Sample Art Paper on Mughal Art and Architecture: Shah Jahan’s Golden Era


The Taj Mahal, an architectural masterclass that is part of the Seven Wonders of the World, has been a subject of cultural studies for centuries; however, not much has been said about its architectural origins. The spread of Islam led to the development of new philosophies that ushered in an era of unprecedented development in poetry, mathematics, medicine, art, architecture as well as cultures across the world. In India, the first Muslims arrived a decade after the faith was established, and over time, the nation has seen different Muslim rulers taking over the authority of the land. These leaders left behind a heritage in the form of architectural masterpieces of timeless beauty. The Mughal dynasty for instance, is famed as one of the most influential Indo-Islamic houses that inspired some of the best architectural marvels seen in the Indian culture. Moreover, the reign of Akbar the Great (1556–1605), saw the first of many Mughal architectural structures from palaces, mosques, gardens, to mausoleums, however, it was during the reign of Shah Jahan b. 1592 – 1666) that it reached its zenith. Shah Jahan’s era saw the construction of the Taj Mahal, the Jama Masjid, the red fort, and the Shalimar Gardens in Lahore, structures that are a symbol of India’s Architectural golden age.


Shah Jahan’s most notable masterpiece is the Taj Mahal, which is one of the wonders of the world. Its perfect proportions, incandescent beauty, milk-white consistency that tends to assume different tones at various times, delicacy, as well as a variety of ornamentation, stands as the most notable structure associated with Shah Jahan. It is described by Asher et al. (178), as “a teardrop on the cheek of time” and Raheem and Tahir  as “a dream in marble, designed by fairies and finished by jewelers,” which is a clear testament to its sheer beauty (1144). As a tribute to his late wife, the Taj was a reflection of the eternal love that a king had for his queen, considering the building was the emperor Shah Jahan memorial for his beloved wife Mumtaz Mahal. The Taj Mahal was constructed for 22 years by approximately 20,000 workers at a price of approximately three crores of rupees (Kavuri-Bauer (2011). The cost of the building was high because about twenty varieties of precious stones were brought in from different parts of the country as well as other localities in Turkey and Afghanistan to decorate it. Besides, Emperor Jahan used ‘pietra dura’ as the principal technique of beautification on a large scale-inlaid work of jewels. The great dome and the four slender towers that connect to the main structure are a noteworthy feature of the Taj Mahal. The building stands also hosts a formal garden with lavish greenery and pools of running water. Additionally, it is understood that Ustad Isha from Persia, who was assisted by Hindu architects at the time was the chief architect of the Taj Mahal project. The Taj Mahal is currently considered as the standout example of integrated art and architecture from different cultures that made up the Mughal culture.

The Taj Mahal is considered Mughal’s contribution to the architecture of the world, with a design that was preconceived before engagement of even the architect. The Taj was built not only as a magnificent burial place for the king’s wife, but also for posterity, as a symbol of the glory and power of Shah Jahan and became one of the lasting symbols of the dynasty even after its fall (UNESCO, 2020). This symbol of greatness is embodied even in the architectural magnificence of the structure as evidenced by its public perception. The palace is considered to be the greatest architectural achievement across the entire range of Indo-Islamic architecture, whose beauty is described as a combination of various shapes, voids and solids, as well as concaves and convex (UNESCO, 2020). The aesthetic aspect stands out through the combination of lush colors, which showcase the castle in terms of varying tints and moods. This combination of features not only purposes to make the Taj Mahal an outstanding architectural piece, but also reflects its role as an embodiment of the exceptional beauty and value of Mumtaz Mahal, in whose memory it was built.


Emperor Jahan built the imperial capital Shahjahanabad between 1639 and 1648 in Dheli. The city covered a large area from the banks of river Yamuna in the southeastern parts covering the entire Delhi triangle. The reconstructions seen in the new city of Delhi under Emperor Shah Jahan far eclipse any architectural designs before his reign. For instance, the Emperor replaced a majority of the structures constructed during the Akbar and Humayun era in sandstone and replaced them with his designs in marble. According to Raheem and Tahir (2008), traditionally, the nobles and princes during the reign of the Mughal dynasty exhibited a tendency to plan buildings and gardens in a manner that the main structure stood on one side of the plan as the gardens took position on another. Shah Jahan imposed his own vision on the new capital, where the city space incorporated the main structure at the center complimented by gardens with their own intricate designs. A study by Michell, Pasricha, Kagal, and Ray (2011) showed that this design resembled cities seen the capital of the Safavids; however, the city space in Shahjahanabad was expressively larger as compared to any of the prior capitals of the Sultans of Delhi as well as any other sovereigns on the Asian sub-continent. The planning of Shahjahanabad is a reflection of the traditional Islamic city plan with a Hindu Influence. According to Asher, et al. (2002), Shahjahanabad was developed with the Hindu concept of Man and Universe as it drew its planning from the anatomy of men, which ‘contained all the possibilities of the universe within himself’ (p.221). As narrated by Raheem and Tahir (2008), the walled city embodied the power of the universe and the eight gates denoted the four cardinal directions as well as the four gates of heaven. These visions are more visible today than any other time in the city’s history as the scale on which emperor Shah built was also more heroic, as seen in the other features including the Red Fort, the Jama Masjid, and the gardens.


Originally called Masjid-i-Jahan-Numa, meaning “mosque commanding view of the world, the Jama Masjid, the Jama Masjid mosque in Delhi was considered as a private mosque for the royal family. Emperor Shah Jahan, with the assistance of 5000 workforces, saw to the development of one of the most renowned mosques in history. The Jama Masjid has three entrances as well as two tall towers constructed in strips of red sandstone and white marble bejeweled by winding steps and cupola at the top for a panoramic view of the city (Tillotson, 2014). Indeed, the architecture of Jama Masjid was iconic in the sense that it was believed to be inspirational that housed a collection of relics of Muhammad (Tillotson, 2014). Today the mosque is seen as a symbol of brotherhood and love, an aspect well established by the fact that the structure serves as holy ground for other religions groups and not only Muslims.


At Shahjahanabad, the Shah built his palace, Lal Qila, famously known as the Red Fort, a colossal walled citadel with red sandstone walls that took about 10 years to complete. Per Michell, Pasricha, Kagal, and Ray (2011) the red fort was an improved version of the Agra Fort, as he had learned from his experience of living there. Nevertheless, similar to other Mughal forts, the Red fort was constructed along the key rooms the a public room and the Diwan-i-Khas Additionally, the buildings are decorated with pure white marble as well as inlaid with precious stones. The Red Fort stands on an area of about 254 acres featuring defensive wall that encircle the fort measuring about 2.41 kilometers. However, the walls differ in height with one end standing at 18 meters on the riverside while the other 33 meters high on the city side. The fort raises overlooks a wide dry moat in the northeast part of the Shahjahanabad city.

Ustad Ahmad Lahauri, a renowned artisan believed to have built the Taj Mahal, constructed the Red Fort. The fort is described as a creative apex of Mughal inventiveness. Red Fort has several constructions that have Islamic, Mughal architecture, as well as the Timurids and the Persians architectural style. The Red Fort is known to have beautiful gardens incorporating an intricate water channel called the “Stream of Paradise” (Tillotson 42). For example, the water system at the fort connects several pavilions, an architectural design owned by the Mughals. According to Michell, Pasricha, Kagal, and Ray (2011) this form of artistry went on to inspire the construction of several edifices and gardens in the post-independence era an aspect that identifies Emporos Shah’s architectural period as the golden age.


Emperor Akbar laid down the foundations of Agra Fort back in 1573; however, during the reign of his grandson Shah Jahan, the structure underwent significant renovation to its current form. Shah Jahan demolished some of the edifices within the fort and later restored them according to his own plan and architectural taste. For instance, the bricks that were used at the base, as well as the external surfaces of Agra Fort’s, were brought from Rajasthan, giving the structure an earthy texture. This appearance of the fort experienced a significant change during the reign of Shah Jahan who, unlike his grandfather, was smitten by the beauty of white marble. Subsequently, he destroyed most of the structures within the fort to reconstruct them using white marble. Emperor Jahan spent his final days in the Musamman Burj of the Agra fort, which was constructed by him a position that is with insights of the Taj Mahal.


The Moti Masjid also known as The ‘Pearl Mosque’ is another marble-built structure built within the Agra Fort. The mosque was constructed for the purpose of hosting the members of the administration. As indicated by Asher, et al. (2002), Moti Masjid is yet another example of Emperor Shah’s fascination with the use of marble as a building material. It is also one of the beautiful monuments built by Shah Jahan. Apart from Moti Masjid being an architectural master piece, the Agra Fort also hosted some of the most beautiful Indian heritage sites in the form of Jahangir Mausoleum and Shalimar Gardens. The architecture of the mosque reflects various aspects of the Islamic religious belief and was probably developed following a preconceived idea of a significantly impactful place of prayer.

The location of the mosque on the right bank of the Yamuna River can be considered intentional, given that the Yamuna River is one of the most-sacred rivers in northern India (Encyclopaedia Britannica par. 4). The design also borrowed some elements from the cathedral in Moscow and others from Hindu religious architecture. This combination of architectural components from three different religious architectures was a confirmation of the mosque’s intended spiritual significance not only among the Indo-Islamic community, but also for that spiritual role to be recognized across the different faiths. The inclusion of a different segment for use by the women during worship was also in compliance with the traditional Islamic religion, in which women do not intermingle with men, particularly during worship (Encyclopaedia Britannica par. 7). The main hall of the Moti Masjid was used by Emperor Shah Jahan as a court-room in which judgments were passed, in accordance with the Islamic law.

The different attributes of the Moti Masjid-Agra fort provide evidence of Shah Jahan’s consideration of the traditional Indo-Islamic culture, preconception of the intended role of the mosque both to the Indo-Islamic community and to the general population, and the intention to make an impact even to posterity, which are key elements of the architectural designs created under the reign of Emperor Shah Jahan. Accordingly, Moti Masjid-Agra fort took the same outstanding position as the other architectural designs of the Emperor, making him the greatest of his time.


As earlier explained, before Shah Jahan’s reign, the Mughal architectural concept of gardens was non-complimentary, in that the main structure and gardens stood on different ends of property space, an aspect that changed through the development of Jahan’s Delhi city design. Other than the enclosed areas, the city complex stretched several miles into the landscape where there was ample space for developing beautiful gardens. Mughal gardens were traditionally built in a rectangular shape and were surrounded by high walls and only opened up to the audiences through gateways. Four swiftly flowing canals, which divided them into four sections, cut these gardens in sun-sections known as chahar bagh. Additionally, the conventional format of the Mughal garden was an enclosed space with the main building located at the center, the structure had multiple entrances, as well as subsidiary pavilions that were sent into the remaining walls (Michell, Pasricha,  Kagal,  & Ray, 2011). On the other hand, during Shah Jahan’s reign, more architectural significance was placed on gardens, leading to the construction of the main building at one end of the space from the previously favored center position (Asher, et al.). The Shalimar Gardens was Emperor Jahan’s first garden construction while he was still a prince at the command of Jahangir. However, once he came into power, he commissioned two additional Shalimar Gardens in Lahore and Delhi. All three gardens were constructed as terraced structures, the design of which was borrowed from the Central Asia architecture. Moreover, Emperor Jahan spent a significant amount of his time at the Shalimar gardens in Lahore during his visits to the city as opposed to the city fort of Shahi Qila. The Shalimar Gardens was constructed on three terraces; the top terrace was reserved for the royal family and the Emperor, while the bottom terrace housed the court retinue (Michell, Pasricha, Kagal, & Ray, 2011). The gardens also had a complex water-engineering and hydraulic system that comprised of pool with fountains, pavilions, and multiple flowerbeds. The river Ravi was responsible for filling all pools through a canal system designed by one of Shah Jahan’s courtiers. By the time of his death, the Emperor had laid the designs for the Wazir Bagh in Kashmir, Shalimar Gardens near Lahore, the Talkatora Bagh and Shalimar Gardens at Delhi in a similar manner.

The gardens in Emperor Shah Jahan’s model reflect a traditional concept in Indo-Islamic architectural design, in which the garden is considered as a depiction of paradise. Hillenbrand (106) reports that gardens in Indo-Islamic architecture embody the concept of a paradise, whereby various patterns of light, water, natural foliage, walk-walks and flowers, are all uniquely merged in a design that reflects resplendent beauty. The gardens in Shah Jahan’s architecture reflect this kind of beauty, making them an attraction of its own in addition to the other constructions alongside which they exist (Hillenbrand 106-107). This concept has also been applied widely in other architectural designs developed after the reign of Emperor Shah Jahan, such as the Pinjore gardens built as the idyllic respite for the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb with flowing channels of water (ARTSTOR par. 5). The inclusion of water in hose designs were meant to reflect the importance of water as an element in the Indo-Islamic culture. Accordingly, it is deductible that the designs made under the reign of Emperor Shah Jahan were not only developed with the consideration of aesthetics, but were also created to embody culture and the values they represented. The combination of inspiration, culture, and posterity as key considerations in architectural designs undoubtedly resulted in designs that have been unmatched, and which continue to be impactful as historical sites in ages long past the end of the empire.


In summary, India is a multicultural state that has for centuries celebrated its identity in eye-catching art and architecture with the Taj Mahal being the centerpiece. The arrival of Muslims in India, added to the association of regional culture as well as immigrated technologies, led to the development of new architectural styles celebrated today. In specific, the Mughal dynasty is credited for some of the most renowned architectural sites in the country. Mughal architecture is a unique Indo-Islamic architectural style that was developed in northern and central provinces of India under the patronage of the Mughal royal leaders for two centuries.

Each leader had a special way of integrating different cultural styles in building designs and construction; however, Shah Jahan is credited for leading the ‘Golden age’ of Mughal architecture. Shah Jahan had various construction achievements to his name; however, the Taj Mahal, Shalimar Gardens, the Jama Masjid, the Takhat-i-Tahus’, Red Fort and Moti Masjid stand out as his most iconic symbols of architectural success. Each of the above buildings is not only unique in material use and designs but also symbolic to both the royal families and the people a factor that stands out as the most iconic era of Mughal architecture.

The architecture seen at the city of Shahjahanabad has attracted guests from tourists to scholars from across the globe because of its unique beauty. The rectangular city planning structure built on the banks of River Yamuna, with many architectural and visual marvels in the forms of forts, palaces, and gardens is the reason for the consideration of Emperor Shah’s architectural achievements as elements of a golden age. It is considered that the outstanding designs of the Shah Jahan Empire were developed through the consideration of a combination of culture and the need for posterity. For each of the designs described, it is evident that the architectures were designed to last long after the lifetime of the Emperor, and he particularly incorporated various elements into the designs that would have significant historical impact for posterity. Moreover, each of the designs embodied different cultural aspects such as the inclusion of the gardens as part of the designs and incorporation of water as a feature in the gardens, or the segregation element in the Moti Masjid. Additionally, underlying inspirations such as the decision to use architecture as a memorial of a loved one such as in the case of the Taj Mahal, also contributed to the uniqueness of architectural designs of the Shah Jahan Empire, and have continued to inspire the consideration of such architectural designs as world heritage units.



Work Cited

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Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Pearl Mosque.” Encyclopaedia Britannica. Accessed 5 May 2020.

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