In the decorative art Gallery of a museum at Srinagar I could see several multicolored pieces of glazed tiles, although very much irregular in shape and size, but the shine of the glaze looked so clear as if these have been removed from their workshop just hours back.
But this was not the reality, in fact these pieces dated back to hundreds of years and had been actually some time back recovered from the historic mosque and tomb of Syed Mohammad Madni (RA) at Madine Sahib Hawal, Srinagar.
This well preserved historic and spiritual site is famous not only for its wonderful architecture, but for its unique tile work, which is hardly seen anywhere on any of the shrines of this land.
Its tile work is considered as one of the unique examples of this art and it is not seen anywhere else in Kashmir or Indian sub-continent for that matter. These tiles were laid on walls and on entrance of this tomb and depicted various floral and mythical scenes, which were quite unique in their theme and presentation.
It was first time in 1905, that a European archaeologist W. H. Nicholls (1865-1949), during his pioneering study of Muslim architecture in Kashmir, was the first to notice the uniqueness of the art of this building among all the Muslim monuments in India.
The mosque had glazed tiles of a kind unlike any other building in India and some tiles were painted a mystical beast not seen anywhere on any other mosque in India. The beast could be seen in the tile work on left spandrel of arch at entrance.
While providing the description of various scenes depicted on its tile work, Nicholls wrote in his report:
“A beast with the body of a leopard, changing at the beck into the trunk of a human being, shoots apparently with a bow and arrow at its own tail, while a fox is quietly looking on among flowers and cloud-forms. These peculiar cloud-forms are common in Chinese and Persian art, and were frequently used by Mughals – by Akbar in the Turkish Sultana’s house at Fathepur-Sikri, Jahangir at Sikandariah, and Shah Jahan in the Diwan-i-Khass at Delhi, to mention only a few instances. The principal beast in the picture is about four feet long, and is striking quite a heraldic attitude. The chest, shoulders, and head of the human being are unfortunately missing. The tail ends in a kind of dragon’s head. As for the colour, the background is blue, the trunk of the man is read, the leopard’s body is yellow with light green spots, the dragon’s head and the fox are reddish brown, and the flowers are of various colours. It is most probable that if this beast can be run to earth, and similar pictures found in the art of other countries, some light will be thrown upon the influences bearing upon the architecture of Kashmir during a period about which little is at presently known.”
Nicholls supposed the figure like the main building too came up in 1444, which would make it pre-Mugal. However, John Hubert Marshall (1876-1958), superintendent of the Archaeological Survey of India, in his introduction to Nicholl’s report mentions that a Persian text at the site indicted that the present entrance was added during Shah Jahan’s time (1626 to 1658) that would make it from 17th century and not 15th century.
In 1926, some of the tiles from the monument are learnt were moved to Victoria and Albert Museum. The tiles were described to be colored in “iron-red, manganese-purple, tin-white, copper-green, cobalt and copper blues, on an opaque antimony-yellow ground. Height 8 inches, width 32 inches
The Sagittarius figure, however, was to be found on the entrance just until 1983. The tiles were then moved to Central Asian Museum (University of Kashmir, Srinagar). Several of the tiles recovered from the site are preserved at SPS Museum, Srinagar.
I could myself see several wonderful fragments of these glazed tiles displayed in the decorative art gallery of the Srinagar museum. One of the groups of these tile fragments presents an incomplete picture of turban headed bow and arrow man.
Usually in Muslim tradition, paintings depicting human and animal figures have not been encouraged so much, but there has been the traditions of placing of astronomical and geometrical figures on local Sufi khanqahs and tombs.
There are number of such olden tombs seen in this land which carried geometrical and astronomical symbols engraved in their wood carvings and lattice work designs.
Indeed the central Asian and Mughal artists have also been involved in creating of life scenes in their respective paintings, coins and constructions. As such the depiction of such mysterious scenes on the glazed tiles of Madine sahib’s shrine can be attributed to the central Asian artists of the Mughal era.
DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author.
The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK.