The nation, bathing its shores by the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean in the South, and mighty Himalayas in the North. The land full of wonders, from the desert of Thar to the snowy mountains of Sikkim, India is the uttermost diverse, democratic, secular country to be spotted on the World map. And, so is its architecture!
The republic that India is known to be for the people, by the people and of the people; represents a unique diversity, where we speak several languages, worship many gods and yet have the same spirit. The spirit of ‘Real India’, which crosses all parts of the nation and binds everyone together beyond caste, creed and religion.
But the question is, can the architecture of such a diverse nation be secular? Let’s find out then!
Understanding Secular Architecture
As we all know; social-political influences along with religious imprints have always reflected into different architectural styles. Following are a few, to be seen in India.
So what does ‘Secular Architecture’ really mean?
If a structure is to be accessed by believers of all creeds, without having a direct influence of a single specific religion in its architecture; then that would be considered Secular Architecture.
Going back in time, we can find that roots of Indian culture lie in being tolerant and absorbing. Diversity in all aspects of society serve as a source of strength to different religious beliefs, and not as a dividing factor. One such example is the ancient caves of Ellora, which is also a World Heritage Site. The cave temples built here in between the 5th and 10th century; demonstrate the coexistence of religions and a spirit of acceptance of different faiths. The Ellora caves are a confluence of Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist ways of Life.
Another such example of acceptance of different values and traditions can be observed in the architectural style of the Red Fort in Delhi. Even though the planning of this fort complex is based on Islamic prototype, as done by the Mughal invaders in India, each pavilion of the palace reveals a fusion of Hindu and Persian traditions. As of today, the structure reflects extreme architectural and political significance. Since every year, on India’s Independence Day, the Prime Minister of the nation hoists the Indian tricolour flag from the fort’s main gate, delivering a nationally broadcasted speech that portrays today’s secular India.
Indo-Saracenic Style of Architecture
India has foreseen quite a few invasions on its soil. The latest being the ‘British Raj’. Even though the strongly fought battle of independence, known to almost every Indian by heart, was a huge struggle; it did leave behind something to cherish.
The Indo-Saracenic style of architecture that today’s modern India witnesses, combines elements of Hindu and Mughal architecture with Gothic.
Indo-Islamic Style of Architecture
The Mughal invasion that spanned almost over 150 years in India; saw great developments in the field of architecture on the Indian soil.
The Indo-Islamic architecture style or the Indian Architecture influenced by Islamic art was neither strictly Islamic nor strictly Hindu. In fact, it was an amalgamation of Islamic architecture elements to those of the Indian architecture. Just like the combination of diverse Indian cultures!
Secularism in India
The expression of secularism is akin to the Vedic concept of ‘Dharma nirapekshata’, i.e. the indifference of state to religion.
Indian philosophy of secularism is a bit different from that of the western countries; it is related to “Sarva Dharma Sambhava”, which literally means that the destination of the paths followed by all religions is the same, though the paths themselves may be different. Briefly meaning equal respect to all religions.
Secularism and the Indian Constitution; India is a secular state by law, and by the constitution, according to the 42nd Amendment Act. Every Indian citizen has the right to freedom of religion; to profess, to practice and to expand any religion.
The British administration that brought divide-and-rule policy during their period of the regime; did create a communal chaos which, despite everything can be seen even today.
Yet, as quoted by the first-ever Prime Minister of India, “At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom”.
It did so, with its first major architectural project i.e. Master Plan of Chandigarh. The brainchild of India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru and designed by the legendary Swiss-French architect, Le Corbusier. Almost every other major structure in this city can be said to be truly secular in nature.
Fate of Secularism & Secular Architecture in India
A nation is a fixed geographical territory, having a common language of communication. Now that may not be the case with India, which has distinct religions, dialects and languages; each state has its own history of religion.
From Kashmir to Kanyakumari and from Nagaland to the banks of Sabarmati River, India has Twenty-two languages that constitutionally enjoy official language status. With diversity in languages, food, clothing, festivals, and religions; India hasn’t over distinguished and fought over those concerns, or maybe not sometimes! But after all, we fight with our family and loved ones; isn’t it? Such is the love of Indians with one another.
Anyways, coming back to the topic; while Indian Constitution declares the state being absolutely neutral to every religion, our society has steeped in it. Architecturally speaking, distinctive features coming from a religious background, reflect our identities. Which isn’t wrong by any means; a mosque is supposed to look like a mosque, not like a temple and vice-a-versa. If we remove those distinctive features from a structure, its significance is hurt!
The mingling of Religion and Politics; that is the mobilization of votes on grounds of fundamental identities like religion, caste and race, have endangered Indian secularism, and resultantly so its architecture.
Communal politics that operates by spreading myths and stereotypes against any certain religion, attacking one’s rational values by practicing divisive ideological propaganda, hurts the entire image of India’s ‘Unity in diversity’. In the recent past as well, communalism has proved to be a great threat to the secular fabric of India. And if “We the people, of this nation, need a way forward, it isn’tin being communal, but being liberal!”
“All being said and done; maybe, maybe! India’s Architecture is not secular, but that’s OK!”
Once a wise man said, “No one is small and there is no religion greater than work”
So here’s one final example; INFOSYS, the global face of developing India, with a list of locations all over India i.e. Mysore, Pune, Thiruvananthapuram, Nagpur, Indore, Mangalore, Jaipur, Hyderabad, Gurgaon, Chennai, Chandigarh, Bhubaneswar, Delhi, Pune, Kolkata, Mumbai, Noida, Bangalore and few other places not just in India but also around the globe; where today, irrespective of caste, creed and religion everyone works shoulder to shoulder under one roof and one aim. Aim, that represents our secular nation and thus so, architecture of secular India.