Mughal Empire: Art & Architecture

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  • 0:03 The Mughal Empire
  • 0:54 Mughal Art
  • 2:22 Mughal Architecture
  • 5:13 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The Indian subcontinent has been home to many dynasties, but few left as lasting impact as the Mughals. In this lesson, we'll explore Mughal art and architecture and see what defined their style.

The Mughal Empire

India is one of the oldest continually-inhabited places on Earth. It's also one of the most heavily populated regions in the world. So, there have been a lot of people to leave their mark on the history of this subcontinent over the millennia. Every group of people to call this region home had their own impact, and the Mughals are no exception.

The Mughal Empire was a military state that dominated the subcontinent from roughly 1526 to 1857. Formally a Muslim empire, the Mughals claimed Turkish/Mongolian ancestry and had close cultural connections to the Arabian Peninsula. Their cultural practices were therefore deeply connected to many others across Eurasia, while still being ingeniously innovative. As a result, they left some substantial legacies in India, making them stand out among millions.

Mughal Art

Let's start by looking at the arts of the Mughal Empire. The Mughals believed in education and in demonstrating their refinement and benevolence through the arts, so these became important parts of India during this time. One of the most notable developments was in painting.

What we now call Mughal painting emerged as a synthesis of Persian and Indian artistic traditions during the reign of Humayun, second emperor of the Mughal dynasty. While exiled from India, Humayun had been exposed to Persian miniature painting, used largely to illustrate Islamic manuscripts.

When Humayun returned to India, he brought artists with him and established royal workshops to develop the Mughal style of painting. His best known commission is a collection of poems from the famous Muslim poet Nizami Ganjavi. The Khamsa, or collection of works, contains almost 40 miniature paintings to accompany the poems.

Over the next century, Mughal painting was further refined. While originally very Persian, it became redefined through Indian color schemes and aesthetics. Mughal paintings tend to be colorful and finely painted, featuring scenes from nature, history, and court life. The style is defined by a mixture of flattened abstraction with illusions of depth and complex designs and an incredible amount of detail.

While Mughal paintings were commissioned on larger scales, the most famous were always the miniatures, painted to accompany works of poetry, religion, or philosophy.

Mughal Architecture

While the Mughals appreciated the use of art to display their wealth and refinement, miniatures were naturally limited in their size and accessibility. Buildings, on the other hand, were out there for everyone to see. The Mughal emperors were passionate patrons of architecture.

Being Muslim leaders, the Mughals helped bring the aesthetics of Islamic architecture into India in the many mosques, tombs, and forts they commissioned. Islamic features include the use of pointed arches, onion-shaped domes and minarets, the interplay of geometric shapes, a devotion to symmetry, a heavy amount of detailed ornamentation, and a focus on gardens and landscapes as part of the architecture.

The early Mughal emperors built structures that were monolithic in size and scale, demonstrating the uncontested power of the empire. They were most commonly built in red sandstone in accordance with local, Indian aesthetics and tended to feature intricate tile mosaic patterns both inside and out.

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