January issue 2013
Wall Of Heaven
“For they kindled joy,” states the title page of the book as it mentions the patrons of a spectacular publication by the Mohatta Palace Museum — The Tale of the Tile: The Ceramic Traditions of Pakistan by Abdul Hamid Akhund and Nasreen Askari. Yes, it is joy to know this book exists to rejuvenate a love of history and carefully detail the aesthetic and historical journey of the tile, an iconic representative of the ceramic and design traditions of this region so specifically marked by Persian and Central Asian influences in necropolises, tombs, monuments and mosques that dot numerous sites along the river Indus.
Akhund and Askari’s work is surely a labour of love; Akhund gives the tile a voice in a poetic lament which serves as a preface to the book: “Only I remain to provide warmth and solace, for I am of the earth/Such is my tale, the tale of the tile.”
The book was born from a catalogue of a ground-breaking exhibition at the Mohatta Palace, Karachi that ran from June 23, 2006 to July 17, 2010 “showcasing the remarkable origins and tradition of ceramic architectural embellishments in the Indus valley, following the spread of Islam.” The writers have built upon the catalogue to create this coffee-table must-have which not only records an important artistic tradition of Pakistan, but also showcases a proud heritage and is, importantly, a plea for the preservation of this art form.
The writers have done a brilliant job of writing a detailed and erudite historical perspective that carries the reader from century to century, describing the colours, motifs, roots and inspiration for the glazed blue, white and turquoise earthenware tiles and, in some areas, green and red earthenware revetments that adorn and embellish architectural sites in the region.
A fascinating aspect of the story of the tile is the influences and affinities that it carries over centuries. Earth is the source of all life, confirm the writers as they gradually trace its evolution from Jarmo in North Eastern Iraq in 4750 BC, to a hundred years later at the edge of the Persian desert where inhabitants began to make vessels, to the Harappan and Indus Valley civilisations, to Babylonian potters at the court of Nebuchadnezzar, to Achaemenid Persia where it was raised to an art form, and to the intervening Hellenistic artistic tradition that influenced pottery, to the beginnings of a vast
Islamic empire that spread with the Ummayad Caliphate and created the timeless Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem in 687, still alive with the ornate mosaic patterns inspired by Hellenistic tradition.
Following the Ummayads, Abbasid potters reinvented techniques and, for the first time, glazed tiles were used as architectural embellishments. Quranic Kufic inscriptions and repeated geometric patterns were highlighted with tile embellishments. Later Samanid influences also permeated the region, followed by the Iranian Seljuqs in the 10th century. In the following centuries, North India was to become a hot-bed of an amalgam of cultures with incursions and successive dynasties by the Persians, the Arabs, the Turks and Central Asians so that various influences from the Islamic world manifested in the culture and arts and architecture of the region. As various dynasties battled for control, Babar’s invasion of India in 1526 and the Mughal interregnum that followed is classified as a second flowering of Islamic arts in the region, and the aspirations to divinity by various Sufi mystical orders made an enduring impact on the architectural vocabulary of the region.
The evolution of the tile as architectural embellishment is complex — one such example is the journey from the Timurid monuments of Samarkand and Bokhara to mausoleums and tombs of the Arghuns and Tarkhans at Makli, Sindh that clearly reflect Central Asian architectural elements. The Mongols had a preference for monochrome turquoise but the journey of the tile across the sub-continent shows how a range of colour and design is incorporated over centuries, so that floral ornamentation and complex geometrical patterns are seen in tiles, revetments and inner domes of these structures. Timur’s legacy lives on in the stunning blue, turquoise and white shades of ceramic mosaics from Central Asia to the Arabian Sea.
The book is divided into several chapters and after an illuminating historical perspective, the writers chronicle the major monuments of Pakistan with ceramic architectural embellishments in separate chapters, divided by geographical location, all along the Indus river: in Sindh, Multan, Uchh and Lahore. The book is a fascinating guided tour to historic sites that have remained a hidden secret for most Pakistanis — and have not been valued and treasured by the mainstream culture — from the tomb of Mirza Jani Beg Tarkhan in Makli, to the Shah Jahan mosque in Thatta, to mausoleums of Sufi saints: Lal Shahbaz Qalander in Sehwan, Shah Abdul Latif in Bhitshah, Sachal Sarmast in Khairpur and Bahauddin Zakariya and his grandson Shah Rukn e Alam in Multan. The imposing edifices and facades in Multan and its environs are a visual treat such as the mausoleum of Tahir Khan Nahar in Sitpur (dated 1530), the only royal tomb in the area. In Uchh, Sindh, the crumbling facade of the tomb of Bibi Jawindi (1402), makes one want to cry as one tries to imagine the tilework, glazes and revetments of the original structure. The tour continues; in Lahore the Wazir Khan mosque and the revetments of the Lahore Fort are “unparalleled in the region for their finesse of line and colour…”
For the layman with an aesthetic sensibility the book is an education. It is surely every culture-vulture’s must-have and will grace the coffee-tables of the elite for a long time to come. However, it is essential that it go beyond the ken of those who can afford it to school libraries, design institutes, offices and institutions to inspire and inform those who remain bereft of the true culture and history of the region. In fact, it should also be put online for the growing and vast number of young people whose access to the world and knowledge is not through books but the Internet.
The writer is a former assistant editor at Newsline