5000 Years of Indian Architecture
Perhaps no branch of human culture reflects with greater exactitude the
progress or decadence of man than architecture. In the progress of architecture
from the most primitive types of human habitation of magnificent temples and
palaces, we can discover the ceaseless effort of man to express his social
and religious environment and his attitude towards life. In the development of
architecture, we can also detect the aesthetic taste which actuated man to
combine beauty with utility. The progress of Indian architecture from the
primitive to the sophisticated was no exception to this historical
The earliest phase of Indian architecture may be seen from the remains of the
ancient cities of the Indus Valley culture datable to c. 3000 B.C. From the
excavated remains at Mohenjo-daro in Sindh and Harappa in
Punjab, it is evident that the Indian cities at that early period were
scientifically laid out. There were broad roads and smaller lanes with shops and
booths. The houses were probably of the story or more. The roofs were of stamped
clay. practically every house had a bathroom which was always placed on the
street side of the building for the convenient disposal of water. There was
adequate arrangement for drainage. A brick-lined channel flowed down every
street and into this main drain ran smaller tributary drains from the houses on
either side. An important feather of the drainage system was the provision of
large brick culverts with corbelled roofs built on the outskirts of the city to
carry away storm water. The houses were also provided with brick-lined wells.
Govt. of India/Kamat's Potpourri
Drainage System at Mojenjo-daro
At Harappa, the remains of one of the structures has twelve parallel
walls. We are unable to determine the exact significance of this structure but
it might have been a gigantic storehouse. At Mohenjo-daro, some buildings
have cup-like depressions at street corners. These depressions probably served
as receptacles for large jars.
One of the most important constructions at Mohenjo-daro is the large bath
built entirely of burnt bricks which could be entered at either end by means of
a staircase. The broad walk at the top of the bath rested on cells filled with
clay. There were walls with openings which provided access to a cloistered walk
running round the bath. The eight bathrooms, to the north of the bath were
provided with stairways probably leading to an upper story. The exact
significance of this great bath and smaller baths has not yet been discovered,
but it probable that bathing was a ritual with the people of Mohenjo-daro.
The history of Indian architecture between the Indus Valley period,
which came to an end some time in the 2nd millennium B. C., and the 4th century
B.C. is very meager. We have to depend entirely on literature to fill this gap.
From Vedic evidence, it seems possible that the idea of the fortified town
was adopted by the Vedic Aryans from their Dasa enemies, though so
far it has not been possible to connect these Dasas with the Indus Valley
The Vedic house was not a very elaborate affair and the people lived
mostly in thatches houses with several rooms. The house was often provided with
a central hall and several other rooms which were used for storing and living
In the epics and Buddhist literature, references are made to will-built
cities and sumptuous palaces. These cities and palaces seem to have followed the
same plan as that of the city of Pataliputra which, according to Megasthenes
(4th century B.C.), occupied a narrow parallelogram and was provided with
stupendous palisades with loopholes for archers. There was a deep moat around
it. The rampart had as many as sixty-four gates. The royal palace was was a
spacious building, the main part of which consisted of a series of hypostyle
V.N. O'key/Kamat's Potpourri
Ashokan Pillar, Sarnath
The architecture of the Asokan period (c. 273-237 B.C.) gains in
magnificence, as for the first time stone was employed instead of wood. The
great art of the Asokan period is mainly represented by the monolithic pillars
on which edicts were engraved. The famous capital of the Sarnath pillar
consists of four adorned lions which originally supported the Wheel of Law
resting on the abacus bearing in relief an elephant, a horse, a bull and a lion.
In other extant examples, the crowning member consisted of a bull or wheel. The
pillars were highly polished. There are also excavated halls of the Asokan
period in the Barabar hills. Of these, the Sudama cave consists of a
circular chamber and an ante-chamber with side entrances. The remains of Asoka's
palace at Pataliputra show that it was planned on the model of pillared
halls of the Achaemenid kings of Persepolis.
Indian architecture between 200 B.C. and 20 A.D. continued to maintain the
progress made in the Asokan period. The improvement in the cave architecture may
be seen in the old vihara at Bhaja near Poona datable to 2nd century
B.C. It is remarkable for its unique relieves, one of them being identified by
Dr. Coomaraswamy as Indra riding his Airavata. Bedsa and other
caves near Poona of the same period consist of a nave, apse and aisle, the apse containing
a solid stupa and the aisle continuing round the apse, thus providing the
The Chaitya hall at Karle, which may be dated to the 1st century
B.C., is a magnificent example of cave architecture. Its horseshoe windows,
great pillars and finely carved relieves win our admiration.
The remains of the railings and gateways of the Bharhut stupa may be
dated back to c. 150 B.C. The railing pillars and the gateways are decorated
with the figures of the guardian Yakshas and Yakshis, Nagarajas,
birth-stories of the Buddha called Jatakas, floral, animal and other
motifs. The Buddha himself does not appear and the chief events in his life a
represented by symbols.
There was a special type of temple connected with the Bodhi-tree at the
Gaya. On the strength of certain reliefs raging from eh 2nd century
B.C. to the 2nd century A.D., it could be said that this temple was made of a
gallery with vaulted roof and Chaitya windows of the usual type supported by
pillars and with the ground plan like a Maltese cross.
The Sanchi stupas are of different periods. The core of the stupa No. 1
was probably built in the Mauryan age. The stupas Nos. 2 and 3 are of Sungan
origin and the gateways of the Nos. 1 and 3 belong to the Satavahana period
(72-25 B.C.) The reliefs on No. 2 are related to the Bharhut style, but
there are some reliefs which exhibit greater knowledge of spatial relation which
is attributed to the hypothetical influence of Bactrian Hellenistic art, but
its more natural explanation would be the stylistic advance of Indian art.
The reliefs of the Great Gateway are marvels of decorative story-telling.
The principal themes are drawn from the life of the Buddha and from the Jatakas.
The bigger compositions were attempted on torana architraves.
The excavations at Taxila and elsewhere have provided us with material
relating to the development of architecture between 78 and 302 A.D. The
architectural style in the monasteries is fundamentally Indian, but numerous
motifs, for instance, the Corinthian capital, pediments, entablatures, moldings,
etc., are of debased classical order. A typical Gandharan monastery consists
mainly of two structures, the stupa and the monastery with the aggregate of
Among the great monuments of the Deccan during this period may be
mentioned the Great Stupa at
Amaravati which, though originally built in the
2nd century B.C., was provided with sculptured casing slabs and railings in the
1st, 2nd and 3rd centuries A.D. On the drum of the stupa were four projecting
offsets facing each of the entrances and each displaying five pillars called Aryaka
Kahambhas. The stupa was surrounded by a rail. The subject-matter of
decoration are rosettes, garland-carrying erotes, Jataka stories, walled
and moated cities, palace buildings, toranas, stupas, etc. The technical
proficiency of the Amaravati reliefs makes them the most fascinating and
expressive of the rasa of Indian sculpture.
There is little doubt that Indian architecture and sculpture attained their
zenith in the Gupta period and are best represented in temple architecture,
of which a few examples are given here.
The famous Dhamekh stupa at Saranath near Banaras datable to the
6th century A.D. is characterized by exquisitely carved ornaments, geometrical
and floral. The Ajanta monolithic Caves Nos. XVI, XVII and XIX are
distinguished for the beauty of their pillars and their facade decorations. The
Chaitya windows with their double row of cornices in Cave No. XIX at once
attract our attention. A good example of the apsidal temples of the Gupta period is the one at
Ter. Among flat-roofed shrines, a prominent place
must be given to the flat-roofed temples at Sanchi and Bhumara. The Siva
temple at Bhumara consists of a flat roof and decorated windows. It was
provided with a variety of richly carved sculptures. The famous Mahabodhi
temple at Bodh Gaya, in spite of its restoration, probably maintains its
form of the early Gupta period. it consists of a high straight-edged pyramidal
tower of nine stories.
Source: 5000 Years of Indian Architecture, The Publications Division,
Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Government of India, 1951, New Delhi.