India is a country with very rich and diverse cultures as well as architectural heritage that should make any Indian proud. This is the result of the various change in rulers it went through over the years. With the change in rulers, came exposure to different cultures, which led to the beautiful amalgamation of what existed and what came in. The evidence can be seen mainly in Indian architecture. But we should never forget the roots of the architecture we see today. All the basic principles that can be seen today in religious buildings and even some government buildings can be traced back to the ancient period. It is important to understand what caused these principles to be laid down and followed so that we can try to understand how it is still in use today.

India’s ancient period spans from the Indian Bronze Age (3300 B.C – 1300 B.C) to 800 A.D. The architecture of the early civilization was limited only to fortifications and their places of stay, occasionally including a public bathing area. As time progressed, the birth of religions paved the way for Indian architecture to be born out of faith and beliefs. All the religious structures symbolized or meant something with relation to the beliefs. From here on, religion played a dominating role in architecture.

Most of the architecture belonging to this period was all made by perishable materials like the wood or brick, the main reason why nothing of this kind remains today. Then it shifted to a non-perishable one, stone. Now the structures that are being built can stand the test of time. This is one of the main factors why we can still study the elements and principles of ancient architecture today.

Following are some structures of Indian Architecture in chronological order:

1. Indus Valley Civilization (3300 B.C – 1300 B.C) | Ancient Indian Architecture

Indus valley civilization happens to be the earliest form of civilization found in the Indian subcontinent, with major prosperous cities like Harappa and Mohenjo Daro. The cities’ remains tell us that they were all fortified with mud-brick walls, later they brought in the use of the fired brick or “terracotta”. Harappa especially, had drains, water reservoirs, canal, and bathrooms. They also started using bitumen towards the end of the era, for plumbing purposes. The city is also known for its use of the English bond in construction, the first in the world.

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2. Mahajanapadas (600 B.C – 320 B.C)

One of the sixteen mahajanapadas, Kosmabi was an ancient city in India (present-day Allahabad) belonging to the Vedic period. The basic principles of mahajanapadas are that it had a stone palace at its center, built in three phases dating to the 8th century and 2nd century B.C. The dressed stones of the palace were set in fine lime and coated with a thick layer of plaster, the entire architecture resembled a fortress with its own walls and towers. It had a central hall, two galleries, residential chambers, and more. It seems to be an exquisite work for its time.

The time of the mahajanpadas saw walled and moated cities with large gates and multi-storied buildings which consistently used arched windows and doors and made intense use of wood as the primary building material.

3. Classical Period (320 B.C – 550 B.C)

Rock Cut Caves: These artificial caves exhibit an amazing level of technical proficiency, the extremely hard granite rock being cut in geometrical fashion and polished to a mirror-like finish. These caves generally followed an apsidal plan with a stupa in the back for the chaityas, and a rectangular plan with surrounding cells for the viharas.

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Stupas: They are the religious structures for Buddhist people which usually hold a relic of some sort that once belonged to the Buddha. They are domical in shape and have a circumambulatory path around it which are then guarded by railings. These railings are in three strips. There is a Kumbha on top, again with three layers. The planning of the whole stupa originated mainly from their beliefs in the cycle of birth, life, and death.

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Apsidal Temples: These types of temples became more prevalent in the subcontinent (5th century B.C) after Hinduism replaced Buddhism as the dominant religion. A freestanding apsidal temple remains to this day, although in a modified form, in the Trivikrama Temple in Ter, Maharashtra.

4. Early Middle Ages (550 B.C – 1200 A.D) | Ancient Indian Architecture

Shore Temple, Mahabalipuram: The temple has a garbhagriha in which the deity is enshrined, and a small mandapa surrounded by a heavy outer wall with little space between for circumambulation. At the rear are two shrines facing in opposite directions. The roofs have finials on the top, indicative of its religious functional nature, as it was a completed temple. The octagonal shape of the shikaras of the two temples is in the Dravidian architectural style.

Martand Sun Temple: The temple has a colonnaded courtyard, with its primary shrine in its center and surrounded by 84 smaller shrines. The temple turns out to be the largest example of a peristyle in Kashmir and is complex due to its various chambers that are proportional in size and aligned with the overall perimeter of the temple.

It is interesting to note that all these structures were possible to be built because of the highest level of innovation that was attempted at that time. They dared enough to bring a change in conventional building materials. Some elements like arches were introduced for stability in construction and nothing else, but they were also made to look good and later became a decorative feature. Our takeaway from studying principles of ancient Indian architecture should be that we should innovate and find solutions in several ways so that we are left with something new and out of the ordinary.


Bharani Sri is currently a B.Arch student at the VIT School of Architecture (VSPARC), Vellore. She enjoys passing her time by reading about architectural history, art, philosophy, and criticism. She believes that the world would be a better place if everyone was encouraged to look through the lens of historical analysis.