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Concepts of Space in Traditional Indian Architecture.

Concepts of Space in Traditional Indian Architecture

by Yatin Pandya Mapin Publishing Pvt. Ltd., Ahmedabad, 2005. 48 pages, 294 colour plates, 26 colour + 143 b&w drawings. Price not mentioned.


Traditional Indian art can be studied in many different ways. One can take the art-historical route and focus on the evolution of different styles, forms, or iconography. One can look at temple layouts and sculptural organization from the viewpoint of sectarian religious writings. One can consider the economic, political, and social context of buildings, and analyse how, say, class relationships influence style and form. Yatin Pandya, a practising architect and academician, believes that such approaches are limited in that they neither "go beyond the given time and space" nor do they "evolve principles and processes which can be replicated in different contexts". In this book Pandya seeks to understand "the generic principles of space organization that render (so many historical buildings) timeless".

Pandya admits that numerous attempts have been made to study ancient monuments by analysing their spatial qualities, but points out that most of these have adopted a diagrammatic approach, based on an analysis of two-dimensional drawings of plans and elevations. These he says, "may be the tools of construction" but are inadequate as tools of communication for the viewer as he or she moves through real space. Instead, what Pandya proposes is to take the reader on a journey through the concepts that lie at the root of this space, that inform the entire construction, and give it validity over time. The concepts which Pandya discusses include a belief in the essential identity of microcosm with macrocosm, one in which "each entity is complete in itself at one plane, and yet, at the other is part of a larger system"; a worldview that is based on the "bipolarity of existence", where all conceivable pairs of opposites coexist and reinforce each other; and an understanding of time "not as linear continuity but as a helix or a spiral with a still centre and a dynamic periphery". The book under review then goes on to examine how these concepts are translated into architectural terms by analysing five great monuments of the past. Two of these are religious structures: the 8th-century Kailas Temple at Ellora dedicated to Shiva, and the Sun Temple at Modhera built in the 11th century by the Solankis of Gujarat. The third, the Rudabai Stepwell constructed at Adalaj near Ahmedabad in 1499, is primarily a water tank but assumes the status of a shrine through its associations with the watery spaces of the netherworld. The other two monuments discussed in the book are the City Palace of Udaipur, built in 1559 and occupied, expanded, and altered over the next four centuries; and finally the mosque and royal tomb complex at Sarkhej near Ahmedabad, which was initiated by Sultan Muhammad Shah in 1446.

Pandya has a tendency for overblown prose ("The freestanding elements awash with sunlight, with every detail seen starkly and in totality, are in abject refutal of the deep, dark and mysterious innards of the cavernous chambers." [p. 751]; and his text is often repetitive. That said, Concepts of Space provides an interesting perspective from which to view familiar monuments. Pandya guides the reader on a walk through these monuments, revealing the play of light and shade, the constant element of surprise, the worlds within worlds--giving the journey a kinetic dimension that moves the reader forward, inviting him to discover more.

The Sun Temple at Modhera, which is composed of three distinct parts (the kund or tank, the hall or mandapa, and the temple proper), explicitly uses the ancient symbolism of interpenetrating triangles which signify the notion of existence as bipolar. Here, steps leading to the kund form an inverted triangle (representing water, the female principle) which reflects the upward-pointing triangle (representing fire, the male principle) of the temple and shikhara (spire). Thus united they form a hexagram, symbolizing the universe in the state of manifestation.

Each of the three constituent parts of the Sun Temple is complete in itself, but all are integrated into a unified whole by a single east-west axis. Yet, as Pandya explains, the ritual route deliberately breaks this spatial axis, avoiding "a one-time registration of the overall complex", because the journey through the temple is not merely physical but also spiritual, involving a gradual progress from the mundane world of the kund, through the sacred space of the mandapa, and so on to the sanctum, the abode of the god.

This breaking with imposed axialities, frequent changes in direction, and gradual revelation of sacred mysteries is also evident at other monuments. At the Kailas Temple at EIIora, the blank wall with its small entrance doorway gives the visitor no clue as to what lies behind. It is only after one reaches the verandah to the upper level that the magnificence of the temple is revealed, impelling one forward through a circulation path that leads from one defined space to another. Visual sculptural frames add a further dimension to the journey, culminating in the mysterious dimly lit space of the garbhagriha (sanctum sanctorum). Visual and spatial experiences are intensified by the contrasts between the finely finished treatment of the freestanding temple and Nandi shrine and the rough, unfinished treatment of the rock enclosure; as well as by the variations of light and shade that give certain areas a profundity that would otherwise not be permitted by unrelieved light.

Traditional secular architecture displays similar qualities of space organization. Truly an example of "worlds within a world", the City Palace at Udaipur is "an intricate maze of built and unbuilt spaces". Living areas are organized around courtyards and linked through narrow stairways and circuitous passages, and as they "unfold gradually and sequentially through twists and turns", they provide an element of mystery, inviting exploration.

Speaking in Maximum City about the poverty of imagination that characterizes most recent Indian construction, Suketu Mehta writes, "There are no modern buildings in Bombay that make you feel anything." As Yatin Pandya explains, it is precisely this experiential quality, based on the principle of kinesthetics (perception in relation to movement), with its frequent shifts in direction, gradual unfolding of spaces, balance of interior and exterior, of light and shade, that gives so much of traditional Indian architecture its enduring vitality and renders it timeless.
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Author:Vatsal, Tulsi
Publication:Marg, A Magazine of the Arts
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 1, 2007
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