Kundal Mural Painting Technique in the Monuments of Uzbekistan

Issue #3 • 3182

Remarkable architectural heritage of Uzbekistan attracts large number of tourists, as well as overseas experts, for whom the country’s monuments represent an interesting object of research.  Skilled masters who built these masterpieces of global value used different methods and technologies, some of them unique.  Although much has been lost and forgotten, contemporary Uzbek usto masters, architects, scientists and restoration experts from different countries try to understand and revive ancient technology.

The present author, as part of her academic work at the university of applied science in Potsdam (Germany), studied murals performed in kundal technique: a kind of gilded relief painting (1).  The studies focused specifically on technological aspects.

On the territory of Uzbekistan several monuments with kundal-painted interiors have survived, or at least the remnants of the painting can be found.  These are buildings constructed between 1450 and 1650, most of them located in Samarqand and Bukhara. The paintings are in different state of preservation.  Some monuments have been recently restored or completely reconstructed, such as Ak-Sarai mausoleum in Samarqand, built around 1470.  In some buildings the mural painting has been relatively well preserved, although damaged; e.g. Balyand mosque (Bukhara, early XVI c.).  Others like the koran school Abdulaziz-khan in Bukhara (built around 1650) or the ruin of Ishrat-Khan mausoleum in Samarqand (1464) show only strongly damaged murals or fragmentary remains of it. We also know of buildings once decorated with kundal painting, which have not survived (e.g., Barak Khan Mausoleum in Tashkent) (2, p. 148-149).

The term kundal was introduced to the specialized academic literature in 1928 by the Russian painter I. K. Mroczkowski, one of the first scientists who studied interior ornamentation of the Temurid structures in Uzbekistan.  From Abdukadir Bakiev, the Samarqand master, Mroczkowski learned that the name “kundal” refers to the type of relief mural painting he found in the Ak-Sarai mausoleum; according to Bakiev, the word “kundal” means “roll” – similar to a bulge on a patterned brocade (3).

In fact the murals resemble a wall curtain of precious brocade with slightly raised ornament in gold thread on blue silk.  Apparently, creating semblance to brocade was the intention that resulted in the emergence of this technique.  Play of light and shade is the basic principle in the architectural ornamentation of Islamic art, which was also important for the kundal technique.  Light streaming into the room through the window lattice was reflected by curved gilded elements at different angles, making the room sparkle and shimmer.  (Fig. 1)

Kundal murals are characterized by picturesque design and usually a great variety of forms.  Ornamentation is predominantly vegetable, yet geometric shapes can also be found – medallions and cartouches create an interesting contrast with vegetable designs (Figure 2).  Epigraphic ornaments appear as belts or inscription-cartouches, often forming a single intertwined signature – zulz or qufi (geometric).

Vegetable designs are stylized.  One can find different forms of flowers and leaves, including lotus flowers, peonies, and chrysanthemums, in full bloom or in buds.  Floral motifs are often connected by shoots in the form of arabesques.  Ornamentation of the Abdulaziz-khan madrasah is noticeably influenced by Chinese art.

Kundal murals are dominated by gold and blue, with addition of white, red, green, purple and other colours for flowers and leaf tendrils.  Gilded and coloured ornaments are created in fine drawing with black outline. Unlike other Central Asian relief mural techniques, where relief is created with plaster or papier-mâché, the bulges in kundal are made of red clay called kyzyl-kessak (Fig. 3).  As a polyment in gilding technique common in Europe, kyzyl-kessak also functions as a primer for the coat of gold.  Kundal relief is a few millimeters high, and the height can vary substantially within one mural.  Besides, kundal paintings always have parts of gilded ornament, which are flat and show no bulging.  Thus, soffits and pendentives in the south-east gallery of the Ishrat-khan mausoleum are decorated with slightly raised ornaments, while gilded patterns on the vertical surfaces of walls are flat.  Apparently, it is impossible to clearly isolate kundal from other, flat, kinds of mural painting, which were used during the times of the Temurids and their successors.  Those other kinds also show kyzyl-kessak as a primer for gilding, but the primer was flat, rather than raised (Bibi-khanym mausoleum and mosque built around 1400 in Samarqand).

Detailed studies of paintings preserved in the south-east gallery and the main chamber of the Ishrat-khan mausoleum identified three different options/techniques of layering (A, B and C, Fig. 4, 5, 6):

Option A: Layering with white primer (layers are numbered from bottom to top)

Layer Description
0 Plaster (primer for painting)
1 White layer (primer, partially with pre-notching)
2 Partially applied black coat of paint (preliminary drawing for ornaments)
3 Red coat (ornaments, under-liner for gold, partly multi-layered and slightly raised)
4 Deep-red coat (adhesive layer for gilding)
5 Gold (on red ornaments)
6 Deep-blue paint (between golden ornaments)
7 Coat of deep-blue or other colours (ornaments on light-blue coat)
8 Black coat of paint (very thin, within drawing and outlining for the golden ornaments)


This layering sequence is found in the south-east gallery of the Ishrat-khan mausoleum on the soffits, pendentives and domes, as well as in the Balyand mosque paintings in Bukhara, and in the ornamentation of some other buildings.


Option B: Layering with white primer and a laminary coat of light-blue paint

Layer Description
0 Plaster (primer for painting)
1 White layer (primer)
2 Light-blue paint (laminary, layer between golden ornaments)
3 Partially applied deep-red coat of paint (fine preliminary drawing for ornaments)
4 Red coat (ornaments, under-liner for gold, partly multi-layered and slightly raised)
5 Deep-red coat (adhesive layer for gilding)
6 Gold (layer on red ornaments)
7 ? Black coat of paint (within drawing and outlining for golden ornaments)


This layering sequence is found in the south-east gallery of the Ishrat-khan mausoleum on concave moulds, inscription bands and frame moulding, as well as on vertical surfaces of the walls.  Poor condition of the murals makes it impossible to accurately determine whether the gilded ornaments had black outlining.  In some places the light-blue coat bears fine pre-drawing lines in deep-red colour.


Option C: Layering without white primer

Layer Description
0 Plaster (primer for painting)
1 Partially applied black coat of paint (preliminary drawing for the ornaments)
2 Red coat (under-liner for gold; partly multi-layered and slightly raised in ornaments)
3 Deep-red coat (adhesive layer for gilding)
4 Gold (layer)
5 Light-blue paint (layer on flat surfaces)
6 Partially applied white, red, green and other paints (layer of coloured ornaments)
7 Black coat of paint (within drawing and outlining for golden ornaments)


Option C is found in most of the preserved paintings in the main chamber of the Ishrat-khan mausoleum, as well as in three original painting fragments from the Ak-Sarai mausoleum kept in the Samarqand Museum of Culture and Art History.

The main distinction between the three options is the starting white layer applied over the plaster to serve as a painting primer.  This primer is found in options A and B, whereas in option C the red layer is applied directly on the plaster.  Options A and B can be distinguished by the time when light-blue background paint was applied.  In option A, it was applied only towards the end, after the raised ornaments had been gilded, while in Option B the light-blue coat was applied immediately after the white primer that covered the entire surface.

As primer for kundal paintings the masters used gypsum plaster (ganch) that often contained additions of a very fine sand and clay.  The white primer is a layer of gypsum applied in a thin, even coating.  It is probable that they added a substance that delayed plaster gripping (it could be a vegetable protein ​​or mucilage glue), which enabled its application in a thin layer.

Ornaments were partially created by preliminary drawing or notching on plaster or gypsum primer.  It is assumed that only the main elements of ornamental compositions were pre-designed and transferred to the finished plaster, while other elements (mostly smaller shapes, such as “stalactite” cells ornaments) were created arbitrarily, by free hand and by sight.  Some paintings reveal that the kyzyl-kessak red primer was applied in many layers on raised parts.  The highest relief was observed in paintings in the Balyand and Khoja Zainuddin mosques (first half of the XVI c.).  Here the bulges can reach 7-8 mm (Fig. 7).   Kyzyl-kessak is a red ocher containing iron and silicates.  It is still mined today in several places; for instance, in the vicinity of Gijduvan town (Bukhara Province).  Despite the fact that kyzyl-kessak is sometimes applied rather thickly, primer cracks were found in only few paintings.  A sample taken from the “stalactite” painting in the Ishrat-khan mausoleum’s main chamber and studied under a microscope revealed an extra layer of red paint between the red primer and a coat of green paint (of the ornaments).  Instrumental element analysis of the red pigment identified lead, thus it is red-lead paint.  In all paintings, above the kyzyl-kessak primer surface one can see a thin deep-red layer. Usually it is present in polygonal shapes and resembles a piece of gold leaf.  This layer probably glues the gold leaf, functioning as a binding medium.  Literature on the subject also mentions honey and mucilage (4, pp. 29, 517).

A layer of gold is applied on the painting areas pre-treated by kyzyl-kessak and covered with a layer of deep-red (Fig. 8).  According to some authors, kundal painters used gold leaf, as well as gold paint (ground gold leaf with added cohesive) (5, p. 171).  In paintings studied by the present author, gold was often applied in little pieces, with primer showing in between.  This method of applying gold might have had economic reasons; anyway, this lent lightness to gilding that better integrated visually with colour-painted areas of the composition.  One can also see that on small sections the red primer gives a warmer tone to the gilding.  Micro-sliced samples from the Ishrat-khan mausoleum and Shir-Dor madrasah show a thin layer of gold, probably in leaf form (Fig. 6).  Instrumental tests of samples from the Ishrat-khan mausoleum identified the presence of gold.  No other metals in significant quantity were found, indicating that gold was used in pure form, without being mixed with other metals.

Contours of gilded bulging ornaments are painted with thin black outline and within drawing – to prove the master’s quick and confident brush work (Fig. 8 and 9).  This outline was used to draw the shapes of golden ornaments, to highlight and detail flowers and other elements of the composition, as well as to enhance contrast between golden ornament and a deep-blue background.  Flat areas in a kundal mural were often painted in blue.  Often this layer goes over a white primer, as in the south-east gallery of the Ishrat-khan mausoleum or the chambers of the Abdulaziz-khan madrasah.  It is also found over the layer of kyzyl-kessak, as in the borderline of the Ishrat-khan mausoleum’s main chamber, or in some places in the Shir-Dor madrasah classroom (darskhana).  Literature usually mentions lapis lazuli as a light- and deep-blue pigment (6, pp. 29, 105).  Presumably, the blue mineral (lazurite) for the pigment came from Badakhshan area on the territory of the present-day Afghanistan – the place is still known for its lazurite mines.  The blue lapis lazuli pigment was also known for a long time before Temur and used in the murals of Afrasiab ancient settlement site in Samarqand (VI-VII cc.) (7, p. 17).  To lighten a blue tone, masters added white pigment (gypsum, for example).  Microscopic studies of the cross-sections of samples from the Ishrat-khan and Shir-Dor mausoleums reveal relatively large blue pigment grains of different size and brightness – a sign of natural mineral (Fig. 10).  Instrumental test of these samples identified lapis lazuli (lazurite).

As binding medium for different layers of paint in a kundal mural (as well as in other kinds of wall painting), literature refers to mucilage, or, more precisely, chereshe – glue that belongs to resins extracted from the root of Eremurus Spectabilis of the lily genus, according to A. V. Vinner (8, pp. 493, 518).  Egg yolk is also mentioned as a pigment binder (9, pp. 335, 518).

Kundal murals preserved in Uzbekistan until today create the experience of divinity in the shrines they adorn; these artful ornamental compositions in harmonious colours are the evidence of remarkable skill of their authors.  For these works of art masters used local, often precious, materials that cannot be replaced by other (modern) materials without largely falsifying the original.  It is also difficult to comprehend and learn the technique of ancient masters for making and using materials – an art refined over centuries, and, unfortunately, almost completely lost today.  Therefore, it is particularly important to protect the surviving kundal murals, however damaged, as they provide a unique evidence of mastery and great cultural attainments in the history of Uzbekistan.


1. Kleinmann, Pamela (2011): Die Wandmalereitechnik «Kundal» in Usbekistan (“Kundal” mural painting technique in Uzbekistan), Fachhochschule Potsdam, Fachbereich Bauingenieurwesen, Studiengang Bauforschung (unpublished master thesis).

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