The Evolution Of Islamic Architecture


Nature has been one of the most influential themes and a constant source of inspiration in the decorative world. Most famous artists have contributed their entire life studying nature and deriving beautiful forms out of it. Islamic motifs are one of the best examples of illustrations that display the roots between the ornamental dimensions in the Indian context. The essay talks about how nature helped artists worldwide to come up with motifs, extracting their ideas from the natural world around them; which is clearly seen on the Indo-Islamic monuments. The decoration used at that time had fundamental repetitive patterns with specific logic behind the simplistic details. The artists explored new ways of materiality with availability, skills, and knowledge at that time and came up with unique techniques for making such motifs. The motifs influenced the art to reflect them onto the surfaces and walls of Indo-Islamic monuments, which eventually helped them to transform their spaces.

According to Oleg Grabar, an art historian “Ornament is not a motif nor it is a pattern or a way of displaying motifs but is perhaps both.” Ornamentation is subjective as compared to decoration, as it may or may not involve any representation of certain things but rather strengthens the form. E.g., mosaic or sculpted forms that are created on a structure or an object, decorate as well as give it a certain character. Unlike Christian art and its meaning, Islamic art isn't restricted to religion but includes all the artistic traditions in Muslim culture. Its strong aesthetic appeal transcends time and space, as well as differences in any language and culture. This is because of common features in their art which give it a distinctiveness, regardless of the country or the time in which it was created. Islamic art clearly reflected their cultural values and also revealed Muslims perspective to view the spiritual realm and the universe. For Muslims, Allah is one of the most aspired and focussed subjects of their faith and beliefs reflects Islamic art on the spiritual representation of objects and beings and not their physical qualities. The artists of that time did not attempt to just replicate natural forms but also tried to convey what they actually represented. This resulted in the artist experiencing the art much clearly which led them a step closer to Allah. It was firmly believed that for Muslims, beauty always meant to be a quality of the divine. The saying by Prophet Muhammad 'Allah is beautiful and he loves beauty’ clearly justifies the feelings of the Muslim artists in their work.

Geometrical patterns were one of the most prominent topics of influence which had its root in the fields of logic, articulation, and adaptation. The basic forms used were straight lines, circles, squares, triangles, hexagonal and octagonal shapes with various pointed complex geometries. The use of geometry reflected the language of the universe and helped the believer to reflect on life and the greatness of creation.

It is believed that the geometries used somehow linked the spirituality with their core ideas. Polygons like circles had no ends which expressed their infinite energy and reminded Muslims that Allah was infinite. The complex geometric designs illustrated unending repetitions which gave an idea of the infinite nature of their God. The repeating patterns used by the artists made the people believe the infinite in the small and their faiths for the same. Also, a single element of the pattern implied the infinite total and gave them to look at it as a source of never-ending energies.

The use of patterns is a part of the way that Islamic art represents nature and objects by their spiritual qualities, not their physical and material qualities. Geometric patterns make up the non-figural types of decoration in Islamic art, which also include calligraphy and vegetal patterns. The geometric patterns are popularly associated with Islamic art, largely due to their symbolic qualities. These abstract designs influenced by nature not only decorated the surfaces of monumental Islamic architecture but also functioned as the major decorative element on a vast array of objects of all types. These geometries were derived from the way the natural universe ordered and sustained. The process of application of these in the motifs converted their three-dimensional character to a two-dimensional character with points or vertices. E.g., straight lines were shaped as triangles, squares and curved ones as circles, spirals, etc. These were the symbols of harmony, divinity, unity, and infinity.

The repeated geometries often make use of plant motifs, which are called arabesques. Plant motifs and patterns are in a way used to decorate architecture and their objects from the earliest Islamic period. Plants mostly appear in many different forms in Islamic art, ranging from single motifs to extended patterns. The natural depictions of flowers to plant forms are moreover complicated and heavily stylized. The inspiration for such motifs was derived from different types of plants and flowers at different times. The patterns were created using a range of techniques including repetition within various grids, reflective and rotational symmetry and freehand design.

Flowers often represented a natural and divine source of decoration in the Islamic culture, which denoted soft and innocent expressions. Muslim artists have used this Islamic aesthetic to symbolize abstract forms, making their art interesting and beautiful. The floral motifs were part of ornamental art and were used as common designs. Also, these were used in architectural ornamentation, and in the decoration of houses and public places. Floral and vegetation motifs were considered suitable for aniconic expressions, repetitive patterns, and for filling the spaces. Plant motifs were either borrowed from earlier oriental designs or were imitations of local floral designs at that time. They include a presentation of flowers in their abstract form as well as to make an artistic design or an ornamental setting of flowers. These motifs are repeated to make patterns more decorative and appealing. Artists creatively used their imagination to make diverse patterns in various two-dimensional shapes which were extracted from the flowers seen around them. They also made them appear far from reality and unimaginable in the real world, making them unique and distinct. They receive admiration and attention because of their beautiful forms which look real and impressive. The vase of flowers is one of the most seen motifs in the Indo-Islamic ornamentation culture. It symbolized abundance, which appeared to be the one with a similar message but with varied forms. Nature in ornamental figures such as trees, grapes, vine, scrolls, birds and animals are not supposed to represent life and eternal life, but rather evokes the life and eternal life.

Motifs on the Indo-Islamic monuments

With the coming of the Mohammedans, a remarkable change in architectural style and art forms was seen in India. By the end of the 16th century, the Mughal rulers firmly established themselves and began to construct mosques, forts, and palaces as visible symbols of their splendor. The Mughals went against rigid religious rules and openly accepted the fusion of arts. They seemed to have believed in Hindu astrology, divination, magic, and tantra. This helped in bringing cultural harmony in art and architecture. The remarkable flourishing of art and architecture under their rule happened a bit laterally because the empire provided a secure framework within which artistic genius could flourish. Because of such resources, it commanded unparalleled wealth and culture in Indian history. The Mughal rulers were extraordinary patrons of art with a fine cultural outlook. They not only constructed beautiful monuments but made use of different kinds of motifs on them which played an important role in providing aesthetic beauty to the monuments. One of the examples is Fatehpur Sikri In Agra.

The decorative patterns in the Diwan-I-Khas in Fatehpur Sikri, Agra create a profound impact because of the unique application of the various designs. The changing motifs mirror the changes in social conditions and aesthetics. The motifs were engraved with the traditional skill and sometimes occupy prominent spaces in the surface decoration. The designs are mainly geometrical, naturalistic and stylized. Naturalistic and stylized floral motifs were majorly employed in Indo-Islamic buildings as typically Mughal designs—in a wide variety of methods, e.g., carving, jaali, inlay, painting, and stucco. This is how the indigenous designs and motifs evolved in Mughal art. Naturalistic floral motifs consisted largely of the influence of Iranian motifs such as the cypress. It is firmly believed that such geometric designs including calligraphic art, the arabesque and other related themes of ornamentation are characteristically Islamic which led to a new way of development of decoration and stylization in Indian ornamentation.

The creeper-motif in plant forms is sometimes associated with the Makara but is used mostly in the form of spirals and scrolls on pillars, nook-shafts, and panels on walls, particularly in borders and sometimes on vaults. All these motifs have somehow derived their inspiration from indigenous sources. The evolution of motifs tends towards the stylization of natural flora and fauna. Imitation of nature with a realistic approach appeals to their taste, but were also inclined towards stylization. This tendency also demonstrates the creativity of Mughal art and its capacity to create inventions from necessities and by artistic standards. The grandly recessed portals of Indo-Muhammadan buildings like the Fatehpur Sikri never really seem out of harmony with its structural intentions that are so finely proportioned and perfectly adjusted to the whole buildings. These never disturb the balance of the architectural design with their colossal dimensions. The impact of Islam is not only seen in the aesthetic impression, but also in symbols and icons which is passed into these works through the hands of the indigenous builders. Fatehpur Sikri contains many art motifs like chakra, Padma, srivatsa, svastika, which the Hindus had employed symbolically in their religious shrines.

The decoration of the art into architecture did not limit itself to just covering of surfaces but also helped to transform spaces through methods like shadows and light play. The surfaces of walls, doors, windows, and varied building elements are given certain depths through the use of patterns in two dimensions with resulting volumes by the use of illusion. The illusion of such things was created by the play of light and shade, rational perspectives, and the high and low relief carving of the motifs. The study of motifs analyses that they reflected the ethnic and cultural taste of the Mughal era in the most beautiful depictive manner. In addition, the motifs reflected the personal preference of the ruler, which further reflected the psychology of the rulers. The motifs also reflected a sense of security and safety because of the depiction of some fortunate motifs like the Puma Kalasha and the Swastik. They acted as a visual communicator. Such motifs on the Mughal monuments depicted a balance that added delicacy, rhythm, and harmony and all together reflected the aesthetic unity of the monuments.

One of the best examples of nature-inspired motifs is the jaali at Sidi Sayyed mosque in Ahmedabad which has curling tendrils. The leaves and flowers in it form an extremely beautiful and delicate screen as a monolith stone carved window. The jaali has a tree trunk as the central element which stands with twisted curved stems thereby symbolizing growth and forming abstract shapes of organic decorations. The asymmetrical laid patterns all around the tree make the overall composition well balanced, giving it a spectacular view of light and shadow. The tree of life motif clearly builds the relationship between art and architecture influenced by the forces of nature as their core or themes. The former bridges the gap between an artist’s thoughts as an evolution to a building element. They might have never imagined that the art piece can be of such importance if used as a housing element likewise on the windows of Sidi Sayyed.


The evolution of motifs in the Indian culture of ornamentation had three major reasons – the natural world, materials, and thousands of artists and craftsmen involved. The artists created a vast canon of patterns and motifs inspired by nature and its form in various ways. The motifs of the Islamic civilizations went through a lot of experimentation with various stylistic orientations in different regions during its history. The characteristics have been preserved no matter how the techniques, materials, and themes might differ. The art practiced formed a strong relationship between the buildings, structures or architecture in India and gave rise to aesthetically pleasing and visually appealing built environments through the motifs.        

07 July 2022
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