By 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.