Life is a poetic super-imposition of patterns and as Chuck Palahniuk puts it, ‘there are only patterns, patterns on top of patterns, patterns that affect other patterns. Patterns hidden by patterns. Patterns within patterns’. The sonnet of jaalis, as I choose to put it, is all too obvious in the known and relatively unknown architectural gems spread all over Agra. A few days back when the Tourism Guild of Agra invited me to a Conclave of Travel Writers and Bloggers, the trip gave me an opportunity to get to understand the way the jali or jaali has entered our architectural ecosystem and has stayed on to be an intrinsic part of our heritage.
Let us admit that most tourists who visit Agra have just about enough time for the Taj Mahal which anyway is on everyone’s ‘must-visit’ list. However, there is lot to be seen, admired, and to fall in love with in the city… and there is so much beyond the Taj and the Fort that any visit to the city can be complete only once the heart has had its fill of the colonial buildings, the Mughal gardens, life in the old city, the food trails, the art of marble and red-stone inlay work, and way the city authorities have stepped forward to embrace conservation to usher in sustainability. There is poetry in all the facets that I have listed but being with the jaalis of Agra comes nearest to what poetry in stone could ever mean.
A short dip into the world of jaalis
Tombs, forts, schools, colleges, old churches, colonial houses, offices, post office… this city has jaalis almost everywhere. Even boundary walls reflect this fascination. The surprising fact, however, is that not many tourists talk about jaalis and this could be because not many people know them well enough. A jaali, let me add here, is as vital to Indo-Islamic architecture as calligraphy is. This is because a mere latticed screen or some perforated stone structure displaying an ornamental pattern openly owing allegiance to calligraphic and geometrical influences is still only short paragraph in the history of architecture, if you want to learn more about architecture and design you should visit sites like Archute.com. This short paragraph is also the heart and soul of the poetry in stone that has been nourished and nurtured painstakingly in Agra.
A jaali isn’t a mere ornamental accessory added to beautify a structure. Yes, they do act as a sort of cover for windows and are then called jharoka behind which the ladies sat in privacy to watch what was happening beyond without being observed. One of the researchers on this architectural aspect mentions in ‘Reflections of India’ that ‘by breaking a window’s total aperture into tiny openings the jali acts as an overhang. If the openings are the same size as the materials thickness it acts as a louver, protective of glare and direct sunlight’. As I stood behind one jali after another, I realized that it does catch the flowing waves of breeze to usher in a cool ambience that lifts the soul and makes it wander into the poetry of its creators. To tell you the truth I have seen and fallen in love with jaalis even earlier and have listened to the romantic hums of these flirtations in geometrical rhymes in mosques and even old houses in Ahmedabad… but never have I seen them proliferate in so much abundance than the city of Agra.
These patterns aren’t just about some kind of a line of control but add an extra dimension to the elements of light and air circulation. An architect friend once told me that these were the smart adaptations that compete effectively with even modern day technologies. Imagine the collective soulful euphoria that was spread all over when this wizardry was imported sometime between 1526 and 1761. There are experts who tell us that the jali in a rather basic way existed even in the 8th century and can be seen in Kailasa temple in Ellora and the Pattadakal temple complex in Karnataka.
One can see the finest examples of jaali work inside the Taj and according to the experts this work is called Parchinkari as these have inlay work done on them. It will be fun for tourists to go around all the monuments and colonial buildings of Agra and try and see how many types of jali work they can discover. Can they distinguish between crenulations, kanguras, acanthus leaves, and vase-shapes or do they see only hexagons everywhere. Discovering the secrets of jaalis in Agra is almost like reading a thriller by Dan Brown. I’m sure there are interesting stories around each form of jaali-design.
Does technology explain a jaali?
Yes, technology does have an explanation to why the jaali was a popular architectural inclusion. According to these experts the laws of physics effectively transform them into sustainable air-conditioners. We all know that Bernoulli’s principle talks about the changes in speed and pressure along a single path of flow and this is what a jaali does effectively – it acts like a funnel and converts even a slight movement of air outside into funneled speed. A Bangalore Mirror article states that ‘Jaalis create a Venturi effect – the reduction in fluid pressure that results when wind flows through a constricted section of pipe. The Jaali works on the principle of contraction of hot air while passing through the small holes of the Jaali, which comes out in the form of cool air.’ Thus these two laws of physics create for jaali-lovers what a poet may choose to call a zephyr!
While we are on the scientific profile of a jaali let me also add here that it isn’t just marble and red-stone that is used to make them. There are instances where mud, wood, brick, metal, and even cement can be used. The designs may not be as intricate and the inlay work may be missing when some of these elements are used, but then there are always stars, honeycombs, and basic flower motifs that can be adapted.
The jaali is a poem, a story, and a story-teller
Every time I look at a jaali I see the world on the other side and wonder at the number of stories that walk, jog, and fly across my vision. As Michael Shermer wrote, we are ‘pattern-seeking, story-telling animals, and we are quite adept at telling stories’… and the jaali makes it all so much easier. It is invariably worth paying attention to the intricate patterns surrounding us because it is from them that the future creates history.
Thanks also to INTACH and UP Tourism for bringing the fascinating world of jaalis whisper its secrets to me through this trip.
This article is first published in The Education Post – February 2020
Written on 05 March 2020