India’s architectural story is a story of evolution beginning from the early civilisations, through the British period, until today’s contemporary styles. Each period’s architecture is characterized by its own narrative and distinct features which, stand as places of historical importance put together, even now. The rise and fall of the great empires on Indian soil, interspersed with multiple foreign invasions contributed to the gradual fusion of different styles and cultures. 

Architectural forms along with the then art and craft remains are significant sources of evidence for tracing people’s past lives. While the baseline for the development of any architectural style lies in a single idea, in India this idea was fueled by religion. India is the birthplace of the Vedic religion (Hinduism), Buddhism and Jainism to which Islam was added in the 13th century, resulting in the development of a rich tapestry of cultures, traditions, communities and languages.

Civilisations, Religion and Empires

Cultural Synthesis in Indian Architecture: Tracing Influences and Evolution - Sheet1
Indus Valley Civilisation sites across the Indian Subcontinent _©Wikimedia
Cultural Synthesis in Indian Architecture: Tracing Influences and Evolution - Sheet2
Mohenjodaro excavated settlement _©
Archaeological remains at the lower town of Lothal, show uniform fire-baked bricks. Fire-baked bricks will hold up to moisture, making them suited to building baths and sewers _©Rashmi Parab

In the second half of the third millennium BCE, there emerged a civilization in the Indian subcontinent in the valley of river Indus, at a place called Harappa. It was marked with vivid and artistic forms of art and architecture, mainly known for the urban planning that was much ahead of its time. The sites of the Indus Valley Civilization reveal a remarkable sense of town planning with an indigenous style that also had an advanced drainage system. The futuristic buildings of this age include the Great Bath. Great Granary, administrative buildings, pillared halls and courtyards, etc. While the exact reasons behind the decline of this great civilization have not been accurately arrived at, the end also marked the beginning of a religious effervescence in India that led to the emergence of Vedic, Buddhist and Jain architecture, coinciding with the age of Mahajanapadas and the rise new empires like Haryanka, Shishunaga and Nandas, culminating in the consolidation of the Indian subcontinent under Mauryas.

Persian and Greek Influences

This was the time when foreign influx began into India and the Northwestern parts came under the control of Achaemenid rulers of Persia in the 5th and 6th centuries BCE. The intermixing of culture, art and architectural styles that followed are reflected in the change in forms of the Ashokan pillars including the persepolitan bell as the base and lion/bul/winged animals as the head of the capital, the lustrous and polished finish over the stone, ornamentation with inscriptions, mythical animals, palm leaves etc. Gandhara School of Art became a happy blend of Greek, Roman and indigenous styles. Idealism and Realism were hence championed in India in the Buddhist sculptures of the period.

Though most of the Mauryan architectural forms are in ruins today, the perspectives developed based on these ruins convey a grandeur image of the palaces of emperors, Chandragupta and Ashoka. Architecture during the Mauryan age was the wooden trabeate structures as a framework for the courts, stupas and caves portraying the significance of the religious teachings and monolithic pillars that commemorated the victories and depicted the glory and power that the kings commanded.

Stupa & Cave Architecture-The Continuum Through the Classical Age

The stupas were burial mounds where the relics/ashes of the dead were kept. These types continued post-Mauryan period, with Hellenistic influence as they became more decorative with additional gateways called toranas which were intricately carved with figures and patterns that narrated stories from Jatakas.

Rock-cut caves are characterised by two distinct types- the Chaityas (Prayer Halls) and Viharas (Residential Halls) with open courtyards for the Buddhist, Jain and Ajivika monks. There were decorative gateways, arched entrances and columned spaces, sometimes even with mural paintings. It was a transitional time when the artisans were carving out the timber when their minds were devising to work upon stone. Sculptures of Buddha also simultaneously developed in different schools-namely Gandhara, Mathura and Amaravati.

The Gupta Age is also known by different historians as the classical or golden age, as the styles of architecture and art reached their peak and there was an accommodative culture that developed, encompassing the major religions of the period. Cave architecture also included frescoes as we see in the Ajanta and Ellora cave paintings under the Vatakas and Guptas, as stone became the main building material. The much-lauded rock-cut Kailasa temple in Ellora by a Rashtrakuta king is one of the finest examples that is regarded as a precursor to grandeur structural temples. 

Temple Architecture in India

The stone structures became portico-like pillared sanctums with a square plan that was flat-roofed. The progression of this simple style into a complex shikhara structure and panchyatana plan involved an elaborate evolution process in five distinct stages. Specific features became the mainstay in temple architecture, which included the Garbagriha (Sanctorum), Mandapa (Pillared approach) and Shikhara in the North and Vimana in the South. Various schools thrived on Indian soil with the patronage of different rulers.

The Nagara School in the North differentiated into Odisha, Khajuraho and Solanki Schools. Temple architecture of South India reached perfection under the Cholas. It is the oldest style of architecture. Big temple complexes surrounded by compound walls also became the administrative centres for the adjoining areas. The graceful blend of Nagara and Dravidian styles culminated in the Vesara style predominantly present in the Deccan region. Thus there were influences by geographical, ethnic, racial, historical and linguistic diversities of the Indian subcontinent.

As the ancient age drew to closure, the medieval age also continued with the same old traditions which were altered upon the arrival of Islamic foreign rulers from the West. 

Indo-Islamic Architecture

The term Indo-Islamic indicates the growth of a composite culture as a result of contact, intermixing and assimilation of the cultural tradition of India and the Islamic world during the medieval period. The architectural field witnessed a mix of structural styles, geometric shapes and decorations that were accepted, rejected or modified. 

New construction techniques with the introduction of grand domes, arches and vaults; new artistic styles including arabesque, calligraphy and floral motifs & new building materials of brick and lime mortar began. Islamic buildings like mosques, tombs and mausoleums came up. 

The fusion is seen in the use of local materials, synthesis of Hindu and Islamic decorative elements, massiveness, spaciousness and breadth. 

Delhi Sultanate Style

Monumental tombs, Minarets, large complexes around mosques comprising marketplaces and gathering spaces, defence fortresses, new cities and innovative hybrid forms were the major features. 

Mughal Style

Pronounced aesthetic nature, propaganda of Islamic culture, the exhibition of wealth and power, rulers’ extravagant interests and relatively peaceful conditions were some factors that determined Mughal architecture. Huge and decentralised layouts, as the experience of a series of changing surroundings from one courtyard to another were created. Synthesis of various regional schools of architectural craftsmanship and Hindu influences are evident in bold entrances, humble doorways, elegant porticos and civic archways.

The fluidity of lines, foreshortening techniques, marble forms inlaid with sandstone, Pietra dura works, foliated and cusp arches, a bulbous outline of domes, true double domes, pillars with tapering shafts, structural ornamental elements of curvilinear order, simple proportions, etc are some of the exclusive features. 

Provincial Style

The prominent features included large windows decorated by stylised use of arches and vaults, artificial reservoirs known as baulis, rectangular pylons, arched facades, borrowed elements from the regional temples like toranas, lintels in mihrabs, motif carvings on bell and chain, sloped roofs, etc which are distinctly organised in different regional styles of Jaunpur, Malwa, Gujarat, Bengal and Bijapur.

The Arrival of Colonial Rule

The European colonies emerged as the Mughal empire declined. Portuguese brought with them the Iberian style and introduced Patio houses and Baroque style from 16th century Europe. French urban city planning and anonymous architecture without much ornamentation and design started showing up in French colonies. The British colonial masters who ruled over consolidated India for the longest duration paved the way for the rise of Neo-Roman Architecture and a unique blend of Indian, Persian and Gothic styles into Indo-Saracenic Architecture during which large and elaborate structures were built.

Thus, from prehistoric times architecture has thrived with unique expressions in each stage and eventually intertwined with the life and leisure of common people. Every influence contributed in its own way and added to the salad-bowl culture of diversities that continue to exist in India, until today.


Indian architecture- a synthesis of diverse cultures and beliefs (no date) Share and Discover Knowledge on SlideShare. Available at: (Accessed: 17 August 2023).

Singhania, N. (2020) Indian Art and Culture. 3rd edn. Chennai, Tamil Nadu: McGraw-Hill Education (India). 


Nivedhita is an aspirant, for too many things indeed. She gets bored doing the same routine around the clock and so she takes big leaps or at least hops onto one thing at a time. She spontaneously ventures into new tasks and loves to get through deadlines, alongside juggling with life.