The Queen's Jewel Box

The Queen's Jewel Box
Pietra dura is the inlay technique of using cut and fitted, highly polished colored stones to create designs and patterns, Photo Credit: Snigdha Sharma

Overshadowed by its world-renowned neighbor, the Taj, the Tomb of Itimad-ud-Daulah with its intense design-scape stands as a silent cornerstone in Mughal architecture

Snigdha Sharma
April 26 , 2018
06 Min Read

While showing me his exquisite collection of Mughal jewellery and paraphernalia, Mr. Mathur of the 150 year-old Agra-based Kohinoor Jewellers unboxed an intricately designed mother-of-pearl plate which had etchings of some popular Mughal buildings. He pointed to an unfamiliar monument and said, ‘This is my favourite’. It was the tomb of Itimad-ud-Daulah. The monument, he told me later, had inspired many of his own designs. I couldn’t wait to see it for myself and Mathur junior kindly offered to escort us.

The tomb of Itimad-ud-Daulah

Although the tomb was built a few years before the construction for Taj began, it has been eclipsed by its world-renowned neighbor ever-since and is even referred to as ‘Baby Taj’ by some ignorant local guides.

The tomb dedicated to the Mughal courtier of the highest ranks in the empire, the prime minister of the empire, Mirza Ghiyas Beg Tehrani entitled Itimad-ud-Daulah (pillar of the empire), who also happens to be the father of Nur Jahan. Commissioned by Nur Jahan herself, this masterpiece is a pioneering example of the graceful use of white marble, rare and semi-precious stones, as well as vibrant painting, stucco and mosaic work in Mughal architecture.

It belongs to the domeless class of the Mughal sepulchral architecture and introduces a whole range of innovations such as adjoined towers and profuse and elaborate decorative techniques unseen in Islamic India at that time. This tomb has been a cornerstone of the transition of colour and design (from red sandstone to white marble) in Mughal architecture. It is almost like a link between Akbar’s building style of personality architecture and Shahjahan’s style that focused more on architectural aestheticism.

But what makes the tomb of Itimad-ud-Daulah stand out from its contemporary structures, undoubtedly is the overwhelming decorative technique that was used: its polychrome profuse ornamentation consisting of intricate florals, stylized arabesques, abstract geometrical designs, mosaic kaleidoscope techniques enriched with splendid ornamentation in semi precious and rare stones inlay and exquisite façade carvings that resembles the finest of lace.

All these were mostly inspired by plant studies and motifs of vivid flora and fauna with a distinguished influence of Persian heritage drawn by masterful artisans and craftsmen of Persia who worked at Mughal court. What makes this tomb essentially different from any other Mughal monument of that time is its finest blend of two strong visual cultures i.e Islamic and Hindu, unified into a unique signature and monumental expression. Humans and animals do appear within the interior decorative program of the tomb of Itimad-ud-Daulah. They do not appear explicitly, yet very delicately, as parts of smaller decorative designs; on the faces of cups, dishes, interlaced with florals or fruits. The designs mostly include fish, birds, peacocks, hens, dragonlike creatures, serpents with bird beak, even lions with silhouette of the man under the baldachin presumably an image of the deceased wazir.

A painted wall inside the tomb

Mughals were true devotees of the nature and their passion was embodied in the art and architecture of their empire. They had been particularly interested in botany which is well documented during the reign of Jahangir courtesy his chief court artist, Ustad Mansur who recorded over hundred flowers native to Mughal lands including Kashmir. Also, Persian scholars and European visitors too brought along with them books on botany to the Mughal court. Jahangir himself owned an admirable collection of exquisite miniature paintings and together with Nur Jahan constructed beautiful gardens across Mughal empire. The true significance of Mughal vegetal and floral decoration lies in its strikingly lively and authentic depiction; they were never sterile or still, but in constant movement and flow, either depicted individually or in flowerbeds, painted, inlayed or in relief.

Pietra dura is the inlay technique of using cut and fitted, highly polished colored stones to create designs and patterns

Above all, it was the Mughal introduction of the artisitic technique called ‘’pietra dura’’ (Ital. solid stone) that comprised the precise inlaying of rare and semi-precious stones into the surface of white marble, that distinguishes this tomb. Later on it also turned out to be signature of Mughal architecture. In this inlay craft, finished slices of semi-precious or rare stones were delicately placed in specially fitted spaces in marble façade plates according to perfectly composed naturalistic and abstract decoration patterns, thus making the monument as if it was covered with some dazzling bejeweled ivory carpet.

Even the four-fold form of the typical Islamic garden which surrounds the tomb is not just another beautiful design. It incorporates a complex and profound meaning. The classic char bagh plan was divided into four plots, sometimes into four further plots, a composition of most garden patterns. Light and water of the garden were constant metaphors - the channels of water from the central fountain or pool were constructed so that the pool was always overflowing, like the eternally-flowing waters in the Paradise garden. These flows of water, usually making cardinal axis in garden, were often attributed to the holy rivers of ancient world (Indes, Ganges, Euphrat and Nile) or paradisiacal potions (wine, water, milk, and honey). Garden was usually surrounded by high walls with gateways to the gardens, usually one in the centre of each wall. The gateway is said to be associated with the mihrab, the arched niche that indicates the Qibla (the direction of Mecca) in the wall of a mosque. One of the fundamental meanings of both the gateway and the mihrab is that they represent the entrance to the celestial world or the heavenly gardens.

An intricately carved painted ceiling inside the tomb

Apart from being one of the most powerful Mughal queens, Nur Jahan’s building activities clearly made a significant contribution to both imperial and public Mughal architecture. During her pwerful rule, she constructed three tombs of outstanding beauty; one of which was just for her father Itimad-ud-Daulah. The tomb, a pioneer funerary Mughal monument in white marble, is the best preserved of all three architectural projects she created. The other two monuments, imperial tombs though, are located in Lahore where the empress spent the final years of her life in exile away from Mughal court. One tomb was built for her late husband Jahangir and the other one for herself and reportedly her daughter Ladli Begum. In spite of her notoriety for her untamed influence over both state and court affairs, Nur Jahan remained strongly devoted and loyal to her Persian roots and her family. The tomb of Itimad-ud-Daulah obviously demonstrates a touching evidence of that devotion.


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