Indian architectural history

6 Jul

Indian architecture

Architectural history

Indian architecture encompasses a wide variety of geographically and historically spread structures, and was transformed by the history of the Indian subcontinent. The result is an evolving range of architectural production that, although it is difficult to identify a single representative style, none the less retains a certain amount of continuity across history. The diversity of Indian culture is represented in its architecture. It is a blend of ancient and varied native traditions, with building types, forms and technologies from West and Central Asia, as well as Europe.

Studies of Indian architecture normally begin with the Indus Valley Civilisation, moving through the late Vedic period, the Maurya-Gupta age of Buddhist monuments, monasteries and rock cut architecture, followed by the great temple-building of the medieval era. Turk and Afghan rulers in the north in medieval times brought with them West Asian traditions of the arch, the dome and the vault. The rise of the Mughal Empire in the 16th century established a sophisticated synthesis of Indian regional elements with ideas from Persia and West Asia, a pan-Indian style that was adopted across the subcontinent even by post-Mughal rulers and recognised today as Mughal architecture. The subsequent European colonization of India paved the way for the entry of styles from that continent, including Mannerist, Baroque, Neo-Classical and Neo-Gothic styles, which were followed in the late 19th century by the hybrid Indo-European style called the Indo-Saracenic.

Indian architecture has influenced the world, especially eastern Asia, due to the spread of ideas with Buddhism. A number of Indian architectural features such as the stupa (temple mound), sikhara (temple spire), pagoda (temple tower), torana (and temple gate), have become famous symbols of Hindu culture, used extensively in East Asia and South East Asia. The variant gopuram (southern temple gate) is noted for its intricacy and majesty. The arch, a cornerstone of world architecture, was first developed by the Indus Valley civilization, and would later be a staple of Indian architecture. Indian style Hindu and Buddhist temples were contructed abroad in ancient times, with especially noteworthy uses of Indian style in Cambodia’s Angkor Wat, and Java’s Prambanan.

Indus Valley civilisation, the Vedic Village and the rise of Buddhist monuments
The earliest civilisation in India was the Indus Valley Civilization, comprising many urban settlements, including the large cities of Harrappa and Mohenjo Daro, and characterised by a variety of house types, many of which had private baths connected to public drainage systems. The cities consisted of a citadel raised above residential and production districts with streets laid out in a grid plan and lined by drains. The citadel was intended to contain the most important buildings, including the grainaries and trading depots, and in the case of Mohenjo Daro, the Great Bath, widely believed to be a fertility shrine. The uniformity in urban layouts, house typologies and sizes as well as construction methods of the standard kiln-fired bricks, is evidence of significant social and political co-ordination.

Many of the late Vedic texts speak of purs (forts or citadels) made of stone and metal. The Vedas have a number of words houses including chhardis (a house with a thatched roof), harmyam (a house of brick and stone that had a courtyard in the middle), and gotra (a multi-dwelling complex with sheds for animals). The Rig-Veda speaks of a palace with 1000 doors, and also of one with 1000 columns.

Viharas (Buddhist monasteries) began to appear soon after the death of the Buddha particularly in the Mauryan Empire with charachteristic stupa monuments, and chaityas (meditation halls containing a stupa). The same period saw the beginning of stone architecture, evidenced by palace remains at Pataliputra as well as the Ashoka Stambha, or the monolithic free-standing columns inscribed with his edicts put up by the Emperor Ashoka. Their forms, spaces and designs, were to leave an indelible mark on the future architecture of the subcontinent. The Ashokan time is also remarkable for the introduction of rock-cut architecture, the 1000-year-long tradition of cutting vast, complex and multi-roomed shrines — Ajivika, Buddhist, Hindu and Jain — into the living rock. The practise is supposed to have originated in Egypt and appeared in India for the first time in the Barabar caves given by Ashoka to the Ajivika sect.

Quite a few Buddhist and Jain monasteries and shrines are said to have been destroyed in the early and middle medieval era, for exmple, by the Chola rulers in the south, the followers of Shankaracharya in the north, and then the Turks and Afghans.

Hindu architecture

Under the influence of the Vedas in India, Hindu art and architecture rose in South Asia. The ruins of Aihole and Pattadakal are the earliest known traces of Hindu temples, also known as mandirs in today’s Hindi. The reference to Hindu temples in literature goes back to 5th century B.C. when Hindu scholars Panini (520 BC – 460 BC) and Patanjali described the elaborate architectural designs of the Vedic/Hindu temples. Later, with increasing architectural differentiation, the southern Dravida and the northern Nagara styles emerged as dominant modes of temple architecture, differring mainly in the shape of the roofing structure, the former being a stepped pyramid while the latter has a curved profile, epitomised in productions such as the magnificent Brihadeeswara Temple, Thanjavur, and the Sun Temple, Konark. Buddhist elements and motifs continue to influence Hindu temple architecture to a considerable extent to this day. Along with the dominant Dravida and Nagara, there arose a number of regional styles of temples in places like Bengal, Kashmir and Kerala.

Many of the Hindu temples during the early medieval era were rock-cut. The Kailasanatha temple at Ellora was excavated from top to bottom out of a massive rock face.

The structural system of temples was essentially trabeated and with massive blocks of stone being the basic raw material for the Indian craftsman, construction could be carried out with minimal or no mortar. Decoration was fundamental to Indian architecture and is seen in the often intricate detail of figured sculpture as well as in the architectural elements. The concept of fractals has been used to examine the form of the Hindu temple, both in terms of its planning and external appearance.

Icons and sculptures of Hindu gods and godesses are an essential design feature of most of the temples in southern India. Shown here is the famous Meenakshi temple in Tamil Nadu.The garba-griha or the womb chamber forms the central focus housing the deity of the temple and is provided with a circumambulation passage around. There are also, however, many subsidiary shrines within temple complexes, particularly in the South Indian (Dravidian) style temples. As the Hindu temple is not intended for congregational worship, the garba-griha is small in scale when compared to the whole temple complex. It is articulated externally, however, by the vimana (or sikhara), the towering roof-structure. Mandapas (multiple pillared halls) are found preceding the garba-griha.

The spatial experience of a South Indian temple complex is considered particularly enriching and meaningful. In many, such as the Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple at Srirangam, prakaras (concentric enclosures) along with the series of entrance gateways (gopurams), reduce in scale moving towards the garbha-griha, setting up a rhythm of solids and voids as well as providing a ritual and visual axis.

The principles of temple architecture were codified in treatises and canons such as Manasara, Mayamatam, and Vaastu Shastra. These offered an ordering framework yet allowed some latitude for contextual articulation.

List of notable Hindu temples outside India:

Angkor Wat in Cambodia
Hindu temples in Java and Bali, including Prambanan
Neasden Temple in United Kingdom
Swaminarayan temple, Chicago, USA

Buddhist and Jaina architecture

The Adinath temple in Ranakpur is one of the most beautiful Jain temples in India.
Buddhism gained prominence as mentioned above especially during the reign of the Emperor Ashoka. It is primarily represented by three important building types- the Chaitya Hall (meditation hall), the Vihara (dormitory) and the Stupa. The latter was a hemispherical mound modelled on ancient funerary mounds, surrounded by a stone fence known as the vedika, and topped by a smaller enclosure, the harmika, containing the casket for the relics of the Buddha; it was intended to be a meditational focus. Numerous fine examples of stupas can be found at Sanchi and Sarnath.

This is also the time of the rock-cut monastic foundations, many in today’s state of Maharashtra, and exemplified by the magnificent rock-cut cave complexes of Ajanta and Ellora; usually comprising one, or several, chaitya halls containing a stupa fronted by a hall divided into a broad nave separated from two side aisles by a row of columns. Galleries for musicians were also sometimes provided. Chaitya halls were flanked by many viharas. Many of the caves are intricately sculpted and brilliantly coloured, perhaps intended to aide in trance maditation.

The Post-Mauryan period saw the development of two distinct styles of sculpture; the Mathura school, which was popularised under the succeeding Sunga Empire, and the Gandhara school which stemmed from the Indo-Greek Kingdom established in northwestern South Asia (Kabul Valley and Pakistani Punjab) and incorporating influences of Greek art and architecture. The division of Buddhism into Hinayana and Mahayana phases also influenced the nature of rock-cut art, the former being represented by artefacts used by the Buddha, and the latter by images of the Buddha. Bhattiprolu is well known for its Buddha stupa.

The Jaina temples of the medievial period by a richness of sculptural detail and material, especially in the Solanki temple style of Gujarat, that can be seen in the Dilwara Temples in Mt.Abu and Ananthanatha Swami Temple at Puliyarmala, outside Kalpetta.

The Rajput architecture
Rajput architecture was inspired partly by the existing Indic styles of architecture, and partly by interaction with the Persian and Islamic world, with a greater emphasis on arches, domes, and other Saracenic features.

South Indian Architecture
Ancient South Indian temple architecture does not use the northern Indian Persian, Rajastan and Jain styles. In south India four kingdoms ruled and stamped their influence on architecture:

The Pallavas ruled from AD (600-900) and their greatest constructed accomplishments are the single rock temples in Mahabalipuram and their capital Kanchipuram, now located in Tamilnadu.
The Chola kings ruled from AD (900-1150) and included Rajaraja Chola I and his son Rajendra Chola who built temples such as the Brihadeshvara Temple and Siva temple of Thanjavur.
The Hoysala kings ruled southern India from AD (1100-1350) and Hoysala architecture was reflected in Belur,Halebid and Sringeri which are now in Karnataka state.
The whole of south India was ruled by Vijayanagara kings AD (1359-1565), who built a number of temples and monuments in their style in Hampi, Vijayanagar and banks of river Tungabhadra. King Krishna Deva Raya built famous temples in South India in vijayanagara architecture style.

Influence of Islam and Mughal architecture

With the advent of Islam, Indian architecture was adapted to accomodate the traditions of the new religion, but it remained strongly Indian at its heart and character. Arches and domes began to be used, and the mosque began to form part of the landscape, adding to a new experience in form and space. The sahn (open courtyard) for congregational worship with the enclosing liwans (cloisters) and the sanctuary at the Western end offered a different architectural vocabulary. The fundamental difference being the Islamic prohibition on idolatry, thus a concentrated point of focus such as the garba-griha was unnecessary. However, the mihrab on the Western wall of the sanctuary articulating the Qibla (direction towards Mecca) offered a notional focus. With idolatry prohibited, adornment was largely surface decoration through the use of geometry, arabesque and calligraphy. Later, mosques began to be built with original style. The Jami mosque in Delhi is a representative example of an Indian mosque. Islamic architecture was also represented by distinct regional styles that drew inspiration from the local context.

The Taj Mahal, AgraMost of the Islamic buildings in India were built during the Mughal period, the architecture of which built on traditional Hindu architecture but incorporated Persian influences. Over time, Hindu and Islamic architecture produced a synthesis that is exemplified by the city of Fatehpur Sikri, and the Taj, renowned for its proportions, white marble, its intricate engravings, its minarets and its setting.

The most popular Islamic building type in India is the mausoleum (tomb) which evolved from the basic cube and hemisphere vocabulary of architectural early phases, into a more elaborate form during the Mughal period where multiple chambers were used, and tombs were set in gardens known as the char-bagh. The tomb chamber houses the cenotaph below which is the grave. Well known examples are the Gol Gumbaz, Bijapur and the Taj Mahal, Agra.

Secular architecture
Colonialist study of Indian architecture was largely focused on religious buildings, hence there is much scholarship in this area. In recent times, secular architecture of India is gaining more attention. Unique in their response to socio-cultural and geographic context are, for example, the cities of the desert region in the North such as Jaisalmer and Jodhpur, political centres such as Vijayanagara, Fatehpur Sikri and Shahjahanabad at Delhi, towns such as Srirangam in Tamil Nadu evolving around the temple as nucleus, the stepped wells of Gujarat, the wadas of Maharashtra, the pols of Ahmedabad, the havelis of northern towns, and the steep pitched roofs and timber structures of the warm, humid area of Kerala.

Architecture under the colonial rule

The Victoria Memorial in Kolkata is an example of Anglo-Indian architecture.
Though the Dutch, Portuguese and the French made substantial colonial forays into India, it was the British who had a lasting impact. The architecture of the colonial period varied from early attempts at creating authority through classical prototypes to the later approach of producing a supposedly more responsive image through what is now termed Indo-Saracenic architecture-a mixture of Hindu, Islamic and Western elements. Institutional, civic and utilitarian buildings such as post offices, railway stations, etc., were built in large numbers over the whole British India. Perhaps the most famous example is the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST) in Mumbai, originally named in honor of Queen Victoria. The creation of New Delhi in early 20th century with its broad tree lined roads and majestic buildings generated lots of debate on what should be an appropriate architecture for India.

Post-independence architecture of India
With the introduction of Modern Architecture into India and later with the achievement of Independence, the quest was more towards progress as a paradigm fuelled by Nehruvian visions towards which the planning of Chandigarh by Le Corbusier was considered. Later as new directions were sought in the West, in India there was a search for a more meaningful architecture rooted in the Indian context. Known as Critical Regionalism the direction is exemplified in the works of architects such as B.V. Doshi, Charles Correa, etc.,

The following monuments have been classified as UNESCO World Heritage Sites:

Agra Fort
Ajanta Caves
Great Living Chola temples
Buddhist Monuments at Sanchi
Churches and Convents of Goa
Elephanta Caves
Ellora Caves
Fatehpur Sikri
Group of Monuments at Hampi
Group of Monuments at Mahabalipuram
Group of Monuments at Pattadakal
Humayun’s Tomb, Delhi
Khajuraho Group of Monuments
Mahabodhi Temple Complex at Bodh Gaya
Qutub Minar and its Monuments, Delhi
Sun Temple, Konarak
Taj Mahal
Rock Shelters of Bhimbetka
Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (formerly Victoria Terminus)
Champaner-Pavagadh Archaeological Park
Mountain Railways of India


One Response to “Indian architectural history”

  1. Manu Srikumar July 7, 2009 at 3:01 am #

    Nice read. Thoroughly enjoyed it! Absolutely necessary information for a video blogger like who covers temples. I will try to spot some of the fine nuances from next time.


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