Architectural Marvels of India - A story of Variation and Synthesis


Indian Architecture has always been a subject of utter curiosity, predominantly because of the altruism and the crafty hand works. Indian sub-continent has a rich variety of monuments, baroques and modernistic buildings which throws light and understanding on the era of its origin and subsequent ages through which it existed. Architecture is one of the most beautiful, enduring and diverse component of Indian history and culture. Indian Architecture has undergone evolution and development through several centuries. It can be considered as a product of social, economic and geographical conditioning. There exists a vast array of different architectural form ranging from the most primary and ancient hindu buildings, predominantly temple architecture and then the later Indo-Islamic, and Indo-Saracenic Architectural forms. These varied forms of Indian Architecture exerts a mass of expressions over space and time, transformed by the forces of history considered unique to the Indian sub-continent. Over times, the forms have been molded and evolved, retaining a certain amount of continuity across history. The varied architectural forms are a living reflection to the age of Indian history to which each form belong to. The Origins of Indian Architecture can be traced back to the Indus Valley Civilization. Although most prominently the term "Indian Architecture" can be used for the forms which started evolving with the advent of Mauryan Empire, or more accurately, during the golden period of Indian History. Much of the Early ancient Indian Buildings from the time of Indus valley civilization, the vedic period of India as well as the pre-Mauryan age, ceased to exist, mostly due to the fact that they were mostly made with wood.

From the period of Mauryan empire, the best surviving examples of architecture are the rock cut architecture forms, a unique form native to Classical age of Indian History. Most of the early Indian forms were predominantly temple architecture. The Temple architecture diverged into two major sections, the Nagara and the Dravidian forms of Architecture. The Architectural forms of the Southern India are considered into the Dravidian form, while that of the Northern, Western and Central India are classified in the Nagara Form. In the kingdoms of Southern India, art and architecture flourished beautifully during the classical and middle ages. Examples of Temples built by the rulers of the Southern Indian kingdoms are plentiful and magnificent. The Pallavas, Chollas, Cheras, Pandyas and the Vijaynagara Dynasty were the architects of many magnificent and majestic temples whose legacies survives even till this date. The rock cut temples of Mahabalipuram and Kanchipuram are some of the finest examples which were built by the Pallavas. The temple building traditions of the Pallavas were adopted and carried forward by the Cholas. The Brihadishwara temple at Thanjavur is a magnificent example of the architectural magnificence of the time of Rajaraja Chola I. Likewise the Gangaikonda cholis varam Temple is another example from the period of Rajendra Chola I. Similarly the Belur and Halebid temples are some other iconic examples of the South Indian Rulers. Also, during the late middle ages, during the age of Vijayanagar Dynasty, Hampi became a center of beautiful architectural brilliance, which even to this day continues to amaze people. one very important feature to be noticed was the brilliant and intricate work of rock cutting through which most temples were created. The Indian Rock cutting form of Architecture reached its hiatus during the period of Gupta Empire. The Khajuraho temples, Ajanta and Ellora and the Elephanta caves are some of the finest examples of this form. In the North, West and Central Indian region the buildings were of Nagara style of Architecture. Although temple architecture remained mostly similar, but certain features held the Dravidian and the Nagara forms in different light. The basic nature of the Hindu temple remains mostly the same, with the essentially an inner sanctum, called as the garbha griha or womb-chamber, where the primary idol or the image of a god or the deity is placed in a simple cell. The cell may be surrounded by secondary structures, images, idols, figurines or buildings. On the exterior, the garbha griha is crowned by a towered structure called the shikhara, also called the vimana in the south. The shrine building often includes an ambulatory for parikrama (circumambulation), a mandapa or the congregation hall, and sometimes an antarala the interior chamber and a porch between garbhagriha and mandapa.

But the difference in the Dravidian and Nagara Architecture comes with the modification in the already existant features of a temple. In Nagara Architecture, the Crowning Shikhara lies directly above the sanctum. While in Dravidian form there may be several receding storeys or talas, the structure being called as the Vimana. The top most storey of the vimana is called as the Shikhara in this form. There is no Mandapa Spire tower in the Dravidian Temples. The curvature of the Shikhara spire in Nagara Form is Curvilinear centred over the sanctum, also straight-edged pyramidal. Whilst in the Dravidian forms it is straight-edged pyramidal, sometimes curvilinear centred over the sanctum. In Nagara form, the sanctum may be single or double storey. In the Dravidian form it is typically single storeyed. The Gopuram is a common feature of the Dravidian Temples. The Temples of North India showed increased elevation of the wall and elaborate spire by the 10th century. The oldest form of Shikhara, called Latina with wide shallow projections running up the sides, developed alternative forms with many smaller spirelets which were called as urushringa. Two varieties of these are called sekhari, where the sub-spires extend vertically, and bhumija, where individual sub-spires are arrayed in rows and columns.

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The Common Layout of a Nagara Temple

Along with the common Nagara and Dravidian forms, several regional forms also flourished during the period, like the Badami-Chalukya forms, the Gadag forms, the Kalinga forms of Architecture. During the later periods, there evolved regional forms like the Rajput, Sikh and Maratha Architecture.

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Dashavatara temple sculpture at Deogarh, completed about 500 CE.
Photo of Architectural Marvels of India - A story of Variation and Synthesis 3/6 by Adarshjit Das
Khakhara Deula of the Vaital Deula
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The rock-cut Shore Temple of the temples in Mahabalipuram, Tamil Nadu, 700-728. Showing the typical dravida form of tower.
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Kailasa temple, Ellora, the largest rock-cut Hindu temple
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The Virupaksha temple (or Lokesvara temple) at Pattadakal, built by queen Lokamahadevi (queen of Badami Chalukya King Vikramaditya II) around 740 CE

In later period of history, the advents of Islamic conquerors had brought with them Islamic influence of Architecture, which finally gave birth to a new form, along with a new Islamic age of India, The Medieval Age. This new form was the Indo-Islamic form of architecture. This new form was unique in the sense that they were neither strictly Islamic nor were they completely Indic. Later on, these forms would developed and molded by Mughals into Mughal Architecture and later on, with Imperial Advent in India, there will originate the Indo-Saracenic form of Architecture which will be a combination of features of Hindu, Islamic and Western Elements. The later colonial Architecture manifested itself through institutional, civic and utilitarian buildings such as post offices, railway stations, rest houses, military barracks and government buildings and offices.

Architecture fended for the purpose of local, regional and cultural traditions and social demands, economic well being, religious beliefs and practices of different times. The study of Architecture tells us about the cultural diversities and helps us understand the rich traditions of India. Indian Architecture evolved and altered due to countless, iconic and important historic events. There has been birth and decay of several empires and dynasties in the Indian sub-continent. Each age, each period came up with a new ever evolving dynasty and so did an ever evolving Indian form of Art and Architecture.