FLOOD Finbarr

The meteoric rise of the Ghurid dynasty, from vassals of the Ghaznavids in the early twelfth century to overlords of large areas of eastern Iran, Afghanistan, modern Pakistan, and northern India by 1200, marks a watershed in the political and cultural history of South Asia. Despite their importance, the surviving architectural relics of the dynasty are, with few exceptions, only summarily published. The present political situation in Afghanistan renders it unlikely that any new studies will be undertaken there in the foreseeable future. New insights into the development of Ghurid architecture may, however, be gleaned from the monuments erected by the Ghurid sultans or their vassals in the Indus Valley and western India in the wake of the conquest of northern India in the late twelfth century. The group includes both well-known buildings such as the so-called Quwwat al-Islam Mosque in Delhi, and less familiar mosques and shrines scattered across the regions of Sindh, Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan.

These monuments are not only important for the historical and art historical information which they preserve, but represent a response to the challenge of constructing a distinctive visual identity at a formative period in South Asian history. They therefore constitute a unique document for the cultural exchange between different religious and ethnic groups in the period immediately following the incorporation of most of northern India into the dar al-Islam. Despite the potential insights which they offer into the negotiation and projection of cultural identity, the few published discussions of Indo-Ghurid architecture have, with some notable exceptions, tended to focus in a remarkably unanalytical way on the reuse of Hindu and Jain material. As a result, the monuments have assumed a paradigmatic role as symbols of cultural incommensurability.

The inadequacies of existing paradigms, which figure Indo-Ghurid architecture as the lithic rendering of a 'jihad mentality,' have been brought into sharp focus by recent discoveries of Indo-Ghurid monuments in the Indus Valley. Among these is the tomb of Sadan Shahid, a small partially ruined baked brick structure near Muzaffargarh in the Punjab (Fig. 1). Analysis of the building reveals at least three distinct types of formal and decorative elements that represent related facets of the cultural influences operating in the region at the time of the tomb's construction: first, elements derived from the architectural traditions of the Indus Valley (Fig. 2); second, elements which find their closest parallels not in the surviving Indus Valley monuments, but in the architecture of Afghanistan and Central Asia; third, elements which appear to represent a synthesis of these two traditions, or a transposition and transformation of one under the influence of the other (Fig. 3).


detail of base moldings

Tomb of Shaikh Sadan Shahid, detail of base moldings.


gavaksha niche with Arabic epigraphy

Tomb of Shaikh Sadan Shahid, gavaksha niche with Arabic epigraphy.


Tomb of Shaikh Sadan Shahid

Tomb of Shaikh Sadan Shahid, view from the south.


The degree of transculturation to which this remarkable monument bears witness contrasts with the emphasis on conflict and rupture in those paradigms which have traditionally informed the study of Indo-Ghurid architecture. This in turn has led me to question whether the latter offer an adequate account of the cultural complexities embodied in the processes through which the surviving monuments of the period came into being. Take, for example, the widespread assumption that the reuse of Hindu and Jain material featuring figural imagery finds its corollary in the aggressive expression of a culturally-determined iconoclastic impulse. Even a cursory examination of a monument such as the 'Quwwat al-Islam' Mosque in Delhi (the name, incidentally, can be traced back no further than the eighteenth or nineteenth century) shows a direct correlation between the nature of the figure and the manner in which it was treated in its secondary context. It is clear therefore that the entire topic of Indo-Ghurid architecture, including such issues as the reuse of material and Indo-Muslim iconoclasm deserves much more detailed study than it has received to date. The need for such a re-examination is only underlined by the fact that the major scholarly work published on the two most familiar Indo-Ghurid monuments, the Qutb Minar and 'Quwwat al-Islam' Mosque in Delhi, was published over seventy years ago.

Based on empirical study of the surviving Indo-Ghurid monuments, and on archival research, my current research seeks to both address and to remedy the relative neglect of these key buildings. The study has three related aims: first, to consider the surviving Indo-Ghurid monuments as a discrete corpus, thereby obviating a conceptual fragmentation to which Partition inevitably contributed; second, to offer a revisionist reading of Indo-Ghurid architecture, which presents the architectural traces of Ghurid rule in India as indices of cultural continuity in South Asia; third, to examine the origins of the paradigms which have governed the ways in which art historians have 'read' the relevant architectural evidence from the nineteenth century onwards. Figuring the monument as the site of an ongoing process of (both inter- and intra-cultural, physical and conceptual) translation, the study will address broader methodological and epistemological issues, such as the representation of hybridity in art historical analysis and the relationship between cultural identity and architectural form. In short, the work comprises an attempt to re-translate the surviving Indo-Ghurid monuments, conceptualising the hybridity to which they bear witness as a product of the construction of meaning rather than an accidental by-product of inter-cultural conflict.

Finbarr B. Flood,
National Gallery of Art,
Washington, B.C.