When you think of Indian Architecture, what comes to your mind? While some would associate it with the Taj Mahal, others might think of the Meenakshi Temple. It’s difficult to put a finger on a particular defining style, simply because there isn’t one! Indian architecture, in essence, is a blend of ancient and wide-ranging native traditions, with building types and technologies from several parts of Asia and Europe.
In this article, we present to you the most diverse forms of architecture, the unique stories behind them, and the cultures defining each of these styles that India inherits.
Artifacts dating back to as much as 500,000 years have been found in parts of the country, proving that Indian history is as old as the history of mankind itself. The architecture back then, however, was negligible, considering that most of mankind stayed in caves, their lives solely revolving around hunting and gathering while engaging in the occasional cave art and rock painting.
Fast-forwarding to around 3300 BC, the discovery of India’s first and earliest civilization posed a historical puzzle as it seemed to have suddenly appeared on the stage of history, fully grown and fully equipped. The transition between stone age cave dwellers to city dwellers has spanned over thousands of years, and it later came to be known that settlements of the Pre Harappan period belonged to various ages like the Mesolithic, Neolithic, and Chalcolithic but weren’t developed enough to be called civilizations.
The architecture of the Indus Valley civilization was quite advanced for its time. The settlement pattern here was greatly influenced by its geography and climate, and for the most part, people started settling around the rivers of the North owing to the arable land, resources, and regional trade routes. The constituent cities of Harappa, Mohenjo-Daro, and Lothal had characteristic one or two-story houses on either side of the roads, with rooms around a central courtyard. Their method of construction which included bricks in an interlocking pattern proved to be extremely robust and long-lasting.
It’s not surprising that the Indus Valley architecture has much outlived its occupants.
Historically, after the collapse of the Indus Valley Civilization (1900 BC), groups of Indo-Aryan people started inhabiting areas of Northwest India and thus began the Vedic Period. This age saw the rise of Hinduism and towards the end, urbanization in these kingdoms had begun, along with flourishing commerce and travel. Many local dynasties followed; however, the Maurya Dynasty was the first of them with a notable contribution to architecture.
Buddhist architecture is deep-rooted in Indian soil- the birthplace of the Buddha’s teachings. The rule of Emperor Ashoka opened gates not only for this new religion but also for new styles of architecture to promote it. Caves and rock-cut monasteries were the earliest forms of Buddhist architecture (specifically the Ajanta caves), quickly influencing and spreading to places like Tibet and China. The Sanchi Stupa, which is one of the most well-preserved sites, like other stupas, is a dome-shaped monument that houses Buddhist relics as well as a full range of Buddhist sculptures and art. His passion and deep influence on architecture allowed Ashoka to stand out, and be remembered as one of the most powerful rulers in the history of this massive subcontinent.
The Gupta period is considered a golden age of artistic accomplishment and was the first to witness Hindu temples built from the earlier tradition of rock-cut shrines. Adorned with elaborate carvings and sculptures, these temples were often dedicated to the Hindu gods. The influence of Gupta and Post Gupta-era buildings on later Indian temple architecture in other parts of the country is immense and is seen throughout the medieval period.
Parts of Central India at the time were ruled under the Chandella Dynasty which was also well known for its art and architecture. They commissioned several temples, water bodies, palaces, and forts and the most famous example of their cultural achievements are the Hindu and Jain temples at Khajuraho.
Moving further down south, the foundations of the Chola kingdom were laid in Thanjavur, and thus continued the legacy of Hindu temples. Chola temple architecture has been appreciated for its magnificence and delicate workmanship and contributions to Dravidian Temple design, following the rich traditions of the past bestowed upon them by the Pallava Dynasty.
Temple architecture of supreme quality developed in almost all regions of ancient India. The variation in the styles however was a result of geographical, climatic, historical, linguistic, and ethnic diversities. Three main styles of temple architecture were the Nagara or the Northern style, the Dravida or the Southern style, and the Vesara or Mixed style, along with regional styles of Bengal, Kerala, and the Himalayan areas, and are often distinguished based on features like the shikhara or gateways. Despite their diversity, however, what binds these temples is the belief that the essence of a Hindu temple is developed from the ideology that all things are one and that each element is in harmony with the others.
So, what came after temples? Find out in Part 2 of ‘History of Indian Architecture’. Stay tuned!