Saturday, July 7, 2012

Pietra Dura, parchin kari, jali and the Taj Mahal

When I went to my first tourist shop in India I noticed something I'd never seen before in the West, except in the enormous, elaborate, old palaces in Italy. It was inlaid stone designs, done with semi-precious stones of various kinds. Sometimes this stone inlay work was on small brown stone boxes but usually it was inlaid into super white marble.

Like this.

It's only now, years later, that I looked up more information about this work, learned about it on the web. The name of the work is pietra dura (hard stone in Latin) or parchin kari in Hindi, the national language of India (which is rarely spoken out of a handful of North Western Indian states).

Here below are typical tourist shop boxes of white marble with semi-precious stone inlay. The inlay here is, as far as I can see, tiger's eye, carnelian, agate, turquoise, sodalite or lapis, jasper and I'm not sure about the green stone, maybe malachite.

Here's an octagonal box with more intricate work, mostly in sodalite or lapis. So graceful and delicate the thin, curving lines, the flower tendrils. This one must have been done by a master artisan. On the sides of the box the marble is pierced into a kind of stone lace, this is called jali. It's a traditional Moghul idea, making this lace of rock, using it both for decoration and practical purposes. The box below is made by an artisan named Imran.

A little backstory. The Mughuls invaded India from about 1000AD to the mid 1700'sAD (about 600 years, during what was in Europe the Dark Ages to the Renaissance). When the Mughals came from what is now called Iran (then Persia), they brought with them brilliant artisans, introducing styles of art and crafts into India that had not been used or well developed before that.

Because the Mughal Empire was an Islamic culture, the art of that religion, Islam, also came into Hindu-Buddhist-Jain India and what was the culture of Persia mixed with the culture of India, creating a new culture, known as Mughal.  One of the great emperors of the Mughal Empire in India was named Shah Jahan
Shah Jahan on the peacock throne, the Mughal emperor from 1628 until 1658 . The seat of  the Mughal Empire was in North India. There were several cities where the Mughal emperors settled and created their huge fortresses. One of those cities is Agra, south of Delhi about 157 miles.

When his third wife Mumtaz, died, Emperor Shah Jahan built her an enormous mausoleum, known as the Taj Mahal, now often referred to simple as "the Taj".
Mumtaz, for whom the Taj Mahal was built as  a memorial. She died giving birth to her 14th child, Gauhara Begum. The Taj is not a grave. The bodies of Mumtaz and Shah Jahan were interred elsewhere. However, there are empty tombs in their honor, known as cenotaphs, which are placed at the center of the Taj Mahal.

Mumtaz Mahal (6 April 1593 – 17 June 1631) (PersianUrduممتاز محل [mumˈt̪aːz mɛˈɦɛl]; meaning "the chosen one of the palace") born as Arjumand Banu Begum was aMughal Empress and chief consort of emperor Shah Jahan. 

The best artisans of the day in the mid 1600's were called in to make the Taj Mahal, which took around 21 years to build. The artisans remained in the city of Agra since then, continuing on in the stone inlay (parchin kari) and stone piercing (jali) tradition just the way it was done centuries ago although now using slightly more advanced tools.

The stone used to build the Taj was marble brought in from Western India, in Rajasthan. Then the white marble was decorated with stone inlay or with pierced marble work.

Pietra dura
 or pietre dure (see below), called parchin kari in South Asia, is a term for the inlay technique of using cut and fitted, highly-polished colored stones to create images. It is considered a decorative art. The stonework, after the work is assembled loosely, is glued stone-by-stone to a substrate after having previously been "sliced and cut in different shape sections; and then assembled together so precisely that the contact between each section was practically invisible".Stability was achieved by grooving the undersides of the stones so that they interlocked, rather like a jigsaw puzzle, with everything held tautly in place by an encircling 'frame'. Many different colored stones, particularly marbles, were used, along with semiprecious, and even precious stones.

Here is how this work is done in India.
Marble Sculpting in Agra
Agra Marble: the art of Pietra Dura

Marble to marvel... pietra dura inlay work in Agra India

Novica: Marble inlay artist Imran

Some of the stones used in the pietra dura work in Northern India

Lapis Lazuli


Mother of Pearl

Ocean Quartzite


Tiger's Eye
Banded Onyx
Cat's Eye
Clear Quartz Rock Crystal
Imperial Red Jasper
Lace Amethyst
Lapis LazuliReal
Leopard Skin Agate
OnyxWide selection of rare and unique varieties
Rose Quartz
Tiger Eye
Tiger Iron


Detail of the pietra dura work in the Taj Mahal, Agra, watercolor from the British Library 
Tops of the cenotaphs of Shah Jahan and Arjumand Banu Begum, Taj Mahal, Agra 1808, watercolor from the British Library  
Carving Marble with Traditional Tools

Detail of the pietra dura work in the Taj Mahal, Agra, watercolor from the British Library 
These are typical table tops one can buy from Northern India, made with marble and parchin kari stone inlay from the Agra artisans.

This one is particularly beautiful.

India's leading high-quality marble mineral concentrated in the Indian state of Rajasthan, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Haryana and Andhra Pradesh. 
Makrana is a town in the Nagaur district of Indian state of Rajasthan. Makrana is famous for the white stone as marble mined from the mines around it. It is said that theTaj Mahal was built from Makrana marble. Makrana is a small town, but it has plenty of marble outcrops. Most of the residents in this town work as marble miners.
Indian marble mine

This site has good images of the Moghul Architecture in and Around Agra, India

The Taj Mahal, in Agra, India

The Taj before sunrise
Image of the interior of the Taj Mahal, watercolor from the British Library

Copyright: © M & G Therin-Weise

Taj Mahal, India, Flowers relief detail

General view of the Taj Mahal, Agra, from the river, watercolor from the British Library  
The Taj Mahal was built by the Emperor Shah Jahan (r.1628-58) for his favourite wife Arjumand Banu Begum upon her death in 1631. Constructed of India’s finest marble, quarried at Makrana near Jodhpur, it took 12 years to build involving 20,000 craftsmen from all over Asia. The tomb and accompanying buildings are organised around a garden divided into four parts by raised walkways with water channels at their centres. The pietra-dura was done with thousands of imported precious and semi-precious stones arranged in floral designs that embellish the exterior and interior of the building. The domed white marble mausoleum stands on a plinth with tapering minarets on each corner. Its harmonious proportions and exquisite craftsmanship have made the Taj Mahal one of the wonders of the world. This drawing shows the Taj from the river, showing the mosque, mausoleum and assembly hall, with a boat in the foreground. 

A little virtual tour of the Taj Mahal
© M & G Therin-Weise 

Copyright: © Tim Schnarr

Image Source: WHC 

Description: Taj Mahal
Date: 08/01/2008 
Copyright: © E. de Gracia Camara
Travels with Siv and John

Travels with Siv and John
Making jali screen, Agra
Jali (pronounced "jolly") screen

-male and female areas
-religious and secular areas

Besides visual separation, the perforation allows gentle light to filter through and encourage natural ventilation.
Jali is the term for a perforated lattice window screen. Widely used in ancient Indian architecture, jalis are most commonly carved out of stone, using intricate geometrical patterns. Windows with jalis served two purposes, one being aesthetically beautiful and the other more practical in nature; providing natural air conditioning. When summer winds from the desert air threatened to overheat a building, the jali which invites natural air flow, cooled the building’s interiors.  

The complex designs in this jali are a combination of geometric forms and shapes derived from nature, showing strong Islamic influences.  They are said to create the impression of unending repetition believed to be associated with the infinite nature of God. 
Travels with Siv and John

© Arthur Thévenart/CORBIS
Photograph by   Susan Ford Collins from her marvelous Flickr sets
Unfortunately, a lot of the work the artisans do in Agra is in a shape that is not interesting to Western customers. Maybe rich people from Saudi Arabia have homes for the huge marble table tops or Mughal style garden furniture but these forms are not practically things most Americans or Europeans want. I think the people who guide the artisans in choices of what to make for sale need to guide the artisans about what work is to be done with more thought to what Western customers might actually buy. I say this because the art of this beautiful stone inlay is slowly being lost and the artisans end up literally selling peanuts on the street or doing some other thing to survive.

Typical marble coasters with stone inlay, an example of something on which I think this beautiful art form is wasted, because people in the West rarely use coasters, especially not expensive marble ones.

Yet another thing that is rarely bought in the West, a mini Taj Mahal replica in marble.

I think the artisans would do more successful business in the West if they made things that were more popular at this time for the house. Like desk accessories or mantelpieces.
or this shape but in stone.  
Or clock faces with stone inlay or candle holders with stone inlay 

Western designers need to help the artisans of Agra to create the basic marble designs that will be desired in the West, on which the stone inlay work can be done or this art will be lost.

The jali screens around the cenotaph inside the Taj . "The octagonal marble screen or jali which borders the cenotaphs is made from eight marble panels. Each panel has been carved through with intricate piercework. The remaining surfaces have been inlaid with semiprecious stones in extremely delicate detail, forming twining vines, fruits and flowers."
The jali screens around the cenotaph inside the Taj
Tomb of Shaikh Salim Chishti - 30mm thick marble jali screen
Pierced Stone Jalli Screens
Palace of Akbar, 1574. Detail of Mashrabiyya in tomb shrine of Sheikh Salim Chishti (1580) 


Inside a contemporary jali screen

Photo: Doctor Casino


  1. Dear Sir,
    You have compiled a very nice article and the post is very insightful. We particularly appreciate your observations about the designs - indeed these designs need to be selected carefully in order to have westerners appreciate this art form. Maybe the designs need to be more Italian than Persian.

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