India’s Cultural Architecture and Society’s Role in Shaping It

  • Pooja Mahathi VajjhaEmail author
Living reference work entry


Language is not just the one that is spoken or written; language is how the thought that appears on one’s mind’s eye. Language could be visual and suggestive. Language could be a pattern that is hidden. One such language is the language of architectural forms driven by society and culture, which does not make noise, humbly sits as evidence of the past and spectator of the future. Indian architectural language is so unique and states everything that happened throughout the country’s past, change, growth, and destruction. India always had a very sensitive and constructively established society and architecture. Many religions, caste systems, and much diversity were always present in the country. Though many social evils prevailed at different eras, religions and their philosophies made sure that they would reestablish the society from time to time. Spirituality, as a background process, these changes have always acted throughout its history. All these consequences created India that was there before the British rule. The chapter takes the readers through all the aspects of what shaped India as a country, through its evolution, toward the current state where drastic changes occurred from the perspective of sociology and architecture. The patterns helped guide society without being in the forefront and which helped people in establishing a country called India. Architecture will be shown as the outcome of all of these processes as an unspoken language rather than as a visual language.


Indian society Indian sociology Indian political systems Indian architecture British India Mauryan rule in India 


Understanding architecture could be tricky sometimes. The architectural activity of any country involves a lengthy background. Buildings always are an outcome of all the processes that precede them. To understand architecture, one needs to peep into historical, physiological, geographical, and sociopolitical conditions. Only if we understand all these dynamics could we understand the physical structures standing in front of our eyes. We fail to understand the greatness of any structure without all these background networks and processes. This holds true especially in a country like India. India is a country with so many religions, languages, cultures, and so many tales, myths, and speculations that to imagine a singular kind of architectural character throughout the country is very hard. A society with so many diversities, complex social structures, and still retaining a single spirit is more like a dream. To call it the only country in the entire world to go through so many transformations and variations and still holding it all together would not be an exaggeration. India has not always been the same country that we see on the map today. Its frontiers changed greatly, so did the political structures. Still the spirit continued. India, at one point of time, included parts of present-day Iran or Persia and some of the Central Asian countries as well. And at some other point, it was largely under the rule of Greeks and Scythians. In later stages British, French, and Dutch colonization were part of the Indian political system. When the British ruled the country, many changes happened in the systems. With all these changing cultural and political conditions, one very important issue is what place is to be called India when the scenario was continuously changing? How to impose continuity to the unacknowledged cultural language? How to define its boundaries, and if there is no single boundary to be called as a country, how to define its architectural activity? These are among the issues discussed in this chapter.

A Spirit Called India and Its Background

Indian boundaries and demographics kept continuously changing until 1947, the year in which the country received its independence from the British raj. There was never one king who ruled the entire country, and it was never under one province until that year. So if we need to refer to the word India, then it has to be that of modern-day India. Though this is debatable, one feature is certain, which though the frontiers kept changing, the spirit of oneness has always been present. This oneness came from various factors like geography, culture, religion, language, and political unity of major parts at some point of time in its history.


The country is bounded by the Himalayas to the north and by seas on all the other sides. More or less, natural features define the boundaries. Though there are mountains to the north, there are a few passes that allowed trade and cultural exchange. The northwestern region was a little loose in terms of natural boundaries and allowed more exchange. Most of the trade and invasions happened from this area in the early ages. Rivers and their behavior played a very important role in the internal changes and settlement patterns. There are so many rivers that are both snow-fed and monsoon-fed in the northern and eastern regions of the country that made the land alluvial and favorable for settlement. Many cities in the early periods, especially the political capitals, were located along these rivers. The pattern that is woven in terms of town planning is all because of the rivers and their behavior. The plain in the northeastern part of the country is called the Gangetic plain. This region, because of its advantages in environmental geography, became one of the very rich regions in all the senses for many years. However, the earliest settlements were more in the Himalayan foothill region which is slightly to the north of the Gangetic plain because of the ease in clearing forests for settlement and rivers being narrow and easy to cross. Within the subcontinent, though there are so many mountains and rivers, they are not insurmountable. Though they were barriers, human mobility allowed for cultural and economic exchange. The towns that emerged have subconsciously taken these factors into consideration to develop (Sharma 2016).

The First Development and Collapse

The Indian subcontinent was one of the first civilizations in human history that we are aware of, that is, the Indus valley civilization flourished mostly from the seventh millennium BC to third millennium BC (Joshi 2008). It was spread through many parts of current-day Afghanistan, Balochistan, Pakistan, and parts of northern and northwestern India. This civilization was vast and more progressive for its time compared to all the other contemporary civilizations. A well-organized sociopolitical structure prevailed then. There were rulers who laid out the political structure, but it is not very clear whether it was a democratic, feudalist, or monarchy (Hasnain 2016). Villages and cities were given equal importance and made self-sustainable. The economic structure followed was akin to socialism, but it would be safe to call it a mix, as there were also industrial towns. There was one single religion and cultural system that prevailed throughout the region, even when one ruler was not in charge of the whole civilization (Hasnain 2016).

Architecturally, the subcontinent witnessed one of its apex stages at the time of burnt brick structures, mounds, granaries, baths, and many other building types as well as well-organized drainage and sewage systems. Each region in the Indus valley had different architectural features, but there were many similar ones as well. The houses were typically two to three storied, built in brick. Cities show traces of two types of development: organic and planned. The designed cities mostly followed a gridiron pattern as clear demarcations for residential, commercial, and agricultural areas could be seen. Two main roads ran in cardinal directions, which were wide enough to accommodate two bullock carts, the existing transport system. Other roads were narrower near the main doors of houses. Common baths, wells for domestic purposes, private bathrooms and toilets, and mounds that contained all the important buildings were a few of the very typical features of all the cities in the valley. There were special cities like Lothal, which were industrial. Dockyards, a bead factory, and workers’ quarters have been discovered by archeologists. There was neither palatial scale architecture nor huge religious structures. This style establishes their lifestyle as being more or less egalitarian both among the communities and gender. Though there was gods’ sculptures found, architecturally, that did not play a major role. They might not have great belief in the afterlife, as their burials were simple unlike contemporary societies (Joshi 2008).

With all of this memory, structures, and development, India would have been a very progressive country. But there was a gap of almost 800 years in the history because a drought hit the civilization in the second millennium BC (recently archeologists found this phenomenon and identified it as the reason for the decline of Indus valley civilization). Everything collapsed and people had to start afresh (Sharma 2016).

Early Vedic, Later Vedic Periods

After the decline of the great Indus valley civilization, people who were living in Indus valley were said to move southward in search of life, while populations from Central Asia slowly started migrating in. These groups were called Aryans. This new group was nomadic in nature. Though at first they preferred the Himalayan foothills, owing to their nomadic nature, they continued moving further east until they found the most productive alluvial Gangetic plain. They started settling down there, as natural resources were abundantly available. This settlement happened around 1200 BC (Havell 1915). The whole movement happened due to the geographical and climatic factors, which made people act in a certain way. These people who were professionals in constructing temporary settlements started constructing their houses in a very primitive and temporary manner. This period is popularly known as early Vedic period. These temporary dwelling units were constructed using thatch, timber, and mud. The plan forms were mostly circular and rectangular, typically of a single room type. The shapes also have a profound meaning. Circular was considered to be god made and rectangular to be human made. These two shapes were used in combination with each other throughout architectural history. Climatic factors like earthquakes and floods, which are common to that region, might also have played a role in choice of shapes. After the residents settled down, they started constructing more permanent structures in timber. This was the time when their society slowly started taking shape. Slowly the caste system (varna system) started developing, kingship came into existence, mainly because their society was growing and the availability of abundant land and resources in the settling down period gave cause for fights for land and resource ownership. In the beginning, agriculture and hunting were their major occupations. The new society needed a person who was very strong to control the society, which was how kingship started emerging. But the political system was not to rule or suppress people; it was more to lead people and maintain harmony within the society.

This is the same period where very important varied fields of knowledge emerged and took shape in the form of Vedas and Puranas (scriptures, epics, and mythologies). People started believing in a larger force called God and started worshipping nature. They had written conditions for everything. This included the way of life, a code of conduct, punishments, etc., with the main motto behind the Indian way of living always being freedom (Hasnain 2016). There were no slaves in Indian social division. That did not mean that everybody was treated equally. People were living in peace. There were four major castes. This division was mostly based upon occupations: Brahmins, people who handled religious rituals; Kshatriyas, kings and army men; Vaishyas, the trading community; and shudras, working class. These four varnas were further divided into smaller groups that later formed a very elaborate caste system (Havell 1915). Endogamy maintained the introversion of the group. These changes led to changes in architecture such as regularization of town plans, development of certain open spaces for common meetings, development of squares, recreational and common areas, shared community living for poor, etc. A courtyard being a very predominant feature of Indian civic architecture was shared among two to three families depending upon the economic conditions. The concept of Ekshala (courtyard with built spaces on one side), Dwishala (courtyard with built spaces on two sides or a shared courtyard among two houses), Trishala and chatusshala (courtyard that have built spaces on three or four sides or shared by three or four families, respectively) was present.

The Indian way of living back in the early Vedic period was simple, freedom-based, and non-violent (Havell 1915). They were also against cutting trees and ruining nature. This instilled a concept of sustainable cohabitation with flora and fauna. The early Vedic period was followed by a more complicated later Vedic phase. The life of the later Vedic period is elaborately discussed by Megasthenes in his Indika. Usage of iron in India started in this phase leading to many changes in societal conditions as well. In the early Vedic period, women enjoyed equal status in the society, but in the later period, working with iron required additional strength to work, and men, with a culture providing them a biological advantage, started to rule the society. Though not in a very serious case, gender discrimination started in this phase. This also split up the house plan. Separate spaces formed for men and women. Town plans became more introverted with houses opening toward sub-streets. This could also be from the influence of Greek homes.

Society slowly started leaning toward upper classes. Kings started controlling people and sovereign government took the front seat (Hasnain 2016). Town plans started showing traces of defined boundaries for different communities. A description about gods is provided in the Vedas, and the conditions of the society that Vedas expressed turned into stringent rules. Brahmins enjoyed the upper level in the society and, in some conditions, outsmarted kings. They enjoyed wealth, landownership, and gifts from the kings. They were considered to be messengers of gods. Trade and commerce were happening with Central Asia and some other countries in the Asian continent due to convenience in geography. Water routes again became very famous for trade. Cities started growing slowly. Kaushambi, Kushinagar, Varanasi, Vaishali, Pataliputra, Rajgir, and Champa are some cities that emerged in the Indo-Gangetic plane (Brown 1999). Taxes were levied on import and export goods. This obviously needed a barrier, which was provided by city walls and gates. Mostly a socialistic lifestyle was followed. Farmers or husbandmen (according to Megasthenes) (McCrindle 1876) did not own any land. The state used to maintain common granaries where food was stored and distributed during emergencies. Villages worked on a self-sustained system. There would be a village administration working under the king. An appointed committee managed tax collection and all other activities. In villages, apart from agriculture and hunting, many other occupations came into existence. With the increased use of iron, it was the source for making all agricultural tools. This made working on the field less strenuous, allowing people to have ample time to pursue other activities. As women were restrained from physical activities, they started taking up arts and crafts as their job. All the needs of people were taken care of within the village system. This system was followed for many centuries and proved to be very successful. The education system was confined to Brahmin males. The position of women in society had fallen as low as that of the Shudras by the end of the later Vedic period (Hasnain 2016). All these consequences placed a stress on a society that gave birth to new religions (Sharma 2016).

Concerning architecture during the later Vedic period, elaborate buildings were built in timber. As there were so many small communities in the society for every occupation, building activity also had guilds. There would be a leader for the guild, who would design and execute construction, and there would be men under him further divided into sub-groups to undertake a specialized activity. Carpentry took a front seat, as timber was the most used material. Many elements emerged and a language of architecture was developed. The memory of all these elements came from the elementary architecture during the early Vedic period. Houses consisted of typically two to three levels with vaulted roofs and balconies as primitive structures had similar roofs built in bamboo. The city was fortified with bastions and gates. There would be peepholes in the city wall for the army to shoot arrows. There would be a moat to receive all the sewage and also to protect the city from the enemy attacks. Houses of different sizes suggested a societal hierarchy. This division also started showing up in their city and town design. Clear demarcations among the districts allocated to different castes were observed, and the sizes of the houses varied greatly. Palatial scale architecture appeared, which was allotted to Brahmins and Kshatriyas. Vaishyas occupied the periphery of the city, and Shudras were given separate locations to live. The city architecture also shows that wars were common during that period. Otherwise, such elaborate city walls and defense mechanisms never would have existed. City gates were abundant in number to allow controlled trade. This idea of city gates came from the cowgate (Gramadwara) in the early Vedic period. The paths that lead to the main gate were meandering to discourage attackers to enter into the city easily and also to buy some time before the war happened. Mud-brick buildings were seen, but in very rare instances. Burnt brick was almost nonexistent. This evolution period lasted almost until the fifth century BC (Brown 1999) (Fig. 1).
Fig. 1

Sketch showing details of early Vedic village

Early Religions


Religion, from the very beginning of civilization in the Indian subcontinent, has played a major role in shaping the society. There never was a single religion prevailing in the country. It was always a multi-religious culture. The complexity of the society always ensured it would remain. The main attribute of any religion that was born and spread in the country was that it loosened up society somewhat to eradicate social evils of that particular period. Without a ruling class, a religion never diffused to other areas. Though there were as many as 64 religions during the sixth to fifth centuries BC, Jainism and Buddhism became the strongest because of this one factor: kings and especially Mauryan rulers converted to these religions, and they helped in spreading such religions and their beliefs. Almost two centuries after the birth of these belief systems, they took shape into a proper religion with many followers. Architecture also gave a major contribution in their spread. Many different plan forms, styles, and languages of Indian architecture emerged due to the religious differences (Sharma 2016).


By the end of the later Vedic period, the varna system had become tighter and rules were imposed on the lower classes; people were never at peace. The two upper classes, Brahmins and Kshatriyas, could bend the rules, but that was not the case with lower classes naturally building stress. Another reason was the economic imbalance that persisted so many cattle were killed in the name of rituals, there were very few left for agriculture. Land availability became abundant as iron usage eased the process of cutting and clearing up the forests. This way the ground was set for the religious transformation. Architectural transformation also happened alongside the religious transformation (Sharma 2016).


The birth of Mahavira, the founder of Jainism, brought new changes in the society. He propagated five very important doctrines (Dharmasutras) against violence, lies, stealing, and hoarding and suggested observing continence. These became very important because of the prevailing conditions. Low-class people were attracted toward the ideology of Mahavira, as his teachings loosened up the clutches of stringent rules imposed upon them. He was associated with the two famous rulers of the Mauryan dynasty, Chandragupta Maurya (founder of Mauryan dynasty) and Bindusara (son and successor of Chandragupta Maurya). Jainism being a very liberal religion did not spread through much of the country; it never challenged the varna system, but tried to encourage people to attain the highest stage of knowledge, although it did challenge the violence happening upon people and cattle and tried to take the then-restricted knowledge to lower classes. Chandragupta Maurya in his last stages converted into Jainism and started living the life of an ascetic. At the end of his life, he was said to have travelled to Karnataka, a South Indian state, and observed fast until death according to Jain rituals. Jainism spread to South India in this way (Sharma 2016).

Slowly from this period, Jain architecture started building up. Though Jainism never established a separate language of architecture of its own and always went along with the conditions and styles of the regions that it was established at, but due to the variations in belief systems, one could easily identify the difference between Buddhist or Hindu buildings and Jain buildings. Jainism believed in a Guru system that contained 24 tirthankaras (teachers). Early stages of Jain architecture contained a prayer hall kind of structure later in temple buildings; Jain temples were dedicated to one or many of these tirthankaras. Sanctum of Jain architecture, unlike many Hindu temples, is of open type. Sometimes, openings to the sanctum are provided on all four sides.


Gautama, the Buddha, contemporary of Mahavir Jain, was born into a Kshatriya family and led a life similar to that of Mahavira. Buddhist ideology was also very similar to Jain ideology, but Buddhism became a huge religion by the end of the third century BC owing to many factors. Buddha never preached ultimate knowledge to people. Instead he taught them how to live peacefully in and with their own self. He taught that desire is the root of all misery and sought to lead people out of their painful lives into happiness. He never discussed philosophy with his followers, but supported them to lead their lives freely. He challenged the varna system and treated Brahmins, Shudras, men, and women equally. This thinking led to a revolution in the lower-class societies. He also preached non-violence. He encouraged all classes to attain an education. He led society toward egalitarian beliefs. He started sanghas, where people had to become ascetics, give away all their materialistic lifestyles, and live on charity given by others, which was open to women as well. However, this thinking was not recommended to everybody. Everybody, in whatever lifestyle they were in, could attain salvation; this was the ideology that attracted masses. These belief systems were very important as that is what shaped Buddhist architecture. Language also played an important role in spreading Buddhism in the society as most of the Buddhist texts used, Prakrit, the language of commoners, instead of Sanskrit, the language used by Brahmins. In addition to this development, Asoka, the third emperor in the Mauryan dynasty, converted and helped spread Buddhism widely (Sharma 2016). Though this happened two centuries after the death of Buddha, the original beliefs of Buddhism were kept intact. After Asoka’s death, the face of Buddhism changed, and toward the end of the twelfth century, Buddhism ended by existing in India. Buddha denied idol worship during his lifetime. Asoka continued to encourage the same, but after Asoka’s death, due to political changes and other factors, idol worship came into existence in Buddhism. A new sect called Mahayana Buddhism had started. This sect accepted much wealth from kings, while the original simple life that Buddha had propagated was lost. Buddhism remains intact today in some parts of South, Southeast, and East Asia (Brown 1999).

Mauryan Dynasty and Impact

Before the advent of Mauryan rule, India was divided into many small provinces and tribal societies. That was the era between the early and later Vedic periods. During that period, Alexander led his campaign into Central Asia, conquered almost the entire area including India as well. He conquered the then king Porus, but because of Porus’s knowledge and greatness, Alexander made Porus his satrap (provincial governor). After Alexander’s death, Seleukos Nikator ruled the province in the west border of India. During the same time, a great ruler emerged in India conquering almost all parts of India except some southern and western provinces, which were ruled by very strong kings, Chandragupta Maurya, contemporary to both Gautama Buddha and Mahavira, who established the Mauryan Dynasty and started ruling the country from Pataliputra (McCrindle 1876). This in history marks a very prominent era, as this was the beginning of the era where the ideology of one country had started. Seleukos Nikator tried to attack the Mauryan Empire, but he lost the battle to the king, giving him some of his province and his daughter in alliance, which established friendly relations between Greeks and Indians. This was the zenith of the Mauryan Empire, which included a large part of Central Asia where the Buddhist architecture spread. Chandragupta implemented unified rule everywhere in his province (Sharma 2016). This was the time when Megasthenes visited India and wrote a text called Indika. The name India also came during the same period. Then, it was very common to identify nations with the names of major rivers that flow in the land. Indus or Sindh being the most famous river, the name of the country was coined from this. Though almost the entire subcontinent had come under one rule, there were so many tribes dwelling around the region, and there were many myths about the people living there. They were considered to have superhuman abilities, some having ears large enough to sleep in, some having necks of snakes, and some having a human body and an animal head (McCrindle 1876). These myths contributed largely in the iconography that spread throughout the subcontinent almost until the seventeenth century AD (Gupta 2004). After idol worship started existing, there are groups of gods, demigods, and rakshasa (devils), which symbolize these myths and stories. These developments show that India maintained an interesting and strong continuity with its past. Within these tribes, the republican rule was followed.

Later came Bindusara, who had maintained the legacy of his father and expanded the province slightly toward the south. He could not capture all of South India. After him was the rule of the most influential king, Asoka, who followed a very strict rule. This was the last stage of the later Vedic period. Asoka waged the famous battle of Kalinga (the eastern Indian region which remained unconquered by Chandragupta Maurya and Bindusara) during the third century BC and won it. This period marked the pinnacle of the Mauryan Empire where almost the whole subcontinent was under the rule of the dynasty. The war had also changed Asoka. In the war, it is said that millions of people died, which lead Asoka to repent of his doings. After the war, he adopted Buddhism and introduced major changes in the political, economic, and social systems. He not only converted but also largely propagated Buddhism. He had erected rock edicts written in Prakrit throughout his expansive realm and strictly insisted people follow non-violence and peace. He started treating all classes of the society equally, which invited much opposition from upper classes. He was also successful in getting the tribes to follow the beliefs of Buddhism, and they readily followed owing to the open-minded egalitarian ideology of the religion (McCrindle 1876).

Architecture aided in his propagation of religion as well as shaped and represented the society then. Asoka introduced some new building types called stupas (semicircular dome-shaped structures which are used as centers for worship that contain relics of Buddha) (Fig. 2). He placed monolithic pillars in front of stupa that contained the dharma chakra, the wheel of law that contains 24 spokes, and the capital contains 4 animals, a lion, a bull, a horse, and an elephant as recognized directions. These symbolisms convey many meanings; the wheel of law is to ensure law and order, the usage of animals to show the profound meaning of each direction and also to discourage violence against them. The animals that he had selected also were very prominent and used for agriculture or war. India had vast animal wealth, specially horses and elephants. Elephants always were a symbol of triumph as these animals, plentiful in India, were huge and possessed much strength. All these symbols later became important for the iconography and art of India (Gupta 2004). Asoka also attached much importance to architecture. He established a school near his capital and invited Persian builders to teach Indian guilds the art of stone carving. This step leads to a very important era of rock-cut (Fig. 3) style in both art and architecture of India. Prior to this development, Indian builders were only experts in wood and brickwork. One of the very important sculptures of Persian art was, the lion over the elephant or good over evil symbol travelled to India during that era which later was transformed into the Yali sculpture and column detail in the Gupta art during the third century AD and South Indian art during the seventeenth century AD, respectively. Asoka also sent committees to Sri Lanka, Burma, China, and a few other South and East Asian countries to spread Buddhism. This also led to cultural and art and architecture exchange between these countries (Brown 1999) (Figs. 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6).
Fig. 2

Buddhist stupa

Fig. 3

Lomas Rishi cave – first-ever rock-cut cave (Tadgell 1994)

Fig. 4

Mahayana Buddhist sample

Fig. 5

Vihara at Khandagiri Orissa

Fig. 6

Rock-cut temple

After Asoka’s death, because of the lack of strong rulers, the lack of wealth with the government due to Asoka’s type of political system and the rise of anti-Buddhist and anti- egalitarian forces, the Mauryan dynasty declined.

Division of Country and Later Developments

After the Asokan rule ended, many satraps appointed by Asoka declared independence which leads to unrest in the country. Many kings from Central Asia conquered the province leading to Bactrian, Scythian, and Greek rule in most of the western parts of the country. In all the other regions, Brahmins came to rule which lead to major changes in art and architecture of the country (Hasnain 2016). Though Brahmanism prevailed in most parts, they mostly followed a similar government as prescribed by Asoka but resuming to their old ritual systems.

In this period, in the northwestern and western parts of the country, there began a movement called Mahayana Buddhism (greater vehicle), which was a materialistic, wealth-collecting version of the religion. They adhered to idol worship and some temple types inspired from Greek temples also started appearing. Art and sculpture completely changed during this period (Fig. 7). Schools of Gandhara (now area in Pakistan) and Madura (area in North India) were established for art and architecture (Brown 1999). During this period, Buddhist architecture became much elaborate (Fig. 4). Many sculptural details were added and carvings became fine finished. The materialistic and overwhelming lifestyle was reflected in the architecture. In all other parts of the country, though Brahmin kings were ruling, they were empathetic to Buddhism and Jainism. New kinds of architecture and building types were cultivated during the period. Buddhist ascetics were given rock-cut chambers (Fig. 5) that were carved out of living mountains (Fig. 6). They had two types of chambers: chaityas, halls containing the stupa at one end and space to meditate, and viharas, living rooms. These were sculpted away from cities, to maintain sanctity of the cults. Before the Mahayana phase, there was a phase called the Hinayana Buddhism (lesser vehicle) (Tadgell 1994). Hinayana architecture was simpler compared to what Mahayana phase had. This carried on until the fourth century AD. As Buddhism was the major religion, this style of architecture spread to the extreme southern part of the country. Very prominent examples from Ajanta and Ellora caves were created in western parts of the country during this phase. Natural paints and painting techniques were also used to decorate the interiors of these caves.
Fig. 7

Buddha sculpture during Mahayana Buddhist period

Era of Guptas, Chalukyas, and Later

This period was followed by what is called the Golden Era of Guptas. Guptas were Vaishya kings following Brahmanism who ruled northwestern, northern, and northeastern parts of the country. Their period was between the fourth and sixth centuries AD. Under this rule, Hinduism as a religion emerged. The word Hindu originally came from an area called by the name Hind located near Indus valley region. By now, the influential groups in society had shifted toward the upper classes (Hasnain 2016). The Guptas were staunch rulers to impose very strict rules on societal hierarchies. Slavery started to exist already during the reign of previous dynasties. The status of women further deteriorated. Feudalism was established as it had become very difficult to rule such a large province with a huge population and with urbanization occurring at a larger scale. Guptas were also tolerant to Buddhism and continued Buddhist art and architecture. During this reign, the number of Hindu temples increased, and Hindu gods and demigod idols ruled the iconography (Gupta 2004) (Fig. 8). There was an effort made to standardize architectural elements and forms. This is the period where Nalanda and Taxila, the first-ever universities of the world, were established. All the fields of knowledge such as astronomy, mathematics, medicine, and physics were taught and also many more at their peaks. India at this time was associated with many inventions and discoveries. But unfortunately, all of these discoveries were limited to those in the upper classes. Architecture of these universities followed the language of Mahayana period. Intricacy in sculpture and elaborate spatial planning were common (Figs. 8 and 9).
Fig. 8

Gupta temple

Fig. 9

Early shikhara form over freestanding garbhagriha

Parallel to the Guptas, another Kingdom of Early Chalukyas rule was emerging. This dynasty also had contributed much to the advances in architecture. Chalukyas were feudal lords from the south. During this period, when guilds of rich traders travelled the world, their province became a source of much wealth. The societal evils such as untouchability prevailed here as well. There were three sites, Badami, Aihole, and Pattadakal, where unique architectural labs were established and live experiments developed into two very distinct languages of architecture, the Nagara (North Indian) and the Dravidian (South Indian) styles. During these two periods, details like column orders, moldings, sculpture, and scrolls emerged and also related details (Hardy 2007).

These sites started with simple structures taking a village meeting hall as the model for development (Brown 1999). Slowly they grew into fully developed styles. Builders of this era and the geography established the plan form that the later date temples consisted. The temple started with a small, dim lit room called a garbhagriha (womb chamber) where the deity was placed. This grew into a multi-roomed building, adding up a mandapa (pillared hall), for public gathering, and an antarala (vestibule) for the priest to stand. Vertically, a tall mountain-like structure was added on the garbhagriha called as a shikhara. The significance of shikhara was to immediately draw attention of the people and to signify the exact position of idol placed in the garbhagriha, etc. Later many elements like many types of mandapas like Natya mandapa (dance hall), Kalyana mandapa (marriage hall for gods), Vasantha mandapa (hall to celebrate spring festival), kitchen, dining, and more features were added to the temple according to the social conditions during the rule of several dynasties (Hardy 2007; Tadgell 1994). But the four previously mentioned spaces/elements were fundamental. Shape and detail of the shikhara was the basic difference between Nagara and Dravidian architecture style. The three sites were mentioned as the “Cradle of temple architecture” (Brown 1999) (Fig. 10).
Fig. 10

Typical temple showing garbhagriha and shikhara (Dravidian style)

By the seventh century, the country was divided into further smaller divisions, but the “oneness” was maintained thanks to the Asokan rule. Some conditions were still the same, but some were strikingly different. Huge wars were waged, but a strange condition managed to maintain society and keep the architecture intact. Though the rulers and the boundary conditions of governance changed greatly, none of the rulers tried to change how people were living. Wars were mostly waged on open grounds. Whoever won would take over the land, but without changing much of its conditions where people lived. This condition might have developed because feudalism was being followed throughout the country and more or less with similar governance and economical systems intact.

Architectural Roar

The guilds of builders, who were there during Mauryan times, still existed but had become nomads travelling from place to place. Architecture had almost become a parallel track. Kings promoted and commissioned building activities. Regardless of the dynasty that commissions the building, the guilds, under the leadership of their Shilpi or Sthapati (architect), go there and construct the buildings, mostly temples. Owing to the previously developed plan form and spaces, as many as 12–15 languages of architecture were established in the northern and southern halves of the country with many elements and details (Brown 1999).

Starting from the period of development, Orissa, Khajuraho, Rajasthan, Gujarat, a few regions in Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, and a few regions in Uttar Pradesh, Kashmir, and Bengal (current states of India) were developed with a language of their own. All of these belonged to Nagara style (Fig. 11) (Tadgell 1994). However, they were not carried out as parallels as there was a great influence of one style over the other, which could be clearly seen. Though there would be added features and details in each style, making them distinct from one another, there still was continuity except for one or two styles. According to the local climates and regional variations, the spatial quality might differ, but at an elemental level, all the styles were similar. Some had plain, closed interiors and sculpted exteriors, while some contained well-decorated open, semi-open spaces with only garbhagriha being the darkest. Khajuraho, among these, was a very massive and strong style that contained sexual postures on the walls (Fig. 11). Many, even today, would misunderstand these sculptures, but in the actual fact, the kings that commissioned these temples used to follow tantra (ritualistic religion) that identified each and every aspect of human life, suggesting a path for each individual to attain the highest state of spirituality (Sharma 2016). Sex was considered a strong means of moving ahead spiritually by combining male and female energies. Such strong ideas were translated into architecture. With each building, the fineness of architecture and sculpture craft was growing. Availability of material also greatly shaped the language. The harder the stone is, the more elaborate the details were. Builders became experts in both stone and brick (Kramrisch 2015; Tadgell 1994) (Fig. 11).
Fig. 11

Temple at Khajuraho

However, the state of Dravidian architecture was slightly different. It did not develop separately at separate regions, but it greatly depended upon the dynasties. Large cultural exchanges happened in these regions with a result being that the architectures had many similar features. Pallavas, Rastrakutas, Cholas, Pandyas, Rayas, Nayakars, Kalyani Chalukyas, and Hoysalas were the dynasties that ruled South Indian region. After the three sites that acted as laboratories, there was a smooth transition into Dravidian style (Fig. 14). Dravidian style did not end till the fourteenth century, during that period when the North Indian region was already under the control of Islamic kings. This spread a great fear among South Indian kings, which showed up in their architecture as well. Prior to the Chola period, temples were freestanding. But from the Pandyan rule onward, due to prevailing conditions, they desperately wanted to protect the temples, which were considered to be sacred, owing to which a new feature was added to the temple building called a prakara (compound wall) that had a pyramidal structure as an entrance called a gopura. This idea had come a long way since the Grama dwara of the early Vedic period. The gopura also acted as a watchtower. All the later dynasties followed this lead. More prakaras were added to the temple as layers of protection among which, the outermost prakaras contained the tallest gopuras. The maximum number of prakaras that were built was seven. These prakaras were developed to contain the essential extended spaces of the temple that contained kitchen, dining halls, thousand pillared mandapas, priest residence, etc. initially. Later they started growing into complete towns, each prakara containing houses of a different sect with market spaces and security spaces as they go outward. However, the residences of sudras were never placed within prakaras, as by then, the idea of impurity spread widely among the sects that led to social evils. This was to elaborate that it ended up having towns with sudras having no protection from the external forces, and Brahmins were the ones to be attacked in the end. A few sects were not even allowed to enter into the prakara where Brahmins lived, let alone the temple complex. Discrimination was clearly visible in the architecture (Kramrisch 2015) (Figs. 12 and 13).
Fig. 12

Molding detail in a temple

Fig. 13

Sculpture detail in a temple

Fig. 14

One of the various kinds of shikharas

Related to the sculpture of Dravidian style, we learn that by the era of Pandyas, the sculpture that contained gods and demigods as predominant was slowly starting to show up the social conditions and wars (Brown 1999).

It was as if architecture was fearless and roaring in the whole country, regardless of provincial division. Due to the time and freedom that architects enjoyed, they established a code for everything. There was a conditional measurement system that used Hasta (palm) or Tala (head) (Tagor 1914) (Fig. 15). Much before the figure of Vitruvian man by Da Vinci, during the third to eleventh centuries, Indian architects had developed a system of proportions (Gupta 2004). Elaborate architectural treatises were written, which had given code for architecture. The principal architect, who was in charge of all the design work and was the caretaker of the building activity happening, according to those treatises, needed to have knowledge of astronomy, mathematics, science, medicine, and all similar subjects. He was given the highest ranking. The knowledge was transferred in the form of vocals (teaching) from generation to generation. During this entire period, many local languages started existing and many local art forms emerged. Art and architecture were mutually influencing each other. The division of the subcontinent into smaller areas led to the building of many fortified capital cities. Treatises have given elaborate details about the types of towns and cities to be developed, keeping in mind the well-being of the residents, social divisions, occupation, etc. Many important treatises like Manasara, Mayamata, Samarangana Sutradhara, Vishwakarma, and Shilpa Shastra, to name a few, have emerged and were written by either kings or the principal architect themselves (Raz 1834). Each concentrated on different aspects of building science. Some concentrated on housing, some on temple building, some on public buildings, some on forts, while some purely concentrated on sculpture, proportions, iconography, etc. All the texts were written in mysterious forms stating mystic names and gods. All had a balance between human emotional states, well-being, climatic conditions, aesthetics, and spirituality.
Fig. 15

Types of moldings

All the influences from other countries, as for the cultural exchange happened during trade, were limited to larger buildings commissioned by kings. Civic architecture was purely conventional. Climate, function, social class, ritual system, and family structure were given greater importance in this area. Local materials were used and very sensitive architectural elements such as separate courtyards for men and women, earthquake-resistant structures at points of greater sensitivity using very small techniques, space for cattle, storage for grains, gathering areas at village and town centers as part of administration activity, and many more functions. Nature was given importance in planning. Specific types of trees that improve health were prescribed. Though there was this elaborate architecture, humility prevailed in the subject. Architects never revealed their names. It was architecture that was very important to them more than self. They always used the mystic names as explained previously to mask themselves.

Religious Unity

During the seventh century AD, a great philosopher called Sankaracharya was born. Before him, there existed many religions and belief systems, which caused splits in the society. He travelled throughout the country, debated with heads of all systems, defeated them, and created a religious unity. These developments resulted in major changes within Hinduism. They also resolved many prevalent social evils and spread peace within the society.

There were and are many philosophers in India from antiquity who worked hard to advance society. Spirituality and religion have acted as two parallel forces that have shaped much of the country. Both concepts might appear similar, but are not. Religion, though started by great philosophers, had changed significantly. This change in ideologies created many unresolved social issues. All the religions, or rather people following them, at some point or the other, were bound by staunch systems which resulted in some problems within society. Though they started as objects of social change and equality, they could never continue what they started. Spirituality in turn, silently spreads through the society. With its main motto being to awaken the inner self, spirituality always encouraged detachment, release from material life, non-violence, and living in peace. Temple architecture and scriptures have stated that buildings could pave way for spiritual growth. This is a very unique ideology in India. There are mystic mathematical diagrams called mandalas, which serve as base of vastu a profound system followed by Indians seeking a healthy built environment. Traditional vastu seems to consider geographic, climatological, and sociopolitical conditions as the basis for designing what could help people grow spiritually (Tadgell 1994).

Islam and Change

The next major change that happened to India was the advent of the Islamic rulers from Middle East. Islamic invasions happened for the first time around the eighth century AD. Muhammad Ghori and Muhammad Ghazni continuously attacked the subcontinent for many years and finally established their rule toward the end of the twelfth century AD. During their attacks, they destroyed many temples. They burned the very famous Nalanda library, which meant the country lost its very ancient scriptures. All these outraged the locals. Even after their establishment in the country, they faced much opposition, which they never had previously. Islamic kings ruled from Delhi for so long and spread their rule throughout the land. They could not conquer the southern part due to its strong Hindu rulers. The administration and political systems were changed to some extent, but the invaders could not change the core essence of what the country was.

Like any other religion, Islam also spread through the masses by acknowledging the existing social evils in the country. Islam loosened up the existing Indian society in terms of education. Madrasas, schools of Islamic studies, were established which led the lower classes converting to Islam in order to pursue education, although this practice was limited to men. The existing administration was believed to be strict, including its tax systems. Taxes on religion and pilgrimage were imposed which outraged the Indian upper classes. New languages like Arabic and Urdu were introduced. This unrest prepared the groundwork for colonization that happened in later stages. Though many changes were happening in all the fields, Islamic rulers could never change the village administration pattern and lifestyle of people. The status of women in the society touched a new low as the parda system (system of veils) (Fig. 16) was introduced by Islamic rulers. Whenever they took over a province, they would consider the women of the province as slaves or would marry them, which was opposed by many Hindu kings. Painful acts like Zohar and Sati (women would kill themselves after the husband dies) avoided being under Islam rulers. These later became social evils that were practiced almost throughout India.
Fig. 16

Jali window detail in Islamic architecture used by women as part of parda system

Islamic rule also changed the face of architecture in India, though toward the extreme south of the country, the original architectural activity continued until the seventeenth century. The northern parts had seen some profound examples of Islamic architecture as well. The first thing that was done by the rulers after taking charge was to begin their own architectural activity. Many rulers destroyed the existing temples and used the fragments to construct their own buildings (Fig. 18). Many building types such as mosques, mausoleums, tombs, and madrasas were introduced. Floral, human, and animal ornamentation were replaced by geometrical patterns (Brown 1996). Many elements of architecture, which were new to the subcontinent, started showing up. The trabeated (column, beam) system of construction was replaced by arcuate system (construction that contains arches, vaults, and domes as structural systems) (Fig. 17). Persian influences were much evident. Many new cities like Ahmedabad, Hyderabad, and Bidar were established, which even today continue as prominent urban centers. All of this, surprisingly, was done by same guilds that were working for Hindu kings. The Provincial Islamic architecture adopted existing local styles. Slowly by end of the seventeenth century, a new style called Indo-Saracenic architecture emerged that seamlessly merged both Hindu and Islamic architectural languages to create a new dictionary of elements. The emergence of this architecture shows that India had adapted the new religion, people, and belief systems. A mutual exchange of culture happened (Brown 1996; Tadgell 1994) (Figs. 17, 18, and 19).
Fig. 17

Qutb Minar and Alai Darwaza – typical examples of Islamic architecture

Fig. 18

Ruined temple fragments used as parts of mosque

Fig. 19

Minar of a mosque

British India

India, during the British rule, was destroyed progressively and strategically. Around the seventeenth to eighteenth centuries, the British, Dutch, French, and Portuguese started establishing colonies in India in the name of trade. The last to colonize were the British, who later conquered the whole country to establish their rule. This period proved to be the darkest part of India’s history. One basic difference between all the other rules that prevailed in the country and the British was that they never came to settle and merge into India. Their main motto was to exploit the resources and to develop their own country (Chandra 2017).

At first, the British treated India as any other country and tried to establish their rule, but they faced tremendous opposition from the Sepoy mutiny (a revolt that happened in 1857) where even upper classes participated in opposing the new government. The enlightened British brought sociologists from their country to understand the Indian society (Chandra 2017). The complex model of India that they understood was slowly being destroyed. The British introduced the “caste” entry into the census. Hence, such thinking proved to be a very slow yet successful way to break up the integrity of Indian society. The caste system being considered was the most stringent and established system with many people fighting to be identified as members of upper classes. Village administration systems, which were led by the Brahmins or Kshatriyas previously, were questioned and dissolved in many cases. This policy destroyed the most profound Indian political system. The British had an advantage and could rule the villages as well.

The next strategic step was to develop railways and to import foreign goods. The British had reduced the taxation on imports so that more machine-made, cheap goods could be imported and distributed throughout the country with the help of railways. This distribution reached even the interior parts of the country reducing the usage of local arts and crafts. When the cheaper foreign goods took over the production of handmade local goods, many craftsmen lost their jobs and had to depend on agriculture, which increased pressure on land. The tax systems of the British further added to the misery. Peasants who could not afford to pay such huge taxes had to either take loans or sell their lands. Already rich upper classes were supported by the British to take over the land. This made the rich, richer and the poor, poorer. The most famous divide and rule policy was strategically implemented. The socialistic feudal government was replaced by a capitalistic imperial rule. At the same time, drought struck most of the country taking many lives (Chandra 2017).

British scholars, when commissioned to study India in all aspects, denied the existence of profound architecture, arts, and crafts in India (Tagor 1914). They considered Indian art to be superficial. Guilds of builders disappeared owing to the breakage of the caste system and economical changes. That knowledge was never written, but was transferred from generation to generation in the form of words and deeds. All these consequences led to changes in architecture. This was the time when the British introduced their architecture style and using their own builders and materials. Steel and glass were introduced replacing local materials. Churches were built (Fig. 20). New administrations needed new buildings. The British architecture just did not stop there. It had spread to civic architecture as well. The organic, vernacular courtyard type houses were replaced by rigid, activity-specific Victorian plan forms that slowly changed family life (Lang et al. 1997). New port cities, such as Calcutta, Bombay, Goa, etc., were established to accommodate the trade.
Fig. 20

Church with European influence

Though the British have strategically destroyed each aspect of India, they have accomplished a few good things as well. After the British administration took over, they established colleges and universities (Lang et al. 1997), which spread education to all the classes. They commissioned efforts to revive a few sacred texts and knowledge systems, which helped the development of research and understanding of the country. They introduced new subjects such as sociology, anthropology, etc., constructed religious convents in the Indian society, encouraged women to understand their own importance, and encouraged them to come out and work for their own betterment. Sati and some other social evils were abolished. Owing to the changing world’s consequences, India needed to change. But the change was too quick and harsh upon the Indian society that the country could never really return to its original shape.

With newly imparted education came a greater understanding of the evil strategies of the British. A few great leaders emerged from within who would lead India toward freedom and independence. Calcutta was the first capital of the British. Because of this, most of the freedom movements took place in Calcutta. Apart from the revolts happening, Indian art also contributed to the freedom struggle. The Bengal School of Art had produced a few eminent personalities like Abanindranath Tagore and Rabindranath Tagore (Tagor 1914). After the denial of Indian art by the British, the former had researched and written on proportions and detail of sculpture. Abanindranath Tagore painted Bharath Mata, portraying India as a mother, which quickly became a symbol of the freedom movement. The latter stimulated literary contributions. Many local newspapers were established to spread the awareness. People like Mahatma Gandhi decried the violent way of fighting and adopted a new peaceful way. All of this and many more struggles gifted India and led to the much-needed independence on 15 August 1947. This was the time when the country that we now see on the map was born. The British rule had unified the country, but at the same time ruthlessly had divided some parts of it.

Post-Independence and Conclusions

India, after independence, continued to retain a few systems introduced by the British, especially the administration. It continued to have courts and bureaucracy and changed the political system to be a democratic one. A mixed economic system was established. A new constitution was written and implemented. Though the whole struggle had given India its independence, many things could not go back to their original state. Resources were lost leaving India a poor country. But for the drain in resources, India would have been one of the greatest economies of the current world (Figs. 21 and 22).
Fig. 21

Post-independence architecture by Le Corbusier

Fig. 22

Structure designed by Charles Correa

Architecturally, though the country has a three-millennium-rich history and it was dependent on guilds and the vocal knowledge, after independence, it has not lost its charm. Though many went to study and be trained under very eminent European architects after independence (Fig. 21), the influences of architects that they were trained under never left them. Pure Indian architecture lost its race to European influence (Lang et al. 1997). Social, geographical, and political aspects that once greatly affected all aspects of architecture became less and less of an influence. Though many new building types were introduced, everything ends up looking the same owing to globalization. Glass and steel, which do not fit in the Indian climate, started ruling architecture. Much of this was due to the one change called “The British.” Everything might not return for larger good, but study of the past is necessary for an efficient growth and development of the country. Though the conditions today owing to the technological advancements never allow everything to be restored to the original conditions, and as change has a positive aspect as well, there is no harm in looking at the rich historical knowledge and trying to integrate them, both are critical (Table 1).
Table 1


40 million years BC

Emergence of Indian subcontinent

7000–1900 BC

Indus valley civilization (as discovered by archeologists so far)

1500–1200 BC

Successive groups of Vedic people enter India

1200 BC onward

Vedic settlements

1000 BC

Iron use in Gandhara area, Balochistan, Eastern Punjab

8th century BC

Iron was commonly used

End of the 6th century BC

Habitations in mid-Gangetic planes

567 BC

Birth of Buddha

540 BC

Birth of Mahaveer Jain

527 BC

Death of Mahaveer Jain

6th–5th century BC

Cities like Kaushambi, Shravasti, Varanasi, Vaishali, and Rajagriha were established, establishment of Magadha empire

487 BC

Buddha’s death

4th century BC onward

Sanskrit as state language

322–298 BC

Spread of Buddhism in Karnataka owing to Chandragupta Maurya’s celibacy

326 BC

Alexander’s invasion

3rd century BC–

Prakrit established as common language, famine, and Jain migration from Magadha to South India

273–232 BC

Asoka’s rule

232 BC

Asoka gave up administration

206 BC

Greeks invaded India

2nd century BC

Chaityas and Viharas were built in Western Ghats

56 AD

Spread of Buddhism from India to Burma, China, Central Asia, and Afghanistan

1st century AD onward

Buddhists practiced idol worship

3rd century AD

Mathura school of art flourished

319 AD

Beginning of Gupta era

4th–6th century AD

Establishment of Nalanda and Taxila universities

6th century AD

Early Chalukyas establish their kingdom

7th century AD

Emergence of Pallavan rule

610–740 AD

Temple building in Aihole, Badami, and Pattadakal

7th century AD

Key role played by landlords in shaping society, Rajput kings became important elements

7th–8th century AD

Regional architectural styles emerged

753 AD

Establishment of Rashtrakuta empire

788 AD

Birth of Shankaracharya

985 AD

Establishment of Chola empire

1206 AD

Slave dynasty established, beginning of Islamic architecture

1336 AD

Establishment of Vijayanagara empire

1498 AD

Vasco da Gama’s first voyage from Europe to India and back

1600 AD

East India Company gets exclusive trading rights with India

1612–1947 AD

British India

1861 AD

Rabindranath Tagore’s birth

1947 AD onward


aDates, especially in BC era, might vary according to different traditions (Sharma 2016)


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.HyderabadIndia

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