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Thursday, May 21, 2015

Theories and Principles of Indian Temple Construction


Before we go any further, it will be worthwhile to examine the principles that guided the Hindu Temple architect and mason. How was there a proliferation of high-quality work in throughout the country? Was it a spontaneous expression of creative energy or were there some basic rules to follow, some essential unity underlying the apparent diversity?
We shall examine briefly the social, religious, metaphysical and material factors that led to the production of Indian temples.
Supremacy of the Brahmins
Since the decline of the Gupta dynasty to the age of the Mughals, there was no central political authority through most of India. This political vacuum was filled by the priestly class, who gradually assumed power as the sole arbiters of almost every aspect of life - birth, death, puberty, marriage, business and personal. All these 'favors', of course, had a price and those on whose behalf they 'generously' interceded with the gods would pay the priests by cash or in kind.
Obviously the serious business of construction was too important to be overlooked either. While the basic concepts of construction and decoration had already been evolved, it was the Brahmins who began erecting a complex edifice of rules and layouts for different classes of building. These were purposely couched in hideously complicated mumbo-jumbo - the better to be well beyond the ken of the common man or even an ordinary craftsman. A lifetime was required to study the rules and more, if possible.
These rules sometimes assumed ridiculous dimensions. The most basic acts of building were no longer to be based on technical considerations but rather on mythological ones. Thus the Vastushastra was sometimes more of a hindrance than a help to the craftsmen.
It is in this situation that the genius of the Indian Craftsman came to the fore. In a situation that could easily have been stifling, the mason and stonecutters came forth and created beauty simply by the plasticity of their sculpture and the sheer brute force of their forms. A large part of this was due to the institution of Senis or guilds, about which a brief mention has been made in a previous article.
Senis - Protectors of Heritage
As early as the 7th century B.C., Indian craftsmen had organized themselves into guilds, the better to protect their special knowledge, and to gain for themselves better working conditions, and finally to ensure a minimum standard of quality of workmanship.
In the senis, heredity was the route by which traditional knowledge was passed on through the generations. As soon as a boy was old enough to hold tools, he was set to work on a rough block of stone and so commenced his long apprenticeship. This was the father's sole gift and heirloom to his sons who in turn ensured that his name and style would live on.
A temple project would often be of such magnitude that more than one generation of master cutters and masons would be required to finish it. So a clan of stonecutters would settle around the building site for years. The temple site attracted young men hoping to learn as well as find work. Thus it became the focus of activity for miles around. Over the years, regional variations introduced for the building of a particular temple led to the evolution of a new style or 'school' of temple building, much like the gharanas that exist in Indian classical music even today. Hence we find distinct schools of art and architecture even within North Indian temple construction - the Orissan, Chalukyan, Gujarati, Kashmiri, and of course, the same situation in the temples of the south, which were further divided into many regional variations and schools of construction. In all these theVastushastra was the giver of cohesiveness, which ensured overall similarity of form and function, but also, as we have seen, was responsible for fettering the imagination of the craftsmen.
The Magic of the VastuPurushaMandala
altLooking at Hindu temples, it is not very easy to discern that they are composed of one repeating unit - the square. For God's own abode, the form had to be perfect and this limited the choice of shapes to the circle - a form without beginning and end, and the square - perfect for its symmetry. The circle had already been extensively used by the Buddhists in their Stupas and moreover, was perceived to be too dynamic a form for the resting place of the gods. For the Hindus, their gods had to be installed in buildings symbolizing unity, inertia and permanence. The square, thus, was chosen for these qualities.
altThis was the origin of the square Mandala (the best translation of this in English is 'divine chart'). The mandala was further subdivided into smaller squares in a grid, those containing 64 or 81 being the most common. Each of these smaller squares was then invested with a resident deity, each with his own special attributes and powers. The distance of the deities from the center was according to their power and perceived importance.
Thus Brahma, the creator, occupied pride of place in the center and lesser gods were relegated to the edges. A humanistic façade was given to the square by showing it to be able to accommodate a figure in a convoluted yogic posture.
Vitruvian Man - leonardo da Vinci
It is interesting to note that this idea, that of the human figure being the basis of a system of proportion, was also used in the European Renaissance by Leonardo de Vinci, and later by Le Corbusier, planner of Chandigarh in India, in his Modular system of measurement.
Thus, having acquired magical and theological properties, the VastuPurushaMandala was fit to be the basis of temple construction, with many permutations and combinations being used to achieve the final form.
Very simply, the central square could be used for the garba-griha, while the surrounding grid formed the pradakshina-path and outer wall, and so on
By increasing in complexity this system of proportion could spawn the most complex of forms with their basic unit remaining the square. It was by manipulation of this basic grid that the Indian architect created the greatest temples of India. The best examples, the glorious days of Hindu architecture, shall form the basis of our next article.