Qalam, Khushkhati, Qalamdan and Calligraphy

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Qalam – the symbol of wisdom, that emphasises on knowledge and education – from which flows the divine art of calligraphy

“A solitary tear suspended on the cheek of time” is how the poet laureate Rabindra Nath Tagore had described the Taj Mahal. As a matter of fact, so much has been written about the Taj, by so many, spread over so many years, that there is precious little that can be added. But this is not about the external beauty of the Taj, neither is this about the love of an Emperor for his beloved, or the architectural wonder that it is. This is about what is inside, the cenotaphs!


Almost everybody is aware of the fact that the Taj was built as a mausoleum – the final, earthly resting place of Mumtaz Mahal. What is often overlooked is the fact that it also houses the tomb of the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, who is credited to have had this marble paean of love built for eternity and it is to his cenotaph that we will look towards. For, on the cenotaph is a pen box, a qalamdan.

Scholars have tried to decipher the significance of the pen box on the cenotaph of the Emperor since time immemorial and many allude to the mystical implication of its presence, going so far as to suggest that it refers to the “Qalam” – the divine pen. As a matter of fact, many have also advocated the idea that the cenotaph of Shah Jahan is in fact a symbolic replica of the Pen; together with the cenotaph of Mumtaz Mahal, replete with the Takhti being the guarded tablet, alluding to the process of Divine emanation.

According to such scholars, it is reminiscent of God’s writing His decrees with the pen of first intelligence (al-‘Aql al-Awwal) upon the tablet of the universal soul (an-Nafs  al-Kulliya).


In fact, though the placement of raised structure in the middle of some cenotaphs, popularly called Qalam and a flat structure called Takhti in some others, are fairly common, they are generally so-placed and have come to denote the resting places of male and females.

The significance of the Qalam and the Qalamdan on the cenotaph is much more profound, if one were to view things in the context of the belief that the first thing that God created was the pen. And it is the symbolic placement of the qalamdan, scholars have pointed out, that elevates the Taj way beyond the narrow western interpretation of it being an emperor’s gift, however beautifully cast in stone, to immortalise his beloved.

The search for knowledge and its umbilical attachment with the Qalam was what had elevated calligraphy to the hights it had attained in Islamic art and culture. As a matter of fact, many centuries before the Taj Mahal (built between 1631 and 1648) was even conceived, the Umayyad and the Abbasid Caliphs were known to have ushered in golden ages, where knowledge was pursued with a rare vengeance, when the Qalam ruled supreme.


And it is at this juncture the story of the Qalam – the pen – takes a curious turn. The first recorded instance of a “fountain pen” – a Qalam, with self-contained ink comes from this time, when the Fatimid Caliph Al-Mu’izz Li-Din Allah of Egypt, tired of getting his robes and hands soiled, not to mention the continuous dipping of the pen into the inkwell, had ordered such a pen to be made. The year was in all probability 953 and the fact is mentioned in the Kitab el-Maljalis wa ‘l-musayarat by Qadl al-Nu’man al-Tamimi.

Legend has it that such a pen was indeed built for the Sultan – one that had its own reservoir of ink and would not spill it, even when the pen was held upside down. Neither did it soil the clothes or the hands of the user, releasing the ink only when it was written with. Unfortunately, the pen was devoured by time like so many other inventions of the past and only when the Western world rekindled its interest in ancient knowledge would it see Leonardo da Vinci construct and use a working fountain pen during the Renaissance. The reed, the quill and the dip pen would continue for many more years till the first patent for a fountain pen would be granted in France to the Romanian inventor Petrache Poenaru in 1827.


Note: all accompanying images are provided by Callithon – India’s most celebrated Calligraphy event. These images are of entries in the Arabic Calligraphy competition that was held last year. This year, the competition will be on English Calligraphy. For more information, visit:


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