“Jali: Lattice of Divine Light in Mughal Architecture” by Navina Najat Haider

Detail: Tomb of Sheikh Salim Chisti, Fatehpur Sikri (1581) Detail: Tomb of Sheikh Salim Chisti, Fatehpur Sikri (1581)

“Replete with symbolism,” writes Navina Najat Haider in Jali: Lattice of Divine Light in Mughal Architecture, “the Indian jali evolved to become both a technical and an aesthetic marvel in Mughal-period buildings, and eventually an international ‘Islamicate’ style of the modern age.”

Those who have marveled at the intricately carved pierced screens of the Alhambra in Spain or the elaborate wooden mashribiyya that characterizes urban centers such as Cairo and Damascus will welcome a new book that demystifies how these architectural design features came into being in India. Jali, also featuring essays by George Michell, Ebba Koch and Mitchell Abdul Karim Crites and photography by Abinav Goswami and others, unravels the mystery behind the ornamentation associated with jali.


Jali: Lattice of Divine Light in Mughal Architecture,  Navina Najat Haidar ( ‎ Mapin Publishing, September 2023)
Jali: Lattice of Divine Light in Mughal Architecture, Navina Najat Haidar (Mapin Publishing, September 2023)

Navina Najat Haidar is a Curator of the Department of Islamic Art at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. She was involved in the planning of the museum’s galleries for the Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, and Later South Asia. Haidar has a number of books under her belt; Masterpieces from the Department of Islamic Art in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Sultans of the South: Arts of India’s Deccan Courts (both 2011) and Sultans of Deccan India, 1500-1700: Opulence and Fantasy (2015).

The book is an illustrated survey of jali from its early origins in ancient Indian temples, through the Mughal period and up until today, following artists and designers whose contemporary practices are rooted in historical design. The strengths of Jali are its beautiful photographs that complement the highly informative essays. Haider’s writing in particular illuminates the concepts behind Islamic design and craftsmanship relevant to jali.


With its origins in Ancient Indian temple architecture, Jali traces how these decorative elements were expanded under Muslim rule from the Delhi Sultanate established in the 12th century, reaching a distinctive highpoint during Mughal rule in India through a series of essays. George Michell, an authority on South Asian architecture, elaborates on its ancient origins in his essay, “Temple Jali Traditions”:


This sharing of geometric screen motifs between Hindu, Jain and Islamic monuments is a distinctive feature of architecture in Gujarat. Such commonalities are best explained by guilds of masons who sought employment under patrons of different backgrounds, often working at the same time on temples, mosques and tombs. Jalis with meticulously carved geometric patterns are also a characteristic of Hindu and Jain shrines in Rajasthan, as well as in residential mansions known as havelis.


Jami Masjid, Champaner, Gujarat (1523)
Jami Masjid, Champaner, Gujarat (1523)

Haider in her essays also elaborates in quite some detail about ancient Indian origins of jali in Gujarat as well as shrines and mosques of Sultanate Gujarat made from the 14th-century onwards. She also distinguishes these with the jalis of the Delhi Sultanate (1206-1555) and central India that featured distinctive styles that had its origins in the Islamic west, such as geometric star-and-hexagon patterns and arabesque scrollwork:


With the development of Islamic styles of architecture in Gujarat from the fourteenth century, a new set of ideas transformed the relatively small-scale temple jali into a prominent feature in shrines and mosques. The symbolic importance of light in Islam, the need for discreet spaces in mosque enclosures (maqsuras) for women and elite visitors, as well as new aesthetic preferences for walls of lightness and pattern ushered in this change.


Mughal jali underwent dramatic changes under Emperor Shah Jahan as rigid, geometric abstraction gave way to naturalistic, floral trellises that filtered light. Shah Jahan’s rule did not escape the 17th-century “floralmania” that spread throughout the Ottoman, Safavid and Mughal empires and eventually found its way into Mughal architecture that he is remembered for to this day:


In the inspired buildings of Shah Jahan, the jali form took a leap towards a new lyricism, breaking away from the rigid lines and geometric designs of the previous age. The paradisiacal imagery that informs the larger conceptual frameworks of grand tombs and palaces is brought to bear on the jalis too, as seen in the floral trellises around the central tomb chamber of the Taj Mahal, installed in 1647.


Maqbara Shams al-Umara, Hyderabad (late 19th-20th century)
Maqbara Shams al-Umara, Hyderabad (late 19th-20th century)

The development of jali is also traced to regional centers such as the Deccan and Rajasthan and also includes those made under the British Raj. In the book, jali travels into private residences in Britain and America through the passions of inspired academics and collectors such as Stuart Carey Welch and Doris Duke.

Finally, in the chapter “Jali in the Modern Age”, the genie is finally out of the bottle as jali is liberated from its early architectural setting into the creative hands of international artists and designers. Ironically, female artists such as Anil Qayyum Agha, Afruz Amighi and Mona Hatoum seem to be the ones pushing the boundaries of jali—once considered a patriarchal device created to keep women confined to domestic spaces. Their work is featured here as are other artists and thus provides context and meaning for jali in today’s world.


Editor’s note: The book may be sampled at Mapin’s website (the source of these illustrations).

Farida Ali @farida_art is an art historian and writer. Her work has appeared in Scroll and elsewhere.