Agra, or Akbarabad as it was once called, brings to the mind of a discerning traveller the image of the Taj Mahal. While there's so much more to the city, the marble mausoleum is all that is needed to stand for the idea of India. Once inside its airy compound, visitors jostle to find the perfect corner for pictures or space to sit in the shade of the arches as the summer sun bears down.
Taj Mahal, the symbol of art elevated, is a song of eternal love. Mughals, with their innumerable monuments, wrote love letters to architecture and left Agra with memories that continue to trickle in crafts that have put the city on the world map. One of them is Parchin Kari or Pachhikari.
Parchin Kari is the art of inlaying colored or semi-precious stones into a stone base, often in geometric or flower patterns. In the walls of the Taj Mahal, the semi-precious stones glisten against the white surface of the marble, inspiring a generation of craftsmen that continue to practice the art in the bylanes of Agra and Fatehpur Sikri.
Believed to have originated in ancient Rome, the craft soon began to appear in church architecture. The art of Pietra Dura, as it was called in Italy, was brought to India in the 17th century by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan when he commissioned the Taj Mahal and brought experts from Persia, introducing the art of inlay carving and use of semi-precious stone in marble for the first time. The Parchinkari craftsmen of Agra are believed to be descendants of the same craftsmen who built the Taj Mahal.
To make a marble inlay artefact, the stones are cut and shaped with a hand-operated machine while the marble is being chiselled with a diamond-tipped chisel. Semi-precious stones, such as lapis lazuli, turquoise, malachite, onyx, mother-of-pearl, cornelian, jasper, etc. are inlaid on a marble surface. are then set piece by piece into the carved-out marble, and held in place using an adhesive (the exact recipe for which is hard to figure out. It’s a trade secret, the artisans claim). After the inlay is complete, the marble is buffed out and polished. The mark of a fine piece of inlay work is that it will make it seem like the precious stone grew out of the marble. Often, even a single motif such as a flower or a leaf is made of different pieces of stones put together.
Even today, the arched recesses of the Taj Mahal’s main mausoleum, as well as the outer walls show excellent inlay craftsmanship. On the marble screen that covers the cenotaphs of Mumtaz Mahal and Shah Jahan, detailed inlay work with semi-precious stones pays homage to the simplistic opulence that marked the Mughal era. This craft of inlay work can also be admired in the forts and mosques of Delhi and Agra, such as Agra Fort and Itmad Ud Daulah, where Persian motifs can be traced in the white marble.
The art also found its way to the Rajput empire, where inlay work was supplemented by intricate mirror work that bedecked the royal halls and palaces in Rajasthan. In the region of Shekhawati, many merchants replicated the opulence of the courts in their Havelis by commissioning artisans to use small mirror pieces arranged in ornate designs on the exteriors and interiors of their homes.
It was later, after the British conquest of Agra, that travellers made a beeline to the city, and expressed a desire to acquire memorabilia that reminded them of the history of the city. Inlay souvenirs found willing buyers and a whole industry came to life in Agra. From the elaborate and intricate pillars of Mughal architecture, Parchinkari today has found its way into our homes in the form of table tops, coasters, chess boards and cabinets.