It would be nothing short of gross impertinence for a lowly Features writer such as I to entertain any notion that he could surpass, let alone equal that exquisite simile penned by the poet Rabindranath Tagore — “A teardrop on the cheek of time” — to describe the great mausoleum complex commissioned by the Mogul Emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his favourite wife, Mumtaz Mahal. So I won’t even try!
Instead, I will just restate a few well-known facts about that magnificent monument to love and loss and then make a mundane and no doubt clumsy stab at describing the technique of architectural decorative revetment which contributes so much to its overall aesthetic effect.
Begun in 1632, just a year after the Moghul Emperor’s favourite wife passed away giving birth to their 14th child, construction of the Taj Mahal (lit. Crown of the Palace) involved some 20,000 architects, inlay craftsmen, calligraphers, stone carvers, masons and labourers and took 17 years to complete. The estimated cost at the time was Rs32 million, which today would be the equivalent of Rs55 billion, or RO330 million. Although adorned with a variety of decorative techniques, including bas relief, painting, pierced screen (jali) and tile mosaic, the defining decorative method is parchin kari (lit. ‘inlayed’ or ‘pushed in’), a South-Asian variety of pietra dura, (Italian for ‘hard stone’).
Pietra dura has a long history, having been invented by the Romans, refined by the Byzantines and perfected during the Italian Renaissance by the Opificio Delle Pietre Dure, the famous Florentine workshop established by Fernando I de Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, in 1588 to provide pietre dure (pl.) for his grand building works. The Opificio still exists today as a branch of the Italian Ministry of Cultural Heritage in Florence.
As well as large-scale decorations for chapels and palaces, the Opificio also manufactured smaller curios and items of furniture, some of which evidently found their way to Persia and India in the 17th century and provided the inspiration for the parchin kari of the Taj Mahal and other Moghul mausolea and royal buildings. But the Moghul craftsmen didn’t just knock off pietra dura, they ran with it, creating a very distinct and beautiful variant.
In essence, pietra dura is a decorative technique that begins with drawing a design onto a pre-prepared stone panel, then chiseling out the parts of the design to be inlayed. Semi-precious gemstones, such as lapis lazuli, carnelian, agate and garnet, are then cut to shape on an abrasive wheel and glued into the chiselled-out parts. When the panel is complete, the whole is polished to a high sheen.
In the parchin kari of the Taj Mahal, the white marble of the background plays a much more significant part in the overall compositions that in the European variety and greater detail in the floral depictions was achieved by carefully selecting different tones of the same gemstones to give the impression of shading in each blossom. Particularly innovative and impressive about the Taj Mahal was the inclusion of calligraphic parchin kari inscriptions in black onyx on the monument, among which are twenty-six chapters from the Holy Quran.
Not all of us have the luxury of being able to travel to Agra and visit Shah Jahan’s magnificent architectural love poem to his departed wife. But despair not, for you can see three lovely examples of parchin kari in the south cloister of the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque in Muscat.
The Sultan Qaboos Mosque is open to the general public from Saturday to Thursday from 8.30 am to 11 am.