The Marble Arts of India – Instrument of Dynamic Expression

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Prevalent in ancient and contemporary art alike, marble artworks have a prominent place in many major art movements and are among some of the most famous sculptures in the world. For millennia, artists have opted for marble, a metamorphic rock, due to its soft, easy-to-carve composition and the translucence of its surface. In ancient Mesopotamia, marble was used to create crude models of animals (both naturalistic and anthropomorphic) and figures, though other mediums like limestone, diorite, and terra-cotta were used more frequently. Similarly, ancient Egyptians artistically employed a wide variety of stone. While limestone and granite were their mediums of choice, they occasionally used marble to craft figures of pharaohs, gods, and guardians for temples and tombs. Like the Mesopotamian figures that came before, these pieces are primitive in design, showcasing flat and stylized silhouettes rather than realistic forms or lifelike details. During Ancient Greece's Archaic Period of art (8th century-500 BCE), artists began to show increasing interests in marble. Though rendered with more realism than sculptures from preceding periods, marble figures from this time are not yet naturalistic, as their expressions remain relatively stoic and their poses convey little movement.

Mughal Architecture (An Outline of its History and Development 1526-1858)

In India, Mughal Inlay art has been a remarkable feature of Mughal architecture and Inlay art was an instrument of dynamic expression in the age of the Mughal Empire. The Monuments of Agra (India) provide different stages of the development of Mughal Inlay art in a progressive sequence during sixteenth to seventeenth century as practiced under Akbar (r. 1556-1605), Jahangir (r. 1605-1627), and Shah Jahan (r. 1628-1658). Marble inlay- ‘Pachchikari’ or ‘Parchinkari’ is one of the most beautiful and popular forms of Mughal art developed indigenously in India. It is to be believed that it is typically Italian in origin and some contend it to be of the Indian origin itself. Inlay technically known as Pietra dura (Italian for "hard stone") is marble inlaid with designs in precious or semi-precious stonework.

Mughal Emperor Shahjahan and Empress Mumtaj Mahal (Set of Two Paintings)

Inlay work particularly on marble or pietra dura, generated a lot of debate as far as its origin is concerned. Some argue that the inlay art is Italian in origin and Indian artisans adapted it to their needs, gave it an indigenous touch and used the technique to carve out traditional Indian motifs that are today the crown of Indian art. Some believed it is developed slowly in India as we can observe the differences found in the inlay work of the buildings of Akbar to Jahangir and then Shah Jahan. A continuous development in Inlay art can be seen in Jahangiri Mahal to Akbar’s Tomb and then in Tomb of Salim Chisti and Itmad-ud- Daulah’s tomb. The tomb of Itmad-ud –Daulah supplies a link between two important phases, namely those of Akbar and of Shahjahan. It is the first notable building in white marble with its rich ornamentation in pietra dura that provides the impression of a miniature precious object magnified into a piece of architecture. It represents the transition from the red sandstone phase of Akbar’s buildings with their direct simplicity and robustness of structural design to that of sumptuous marble with all the changes.

A Mughal Lady-In-Waiting And The Feathered Messenger

With a remarkable eye for excellence in design and execution in the arts and crafts, Jahangir encouraged talent and promoted merit without discrimination. Jahangir had taste for the fine things of life - for beautifully designed artifacts, the enjoyment and appreciation of cultural activities. In his memories, he says that there should be such grand buildings in all great cities as might be fit for royal accommodation. Probably when Jahangir visited Mandu, the fascinating inlay work of Mandu impressed him and the continuous refinement of inlay work can be seen in the Jahangir buildings i.e., from Akbar’s tomb to Salim Chisti’s tomb, and ultimately a remarkable change in the tomb of Itmad-ud doulah. It may as well be possible that there could have been interaction between Mandu’s artisans and Jahangir’s architect. Jahangir had sent his architect AbduI-Karim to look for the repair of the buildings of the old rulers in Mandu. It is predictable that Abdu-I-Karim would have come in contact with the local artisans of Mandu and would have shared their techniques which inspired them to do it more minutely. Another possibility is that Nur Jahan, the wife of Jahangir, would have been fascinated by the inlay work of Mandu. As explained about the visit of Nur Jahan with Jahangir in the Memories of Jahangir. she saw all the places of Mandu as per the instruction of her husband. It is expected that Nur Jahan was inspired by the inlay work and applied the same in her father’s Tomb with much sophisticated style.

The Fair Shahzadi

In Shah Jahan’s period, the Musamman Burj, the Diwan-I–Aam, Diwan-I–Khas of Agra Red Fort; the Taj Mahal, Agra (1631-1652), Red Fort and Palaces, Delhi (1639-1648) were the examples of its most refined and perfect stage and it was an incessant phenomenon in the field of Mughal Inlay art. From 1630 onwards, pietra dura appeared in buildings as well as on moveables, small objects as decorative panels, with bird and flower motifs, suitable for cabinet fronts and tabletops. Unlike the pietra dura of Italy and particularly the Florentine tradition, Indian inlay work is not three-dimensional but flatter. It is not appropriate to say that the inlay art came from Europe but it is a continuous development of Inlay work. It is observed that there is no European inlay motif in the Jahangir period and there is not much difference between the inlay technique of Itmad-ud-Daulah’s Tomb and technique of Shah Jahan’s buildings inlay work. It reached its most gracious position in the period of Shah Jahan with the placement of inlay motifs and in the use of negative and positive space of the inlay motifs.

King Jahangir, The Fearless Falconer

To recapitulate briefly the three major points about the visit of Jahangir at Mandu that have bearings on the origin and development of the Mughal Inlay art are the following: Firstly, when Jahangir visited Mandu, the fascinating inlay work of Mandu impressed him and as the continuous refinement of inlay work can be seen in the Jahangir buildings i.e. from Akbar’s Tomb to Salim Chisti’s Tomb and, ultimately, a remarkable change in the Tomb of Itmad-ud Doulah. There is also possibility that there was an interaction between Mandu’s artisans and Jahangir’s architect. The other possibility can be that Nur Jahan, the wife of Jahangir, too got impressed by the inlay work of Mandu during her visit along with her husband. As a result, she applied it in her father’s Tomb with much refined manner. To sum up, in Jahangir period a remarkable change can be seen in Mughal Inlay art, which is not only an indigenous Indian art but also developed rapidly in the period of Jahangir rather than Shah Jahan.


  • Smith Vincent A, A History of Fine Art in India & Ceylon, ed. II, (D. B. Taraporevala: Bombay, 1969), 175.
  • Nath Ram, Colour Decoration in Mughal Architecture, (D. B. Taraporevala: Bombay, 1970), 29-30.
  • Sarkar S. J., Glimpses of Mughal Architecture, (India, 1953), 40
  • Nath Ram, Colour Decoration in Mughal Architecture, (D. B. Taraporevala: Bombay, 1970), 29.
  • Smith E.W., The Mughal Architecture of Fatehpur Sikri, Part 4, (Allahabad, 1898), 21.
  • Tod James, Annals and Antiquities of Rajsthan, vol.I, (London, 1920), 337; Nath Ram,
  • Colour Decoration in Mughal Architecture, (D. B. Taraporevala: Bombay, 1970), 29-30;
  • Nath Ram, History of Decorative art in Mughal Architecture, 1st edition, (Motilal Banarsidas: Delhi, 1976), 92.


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