The earliest existing examples of Indian architecture are stone Buddhist and Jain structures, some of them cut from rock caves. Temples before that were made of wood. The great period of Hindu temple building began in the A.D. 6th century. Much of the great architecture of India is Muslim rather than Hindu in origin. The Muslim Rajput maharajahs in Rajasthan and the Muslim Moguls produced great palaces and forts. Muslim influences began appearing in the 11th century. The period under the Moguls is regarded by many as the golden age of Indian architecture. The Taj Mahal is the most famous example of Mogul architecture.

Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts from The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “Early stone architecture such as stupa railings also follows wooden construction techniques. However, wood is perishable in tropical climates and few examples of this early tradition survive. A similar assumption can be made about the early stone sculpture of Southeast Asia, where fragments of early wood sculpture have been found. The tools and techniques used in carving stone and wood are the same as those of today: massive hammers and chisels are used to rough out the basic sculptural forms, then smaller ones to refine the work. [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York <*>]

“Because of its durability, stone became the preferred material for temples and temple sculpture. Probably all stone and wood sculpture (and architecture) was originally painted, although the available pigments, derived from natural sources, would not have been as strident as the artificially manufactured ones so popular in India today. Some figures were further embellished with gold and silver leaf. <*>

“Sacred Hindu and Buddhist architecture is decorated with flora, fauna, mythical creatures, and human forms. Carvings of fantastic, powerful animals signify protection. Patterns of flowers, trees, vines, figures of yakshas and yakshis, loving couples, and sensuous women allude to fertility, abundance, and the generative powers of the divine. Mural paintings survive in some sacred sites and rich textiles may also have adorned the walls. <*>

Books: 1) Harle, James C., The Art and Architecture of the Indian Subcontinent (Pelican History of Art). 2d ed. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1994; 2) The Hindu Temple. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988.

Buddhist Stupa in India

There are essentially three kinds of Buddhist structures: 1) stupas, bell-shaped structures that contain a holy relic or scripture; 2) temples, place of worship somewhat similar to a church; and 3) monasteries, which contain living quarters and meditation cells for monks. Stupas are solid structures that typically cannot be entered and were constructed to contain sacred Buddhist relics that are hidden from view (and vandals) in containers buried at their core or in the walls. Temples have an open interior that may be entered and in which are displayed one or more cult images as a focus for worship. Although this simple distinction between Stupa and temple is useful, the distinction is not always clear. There are stupas that have the external form of a stupa but are like a temple with an inner corridor and multiple shrines.

Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts from The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “Relics of the Buddha and venerated Buddhist saints were buried inside stupas, hemispherical mounds of earth that were circumambulated by wor- shippers. In early times, the paths around the stupa were delineated by a stone railing with four gateways oriented to the cardinal directions. Often these railings and gateways were decorated with reliefs depicting the life of the historical Buddha Shakyamuni and his past lives. Pilgrims traveled great distances to be near the holy relic within the stupa and to see the sculptural narratives as they meditated upon the Buddha’s teachings. [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York <*>]

“The stupa was topped by a small square structure with a multitiered spire of umbrellas of decreasing size rising from its center. This ensemble may derive from the ancient custom of fenced sacred trees that probably were worshipped as the axis mundi (world axis) or as the abode of a deity. The layered parasol symbolically honors and shelters the relics, just as parasols honor kings in South Asia. In East Asia, the tall spire minus the hemispherical mound developed into the pagoda tower. Small stupas were often incorporated into monastic halls and monasteries. <*>

Hindu Temples

Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts from The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “Hindu temples are themselves objects of worship. Their typical form emu- lates the cosmic mountain that is the abode of the deity honored and housed in the temple. As the devotee circles the temple exterior in the proscribed direction, he or she worships the various gods portrayed on the walls, particularly the deity honored within. These images are arranged to aid the viewer on the path to spiritual release. Worship is usually individual rather than congregational, and only at times of religious festivals do crowds throng the temple compounds. A porch and gathering chamber lead to the inner sanc- tum, which lies beneath the central tower of the temple and contains the image of the main deity, usually made of stone. [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York <*>]

“Hindu worship has several distinctive features. Merit gathered through sight is called darshan. Viewing a temple itself accrues merit to the pilgrim who comes to see the god and makes offerings in the hope of receiving divine blessings. Hindus believe that the image of a god contains the actual living god, and that the god can see the devotee and thus bestow blessings upon him or her. Consequently, the eyes of the image are open. The consecration of a deity image includes a ritual to fill the figure with the breath of life (prana), followed by the “opening of the eyes” ceremony, in which the carving or painting of the eyes is finished and the eyes are opened with a ritual implement. Puja, the offering ritual before the image of a god, involves the other four senses as well. Through the intermediary of a priest, worshippers present flowers, food, and pour libations of water and milk over the image as they ask for its blessings. Mantras are chanted and bells rung. <*>

“In South India, copper statues of deities were worshipped both inside and outside the temple. They were equipped with rings and carrying bases so they could be carried in processions on festival days. Like a living king, they could view and be viewed by their followers. Within the temple, statues of deities were bathed, fed, clothed, and entertained by singing and dancing. Whether in a temple or a home, daily acts of devotion include waking the image in the morning, washing, dressing, and feeding it. The image is honored as a guest would be. In this way, the devo- tee develops a close and loving relationship with his or her god. Seeing the image of a god in a Hindu temple is a very different experience from viewing sculpture in a museum gallery: although sculptural figures of the gods are depicted with luxurious jewels and diaphanous garments that fall in delicate folds, in daily pujas they are covered with real clothing and garlands of flowers, and the carved details of the sculpture would be seen only by the priests.” <*>

Jain Temples

Jain temples are similar to Hindu temples in that they have a main tower and inner sanctum. Jain temples, however, are generally dedicated to a tirthankara rather than a god and an image of the tirthankara is in the inner sanctum. Temples are regarded as a place of study and meditation rather than worship. Prayers range from chanting mantras while having eye contact with an image to elaborately decorating and anointing the image. Many large temples have libraries and a guest houses where nuns and monks stay during the monsoon. Great effort is made to make sure the temple stays clean.

Jain temples have ground plans similar to Hindu temples, with an entrance porch and a central gathering chamber or pavilion which opens into a sanctuary containing an image of one of the twenty-four tirthankaras (“Those who show the path to enlightenment”). A walled courtyard filled with many small shrines dedicated to other Jain saints usually surrounds the temples.

Describing a 4.58-meter teakwood section a meeting hall in a 16th century Jain temple in Patan Gujarat in India, Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts from The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “The carvings on this section of a carved wooden dome with miniature balconies and supports—that once crowned a meeting hall in a Jain temple in Gujarat—symbolize the splendors of the celestial realm that all Jains hope to attain eventually through accruing merit in their succes- sive lives. Every surface of the teak has been carved with animal and floral forms, as well as with figures, whose size indicates their importance. The large figures represent the rulers of the eight cosmic directions, who are responsible for the orderly working of the universe and for the protection of the temple and its worshippers. Each has four arms and is flanked by female attendants. [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York <*>]

“At the center of the dome is a large pendant covered with flower designs that terminate in a lotus flower. Within the concentric circles that lead the eye up to the center of the dome are bands of decoration: floral patterns; a realm of birds and animals; kinnara (half-avian half-human creatures); musicians; another band of flowers; the rulers of the eight directions; and then a parade of elephants. Traces of pigment suggest that all these intricately carved images were once brightly painted. Eight large struts carved with voluptuous females, now lost, once completed the architectural form. At the beginning of the twentieth century, many late medieval Jain temples were torn down because they were inadequate for the needs of the community. <*>

Gupta Architecture

The Gupta Empire (A.D. 320 to 647) was marked by the return of Brahmanism (Hinduism) as the state religion. It also regarded as the classical period or golden age of Hindu art, literature and science. Gupta architecture was dedicated to building stone temples to the various Hindu gods. Also, Buddhists built shrines to house the remains of select holy people. These structures were called Stupas. This form of architecture made its way to China where it was altered slightly and renamed the pagoda.Unfortunately, very few monuments built during Gupta reign survive today. Examples of Gupta architecture are found in the Vaishnavite Tigawa temple at Jabalpur (in Madhya Pradesh state) built in A.D. 415 and another temple at Deogarhnear Jhansi built in A.D. 510. Bhita in Uttar Pradesh State has a number of ancient Gupta temples, most are in ruins. [Source: Regents Prep]

In Southern India after the Gupta Empire, the interdynastic rivalry and seasonal raids into each other's territory notwithstanding, the rulers in the Deccan and South India patronized all three religions--Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism. The religions vied with each other for royal favor, expressed in land grants but more importantly in the creation of monumental temples, which remain architectural wonders. The cave temples of Elephanta Island (near Bombay, or Mumbai in Marathi), Ajanta, and Ellora (in Maharashtra), and structural temples of Kanchipuram (in Tamil Nadu) are enduring legacies of otherwise warring regional rulers. By the mid-seventh century, Buddhism and Jainism began to decline as sectarian Hindu devotional cults of Shiva and Vishnu vigorously competed for popular support. [Source: Library of Congress *]

See cave temples of Elephanta Island, Ajanta, and Ellora (in Maharashtra), and structural temples of Kanchipuram (in Tamil Nadu)


The Mughals (also called the Mughals, Mugals or Moghuls) were a Muslim people that originated from Central Asia. They are related to the Mongols, Turks and other horse people who came from the Central Asian steppe, like their ancestors Genghis Khan and Timur (Tamerlane). The word Mughal comes from the Persian word for Mongol. [Source: Mike Edwards, National Geographic, April 1985]

Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts from The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “The Mughals established an empire that at its peak extended across most of northern India. The Mughal military conquest was directed against both Hindu (Rajput) and Muslim kingdoms and continued through the seventeenth century. However, the Mughal emperor Akbar (r. 1556–1605) realized that a policy of tolerance and inclusion would better serve Mughal interests, allowing them to consolidate their conquests and create an effective political system.As a way of securing loyalties, members of the Mughal royal family married Rajput royalty, and Rajput maharajas served as Mughal generals and statesmen. Many Indians converted to Islam in order to advance in the powerful Mughal bureaucracy and to participate in their networks of trade to the east and west. Although the Mughal dynasty continued until 1857, it gradually lost power and by the second half of the eighteenth century, its function was largely ceremonial.” [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York]

Muslim Architecture in India

Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts from The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “Inspired by Persian architecture, the Muslim sultanates constructed mosques using the arch and dome, building techniques that were unknown in India. These rounded shapes were set within rectangular walls in harmonious and balanced geometrical arrangements. Interiors and exteriors were decorated with traditional Islamic geometric and floral patterns, based on geometric principles believed to reflect God’s order in the universe. These patterns can also be interpreted as a way of visualizing God’s infinite pow ers, since many of them can be repeated endlessly in all directions. The most important decorative element was Arabic calligraphy, which perpetuates God’s words to Muhammad. [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York <*>]

“It is from the Muslim kingdoms of India that we have the earliest surviving stone palaces. Inset stones, tiles, and openwork windows decorated walls, fountain courtyards, domes of palaces, and the homes of wealthy court officials. Doors, shutters, and pan- eling of walls and ceilings were carved and inlaid in geometric and vegetal patterns. Furniture was sparse. People sat on pillows or low settees, and slept in bedding on the floor. The only pieces of wood furniture were storage chests and collapsible stands supporting metal trays from which people dined. <*>

See Islamic Architecture

Mughal Architecture

Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts from The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “The most famous Mughal religious structure, the Taj Mahal, is not a mosque but a tomb. Built by Emperor Shah Jahan for his wife, it includes a small mosque in its walled enclosure. From a distance the measured geometric architectural shapes and their symmetrical arrangement evoke harmony and grandeur. Closer up, the white marble walls are seen to be inlaid with beautiful calligraphy and delicate patterns of semiprecious stones representing flowers. [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York <*>]

Mughal gardens featured fountains and water "tumbling from terrace to terrace into pools arranged geometrically among flowers and fruit trees," shade pavilions, reflection pools and fountains. The Moonlight Garden outside the Taj Mahal featured jujube trees, champak and cockscomb flowers, mango palms, fig trees, and red cedar. A 100-foot-wide reflecting pool contains 25 fountains an elaborate water works that included wells, cisterns, pipes, channels, cascaded and pools. <*>

Many Indians were attracted to Sufism, an Islamic sect that preached a direct approach to God through love and devotion. Such an approach was remarkably similar to the Hindu belief in bhakti, the personal devotion to God. Mughal architecture influenced the indigenous Rajput styles and, by the late seventeenth century, constituted the dominant court style.

Architecture Under the Mughal Emperors

Jalal-ud-Din Akbar (1542-1605, ruled 1556-1605) is regarded as the greatest of all the Mughal emperors ("Akbar" in fact means "Great"). Akbar was illiterate but he loved a good discussion. He was infatuated with Persia culture and made Persian the official language of the court. Among the great architectural monuments produced in his reign were the Fatehpur Sikri, near Agra, and Lahore Fort.

Under Emperor Jahangir (1569-1627, ruled 1605-1629), Akbar's son, Lahore attracted craftsmen from all over Asia: tilemakers weavers, carvers and miniaturists. Jahangir enjoyed gardens and spent his summers in relatively cool Kashmir. He built the Gardens of Shalimar ("Abode of Love") in Kashmir. He once wrote, "The flowers of Kashmir are beyond counting and calculation...The breeze in that place scented one's brain."

Shah Jahan (1592-1666, ruled 1629-1658) is known mostly as the Mughal ruler who built the Taj Mahal. Shah Jahan ruled India during the golden age of Mughal art an architecture. He oversaw the merging of Hindu and Muslim art to produce spectacular miniature paintings and great architecture.

Mughal architecture reached it apex under Shah Jahan, who built the Taj Mahal in Agra, the Red Fort and great mosque in Delhi, and Shalimar Gardens in Lahore. Trademarks of his building included white marble and scalloped arches. Some scholars have suggest that his motivation was a desire to outshine the Persian ruler, Shah Abbas I, who had created the magnificent capital at Isfahan. Before Shah Jahan Mughal rulers constructed their buildings mostly from red brick.

See Gardens of Shalimar in Kashmir , Red Fort, Pearl Mosque, Shalimar Garden in Lahore

Taj Mahal

The Taj Majal is arguable they world’s most magnificent building. Over the years hundreds of writers have sung its praises. Paul Theroux wrote it "is something else. Just looking at it you are certain you will never forget it. It is not merely a visual experience, but an emotional one—its pure symmetry imparts such strong feelings; and it’s a spiritual experience, too, for the Taj Mahal is alone among buildings I have seen. It is note merely lovely; it looks as if it has a soul."

The Taj Mahal work both from afar with its curves, symmetry and majesty and up close, with its exquisite details. It is set next to a river and the best view is with the sky in the background and the reflecting pool in front. The color of the marble changes throughout the day and turns from white to yellow to orange to fiery red and finally black at sunset. The white contrasts with red sandstone of the mosque and its matching jawab, the two buildings that flank the Taj. The curves of the dome and the tomb have a feminine quality. The minarets help to anchor in place. The gardens that surround it augment the beauty. The skills of the stonework is best appreciated in the delicate, lacy marble screen around the tomb.

History the Taj Mahal

The Taj Mahal was built by Mogul Emperor Shah Jahan to honor his favorite wife Empress Mumtaz-I-Mahal (“Chosen One of the Palaces”) who died at the age of 39 in 1631 after bearing her 14th child. Shan Jahan was reportedly so grief stricken when his wife died his hair turned grey overnight. The name the Taj Mahal is shortened version of the name Mutaz Mahal. The Taj is believed to have taken some 20,000 craftsmen, working around the clock, 18 years to complete at a cost of 40 million rupees (around $500 million in today’s money). Labor was cheap then as it is now. Construction started in 1632, two years after the death of Shah Jahan’s wife. The main tomb took 16 years ro build and the rest took another five ro six years.

Shah Jahan vowed to build the world’s greatest monument to express his love. A master mason was brought in from Baghdad; a dome specialist was brought in from Turkey. Flower carvers came from Bukhara, pinnacle maker from Samarqand, calligraphers from Baghdad, dome constructors from Constantinople, master mason from Qaundhar and Mogul gardeners were all brought in to the complete the building, which was based on the tomb of Khan Khahan in Delhi. According to legend the hands of the most skilled artisans were cut off after they were finished so they never duplicate their work again.

Shah Jahan spent the last nine years of his life staring a the Taj Mahal out of the window of his palace before he was eventually entombed there. In the original plan a Taj Mahal made from black marble was going to be built across a reflecting pool from the white one. These plans were scrapped by the Aurangzeb, Shah Jahan's son and austere successor.Aurangzib, one chronicle wrote, "was not disposed to complete it." He chose to make larger but less beautiful building to honor himself. Aurangzib also reportedly added his father’s tomb to the Taj to unbalance its symmetry. A fanatically devout Muslim, Aurangzeb believed that symmetry and perfection should be reserved for God.

After the Mogul empire went into decline the Taj was lotted of its fine carpets. silver doors, tapestries and jewels by Britons and Jats. One British governor general even suggested dismantling the Taj and selling the marble. That plan was scrapped and instead it and the mosque were used for dancing parties. The garden were modified with lawns by the British and was used by picnickers who sometimes came armed with chisels and hammers to chip out pieces of agate and carnelian.

Design of the Taj Mahal

Nobody is sure who designed the Taj Mahal. No official surviving document names the architect. Some think it was designed by Ustad Isa, a Persian master builder the architect of other Shah Jahan buildings. Others think it was the work of a committee with the shah himself playing a major role. Others say it was Venetian Jeweler Geronimo Veroneo. According to one legend the architect was a man named Ustad Ahamad Lahori. After the Taj Mahal was completed, Shah Jahan reportedly cut off Lahori’s hands and had him blinded so that he would never be able to duplicate the structure.

The Taj Mahal is built in accordance with the Persian view of the world. The dome symbolizes the vault of heaven over a square building representing the world. The Taj Mahal’s design was not original. The tomb of the Mogul leader Humayan, built almost a century earlier, appears to have been a model for the Taj. Similar minarets are found in Lahore. The cupola beside the dome and other features were common in Indian architecture. What makes the Taj so extraordinary are the way all the various elements are brought together in harmonious symmetry.

The position of the building was carefully chosen. Located on a bend of a river, it is surrounded on three side by water. Reflecting pools, fountains, cypress trees and gardens grace the forth side. The while marble was carried 200 miles by bullock carts from quarries in Makrana. The walls of the Taj Mahal were once adorned with diamonds, sapphires, amethysts and turquoise stones. Small pierces of turquoise, lapis lazuli, agate, jasper, malachite, coral and carnelian were inlaid in the marble to add color and delicacy to floral designs. Many of these semi-precious stones have been gouged out by vandals. Above the crypts, penitents kneel beside the candlelight cenotaphs. Around the cenotaphs is an octagon-ranged marble screens set in inlaid frames that alone took more than 10 years to make.

Today, when viewed from a certain distance, it looks like all the calligraphy on the facade of the building is the same size, an illusion created by the fact the calligraphy gets bigger the higher up—and further way from the viewer—they are. It is also said that the minarets lean slightly outward so that if an earthquake should strike they will not topple over on the dome.

Mughal Pierced Screen

Describing a 731/4-x-513/16-inch Mughal-era sandstone pierced screen from the reign of Akbar (r. 1556–1605), Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts from The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “Pierced screens (jalis) are set in the palace walls, each one in a different geometric openwork pattern, and red textile hangings with tree patterns cover the tower windows. The central scene is full of rich details of court life such as the court members’ gestures, costumes, turbans, turban ornaments, daggers, and jewelry. They sit or stand at attention while the Maharana, in a long gold-covered coat, lounges against a soft bolster. In contrast, the performance before them is very lively. The dancers move in three different groups involving different poses and gestures. Four of them are men wearing orange turbans. A fourth group of dancers waits to perform in a line on the right. There appear to be two singers, one male and one female, and six musicians. [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York <*>]

“All these precisely painted details of court life are organized within clearly outlined architectural spaces. The color red leads the viewer’s eye from the central dance scene to the garden to the open roof and back again, and a broad red border outlined in black encloses the entire composition. This type of court painting based on Mughal prototypes was first adopted in Mewar in the early eighteenth century. However, the naturalism of the Mughal school has been tempered by Rajput decorative painting, a some- what limited palette, and the use of multiple perspectives. <*>

“The earliest extant jalis, or pierced screens, are found in a mosque in India dated to the early sixteenth century. They became a common feature in Mughal buildings of the late sixteenth century and were later adopted in Rajput architecture as well. They functioned as windows, room dividers, and decorative features. They were ideal openings in outer walls of buildings in the warm climates of South Asia because they screened the sunshine yet allowed air to circulate freely. From early morning to sunset, the shadow patterns they cast continuously moved, adding richness to the interior of the room. <*>

“The patterns of the intricate openwork design of a jali consist of octagons containing eight-pointed stars around which radiate hexagons containing five-pointed stars. These geometric patterns could be endlessly repeated in all directions yet are contained within a typically shaped Mughal arch and rectangular outer frame. Within the corners above the arch is a smaller, more delicate pattern based on overlapping circles and stars. The most skilled craftsmen carved openwork out of one piece of sand- stone—a feat requiring tremendous precision. Although most jalis are geometric, some incorporate flowers and leaves into their designs. <*>

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Ministry of Tourism, Government of India, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

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