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India has been at the crossroads of many trade routes, both sea, and land. It has always been a composition of many different kinds of geographical regions and has had a chequered history for over 3000 years. Architecture in India has been a result of these and many other confluences; yet, there are themes and styles that flow through the different rivulets leading into the meandering river of architecture in India. Architecture has always been imagined as a spatial art, dealing with form, geometry, and structure, but this is broadly a European understanding of architecture, especially since the Renaissance. In India, and its neighboring regions, architecture has been about surface creation, bodily and ritual engagement with buildings, and diagrammatic imaginations of philosophical concepts; form and especially space are only contingent in architecture in India. Many ideas and philosophies, as well as the many convergences between these ideas and philosophies, make up the vast body of architecture that we, today, inherit in India, making it difficult to identify a single or clear genealogy of styles that could be clubbed as ‘Indian’.

The Harappan Civilization

The Harappan Civilization

The Harappan Civilisation in the north-western region of contemporary India is the first architectural bloom that we see in the subcontinent. However, the ideas and techniques of construction and design that one sees in the cities of Mohenjo-daro, Harappa, Lothal, Kalibangan, Dholavira and others from the civilisation do not see a continuity into later Vedic or Buddhist architecture, as there is a clear rupture and break in the civilisation in and around the Indus and later developments in the Gangetic plains. The Vedic civilisation, so-called due to our dependence on the Vedas as the only evidence with which to understand the culture of the time and no other material remains, is the second bloom in Indian history, which gives rise to strikingly new philosophical developments, such as Buddhism and Jainism amongst many others. Of these, Buddhism became the most popular, the most politically supported, and hence gives India the beginning of its monumental architecture. From the vast swathes of cave architecture housing monasteries to the stupas, Buddhist architecture was, in many ways, about narrativising architecture with stories and histories. Buddhist caves largely developed along trade routes, often supported by the trading classes, and served as resting places for all; but they largely had two kinds of buildings—the Vihara for the stay of monks and the Chaityagriha for congregation and ritual, as well as meditation. These monuments, in stone, are sharp, lithic copies of timber architecture that must have otherwise been the material for building in the time. Much relief work depicting stories from the Jatakas form an indication of the kind of timber architecture that would have occupied Vedic civilisation. The stupa, epitomised by the one at Sanchi, is imagined as the axis mundi on earth where sky and earth, man and divine, all come in contact through the bodily ritual of pradakshina or circumambulation. Their cosmic-spatial imagination is evident in the fact that stupas always mark the four cardinal points, either through gateways or toranas and railings or yupas (ritual columns).

The shrine that ritually, and through magic, helped human beings become one with or establish contact with the divine and the cosmic energies is the cue to the development of the stupa as well as temples — both Hindu (broadly the term for all practices and philosophies followed by the Vaishnavites, Shaivites, Devi- and Shakti-worshipers and devotees, etc.) and Jain. The shrine emerges as a location on earth and the cosmic space from where humans expand their relationship with life and environment; and the temple is the lithic manifestation of this expansion. The temple is geography and energy, best displayed in the way its surfaces are detailed with sculpture, relief, and paintings, much like the paintings or sculpture and relief at Ajanta, Ellora, or Sanchi. The temple is more an experiential object rather than a building for formal appreciation; a temple building releases itself visually part by part as one performs the rituals or the circumambulation. The various ornaments and stories that compose the temple building reproduce the physical environment human life occupies on earth; in many ways, a temple building is a cosmic map as well as a synoptic-view of earth in a four-dimensional construction — the fourth being the experience of the moving-eye!

Temple architecture developed in India around 6 – 8 CE, much after the flourishing of Buddhist architecture, but developing in different ways in different regions and under a variety of dynastic patronage through 14 – 16 CE. Temple Shikharas, often referred to as ‘pagodas’ by early European visitors in 17 – 18 CE, were the continuation of the idea of axis mundi — the cosmic axis, and every temple wherever it sits defines its own cosmic centre— a beautiful idea for architecture, where something as solid as a building is conceptually a floating object in the divine and cosmic space, and wherever it sits, it defines its ritual significance. The Brick Temple at Bhitargaon, or the Bhoja Temple at Bhojpur, mark certain early examples, while the Khajuraho Temple complex, or the Lingaraja Temple, or the temples at Ranakpur and Abu stand for the mature stage in temple architecture. The temple was often a palace of the gods, designed to emulate the palace of the patron-king, or it could be the chariot of the gods like the rathas of Mahabalipuram, or it could be a miniaturised city like the Meenakshi Temple.

Around 10 CE, one sees the beginning of Islamic architecture in the subcontinent. Islamic architecture has always been the broad set of architectural ideas and practices that travelled across three continents and many dynasties, absorbing ideas and techniques from the many places it travelled, as well as taking along with it the concepts and systems to the places it travelled. The true-arch, true-dome and vaulting system were important contributions by Islamic architecture in the regions of India. Often working with local craftsmen and masons, but with ideas from far and wide, early examples of Islamic architecture like the Jami Masjid in Ahmedabad indicate a meeting of two construction systems or the struggle with exchanging ideas in building, construction and design. As much as the understanding and use of spatial formations change in buildings such as the mosque or the tomb, Islamic architecture also employs visual ornamentation and decoration as the substance of architecture. From the corbeled structure of domes and shikharas in temples to the smooth true-domes and pointed arches, India developed a landscape of visual experiments and ideas in architecture. Beginning with the Sultanates and growing all along through the Mughal period, Islamic architecture brings in various experiments in architectural material, style, and structure. The Qutub Minar in Delhi, at one point, marked the easterly glory and extent of Islamic architecture on the globe with its fine use of stone and ornamentation changing at every storey. Combining stones of different colour and lustre was a mark of Islamic architecture in India, and often, buildings built by different emperors or sultans were identifiable by the stone they preferred for use in the buildings they sponsored. Regions in central, western and southern India developed variations to the general pool of elements and styles of Islamic world, with Mandu, Ahmedabad, and Bijapur developing as important centres of such regional variations.

The centuries between 18 and 20 CE were influenced by industrialisation and by colonialism in India, architecturally speaking; the more influential colonial powers in India were the Portuguese and the British. Colonialism, once again, not only brought in a new set of ideas and fashions from Europe, but also the imagination of buildings and building fabrics changed since the world saw a change in economic and power equations with colonialism and industrialisation. From buildings in India styled to resemble near-exactly buildings in England, to buildings that often in their style outdid any example in Europe, colonial architecture in India defined a new landscape once again. But never did any style or category of building go uninfluenced by another. The categories we use such as Vedic or Buddhist and Islamic or Colonial are only handles to aid conversations, but when one goes deep into each example of architecture in India, one will find many strands of influence, and confluence of many practices — architecture in India is a carpet of confluences!

The twentieth century saw a new kind of international influence, in different ways in different decades. One turning point in the 20th century architecture was the coming of cement and Reinforced Cement Concrete as a structural system, which also brought with it styles such as the Art Deco in the 1930s or the International Style in the 1950 – 60s. After 1947 and independence, a new idealism and state-patronage influenced architectural developments very sharply; it was also the period where materiality, engineering, and architecture worked very closely, e.g. the Hall of Nations at Pragati Maidan by architect Raj Rewal and engineer Mahendra Raj. Two international architects — Le Corbusier, who designed the new city of Chandigarh under the vision of Jawaharlal Nehru, one of the only two cities Corbusier got a chance to design, and Louis Kahn, with his design for buildings such as the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad — were influential figures in the decades to come with a focus on the ‘Modern’ in India. However, by the 1980s, the question of the ‘Indian’ in Modern India becomes important and one sees a range of architects, including Charles Correa and Balakrishna Doshi, investing their architectural journeys in this quest.

With 1990s, the mood in India changed, forever marked by the destruction of the 16th-century monument in Ayodhya, and the Liberalisation policies floated in the budget plan of 1992. The economy shifted to being one of open-market and service industry, completely changing the kind of buildings India built, with the construction market now flooded with a forest of different products and materials. Landscapes like Gurgaon, just outside Delhi, or the campus of Infosys outside Bengaluru, or the Bandra-Kurla Complex in Mumbai mark a change in architecture that is monumental but fragile, with glass and steel dominating the city-scape. Revival of styles, sustainability, and conservation of historic buildings and precincts also occupy architectural practice and debates.

Architecture in India, thus, is a meeting of history and the contemporary at all points in time, with the journey of styles and the marriage of architectonic intentions as a constant phenomenon.

About the author: 

Kaiwan Mehta is an architect, pedagogue, author of Alice in Bhuleshwar: Navigating a Mumbai Neighbourhood (Yoda Press. New Delhi, 2009) and currently managing editor of the architecture and design magazine DOMUS India.

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