It’s true what they say – you don’t always need words. And the Mughals had elevated this to an art, through the numerous monuments that they built. Many of these exquisite monuments were embellished with parchin kari, originally a Persian term, for marble inlay work.
This is the art of delicately inlaying semi-precious gemstones into intricate designs carved into marble. This marble inlay work or parchin kari is a remarkable feature of Mughal architecture in India. The most famous example is the Taj Mahal of Agra, where you can still see colourful semi-precious stones glistening in the white marble.
The roots of this art, it is believed, lie in Ancient Rome, where it was known as opus sectile. By the 4th century CE, inlay had become an element of statues and carvings within churches and in church facades.
Things came full circle for the art of inlay in the 15th century CE, with a major revival in Renaissance-era Italy. By the 16th century, this form had become known as pietra dura and gained popularity in Italy as ‘paintings in stone’.
As the art spread across Europe and the Far East, it is said that the technique also travelled to India, where it flourished in the 16th and the 17th centuries, especially in the Mughal court. Today, you can see elaborate examples of marble inlay from that time, in the mosques and forts of Agra and Delhi as well as the palaces of Rajasthan, where the skill is practiced even today.
Perhaps the earliest existing example of inlay art is in the Qila-i-Kuhna mosque in the Purana Qila (Old Fort) of Delhi, built around 1540. The mosque was designed by Humayun (r. 1530 – 40; 1555 – 56), the second Mughal Emperor. He is credited with having popularised marble inlay as a key component of Mughal architecture.
Some of the most intricate examples of inlay work are still to be found around the mihrab, the niches in a mosque that indicate the direction of Mecca. The Qila-i-Kuhna mihrab features beautiful inlays of gold, lapis lazuli and precious stones in the marble and red sandstone with which the mosque was built.
Similarly, the Jagmandir Palace at Udaipur, built by the Sisodia rulers of Mewar in 1551 CE, incorporates inlay in marble. Gul Mahal, built by the then Mewar king Maharana Karan Singh, has massive marble slabs in its interior walls inlaid with rubies, jade, onyx, jasper and carnelian. If this structure looks fit for a prince, it’s because it was built for one – designed especially for a young Shah Jahan, the future Mughal Emperor, then known as Prince Khurram who was held there as a refugee, seeking safety as he rebelled against his father Emperor Jahangir to inherit the Mughal throne.
Referred to as the Bachcha Taj and often called the Jewel Box, the tomb of Itmad-ud-Daula in Agra has stunning mother-of-pearl inlaid with gems and semi-precious stones. It was built between 1621 CE and 1627 CE by Queen Nur Jahan, for her father. Emperor Akbar’s Jahangiri Mahal at the Agra Fort and the Buland Darwaza of Fatehpur Sikri feature beautiful marble inlay too.
Legacy of Marble Inlay At The Taj
The Taj Mahal, that jewel of Mughal art in India, was built by Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan (r. 1628–58) in 1632, as a mausoleum for his beloved wife, Mumtaz. The marble exterior features calligraphic inscriptions and intricate carvings, while in the interior are paradisiacal flowers culminating in the central ensemble of the cenotaphs of Mumtaz and Shah Jahan.
Carnelian and lapis lazuli are inlaid in the ivory marble imported from Rajasthan’s Makrana region. Inscriptions decorate the cenotaphs of Mumtaz, and full ﬂowering plants appear on the platform of her upper cenotaph. The gemstones used in the Taj Mahal are believed to have come from faraway Afghanistan, Turkey and China.
Even today, in the streets of Agra, artisans with chisels and marbles carry the legacy of parchin kari forward. The beauty of this work has drawn admirers from around the world and through the centuries.
Art historian and writer William Dalrymple, in his book City of Djinns: A Year in Delhi (1993), describes the evocative beauty of Old Delhi’s majestic Mughal architectural remains thus: “As you sit on your rickshaw and head on into the labyrinth you still half-expect to find its shops full of jasper and sardonyx for the Mughal builders, mother-of-pearl inlay for the pietra dura craftsmen.”
In her book The Taj Mahal: Architecture, Symbolism, and Urban Significance (2005), architecture and art historian Ebba Koch recounts the 17th-century Persian poet Abu Talib Kalim’s description of the parchin kari on the Taj:
“On each stone a hundred colors, paintings, and ornaments
Have become apparent through the chisel’s blade.
The chisel has become the pen of Mani,
Painting so many pictures upon the translucent marble…
Pictures become manifest from every stone;
In its mirror behold the image of a flower garden.
They have inlaid flowers of stone in the marble;
What they lack in smell they make up with color.
Those red and yellow flowers that dispel the heart’s grief,
Are completely out of carnelian and amber…
When of such stones the surface of a tomb is made,
The deceased will want to clasp the flower pictures to her heart.”
The Chini Ka Rauza of Agra, a mausoleum known as the China Tomb was built for Afzal Khan Shirazi, a Persian poet and a wazir (minister) of Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan. Built in 1635, one can witness beautiful and intricate marble inlay work on the front facade, though much of it is now damaged. Marble inlay work is also considerably seen in the tomb of Emperor Jahangir (r. 1605 – 1627), designed by his wife Nur Jahan at Shahdara in Lahore, in present-day Pakistan.
The Craft Behind the Art
In Mughal India, parchin kari was perfected by craftsmen known as parachinkars. These workers had to know how to engrave in stone, how to cut precious stones, and then how to inlay the one in the other with the least disruption.
A white adhesive was used and the final trick was to hide as much of it as possible, while ensuring of course that the work remained intact for centuries. After the inlay was done, the work was then scrubbed to even out sharp edges and finally polished for overall finish.
Inlay was typically done in marble, usually white, black or green. Gemstones were picked for their lustrous colours – the blue of lapis lazuli or lajward, the green of jade, chalcedonic quartzes such as jasper (red), heliotrope or bloodstone (dark green spotted with red), agate (brownish red), chalcedony, carnelian or aqiq (brownish red), among others.
Gems were also picked for their spiritual significance to the specific culture. Carnelian was believed to fulfil unmet desires. Jade was regarded as healing and the greens of jade and chlorite were considered the favourite colour tones of the Prophet Mohammad. Bloodstone was said to have the power to bring rain, a benefit to the gardens of the Taj Mahal. Lapis Lazuli was believed to protect from evil.
Taj Mahal: Built as a symbol of love, the Taj Mahal has intertwining paradisiacal motifs of flowers and plants in its marble inlay work. Along with the swirling floral arabesques, intricate geometric motifs highlight its architecture. Exquisite depictions of lilies, tulips, poppy blossoms, buds, calyxes and other floral forms from the mindset of the artisans are seen carved in the marble inlay. Words from the Quran are inlaid throughout the complex of the Taj Mahal with black onyx on white marble.
Humayun’s Tomb: Black and white marble used for inlay work on Humayun’s tomb was also brought from Makrana in Rajasthan. Geometric patterns such as the eight-pointed star and arabesque patterns that are repeated and overlapped to form various symmetries, symbolize infinity in Islamic art and religion and are set in sandstone and marble here.
Tomb of Itmad-ud-Daula: This is the tomb of Mirza Ghiyas Beg. He was a Persian noble who rose in administrative ranks in the Mughal court and was honoured with the title of Itimad of Daulah. On his death, his tomb was commissioned by his daughter, Nur Jahan, the wife of Emperor Jahangir between 1622 and 1628. The tomb was the first of its kind to be built in white marble and marks the shift from red sandstone to white marble in Mughal architecture. Mother-of-pearl inlay work of precious and semi-precious stones with Persian motifs such as floral, cypresses, creeper, wine glasses, birds, and a variety of geometrical arabesque adorn the walls and floors of the massive tomb and around the cenotaphs. The walls are made of white marble from Rajasthan, encrusted with semi-precious stone decorations.
Motifs of cypress trees and wine bottles, or more elaborate decorations like cut fruit or vases containing bouquets of the Persian origin are intricately carved in marble. The Tomb of Itmad-ud-Daula has been referred to as the most gorgeously ornamented building of Mughal architecture.
Following the British conquest of Agra in 1803, a large number of Europeans began visiting the Taj Mahal. These travellers began to buy items bearing inlay work from karigars as souvenirs. This marked the beginning of the inlay industry on a commercial scale in Agra. Later on, parchin kari began appearing in buildings and on objects like tabletops and cabinet fronts, as decorative panels.
Such souvenirs remain popular, and you can now find inlay work, on items meant to be gifts or collectibles – from dining tables to chessboards, boxes to animal figurines. The entire process of inlaying is done by hand, while today, grinders make it easy for the artisans to cut large slabs of marble.
Today, marble inlay work from Agra and parts near Fatehpur Sikri are famous, the former being of much more significance. However, due to the intense skill and labour involved in this craft, there are only a few artisans still practicing it today, and they are struggling to keep it alive. With the young generation moving away from the art form, the future of this precious craft hangs in the balance.
Yet there are some platforms, like the e-commerce website Peepul Tree, that are helping arts like these survive and thrive. Some of the paradisiacal motifs on the magnificent Taj are now brought to you as fine pieces of history with the marble inlay coasters by Peepul Tree. These are finely carved and embedded with semi-precious stones like lapis lazuli and carnelian by Anwar Khan and his artisans in Agra, whose forefathers once bejewelled the Taj with beautiful inlay.
As it has rightly been said: “The Mughals began like Titans and finished like jewellers.” This is seen most remarkably in the enduring and now endangered legacy of inlay work.
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