History of Indian structures

 Hawa-Mahal-JaipurBy Ar D M Upasini

Accommodation Times Archives


The  earliest  extant  remains  of  recognisable  building  activity   on the   Indian  subcontinent  dates back to the third  millennium  , to the Indus  Valley cities  of Mohenjodaro , Harappa ,Lothal, Kalibangan and   several   others .  These cities  are among  man’s   earliest  attempts  at organising an  urban environment . Streets were laid  out in a grid pattern  and there was a defined system of  land use . The  buildings, made of bricks , both  burnt and unburnt, were  strictly  utilitarian and  built with skill  and a  sound knowledge  of building  principles .


Among  other  structural  techniques , the  builders  of these cities used  corralled arches . The Great  Bath  of Mohenjodaro  shows  that large , ritualistic structures were not  unknown .


After the  decline  of the Indus Valley cities  in the second millennium  , the  highly  developed  and standardised  brick  architecture  of this  period  gave  way in the Vedic  period  that followed , to  anonymous  pastoral  settlements of mud, thatch , bamboo and  timber  in the Valleys of the  Saraswati  and Ganga  rivers.


Although  we have  no extant  examples  of the perishable timber  structures  of the Vedic   period   our  knowledge  of the buildings of this time  is based  on evidence left  by subsequent   Buddhist  sculptures of  the third   and second  centuries  BC  which  often depicted  episodes  from  the life of the Buddha  in the  architectural setting  to the  Vedic  period .


The bas reliefs on the  gateways   to the magnificent  stupa at Sanchi    in central India , for example  , depict   clusters of  circular  huts  with domed thatch  roofs , gables , arched timber  palaces   and loggias , clearly  distinguishing  them  from the workman -like  streets of Mohenjodaro and Harappa .


It was  around  the 3rd  and 2nd  century BC  that Buddhism became the   dominant   religion  and one was  introduced  for the  first time in India art and architecture . Many of  these  stone  structures  have survived  that ravages of  time and  we have  , therefore, a reasonable  amount  of information about them .


The three  characteristic  forms of Buddhist  architecture  which were developed  around  this period  were  the stupa or monumental  funerary  mound , the chaitya  or hall of  worship  and the vihara  or monastery .


At Buddhist  centres  in Sanchi and Bharhut in central  India  the stone railings and gateways clearly  reflect  their  wooden   origins in  their   architectural  forms and in  the way they have been  carved .


As the Buddhist  forms  of architecture  developed , representations of  the stupa   themselves become  objects of worship  , and the  chaitya  acquied   an apsidal   plan in which   the apse  at one  end is preceded  by a pillared hall  of  worship . In a vihara  or  monastery  , the  monastic  cells were  usually built   around a  rectangular courtyard  , and they  were  sometimes  several  storeys   in height.


It is  in the field  of rock-cut  architecture, however,  that the  most remarkable  Buddhist  monuments  were  produced  , in areas such as Bihar in the east  and Maharashtra  in the west , where monks enlarged  and transformed  the natural  grottos    and caves  in the hillsides ,  excavating great and glorious  prayer halls  and monasteries  out of  huge  cliffs .


Despite  the use of  the rock-cut mode,  the plan  and elevation of  these caves  closely  followed  those  of earlier  edifices , being   faithful     copies   in stone  of earlier  brickand  wood   buildings  , so  much  so that  even   wooden  structural  details were   reproduced  in stone .


The monk architects  who carved  the caves  introduced  pillars , beams, rafters with  windows , balconies and the  huge  arch-shaped  openings   of the  earlier  wooden   structures . The best  known examples  of such  monuments  are  those  at Barabara in the state  of Bihar  and at Bhaja, Karle  and Ajanta  in Maharashtra   . In carving  these   “wondrous caverns  of light” out of the  rocky hillsides , these early architects  added a unique  dimension  to Indian  architectural  traditions . For, although  rock-out  caves  exist  elsewhere  , there is no parallel to the  aesthetic  achievements  in any other  order of  architecture  in the world .


In the  centuries  that followed , Buddhism  lost its  hold  over the  Indian  people  and the material  prosperity  of the 5th  century  paved  the path for a  resurgence  of Brahminical   or  Hindu  thought , under  the great  Gupta  dynasty .


Once  re-established  , Hindu  hegemony  maintained  its ascendancy  over the  majority  of the majority  of the Indian  people  for the next  millennium  and this  was  reflected  in the way religious  architecture .


The architectural  output  of  the great  resurgence  under the Guptas   was phenomenal  . It  created   a whole  new  stream  of architectural  tradition , one  which  came  to be  closely  woven  around  the forms  of the Hindu  temples  that  became  powerful  centres  of worship  and learning  in the centuries  that followed .


Until  this period , the  general  plan  of all religious  shrines were, by and large , apsidal .  During  the Gupta  period , the  temple  evolved  from  the simple square  chamber  that existed  in the  early Gupta  shrines  at Sanchi and  Earn  , in  central   India  to a more  elaborate  structure .


After an early  period  of experimentation of Aihole and Badami , two distinct  schools  of temple   architecture  emerged , and  the major  difference   between  them was  the shape of  the temple  spire  that became  the characteristic  feature of the Hindu  temple.


In the north  the spire  , called the  Shikhara,  was more or  less  smoothly  pyramidal  in outline, rising  in an  uninterrupted  slope  to a rounded  top and  pointed  tip.  In the  south  , the  spire

was  called the vimana  and it rose  in a series  of  diminishing  steps  rather   like  a stepped  pyramid  creating  a singular  and distinctive  shape .


The  earliest  example  of the Shikhara and  vimana were  evident in  the raw  masonry  forms of the 6th century  temples at Aihole , Pattadakal  and Badami in modern – day  Karnataka , and were  later refined by the  skill of sculptors  at  Mahaba lipuram near Madras, in the 7th– 8th  century  , who fashioned  a series  of experimental  temples out of  outcrops  of rock , adding yet another  dimension to the traditions  of rock-cut  architecture  in India .


Temple  architecture  was refined   and given  clarity  between  the 10th  and 13th  centuries in the soaring  temples of Khajuraho  in central India., Konarak in eastern India , and Thanjavur  in the south , where the form of the  temple  came to fruition   in triumphantly  confident  structures  that were  rich  and  satisfying .


Intricate carvings on the  surfaces of  these  temples  provided  a rich  texture  to the forms and united  them stylistically , by establishing a uniformity  of treatment in diverse regional  variations.


Thus  developments in the western  states of  Rajasthan  and Gujarat  culminated  in the huge Jain   temples  of Mount Abu  and  Palitana , which  are decorated  with  amazingly  intricate  carvings both  inside  and outside  the shrines.


In Tamil Nadu , vestibules called  gudha  mandapas  and towering  gateways   or gopurams  became  an intrinsic part  of temple design , just as dancing  halls  and ambulatory  paths were  incorporated into the temples of Modhera in Gujarat, Konarak and puri  in Orissa and Khajuraho in central India .


In  Rameshwaram  in the south , kashmir  in the north  and Konarak in the  east , open  courtyards  called  prakamas ,  trefoil arches and chariot-shaped  structures  became  the distinguishing  features  of the temples of  these regions.

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