Evolution of Islamic Architecture in the North India

Mahmud of Ghazna invaded the Indian subcontinent in the late 10th and early 11th centuries CE. With his invasions, Islam began several centuries of cultural and political dominance on the subcontinent. The original empire of the Ghaznavids stretched from the Punjab to Iran, thus forming a direct route to the Islamic heartland.

Tomb of Isa Khan, the octagonal tomb was built in 1547 for Isa Khan Niyazi a noble in the court of Suri dynasty.
Photo from Flickr

Eventually this kingdom was usurped by the Delhi Sultanate. Qutb al-Din Aybak expanded the Sultanate’s political and cultural influence during the 13th century. By the middle of the 14th century, Delhi was the seat of power throughout nearly the entire subcontinent. Architecture was one of the main artistic and cultural vehicles that spread with Islamic power. The influence the early Muslim political spheres had on the history of Indian architecture is nearly unparalleled as it integrated seamlessly into what is now the so-called Indian architectural standard. Even the European colonizers of the 18th and 19th centuries were amazed by the architecture.

In the earliest periods of Islamic architecture, brick was the main material. As per the available resources, wood was used for some details, mostly decorative or structural. Multan in modern day Pakistan produced glazed tiles in the 13th century, a standard feature in most subsequent Islamic structures in South Asia. One 12th century mosque in Multan has withstood the tests of time and represents the earliest phase of structures there. Its mihrab, or Mecca-situated wall of the mosque, is made of exquisite craftsmanship. Made of brick, it is lined with Kufic inscriptions. Only this mosque and several tombs are all that remain from pre-Mughal Multan. However, these tombs may be seen as prototypes for later Islamic tomb architecture. They were typically square, octagonal, or rectangular with hemispherical domes. The tomb of Rukn-I ‘Alam of the early 14th century has towers in each of the corners. Its mihrab is made of wood, which is a peculiar feature for Islamic architecture in India. The later Mughal rulers also used Multan to site their tombs. These later Mughal buildings utilized a combination of Mughal stylistics with older regional forms.

Remnants of the Delhi Sultanate can be found dispersed all throughout north India and Pakistan today. One may find mosques, tombs, madrasas, ‘idgahs, forts, and public construction projects such as bridges and waterworks. There is a widespread myth that conquering Muslim invaders destroyed many Hindu temples and used their bricks for the construction of Islamic buildings. However, there is little evidence to support this theory wholesale. It is more likely that the initial conquerors were interested in looting places that had wealth, such as gold, and were not interested in destroying holy sites to acquire construction materials. Defacing of idols did occur, but not to the extent that many scholars from the 19th century believed. Nevertheless, the Sultanate took a page from existing dynastic architectural projects and used the same modes of production for their structures. They took control of quarries and employed guilds. In the end, the Sultanate’s buildings were all made of the same materials that previous structures utilized. Decorative elements were added to things like columns, brackets, lintels, roof slabs, and domes.

Much of the style utilized by the Sultanate came directly from Khurasan in Iran. The pointed arch is perhaps the most notable of these features, although one may also be familiar with the style of placing stone blocks horizontally with the top stone overlapping half of the bottom stone and so on, thus creating a recognizable building pattern. Additionally, calligraphy, a tried and tested art form, became popular in South Asia as well. The Kufic script decorated structural features while the naskhi script was written down for daily use.

Mihrabs of two styles may still be seen all throughout the territory. The first is an “Arab type.” This featured a semicircular layout. Mosques in Sind, Kutch, Ajmer, and Khatu preserve this style. These western-situated mosques generally rest on platforms and on the slope of a hill. People enter through staircases underneath domed pavilions. The second is the “Khurasani type,” which featured a square plan and a pointed arch. Mosques in the type may be found in Delhi, Kaman, and Bayana. Most of the Khurasani type mihrabs are so named because their doorways borrow their architecture style from the mosques of Khurasan. Khurasan type mosques are set on the ground level. By the 16th century, native Indian styles merged with the Arab and Khurasani styles thus creating a unique conglomerate of rich architecture.

Emperor Shah Jahan of the 17th century created one of the most recognizable architecture pieces in the history of the world. The Mughal emperor constructed the Taj Mahal as a tomb for the his precious wife Arjumand Banu Begum who died in 1631. The Taj Mahal literally means “Crown Palace,” although the tomb is known more for its testament to love and grief than it is for its namesake, “Crown Palace.” Originally the land was owned by the Rajputs of Amer, nobles of the Mughal court. Legal documents reveal that four mansions were used as a form of exchange to acquire the land on the south bank of the Yamuna river. Tradition asserts that it cost more than 30 million rupees, but this is a disputed record.

The tomb is situated within a walled garden in the standard four-plot plan. The south is the main entrance. Each side of the grounds is symmetrical but the north-south axis contains a reflecting pool for the tomb proper. One innovation of the Taj Mahal is that the tomb itself is raised on a white marble platform. Four minarets rest at each corner of the massive tomb. The tomb itself measures 57 meters on each side. Earlier tombs, such as Humayun’s in Delhi, were located in the direct center of the complex. At the Taj Mahal, the tomb is on the northern extreme of the grounds and overlooks the Yamuna. To the east and west are other tombs built in red sandstone to contrast the whiteness of the main tomb. They are also situated on red sandstone platforms.

Each façade has an arch set within a rectangular frame. Two-storeyed alcoves flank the arches. Spandrels in rectangular frames have black inlaid calligraphy with flowers imprinted into the white marble. Even more striking is the tomb’s use of a double dome. Each feature of the Taj Mahal is duplicated nearly perfectly on the other side, creating perfect symmetry throughout. The only asymmetrical feature is the cenotaph of Arjumand Banu Begum at the center of the tomb with Shah Jahan at her side. Although a romantic notion, scholars cannot prove for certain that the king intended to build a separate, black tomb on the other side of the Yamuna.


  1. P. Brown: Indian Architecture, Islamic Period (?Bombay, [1942], rev. Bombay, 1956)
  2. J. Burton-Page: ‘Taj Mahal’, Splendours of the East, ed. M. Wheeler (London, 1965)
  3. J. Marshall: Monuments of Muslim India, Cambridge Hist. India, iii (Cambridge, 1928), pp. 597–9

Author: Eric Jogga

I am a PhD candidate at a top American university. I study Sanskrit, Pali, and Prakrit languages. My interest is primarily in: Ancient India, art, archaeology, architecture.


  1. Eric, Nice photo and article, it is interesting to read how the architecture has been changing slowly for several centuries.

  2. The main gateway (darwaza) is a monumental structure built primarily of marble which is reminiscent of Mughal architecture of earlier emperors. Its archways mirror the shape of tomb’s archways, and its pishtaq arches incorporate the calligraphy that decorates the tomb. It utilises bas-relief and pietra dura inlaid decorations with floral motifs. The vaulted ceilings and walls have elaborate geometric designs, like those found in the other sandstone buildings of the complex.

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