My Missing Countries

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Saturday, June 7, 2014

The Story of Architecture in South Asia


The scattered regions of South Asia, from Afghanistan to Indonesia, are historically linked by the permeation from India of Hinduism and Buddhism, religions whose far-reaching  impact over the centuries is reflected in a proliferation of beautiful shrines.

Hinduism lacked the congregational aspect of Buddhism and its temples were usually designed accordingly, in "styles" that reflected regional traditions.  A Hindu temple was an object of worship in itself and part of the ritual was to walk round it.

In keeping with this function its surfaces were generally covered with a jungle-like profusion of reliefs.  Deities were often represented with multiple arms, to emphasize their superhuman qualities and enable them to carry numerous symbols.  Jain shrines, found only in India, often took decorative elaboration to extremes, but their basic architectural forms are indistinguishable from those of Hinduism.

The focus of the Buddhist ritual, in which circumambulation (pradakshina) also played a major role, was the stupa: a domical mound symbolizing the universe.  This derived from burial tumuli and was erected to house relics or commemorate a sacred site.  

In SE Asia, where stone-carving reached a pinnacle of achievement, the idea of a religious building as a cosmological diagram, especially of the world-mountain Meru, took deep root and led a vast multi-peaked temple complexes such as Angkor Wat in Cambodia, in the Khmer style.

All text from this blog entry are taken from the book The Story of Architecture by Patrick Nuttgens.


Much of the surviving architecture of India from before the end of 18 century BC is hewn out of rock and displays dazzling sculptural skill; some details were inspired by bamboo and timber prototypes.  Free standing Hindu temples were built in a variety  of local styles.  Most of those in the North were destroyed by Muslims.

1.  Cave Retreats

(LEFT)The Padmapani, The Bearer of the Lotus. This gentle figure is one of the masterpieces of Indian Art located in Cave 1, Ajanta. (TOP RIGHT) A stone carved pillar, Dhwajstambh in Kailash Temple in Ellora Cave no. 16. (BOTTOM RIGHT) The Indra Sabha in Jain Temple at Ellora.

In the early 3rd century BC cave retreats were created by Ashoka for the Ajivika sect, imitating timber structures exactly.  The finest, in the Barabar Hills, are the Sudama and Lomas Rishi caves.  The facade of the latter anticipates the horseshoe-shaped windows of chaitya halls.

AJANTA CAVE. The caves are carved out of flood basalt rock of a cliff, part of the Deccan Traps formed by successive volcanic eruptions at the end of the Cretaceous geological period. The rock is layered horizontally, and somewhat variable in quality. This variation within the rock layers required the artists to amend their carving methods and plans in places. The inhomogeneity in the rock have also led to cracks and collapses in the centuries that followed, as with the lost portico to cave 1.

Sudama and Lomas Rishi Caves.  Let's swap
2.  Buddhist Stupas

The larger, autonomous kind of stupa was surrounded by a processional path and stone railings with 4 decorated gateways (toranas) at cardinal points.  The dome (anda) was surmounted by sacred umbrella emblem.

Sanchi Great Stupa.  It is the finest example of Buddhist stupa.  Toranas are carved with scenes from life of Buddha in a manner suggestive of wood-carving.  Above solid brick anda, originally stone-faced, is a three-tiered stone umbrella, whose railed enclosure (harmika) drives from an old tradition of fencing off a sacred tree.

The Shanti Stupa was built in 1991 by Japanese Buddhist Bhikshu Gyomyo Nakamura.  It holds the relics of the Buddha at its base, enshrined by the 14th Dalai Lama himself.  The stupa has become a tourist attraction not only due to its religious significance but also due to its location which provides panoramic views of the surrounding landscape.

Dhamek Stupa.  In its current shape, the stupa is a solid cylinder of bricks and stone reaching a height of 43.6 meters and having a diameter of 28 meters.  It is the most massive structure in Sarnath.  The basement seems to have survived from Ashoka's structure:  the stona facing is chiseled and displays delicate floral carvings of Gupta origin.  The wall is covered with exquisitely carved figures of humans and birds, a swell as inscriptions in the Brahmi script.3.  Chaitya Halls

Chaitya halls were originally of bamboo and thatch but all surviving examples are rock-cut, An excavated assembly hall, with colonnades forming aisles, housed a stupa in round apse at far end.  Roofs were semicircular in section and in the early period featured curved stone-cut ribs.  Facades ornately carved and pierced by large peaked horseshoe window.

The Chaitya Hall, Karli has teak ribs set in rock ceiling.  Columns have elaborate capitals.
Chaitya Hall, Karli.   Let's swap
4.  Buddhist Viharas

The vihara (monastic retreat) was usually a rectangular courtyard surrounded by verandas giving access to dormitory cells.  Large complex at Nalanda, Bengal, last bastion of Indian Buddhism.  Farther south all extant viharas are rock-cut.

Ajanta Caves.   Famous for lyrical wall paintings and  are mostly viharas.  At rear of the colonnaded hall of Cave 1, is a chamber containing a Buddha statue.  All interior surfaces were highly decorated:surviving fragments depict painted Bodhisattvas (Buddhas-before-Enlightenment) as well as animals and narrative scenes.

5.  Hindu Temples

Some of the oldest surviving free-standing Hindu temples were built at Aihole during Gupta era by the Chalukyan rulers.  Most mature temples are in either Northern style or Southern Dravidian style.

The Vittala Temple is considered to be the most magnificent one among the temples of Hampi, Karnataka, India.  Known for its ornate pillars and intricate carvings, this temple has 56 musical pillars which give out musical notes when tapped.

Hampi Elephant Stable.   It is a set of large stables, to house the ceremonial elephants of the royal household.  The area in front of them was a parade ground for the elephants, and for troops.  This is another structure that shows Islamic influence in its domes and arch gateways.  The guard's barracks are located right next to the elephant stables.

The Durga Temple's unusual apsidal form is thought to imitate the earlier Buddhist chaitya halls, but later studies established that apsidal design in Indian architecture is pan-Indian tradition, which was in practice even before Buddhist architecture.

Kandariya Mahadev Temple.  It is the largest and most ornate Hindu temple in the medieval temple group at Khajuraho in Madhya Pradesh, India.  It is considered one of the best examples of temples preserved from the medieval period in India.  The main spire or sikhara rises 31 meters to depict Mount Kailash, the Himalayan abode of Shiva and is surrounded by 84 miniature spires (or Urushringas).

The Meenakshi Amman Temple is located in South India, the temple is surrounded by gopurams (gateway tower). There are ten gopuram the tallest of which, the famous southern tower, rises over 52 m and was built in 1559. Each gopuram is a multi-layered structure, covered with thousands of stone figures of animals, gods and demons painted in bright hues.

6.  Jain Temples

West India developed their own character, with features such as assembly halls with octagonal ceilings supported on pillars over a square floor plan.  Stone carving was extravagantly ornate but aesthetically sterile.  Jain extravagance is typified at Mount Abu in Rajputana.  The Dilwara and Tejpal Temples are both built in white marble.  Domed halls have fancifully carved columns with leaping brackets.


Stone and brick architecture on the island dates from the 3rd century BC, when Buddhism was introduced.  The Indian stupa became the dagaba ("relic womb"): a solid, white plastered brick dome rising from a threefold circular base and crowned by a ringed spire.

1.  The Earliest Architecture

The Thuparama, Dagaba in Anuradhapura was originally conical and later rebuilt to inverted-bell shape.  Pillars with typically ornate capitals supported outer envelope.
Thuparama, Dagaba. Let's swap
The Ruvanveli Dagaba in Anuradhapura was originally 92 m high, at present much were restored.  Relics were embedded in small chamber within the solid dome.
Ruvanveli Dagaba.  Let's swap
The Tissamaharama Dagaba which is situated in the premises of Tissamaharama Raja Maha Vihara is one of the largest stupas in Sri Lanka.

2.  Polonnaruwa

In Great Quadrangle of lakeside Wata-Da-Ge can be found a podium carved with lions and dwarfs carries a round brick shrine enclosing dagaba.  Shrine achieves fine balance between plain and decorated surfaces.  It was once roofed but only pillars now remain.

Nearby are Hata-Da-Ge, a temple decorated with great restraints, and the Lata Mandapa, notable for its graceful curling lotus columns.

Hata-Da-Ge.  Let's swap

3.  Medirigiya

Watadage is a unique architectural building which completely housed the Stupa.  These buildings were constructed at the very early periods as the Stupas in this time were quite small.  Remains of such Stupa houses can be found in Medirigiya.

Medirigiya Watadage

This Watadage at Medirigiriya is built on a small rock. The entrance to this is on the northern side.  At the bottom of the staircase is a massive stone frame.  After climbing 27 stone steps you come to a resting area. Thereafter there are 4 more steps to reach the Stupa house.  Around the Stupa house is a stone wall which is about one meter in height. On the four sides are four beautifully carved Buddha statues in the seating position.  In the centre there has been the Stupa which is in ruins today.

2.  Golden Temple of Dambulla  It is the largest and best-preserved cave temple complex in Sri Lanka.  The rock towers 160 m over the surrounding plains.  There are more than 80 documented caves in the surrounding area.  Major attractions are spread over 5 caves, which contain statues and paintings.  These painting and statues are related to Lord Buddha and his life.


Buddhist styles flourished in Tibet until the 9th century AD but continued in Nepal centuries longer.  Some of the finest buildings in Burma are at Pagan, which during its ascendancy boasted some 5,000 sacred structures, mainly Buddhist.

1.  Nepal and Tibet

Stupas in Nepal had a box-like element with a huge eye painted or inlaid on each side: the all seeing Buddha.  Above was a stepped pyramid topped by umbrella finial.  Examples are the Bodnath and Swayambhunath Stupas in Katmandu.  The ancient capital Bhatgaon is rich in temples.

Swayambhunath Stupa.  With a golden spire crowning a conical wooded hill, it is the most ancient and enigmatic of all the holy shrines in Katmandu valley.  Its lofty white dome and glittering golden spire are visible for many miles and from all sides of the valley.

The most dramatic buildings of Tibet are the monastery complexes which resemble towering hill-top fortresses; walls are sloped, doors and windows narrow towards top.  An impressive example is the Potala "Palace" Lhasa.

2.  Burma

The Burmese stupa - a huge sacred mountain - had a bell-shaped dome with a tall, finely tapering spire.  On top of terraced platform was a miniature stupa at each corner.

The Mingalazedi Stupa, Pagan is typical, but more striking is the Ananda Temple with white brick and gold pinnacles.  Inside are two narrow concentric corridors, and 4 Buddha statues round the solid central base of the shikhara-like superstructure. 

Mingalazedi Stupa and Anada Temple.  Let's swap

3.  Java

In Java, temples drawing upon both South Indian Hindu styles and newly assimilated Buddhist forms, such as the stupa, were built on the central plains.  These shrines - the architectural treasures of Indonesia - are all without columns or pillars and sometimes incorporate grotesque masks carved over windows or niches.  The most exciting work is the great temple-mountain at Barabudur.

Barabudur .  A mound of earth clothed in stone, without mortar, Barabudur served as a sacred diagram of the world-mountain and symbolized Buddhist path to Enlightenment. Five square walled terraces rise concentrically, each bearing beautifully carved scenes of life of Buddha.  Above are three circular terraces on which stand 72 latticed stupas housing Buddhas.

Sudhana's first meeting with Bodhisattva Manjusri

Stone carving reached a pinnacle of achievement in SE Asia as manifested by numerous Buddisht temple like the Barabudur in Java, Indonesia.

Barabudur Latticed Stupas

Five walled terraces rise concentrically, each bearing beautifully carved scenes of life of Buddha.  Above are three circular terraces on which stand 72 latticed stupas housing Buddhas.

Other Javanese Shrines

Chandi Mendut.  In 1836 it was discovered as a ruins covered with bushes.  The restoration of this temple was started in 1897 and was finished in 1925.  It is one of Java's finest single celled temples.

Chandi Sewu
 was severely damaged during the earthquake in Java in 2006.  The structural damage is significant and the central temple suffered the worst.  Large pieces of stones were scattered over the ground and cracks between stone blocks were detected.  To prevent the central temple from collapse, the metal frame structure were erected on four corners and attached to support the main temple.  Although some weeks later in 2006 the site were re-opened for visitors, at that time the whole part of main temple remains off-limits for safety reasons.  Today the metal frame has been removed and visitors could visit and enter the main temple.

Chandi Prambanan is often called Loro Jongrang temple after the local name of the Durga statue enshrined in one side of the Shiva temple (Loro Jonggrang means "Slender Virgin")
Chandi Prambanan is the grandest temple in Java apart from Borobudur
The beautiful reliefs at Prambanan Temple stands testimony as the greatest Hindu cultural heritage in Indonesia
Kalasan Temple is the oldest among temples built in the Prambanan Plain.  Despite being renovated and partially rebuilt during the Dutch colonial era, the temple currently is in poor condition.  Compare to other temples nearby such as Prambanan, Sewu and Sambisari, the temple is not well maintained.
Chandi Plaosan is surrounded by paddy fields along with vegetation such as banana and corn.  About 200 meters away is the Dengok River nearby.

Pawon Temple.  The temple slightly faces northwest and stands on a square base.  Each sides of the stairs and the top of the gates are abandoned with carved Kala-Makara, commonly found in classic Javanese temples.  The outer wall of Pawon is carved with reliefs of boddisattvas and taras.  There are also reliefs of kalpataru (tree of life), flanked between Kinnara-Kinnari.  The square chamber inside is empty with a square basin in the center of it.  Rectangular small windows were found, probably for ventilation.

4.  Traditional Houses of Indonesia

Sent by JC Lee
Ethnic groups in Indonesia are often associated with their own distinctive form of rumah adat.  The houses are at the center of a web of customs, social relations, traditional laws, taboos, myths and religions that bind the villagers together.  The house provides the main focus for the family and its community, and is the point of departure for many activities of its residents.  Villagers build their own homes, or a community will pool their resources for a structure built under the direction of a master builder and/or a carpenter.

Batak Traditional House.  Batak architecture (North Sumatra) includes a boat-shaped homes of the Toba batak people, with dominating carved gables and dramatic oversized roof, and are based on an ancient model.

Minangkabau Traditional House.  The Minangkabau Architecture of West Sumatra build the rumah gadang, distinctive for their multiple gable with dramatically upsweeping ridge ends.  A rumah gadang serves as a residence, a hall for family meetings, and for ceremonial activities.  In the matrilineal Minangkabau soceity, the rumah gadang is owned by the women of the family who live there; ownership is apssed from mother to daughter.

The houses have dramatic curved roof structure with multi-tiered, upswept gables.  Shuttered windows are built into walls incised with profuse painted floral carvings.  The term rumah gadang usually refers to the larger communal homes, however, smaller single residences share many of its architectural elements.

In West Sumatra, traditional rumah gadang reflect the province's Minagkabau people, and has become the symbol of West Sumatra and Minangkabau culture.  Throughout the region, numerous building demonstrate the design elements of rumah gadang, including genuine vernacular timber masonry structures built for customary ceremonies, to the more mundane structure like those of government offices and public facilities.

Tongkonan Traditional House.  It is the traditional ancestral house, or rumah adat of the Torojan people, in Sulawesi, Indonesia.  Customarily it is built facing north-south.  Dominating the entire structure is the saddleback roof with gables that are dramatically upswept.  The internal space is small in comparison with the overwhelming roof structure that covers it.  Interiors are typically cramped and dark with few windows, however, most of daily life is lived outside the homes, with interiors simply intended for sleeping, storage, meeting and occasionally protection.

In larger Tana Toraja villages, houses are arranged in a row, side by side, with their roofs on a north-south alignment with the front gable facing north.  Opposite each house is the family's rice barn, or alang customarily a symbol of family wealth and together they form a second row of parallel buildings.

Lumbung Rice Barn  Pile-built, bonnet-rice barns known as lumbung are the pride of Sasak vernacular architecture.  They are built in rows along the easier lower paths of a village.  The structures have only one opening, which is a high window into which rice is loaded twice a year. Four 1.5 meter hardwood posts are mounted on a level, sundried mud and buffalo-dung platform, and discs known as jelepreng are set towards the top to prevent rodent ingress.  Two lateral beams are carried by the posts on which sits a cantilevered frame which in turn supports the bamboo rafters. several lumbung owned by separate families are built end to end a few meters apart.

Omo Sebua,   or chief's houses, are situated in the center of the village and are built on massive ironwood piles and have towering roofs.  The piles rest on large stone slabs and diagonal beams of the similar dimensions and material providing longitudinal and lateral bracing, enhancing flexibility and stability in earthquakes.  The warring culture built them to intimidate with size and the houses are virtually impregnable to attack with only a small trap door above a narrow staircase.  The steeply pitched roofs reach heights of 16 meters (50 feet); gables project dramatically at both the front and rear, providing both shade and shelter from tropical rains, and giving the building a hooded, towering appearance.  With structural members slotted together rather than nailed or bound, the structures have a proven earthquake resistance.

Geriten House.   The house shape is much smaller and has four sides consisting of two floors. Downstairs are not walled. The lower floor is an open seating hall or a gathering place for many people, especially for young people. Geriten is also specially made  to store the skeletal remains of the owner's relatives.

5.  Cambodia: the Khmer Style

The Khmer civilization dominated Cambodia from the 7th to 13th century, the last of which was the classical age of Khmer art.  From the 9th century evolved the worship of the god-king, or Deva-Raja, which fostered the temple-cities of Angkor: mountainous terraced pyramids laid out in a network of canals and lakes.

Angkor Wat

It is the world's largest temple, was built as both royal and divine monuments and sepulchre. Originally dedicated to Vishnu, later used by Buddhists.  Symbol of world-mountain. Superb reliefs.  Towers bulge like pine-cones over vast system of galleries.

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