INDIAN ARCHITECTURE


INDIAN ARCHITECTURE
   The structural, aesthetic, and symbolic characteristics of Indian architecture are traditionally seen within the shared cultural history of the peoples of the South Asian subcontinent, which includes modern-day India and the surrounding countries of Pakistan and part of Afghanistan to the northwest, Nepal and Bangladesh to the northeast, and Sri Lanka off the southern coast. India itself is divided by the Vindhya Mountains, which demarcate two distinct styles, one northern and one southern. The earliest known civilization in this region has been found in the Indus Valley of Pakistan and northwest India, along the banks of the Indus River, where an early culture flourished from about 3000 BC to 1750 BC. Mountain passes through the Hindu Kush linked India to the rest of Asia, and along these roads major trade routes were established and new waves of immigrants entered the subcontinent.
   While Harappa was the first site discovered along this river, Mohenjo Daro is the best preserved. These cities were probably organized much like their contemporary city-states along the river banks of Mesopotamia and the Nile in Old Kingdom Egypt, yet they reflect perhaps more advanced architectural innovations and merit much further study. For example, their cities are built with a fired brick that is stronger than the sun-dried mud brick so widely used across a variety of cultures at that time. Mohenjo Daro, at its high point, main-tained a population of around 30,000 people who lived in a very well-organized city built on a grid with wide streets and distinct neighborhoods. In the center of the seven-square-mile town is an elevated citadel complex surrounded by a wall. Inside the citadel are buildings that were probably used for governmental and religious purposes, and large pools used to store water. The rest of the city has covered drainage ditches. Tall houses, often designed with court-yards, lined the streets to create separate neighborhoods. Many of the artifacts found in the Indus Valley region suggest influences from Mesopotamia, yet here figures that might be priest-kings are sometimes shown in proto-yogic poses that reveal a more culturally specific belief system. By the Vedic Period, which began around 1750 BC, an influx of nomadic shepherds from central Asia, called the Aryans, brought bronze tools, weapons, horses, and chariots that enabled them to assume control of the region and create a rich culture from which sprang Sanskrit, metaphysical philosophy, epic poetry, and most importantly, the sacred writings called the Vedas. The vast majority of architecture constructed through history has been built for religious purposes, and in this case the monumental and durable temples and shrines are all that remain from this broad time period; no secular architecture at all has survived. Sanskrit literature describes beautiful palace complexes, however, which surely vied for architectural authority with these religious structures, only to be destroyed by later rulers. During the Maurya Dynasty (c. 322-185 BC), Buddhism had become the official language of Hindu architecture, established by King Ashoka, who sought to impose a more peaceful quality to what he deemed to be a too-warlike culture. The stone monuments built under his reign probably replaced even earlier finely carved wood structures. Stylistically, it seems that Ashoka was inspired by the monumental stone buildings he would have seen on his military campaign to Persia, before his conversion to a pacifistic political philosophy.
   The Great Stupa at Sanchi in central India is one of the earliest known religious structures in India. Originally built under Ashoka, it is the largest of a group of stupas that was begun in the second century BC and expanded upon through the centuries into an entire monastic complex. Stupas recall the original burial mounds made to hold the remains of the Buddha and therefore are built as solid, dome-shaped monuments to contain sacred relics in their solid core. Since some of the earliest stupas hold the actual remains of the Buddha, they are worshipped as his body, and it is believed that by walking around the stupa enough times, one can achieve nirvana, the liberation from rebirth. Surrounded by an elaborately carved railing, the stupa is built up on a base with four gateways (called toranas) aligned to the four cardinal points, with an entrance on the eastern side. The visitor can walk through a gateway and then around a platform that encircles the exterior base of the stupa. On the top of the dome, a square railing holds a mast or spire. While the outer railing separates the physical and sacred worlds, the dome railings define the world of the gods. In its center the mast, which links the physical and sacred world, holds three stone disks of diminishing sizes upwards, their diminishing diameters probably a reference to the Buddhist realm of existence—desire, form, and formlessness. At Sanchi, the stupas are made from dirt and rubble piled up to form a mound and covered in carved stone and finally, a white plaster made from lime and ground seashells to shine in the sunlight.
   Rock-cut halls were also important in early Indian architecture. Caves were the traditional abode of ascetics across many religions, and beginning in the second century BC, Buddhist monks began to carve out more elaborate rock-cut halls in the rocky central region of India called the Deccan Plateau. The man-made Ajanta Caves line the rocky outcrop of the Deccan and are intricately carved and painted with religious images and scenes of courtly life. The cool, dark interiors provided an effective sacred space for meditation, and the rock-cut halls were either monastic living quarters (vihara) or prayer halls (chaitya) housing stupa shrines. The rock-cut hall at Karla, from the first century BC, is the largest early Buddhist chaitya known today. The entrance vestibule is flanked by columns and carved with fictive balconies and windows in emulation of a palace exterior. The internal façade has three entrances and one window to allow light into the cave; on the inside, the entire room is carved out to reveal a central hall lined with closely spaced octagonal columns set on rounded bases and topped with carved elephants, couples, and horses. The hall also includes side aisles, a barrel-vaulted ceiling, and a sacred stupa at the far end.
   Only later, in the Gupta Period, are the earliest temples found. As distinct from the Buddhist stupa, the Indian temple was devoted to one or more of the deities of Hinduism. Northern Indian temples are slightly different from southern temples. The northern temples feature a platform upon which a tall cone-shaped shikhara rests and encloses the inner sanctum, called the garbhagriha, which contains a sculpture of the god to which the temple is dedicated. Like a stupa, the shikhara is topped with a spire that links the worldly and heavenly realms and is also understood to project downward through the exact center of the inner sanctum, the deity, and into the ground below. The Vishnu Temple at Deogarh in central India, dating to around 530, is the earliest surviving example of the early northern Hindu temple. Here the shikhara rests on a mandala-shaped platform, symbolizing the cosmos. The temple entrance is an elaborately carved doorway that demarcates the division between the physical and spiritual worlds. In more monumental northern temples, the platform has three additional conical towers called mandapas, which increase in height toward the shikhara. The Kandariya Mahadeva Temple, in Khajuraho in the Madhya Pradesh region, dates to around 1000 and exemplifies this format.
   In the south, these elaborately carved temples are formed as a stone platform upon which rests a pyramidal tower, called a vimana, that houses the garbhagriha and rises in stepped cornices to a cap-stone that is carved to exactly the same size as the garbhagriha. The Rajarajeshvara Temple to Shiva, in Thanjavur of the Tamil Nadu region, dates to around 1000 and exemplifies the monumental version of the southern Hindu temple. All of these structures reveal a highly sculptural aesthetic, with an intricate system of architectural moldings, finials, cornices, and niches filled with sculpted images. Yet there is a mathematical precision that stabilizes the structure to its cardinal points, creates sophisticated shapes such as the parabolic arch, and provides a very precise system of measurements that symbolically link all aspects of the temple.
   With the spread of Buddhist and Hindu beliefs to Myanmar (Burma), Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand, Taiwan, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, and other parts of Southeast Asia, early Indian architectural aesthetics as well as Chinese influences began to mingle with indigenous cultures. The Neolithic culture of this general region provided no architectural remains, nor did the subsequent Bronze Age culture that began around 800 BC, but both Indian and Chinese influences began to appear in the area by around 500 BC. The ceremonial complex of Angkor, Cambodia, is the best-known example of Khmer architecture.
   The ceremonial complex in Bagan, Myanmar, is perhaps the most impressive site, however, with over 2,000 religious structures spread out on a vast, flat plain of 16 unobstructed square miles. Bagan was settled as early as the second century AD, but the Burmese capital was only established there by King Pyinbya in 874. Although the capital was subsequently moved, the complex reached its architectural high point after 1057, when King Anawrahta made Bagan a religious center. During the 200-year time span before Kublai Khan's army overran the site in 1287, each ruler commissioned the construction of Buddhist stupas or Hindu temples, often modeled on sacred mountains. The earliest major temple, the Ananda Pahto, was built during the reign of King Kyanzittha in 1084-1113. This is a symmetrical temple constructed in the early Mon style, with north Indian influences. The temple is set on a square base and rises like a beehive topped by a cone-shaped dome with a finial. With its recent controversial restoration, the dome and its surrounding pinnacles are now all gilded, while the rest of the temple is whitewashed. The interior of the temple, set in a cross-shape plan aligned to the cardinal points, is richly decorated and lined with carved sandstone reliefs of the life of the Buddha. The overall design concept of the temple is based on a cave in the Himalayas where several monks went for a period of contemplation; the temple commemorates both the cave and the endless wisdom of the Buddha. As the government begins to receive more outside visitors, scholars will undoubtedly be able to learn much more about these Southeast Asian stupas and temple complexes.
   In the 1200s, northern India was invaded by Muslims, who brought a new culture to the Indian subcontinent. The result was the destruction of most of the important northern Indian temples and their replacement by Islamic buildings such as mosques and tombs as well as magnificent fortified government complexes and palaces constructed by the Turkish sultans, who ruled from the northern Indian city of Delhi. Of this Islamic influence, the Mughal Dynasty is best known for its architecture, epitomized by the famous Taj Mahal, Agra, in India. Western architecture was introduced into India only with British rule from 1858 to 1947, and India today, poised to become a world power, displays an international approach to architecture alongside its ancient structures.
   See also ISLAMIC ARCHITECTURE.

Historical Dictionaries of Literature and the Arts. . 2008.

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