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The roots and connections of Tile Art in India and Spain

Azulejos in the Institute Menezes Braganza-tile art

The art of tiles and ceramics has always been an eye-catching and integral part of ancient architecture across most cultures. The journey of this elegant art form, tile art, is a long one, and understanding how cultures influence art, opens our minds to a variety of nuances of our own history. Let’s explore the origins and journey of tile art across nations.

The journey of Tile Art

Often overlooked or passed by, tile art as a technique is one that probably doesn’t receive the much-deserving attention from an average traveller, as it should. Passing by the ancient Mughal tombs of the Sultanate period in Delhi or the Moorish architectures of Al Andalus, tile art is a dominant ambient decor that defines the aesthetic of such ancient structures, and because of its intricacies and details, creates a whole world of design to be lost in.

Each country has experienced tile art or ceramics through the centuries, as it has travelled through the globe, changing and evolving as it goes. The similarity between the tile art of the Hispanic-Portuguese lineage and the ones in India is something that many must wonder about, as the colours, designs and patterns are fairly homogeneous and sometimes a layman couldn’t tell one from another, if asked. The connections between these cultures is portrayed in many aspects of language and traditions, but visually, drawing parallels between the two is evidently possible with the tile art of both the regions.

The Early History of Tile Art

Before we explore the Hispanic and Indian techniques of tile art, let’s take the journey from the very beginning. Now, many things we know in this day and age have all come out of some of the most ancient civilizations, tile art being one of them. The earliest use of tile art is seen in one of the oldest lands, which is none other than Egypt. The first tiles can be traced back to the time of the mighty Pyramids, around 3,000 B.C. It flourished in the regions of Mesopotamia, Persia, Syria and neighbouring lands for many years and moved its way to the West, where ancient Romans and Greeks snapped it up as one of the principal forms of decor and utility in their infrastructures. Terracotta and Mosaic art was the early onset of the techniques used in tile art, at the time.

Tile Art becoming a staple in various cultures

Tile art
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Things started changing when China stepped into the ceramics game, and introduced the techniques of porcelain making and glazing. It dominated many forms of ceramic art, including tile art, circa 200 – 300 B.C. Since then, tile art has made its way through the Silk Route and eventually found its way to India. It has seen the lands of the Afghans and Uzbeks, the Turks and the Iranians. This art form has picked up the peculiarities of each culture and carried it in its delicate and pleasing designs and stories depicted through it. The language of art of each region is defined carefully in colours and flowers and imprints.  

The journey of course didn’t end there, and continued back through the Middle East, Turkey, Morocco and the Mediterranean. The close relationship between the neighbouring lands of Morocco, Portugal and Spain, undoubtedly made tile art a part of that culture, and it spoke the Portuguese and Spanish languages of blue and white known as Azulejo. Azulejo is a Portuguese and Spanish style of tile work, usually blue and white in colour, depicting various stories, events, and happenings, all with beautiful ornamental florals along the designs. It became a very integral part of the architecture in Spain and Portugal and can be seen in Churches, homes, public spaces and more. The word Azulejo is derived from Arabic – Al Zillij, meaning polished stone. 

The influence of Tile Art on Spain and Portugal

The South of Spain, i.e. – The Andalusian region had a big appetite for tile art, through the Moorish perspective. The designs seen in the Alhambra in Granada and the Mezquita in Cordoba are some examples of the Islamic influences on the tiles in these grand Moorish structures, circa 13th century. The mosaic tile technique used in Alhambra, Spain is also referred to as alicatado, a Spanish word deriving from the Arabic verb qata’a meaning “to cut”. The tiles witnessed here are heavily studded with an abundance of colours and patterns. The geometric nature is a key takeaway from this style of tile art, which is quite a symbolic Islamic note of unity and order. The walls are accompanied by inscriptions of Arabic script, carved into the tiles, known to be poetry and verses from the Holy Quran. 

The influence of tile art on India:

Very similar Islamic tile art is also found in various parts of India. One cannot deny the similarities seen between the tile art of Andaluz and North India. The influences of it being in the Islamic roots, the Turks and the Byzantine empires enjoyed flaunting their palaces and places of worship with these bewitching pieces of stone, glass, mirror and earth, laced together to form glorious passageways, halls and courtrooms.

The Sheesh Gumbad at the Lodi Gardens in Delhi or the majestic Verandahs of Chandra Mahal in Jaipur, all boast of a strong juxtaposition of tile art on their walls and floors and make India a very photogenic land. Many ancient tombs, palaces, mandirs (temples), mosques and city halls were adorned with this form of durable art that still shines through the wear and tear of time. The rulers at the time, amongst the few, Shahjahan, Jahangir and Akbar commissioned some glorious structures, seen in the regions of Agra, Lahore and Sindh, that attract a global audience till date and will continue to do so for times to come.

The similarities and connections between the 2 lands

Another route that tile art voyaged through to India, was from the Portuguese and the French, who found comfort in the warmth and the coasts of the southern part of India, dominantly in Goa and Pondicherry. The tile art seen in Goa is a heavy representation of the Portugal colonies that resided there and the Spanish-Portuguese Azulejo technique is seen more evidently in its architectural influences. The streets of the Fontainhas neighbourhood in Panaji, Goa, sing loudly of its colonised structures with tiles from the times, welcoming at the doorsteps of traditional Goan – Portuguese houses.

Distance might make us different, but in the end we are all connected, through land, water, trade and more. The world might seem alien or new on the other side, but history has taught us how there are roots of one in another part of the world, big or small, but some things that keep us united. Exploring the art of tiles has been one such example and insight into the million connections we have with the world at large. Celebrating the similarities and unique traits of our arts and crafts brings us together and makes us grow.

If you’re interested in learning traditional Indian art, download the Rooftop app from Google Play or the App Store and check out our latest courses and workshops. Stay tuned to Rooftop blogs and follow us on Instagram @rooftop_app to immerse yourself in the rich cultural heritage of Indian art.

Written by Akshita Monga, a multidisciplinary artist based in Barcelona, Spain who specialises in oil painting and digital art.

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