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]