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Language and Architecture of Ancient India
|by Dr. Neria H. Hebbar|
Samskrita, the Language of the Gods
The Vedic language (later called as Sanskrit) was akin to languages of the European continent spoken by tribesmen around 2000 B.C.E. The earliest surviving Sanskrit literature is the Rig Veda. As time went on many of the words of the original language were forgotten and became obsolete. In 4th Century B.C.E., Panini (a grammarian in Takshashila) wrote a great grammar work in eight chapters called Ashtadhyayi. This standardization of the language resulted in a perfected language called Samskrita (refined language-anglicized as Sanskrit). This classical Sanskrit became the language of the priestly class and later of the governing class. The popular dialect of the language that developed naturally was called as Prakrit or Prakrita, the unrefined language. Prakrit was the spoken language of India for almost a thousand years between Buddha Period to the Gupta Period. The language of the edicts of Ashoka’s time was in Prakrit. Prakrit had several regional dialects. The most popular in the North during Buddha’s period was Pali. Several Buddhist texts were written in Pali. Magadhan Empire had a dialect called Magadhi. Another form was Ardha-magadhi (Half Magadhi) that became the sacred language of Mahavira’s Jains. Other important Prakrits were Saureshi and Maharastri. Bengali and a language used by Jains of Gujarat in the Middle Ages called Apabrahmsa also are derived from Prakrit. All of the modern vernaculars spoken in Northern India today are direct descendents of Sanskrit and Prakrit.
The oldest surviving structures of ancient India are its temples. It gives us a glimpse of the glory of architecture that was taken to its summit with solid stone structures that even today stand as monuments to the richness of the imaginations of the ancient Indians.
The most famous of the cave temples are in Ajanta, where there are no less than twenty seven caves that were first carved on the hillside as early as 2nd Century B.C.E and as late as 7th Century C.E., depicting mainly Buddhist teachings. About thirty miles north is the massive Ellora caves, where there are about thirty-four caves, carved between 5th and 8th Centuries C.E. The Rashtrakuta emperor, Krishna I (757-773 C.E.), built the great Kailasa temple here. Also in the 7th Century C.E. seventeen rock-cut temples were built in Mamallapuram (Mahabalipuram), near Chennai by the Pallava kings. Narasimhavarman II Rajasimha added the famous Shore temple in Mamllapuram around 700 C.E. The famous seven pagodas are seen here. In an island off the shores of Mumbai one can see the cave temple called as the Elephanta caves. The colossal Trimurthy figure of Shiva is carved in one of the caves.
Pallavas built temples in Mamallapuram and the Kailasanath temple in Kanchipuram in the 6th and 8th Centuries. Kailasanatha temple of Kanchipuram has a pyramidal tower like a stupa (of Buddhism) over the shrine. The Chalukyas were busy with their own temples in Badami, Aihole and Pattadakal. Two remarkable temples in Pattadakal were built by two sisters in commemoration of the victories of their husband, Chalukya Vikramaditya II over the Pallavas. These are the Mallikarjuna and Virupaksha temples of Pattadakal. The Nataraja temple in Chidambaram was built between 6th and 8th Centuries. The great Bhrihadishvara temple of Tanjavur was built by Rajaraja Chola (985-1014). His son, Rajendra Chola built the temple near Kumbakonam. Both these temples contain elaborate pillars and halls with beautiful designs. In addition they have glorious pyramidal towers (Shikara or Vimana) of carved stone, rising two hundred feet into the air over the sanctum sanctorum (garbha griha). The Pandya kings, who supplanted the Chola dynasty, built fortified temples with colossal towers at the entrance way (called the gopuram) rather than over the shrine itself. They added to Pallava temples or built new ones as in Madurai and in Srirangam.
At the same time the Hoysalas of Dorasamudra (11th to 14th Century C.E.), built temples of a different style in Belur and Halebid and later in Somnathpur. These were temples without the entrance towers and shaped in a polygonal or stellate form rather than the rectangular base. Beautiful carvings of stone were incorporated in the walls and ornate stone pillars surrounded the inner hall. The famous Shila-balika (stone-woman) can be seen here with all the intricately carved details. The Vijayanagara Empire (14th to 16th Century) contributed to the art of temple building with the Vittala temple in Hampi with its exuberantly carved pillars and decorative imagination unsurpassed. Krishna Deva Raya was also the builder of temple in Kanchipuram. Vijayanagara Empire also added a tower (gopuram) to the temple at Belur at a later date to commemorate the defeat of Muslims. The Nayaks after the decline of the Vijayanagara Empire built the bulk of the great temple complex of Madurai dedicated to Meenakshi, the consort of Shiva, as well as the Rock temple in Tirchirapalli.
As mentioned earlier the temples in the North India vanished during the Middle Ages and even the holy temple at Varanasi was desecrated during the Muslim rule in the North. However, some temples withstood the Muslim assault and miraculously escaped destruction. There is the temple at Khajuraho in Madhya Pradesh built by the Chandella kings of Bundelkhand (late 9th Century). Khajuraho temple demonstrated vivid sculptures of couples in embrace, and with its sexual mysticism was thought to be the center of Tantric cult long ago. During the medieval period temples flourished in Orissa (between 10th and 13th Century), finest of them being the famous Lingaraja temple in Bhubaneswar. In addition there are the Jagannath temple at Puri and the Sun temple at Konarak, built in the 13th Century. Like Khajuraho, evidence of Tantric worship is seen in Konarak. In the Western India the Chaulukyas or Solankis of Gujarat built the famous Jain and Hindu temples in Mount Abu between 11th and13th Centuries. Sculptures made of marble with its cold lifelessness with extremely decorated ceilings, perhaps influenced by the Muslim architecture, are the hallmarks of Mt. Abu.
Innumerable temples exist in India and every one of them has its own charm and pious deity. The most holy ones are not necessarily architectural masterpieces. Thus the holy temples of Varanasi, Badrinath, and Gaya do not exhibit any special characteristics in their building structures. Krishna temple in Udipi, the center of Madhva culture or the Sringeri temple in Karnataka do not boast of great buildings that house the deities. Being pantheistic, Hindu religion has multitudes of recognized godheads. Consequently there are thousands of temples in India that are considered to be holy with a powerful deity in the sanctum sanctorum and it is not possible to enumerate them all in this article.
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