The Monuments Man
September 22 2014 10:22 PM
Humayun’s Tomb, Delhi.
Humayun’s Tomb, Delhi.

Indian photographer, art historian and filmmaker Benoy K Behl, who has taken more

than 44,000 photographs of the monuments of Asia and made 130 documentaries

on heritage and arts in India, tells Anand Holla about the joy of contributing to history

To sum up the far-ranging sway of the works of Benoy K Behl in a few hundred words feels like merely scratching the surface of a mammoth cultural anthology.

The Indian photographer, art historian and filmmaker, who has taken more than 44,000 photographs of the monuments of Asia and made 130 documentaries on various aspects of heritage and arts in India, also happens to be the only one to document Buddhist heritage of 19 regions in 17 countries.

It’s this relentless pursuit of Behl, of chasing monuments and important heritage across religious and cultural lines for the past 35 years, which has brought his stellar exhibition on the majesty of Islamic architecture, to Qatar.

Sunday evening saw the grand unveiling of the exhibition — Islamic Monuments of India — at Katara’s Building 19, which will now continue till October 4. Hosted by the Indian Embassy in Qatar, the gallery was packed with dignitaries and art enthusiasts, eager to retrace the rich Islamic heritage of India through 45 evocative pictures.

Sanjeev Arora, Indian Ambassador to Qatar, said the collection speaks of the glorious diversity of India. “Over the centuries, so many architectural styles and designs have contributed to its fascinating realm of multicultural civilisational ethos. This also represents India’s deep-rooted ties with the Arab world, Persia and Central Asia,” he said.

For Behl, capturing such illustrious Islamic footprints across India was as exciting as his many other feats. The Limca Book of Records, 2014, certifies Behl as the most travelled photographer of India. He has covered 4,79,570km to document Buddhist and Hindu art heritage of Indian and Asian monuments — from April 2001 to September 21, 2013. His passion for unravelling art heritage has taken him around the world eight times.

From documenting monasteries of Ladakh and churches of old Goa to bringing alive the “compassionate art” of Ajanta caves in Maharashtra, Behl’s matchless sweep on art and architecture of India and Asia is complemented by his ability to provide the most wholesome understanding of his subjects.

That is perhaps why the list of exhibitions he has held (across 34 countries) or the scores of lectures he has given (across 21 countries) runs into a dozen pages. While many a time Behl gets invited by museums and universities, the rest of the times he travels out of his own savings.

On the day of the unveiling of his exhibition in Doha, Behl, from his New Delhi residence, settled for a chat with Community:


You have such a massive body of work behind you. What else is left to achieve?

A great deal is still left to be done. I am currently on an elaborate project to document the ‘Islamic Heritage Monuments of the World’ in 42 countries. I have already documented the vast range of Islamic monuments across India. I have also documented Islamic monuments in Samarkand and Kuva in Uzbekistan, Isfahan in Iran, and also Afghanistan, Indonesia, Malaysia, Bangladesh and Spain. I am planning to document other major Islamic monuments in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iraq, Egypt, Syria, Turkey, Morocco, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Pakistan, Mali and Romania.


What about Islamic architecture interests you?

I find the architecture of Islamic mosques and tombs to be an invaluable treasure of world heritage. Many countries have taken inspiration from this tradition. In fact, surface decoration with tiles and the making of arches and domes in European countries and in India are only some of the obvious Islamic influences. After the Romans, the building of arches and domes had also been forgotten in Europe. These were re-introduced during the Islamic rule in Spain.


Do you feel that the contribution of Islamic world isn’t often given its due?

Well, we tend to forget that Greek philosophers were introduced to medieval Europe through Arabic translations. The Renaissance in Europe was based upon the concepts of science and arts, which were taken to Europe through the translations and writings of Islamic Spain (Al-Andalus). Europe learnt mathematics and astronomy from the Arabs. In fact, even the concept of numerals was drawn from Arabs, which has made modern mathematics possible. The wonderful Islamic monuments of many countries display the great development of culture and sophistication of the Islamic world in medieval times.


What about Indian history and culture fascinates you?

I am fascinated by the ancient world — be it anywhere. In ancient times, the world was much more compassionate and kind. It was much more intellectual, and in many ways, more advanced than it is today. Today’s world has become a highly commercialised and fake place, where a lot of people get by telling lies. I find the sense of ethics missing in this world. So, I like to photograph subjects that bring alive the culture of ancient times.


Your exhibition is an exhaustive documentation of Islamic architecture in India. What special aspects about it did you learn while photographing them?

My photographic coverage of India explores the range of Islamic architecture; from Kerala and Tamil Nadu in the South, to Kashmir in the North, and from Tripura in the East to Gujarat in the West. The Mughal architecture of North India has been very well-known. However, there is an amazing richness of Islamic architectural heritage across India, which isn’t well-known. India has a vast, living heritage of Islamic architecture. The quality of these monuments ranks among the best in the world. However, the world is unaware of the greatness of India’s Islamic heritage.


Could you please elaborate?

It is well-known that the world’s most famous Islamic monument, the Taj Mahal, is in India. Yet, what is not known to most is that the world’s second oldest mosque is also in India — in Kerala. That also points to how vast and rich India’s architectural heritage of Islam is. Contrary to popular perception, Islam didn’t come to India from the North. It came through the Arab traders, in what today is the region of Malabar in Kerala. Muslims developed as a trading community there. You can still see traces of that community amongst the Mopalas in Kerala, who trace their ancestry back to the Arabs.

Continued from page 5


So that’s how far back India’s connection with the Arab world goes?

Yes. Since ancient times, India had considerable trade contact with the Arab world. In the 1st century AD, Pliny the Elder writes in Rome about the routes to India that then existed. He mentions the July monsoon winds that traders used to catch which helped bring them to the Indian coast. He mentions the ship which left the coast of Arabia and took 40 days to reach Moosirissi (which is present day Kodungallur in Kerala). With the advent of Islam, Arab traders became the carriers of the new faith. The first mosque in India came up at Kodungallur by Raja Cheraman Perumal. It was built in 629 AD, within the lifetime of the Prophet (peace be upon him). That makes it one of the world’s oldest mosques.


Could you share another such historical nugget?

Kayalpattnam is an ancient town that lies a kilometre from the mouth of the Tamira Pirani river. Here, Arab traders built the Codal Karai Mosque as early as Hijri 12 or 633AD. This was the first mosque to be built in Tamil Nadu and again, ranks among the world’s oldest mosques. Kayalpattanam has many other dated mosques. In fact, Kerala on the West Coast of India and Tamil Nadu on the East Coast have numerous mosques, built through the ages. At Nagore, on the East Coast, for instance, is one of the grandest dargahs ever made.


What about the advent of Islamic architecture in North India?

Quwwat-ul-Islam mosque was built in 1193AD, the first in North India. It features several beautifully written Quranic verses. Some medieval writers have found those writings to be so beautiful that they said it appears like it has been written on wax. On stones, the writers say, it would not have been possible. The most impressive monument in the Qutb Complex though is the Qutb Minar itself. Built in the early 13th century by Sultan of Delhi, Qutbuddin Aibak, it’s one of the world’s tallest minarets, standing at 72.5 meters high. Ibn Batuta was a traveller who had visited all of the Islamic empire. Setting off from Africa, he had seen Samarkand and Damascus, too. But when he came to India, records show that he said that nowhere in the world was there a minaret as impressive as the Qutb Minar.


Take us through the surge of Islamic influence that followed in India.

For that, we need to understand how down south, a distinct culture developed in the cosmopolitan community of the Deccan. The streets of the Deccani sultanates were filled with Turks, Persians, Arabs and Africans. In India, the Deccan became the greatest centre of Arabic learning and literature. The Gol Gumbad in Bijapur is the tomb of Sultan Muhammad Adil Shah, who ruled from 1627 to 1657AD. This is the largest dome to be ever built in the Islamic world, and is the world’s second largest, after the Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome. It measures 37.92 meters on the inside. In the 14th and 15th centuries, the massive and a very formidable Bidar Fort was built. It has walls that run for 5.5kms around. Inside, it has beautiful palaces, two mosques, a madrassa, ornamental gardens and hamams.


Did Islamic architectural ideas travel out of India, too?

Yes. For instance, Turkic conqueror Timur, on arriving in India, was struck by the beauty of its historical cities. In his autobiography Malfujaate Taimoori, he says: “I ordered that all the artisans and clever mechanics who are masters of their respective crafts should be picked out from among the prisoners and set aside. Accordingly, some thousands of craftsmen were selected to await my command. I had determined to build a Masjid-e-Jami in Samarkand, the seat of my empire, which should be without a rival in any country. So I ordered that all the builders and stones masons of India should be set apart for my own special service.” In some other records it is said that he had taken about 3,000 artisans from India, who were employed in the construction of the Jami Masjid at Samarkand.

 Briefly tell us the story behind another key picture from the exhibition — of the Fatehpur Sikri.

In 1571, Emperor Akbar decided to build a new capital city. A magnificent city was built at a site not very far from the previous capital at Agra. It was called Fatehpur Sikri. This was Akbar’s most ambitious architectural project. By the end of the 16th century, there were a quarter million people staying in the new city. In the building of Fatehpur Sikri, no cost was too much and no effort was too great for Akbar. He wished to make the city true to his conception. In fact, miniature paintings of that period show the emperor going amidst the workers, supervising the city’s construction.  Fatehpur Sikri is one of the best ordered and symmetrically laid-out cities of the entire medieval world.


What about the world’s most famous tomb in memory of an eternal love story?

Well, Taj Mahal was built in 1648 by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, in memory of his beloved wife Arjumand Banu Begum, better known as Mumtaz Mahal. The construction of the Taj Mahal was a stupendous engineering feat. It is built of marble and finely inlaid with semi-precious stones. Some 20,000 workers and master craftsmen laboured for 17 years to erect this magnificent edifice.


How do the West and East India fare on Islamic architectural heritage?

In the west of India, in Gujarat, is the World Heritage Site of Champaner, of the 15th century. In the East, there is the impressive Nakhoda Masjid and several others in Kolkata. There are famous dargahs in Hajo and other places in Assam as well. There are fine mosques even in the farthest corners of India. In the North East of India, in Tripura’s Agartala, is the beautiful Gedu Mia Ki Masjid. In the mountainous state of Kashmir, Islamic architecture was influenced by ancient Hindu and Buddhist traditions. This was combined with influences from Persia and Turkistan. Wood, for instance, was used extensively in the mosques and tombs of Kashmir.


How challenging has it been to wander through the world in pursuit of photographic stories?

I don’t think it was difficult. If you wish to do something sincerely and keenly, you will go right ahead and just do it. Of course, to do good work requires a lot of effort. But that is the joy of it. Travelling the world is also a joy in itself. Of course, I have been to many places where I couldn’t speak the native language. In such situations, one has to somehow find ways to communicate. Looking back, those were the most enjoyable experiences.


Lastly, share some words of inspiration for young photographers.

Put in all the hard work you can. No hard work can ever be considered as wasted. If it does not bring an immediate result, or even an early result, I assure you it will certainly bring a good result later. Hard work is the thing to live for. Besides that, be kind to everyone. If you follow these two things, one day, the world will love you.





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