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Ancient Indian Architecture

Ancient Indian Architecture

The Science of Architecture and Civil Construction was known in
Ancient India as Sthapatya-Shastra. The word Sthapatya is derived from
the root word Sthapana i.e. 'to establish'. The technique of
architecture was both a science and an art, hence it is also known as
Sthapatya-kala, the word Kala means an art.

From very early times the construction of temples, palaces, rest
houses and other civil construction was undertaken by professional
architects known as Sthapati. Even during the Vedic times, there
existed professionals who specialized in the technique of constructing
chariots and other heavy instruments of war. These professionals have
been referred to in the Rig Veda as Rathakara which literally means
'chariot maker'.

The excavations of the ruins at Mohenjodaro and Harrappa (today in
Pakistan) proved the existence of a developed Urban civilization in
India. The Indus valley civilization is dated around 3000 B.C. Thus
since the last 5000 years. India has had an urban civilization. The
existence of an urban civilization presumes the existence of well
developed techniques of architecture and construction.

These techniques would no doubt have had been systematically stated in
record books for transmitting them to the later generations as well
for being used as reference media for actual construction.
Unfortunately, as far as the Indus Valley civilization goes no such
records have been preserved either as rock edicts, manuscripts, etc.,
or in folk tales and legends.

But the fact that cities on the scale of Mohenjodaro had been
constructed bear testimony to the existence of a systematized and
highly developed technique of architecture 5000 years ago.

But in the later ages, from about the 7th century B.C., we have both
literature references as well as archeological evidences to prove the
existence of large urban civilizations in the Ganges Valley. Like in
most other sciences, even remotely connected with religion, in
architecture also the scientific ideas and techniques have been
integrated with philosophy and theology. This was so as the majority
of the large constructions were temples. As the construction of Hindu
temples rarely used mortar but used a technique where the stones could
be affixed to one another with the force of gravity. The technique
followed in doing this was similar to the one used in the Roman
Aqueducts. The exquisite carvings were engraved after the stones had
been fixed in their places. Thus the carving of figurines right up to
the top of a temples roof must have been a demanding task.

Indian techniques of art and architecture spread both westwards and
eastwards. During the reign of Ashoka; Afghanistan, Baluchistan and
Seistan were parts of the Mauryan empire. Buddhist Stupas were
constructed in these Mauryan provinces. Unfortunately, very few of
them have survived till today.

However the huge Boddhisattvas (statues of Buddha) that were cut out
of rock faces covering entire mountain faces and cliffs, have survived
human and natural ravages and can even today be seen at Bamiyan in
Afghanistan. During Kushana times, Central Asia was a part of the
Kushana empire. Indian art blended with Greek and Kushana styles, and
spread into central Asia.

Thus India's cultural frontiers at one time extended up to Balkh
(referred to as Vahalika in Vedic texts) on the river Oxus (Akshu) and
beyond, and played an important role in shaping the art traditions
which flourished between the 1st and the 8th centuries in Central

The Gandhara school of art of Afghanistan and Central Asia was
actually derived from Indian art styles. In fact even the portrait art
of the Oxus region claimed by some scholars to have been an
independent school is actually an extension of Indian art forms.

Besides Central Asia, the whole of Southeast Asia received most its
art and architectural traditions from India. Along with Buddhism,
Indian art and architecture also traveled to countries like Indonesia,
Malaysia, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Burma as also to China,
Korea and Japan. Sri Lanka being on our back door was heavily
influenced by Indian art and architecture.

The Mandala was a blueprint for any Vastu (edifice) Vastu-Shastra was
an amalgam of architecture and theology.


The Stupas in Sri Lanka which belong to the period between the 3rd
Century B.C. to 4th century A.D. follow the Indian pattern of a
hemispherical Stupa shaped like an egg and called Anda.


The inter-locking dome of the Stupa was to be the prototype for the
domes (over Mosques and churches) that were built later by Romans and

The Dome of the Mosques in Islamic Architecture is derived from the

The hemispherical construction of the Stupas also seems to have
influenced Byzantine architecture perhaps through Pre-Islamic,
Sassanian Persia. The famous Sophia mosque at Istanbul overlooking the
Bosphorous Straits has domes which closely resemble the Buddhist
Stupa. In fact th minarets in the mosque were erected late when the
Ottoman Turks captured Istanbul (then called Constantinople) from the
Byzantine Empire in the 15th century.


The dome over this Mosque at Istanbul has borrowed the technique from
the Indian Stupa The mosque, incidentally was built as a Church but
was later converted into a mosque by the conquering Ottoman Turks.

One can imagine that without the minarets, the mosque, which was
originally a Christian Cathedral must have looked very much like a
Stupa. In fact this style of architecture also influenced Islamic
architecture. The dome mosques in all Muslim countries perhaps have
borrowed the style of having dome from the Anda of the Buddhist Stupa.

Indian influences have also felt in Europe Christian Basilicas have
similarities with the Buddhist Stupas. Their mosaics seem have
borrowed ideas from, the Buddhist chaityas. Indian motifs can also be
traced in Gothic sculpture in the carvings in the cathedrals of
Bayeux, Achen and Trier. Though this influence has been indirect and
slight, its existence cannot be denied. But the more pervading
influence of Indian art and architecture through Buddhism was in
countries of south-east Asia.

Bernard Groslier the author of the section on 'Indochina' in the 'Art
of the World Series' has made the following observations about the
influence of Indian Art.

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