The Story of Mughal Inlay Art

Mughal Inlay Art at Taj Mahal

History recounts that Emperor Shahjahan had envisioned Taj Mahal as the most beautiful building ever to be erected on this earth. To achieve his vision, he chose it to be built in pristine white marble from Makrana mines in Rajasthan and had it extensively decorated with exquisite and delicate Mughal inlay work. The breathtaking result is there in front of our eyes and leaves us gasping in awe every time we look at the Taj Mahal. There are delicates vines, flowers, paisleys, pitchers, vases, plants, geometrical motifs, calligraphic verse of the Holy Quran, and many more motif created in intricate inlay, covering inner and outer walls. All created by a team of master artisans in myriad, multi-coloured precious and semi-precious gemstones and creating a visual harmony that’s absolutely magical.

Mughal Inlay Art at Buildings before Taj Mahal

Taj Mahal, built between 1632 and 1648 AD, was not the first building to feature inlay work. Not by a long margin. Mughal buildings built by Emperors Humayun and Akbar in Delhi, Lahore, Agra and fatehpur Sikri in fifteenth century had also been decorated with marble inlay work but the motifs were simpler, the colours were limited, and most importantly, the work was done mostly on red sandstone. Mostly archways and dados of forts, mosques, and palaces were adorned with eight-point stars, palms, lotuses, ducks, elephants, chevron and hexagonal motifs. The old Fort and Humayun’s tomb in Delhi, Agra Fort, Akbar’s Tomb and Fatehpur Sikri buildings all reveal gradual evolution and refinement of this art.

Mughal Inlay Art Further Refined

The first time Mughal inlay art as we know it made its appearance on a building decked with white marble was at the Itmaduldaula’s Tomb, (also called Mini-Taj) constructed by Emperor Jahangir’s wife Nurjahan for her father in Agra between 1622 and 1628 AD. A woman of exceptional taste, she is credited with designing complex patterns carved in pure white marble slabs and inlaid with numerous sparkling multi-hued gemstones that included coral, mother of pearl, onyx, amethyst, agate, aquamarines, quartz, malachite, turquoise, jasper, cat’s eye, lapis lazuli, peridot, opal, bloodstone, garnet, carnelian, jade and many more.

Of course, when Shahjahan built the Taj Mahal as a memorial and mausoleum for his wife Mumtaz Mahal a few years after his stepmother Nurjahan built Itmaduldaulah’s Tomb, the Mughal inlay art reached perfection and achieved its legendary status of one of world’s most exquisite arts ever. (Incidentally, Mumtaz Mahal was Nurjahan’s niece and Itmaduldaulah’s granddaughter!) The motifs became even more intricate, many more precious and semi-precious gemstones were worked in, and the sheer scale of artistry became unparalleled to anything built before or after.

Folklore says that Shahjahan had planned to build an exact replica of the Taj Mahal in black marble for his own mausoleum. Indeed, as at Taj Gallery, we work on white as well as black marble, we can vouch that the beauty of inlay on black marble is as bewitching as it is on white. Unfortunately the black Taj was not to be and Shahjahan was buried next to Mumtaz Mahal in the original Taj Mahal only.

Mughal Inlay Art Now

Unbelievable though it may seem, every single step of Mughal inlay art – from start to finish, from first cut to final polish – is still done manually by hand. Actually, the tools, techniques, and materials usedhave remained virtually unchanged for over 400 years now. It is still created using the same way as it was done for adorning Taj Mahal.

What’s more, its present day creatorsare all descendants of the original few who worked on the Taj Mahal and the trade secrets of this art are a closely guarded heritage passed on selectively only to theirimmediate male family members. Unsurprisingly, there are only a few master artisans who know how to create Mughal inlay magic on marble.

The Making of Mughal Art Inlay

Creating a Mughal inlay object d’art takes time, patience and a tremendous amount of skill.

  • First,motifs templates are hand-cut on brass sheets.
  • Then these motifsare hand-drawn on polished marble slabsusing the templates.
  • Next comes fine engraving of these designs using small handheld chisels.
  • Then gemstones are hand-cut with precision into tiny pieces of myriad shapes and inlaid into the engraved marble using a specialglue. Even the glue composition is a secret recipe known only to a select few!
  • Once dry, the entire piece is painstakingly hand-cleaned and hand-polished.

The entire process involves many different artisans and is supervised closely by a master artisan.The making of a Mughal inlay object d’art can take anywhere from a few days to a few weeks depending on the size and the complexity of the design. While most of the time, white or black marble is used for the base, there are nearly 30 types of gemstones that can be used in the inlay.

Authentic Mughal inlay Art at Taj Gallery

A black Taj Mahal was never built and a white Taj Mahal can also never be built again. But through Taj Gallery, you can still take home a work of art that has been created just like Mughal inlays were created centuries ago. At Taj Gallery, we create Mughal inlay work not just on white marble but on green and black marbles too. You could say that the dream of Shahjahan lives on in our creations.