India: Land of Dreamlike Architecture
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.
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.