Indian Heritage Architecture 101

India has witnessed the emergence of several architectural forms, some of which stemmed from within its frontiers and some through foreign influence. It would also be fairly accurate to state that architectural styles never developed in a purely unique form; they took on the characteristics of other prevailing styles leading to a hybrid form. Indian heritage architecture includes styles ranging from the sacred shrines and structures of the Mauryan Empire (321 to 185 BC); cave temples and monasteries preceding and during the Mauryan period; the most recognizable temple architecture during the Gupta Dynasty (4th – 6th Century AD); the great stone temples of the Medieval Period (spanning 6th century AD to early modern period); the mosques, tombs and mausoleums of the Islamic tradition during the Sultanate Era; the exquisite architectural works of the Mughal Dynasty; the Baroque and Neo-classical styles introduced by the foreign occupants; finally culminating in the Gothic revival, Indo-Saracenic styles and the Modernist styles. The eras are quite distinct in the time period, but the materials used; architectural designs and workmen, very often overlapped across the styles, creating an unmatched amalgam, which was to become one of the staple features of Indian Heritage Architecture.

From the above, it is quite apparent that dynasties played a pivotal role in furthering architectural styles, just as in the case of art, music, religion and general civic and political discourse. On the one hand, religion was furthered based on personal ideologies, through setting up sacred shrines, structures, pillars or even secular palaces (exemplary palace at Pataliputra, Kumrahar) by powerful rulers such as King Ashoka; on the other hand, the double dome, recessed archway and park-resembling surroundings are characteristic of the Shahjahan era which saw a fusion of Persian, Indian and provincial styles. Prior to the development of stone temples in India, during the Gupta Dynasty, we saw the preponderance of wood (and brick) as building material and therefore little remains, post the climatic onslaught. But sculpture formed such an intrinsic part of architecture that, most of the buildings were depicted on relief sculptures, giving us a sense of what existed in reality. In fact, sculpture, in its most profound sense was nothing but architecture when it was used in the rock-cut and cave temples, mostly in Western India.[1]

It is noteworthy to mention here that these unparalleled architectural creations spread across what we know today as the Indian Sub-continent (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and neighbouring countries). While India boasts of 32 cultural ‘properties inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List [2]’; this achievement wouldn’t have been possible without the architectural genius of the local craftsmen and skilled workers; patronage from artistically and culturally evolved royalty and highly significant influence of foreign trade, invasion and occupation. So, what transpired was a fortunate fusion of a variety of conducive factors, which gave us some of the most brilliant examples of architecture in the world. This came to be eventually known as ‘Indian Heritage Architecture’.

Early Architecture
The earliest example of architecture is in the Indus Valley Civilization[3] . Spanning most of 3rd and latter part of 2nd Millennium BC. This civilization had urban architecture that was systematic and utilitarian, as witnessed in the ruins of Mohenjo daro, Harappa and Kalibangan, with outer defensive walls, ramps, terraces and grid orientation to overall house plans. House structures, a great hall and palace are clearly distinguishable structures in the excavations. Houses, with 1-2 stories, were made of mud bricks or baked bricks, with a central courtyard and surrounding rooms and shutters and grills (materials used were reed, matting, alabaster and marble latticework) on the windows were another interesting finding. Building construction materials included mud mortar, gypsum cement, mud and gypsum plaster and wooden frames for doors. A peek into this very ancient world is critical to understand the progression in architecture and to appreciate features that have survived vast tracts of time.
Within the Ancient period, we saw the Mauryan Empire with architectural contributions mentioned earlier; the Sangam Age with dynasties such as Cholas, Cheras and Pandyas (300 BC to 300 AD) and the Gupta Empire from 400 – roughly 700 AD. From the onset of the Mauryan period, extending into the Gupta Dynasty era, we see a considerable focus on shrines, temple architecture, construction for religious purposes and the prevalence of Rock-cut cave architecture (Buddhist shrines and monasteries predominantly but also Hindu and Jain). Wood was finally replaced by stone, but the designs were simply replicated from wood into rock. Another striking feature was granite rock being cut to geometrical dimensions, with exquisite polishing and relief sculptures in abundance. In the Sangam Age (Chola, Chera and Pandya Dynasties), the construction material continued to be brick with shrines for the major deities in Hinduism. Free-standing temple architecture, was mostly developed during the Gupta Dynasty but some evidence also shows that rock-cut architecture prevailed (without the polishing feature) as evidenced in the Ajanta Caves (5th Century AD) during the second wave of cave additions. During the Gupta Dynasty we also saw the emergence of the inner sanctuary (garbha griha) for the deity, in a temple and the shikhara or pyramid-like tower above the sanctuary. It is worth mentioning here that there are several accounts and proof, as evidenced in the architecture itself, of Persian and Hellenistic influence during the Mauryan Empire.

Here we make a mention of another style – the Jain architecture, which showed great similarity to other religions in terms of the architecture, but placing large figures of their revered Tirthankaras, in the open air, as opposed to a shrine, was quite common. The Maru-Gurjara architecture was also a Jain style with characteristics such as elaborately decorated interiors; rosette design and balconies as in Dilwara temples and Palitana. This deep-dive into the Ancient Period, helps us comprehend four important facets of ancient Indian architecture:
1. What kind of structures were constructed and for what purpose?
2. What materials were typically used?
3. What was the extent of ornamentation or effort in decoration?
4. The extent to which these styles were used in successive architectural styles

The Medieval Period started roughly from the end of the Gupta Period and extended to when the Sultanate Era began, with the spread of Islamic architectural types in the 11th and 12th centuries. By the end of the Gupta period, we have three distinct temple styles, including; Nagara (North Indian style with Shikhara), Dravida (South Indian style with Vimana[4] and Gopuram[5] ) and Vesara (combining elements of the North and South Indian styles).
Indo-Islamic Architecture was predominant from 11th century AD. Persian, Central Asian, Arabic and Turkish architectural styles exerted considerable influence on prevailing architectural styles to create this style. The Trabeated style, which used columns and beams (post-lintel model) came to be replaced by the Arcuate style (arches carried the weight of the superstructure). Corbelled arched domes were used which eventually led to the use of true domes and arches with voussoirs. Red sandstone and marble, a staple feature in Islamic architecture, started being used to highlight contrasting colours. Also, jali stone openwork screens were also introduced, a feature which existed in earlier temples as well. Indian architectural elements such as hypostyle halls, high plinth and use of columns and brackets coalesced with Islamic features, creating this unique style. Tombs were the predominant structures in this era, with gardens, ponds and mosques also in good number. Structures such as Qutb Minar complex; Lodi Gardens; Bidar Fort; Charminar; Gol Gumbaz; fortified city of Golconda and Adina Mosque are some of the striking architectural works during this period.

Mughal Architecture combines elements of Indian, Persian and Islamic architecture and is often seen by many as the culmination of Indian architectural genius. Unprecedented scale of work was demonstrated, reflected in monuments with bulbous domes; minarets with cupolas on the four corners; large vaulted gateways; intricate ornamentation; structures surrounded by gardens on four sides with pools and canals; jali-latticed screens and jharokhas; Pietra Dura[6] (or Parchinkari inlay technique) and double dome with recessed archway and symmetry within building parts. Creations par excellence include the Red Fort at Agra; walled city of Fatehpur Sikri; Taj Mahal; Jama Masjid at Delhi; Shalimar Bagh in Srinagar; Akbar’s Tomb in Agra and Humayun’s Tomb, to name only a select few. Structures varied from forts, tombs, walled cities, mosques, pavilions, gardens, baths, gateways, halls to bridges. While the material and decorative aspect were unique, so was the variety in the structures built, lending a high level of aesthetics to the creations. As far as materials are concerned[7] , one saw use of remains of older structures; red sandstone; white marble; mortar (lime, water and surkhi); other stones included sang zard, safed, siyah, musa, abri, Maryam, yashm, mahtabi; burnt, half-burnt and unburnt bricks; 72 kinds of wood with 8 predominant varieties, including, Shisham; glass from Syria and finally metal was used for all fastening work, amongst other diverse uses. Rajput, Sikh and Maratha are other noteworthy architectural styles, combining elements from those that pre-dated them or from contemporary styles.

European, Indo-Saracenic, Baroque, Neo-Classical and Art Deco
When the Portuguese, Dutch, French and English came to India, the styles native to their countries naturally permeated the continent, generating imitations and hybrids in various proportions. Baroque in India emerged as a result of interaction between the Neo-Roman Style architecture and Indian style, most splendidly visible in Goa, Daman, Diu, Kerala, Pondicherry and Tamil Nadu[8] . It can be seen as a more direct influence of western architectural ideas, for the very first time. Example of this style is the basilica of Bom Jesus in Goa. The Neoclassical architectural style is replete with simplicity and geometric proportions; with characteristic features such as columns, pillars, domes and spires. Some early examples include the garden houses and the old Clubs (such as Adyar and Madras Club) in Chennai (from the British times); which were very Palladian in character with pedimented centre pieces and bays in the garden front.

Kolkata too witnessed the emergence of Indian mansions in the classical style, typically 2-storied; with a large garden area; the inner rooms away from public glare through colonnaded verandahs or porticos and large entrance porches. Apart from the houses, just as in Madras; Tollygunge Club and Royal Calcutta Turf Club offer a peak into this style. These two cities reflected the Neo-Classical tradition in a fair degree. Mumbai also had its share, with buildings such as The Asiatic Society, Mumbai. We saw in the late 19th century the onset of a new architectural style, the Indo-Gothic, (also known as Indo-Saracenic or Hindu-Gothic) marked by onion domes, dome-shaped pavilions, horseshoe arches, minarets, intricate work, cusped arches, vaulted roofs, pillars and overhanging eaves. This reflected in the government buildings, public utility office structures, including central or regional transportation headquarters, educational institutions, halls and museums. Edwin Lutyens, Henry Irwin, William Emerson and Herbert Baker are some of the leading names associated with this style. The essence of the buildings was Indian in overall appearance and Western in its utilitarian function. The decorative aspects and style were largely derived from the Mughal architecture but the basic layout and structure drew from the Gothic revival and Neo-Classical styles. The Madras High Court and Victoria Memorial, Calcutta are famous examples. Gothic style (cavernous spaces and overlaid tracery) buildings in India include St. Philomena’s Cathedral in Mysore and St. Thomas Cathedral, Chennai among several others. Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus is another striking example with Romanesque, Gothic and Indian styles reflected in the building. The above styles were intended to convey the Imperial Power of the British in the region and their ambitions, through the imposing structures.

We next see the Art Deco (Arts Decoratifs) style (in 1920s and 1930s), as largely reflected in the office buildings, movie theatres and residences (Marine Drive and Malabar Hill areas) in Mumbai City. Mumbai has one of the largest collections of Art Deco buildings in the world[9] , bringing Eros Cinema; Empress Court and India Assurance Building readily to the mind! Interestingly, Mumbai being a port city, nautical motifs were quite common including ship-deck style balconies! The style had streamlined forms and geometric motifs which were inspired by themes such as automobiles, movies and other contemporary ideas. This style was a deliberate move away from some of the opulent styles stated earlier; conveying urbanity and a cosmopolitan tone instead.

Modern Architectural Style
When the power center moved from Calcutta to New Delhi, we saw leading architects, such as Edwin Lutyens and Herbert Baker, being commissioned to design government buildings and this can be seen as a move towards the Modern architectural style (which flourished post-Independence). Urban street complexes were designed; which were quite unique in the prevailing environment. Neo-Classical structures continued to be designed, as mentioned earlier. So, there was a clear overlap with other architectural styles, as far as Modern architecture was concerned. At the time of Independence, India had only 300 trained architects. India looked at the 1st generation of architects, returning from higher studies in architecture (from America), willing to contribute to the building of their homeland[10].

While there are several noted figures, one of the names that stands out in the Modern Era is Charles Correa. His memorial for Mahatma Gandhi in Ahmedabad; Kanchanjunga high-rise apartments in Mumbai, Jawahar Kala Kendra Arts Centre in Jaipur are all examples of this style. Sunken courts; outdoor rooms; platforms; terraces and steps for transitions; planar walls and unique building structures based on local climate (which Le Corbusier had already focused on, earlier), were all used with much success by him[11] . Le Corbusier’s contribution is very well known – building Chandigarh; to which he also added other projects such as villas in Ahmedabad and a museum. Use of brise-soleils and double-skin roofs to control solar radiation; natural ventilation and terraced gardens were all environmentally-friendly techniques which he incorporated admirably[12] . Louis I Kahn is another luminary in this era, building the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad (IIMA) based on pure geometry, with use of rough brick. All of these stalwarts were keenly interested in Indian traditional architecture as well.

Use of modern technologies with indigenous methods while seeking harmony with nature (and ecological balance), seems to be another hallmark of this style. Integration of rural and spiritual values with a democratic and industrialized nation, also seemed a pre-occupation[13] . So, what were the features of the Modern architectural style? In Correa’s work one saw brick piers; concrete beams and low pavilions. Wooden verandahs; bold brick walls; steps and terraces and courtyard houses are some of the other ideas. IIMA for instance had a network of streets, courts and squares on multiple levels. Dormitories were placed in such a way as to allow for breeze. Kahn used Islamic and Jain architectural ideas as well. Integration of indoor and outdoor spaces; polychromy; use of natural climate devices and ambiguous spatial transitions, ledges, steps and screens are some other striking features of the Modern style.

Architectural styles seem to have developed based on a range of factors. While ancient styles relied on royal patronage; foreign influence was overwhelmingly large, in later periods. We see the continuous use of architectural styles from preceding eras, creating a wonderful blend. Focus on harmony with nature; ecological and spatial considerations seemed to occupy the minds of the last era, which is undoubtedly relevant to the present times as well. The current architectural fraternity can learn much and adopt ingenious ideas from Indian heritage architecture. In reality, that is the path this wonderful science has taken over several centuries, thus continuing its journey of innovation, creativity and providing value to society at large!


2. For a detailed list please see
3. – Harappa, an overview of Harappan architecture
4. Pyramidal tower over the Garbha griha
5. Outer gateways found in South Indian temples
6. Inlay technique of using cut and fitted, highly polished coloured stones; a type of decorative art
7. Dr.R.Maurya, A Brief History of Materials and Construction Techniques of Mughal Architecture, 2018 (International Journal of Applied Research)
8. Virtual Museum of Images and Sounds – Center for Art and Archaeology
9. Recently added to the UNESCO Heritage list 
10. 1987, The Architectural Review, Modernism and the Search for Indian Identity
11. ibid
13. 1987, The Architectural Review, Modernism and the Search for Indian Identity

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