In Review

Tradition of the tile

Published 27 Mar, 2015 01:00pm


An ornate ceramic time portal from Khudabad. Photo courtesy Tale of the Tile.
An ornate ceramic time portal from Khudabad. Photo courtesy Tale of the Tile.

Sumptuous, vibrantly coloured ornamentation is a distinguishing characteristic of Islamic architecture. As the human form and figurative representation are strictly forbidden, there is a total absence of sculpture in Islamic edifices. Instead, geometric patterns and rich surface decoration reach unparalleled artistic heights with stucco, brick, marble and ceramics.

Some of the earliest – and finest – displays of ceramic tiling and ornamental inscriptions are to be found in the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, built in the seventh century, hence, the oldest Islamic monument preserved in its architectural integrity; and in that masterpiece of elegance from the western extremity of the Islamic world, the al-Hambra in Granada, Spain.

The use of ceramics in architecture began in earnest in Anatolia in the 13th century, at about the same time as in Seljuk Iran where specialisation in the glazed tile mosaic technique in Kashan gave ceramic tiles their Persian name, kashi, a contraction of kashani, meaning of Kashan. Then the indefatigable conqueror Emir Timur, known to the West as Tamerlane or Timur the Lame, forcibly transported master ceramists from their homeland to Samarqand. Thanks to Timur’s patronage, in a matter of three decades the drab ochre buildings of his capital were “bedecked in a dazzling livery of predominantly turquoise ceramic tile.”

The cladding of brick walls with glazed ceramic tiles in shades of azure blue, turquoise, cobalt and white soon became widespread in the Muslim world. In Ottoman Turkey, the Iznik factories evolved tiles that were never to be equalled in range and depth of tone, richness and variety of pattern, making it possible to sheet the interior of whole buildings with this gleaming decoration. In the Maghreb – Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria – floors and walls were lined with beautiful enamelled and painted earthenware tiles known as Zellij. In Iran under Safavid rule, what the Timurids had begun in Samarqand was carried on in Isfahan. Outstandingly beautiful glazed tile work produced in the haft rung or seven colour techniques sheathed the splendid palaces and majestic mosques of the country as Persian architecture reached a rare level of perfection.

Surprisingly, ceramic tile work was not the favourite form of decorative art in Mughal India. Unlike the brick-built architecture of Iran, most imperial Mughal mosques and minarets, palaces and mausoleums were made of red-mauve sandstone and decorated with white marble. Thus the fabulous Taj Mahal, the epitome of Mughal art, is clad in luminous marble inlaid in the pietra dura style with precious and semi-precious stones.

Shah Abdul Bhittai’s dargah (shrine) in Bhit Shah
Shah Abdul Bhittai’s dargah (shrine) in Bhit Shah

Ceramic revetment was extensively used only in the alluvial plain of the Indus Valley, in the western areas of the Mughal Empire bordering Iran, where buildings were constructed out of brick and there was an abundance of clay. Though the ceramic cladding of this area was clearly a visual delight, nothing much was written about the artistry of this indigenous craft till the Archaeological Survey of India assigned Henry Cousens, the superintendent of archaeology in western British India, to document the stunning blue-and-white ceramic tile covered mosques and tombs of Sindh and Punjab.

In 1906, Cousens published Illustrations of the Sind Tiles, a folio highlighting the styles and patterns of ceramic tiles found in Thatta, Khudabad, Hyderabad and Sukkur. Though he was not able to include tiles from the great Sufi shrines of Sindh – Sehwan, Bhit Shah, Daraza – in his visual anthology, his discerning selection pioneered the study of the ceramic revetments of Sindh’s architectural monuments. It showed how, rejecting the animal and human forms predominant in the tiles of neighbouring Safavid Persia, the kashigars – ceramic artisans – of Sindh had created in their tiles “a synthesis of the Mughal floral style interlocked with the colourful intricacy of Timurid Central Asian geometric patterns.”

Cousens hoped that the impressive plates of tiles he had so painstakingly chemo-lithographed “would not only make the work better known, but also encourage use of the exquisite old designs in modern buildings.” His folio became a collectors’ item when it was reprinted nearly 90 years later, in 1993, largely through the enthusiastic efforts of Hameed Haroon and Abdul Hameed Akhund. The next publication of this volume, facilitated by Jahangir Siddiqui, coincided with the Mohatta Palace Museum’s magnificent exhibition, Tale of the Tile: The Ceramic Tradition of Pakistan.

Curated by Nasreen Askari and Akhund, this landmark exhibition featuring over 400 objects showcased the history and development of ceramic crafts in Pakistan from Mehrgarh (circa 7,000 BC) and the Indus Valley civilisation (circa 3,500 BC) to the present day. Objects on display included shards, vessels, tiles and architectural elements from Mehrgarh, Multan, Jhang, Uch, Sitpur, Lahore, Sehwan, Kamarro Sharif, Thatta and Hala and contemporary ceramics by the noted ceramist Mian Salahuddin.

A stunning installation in this exhibition was the recreation of a façade from the shrine of Pir Mohammad Ashraf Shah Quraishi in Kamarro Sharif, Tando Allahyar, with original tiles which were removed during its restoration in 1971. Another impressive installation was a façade inspired by the tomb of Bibi Jawindi in Uch. Additional highlights included the recreation of pillars and arches from the Shah Jahan Mosque in Thatta by master craftsmen from Hala, a potters’ atelier with a kiln, a facade from a tomb in Sitpur and original tiles from Multan and Uch.

A floral blue and white ceramic tile inspired by Mughal art
A floral blue and white ceramic tile inspired by Mughal art

Now the two curators of this spectacular exhibition have co-authored a beautifully illustrated book, Tale of the Tile: The Ceramic Traditions of Pakistan. Though this publication began as a catalogue to the Mohatta Palace Museum exhibition, it was expanded to turn it into a definitive work “showcasing the remarkable origins and tradition of ceramic architectural embellishment in the Indus Valley.”

In this panoramic overview, Askari and Akhund have brought into life one of the glories of Sindh: its glowing tile work. Beginning with a description of the particular nature of ceramic cladding, as well as the methods employed by the craftsmen, they present the entire spectrum of traditional ceramic production, both tiles and pottery, and the broader artistic tradition in which these ceramic wares originated. Showcasing the array of motifs – geometric, floral, vegetal – used on wares and tiles, they offer an interesting and informative examination of the rich stylistic heritage that these ceramics have bequeathed to subsequent generations.

In detailing the techniques and patterns of architectural ceramics, the authors touch upon the expertise of the builders and decorative artists and explore themes of ornamentation in nearly all the monumental examples of religious and secular Muslim architecture in the Indus Valley. The vigorous activity of Sufi orders – silsilas – throughout this region and their emphasis on urs, or commemoration of the saints’ deaths, have led to the predominance of funerary buildings or dargahs in this region, and most of the important Sufi shrines of Sindh and many of the significant mausoleums and mosques of Multan, Uch, Thatta and Lahore are meticulously discussed. Included also in the book are extracts from a 14th century manuscript, The Virtues of Jewels and the Delicacies of Perfume and a reprint of a 19th century Persian treatise on the manufacture of kashi earthenware.

With over 500 colour photographs, Tale of the Tile: The Ceramic Traditions of Pakistan is a lavish publication. For anyone interested in the architectural heritage of the Indus Valley, this book will definitely be indispensable. Read more: architecture, art, Dome of the Rock, Great Mughals, hameed akhund, Henry Cousens, Indus Valley, islamic art, kashan, Kashi, Mohatta Palace, Mughal Art, Nasreen Askari, pietra dura, Samarqand, Sufism, Taj Mahal, Tale of the Tile.