India is a confluence of cultures that have coexisted since time immemorial. The winding alleys of its history take one through numerous glorious glimpses of societies from different eras that have added richness to this country’s heritage. It was once quite ignorantly known as “the land of snake charmers”. But to those who dared to look beyond this myth, there was a country that had architectural masterpieces, scientific advancements, literary wonders, path-breaking administrative policies and a lot more to boast.
Indian architecture, in particular, has been a mirror that has reflected the social construct of India through history. The different dynasties that ruled over India, various religions in the country and literature, have all played important roles in shaping the different forms of Indian architecture. These forms include the Nagara Temple architecture, Mughal architecture, Dravidian architecture, Kalinga architecture, Sikh architecture, Cave architecture, Vesara architecture and Buddhist architecture to name a few. Listed below are 8 archaeological masterpieces from the country that represent these diverse styles magnificently.
Sanchi Stupa (Buddhist Architecture) 3rd century BC
One of the oldest Buddhist monuments in India, the Sanchi stupa acted as a structural prototype for the numerous monuments built in this style later. It was built by the Mauryan Emperor, Ashoka in the 3rd century BC. It is believed that this stupa was constructed to preserve and propagate the teachings of Lord Buddha.
The original monument which is also referred to as the ‘Stupa No. 1’ in this monument complex was a simple brick dome which was later destroyed in the 2nd century BC. Historians say that Emperor Agnimitra of the Shunga dynasty reconstructed it and also added the layer of stones on this structure. He is also credited for the construction of the second and the third stupas within that same complex.
The Sanchi Stupa is characterised by the presence of the Anda (the dome-shaped mound), Harmika (a square railing on the Anda) and Chattra (a central pillar). Apart from these, this monument is further decorated by an enclosure wall with elaborate Toranas (gateways) and Medhi (a circular terrace on the base of the Anda).
Ellora Cave (Cave Architecture) 757AD – 783AD
The cave architectural style can be broadly classified into 3 types – Hindu Caves, Buddhist Caves and Jain Caves. The Ellora Caves have all three types present in it. There are over a hundred caves in this circuit with only 34 open for public viewing. The order in which the caves were built is not known yet. The Hindu and the Buddhist caves are believed to belong to the Rashtrakuta Dynasty and the Jain ones to the Yadav Dynasty.
The deities and idols present in these caves have been severely damaged with time. But the paintings, inscriptions and carvings on the walls and rock faces are still present. These provide historians and archaeologists valuable information about those eras. Among the various excavations done in this area, the one at the Cave 16 (also known as the Kailasha Temple) revealed a monument dedicated to Lord Shiva. This is considered to be the largest monolithic rock structure excavated in the world.
The Ellora Caves are a magnificent example of rock-cut architecture as well due to the technique used to transform the caves into spectacular monuments. It is one of the most important UNESCO World Heritage Sites present in our country.
Khajuraho Temples (Nagara Temple Architecture) 950AD – 1050 AD
The Khajuraho temples are situated in Chattarpur, Madhya Pradesh. These temples were built by the Chandela dynasty. This elaborate group of 85 intricately carved Hindu and Jain temples originally spread over an area of 20 square kilometres. Only 25 of these structures have braved the onslaught of time and survived. The largest one among these is the Kandariya Mahadeva Temple.
These temples were built in the Nagara style of architecture that is characterised by the presence of various erotic sculptures on granite bases. The Khajuraho Temples were primarily built with sandstone.
All the temples in this group apart from one face eastward and have an entrance in this direction. These beautiful structures have elaborate carvings on the walls pillars and the ceilings. The carvings on the Hindu temples represent the 4 goals of human life – Dharma, Artha, Moksha and Kama.
Dodda Basappa Temple (Vesara Architecture) 11th century AD – 12th century AD
Inspired by the central Indian Bhumija Shrines, the 24 pointed Dodda Basappa Temple is a beautiful representation of the Vesara style of architecture. This style of architecture originated in Karnataka. It is a combination of the Dravidian and Nagara styles of architecture.
This temple dedicated to Lord Shiva was built by the Kalyani Chalukya Dynasty. The temple structure contains a Sanctorum and a Mandapa. These areas are connected by a hallway which is also known as Antarala. This temple derives its name from the big stone bull (Doddabasappa) that is present at the entrance. The temple has 2 entrances one of which is towards the east and the other is in the south. There are well-crafted half pillars supporting the roof at the porch of the temple.
Meenakshi Temple (Dravidian Architecture) 16th century AD
Dedicated to Goddess Minakshi (a reincarnated form of Goddess Parvathy) This temple is a vision of grandeur and beauty. It was first built in the 600AD but was later destroyed in the 1300s. It was later rebuilt in the 16th century and given its present form.
This temple is a quintessential symbol of Dravidian architecture. It contains thousands of vibrantly painted statues representing animals, gods and demons. These statues line the walls of the 14 gopurams (towers) of this temple. The Gopuram at the south of this temple is the tallest and is of 9 storeys. There are 2 main shrines in the centre of the temple complex dedicated to Goddess Minakshi and Lord Sundareshvara (Lord Shiva). There is also a sacred pool present within the compound where pilgrims can take a dip.
Konark Sun Temple (Kalinga Architecture) 13th century AD
The construction of the Sun Temple at Konarak was commissioned by King Narasimhadeva I in 1250 AD. It was built in the traditional Kalinga style of architecture by more than 1200 artisans for over 12 years. The structure of this temple represents a chariot with 12 wheels that is being drawn by 7 mighty horses. This massive temple was built using 3 types of stones – chlorite, laterite and khondalite. The original temple that was spread over 26 acres of land had a main sanctuary (Bada Deul) and was surrounded by smaller structures. There was a sanctum present in front of this main sanctuary called the Bhadra Deul, which was where people would assemble on various occasions.
The Konarak temple is considered to be an architectural marvel. There are legends that the Ashtadhatu (alloy of 8 metals) statue of the Sun God present in the temple was suspended mid-air with the help of powerful magnets.
Golden Temple (Sikh Architecture) 1604 AD
The golden temple is the reflection of the purest form of grandeur. This Sikh temple was built in 1604AD in the Sikh architectural style. This style is a combination of the Rajput and Mughal architectural forms. The portals, enormous columns, bukharchas (3-4 panelled windows that project outwards from a structure) and gharvajh (projecting base) are adapted from Rajput architectures. The domes, arches, underground cellars and minarets are borrowed from Mughal Architectures.
The presence of the temple in the middle of the holy pool is a way to represent the origin of Nirgun and Sargun. These are believed to be the 2 realms of human existence – spiritual and temporal. The temple initially was a simple structure which was later beautified during the reign of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. The entire temple was plated in gold and elaborate fresco, marble, mirror and inlay work were done all around the temple complex.
The temple has entrances on all its four sides that represents that the abode of God is open to people from all walks of life. The central temple area within the compound lies at a lower level than the surrounding fortified entrances. A flight of stairs from each of these entrances leads one to the embankment of the holy pool.
Taj Mahal (Mughal Architecture) 1632AD – 1653 AD
Emperor Shah Jahan single-handedly took Mughal architecture to its zenith. Of all his commissioned projects, his most precious one was the Taj Mahal. Built in the memory of his loving wife, Mumtaz Mahal, the Taj Mahal is a replica of what the emperor believed would be the house of Mumtaz in heaven. It is a 17-hectare complex that took about 22 years to build.
The Mausoleum is made of white marble and has 4 facades that are nearly identical. Each of these has wide central arches at the top and slanted corners that make smaller arches on either side. The large central dome of the Taj Mahal is surrounded by 4 smaller domes. The central structure of this monument is surrounded by 4 minarets, 1 in each corner.