In Sanchi, it is useful to note that the construction of the Toranas involved the voluntary labor and contributions of much of the citizenry. Voluntary participation in the construction and maintenance of temples in South India and in the Deccan region has also been recorded and quite likely occurred throughout India.
Yet, it would be an error to think that popular influences on Indian architecture were completely extinguished. In the Gangetic plain, folk influences continued to play a vital role in the decor of Havelis and village homes; traditions like Rangolialso continued. In the regional courts, folk influences played an important role not only in the fine arts, but also in royal furniture and architectural decor. Folk influences also found their way in some of the smaller mosques and Sufi shrines which were painted with floral motifs in folkish style.
The change in ethos was reflected most in prominent urban landmarks, in the architecture of city gateways and inns for the nobility, and in the design of royal mosques and tombs. But, it would be incorrect to consider India's Islamic architecture as an entirely foreign implant as some art historians (both in the West and in India) are inclined to do. As we shall see, traditional Indian tastes and influences played an important role in shaping the most vibrant monuments commissioned by India's Islamic rulers.
Some art historians have routinely treated Indian art and architecture of the Islamic period as a regional derivative of Persian art and architecture - almost a poor cousin of the grand Persian Islamic tradition. Western biases and an admiration of all things Persian amongst sections of the Urdu speaking Indian intelligentsia have combined to spread the myth that all great Islamic art originated in Persia and the quality of art and architecture sponsored by India's Islamic rulers must be judged by how closely it came to meeting Persian ideals. That many of India's Islamic rulers employed Persian artists in their ateliers and Persian poets and writers found favor in the royal courts cannot be denied. But this obsession with connecting all things Islamic in India to Persia has not only led to an extremely selective and distorted analysis of the Islamic legacy in India, it has been based on a rather superficial examination of the Islamic legacy. Not only have art historians often failed to distinguish between what came from Persia from elsewhere, such as Afghanistan, Iraq or Central Asia - it has led to the virtual neglect of those aspects of the Islamic legacy in India where the predominant influences have been almost entirely from within the subcontinent. (Art historians have also failed to investigate the possibility of Indian influences impacting Persian tastes and sensibilities as was quite likely during the reigns of Jehangir and Shah Jehan).
Many art historians who attempt to analyze "Islamic" art in India seem to forget that the Islamic faith was born in a rather barren land without a history or tradition of support for the fine arts. (Although some argue that the Arabian peninsula had a rich tradition of terra-cotta sculpture that vanished with the iconoclastic ascent of Islam.) In any case, in terms of architecture, prior to the ascendance of Islam in the Middle East, one could speak of monumental Egyptian, Persian or Babylonian architecture, but certainly not Meccan architecture. As Islam spread, it was obliged to borrow and adapt from the older traditions that already existed in the lands it conquered. For instance, the Islamic monuments of Syria and Palestine have a remarkable resemblance to Byzantine architecture of earlier centuries with the important exception that all portraiture is avoided. Although vegetal motifs are employed with exuberance in the 7th-8th C Umayyad architecture in Syria and Palestine, later Islamic architecture, especially from Central Asia relied almost exclusively on abstract figuration.
Outside India proper, architecture in the Islamic courts continues to make progress, culminating in the the construction of the overwhelmingly grand monuments of the Timurids in Herat, Samarkand and Bukhara (14th-15th C and onwards). Although the Timurids wreaked considerable havoc on their immediate neighbours and raided and plundered lands as far West as in Eastern Europe, the Timurids were not wedded to Islamic orthodoxy and continued the Samanid tradition of promoting the arts and learning. Samarkand and Bukhara emerged as the most important urban centers of the medieval world where study in astronomy and mathematics was encouraged and poetry and art received royal support. But above all, it was in their sponsorship of monumental architecture where the Timurid rulers excelled. Awe-inspiring monuments with tile work in dazzling green, blue and turquoise rose from the Afghan and Central Asian deserts and these rich urban centers became the models for cities throughout the Middle East. Brilliant regional variants sprang up throughout Afghanistan, Persia and Iraq. However, there were serious obstacles to the import of this new and brilliant architectural style into India.
As self-conscious outsiders, and with a rather tenuous hold on power in a largely non-Islamic land, it was probably difficult for India's Islamic invaders to commission monuments that could have matched the power and grandeur of the monuments in lands where Islam had triumphed completely and concerns of legitimacy had been adequately settled. The Lodhis and the early Mughals could only bring a modest and rather restrained version of the Central Asian style to India.
In Multan, Ucch Sharif, and Dera Ghazi Khan (all in Western Punjab) where a majority of the population had been converted to Islam, tombs built in honour of Sufi saints displayed an expressive originality even as they imbibed influences from Central Asia. But beyond Punjab, the impact was fairly limited, and some of the greatest Islamic monuments of the sub-continent show little if any trace of foreign influence.
In Ahmedabad and Champaner, symbolic motifs that had been in use for centuries in Jain and Hindu monuments were employed with abandon and became the very focus of both the internal and external decorative space of the typical mosque or tomb. The Chakra, the Padma, the Purnakalasa, the Kalpavriksha, the Kalpalata and the Jain 'lamp of knowledge' became vital centerpieces of the monuments of the Gujarat Sultanate.
Although geometrical decoration is a common feature of all Islamic architecture, the Indian Jaali developed some original features by combining motifs considered auspicious in the Hindu tradition with arabesques and geometrical designs. Lace like Jaalis distinguish the Sharqi monuments of Jaunpur and the Chunar monuments commissioned by Sher Shah Suri.
In the Deccan, architectural forms were sometimes inspired by nature. The Hyderabad monuments stand out for their use of pineapple-like domes and minarets, and columns modelled on palm trees. In many ways, these monuments are more interesting than the more renowned Mughal monuments. While the best of the Mughal monuments stand out for their balance of form, technical virtuosity and the luxuriant use of marble, semi-precious stones and gilt - critics find some Mughal architecture to be excessively formal, and a bit too reliant on architectural clichés.
Nevertheless, the Mughal era monuments of Punjab stand out in some ways. In Nakoddar (near Jullundhur) there are two tombs with brilliant polychrome decorations, unusual not only for their tile-work but also because they were dedicated to a scholar and a court musician, not royal personages. One, (also known as the Baghdadi owing to it's imitation of a style popularized in Baghdad) effectively employs geometric arabesques in yellow, green and blue tile set off against a brick background, while the other makes liberal use of the Purnakalasa motif , but with an ingenious innovation: the Purnakalasa motif appears in a rainbow of colored tiles. To the uninformed this may appear as a Persian transplant since floral motifs were also used in Persian architecture, but the Purnakalasa motif had come into frequent use during the reign of Akbar (before floral motifs came to be widely employed in the Persian tombs) and the Nakoddar tomb was more likely a natural evolution of the Mughal style popularized by Akbar. Later tombs in Lahore appear to effectively replicate this style.
However, Mughal architecture took a on decisively conservative tone during the reign of Aurangzeb. With the exception of the Qutab Shahis who turned Hyderabad into a grand and glorious city in the 17th C, and the Awadh nawabs who made Lucknow famous in the 18th-19th C, the last phase of the Islamic chapter in India gradually faded into oblivion.
This was in stark contrast to trends in Persia, where the Safavids continued to build on the achievements of the 16th C until well into the 17th and 18th C when the Safavid capital of Isfahan acquired the reputation of being one of the world's most handsome cities. Whereas Aurangzeb's reign in the subcontinent was marred by tremendous political strife and social upheaval, Safavid Iran enjoyed relative peace and prosperity, causing India's Persian/Urdu-speaking intellectuals and cultural elite to look to Persia for cultural affirmation and inspiration.