One definition of a great civilization is the magnificence of its architectural legacy, and India is surely among the foremost. The country is dotted with the remains of ages gone by, many world famous like the Taj and Qutab Minar, and some still cloaked in obscurity, off the tourist circuit, waiting to be 'discovered', but architectural gems nevertheless.
In a perfect world, we would all be traveling, exploring and writing for a living, seeing monuments, marveling at the ineffable genius of builders long dead, imagining our world in the age of kings, dreaming of empires long gone and their pomp and glory.
For most of us, however, this is wishful thinking. Fortunately, technology comes to our aid. Through the combined media of television, books, radio, and recently the web, we can look at images, hear words, and experience that which we perhaps will never be able to see, feel or touch. Thus, our first attempt will be to explore, as vividly and clearly as possible, India's immense built heritage.
Lessons from the Past
To begin, it should be pointed out that in the large volume of published work on world architecture, there is comparatively little on India (of course, the word 'India' here denotes the sub-continent - including Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. These countries, though separated by political boundaries, share a common cultural heritage). This is not surprising - by far the majority of authors are Westerners. It has been traditionally difficult for Western historians to make a correct and unbiased appraisal of Indian architecture - even if they should choose to do so. One chief cause is that Indian architecture - both Hindu and Muslim - has been traditionally considered exotic, not subject to the same rules of analysis as Western examples. Much research still needs to be done - a beginning has been made but the majority of the Indian vernacular still waits to be dissected.
This is a pity since there are many lessons to be learnt - lessons especially valid today when modern Indian architects, trained in schools of architecture closely patterned on Western examples, are lacking in all but the most rudimentary knowledge of their own heritage and the conditions - social, cultural, political - which spawned it. Valuable insights on building morphology, use of material and climatic appropriateness - which today are all major issues - can be gleaned from the ingenious solutions in the vernacular.
This section, then, is also an attempt to strip Indian architecture of its 'exotic' tag, and present it for what it is - an intelligent, innovative response to local conditions.
In the beginning ...
That said, where does one begin? With a past stretching back to 2500 B.C., there are innumerable examples to choose from. It is difficult to select truly representative monuments - those which clearly typify the spirit of their age and/or usher in a new style. Equally, it is difficult to decide which ones to omit.
The best way is to start chronologically, from the very beginning. The Indus and its tributaries were one of the earliest cradles of civilization. Here, at least, there is no ambiguity - the cities of the Indus Valley Civilization are the first surviving evidence of architecture/town planning in the sub-continent. The life and times of the Indus Valley people make for a fascinating study.
Thus, the Harappan Culture will form the basis of the first article.