Architecture and Engineering on the Indian Subcontinent

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Architecture and Engineering on the Indian Subcontinent


By 1000 b.c. India and China had both developed civilizations that were independent of and would ultimately outlive those of their neighbors in Egypt and Mesopotamia. Objects of daily life found in villages in India today, such as the bullock cart and potter's wheel, are identical to those used thousands of years ago and testify to the continuity of Indian life despite a wave of invasions over millenia. Religion is also part of that continuity: it has consistently formed the basis of the social structure in the country. That reality is reflected in the art and architecture of India, which are a genuine expression of its civilization.


The earliest Indian art and architecture emerged from the valley of the Indus River around 2500 b.c. The best-known sites are Harappa, which was destroyed in the nineteenth century, and Mohenjo-Daro. Each city was fortified by citadels built on artificial oblong platforms large enough to include public buildings as part of the structure. In the cities themselves, houses, markets, and administrative buildings were arranged in a gridlike fashion. Dwelling houses were functional and plain, and ranged from two-room cottages to three-story palaces. Most dwellings had a central courtyard, surrounded by rooms for different purposes. The ground floor of an average house was 30 square feet (9 square m). The inner walls were coated with mud plaster, and the outer walls were made of plain brick. Residental quarters were varied by occupational groups. For example, at Mohenjo-Daro, workmen lived in parallel rows of two-room cottages. The great bath at Mohenjo-Daro was a rectangular bathing pool made of handsome brickwork sealed with bitumen to keep it water-tight. It could be drained in one corner. The bath also featured rows of small private chambers around the pool, and stairways leading down into the water.

Houses sometimes had indoor wells. Most had bathrooms that drained to sewers under the main streets. In fact, the drainage systems at Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro were state of the art until the arrival of Roman civilization. Burnt brick was used for construction throughout the Indus River valley, and the consistency in the size of the bricks suggests a standardized system of weights and measures.

The style of building was elegant but austere. The only architectural ornamentation was simple decorative brickwork. No monumental sculptures have been found, though the civilization produced a plethora of small objects such as toys with wheels, statuettes, and figurines. These objects, as well as bronze and copper implements, indicate a high degree of craftsmanship. The Indus Valley civilization thrived for a millenium, and then went into decay and disappeared around 1700 b.c. for reasons that are still unknown.

At the same time, Aryan invaders with superior military technology began migrations to India. The Aryans were a nomadic people, not taken to living in cities, and after the fall of Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro, the region became one of little villages with buildings of wood and reed. Aryans were skilled bronzesmiths, and their tools and weapons were superior to those of Indus Valley civilization. But their culture was oriented around warfare, and there are few traces of it from the period stretching from c. 1700 b.c. until Alexander the Great of Macedon (356-323 b.c.) crossed the Indus River in 325 b.c

Alexander did not linger in India, but his invasion had the effect of paving the way for the Maurya dynasty (c. 325-c. 183 b.c.). By this time, small towns and trade routes existed all over northern India. Buddhism, which arrived in India in the sixth century b.c., was a reaction against Hinduism, but coexisted alongside it. To proclaim his devotion to the Buddha, Emperor Asoka (d. 232 b.c.) erected edict pillars, tall monolithic columns that show mastery of stonework but serve no architectural purpose. He also dug wells at intervals along roads and set up rest houses for travelers.

The early Buddhist period is notable for the appearance of stupas, hemispherical mounds built to house the relics of the Buddha. The core of the stupa was fashioned of unburnt brick, and the outer face was constructed from burnt brick covered with a thick layer of plaster. At the top of the structure was an umbrella of wood or stone. The stupa was surrounded by a wooden fence that enclosed a path for people to walk around. Over time, Indian stupa architecture became increasingly ornate. Carved railings, terraces, and gateways appeared. The Stupa of Amaravati, completed c. a.d. 200, featured two promenades adorned with carved panels. In the north of India, stupas were taller in proportion to their bases, and often set on square platforms. One of the most famous stupas, which has been called a Buddhist wonder of the world, was the great tower raised by King Kanishka in Peshawar. According to the description of a Chinese traveler to the site, this monument incorporated many varieties of wood in a 13-story structure rising to a height of 700 feet (213 m). The platform was decorated with stucco images of the Buddha. The stupa was dominated by an iron mast that supported 13 gilded copper umbrellas. This feature proved to be the monument's undoing when it was hit by lightning.

The earliest freestanding religious building of which traces remain is a small round hall made of brick and wood that dates from the third century b.c. No temples survive previous to the Gupta period, but from that era forward, temples show a general pattern: small, with flat roofs and ornate pillars. The masonry is joined without mortar, which betrays a certain inexpertise of the builders. But by the sixth century, temple masonry was held together by iron dowels, and covered walks surrounded the buildings.

The Gupta dynasty (a.d. 320-600) oversaw the greatest cultural age in India. Architecture, sculpture, and painting all flourished, and their grandeur has not diminished with time. Chaitya halls, monastic sanctuaries hewn out of rock, evolved from simple structures to complexes of caves with elaborately carved facades and painted interiors. The most famous of these cave groups are the 27 caves at Ajanta, and those at Ellora, near Aurangabad. The cave temples at Elephanta, an island off Mumbai (formerly Bombay), contain exquisite sculptures.

The resurgence of the Indian empire under Harsha in 606 was the catalyst for another wave of construction, most notably in the capital city, Kanauj. Monumental stone architecture appeared only as Buddhism was beginning to die out in India. One example is the Pancha Rathas (c. 650) at Mahabalipuram, which are five small monolithic shrines cut out of live rock.


Art in the true sense of the word did not appear in India until the Maurya period in the third century b.c. The style of buildings and artefacts from the Indus Valley civilization cannot be said to show an aesthetic intent. Perhaps the intent existed, but will never be known, since after the cities vanished the culture was not picked up by the invading Aryans. Writing, for example, which appears on seals from Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro, disappeared and did not return until the middle of the first millennium b.c.

Of the intervening centuries, little remains until the stone-carving of the Mauryas. The edict pillars of Emperor Asoka were used to propagate official messages. Etched into their smooth surfaces were recommendations to the emperor's subjects that laid out a new social philosophy of dignity, religious tolerance, and nonviolence. The pillars, which were erected throughout north India, were a focus for political and social unity. Artistically, they represented the culmination of a native tradition of stonework.

In India, art and religion are synonymous. The purpose of art in India is to communicate great truths to humankind. Indian religious sculptures and paintings reveal the personality of the gods (Buddhist and Hindu texts state that the way to heaven is to make images). Nor is it possible to sort out art from religion from architecture. Architecture and sculpture are always complementary. The stupa represented a cosmic mountain. The temple was a model of the universe. Workers dedicated to the Indian temple relied on manuals of aesthetic procedure to guide them in architecture, sculpture, and painting.

The Gupta dynasty marked an important stage in Indian aesthetic development. For one thing, Indian artistic life came to maturity during this period, For another, the aesthetic conceptions of the Buddhists and Hindus began to diverge. For the first time, also, free-standing structures were constructed from lasting materials. The stone temples built during this period were unsurpassed up to the Muslim era. A particular kind of bell-shaped stupa spread throughout Southeast Asia.

Secular art in India was essentially unknown, which is a disadvantage in the sense that very little is known about the material life of the inhabitants of the subcontinent for a very long time. What is left, however, is a window into their minds. The gods and demons that figured in Hindu and Buddhist religious representations in the long ago past are the same that figure in village shrines all over India today. The ingenuity that went into the building of temples and other religious structures made them centers both for local worship as well as for pilgrimages, which in turn transformed the greatest of them into small, wealthy cities.

Technical achievement in India was not negligible. The Indus Valley civilization testified to advanced concepts of town planning, as well as water management and flood control. Such was the skill of Indian spinners and weavers that their silks and muslins were in demand in the Roman Empire. The monolithic columns of Mauryan times were carved from single blocks of stone that weighed up to 50 tons, and were polished and transported many hundreds of miles, all by a process has never been fully explained. Similarly, the Iron Pillar of Meharauli stands over 23 feet (7 m) high and is made of a single piece of iron. The craftsmen who fashioned it must have been extremely skilled metallurgists: it still shows no signs of rusting. Boats were used to carry goods and people along the great rivers. They also provided ferry services, since rivers crossed by major roads were not bridged. But oceangoing vessels were rarer. In the words of the scholar A. L. Basham, superstitions about sailing the sea made India "a nation of landlubbers."


Further Reading

Basham, A. L., ed. A Cultural History of India. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975.

Basham, A. L. The Wonder That Was India. New York: Grove Press, 1954.

Kramrisch, Stella. The Hindu Temple. 2 vols. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidas, 1976.

Rowland, Benjamin. The Art and Architecture of India. Melbourne: Penguin, 1953.

Zimmer, Heinrich. The Art of Indian Asia. 2 vols. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1955.

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Architecture and Engineering on the Indian Subcontinent

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