How the vocabulary of architecture and the materials used to build monuments across Delhi changed over time

Go around Delhi and look at the historical structures, both monumental and minor that dot the entire landscape, and you cannot miss the sudden change that seems to occur in their general appearance around the 16th century. The post mid-16th century structures appear to have a better finish, seem more refined and far more delicate, even if not as sturdy and strong as the buildings that were built prior to this period.

The differences between the Tughlaqabad Fort and the Red Fort are stark and glaring but these two are separated by three centuries and the variations can easily be explained in terms of evolution and refinement of building techniques. But look at the mausoleum of Isa Khan, completed in 1648 barely 23 years earlier than its grand neighbour, the Mausoleum of Humayun, completed in 1671, and you are faced with a mystery. How did architecture undergo this major transformation within such a short period of time?

The tomb of Isa Khan Niyazi clearly shows that it is carrying forward the architectural traditions of the Sultanate period and is of a piece with the tomb of Mohammad Shah, built in 1444. It is obvious that across 200 years from the time that the tomb of Mohammad Shah is constructed to the building of the tomb of Isa Khan there is little change in the architectural vocabulary of the monumental. Yet within 23 years, barely time for a generation to grow, the entire language of architecture seems to have undergone a revolution.

The most obvious change is noticeable in the external appearance of the monumental structures and this is a result of the almost total replacement of the material used -- Delhi quartz with marble and sandstone.

Delhi quartz was the traditional building material used in Delhi and its neighbourhood throughout the ancient and early medieval period. The early medieval period structures that used materials other than Delhi quartz are the Qutub Minar, the Ala’i Darwaza and the Mausoleum of Altamash – both near the Qutub. The mausoleums of Nasir-ud-Din Mahmood aka Sultan-e-Ghari near Vasant Kunj, and of Ghyasud Din Tughlaq at Tughlaqabad are two other buildings of this style. Even among these the use of marble at the top two floors of the Qutub and in the central Mehrab and on edges of the roof of the mausoleum of Naseer-ud-Din Mahmood is ascribed to Ferozeshah Tughlaq, who got extensive repairs carried out at these locations. All other structures during this period were built with the locally available grey brown Delhi quartz, quarried from the Arravalis.

The changes in workmanship brought in by this change might suggest that perhaps this shift coincided with an influx into Delhi of stone carvers that were equipped with new and more refined skills. How else does one explain the profusion of delicate relief work and carvings in marble and sandstone that seem suddenly to burst upon the scene in the late 16th century?

Such a reading will not be accurate primarily because there is evidence of the presence of these refined skills in Delhi almost throughout the early medieval period and even earlier, look at the delicate carvings on the Qutub Minar -- the Victory Tower erected by Qutub-ud-Din Aibak, inspect closely the pillars re-used in building the Masjid Kubbat-ul-Islam (incidentally kubbat-ul-Islam, meaning the dome of Islam was the given name that was corrupted, perhaps deliberately into Quwwat-ul-Islam), the additions of the arches in the mosque by Altamash and the building of the Ala’i Darwaza by Ala-ud-Din Khilji.

All these structures provide evidence of the continued presence of highly skilled artisans in Delhi throughout this period. Their artistry and skills found expression the moment they were given a proper medium.

The locally available Delhi quartz had the advantage of great strength and age but it was not a rock that took to delicate carving. The Arravalis, among the oldest exposed rocks in the world, probably created around 2500 million years ago at the close of the Archaean era, consist primarily of basaltic rocks of volcanic origin. The molten lava cooled into hard rock composed of large crystals. The crystals prevented any kind of fine carving because the stone would flake or crack when worked upon with chisels. Throughout the long period when Delhi quartz was the major building material, no delicate carving was possible and therefore the builders covered the structures they built with thick layers of plaster. Intricate designs were carved into the still wet plaster and when the plaster dried, the incised plaster or stucco engravings were painted in naturally extracted blues, reds and greens.

The shift from structures made primarily of Delhi quartz and those fashioned out of sandstone and marble was not a sudden development, such changes never are. Between the former and the latter there is a period when buildings built mostly of Delhi quartz co-exist with structures that have begun increasing use of sandstone of different hues combined with limited use of marble. Examples of such structures include the mosque commissioned by the devotees and disciples of Sheikh Fazlullah, better known as Sheikh Jamal-ud-Din, the Sher Shahi Mosque at the Purana Qila, the Purana Qila itself, the Shershah Gate and the Khooni Darwaza etc.

Is it possible that the gradual increase in the use of sandstone and marble for building monumental mausoleums becomes more common as ever increasing territories in Rajasthan begin to come under the influence of the rulers of Delhi? And by the time Akbar marries Rajkumari Hira Kunwari aka Rukmavati or Harka Bai, the elder daughter of Raja Bharmal of Ambar on February 6, 1562, large parts of Rajasthan come under the sway of the Mughals making it possible for them to undertake construction of truly monumental structures like the tomb of Humayun and Fatehpur Sikri.