of the more popular arches and windows.
Although there is no denying the fact that architecture took a back foot during the Tughlaq hegemony, tombs built out of grey sandstone and certain cities like Tughlaqabad and Ferozabad continued to be commissioned.
The last Tughlaq ruler Nasiruddin Mahmud and his warring nobles faced and were overthrown by the invasions of the vicious Mongol leader Timur who left conditions ripe for the accession of Khizr Khan, the governor of Multan, to the throne of Delhi, hence establishing the Sayyed dynasty, the first Afghan and the penultimate royal dynasty to rule the now crumbling Sultanate.
The Sayyed dynasty is well noted for its negligence towards architecture since the only monuments commissioned then were the tombs of the emperors, his family and his friends. Yet still, in the premises of the Hauz Khas lies an underrepresented, a faceless and a nameless 15th century Timurid monument: the Makhdum Sabzwari Mosque (not to be confused with the Ziyarat Makhdum Sahib shrine dedicated to Sufi preacher Hamza Makhdoom Kashmiri in Jammu and Kashmir) that, as historian Rana Safvi has noted in her travel blog, has a “lovely fluted dome on the gateway.” She further states that “the curious might want to venture in and would be greeted by a single aisle mosque with a big quadrangle”, somewhat resembling the double domed Lodi mosques of the period.
The double dome was essentially included to provide the mosques (the only monuments commissioned by the Sayyeds and the Lodis, apart from the tombs and mausoleums) with a greater strength as well as to reduce the inner height of the central dome (may have been an attempt at lessening echo). However, the most interesting feature observed in these monuments was the absence of any intricate detailing or lavish ornamentation, as had been practiced by the Khaljis and the Tughlaqs. The carvings had possibly been abandoned because of a lesser interest of the Lodi kings in architectural styles and not possibly because of the absence of revenues, since it is well known that the Lodis had laid out certain royal gardens for their recreation besides Sikandar’s programme of shifting the capital from Delhi to Agra, which did incur huge expenses on the royal treasury.
By the mid sixteenth century eventually, most of the Sultanate territories had revolted against the administration of the Sultans and his viziers and self-proclaimed the autonomy of their provinces. Northern India became the bone of contention between powerful kings and ambitious feudals as it was, in the times before the Sultanate hegemony was established. However, with Babur’s victory at Panipat in 1526 and the subsequent retreat of the local aspirations, the Indo-Saracenic architecture, if not the Sultanate as a whole, continued to influence the Indian cultural customs but in a more grandiloquent, a more splendiferous manner, a pattern that scholars generally refer to as the opulent design of the Mughal style!
Souhardya De is a Fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society of London, an author and podcaster. He is the recipient of the 2021 Rashtriya Bal Shakti Puraskar, the nation’s highest honour for civilians under 18, for his contributions to art and culture. De can be reached at