Arts _ Culture Compilations Part 1 (Chapter 6 INDIAN ARCHITECTURE)

Indus Valley Civilization

The Indus civilization flourished during the Bronze Age i.e. 2500-2000 BC. Extensive excavation work has so far identified more than 100 sites belonging to this civilization. Some of the important sites are Dholavira (Gujarat), Kalibangan (Rajasthan), Lothal (Gujarat), Sarkotada (Gujarat), Diamabad (Maharashtra), Alamgirpur (U.P.), Bhagwanpura (Haryana), Banawali (Haryana), Kuntasi, Padri (Gujarat) and Mauda (Jammu). The first of its cities to be unearthed was located at Harappa, excavated in the 1920s in the Punjab province of British India (now in Pakistan).

Characteristic features

The Indus Valley is one of the world’s earliest urban civilizations, along with its contemporaries, Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt. At its peak, the Indus Civilization may have had a population of well over five million.

  • Extensive town planning was the characteristic of this civilization, which is evident from the gridiron pattern for the layout of cities, some with fortifications and the elaborate drainage and water management systems.
  • The grid layout planning of the cities with roads at exact right angles is a modern system that was implemented in the cities of this particular civilization.
  • The houses were built of baked bricks. Bricks of fixed sizes, as well as stone and wood were also used for building. 
  • Buildings in the lower area are rather monotonous, being mainly functional rather than decorative.
  • The most imposing of the buildings is the Great Bath of Mohenjodaro. It is 54.86 metres long and 32.91 metres wide and with 2.43 metres thick outer walls. The Bath had galleries and rooms on all sides.
  • Another important structure was the Granary complex comprising of blocks with an overall area of 55 x 43 metres. The granaries were intelligently constructed, with strategic air ducts and platforms divided into units.

The Mauryan Period

Other than the remnants of Indus valley civilization, the earliest surviving architectural heritage in India is that of the Mauryans.

Initial period

Some of the monuments and pillars belonging to this period are considered as the finest specimens of Indian art. The Mauryan architecture was embalmed in timber, for rocks and stones were not as freely in use then. The art of polishing of wood reached so much perfection during the Mauryan period that master craftsmen used to make wood glisten like a mirror.

In 300 B.C., Chandragupta Maurya constructed a wooden fort 14.48 km long and 2.41km wide, along the Ganges in Bihar. However, only a couple of teak beams have survived from this fort. Ashoka Ashoka was the first Mauryan Emperor who began the stone architecture. The stonework of the Ashokan Period (3rd century B.C.) was of a highly diversified order and comprised of lofty free-standing pillars, railings of the stupas, lion thrones and other colossal figures. While most of the shapes and decorative forms employed were indigenous in origin, some exotic forms show the influence of Greek, Persian and Egyptian cultures.

The Ashokan period marked the beginning of the Buddhist School of architecture in India. It witnessed the construction of many rock-cut caves, pillars, stupas and palaces. A number of cave-shrines belonging to this period have been excavated in the Barabar and Nagarjuni hills and Sitamarhi in Bihar. The caves are are simple in plan and are devoid of all interior decorative carvings. They served as the residences of the monks.

There are several inscriptions, which indicate that these rock-cut sanctuaries were constructed by Emperor Ashoka for the monks of the Ajivika sect, who are more closely related to the Jains than to the Buddhists.

The Ashokan rock-edict at Dhauli, near Bhubaneshwar, is considered to be the earliest rock-cut sculpture in India. It has a sculpted elephant on the top, which signifies the Emperor’s conversion to Buddhism after his Kalinga victory.

Ashokan Pillars

The monolithic Ashokan pillars are marvels of architecture and sculpture. These were lofty free standing monolithic columns erected on sacred sites. Each pillar was about 15.24 metres high and weighed about 50 tonnes and was made out of fine sandstone. They carried declarations from the king regarding Buddhism or any other topic. The pillars have four component parts.

  • The shafts are always plain and smooth, circular in cross-section, slightly tapering upwards and always chiselled out of a single piece of stone.
  • The capitals have the shape and appearance of a gently arched bell formed of lotus petals.

iii. The abaci are of two types: square and plain and circular and decorated and these are of different proportions.

iv. The crowning animals are either seated or standing, always in the round and chiseled as a single piece with the abaci.

The Sarnath pillar is one of the finest pieces of sculpture of the Ashokan period erected in 250 BC. Here, four lions are seated back to back. The four lions symbolize power, courage, confidence and pride. This Lion Capital of Ashoka from Sarnath has been adopted as the National Emblem of India and the wheel “Ashoka Chakra” from its base was placed onto the centre of the National Flag of India. At present the Column remains in the same place where as Lion Capital is at the Sarnath Museum.

The Stupas

Stupa is a mound-like structure containing Buddhist relics, typically the ashes of deceased, used by Buddhists as a place of meditation. Ashoka was responsible for the construction of several stupas, which were large halls, capped with domes and bore symbols of the Buddha. The most important ones are located at Bharhut, Bodhgaya, Sanchi, Amravati and Nagarjunakonda.

Built for a variety of reasons, Buddhist stupas are classified based on form and function into five types:

1. Relic Stupa – in which the relics or remains of the Buddha, his disciples and lay saints are interred.

2. Object stupa – in which the items interred are objects belonged to the Buddha or his disciples such as a begging bowl or robe, or important Buddhist scriptures.

3. Commemorative stupas – built to commemorate events in the lives of Buddha or his disciples.

4. Symbolic stupa – to symbolise aspects of Buddhist theology, for example, Borobuddur is considered to be the symbol of “the Three Worlds (dhatu) and the spiritual stages (bhumi) in a Mahayana bodhisattva’s character.”

5. Votive stupas – constructed to commemorate visits or to gain spiritual benefits, usually at the site of prominent stupas which are regularly visited.

The shape of the stupa represents the Buddha, crowned and sitting in meditation posture on a lion throne. His crown is the top of the spire; his head is the square at the spire’s base; his body is the vase shape; his legs are the four steps of the lower terrace; and the base is his throne. The stupa represent the five purified elements:

  • The square base represents earth
  • The hemispherical dome/vase represents water
  • The conical spire represents fire
  • The upper lotus parasol and the crescent moon represents air
  • The sun and the dissolving point represents the element of space

Sanchi Stupa:

  • Apart from the than ruins of stupa at Piprahwa (Nepal), the core of stupa No 1 at Sanchi can be considered as the oldest of the stupas. 
  • Originally built by Asoka, it was enlarged in subsequent centuries. An inscription by the ivory carvers of Vidisha on the southern gateway throws light on the transference of building material from perishable wood and ivory to the more durable stone.

Amaravati Stupa:

  • Amaravati stupa, built in 2nd or 1st century BC was probably like the one at Sanchi, but in later centuries it was transformed from a Hinayana shrine to a Mahayana shrine. 
  • Amaravati stupa is different from the Bharhut and Sanchi stupas. It had free-standing columns surmounted by lions near the gateways. The dome was covered with sculptured panels.
  • The stupa had an upper circumambulatory path on the drum as at Sanchi. This path had two intricately carved railings. The stone is greenish-white limestone of the region.

Bharhut stupa:

  • The Bharhut stupa may have been established by the Maurya king Asoka in the 3rd century BCE, but many works of art were apparently added during the Sunga period, with many friezes from the 2nd century BCE. 
  • The stupa (now dismantled and reassembled at Kolkata Museum) contains numerous birth stories of the Buddha’s previous lives, or Jataka tales.

Gandhara stupa:

  • The Gandhara stupa is a further development of stupas at Sanchi and Bharhut.
  • In Gandhara stupas the base, dome and the hemisphere dome are sculpted. The stupa tapers upward to form a tower like structure. 
  • The stupas of Nagarjunakonda in Krishna valley were very large. At the base there were brick walls forming wheel and spokes, which were filled with earth. The Maha Chaitya of Nagarjunakonda has a base in the form of Swastika, which is a sun symbol. 

The Sungas, Kushans and Satavahanas

After the death of Ashoka Mauryan dynasty came to an end and the Sungas and Kushans ruled in the north and the Satavahanas in the south. These dynasties made advances in art and architecture in areas like stone construction, stone carving, symbolism and beginning of temple (or chaitya hall) and the monastery (or vihara) constructions.

The period between 2nd century B.C. and 3rd century A.D. marked the beginning of the sculptural idiom in Indian sculpture where the elements of physical form were evolving into a more refined, realistic and expressive style.

  • Under these dynasties the Asokan stupas were enlarged and the earlier brick and wood works were replaced with stone-works. The Sanchi Stupa was enlarged to nearly twice its size in 150 B.C. and elaborate gateways were added later. The Sungas reconstructed the railings around the Barhut Stupa and built the toranas or the gateways.
  • The Satavahanas constructed a large number of stupas at Goli, Jaggiahpeta, Bhattiprolu, Gantasala, Nagarjunakonda and Amravati. 
  • During the Kushan period, the Buddha was represented in human form instead of symbols. Buddha’s image in endless forms and replicas became the principal element in Buddhist sculpture during the Kushan period.
  • The Kushans were the pioneers of the Gandhara School of Art and a large number of monasteries; stupas and statues were constructed during the reign of Kanishka.

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