The people of the Indus Valley showed a knack at construction
that was ahead of their time. Their cities had many public
buildings large enough to house quite a few people, one such
building being the Great Bath at Mohenjodaro, built around 2500
BCE. It had a capacity of around 250 cubic metres and was lined
with two layers of brick with a layer of bitumen in between.
Buildings had a stone base of two to three metres and mud and
wood were used above it. Some sites had fortifications of stone.
Bricks were made of alluvial clay. They were moulded in various
shapes for different purposes. Mud or lime mortar was the
cementing material. Bricks were arranged in the English Bond
Houses of the Rigvedic period were made of wood with bamboo
rigging. Roofs were thatched and walls were made of reed bundles
in wooden framework.
As kingdoms rose, palace and temple construction brought new
challenges for the ancient Indian builders. Palaces sported
monolithic columns of granite, and wood was used where stone was
scarce. By the time of the Mauryas, Persian and Greek influences
became more evident.
An important piece of architecture during the Buddhist kings’
reign was the stupa - a hemispherical mound as large as 120
feet in diameter with a central chamber containing relics. The
inner part of the structure made of unbaked bricks while the outer
was made of baked bricks. The outer layer was plaster. The largest
such stupa was reputed to be 327 feet in diameter1
in present-day Sri Lanka, built during the 2nd century CE.
Until the Gupta kingdom was established (ca. 320 CE) the
primary feature of construction that we know of today is the
cave-temple. Cave-temples are artificial cavities carved out of
solid rock for religious purposes. Specimens have been found in
various parts of the Deccan plateau, some sites having several
temples in the same area. In fact, the term “cave-temple” is a
misnomer as these were completely man-made and more of tunnels
than caves.2 Many were
huge and comparable to the great Greek and Roman temples of the
time. However in terms of workmanship, they were probably easier
to build because of the absence of transportation of material and
Gupta temples were also made of blocks of stone, but were
smaller than previous temples. No mortar was used in their design;
in some places, iron pegs fixed in sockets in the adjacent faces
of stone blocks held them together.
Towards the middle and end of the first millennium CE, the
kingdoms of the south built a series of temples in a
characteristic style. The striking feature of these temples is the
huge tower at the gate, which is shaped like a rectangular block
tapering at the top.
These structures could reach heights of 200
feet, and often sported a heavy monolithic sculpture at their
peak. To hoist such a sculpture, the builders would have used
elephants to haul it up a ramp with a very gentle slope, using
cylindrical tree trunks as “wheels” to ease the effort.
1.A.L. Basham, “The Wonder that was
India”, (Sidgwick and Jackson Limited, 1967), p. 350.
2.Peter James and Nick Thorpe, “Ancient Inventions”, (Ballantine
Books, 1994), p. 415-416.
3.A.L. Basham, “The Wonder that was India”, (Sidgwick and
Jackson Limited, 1967), p. 354.