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During the twentieth century, the United States witnessed the carving of one of the greatest architectural phenomenon of the time, namely Mount Rushmore. It is here that workers painstakingly chiseled the faces of three presidents into the granite mountainside in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Although brilliant and awe inspiring, this type of rock carving was not new. In fact, this kind of architecture can be found on the Indian sub-continent dating back to the 4th century BC..
Originally, Indian artists began carving trees (wood) with religious themes, all of which are now entirely lost. Around the 3rd century BC, they began to carve into the walls of caves creating rock-cut shrines and sanctuaries that eventually evolved into large and complex temples and monasteries. Thousands of these temples were carved and built along the Indus Valley, the most ancient of brick and mortar and still remain in Mohenjo-daro and Harappa (now in Pakistan). Within these caves were found sculptures and pictographs similar to objects found in Mesopotamia that make historians believe that there was some kind of interrelationship of these two cultures. The carvings of the caves and rock however, appear to be synonymous with ancient India alone.
The reason why this type of architecture began in India is believed to be a result of the religion, beliefs and culture of India during this ancient time. The people of ancient India had a great belief in the gods and had many assumptions about the world. Their primary belief was that everything worked as a single process, that is, change and perfection, time and eternity, existence and transcendence were one.1 It is this belief that made the artist realize that art cannot be separated from nature, nor could that the work of art be separated from eternity. By carving stone, caves and mountainsides, the artists were fusing nature and eternity with the powerful art of their day thereby glorifying the mystery in these conflicts.
With the advent of Buddhism came the first historical period of this type of Indian architecture. The Indian king Asoka (250 BC) gave imperial patronage to Buddha and had many monuments built for religious purposes. The stupa, a dome shaped or rounded structure that contained a relic of Buddha, was regarded as the symbol of Buddha and was a focus for Buddhist worship.2 The greatest structure that Asoka commissioned was the Great Stupa at Sanchi which honored the death and entrance to Nirvana of Buddha. This was a huge dome, surrounded by railings (vedika) and elaborately carved gateways (torana). The main dome was carved into a small mountain and shaped into a semicircular dome, with parts of the elaborate gates carved from other huge free standing “living” rock.
Buddhist based architecture survived about five centuries in India when Hinduism and Jainism became more dominant. Following the same type of rock-cut architecture, the Jains built many larger and ornate temples with pointed domes that were made of corbeled stones. The Jains built many structures, but none to compare with the notable Hindu style which ran consecutively with the Jains.
The Hindu style was very closely related to the Buddhist style. It began around the 6th century AD when the Hindu dynasties began to flourish. There were three areas where Hindu architecture flourished. Initially, the Hindu rock-cut temples looked much like the Buddhist temples although they were carved with a different scheme, namely, the creation of the universe. One such structure, The Temple of Orissa, was a huge structure that consisted of a sanctum, several porches (jagamohana) and pyramid roof with a dancing hall (natta mandir) and a hall of offerings (bhog mandir).3 This temple dates back to the Mahabharata, under the rule of the Nanda Kings but was added to for many years and is now part of what is called the Golden Triangle. Another great Hindu temple is the Kailasa Temple in Ellora, Maharashtra, India. This temple was carved from the stone of a volcanic hillside. First, a U-shaped trench was cut into the hillside to a depth of about 100 feet. Then the center was carved, 109 feet wide by 164 feet long. The Temple of Kailasa which means the heaven of Siva or Mahadeio was dedicated to Shiva and has an entry shrine, open porch, main hall and inner sanctum.4 It has been said to be “an illustration of one of those rare occasions when mens minds, hearts and hands work together in unison towards the consummation of a supreme ideal”.5
In the 6th century AD, the Hindu Rashtraputa kings continued to build not only temples but elaborate rock-cut caves. The Elephanta Caves, built by the Chalukyas, are beautifully sculptured caves with images of the Hindu deities Brahma, Parvati, Natraja and Shiva. Built by the Pallava (600 – 900 AD) were the complex rock-cut temples at Mahabalipuram which also featured a towered sanctuary and mandapa (columned hall leading to the sanctuary). Next were the Chola (900 – 1150 AD) where had both sanctuaries and domed roofs.
Following these styles of architecture, rock-cut temples continued to flourish however changed by continued invasions. The Islamic architecture in India, brought by Muslim conquerors begins in approximately the 13th century and continues to the present. Again there are rounded domes, arches and minarets but they are not as luxurious and elaborate as the Hindu style. The Gol Gumbaz in Bijapur, Mysore State is said to have as large a dome as St. Peters Basilica in Rome and yet, surprisingly, is considered to be a rock-cut temple.
Most of the temples built in last six centuries, were rock-cut but not necessarily in “living rock”. They were sculpted in existing rock and then brought together and fused to create great architectural temples. As the provinces in India rebelled against the imperial style of Delhi, many monuments and temples were created in many different styles. One of the most famous of these creations is the Jami Masjid, found in Ahmadabad. This structure is considered Muslim in style and yet has three bays and almost 300 pillars which might be mistaken as a Hindu creation.
What makes this style different from those of previous eras is the use of luxurious materials such as marble and gemstones inlaid in the marble.
To witness the culmination of this era, one would look at the Taj Mahal in Agra. This temple is actually a mausoleum built by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in the 17th century in honor of his beloved wife. Made in completely white marble and inlaid with many gemstones, it stands on a platform set off by four slender minarets. This temple/mausoleum is then reflected in a long slender pool. This architectural wonder contains all of the properties of ancient Indian art, yet clearly reflects a transition into the modern world.
As much as the architecture in India has changed over five thousand years of history, it has remained the same. Amazingly, the ancient Indians were successful in carving, chiseling and creating monuments that remain breathtaking to this day. Their original purpose, to fulfill their religious beliefs in the wholeness of the universe, gave us the opportunity to relive and enjoy these great structures to this day.
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