Chapter I – Across Gujarat
Disclaimer: If you are an architect or have an academic interest in architecture, you will hate the words that follow. But you must still travel on this trip as it will appeal to your finer senses.
Your journey starts with Bombay Gothic. To know what Bombay Gothic is, you need to know what Gothic Revival is. To know what Gothic Revival is, you need to know what the original Gothic is. To know what original Gothic is, you need to know what Romaneque architecture is. Now Romanesque architecture is very simple. Imagine a very old castle or church with flags flying on top of the spire, and you’ll have an idea of Romanesque architecture. For medieval (read: original) Gothic architecture, they sharpened the spires and more lines (many more lines) to the structures. Renaissance came in the early 15th century and flushed that down with out-of-the-box thinking. Gothic architecture made a comeback in the 18th century with even longer spires, more lines and flying buttresses and the renaissance took voluntary retirement. The Goth architects thought that they if they could rule over the renaissance, they could rule over anything. With great enthusiasm they brought it to the British colonies.
It was then that they learnt a thing or 2 about nature. The spires and the squares could not shrug off the rain. The stone heated up too quickly. Gothic Revival architecture had to be revived from its sun-stroke by a little local flavour – and thus was born Bombay Gothic. The Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus that you would see is a prime example of that. This Gothic revival architecture was brought into Bombay (now Mumbai) but could not clash with the already prevalent styles of architecture. It thus merged with them – leading to what is now called Bombay Gothic. The Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus that you will see is a prime example of that.
The Sun Temple at Modhera
The Sun Temple at Modhera looks beautiful. But that is now why you should be awed. You should be awed by how architecture meets numbers when you visit this temple dedicated to the Sun God, Surya. The temple has 3 independent elements which make it up in entirety. Everything done for a reason. For instance, the Suryakund (Sun Pond) is a masterpiece of symmetry. There are 108 idols carved into the levels of the pond because 108 is considered to be an auspicious number. The Sabha Mandap, or the hall for communal gatherings, has 52 pillars symbolising the number of weeks in a year. The walls have 12 niches signifying the 12 months in an year. The main temple or the Sanctum Sanctorum is on a base shaped as an inverted lotus. This is because lotuses are considered to be the Sun’s flower – opening at sunrise and closing at sunset. It was designed so that the sun’s rays fall directly on the gold idol of the Sun God on the two equinoxes. The sun temple is magnificent. But you should keep counting.
The Adalaj Stepwell
Apart from the mountains (Himalayas and parts of the Western Ghats), India is essentially a terribly hot place to live in. Moreover the Northwest region is particularly dry even if the sea is quite close. Consequently then, any water source would be considered sacred. Humans would go to great depths to find water – and once found, would preserve the resource as best as possible. The Adalaj Stepwells are a prime example of that. A stepwell is essentially a well that you can step into and don’t have to use a rope and pulley to take out water from. The Adalaj stepwells go 4 stories deep and have enough space for people to congregate. The well is made of stone and cement was not used simply because cement had not been invented then. This stepwell used to act like a community center as well with people chatting away in the cool confines of a place that was 5 degrees cooler than their villages.
Chapter II – Central & Eastern India
Ved Shala (Jantar Mantar), Ujjain
Constructed between 1725 and 1730, the observatory at Ujjain is one of the 5 open-air observatories constructed by the then-Maharaja of Jaipur. It is the only one that is still in use right now. According to the astronomers then, the Ved Shala lied on the Tropic of Cancer. They weren’t very wrong as it is 1/10th of a degree away from the current latitude of the line. Astronomy (and subsequently astrology) was a very important concept in Hinduism and this is one of the few examples of architecture in calculations where large instruments were constructed at the behest of the king.
The Ved Shala has 5 major instruments. The Shanku Yantra may look like a sundial but was not really used to calculate the time. It was used to calculate the declination of the sun or the latitude of Ujjain depending on which factor was known. This was not constructed by the king but was built very recently (30 years ago).
The Nadi Valaya Yantra is basically an instrument used to calculate the time apart from the sundial. It is inclined at the same angle as the celestial equator and is divided into the Southern Part and the Northern Part. Between equinox and summer solstice the observations on the Northern part are taken while between the equinoxes and winter solstice, the observations on the Southern Part are taken. It is also possible to find out whether any celestial body is in the Northern Hemisphere or Southern. If you view from the plane on any of the parts, the celestial body should be visible. Whichever part it is visible from, the celestial body is in that hemisphere.
The bigger the instrument, the more accurate the projections are. As a result, the sundial dominates over the other instruments of the Ved Shala. The upper planes of the sundial are at the same inclination as the axis of the earth. When the sun shines, the shadow of the edge of the Sundial may fall on any of the 2 quarter circles that are at the same inclination as the equatorial plane. The quarter circles are marked and the shadow tells us the time in hours and minutes. You just need to add a few minutes to find out the Indian Standard Time. It is also used to calculate the declination of a celestial body.
Apart from this, there are other instruments to calculate the altitude from the horizon and the azimuth angle of any celestial body. This was important for Indian Astrology.
The Sanchi Stupa
The stupa is the most characteristic monument of Buddhist India. Originally stupas were mounds covering the relics of the Buddha or his followers. In its earliest stages Buddhist art didn’t represent the Buddha directly. Instead, his presence was alluded to through symbols such as the Bodhi tree, the wheel of law or his footprint. The stupa also became a symbol of the Buddha. More exactly, it became a symbol of his final release from the cycle of birth and rebirth — the Parinirvana or the “Final Dying.”
In a larger sense this stupa is also a cosmic symbol. Its hemispherical shape represents the world egg. Stupas commonly rest on a square pedestal and are carefully aligned with the four cardinal points of the compass. This is a recurrence of the symbolism of the dome whereby Earth supports Heaven and Heaven covers Earth. The axis of the world is always represented in the stupa, rising above its summit. The so-called “parasols,” set one above the other along the shaft emerging from its uppermost region, represent a heavenly hierarchy. The cosmic symbolism is completed by a ritual circumambulatory path around the monument.
Terracotta temple architecture of Bengal
Although it is generally assumed that there has been human settlement in Bengal from prehistoric times, there is a regrettable dearth of evidence. This is because of the soil structure of Bengal. Since the whole civilisation was spread on the alluvial plain of the mighty rivers of Ganges and Brahmaputra, the whole region was susceptible to flood and its resulting unsettling geographical pattern. This soil structure is reflected in the building material chosen by the Bengali temple designers especially in the terra cotta temples with elaborate surface decorations and lettering written in nagari alphabets. The roof structure also has been designed for the heavy rainfall that the Ganges river delta experiences throughout the monsoon, it has been curved to get rid of the huge amount of water as soon as possible and thereby increasing the lifetime of the structure. This roof structure has been used in other parts of India and most of the palace roofs of Rajasthan are shaped in this way and are creatively called Bangaldars (Bangal rhyming with Bengal).
Chapter III – Bangladesh & the Easternmost extremities
Bangladesh sits in such a position that it was easily influenced by 3 different types of architecture – Bengali Terracotta, Mughal and modern architecture. The Lalbagh fort is one of the best examples of later Mughal Architecture. Mughal Architecture came with the Mughals and was an amalgamation of Persian, Turkish and Byzantine architecture. Under the early Mughals, red sandstone and marble was used to build structures. The best example of the latter is Humayun’s Tomb while the former is exemplified by the Taj Mahal. Towards the later part of the Mughal Empire though, rubble and stucco decoration replaced the red sandstone. Aurungzeb’s son built the Lalbagh Fort and it is a good example of this latter Mughal architecture along with tombs in Pakistan.
The primary example of modern architecture would be the Parliament Building built by Louis Kahn. According to Robert McCarter, author of Louis I. Kahn, “it is one of the twentieth century’s greatest architectural monuments, and is without question Kahn’s magnum opus.” Kahn did not believe in hiding a building’s true character. As a result, the materials used in the building of the Parliament can be easily seen. Moreover, the Parliament is a masterpiece in ergonomics with most of the interior being lit by natural light rather than having to be lit up. The combination of space and light gives an airy feeling to entire building.
The Root Bridges of Cherrapunji
In the depths of northeastern India, in one of the wettest places on earth, bridges aren’t built—they’re grown.
The southern Khasi and Jaintia hills are humid and warm, crisscrossed by swift-flowing rivers and mountain streams. On the slopes of these hills, a species of Indian rubber tree with an incredibly strong root system thrives and flourishes.
The Ficus elastica produces a series of secondary roots from higher up its trunk and can comfortably perch atop huge boulders along the riverbanks, or even in the middle of the rivers themselves. The War-Khasis, a tribe in Meghalaya, long ago noticed this tree and saw in its powerful roots an opportunity to easily cross the area’s many rivers. Now, whenever and wherever the need arises, they simply grow their bridges.
In order to make a rubber tree’s roots grow in the right direction—say, over a river—the Khasis use betel nut trunks, sliced down the middle and hollowed out, to create root-guidance systems. The thin, tender roots of the rubber tree, prevented from fanning out by the betel nut trunks, grow straight out. When they reach the other side of the river, they’re allowed to take root in the soil. Given enough time, a sturdy, living bridge is produced.
The root bridges, some of which are over a hundred feet long, take ten to fifteen years to become fully functional, but they’re extraordinarily strong—strong enough that some of them can support the weight of fifty or more people at a time. In fact, because they are alive and still growing, the bridges actually gain strength over time—and some of the ancient root bridges used daily by the people of the villages around Cherrapunji may be well over 500 years old.
One special root bridge, believed to be the only one of its kind in the world, is actually two bridges stacked one over the other and has come to be known as the “Umshiang Double-Decker Root Bridge.”