Rendezvous with the Mughal Pietra Dura at the Taj & Jewel Box Tomb of Itimad-ud-Daulah

Indranil Mutsuddi

Prologue

Being a scholar in management studies and presenting you guys with a write up on the Mughal Pietra Dura may seem to you something too ridiculous and hard to digest. I would have never dared to scare you all, yet after seeing them on the historic Mughal monuments in Agra I could not resist to just sharing my uncontrolled feelings with you guys.

What is Peitra Dura?

Pietra Dura is one of the greatest architectural innovations made by the mighty Mughals, probably the origin of which could be credited to Emperor Akbar. Later the art was improved and mastered by the Mughal craftsmen under the reign of Jahangir, reaching its pinnacle during Shah Jahan’s rule. Now our readers may ask, what is Pietra Dura?

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Pietra Dura in the Taj antechamber..

Peitra Dura is the art of inlaying stoned designs over another stone base. The art was pioneered in Europe, particularly in Italy during the Renaissance period. The typical Mughal Pietra Dura works were mostly involved with the inlaying of precious coloured stones on the white marble base creating exquisite floral, abstract, mosaic and geometric designs. Pietra Dura may also take the shape and designs of vases, flowers, collage etc by placing and inscribing semi-precious and precious stones like coral, pearl, cornelian, jasper, lapis lazuli, onyx, topaz etc on white marble base. The art was already in place during Akbar’s reign because the emperor had first emphasized on using white marble borders and designs on red sandstone bases at his royal palaces at Fatehpur Sikri and those in the then Agra fort.

The Taj Pietra Dura

Our visit to Agra and Tajganj was planned in the Christmas of 2013. Probably it was the most awkward time to be at the Taj with so much fog and mists around. But to our charming luck, the weather gods had mercy on us with clear blue skies all through our stay at Hotel Sai Palace, Tajganj.

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The Darwaza-i-Rauza of the Taj Mahal

I am not going to elaborate with our stay at the Tajganj. Let’s go straight to the Great Gate or Darwaza-i-Rauza of the Taj. This was the first time I had got the taste of what was Pietra Dura. Oh! God! It was a moment to remember! We (my husband, son and myself) were awestruck by the shear grandeur and beauty of the Great Gate or Darwaza-i-Rauza of the Taj.

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Display of Pietra Dura in the Darwaza-i-Rauza

It was majestic, stood tall and proud. Perhaps it’s sheer glamour was thought off to chant the warm welcome note for the visitors with a hint of what kind of eternal beauty was awaiting for all behind the doors.

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Display of Pietra Dura in the Darwaza-i-Rauza

Coming to the Pietra Dura on the Darwaza-i-Rauza, the corners of the vertical rectangular portion of the grand door to the Taj are flanked by two long red sandstone towers which are exquisitely decorated by encapsulated frames made of white marble. Pietra Dura designs were most abundant in and around the apex of central arch. According to experts, the Peitra Dura designs seen at the Great Gate of the Taj had adopted the use of floral designs which were the hallmarks of the classical “Shah Jahani calligraphy or Peitra Dura”.  Just above the apex of the central arch we could see the Peitra Dura of a colourful “Lotus”, the design of which is also repeated in the main mausoleum of the empress Mumtaz Mahal.

The amazing world of Pietra Dura in the Taj

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The gigantic arched pishtaque of the southern entrance of the main Taj monument, which we were appreciating with our inquisitive eyes contained marble jaalika or lattice screens opening in the form of a small rectangular door. The arched pishtaques on the outer walls of the monument contained floral Pietra Dura inlaid on white marble with a centrally housed ‘kalasa’ (Indian water vessel) shaped lotus bud resting on the vertical apex of the doorway pishtaques.  The border of the arches located in the pishtaques was beautifully bordered by white marble rope-like mouldings. We could not stop adoring the beauty of the doorway which is surrounded by rectangular columns bearing inlaid thuluth inscriptions of Quranic verses made by slate colored marble on white base.

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Entrance to the Central Hall of the Taj Mausoleum 

We entered the central hall, just to be awestruck by the sheer beauty of marble art surrounding us. The centre of the central hall consists of an octagonal perforated marble screen (east-west diameter: 8.56m, north-south diameter: 6.13m) elegantly decorated by floral Peitra Dura over white marble base.

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Display of Pietra Dura and lattice screens in the central hall of the Taj Mausoleum 

Archaeologists are of the opinion that all the marble screens (Jaalikas) in the central chamber were initially moulded by gold and precious stones, which was later replaced by the lattice screens we can see today. The octagonal marble screen is divided into three panels of which only one opens to the marble platform (paraphet) housing the false sarcophagi of the emperor & the empress. This opening consists of a door made of white marble and jade stones (yashab).

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Display of Pietra Dura in the Taj antechamber

Pietra Dura at the Jewel Box Monument

The display of pietra dura at the tomb of Itimad-ud-Daulah (The Jewel Box Tomb) can pose tough competition to the works we had seen at the Taj. As per historic records empress Noor Jahan probably got the inspiration for building her father’s tomb from her father-in-law Akbar’s plans for his eternal resting place (Akbar’s tomb). This marvelous monument was built from the year 1622 to 1628 during emperor Jahangir’s reign by his wife, empress Noor Jahan. The tomb is the resting place of Mirza Ghiyas Beg who received the title of “Itimad-ud-Daulah” from the Mughal court. He was a Mughal noble and father of the empress Noor Jahan.

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The Jewel-box Tomb of Itimad-ud-Daulah

The tomb received its “Jewel Box” name from its peculiar jewel box like shape and Pietra Dura works on its walls which was the first of its kind in the Mughal empire before emperor Shah Jahan had pioneered the art later during his reign.

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Display of Pietra Dura on the walls of Itimad-ud-Daulah’s Tomb

The outer walls of the Itimad-ud-Daulah are ornamented with Pietra Dura mosaic designs. The difference of Pietra Dura in Itimad-ud-Daula and that in Taj Mahal lies in the predominance of the use of more abstract and mosaic designs in the former. Pietra Dura used in the Taj Mahal and other Shah Jahani monuments & buildings emphasizes more on the grandeur of white marble itself. Pietra Dura designs used here are simple, yet more majestic in appeal by enhancing the glamour of white marble base by showcasing simple plant-like designs instead of complex abstract and mosaic forms.
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Display of Pietra Dura on the pillar walls

The mausoleum also features the use of “Jalika” or marble net works in its windows. This unique architecture was introduced by emperor Akbar in the dargah of Salim Chisti located at Fatehpur Sikri.

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Lattice screened window and Pietra Dura…

Written by: Rimi Mutsuddi

Photographed By: Indranil Mutsuddi

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