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A Brief History of Indian Architecture

Indus Valley and early sramana architecture (2600 - 100 BC)

The most ancient architectural remains in the subcontinent are the 4500 year-old (2600-1900 BC) ruins of the mature Indus Valley civilisation: their planned cities and monumental buildings (such as the Great Bath at Mohenjodaro). This was followed by a period of reduced architectural activity during the Vedic age, possibly because people worshipped in open-air altars, and lived in semi-permanent settlements. The remarkable, reactionary sramana (wandering ascetic) movements that became significant around the 6th century BC, (the most successful sramanas were the Buddha and Mahavira) eventually produced a very rich architectural legacy. The earliest examples are rock-cut sanctuaries and monasteries built in the 3rd-1st centuries BC, such as the caves of the Ajivika sect at Barabar and Nagarjuni hills near Gaya, and more elaborate examples in the Western Ghats, such as the Buddhist caves at Bhaja and Karla, and the Jain caves in the eastern Ghats at Udayagiri and Khandagiri in Orissa.

Buddhist and Jain rock-cut and structural architecture (300 BC - 900 AD)

The earliest structural sramana monuments were Buddhist stupas, built in about the 3rd century BC but then enlarged and elaborated over centuries to magnificent complexes, such as at Sanchi, Amaravati, Sarnath, and Bharhut. This concept of extending and adding to a core religious site over time is a common theme across regions and religions in India. Both rock-cut and structural Buddhist and Jaina monuments continued to be built till about the 9th c AD in India and till much later outside India. Dedicatory inscriptions indicate that the complexes were not entirely sponsored by royalty. Instead, many sculpture reliefs and architectural features were funded by merchant and artisan guilds. Some examples of later sramana architecture are the vast maha-viharas at Nalanda and Paharpur built in eastern India during the Pala era, the extensive rock-cut complexes at Ellora and Ajanta, and the huge stupas built outside India, such as at Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka, Pagan in Burma, and Borobudur in Java.

Changes in Hinduism (600 BC - 400 AD)

Sramana movements and other influences also caused changes in the Hindu religion from the 6th c BC onwards. By the 4th century AD, the main Vedic rituals and dieties (such as Agni and Varuna) were relegated and two minor dieties, Vishnu and Siva were gaining popularity. The process of social assimilation through the caste system was complemented by religious assimilation through claims that tribal dieties were manifestations or avataras of Vishnu or Siva (e.g. Kurmi, Narasimha) or their consorts (e.g. Manasa) or children (e.g. Ganesa). Worship of these new dieties focused on the concept of darsana or viewing an image of the diety placed within the confines (garbagriha) of a sanctuary. This need, in turn, led to the first Hindu temples. While some concepts of architecture and sculpture were taken from Buddhist and Jaina examples, Hindu temple architecture evolved along completely different lines.

Gupta and Gupta-inspired architecture (400 - 800 AD)

The initial Hindu sanctuaries are from the Gupta period such as the Vishnu temple at Deogarh, Parvati temple at Nachna Kuthara, the brick-built Lakshmana temple on the banks of the Mahanadi at Sirpur, and the Varaha sculpture in the rock-cut cave at Udayagiri, all from about the 5th c AD. The Gupta style was adopted and transformed by several regional empires. Perhaps the finest examples are of the Western Chalukyas at Badami, Aihole, Pattadakal, and Alampur, where there are rock-cut and structural Hindu temples from the 7th c AD. Further south, the Pallava dynasty also built several rock-cut and structural shrines in and around their capital at Kanchipuram, the finest examples being temples and rock-cut sanctuaries at Mamallapuram and the 8th c Kailasnatha temple at Kanchipuram. To the east, several Gupta-inspired structural temples were built in Bhubaneswara, one of the earliest and finest being the Parasuramesvara (7th c) and the Vaital Deul (8th c).

Post-Gupta regional architecture (800 - 1000 AD)

In Bengal, the most remarkable legacy of the post-Gupta period was the Hindu and Buddhist sculpture in polished black basalt produced during the Pala and Sena rule (8th - 11th c). Most of the sculpture was probably intended for private worship rather than for installation in temple complexes. In addition to the vast numbers of Pala-Sena sculpture in museums in Bengal and abroad, sculpture figures are preserved in modern shrines in villages across Bengal. In western India, the Gupta style was adopted by the Gurjara-Pratiharas who built temple complexes at Osian (7th-8th c) and Abaneri (about 10th c) in Rajasthan, and in Gwalior where the 8th c rock-cut Chaturbhuj temple and the structural Teli ka Mandir are the best examples. Around Mumbai, there are some fascinating rock-cut Hindu shrines from the Kalachuri and Rashtrakuta periods, the most famous of which are the rock-cut Siva temple (possibly of the Pasupata sect) at Elephanta island (6th c) and the greatest rock-cut temple, the Kailasa Temple at Ellora (8th c).

Monumental Hindu temples starting with the Cholas (1000 - 1200 AD)

This initial period of temple building (5th - 9th c) was characterised by small to mid-sized but intricate temples. In the next period (10th - 13th c) monumental temple complexes were built by powerful and wealthy Hindu dynasties. In the Tamil zone, Rajaraja Chola built the Brihadisvara temple in Tanjore in the late 10th c, the greatest architectural project in south India of the time. His son Rajendra, built a similarly massive complex at Gangaikondacholapuram, to celebrate his successful north India campaign. Building activity continued throughout the rest of Chola rule with temples being constructed at almost every village in the Kaveri delta, but the most celebrated examples of later-Chola architecture are the intricately sculpted temple complexes at Darasuram and Tribhuvanam.

Kakatiya and Hoysala (1100 - 1400 AD)

In the Deccan, Hindu temple architecture went through fascinating transformations. The Western Chalukya style was adopted and greatly modified by the Kalyani Chalukyas (10th-12th c) who built primarily in the Gadag region of northern Karnataka. Their style, exemplified in the Trikutesvara temple complex, is characterised by low, ornate shrines (often double or triple shrines), connected to an open, central hall. This style evolved further under the Kakatiya dynasty (11th - 13th c) in the north Deccan, who built several temples in and around their capital at Warangal, the largest and most famous of which is the Ramappa temple at Palampet. In southern Karnataka, the Hoysala dynasty (12th - 14th c) developed a unique variant of the Kalyani Chalukya style characterised by very ornate sculpture on soapstone walls. The largest and finest examples of this style are the royal temples at Belur and Halebid, but the best-preserved temple is in the small village of Somnathpura near Mysore.

Monumental temples of Orissa (1000 - 1300 AD)

In Orissa, Gupta-inspired temples evolved into a unique and confident architectural style, with a series of structures (mandapas) preceding the main sanctuary. The 10th c Muktesvara temple is remarkable for its intricate sculpture but it is still a small temple, probably intended for royal use. Within a century of building the Muktesvara, Orissan architects constructed the Ananta Vasudeva temple with the full complement of three adjoining halls (jagamohana, bhogamandapa, and natamandir) and eventually built the immense Lingaraja temple complex in the late 11th c. Architectural scale continued to increase and the most massive temples, built in the Ganga period were the Jagannatha temple at Puri (12th c) and the Sun temple at Konark (13th c).

Chandella and other central Indian temples (900 - 1100 AD)

The most impressive and well-preserved temples in central India were built by the Chandella dynasty at Khajuraho and surrounding towns in the 10th-12th c. The central group of monuments at Khajuraho are an impressive ensemble, with the monumental Lakshmana and Kandariya Mahadeva temples the finest examples of the Chandella style. Other temples from this period include the early 11th c Sas-Bahu temple of the Kachchawaha dynasty in Gwalior fort and the Udayesvara temple of the Paramara dynasty near Vidisha.

Dilwara and other western Indian temples (1000 - 1300 AD)

In western India, a series of magnificently carved marble Jain temples were built at Dilwara (in modern Rajasthan) in the 11th-13th c by royal patrons of the Chalukya dynasty. Of the series, the Vimal Vasahi and the Luna Vasahi temples are outstaning in their sculptural decoration. In Gujarat, the Sun Temple at Modhera built in the 11th century by a Solanki ruler is the most remarkable structure of this period. The temple, magnificent in itself, is preceded by a vast step-well which is also an architecural gem, studded with fine figural sculpture throughout. While step-wells are commonly found adjacent to temple complexes throughout the subcontinent, the examples in Gujarat from this period are particularly striking, outstanding ones are the Mata Bhavani's vav at Ahmedabad and the Rani vav at Patan.

Prambanan, Majapahit, and Khmer (900 - 1300 AD)

Massive Hindu temple complexes were built around this time outside India as well. The triple-shrined temple complex at Prambanan and smaller temples around it, all built in the 9th century by the Sanjaya dynasty are the finest examples in Indonesia. Soon after, these Hindu dynasties moved east and established themselves as the Majapahit empire in eastern Java, where they built a series of smaller high-spired temples around the 13th century AD. In Cambodia, vast mountain-temple complexes were built by the Khmer rulers from the 9th century onwards with increasingly elaborate examples at Bakheng, Banteay Srei, Baphuon, leading upto the spectacular Angkor Wat complex built by King Suryavarman II in the 12th century as a mausoleum-shrine. Construction of monumental and increasingly ornate (baroque) temple-complexes continued upto the 15th century.

Early Islamic architecture in Delhi (1200 - 1500 AD)

While these impressive Hindu temples were being built, Islamic architecture made a sudden but pronounced appearance in north India in the late 12th century. Rapid Islamic military expansion across the country was complemented by prolific building of mosques, forts, tombs, and victory towers by successive pre-Mughal dynasties from the 13th to the 16th centuries. The Qutb Minar complex, built by the Mamluk dynasty, was started in the late 12th century with the Quwwat al Islam mosque and its large open courtyard with pillared ambulatory, massive entrance arches (added later) and the disproportionately high Qutb minar. A similar complex, called Adhai-din-ka-Jhompra was built in Ajmer over the same period. The earliest monumental Islamic funerary complex in India, the Sultan Ghari tomb was built in Delhi by the Mamluk emperor Iltutmish, who also built his own beautifully sculpted mausoleum within the Qutb complex at about the same time. Succeeding "sultanate" dynasties continued to build in Delhi upto Mughal occupation in the mid-16th century. The most prolific were the Tughlaks, who built a new fortified citadel in Delhi called Tughlakabad, now ruined except for Ghiyas-ud-din Tughlak's magnificent walled tomb within. Tughlak architecture was characterised by thick sloping walls, a preferred feature in all their secular, military and religious architecture. The chief legacy of the following dynasties, the Sayyids and Lodis, are the numerous imperial funerary complexes some with open-plan octagonal tombs, and isolated, smaller sub-imperial tombs built throughout Delhi.

Regional early Islamic architecture (1300 - 1500 AD)

Early Islamic architecture outside Delhi was equally impressive. Regional governors used architecture to showcase the might of Islam or to proclaim their own independence. In Bengal, the small Zafar Ghazi mosque at Tribeni was to announce Islam to the local people but the vast Adina mosque at Pandua built in the late 14th century in a Persian style, was a clear proclamation of independence. By the mid-15th century, however, Bengali sultans were commissioning Bengal-influenced brick mausoleums and mosques at their capital in Gaur (the curved cornice being the most common Bengali feature). This style is exemplified by the magnificently-proportioned Eklakhi mausoleum at Pandua. At about the same time, further east at Bagerhat, Khan Jahan Ali combined Tughlak and Bengali architecture to build several tombs and mosques, the most impressive being the vast Shaith Gumbaz mosque and his own funerary complex. Other important examples of early Islamic regional architecture are the 15th century mosques and tombs built in Mandu by Hoshang Shah and other Malwa sultans, the 14th century tombs and mosques (characterised by monumental entrance facades as in the Atala Masjid) built in Jaunpur by the Sharqi rulers, the mosques and tombs built in and around Ahmedabad by Ahmad Shah I and his successors (characterised by strong Hindu influence and heavy minarets flanking a high central arch), and the massive Jama masjid, palaces, and royal tomb-complexes in Gulbarga, Bidar, and other sites in the Deccan (such as Firuzabad and Daulatabad) and built by the powerful and independent Bahmani rulers.

Deccan Sultanates (1400 - 1700 AD)

The most prominent Deccan sultanates that succeeded the Bahmani empire were the Adil Shahi and the Qutb Shahi dynasties. Both became powerful, wealthy, and independent and built magnificently within their empires. The finest examples of Adil Shahi architecture are the tomb complexes in Bijapur, such as the Ibrahim II Rauza and the Gol Gumbaz. The vast necropolis at outside the Golconda fort houses the increasingly massive tombs of the Qutb Shahi rulers but their most remarkable buildings are the Charminar, a monumental, ceremonial gateway and the huge mosque (Mecca masjid) both at the centre of Hyderabad, their newly founded capital city. The smaller sultanates of Bidar, Berar, Ahmadnagar also built forts and commissioned buildings in their empires. The huge Persian-influenced madrasa built outside the Bidar fort by the poweful minister Mahmud Gawan is a fine example.

Vijayanagara and Nayaka (1350 - 1700 AD)

Hindu temple construction paused in north India during this period, but in south India the powerful kings of the Vijayanagara empire built extensively at their capital in Hampi and in southern Deccan from the the 14th to the 16th century and in the Tamil zone till much later. Hampi and surrounding areas such as Anegondi were the sites for several royal commissions such as the Virupaksha temple, the ornate Vitthala temple, the Tiruvengalanatha Temple, and the Hazara Rama temple in the royal core (possibly reserved for imperial use). Commissions outside the capital were also magnificent and included new temples as well as additions to existing sites (monumental gateways or gopurams were a favoured embellishment). Examples include the rayagopurams at the Hoysala Chennakesava temple at Belur and the several gopurams at the massive multi-walled complex at Srisailam. New temple complexes were built at Sringeri, Bhatkal, Nandi Hills, and Bangalore in Karnataka, and also at Lepakshi, Tirupati, and Srisailam. Following defeat at the battle of Talikota in 1565, the Vijayanagara capital shifted south to Chandragiri, Penukonda, and Vellore. The rulers continued to build palaces and temples at these sites, such as the Raja Mahal palace in Chandragiri, the Jalakandeswarar Temple at Vellore Fort, and the Margabandhu temple at Vrinchipuram. Architecture continued to be commissioned by the still-powerful and increasingly independent Vijayanagara governors (Nayakas) at their regional capitals of Mysore, Keladi, Madurai, Tanjore, Chitradurga, and Gingee.

Mughal imperial architecture (1600 - 1800 AD)

Meanwhile, in the north, the Mughal empire, became the dominant political entity in the late 16th century and stayed dominant till the late 18th century. In these 200 years (and for some time afterwards) astonishing numbers of imperial and sub-imperial buildings were commissioned in an evolving Indo-Islamic style of architecture. The Taj Mahal built in the mid-17th c at Agra is rightly considered the pinnacle of Mughal architectural achievement but the scale, reach and diversity of Mughal architecture is unrivalled. The greatest Mughal commissions include Humayun's tomb at Delhi, Akbar's tomb at Sikandra, Jahangir's tomb at Lahore, Itimad-ud-Daulah's tomb at Agra, the massive forts at Lahore, Delhi and Agra, all of which include many beautiful mosques (such as the Jami Masjids and the Moti Majids) and palaces, Akbar's abandoned city of Fatehpur Sikri, also containing many red-sandstone palaces and a monumental gateway (Buland Darwaza). Sher Shah's magnificent octagonal tomb at Sasaram during his short-lived overthrow of Mughal rule, was inspired by tombs of the earlier Afghan (Lodi) kings of Delhi. A unique legacy of Mughal architecture were walled gardens built in the Persian charbagh (four quartered) style. Such gardens accompanied most imperial tombs but also existed independently, such as the Shalimar Gardens in Lahore and at Srinagar.

Regional Mughal architecture (1600 - 1800 AD)

Regional architecture in this period (both Hindu and Islamic) was heavily influenced by the imperial Mughal style at the capital. Aurangabad, founded on an earlier city established by Malik Ambar, and the centre of Aurangzeb's military operations in the Deccan, was also the focus of his building programme. Besides the Bibi ka Maqbara, a royal mausoleum built by Aurangzeb's son, several mosques were built through the city mostly by nobles, except the Shahi mosque, commissioned by Aurangzeb himself. In the east, Raja Mansingh, the trusted Rajput general of Akbar, built extensively during his governorship, first at Rohtas in Bihar where he built palaces in the imperial style of Fatehpur Sikri. He then moved to Bengal, where he established a new capital city at Rajmahal, and embellished it with a fort and a massive Jami-Masjid (now ruined). In the early 17th c, the Mughal capital moved to Dhaka where a new fort was built and within it, mosques, tombs, and audience halls. To the west, in Gujarat, Mughal dominion was established during Akbar's reign and a building programme commenced at Ahmedabad. Both imperial and sub-imperial commissions included mausoleums (the Hazira built in the style of royal Mughal tombs), mosques (Nawab Shujat's masjid), and palace-gardens (the Shahibag built by Shah Jahan, and a larger palace complex built by Azam Khan).

Rajputs and Marathas (1500 - 1800 AD)

Rajput architecture is best represented by the massive hill-desert fort complexes such as at Jaisalmer, Ranthambore, Chittor, Amber, Junagadh (Bikaner), Kumbhalgarh (Mewar), Mehrangarh (Jodhpur), Gwalior and their associated Indo-Islamic palaces. Most of the forts existed before the Mughal period, but the most important bastions, palaces and temple complexes were usually made between the 16th and the 18th centuries and are heavily influenced by Mughal architectural traditions. The fort at Chittor, established by the Sisodia Rajputs in the mid-15th century, is unusual for its monumental and intricately carved towers, the Jayastambha (victory tower announcing defeat of Malwa) and the Kirtistambha (a religious Jaina structure). Not all commissions were associated with fort-complexes however. Rajput rulers also founded new cities and vast temples and palace complexes within. Interesting examples are Udaipur the Mewar capital with its Lake Palace, Jaipur the Amber capital with its unusual Hawa Mahal, and Orchha a river-island in Budelkhand, with its massive but deserted palaces, temple-complexes and royal cenotaphs. Early Maratha architecture also focused on hill-forts in the rain-drenched western ghats, such as at Raigad, Purandhar, and Pratapgarh. Secular and religious buildings within the forts derived from Deccan sultanate architecture, such as Shivaji's shrine at Raigad and his memorial at Sindhudurg, both with repeated use of vaults, arches and domes. As Maratha power increased, architects looked to earlier Hindu examples and shrines in the Yadava style were built in Nasik, Trimbak, and Ellora. Eventually, an amalgam of the two styles prevailed. As Maratha chieftains such as the Bhonsales of Nagpur or the Holkars of Indore, asserted authority over new territory, they announced their presence by commissioning new temples or expanding existing ones in this new style. Another development, was the building of royal memorials or chhatris, a tradition possibly imported from Rajasthan where chhatri building was an ancient tradition. The grandest example is the chhatri of Malhar Rao Holkar at Alampur (MP) built by Rani Ahilyabai.

Terracotta temples of Bengal (1700-1900 AD)

In the fertile delta of Bengal, Hindu zamindars and merchants became rich in the late 17th century, initially from Mughal zamindari firmans, and then from vigorous trade with Europe. This new-found wealth and a new Hindu Vaishnava religious movement resulted in the construction of several brick temples through the region in an extraordinary new style that combined the Bengali Islamic architectural features such as domes and arches with north-Indian Hindu temple elements such as octagonal piers and sikhara spires (sometimes such spires were placed on upper stories of the temple). Early examples followed mosque facades by avoiding figural sculpture but very soon the entire facade, and especially the arch panels were filled with densely packed figures from the Ramayana and the Krishnalila, juxtaposed with fascinating social and courtly scenes. The major impetus to this architectural style was provided by the Malla rulers of Bishnupur who converted to the new Gaudiya Vaishnavism, and commissioned many large temple complexes such as the Keshta Raya, Shyama Raya, and the Madana Mohana at their capital, all placed within large courtyards to allow the congregrational worship favoured by this new sect. A surge of architectural activity followed, with groups of terracotta temple architects (sutradhars) traveling from village to village across Bengal to build temples for local landlords and merchants. Notable amongst the hundreds built in this period are the temple complexes at Kalna in Bardhaman, Baronagar in Murshidabad, Puthia in Rajshahi, Kantanagar in Dinajpur, and individual temples in Bansberia, Guptipara, Atpur, Debipur, and Ilambazar.

Loss of patronage

Although some ancient and medieval buildings (especially in South India) received pilgrimage and patronage through the centuries and were thus preserved and expanded, the more common fate of many buildings was loss of patronage and subsequent desolation and ruin. To make matters worse, the architects and artisan guilds who built these complex structures were secretive and closed communities who passed their skills and knowledge down verbally. With loss of patronage and dispersal of artisans, ancient Indian architectural techniques were lost forever. All we are left with are magnificent, tantalizing examples of architecture but little knowledge of how architectural substyles evolved or how monumental architecture was conceived. Information about monuments is often limited to the dedicatory inscriptions. Hardly anything is known about architectural designs and plans or about the management and progress of the building projects, even in the case of massive complexes such as the Brihadisvara or the Konark Sun temple.


The first serious attempt to document India's architectural heritage was made in the late 18th and early 19th century by British soldiers, administrators, and civil servants. Spurred by a resurgence of renaissance ideals in contemporary Europe, men like Colin McKenzie and Alexander Cunningham travelled widely through the subcontinent documenting architectural and sculptural remains. Their specific interests varied but there was a general tendency to consider earlier Indian architecture superior, while the exuberant sculptural detail of later Hindu temples was considered degenerate. In the 200 years since those first attempts at serious research, there have been considerable advances in understanding the origins, patronage, and evolution of the many regional Indian architectural styles. However, our understanding of Indian architecture is still very basic and many hundreds of monuments and many dozens of regional styles wait to be studied and analysed in detail.

London, 2011

Moenjodaro, Indus Valley civilization
© M Imran, Creative Commons

Cave 10, Chaitya, Ellora, early 8th c
© Y.Shishido, Creative Commons

Prambanan Temple, Indonesia, mid-9th c
© Masgatotkaca, Creative Commons

Dhammayangyi Temple, Bagan, late-12th c
© Lucanos, Creative Commons

Devatas, Angkor Wat, Cambodia, 12th c
© Markalexander, Creative Commons

Konark Temple, Orissa, mid-13th c

Atala Masjid, Jaunpur, 14th c
© Joseph Beglar, Creative Commons

Buland Darwaza, Mughal, mid-17th c
© Marcin Bialek, Creative Commons

Lepakshi Temple, Deccan, mid-17th c

Jalakanteswara Temple, Vellore, 16th c

Mehrangarh Fort, Rathore, 15th-19th c
© Knowledge Seeker, Creative Commons

Chhatri of Malharao Holkar, Alampur-MP, 18th c
© Harshit Agrawal

Shyamaraya Temple, Bengal, mid-17th c

Photos and Text © Amit Guha Feedback