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Indian Architecture - Influences

( Originally Published 1921 )

I. Geographical.—India, a great triangular peninsula of Southern Asia, covering an area fifteen times the size of Great Britain, is bounded on the north by the Himalaya Mountains and their lateral spurs, and on east, west, and south by the sea. By reason of her geographical position, India in the earliest times received the overflow of the ancient races of Central Asia, and thus was chiefly influenced from the north ; more especially because the absence of good harbours along her coasts did not tend to promote intercourse by sea. The great rivers Ganges, Indus, Nerbudda, Kistna, and Jumna afforded employment to thousands of boatmen, and were utilised for rafting down building-timber from the immense forests ; while cities naturally sprang up on the banks of rivers which were trade routes and highways, and thus the Ganges-Jumna Valley contains some of the principal cities of architectural importance. Delhi, the " Rome of India," covering nearly fifty square miles, was the capital of the Mogul Emperors (p. 85o), and its importance was undoubtedly due to its commanding position at the junction of the four historic roads from the Lower Ganges, the Hindu Kush, the Indus Valley, and the Gulf of Cambay. Delhi is the centre of India, as London is of England, and after having been in succession the capital of Hindu, Mahometan, and Mogul Empires, it has now recently been created the capital of the Empire of India. On the Western Ghats along the coast-line there are rock-cut temples, which in their capitals and columns suggest the influence of Egypt, Persia, and Assyria. The Greek Bactrian Kingdom in the north-west had considerable influence on the architecture, primarily of the Gandhara district, whence it spread over Northern India. The comparatively open country on the east coast was more accessible to civilisation, so that the ancient dynasties of Southern India fixed their capitals there, rather than on the west coast, where there is only a narrow strip of lowland between the Ghats and the seaboard, so that the inhabitants remain, even to this day, aloof from civilising movements. The map (p. 785) with its diagrams taken from Choisy's " Histoire de l'Architecture," indicates the different type of building characteristic of each district of India.

II. Geological.—The excellent building stone in the centre of the peninsula, and in the hill country generally, influenced Indian architecture from the earliest times. The famous pink marble of Rajputana, used in the buildings at Delhi and Agra, the "trap " and granite of the Deccan, the sandstone of certain districts, and the volcanic potstone of Hullabid, all contributed to develop those characteristics which are peculiar to the different localities. In Western India the rock-cut " Chaityas " of the Buddhists were produced in the actual geological formation ; for they were carved in the horizontal strata of the living rock, where it rises sheer from the ground in perpendicular cliffs. At Mahavellipore and Ellora, the Dravidian rock-cut temples, known as " Raths," were hewn out of the amygdaloidal trap formations. Teak, the principal timber of the country, is found on the Eastern and Western Ghats, and in the Himalayas while besides ebony and bamboo there are the palms, which grow mostly on the lowlands of the coast, and supply food, drink, clothing, and building material to the natives. In the low-lying plains of Bengal, the alluvial soil was the only material available for building, which, made into bricks, was used extensively in this district. Terra-cotta seems to have been employed in early times, and the ease with which plastic clay was pressed into moulds may be responsible for some of the exuberance of ornament in later periods. Lime for building was obtained by burning limestone, shells, and kankar, a nodular form of impure lime found in river valleys.

III. Climatic.—India lies mostly within the tropics, and two principal seasons, wet and dry, divide the year. Here, as in Egypt, Assyria, and Persia, flat terraced roofs for coolness, exercise, and sleeping are the rule. The use of the great fan, or punkah, is an indication of the intense heat, which influenced the size and treatment of architectural openings ; thus the pierced screen or lattice window, which is so characteristic a feature of Indian as of all Eastern art, was designed to excude the light and heat caused by the constant sunshine. Canals, reservoirs, and tanks, which are conspicuous in connection with the plans both of temples and palaces, were necessary for irrigation and water-storage during the dry season.

IV. Religious.—The Early Vedic religion, of which the " Rig-Veda " —a collection of poems addressed to the gods—forms the literary memorial, had existed in the sixth century before our era, and long before the rise of Buddhism.

Buddhist.—Gotama or Buddha, the " Enlightened " (B.C. 623–543), who, from the age of thirty-five, spent his life in preaching his new-found faith, was the founder of Buddhism, the religion which was the first great bond of union among the Indian races. The Emperor Asoka (B.C. 272–227) adopted Buddhism, and made it the state religion, as Constantine did with Christianity in the West, and so it remained for nearly a thousand years till A.D. 750. To his reign can be traced the historical architecture of India, an architecture of religion, in which, however, sacred buildings were originally not temples to gods, but monasteries or memorial shrines to holy men. The great Buddhist monastery of Nalanda, south of Patna, accommodating 10,000 priests, existed for the first five hundred years of our era, and corresponded to the European monasteries of the Middle Ages, attracting and disseminating all the learning of the age. The Chinese pilgrims to India in A.D. 400 and A.D. 630 have left interesting descriptions of their visits to this and other buildings. The tenets of Buddhism are inscribed on monuments at Buddh-Gaya, Bharbut, and on " topes" and gateways at Sanchi and elsewhere. Relic worship, which was an essential feature of the Buddhist religion, necessitated the erection of " topes " or " dagobas " to contain relics of saints. The non-Aryan peoples of India introduced tree and serpent worship, which is responsible for many decorative emblems, such as seven-headed serpents, and the celebrated " Bo-Tree " at Anuradhapura, Ceylon, has been worshipped for over two thousand years.

Jaina.—This religion, which seems to have been founded on Buddhism, rose to importance about A.D. 1000, and a statue of one of the twenty-four Jinas or saints, with its distinctive sign, such as a bull, elephant, monkey, crocodile, rhinoceros, or lion, is placed in each temple. The extraordinary number of image cells, 236 in one building, has led to the supposition that the Jams believed the particular saint to whom the temple was dedicated was honoured in direct ratio to the number of his statues. They also regarded temple-building as a virtue, ensuring a happy future state, and this led to the endowment of temples by private individuals. These buildings are conspicuous by numbers rather than by architectural importance.

Hindu.—The modern Hindu religion, generally known as the Brahmanical, from the name of the priestly. order, dates from about A.D. 750. It was a joint product of the Vedic cult,. Buddhism, and Brahmanism, and was, in reality, a social league resting upon caste, a complicated system of division of the people according to race, occupation, and geographical position. The Hindu or Brahmanical religion broadly divided the community into castes, viz.: (a) Brahmans, or priests, law-givers, poets, and scientists ; (b) Rajputs, or landowners and soldiers ; (c) Vaisyas, or Aryan agricultural settlers and craftsmen ; (d) Sudras, or serfs. Each caste became, as it were, a trade guild to whose care was entrusted the manufactures, decorative arts, and working in precious stones. There were few tombs built in this period, for the Brahmanical doctrine of the transmigration of souls did not encourage tomb-building. Monastic life had ceased with the decay of Buddhism, and therefore monasteries were replaced by hypostyle halls, which sheltered pilgrims, and there were sacred lakes occasionally surrounded by porticoes.

The Mahometan religion and the forms in architecture to which it gave rise in India are considered under Indian Saracenie.

V. Social.—The peoples of India consist of (a) The Non-Aryan tribes or aborigines ; (b) the Aryan or Sanskrit-speaking race, which includes Brahmans and Raj puts ; (c) Hindus, a mixed population formed of the above ; (d) Mahometan invaders. These races have really never amalgamated, but have become mixed in varying degrees, and have always remained subject to the unchanging conditions which characterise the East. The chief dividing lines are those of religion and caste, rather than of race and language, and this has naturally produced an architecture which shows little progressive development ; while there is diversity and absence of unity between the different styles in this vast peninsula. The tenure of land by feudal princes produced enormous revenues which were largely spent in the erection of religious monuments for self-gratification. Among the most intellectual class, the spiritual and contemplative aspects of life overshadowed the practical and political, and even influenced architecture, as is seen in the avoidance of constructive problems. Architecture, like other records of events, is silent from the expiring years of Buddhism (A.D. 750) to the commencement of the eleventh century. The " Mahawanso " of Ceylon, however, a series of rock inscriptions, forms a historical record of that island from B.C. 250. The subordination of human personality under the caste system, which divided people into communities rather than into families, was not favourable to domestic architecture, which remained in a rudimentary state. The Sanskrit grammar of Panini, compiled about B.C. 350, is still the foundation of the study of the Aryan language. The epic poems known as the " Mahabbarata " or chronicles of the Delhi Kings up to B.C. 1200, and the " Ramayana," or story of the Aryan advance into Southern India about B.C. 1000, are works by the Brahmans that may be compared to Homer's " Iliad" and Virgil's " AEneid." Sir W. Hunter's " Brief History of the Indian Peoples " forms an excellent resume of Indian art and life.

VI. Historical.—Alexander's conquests in North-West India (B.C. 327) (p. 67) brought that country into touch with European and West Asiatic art ; thus Greek, Assyrian, and Persian influences are apparent in the architectural detail of that region. The Greek Bactrian Kingdom (B.C. 323–130), which, along with India, fell to Seleukos Nikator, one of Alexander's generals and founder of the Syrian monarchy, exercised considerable Classical influence over Northern India. From the time of Alexander to the time of Vasco da Gama (A.D. 1498) Europe had little direct influence on the East. The Tartar or Scythic inroads from B.C. 126 to the fifth century of our era succeeded those of the Greeks. The Mahometan invasion, in the thirteenth century, led to the adoption of Saracenic features, thus producing an Indian version of that style. From A.D. 1746 British rule in India was being consolidated, until in A.D. 1858 the annexation to the British Crown was effected by Royal proclamation, a historic event which has still further promoted an intermingling of European and native art. The selection of Delhi as the capital of the Indian Empire has given an opportunity for English and native talent to produce public buildings in accord with Oriental surroundings and suitable for their Imperial purpose.

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