Indian Architecture can be compared to a metamorphosing creature that engulfs whatever comes its way and takes new forms. With 2500 years old history, this subcontinent has seen the birth of religions, the death of invaders, the relentless efforts for modernization, and an undying longing for its roots. How can the identity of this vast sea of human experience culminate into a single entity? Like the society it holds, Indian architecture is also pluralistic. It cannot be defined in one word, to study it one must slowly dissect the amalgamating layers as they create the distinctive Indian fabric and define its architectural expression.
India is the mythical land of snake charmers; it is also the largest IT hub in the world. It is the stream of consciousness running through the ghats of Benaras, the parliament of India, a street in Bangalore to villages in Ladakh.
This article studies the chronological development of Indian architecture through the vignettes of the times when it met the ongoings of the world and metamorphosed.
1. Sacral Architecture – Cosmic
(1050 CE- 1200 CE)
At its earliest, architecture was man’s attempt to establish a relationship with his environment. From Greece to Egypt, human beings spent decades to declare their presence to the heavens above and forge a union. In India, this was done through temples with towering shikhara and a strong axis Mundi. The doctrine of Vastu Purusha Mandala rendered the man as the conductor of his context. Pure geometry was the dominant aspect of the sacral architecture with little concern for the common peasant of the time.
2. The Gardens of Paradise
(12th Century to 17th Century)
With the arrival of the Muslim invaders from central Asia, India opened its arms to a new concept from Persia. While the earlier Islamic rulers had to reuse the resources available to them, Mughal left no stone unturned to emulate the gardens of Zannat on earth. The aesthetically pleasing Indo- Islamic architecture was the result of Persian vocabulary mixed with the existing Indian geometry. The perpendicular streams of water under shadows of hallowed minarets reminding one of the heavens served as the eternal symbol of the reward to the faithful.
(Late 17th Century)
Indian subcontinent garnering colonial interest coincided with the High Baroque period. This period can be called the starting point of the percolation of western overtones on Indian architecture. The Portuguese brought Baroque to India during the late 17th century and implemented it in churches in Goa, Daman, and Diu. Oval motifs, dynamism, new spatial interventions, and false facades in laterite defined Indian Baroque which was a huge step away from centuries of sacral architecture practiced before.
4. Gothic Revival
As the British consolidated their position in the subcontinent, a need for public buildings arose which was met by the eclecticism of the Gothic Revival. The late 19th century marked by the reign of Queen Victoria saw the birth of a new style of architecture called Indo-Saracenic. This style can be deemed as the product of foreign gaze on an ancient land. While the British brought their technology; they eagerly adopted Indian elements like chhatris, onion domes, horseshoe arches, and minarets in the attempt to achieve the mysticism of Arabic forms without referring to deeper undertones. The blatant imitation of elements ultimately derived the architecture of its integrity. Calcutta, Madras, and Bombay were budding grounds for this eclectic style.
5. Neoclassical Architecture
The neo-Classical architecture was the later stage of Indo-Saracenic. It was chiefly employed in stately buildings like the residences of the viceroy and town halls. Deriving the plans from traditional British residences, the British liberally borrowed from classical Indian styles like Hindu, Buddhist, and Mughal to establish an aesthetically pleasing seat of power. While the earlier Indo- Saracenic structures were an exercise in verticality, later ones were sprawling and dignified with a monumental scale.
6. Art Deco
(1930 CE- 1950 CE)
In the 1930s, as the national independence movement gathered momentum, independent traders sent architects to Europe and the USA to gain experience. They brought back the whimsical Art Deco style and Bombay became the second-largest hub of Art Deco buildings in the world. The architects conceived a new syntax of stepped verticality, jalis, and compound walls, combined with architectural typography, tropical patterns, and bold indigenous motifs on the facade.
Brutalism took the independent streak of art deco a step ahead. Brutalism became the face of independent India with its honest use of inexpensive, sturdy materials like concrete and brick; and pure forms adjusted with climate devices to counter the harsh Indian sun. The Indian government issued a plethora of public buildings and invited architects to design them to bring India in step with the modern world. Chandigarh was the flagbearer of Indian Brutalism with its gridiron planning and a monumental secretariat.
8. Critical Regionalism
The second generation of Independent India composed of architects returned from the USA with a new worldview. The architecture was now no longer restricted to the public utility and the obligation to impress. These architects mixed modern vocabulary with Indian context and vernacular materials. The result was a range of human-scale structures that did not shy from the tropical sun and embraced the structure of Indian society. This ongoing movement is slowly merging with New Urbanism to create sustainable, user-friendly neighborhoods. The pioneers of this movement were Charles Correa, Habib Rehman, J.C. Alexander, and Achyut Kanvinde.
The longing for Indian roots has resulted in a whimsical style which can be attributed to Post-Modernism. It employs Indian imagery in contemporary structures resulting in a wide variety of styles: Punjabi Baroque, Bania Gothic, Marwari Mannerism, all employed by the common man. Context, reference, culture, and wit are the driving force of this style, which is away from the constraints of Modern Architecture. It is widely suited to the pluralistic Indian society and is no wonder, widespread.
10. High-Tech Architecture
Emerging as the I.T hub of the world, High-Tech Architecture has become the language of expression for post-modern India. New urban centers like Gurugram, Noida, with huge youth influx employ multi-story buildings to provide for high-density living. The buildings are centrally air-conditioned with glass facades and roads are nothing more than arteries for transportation. In contrast with this, New Urbanism focusses on walkable and sustainable neighborhoods. Architecture is always churning and it will be interesting to see how we end up.