In­dia: Land of Dream­like Ar­chi­tec­ture

Beijing (English) - - CONTENTS - Trans­lated by Liu Xian­shu Edited by David Ball

The 4,000- year- old civil­i­sa­tion of In­dia can be com­pared to a vo­lu­mi­nous en­cy­clopae­dia— even those en­am­oured by it are un­able to de­ci­pher ev­ery one of its mean­ings and se­crets.

The 4,000-year-old civil­i­sa­tion of In­dia can be com­pared to a vo­lu­mi­nous en­cy­clopae­dia—even those en­am­oured by it are un­able to de­ci­pher ev­ery one of its mean­ings and se­crets. It is no won­der there­fore that some be­lieve one would prob­a­bly have to live in the coun­try for cen­turies in or­der to un­der­stand this mas­sive and mys­te­ri­ous civil­i­sa­tion.

Over time, the seem­ingly un­know­able an­cient In­dian civil­i­sa­tion has be­come clearer in peo­ple's minds in terms of its wealth, wis­dom and some­what in­ex­pli­ca­ble na­ture. Whether in the West or the East, the idea of In­dia con­jures up the fol­low­ing im­ages in peo­ple's minds: an ex­ot­i­cally dressed ma­hara­jah with his gold and sil­ver jew­ellery rid­ing atop an elephant ac­com­pa­nied by his ser­vants; a reclu­sive philoso­pher sit­ting solemnly be­neath a tree, cul­ti­vat­ing him­self and re­main­ing aloof from worldly af­fairs; a shab­bily-dressed snake charmer sit­ting be­hind a bas­ket play­ing a gourd-shaped flute, as a co­bra sud­denly pops out and sways in time to the mu­sic; and not far from the snake charmer, some­one is per­form­ing the famed In­dian rope trick to the de­light of passers-by.

It was not un­til the dis­cov­ery of the Rani-ki-vav (the “Queen's Step­well”), which is renowned as the Eighth Won­der of the World, that these stereo­types about In­dia changed and the na­tion's once-daunt­ing rep­u­ta­tion was bro­ken.

Built by the wid­owed queen Udaya­mati, Rani-ki-vav was a step­well—a sub­ter­ranean wa­ter re­source and stor­age sys­tem in which the wa­ter is reached by de­scend­ing a set of steps. As one walks down, the splen­did civil­i­sa­tion of In­dia dur­ing the 11th cen­tury, in­clud­ing its history, ar­chi­tec­ture, sculp­ture, sci­ence, re­li­gion and art can all be ap­pre­ci­ated. It seems al­most as if the ori­gins of the en­tire na­tion and its civil­i­sa­tion can be found here.


Lo­cated on the Saurash­tra Penin­sula in the cen­tre of the western coastal area of In­dia, Patan ap­pears at first glance to be much the same as many other small cities dot­ted across the coun­try. How­ever, this city was lo­cated on what was once the main land and sea trans­porta­tion routes for In­dia. It was not only a dis­tri­bu­tion cen­tre for mer­chants, but also a nec­es­sary rest­ing place for herds­men and no­madic peo­ples pass­ing through. With its rich soil and pic­turesque scenery, Patan was for­merly the cap­i­tal of the Gu­jarat Sul­tanate and the cap­i­tal of a king­dom in the Solanki Dy­nasty (AD 950–1300).

King Bhima I, for whom his wife Queen Udaya­mati built the step­well, was ex­tremely fond of art. Bhima I's king­dom boasted great wealth and many tal­ented peo­ple, in­clud­ing some of the best ar­chi­tects and sculp­tors any­where in the world. As early as 1025, Bhima I had a splen­did tem­ple built in Mod­hera, 30 kilo­me­tres (km) south of Patan to wor­ship the so­lar de­ity Surya.

Since an­cient times, tem­ples in In­dia have fre­quently been built from solid rock, which also served as the sculp­tur­ing ma­te­rial. Carv­ing the hard rock was a very difficult skill to mas­ter, with records stat­ing that ap­pren­tice­ships for tem­ple sculp­tors of­ten started in early child­hood. One In­dian mas­ter sculp­tor at the time even stated: “If one starts at the age of seven or eight, he might be­come a mas­ter; if he starts around the age of 10, he might be a fairly good sculp­tor; if he starts after 20, then he can only be a crafts­man.” It is no won­der there­fore that In­dia boasts such splen­did achieve­ments in ar­chi­tec­ture and the art of sculpt­ing.

In 1064, King Bhima I passed away. His wife Udaya­mati de­cided to build a ma­jes­tic un­der­ground tem­ple in the form of a step­well for him in Patan. As a memo­rial to the king, the tem­ple was also de­signed as a re­li­gious place where the royal fam­ily and Hin­dus could wor­ship Vishnu and pray for the pro­tec­tion of the coun­try and its peo­ple.

This was how Rani-ki-vav, also known as Queen Udaya­mati's Step­well, came into be­ing. A ge­nius ar­chi­tec­tural mon­u­ment, the step­well is as deep as seven storeys in places (or 28 me­tres [m], which is in fact greater than the height of a seven storey build­ing nowadays). It con­sists of two con­nected parts: a cylin­dri­cal “well” in the west and a rec­tan­gu­lar “pond” in the east. The well is sim­i­lar to those found in China, ex­cept it has a gap of about 1/6 of its cir­cum­fer­ence on the wall border­ing the pond al­low­ing wa­ter to flow from the well to the pond. The size of the well is im­pres­sive with a di­am­e­ter of 10 m and a depth of 30 m. The pond is sit­u­ated just east of the well and is shaped like an in­verted pyra­mid, mea­sur­ing ap­prox­i­mately 69 m

long, 22 m wide and 28 m deep. There are sev­eral flights of stairs lead­ing to the bot­tom of the pond and the wall of the well, which is a to­tal of “seven storeys” un­der­ground.

On en­ter­ing the step­well, it is easy to be taken aback by both the quan­tity and the qual­ity of the sculp­tures. The in­te­rior walls of the well are in­laid with 44 lay­ers of carv­ings of vary­ing sizes. The walls of the pond are cov­ered with sculp­tures of gods and ap­saras (ce­les­tial dancers), as well as carved pil­lars. At each level, the walls of the pond are carved with ex­quis­ite sculp­tures of gods, fig­ures, an­i­mals and flow­ers. In front of the sculp­tures of gods there is a 60-cen­time­tre-wide path which leads vis­i­tors to any level of the pond. In­side the pond there are open, multi-level cor­ri­dors sup­ported by exquisitely carved beams. The step­well con­tains 365 large stat­ues of ma­jor gods, sev­eral hun­dred sculp­tures of ap­saras, as well as nu­mer­ous carv­ings of other smaller-sized gods, fig­ures and an­i­mals for dec­o­ra­tive pur­poses. As such, al­most ev­ery inch of the struc­ture is cov­ered in carv­ings. In terms of the themes that fea­ture in the carv­ings, most are re­lated to fig­ures from mythol­ogy, but bat­tle scenes, pa­rades, cel­e­bra­tions and im­ages from fa­bles can also be found. For ex­am­ple, there are sev­eral carv­ings telling the well-known In­dian fable of ‘‘the mon­key and the croc­o­dile.''

This un­prece­dented ar­chi­tec­tural mas­ter­piece not only em­bod­ies the great wis­dom and cre­ativ­ity of the past ar­chi­tects, but also show­cases the ori­gins of the an­cient In­dian civil­i­sa­tion. As such, Rani-kiVav is famed through­out the history of In­dia as well as the history of art and ar­chi­tec­ture.

Agra Fort and Fateh­pur Sikri

More than 500 years after Queen Udaya­mati's Step­well was flooded by a nearby river dur­ing mon­soon and silted up, the Mughal Em­pire was founded, which wit­nessed the con­tin­u­a­tion of the an­cient In­dian civil­i­sa­tion.

The Mughal Em­pire played a key role in the history of In­dia. It ini­ti­ated an era of po­lit­i­cal unity and so­cioe­co­nomic de­vel­op­ment on the In­dian sub­con­ti­nent, as well as a new stage in the splen­did In­dian civil­i­sa­tion. Un­der the reign of suc­ces­sive rulers, the Is­lamic and In­dian civil­i­sa­tions co-ex­isted and in­ter­acted, cre­at­ing mas­sive ma­te­rial and spir­i­tual wealth for In­dia as well as an en­dur­ing legacy for the world. To­day, the north­ern part of In­dia still re­mains the po­lit­i­cal cen­tre of the coun­try. In the cap­i­tal city of Delhi and in Agra, apart from the white dream­like Taj Ma­hal, there are many more red sand­stone cas­tles and palaces. These an­cient, mys­te­ri­ous relics were pre­dom­i­nantly built dur­ing the Mughal Em­pire.

Ac­cord­ing to his­tor­i­cal records, Babur (born Zahīr-ud-dīn Muham­mad) from the north of In­dia cap­tured Delhi and es­tab­lished the Mughal Em­pire in 1526, end­ing the 320-year-rule of the Delhi Sul­tanate. The Mughal Em­pire reached its height un­der the reign of its third em­peror, Ak­bar the Great. Ak­bar ruled at the same time as King Henry IV of France, Queen El­iz­a­beth I of Eng­land and Em­peror Wanli (reign: 1573–1620) of the Ming Dy­nasty of China. How­ever, he is con­sid­ered by many to have sur­passed these fig­ures both as an in­di­vid­ual and as a ruler.

His­tor­i­cal records state that Ak­bar in­her­ited his abil­i­ties as a ruler from his grand­fa­ther Babur. After Ak­bar as­sumed power, he led his troops in ex­pand­ing the em­pire, fi­nally con­quer­ing the ma­jor­ity of the sub­con­ti­nent after many fierce battles. Un­der Ak­bar's reign, the Mughal Em­pire reached its height in terms of ter­ri­tory and af­flu­ence of its peo­ple, be­com­ing one of the world's lead­ing em­pires. In ad­di­tion, Ak­bar also made great ef­forts to pro­mote cul­ture and education. As a re­sult, In­dian paint­ing, mu­sic, lit­er­a­ture and ar­chi­tec­ture be­gan to rapidly de­velop and many mas­ters emerged who cre­ated works that would prove to be pro­foundly in­flu­en­tial for cen­turies. Fi­nally, Ak­bar helped In­dia be­come pros­per­ous and uni­fied the vast Mughal State in the mid­dle of the 16th cen­tury.

On Oc­to­ber 27, 1605, Ak­bar, the cre­ator of the great em­pire, died. He had ex­panded In­dia's ter­ri­tory to un­prece­dented size and left be­hind ex­quis­ite ar­chi­tec­ture that has sur­vived to this day, in­clud­ing the red sand­stone Agra Fort.

Agra Fort is an ar­chi­tec­tural mar­vel in the history of the Mughal Em­pire. Hav­ing as­cended the throne at 14 years of age, Ak­bar de­signed the ma­jes­tic fort nine years later, and had it built to his own in­struc­tions in fewer than six years. As the imperial city, Agra Fort was built mainly of red sand­stone and sur­rounded by a 2.5-km-long moat and walls over 20 m in height. Around the palace are deep trenches cre­ated for de­fence, with a bridge con­nect­ing it to the out­side. The most note­wor­thy build­ing in Agra Fort is the Ja­hangir Palace which was built by Ak­bar for his wife. The palace is filled with splen­did paint­ings and the court­yard in­side is sur­rounded by two-storey build­ings. As a rep­re­sen­ta­tive work of the In­dian-is­lamic

artis­tic tra­di­tion, Agra Fort was in­scribed on the UNESCO World Her­itage Site List in 1983.

Ap­prox­i­mately 40 km west of the fort is an­other an­cient ar­chi­tec­tural com­plex— Fateh­pur Sikri (the “City of Vic­tory”). Built more than 400 years ago, the city is an­other legacy of Ak­bar.

It is said that Sheikh Salim Chishti, a Sufi saint, once preached in the city. Long­ing for a son, Ak­bar vis­ited the saint along with his wives and asked him to pray for a male heir to the throne. Next year, Ak­bar did in­deed have a son. To ex­press his re­spect and ap­pre­ci­a­tion, Ak­bar built Fateh­pur Sikri near the saint's res­i­dence in 1569.

Built with red sand­stone, the spacious and splen­did city utilises ar­chi­tec­tural fea­tures from an­cient Per­sia, Is­lamic tra­di­tions, Cen­tral Asian No­mads and In­dia to ex­press re­spect for dif­fer­ent na­tional cul­tures. The city's lay­out and de­tailed de­sign re­flect Ak­bar's wis­dom, his strat­egy of gov­er­nance, his com­mit­ment to re­li­gious re­form and eth­nic in­te­gra­tion, and his great achieve­ments.

To­day, as one roams the city and ap­pre­ci­ates its lay­out, sculp­tures and ar­chi­tec­tural relics, it is pos­si­ble to feel the for­mer mag­nif­i­cence of the city and the charm of its cre­ator, Ak­bar the Great.

Taj Ma­hal

Stand­ing atop Agra Fort, one can see clearly the Taj Ma­hal. Built by the fifth Mughal em­peror Shah Ja­han, the Taj Ma­hal em­bod­ies the splen­did civil­i­sa­tion of In­dia, a great na­tion with a history of sev­eral thou­sand years. Shah Ja­han was the grand­son of Ak­bar who took to the throne after his fa­ther Ja­hangir ruled for two decades.

In 1631, Shah Ja­han's beloved wife Mum­taz Ma­hal died after a pro­longed labour (or pos­si­bly childbed fever) at the age of 39 while giv­ing birth to her four­teenth child. She had been ac­com­pa­ny­ing her hus­band while he was fight­ing a cam­paign in the Dec­can Plateau. After the death of his wife, the Shah was so grief-stricken that his hair turned white overnight and he re­fused to eat any­thing for eight days.

Born in Per­sia, Mum­taz Ma­hal was beau­ti­ful, clever and tal­ented. Dur­ing her 19 years in the palace, she wit­nessed many ups and downs in the Shah's life. The history books sug­gest that the love story be­tween Shah Ja­han and Mum­taz Ma­hal was un­par­al­leled amongst ei­ther roy­alty or the com­mon peo­ple. It is said that as Mum­taz Ma­hal lay on her deathbed, Shah Ja­han asked her if she had any wishes, and she replied: “Raise the chil­dren well and build me a beau­ti­ful tomb.” To ful­fil her wish, Shah Ja­han com­mis­sioned the tomb in 1632. He en­listed over 20,000 peo­ple from his em­pire, Cen­tral Asia and Per­sia, in­clud­ing struc­tural en­gi­neers, dome en­gi­neers, ma­sons, stone cut­ters, mo­saicists, sculp­tors, pain­ters and cal­lig­ra­phers. Con­struc­tion took place in a gar­den cov­er­ing an area of 17 hectares in Agra in the north of In­dia. The ma­te­ri­als used in its con­struc­tion in­cluded mar­ble from In­dia; pre­cious stones, crys­tals, jade and emer­alds from China; agates from Baghdad and Ye­men; gem­stones from Sri Lanka; and coral from the Arab world. Twenty-two years later, the splen­did Taj Ma­hal was fi­nally com­pleted.

The gi­ant white mar­ble mau­soleum is con­sid­ered a per­fect ex­am­ple of Indo-is­lamic ar­chi­tec­ture. In their list­ing of the build­ing as a World Her­itage Site, UNESCO stated: “Its recog­nised ar­chi­tec­tonic beauty has a rhyth­mic com­bi­na­tion of solids and voids, con­cave and con­vex and light shadow; such as arches and domes fur­ther in­creases the aes­thetic as­pect. The colour com­bi­na­tion of lush green scape, red­dish path­way and blue sky over it show­cases the mon­u­ment in ever chang­ing tints and moods. The re­lief work in mar­ble and in­lay with pre­cious and semi­precious stones make it a mon­u­ment apart.”

Records state that the Shah had orig­i­nally in­tended to build an­other iden­ti­cal mau­soleum in black mar­ble op­po­site the Taj Ma­hal. Con­nected by a half-white and half-black mar­ble bridge, the Shah could then sleep facing his beloved wife for­ever. How­ever, not long after the Taj Ma­hal was com­pleted, Shah Ja­han's son Au­rangzeb killed his broth­ers and usurped the throne, im­pris­on­ing Shah Ja­han in Agra Fort not far from the Taj Ma­hal. For the next eight years, Shah Ja­han could only glimpse a re­flec­tion of the Palace on the Ya­muna River through a small win­dow, un­til he fi­nally died of ill­ness.

More than 360 years have now passed, yet the Taj Ma­hal has re­mained as splen­did and grand as when it was first built. Ben­gali artist and poet Rabindranath Tagore (1861– 1941) wrote in a poem that the Taj Ma­hal was a “tear-drop glis­ten­ing spot­lessly bright on the cheek of time for­ever and ever.” The build­ing, which com­bines lo­cal In­dian, Cen­tral Asian and Per­sian styles, was built out of love which was ren­dered eter­nal by the mag­nif­i­cence of the build­ing.

The deep and pro­found In­dian civil­i­sa­tion has formed In­dia's unique and splen­did history as well as its mul­ti­fac­eted cul­ture. To­day, relics of the an­cient civil­i­sa­tion con­tinue to shine with great charm in this sa­cred land. In Agra Fort, the enor­mous red for­ti­fi­ca­tion stands dream­like amidst ele­phants, camels, wag­ons, bi­cy­cles, tri­cy­cles, trac­tors, trucks, buses, cars old and new, shabby houses, tow­er­ing build­ings and fancy, mod­ern ad­ver­tise­ments. It seems to be a sym­bol of the idea that mir­a­cles can hap­pen here.

The leg­endary and dream­like land of In­dia has be­stowed the world with ex­quis­ite ar­chi­tec­ture and bril­liant civil­i­sa­tion dur­ing each pe­riod of its history—from the an­cient Mau­rya Em­pire to the once-mighty Mughal Em­pire. For In­di­ans, the land is the source of their faith and power. Mean­while, those who jour­ney to this land for the first time can ap­pre­ci­ate the beauty of this an­cient and sto­ried coun­try.

Rani-ki-vav (the Queen's Step­well)

The Mughal Em­pire played a key role in the history of In­dia. It ini­ti­ated an era of po­lit­i­cal unity and so­cioe­co­nomic de­vel­op­ment on the In­dian sub­con­ti­nent, as well as a new stage in the splen­did In­dian civil­i­sa­tion. Un­der the reign of suc­ces­sive rulers, the Is­lamic and In­dian civil­i­sa­tions co-ex­isted and in­ter­acted, cre­at­ing mas­sive ma­te­rial and spir­i­tual wealth for In­dia as well as an en­dur­ing legacy for the world. Agra Fort is an ar­chi­tec­tural mar­vel in the history of the Mughal Em­pire. Hav­ing as­cended the throne at 14 years of age, Ak­bar de­signed the ma­jes­tic fort nine years later, and had it built to his own in­struc­tions in fewer than six years.

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