Sunday, June 25, 2006

Traditional Indian Architecture: Vicarious Traveling via Flickr

While browsing the deeply-discounted "remaindered" aisles at my local Barnes & Noble, I came across Satish Grover's Masterpieces of Traditional Architecture. It's a coffee-table book with beautiful photographs and appreciative descriptions of fourteen of India's ancient and medieval architectural masterpieces.

In his introduction, Grover points out that the ancient sites in India are all religious (Buddhist, Hindu, Jain, Muslim), not because India was traditionally especially devout. In fact, only the religious structures were carved in stone, so they are the only edifices to survive. The secular architecture of ancient India might have been pretty wonderful too, but those brick and timber buildings have all vanished.

Since I can't do any real traveling this summer because of work, I thought I would link to images on the web of the various monuments in Grover's book as a kind of vicarious travelogue. A lot of people have tagged these sites in their Flickr photos, though for slightly more obscure places like the Karle Caves you have to search on the open internet to see what comes up.

First, one of the oldest of the structures described is the Buddhist temple that has been carved out of a cave at Karle, close to Lonavla in Maharashtra. Building was started at 100 BC, during the height of the earlier, "Hinayana" school of Buddhism (i.e., when the Buddha was not considered a God). The cave is designed to mimic the design features of a wooden temple, and contains flourishes and columns that aren't actually structurally necessary in a cave (they would be if the building were freestanding). In some ways the stone carving is similar to the caves at Ajanta, though Ajanta has wall paintings that Karle lacks.

This reporter from the Tribune went to Karle, and was underwhelmed at the gaudy tourism trade that's opened up outside this truly ancient temple. There's also a Hindu temple to Ekveera Devi that's been built outside of the cave, which is now for most visitors the main attraction. Visitors throw coins and picnic by the Buddhist stupa in the main prayer hall, also called chaitya. Perhaps to avoid all this, one could go at an awkward hour (i.e., early in the morning).

The second ancient monument is also Buddhist, the Sanchi Stupa and temple complex, which is near Bhopal in Madhya Pradesh. Here, Wikipedia has a pretty good description as well as high resolution images. The Stupa was built by Ashoka in the 3rd century BCE to house relics of the Buddha, though additional structures were built over the course of many centuries. This site also has some helpful summaries of the Jataka stories that are represented in the many stone carvings that surround the main Stupa.

One of the earlier temples near the Stupa, oddly, resembles a classical Greek structure because of the design of the pillars. This description of Sanchi, written in 1918, suggests that it might have been the handiwork of foreign stone carvers in India.

My favorite discovery from Grover's book is the Kailashnath Temple (sometimes spelled "Kailashnatha"). This is a beautiful site, carved out of a huge slab of basalt rock. This temple is the heart of the Ellora caves (which also have Buddhist and Jain caves/carvings), and it was built starting in the 7th century C.E.

Here Professor Fran Pritchett's site at Columbia University has the best images. I would especially recommend this page, which has early British engravings of the temple. In the various close-ups one finds, the carvings look truly stupendous; check out this image, depicting the story of the Ramayana carved on a large slab of rock. Wow; this site is high up there on my "must visit" list.

Then of course, there's Khajuraho, which everyone knows about -- but how many people actually visit the site? (I won't link to specific images for obvious reasons, but if you do a search in Flickr or Google Images there is a lot to choose from.) In addition to being "ancient porn," as one Flickr commentor bluntly put it, the sixteen temples at Khajuraho really are beautiful structures. The question of what inspired these erotic carvings, and how they fit into the local Hindu religious rituals, is one that is seriously worth pondering. (One of Grover's speculations is that the carvers might have been from a local tribe or cult, bringing in ideas from outside of Hinduism.)

The Konark Sun Temple in Orissa, built in the 13th century, appears to be a glorious architctural experiment that didn't quite come off as planned. The shikharas, or spires on the top of this temple collapsed some time after it was built, and the temple was on the verge of collapse when the British took charge of its restoration in the mid-19th century. Their efforts, and subsequent efforts by the government of India, have kept it standing, but you can't actually go inside. See Wikipedia, as well as this Indian history site

There aren't a lot of good shots on the internet of the Dilwara Jain Temples in Rajasthan. You get good exterior shots, but I haven't been able to find the beautiful interior carvings reproduced in Grover's book on the internet. These temples were built in the 11th-13th centuries, and were carved entirely out of white marble. Grover doesn't claim that there is a special, Jain architectural style, but he does suggest that these temples are demonstrations of the Jain community's wealth and influence.

One group that did obviously bring a distinctive architectural style were the successive waves of Muslim rulers. Besides the Taj Mahal, the Qutub Minar, and Fatehpur Sikri (all of which have entries in Grover's book) there are places like Gol Gumbaz, the mausoleum of Adil Shah. It was built in the mid 1600s in Bijapur, and it is one of the largest one-piece domes ever constructed. (See this Flick image). Unfortunately, the inside of the building is dark and effectively unadorned. (This is where you wonder if religious devotion impeded the imagination of the builders.)

(If you read the Wikipedia entry on Gol Gumbaz, you'll find a link to an entry on the architecture of Domes in general, which is pretty informative. I now know what "squinches" and "pendentives" are!)

There are several other sites mentioned in Grover's book, but I think I'll end with the Meenakshi Temple at Madurai. This is one of the most widely photographed temple sites in India, and you can see why: it's a huge temple (built in the 1500s), surrounded by nine massive, beautifully decorated Gopurams (gates). Here is a beautiful image taken at night. And here is one taken at dusk. (Seriously, click on those; you won't regret it.) Another must-visit site for me at least.

[Cross-posted at Sepia Mutiny]


tilotamma said...

Oh yes please go Madurai to see the temple once. Ashok the architect from Madurai could be your guide.

Sunil said...

One little interesting thing about the sun temple in Konark is that it was never used as a place of worship......because according to legend the temple spire couldn't be completed. But then the chief architect's son showed up (not having seen his father for 10 years), and came up with a perfect solution. The other builders and architects were jealous of the chief architect's son (since he did in a day what they couldn't do in years), so killed him the night before the temple was to be consecrated. Because of this death, the temple became "unpious" or something like that, and so the king ordered that there should be no worship there!

Panini Pothoharvi said...

A fact about Khajuraho: the temple wouldn't have been possible without an incredibly huge amount of money by some moneybag. The so-called 'temple', as such, reflects an unmistakably money-driven take on Hinduism. The consequent voyeurism it invites is similarly explanable. The same holds true for Konark. These are no religious temples. These are quite visibly the products of economically privileged cosmologies. Take a look around and you would come to staggering conclusions about the Birla Mandirs and modern day Akshardams mushrooming in contemporary India. Architecture of the kind discussed here is not religious as so erroneously pointed out by Prof Amardeep. They do not represent people's spaces - the so-called public sphere. It is not a surprise therefore that the peoples spaces such as Mohanjodaro, Harappa, Sanghol, Takshila and Nalanda do not figure anywhere in this discussion.

Mahesh said...

the madurai meenakshi temple is a truly wonderful architectural masterpiece. the sheer scale of the construction is awesome and must be seen to be believed. however, i was under the impression that it was destroyed during a war in the 17th century and rebuilt, so none of the original structures are extant.

sushilsingh said...

Konark Sun Temple is located , in the state of Orissa near the sacred city of Puri. The sun Temple of

Konark is dedicated to the sun God or Surya. It is a masterpiece of Orissa's medieval architecture.

Sun temple has been declared a world heritage site by UNESCO.
Please Visit For More Detail

sandeep said...

Introduction of Ajanta Caves (UNESCO-World Heritage Site)

Among the most important monuments in India are the magnificent caves at Ajanta and Ellora, both featuring some of the world’s most exquisite rock carvings. At Ajanta and Ellora, statues and monumental structures were chipped out of solid basalt rock, where as at Ajanta, one can also see the most remarkable cave paintings which has survived over the centuries.

The caves are now like chapters of splendid epic in visual form, recalling the life of the Buddha, and illustrating tales from Buddhist Jatakas(fables). They are cut from the volcanic lavas of the Deccan trap into a steep crescent-shaped hillside in a forested ravine of the Sahyadri Hills. After the late seventh century, the jungle took over and they lay unnoticed for centuries. These caves were only rediscovered in 1819, by a group of British tiger hunters.

The caves at Ajanta not only contain sculptures, but remarkably preserved frescoes as well. The frescoes and sculptures of Ajanta are from the heavy period after the death of Buddha when the priests felt the need to give a representational form to their teachings, of Buddha to proliferate. Thus began the process of Buddhism acquiring some of the sensuousness of Hinduism. They are secluded and were discovered by accident only in the 19th century, which explains why the monuments escaped the depredations of invading armies.

The miraculously preserved paintings and sculptures that decorate 30 Ajanta caves cut into the basalt rock of a beautiful crescent-shaped gorge provide the most extensive idea of early Buddhist artistic traditions in India. They are also the sources for iconography and styles found in later Central Asian and Far Eastern Buddhist Art.

The Ajanta caves date mostly from two periods: the second and first centuries B.C., then the late fifth century A.D., when the Vakataka rulers, especially Harishena, were energetic patrons. These caves contain the most impressive sculptures, ranging from votive images to narrative tableaus with many figures and an elaborate decorative motif.
Ajanta caves also have India’s only extensive series of Buddhist paintings of such virtuosity, quality, and wide range of subjects. The masterpieces retell the life story of the Buddha and reveal the life and culture of the people of the times, royal court settings, family life, street scenes and superb studies of animals and birds. The Jatakas relate the Buddha’s previous two births-showing the progress of the soul. Ajanta's excavations are adorned with a swirling profusion with murals.

Over the period of seven centuries, the cave temples of Ajanta evolved into works of incredible art. Architectures continue to be awestruck by the sheer brilliance of the ancient builders and techniques, which, undaunted by the limitations of their tools, materials, and skills, created a marvel of artistic and architectural splendour. In all, 30 caves were carved, 15 of which were left unfinished; some of them were viharas (monasteries) complete with stone pillows carved onto the monks’ stone beds and others were chaityas (Buddhist cathedrals).

All the caves with intricate sculptures and murals depict the many incarnations of Buddha.
The first to be excavated was Cave 10, followed by the first Hinayana caves (in which the Buddha is not depicted in human form), on either side. Later Mahayana caves were discovered, completing the spectrum of Buddhist development in India.

Time has taken its toll on many of the murals, and modern- day restoration projects have even contributed to the near- ruin of some of the work. Despite this, the paintings continue to enthral, and it’s hard to imagine the patience and profound sense of spiritual duty and devotion that led to the creation of this, arguably the best Buddha site in India, the voluptuousness of much of the imagery.

Explore the incredible Ajanta Caves, Ellora Caves - The UNESCO World Heritage Sites In Maharashtra!.