It is often said that ornamentation in architecture is simply embellishment or additional details added to a structure, serving no other purpose than to make it look more interesting. However, I feel like there’s more to ornamentation than just the aesthetics. In India especially, ornamentation has become the identity and distinguishing characteristic of the builders or ruling dynasties. Be it the heavily sculptured temples or intricately carved jaalis walls, it tells us a great deal about the evolution of artistic inclination as well as the high level of skill, uniformity, and precision that the artisans possessed during that period.
India has a rich architectural heritage. Over the years, invasions have occurred, and empires have come and gone, each leaving behind their set of architectural achievements and influences. The earliest architectural stone carvings found today are Buddhist, of which the most striking and magnificent ones are those of the Ajanta caves. Rightfully designated as a UNESCO Heritage Site today, the stone carvings of Ajanta were made by the removal of rock to make the cave and reveal the statues as opposed to placing statues or pillars inside an already existing cave. That, along with the intricately painted murals of Buddhist iconography, sets these caves as a class apart.
Buddhist art also included stupas, monolithic pillars, chambers, and shrines. Along with indigenous elements, they also had exotic Greek and Persian forms, some of which include honeysuckle and palmette motifs and festoon moldings. The toranas of the Sanchi Stupa and the projecting patterns carved in floral scrolls at the Dhamek Stupa are quite striking and significant native elements.
Along with Hinduism and Buddhism, Jainism was an integral part of South Asian religious belief and practice. It should be noted that Jain architecture was mostly entire temple cities atop hills, as opposed to only temples. Although non-materialism and asceticism are at the heart of their spiritual practice, Jain temple ornamentation is found to be elaborate and rich. Many of these temples are carved from marble and ornamented with statues of the Tirthankaras in the interiors and carved pillars on the exterior.
Marble was considered the royal stone and was extensively used in India, be it in tombs, palaces or temples. A specialized art form called the Shilpa Shastra was dedicated to marble carving, covering a wide range of decorative and sculptural disciplines and addressing principles of proportion and composition. These carving techniques, especially of deities, of ancient India were passed down from generation to generation as a tradition for over thousands of years.
The basis of almost all Hindu temples has been precise geometry and harmony. However, Hindu temples across the country have various styles, use different construction methods, and are adapted to different Hindu Gods and beliefs ingrained in regional differences.
Chola sculptures, prominently those at Badami and Pattakadal, exhibit opulent human figures and various animal motifs, which are visible throughout South Indian temple art today. The magnificent temples at Tanjore unveiled indigenous motifs of supreme quality, whereas the gopurams under the Pandyas have simpler and conventional decorations.
Temples of the Vijayanagara Dynasty are considered to be some of the richest and most beautiful structures due to their high level of ornamentation. Every stone of the Vitthala and Hazara Rama temple has been chiseled over with the most elaborate patterns, some with natural and mythical motifs, while others with mural relief work.
Mughal monuments are known for their distinct architectural ornamentation and depict the beliefs, values, ideals, and interests of the era. Mughal architecture in India started with the Persian influence blended into local traditional architecture, hence it’s no surprise that Mughal ornamentation is a reflection of Persian art. Dado art ornamentation which is commonly seen, derives inspiration from nature, as the artists believed that nature could help people find new strength and art in life. Gardens and floral arrangements were done in square shapes, and mural or dado decoration was done on prominent walls of castles, palaces, and mosques. These included tile decoration, mosaic painting, stucco, inlay, and marble carving.
The Agra Fort, built of red sandstone is a glorious example of the amalgamation of Hindu and Islamic elements in architecture and the use of religious Hindu and Chinese motifs can be abundantly found in Fatehpur Sikri. Soon after, red sandstone started getting replaced with white marble, which was often combined with precious cut stones of different textures.
This finally leads us to the jewel of Muslim art in India, the Taj Mahal. The ornamentation on the Taj Mahal is described as well balanced, perfectly proportioned, and in perfect harmony with its constructive design. Each chamber wall is decorated with intricate calligraphic panels and dado with expensive inlay or Parchin Kari work. These panels have stylized floral motifs of plants, trees, flowers, and animals, all highly polished and adorned with precious stones. Just one look from up close is enough to leave you speechless!
Since modern and postmodern periods, with the epic opposition to ‘ornamentation is crime’ and ‘less is more’ with ‘less is a bore’, the conflict between minimalism, modernity, and ostentation has been the subject of eternal debate, worldwide. In today’s day, minimalism may symbolize luxury, but maybe it’s time to refamiliarize ourselves with, and embrace our decorative roots!