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Buland Darwaza and Rumi Darwaza: gateways to heaven

“While the Buland Darwaza gives the impression of living rock lifted from an ancient mountainside, the Rumi Darwaza looks like the diadem of a Queen.” These words by Urdu poet and author Shamsur Rahman Faruqi set off a chain of thought in my mind about how rulers used their resources to leave their mark on history.

Akbar-e-Azam ascended the throne of India in 1556. In the next decade or so, he not only consolidated his empire but also expanded it.

Akbar had everything a monarch could ask for except an heir. To pray for one, he undertook the journey from Agra to the village of Sikri where the Sufi saint, Salim Chishti, lived in his hospice. The saint blessed the emperor, and a son was born to Akbar on August 30, 1569. The joyful father named him Salim after the saint, and according to Professor Ali Nadeem Rezavi of the Department of History at Aligarh Muslim University, “decided to heap on this city the resources of a vast empire.”

Architectural accomplishments

And so was built Sikri, which was later renamed Fatehpur Sikri, or the city of victory. It is an architectural delight, but it is the Buland Darwaza, or ‘gate of magnificence’, that has held many enthralled. The entrance to the complex houses the Sufi saint’s exquisite marble shrine and the Jami mosque.

Professor Rezavi says the Buland Darwaza at Fatehpur Sikri is “the most iconic architectural accomplishment of Akbar’s reign. It incorporates almost all the essential features of Akbar’s architectural traditions: red sandstone, stone carvings, relief by inserting white marble, etc.”

The construction of the Buland Darwaza was inspired by Timurid architecture. Along with Humayun’s Tomb, its monumentality reflects its Central Asian origins.

Catherine Asher writes in The New Cambridge History of India: Architecture of Mughal India, “This monumental gate, however, was probably less intended to commemorate a military victory than to underscore Akbar’s links with the Chishti order. Its surface is covered by marble slabs inscribed with Quranic verses promising paradise to true believers, appropriate for the entrance into a khanqah, a complex intended for meditation and devotion.”

With 42 steps leading up to it, this 53.63-m-high and 35-m-wide gateway is the highest in the world. Whether it was built to celebrate victory or reflect on the transient nature of the world can be guessed from a Persian inscription on it, which advises people to turn towards spirituality: “Isa [Jesus], Son of Maryam said: ‘the world is a bridge, pass over it, but build no houses upon it. He, who hopes for a day, may hope for eternity; but the world endures but an hour. Spend it in prayer for the rest is unseen.’”

This was prophetic, for the city was abandoned in 1585, with Akbar returning to the Agra Fort.

Meanwhile, in Lucknow, the Nawabs appointed by the Mughals as governors were leaving their stamp on architecture. Nawab Asaf-ud-Daula, who ruled from 1775 to 1797, shifted the capital from Faizabad to Lucknow in 1775. Till 1856, when the British East India Company sent Nawab Wajid Ali Shah to Calcutta in exile, the Nawabs created some extraordinary religious and secular monuments.

Architecture at a time of crisis

Asaf-ud-Daula’s rule saw a devastating famine, which created an economic crisis. The residents of Awadh were self-respecting people, so instead of handing out dole, the Nawab started a food-for-work programme. The famous Asafi Imambara, or Bara Imambara, of Lucknow was built to give employment and revenue to the public.

Resources were strained, a peak had been reached in architectural style, and a certain decadence had crept in. To overcome these, the Nawabs used a more economical style in architecture, which also gave a touch of lightness to the buildings.

Instead of stones and marble, brick and lime were used. Stucco ornamentation (gajkari) was used to decorate the monuments, giving it a deep relief effect even on flat walls. Mother of pearl and shells deposited in lake beds were used in the stucco ornamentation to give a shine finer than marble.

The local masons cleverly used the brick, with its small size and thickness, to form remarkably fine details on the wall and column surfaces. It’s a testimony to their skill that they could adapt lowly material to such wonderful effect: balusters were imitated in clay supported on iron rods. Similarly, pottery was used for roof finials and ornaments.

This skill can be seen in the delicately built Rumi Darwaza that was the main gateway to the Bara Imambara. It was called so because the design of the structure bears resemblance to an ancient gateway at Constantinople. It’s also called the “Turkish Gateway”. The word Rumi means Roman, and the name was probably given due to the gateway’s design having traces of Roman architecture.

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Printable version | Jul 27, 2021 1:00:43 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/columns/buland-darwaza-and-rumi-darwaza-gateways-to-heaven/article19700177.ece

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