TRAVELERS THROUGHOUT the ages have written
about the rich expressions of the country’s culture. Megasthenes the Greek
reported in awestruck wonder the sights he had seen in the third century. Hiuen
Tsang, scholar-monk from China,
spent twelve years studying at the 5th century Buddhist University
at Nalanda. It was his translations of Buddhist scriptures that introduced the
religion to the Far East. Inspired by the 13th
century accounts of Venetian traveller Marco Polo, the Portuguese set out to
trade with India.
It is from these and other such writings
that it is possible to fill in the gaps that time and nature have created in
the material heritage that still amazes visitors to India. Ruins of planned
cities built of brick testify to the existence of a flourishing civilisation
more than 5,000 years ago. Elegant pottery thrown at a wheel graced their
homes; metallurgy was known and practiced to produce both ornaments and images;
children played with clay toys; and seals of authority stamped articles of
The existence of urban centres and
craftsmen implies the regular production of surplus in agriculture. It also
presumes the existence of an efficient administration and stable economic
system that could make available this surplus to non-cultivators who could then
direct their energies in other directions. That such an infrastructure existed
is testified to by the rapidly expanding tapestry of art and architecture from
the second century on.
Growing ornamentation in stone architecture
and sculpture accompanied the spread of Buddhism. At Sanchi, Madhya Pradesh,
where the relics of Buddha are said to be interred, stone stupas and rock cut
shrines seem to emerge out the hillsides. Beautifully sculpted panels and
medallions depict the incarnations of Buddha and his teachings in parables.
Costumes, jewellery, hair-style and ornamentation all are portrayed in
delightful detail. The later, Mahayana Buddhist period, includes images of the
Buddha, till now deemed improper to portray. Exquisite murals depicting scenes
from his life illuminate the dark caves at Ajanta in Maharashtra
and still take ones breath away.
This association of fine arts and
architecture with religion is characteristic and is best expressed in the Hindu
temple. As the focus of religious, social and economic life, it was the
creation of architectural genius. Sculptors and artists as well as thousands
of skilled craftsmen contributed their best to create symphonies in stone with
every aspect of human existence captured in profuse and intricate detail. The
temples at Halebid and Belur in Karnataka carry friezes based on the epics;
those at Khajuraho portray an exuberant eroticism; and every one of them draws
attention to the all pervasiveness of the absolute being.
Music and dance are also forms of worship
and an intrinsic part of temple culture, particularly in South
India. Their portrayal of the gods and their joyous celebration of
the many moods of life is in itself an offering and worship.
With Islam entered the tall, wide archways,
pointed onion domes, minarets and the prolific use of jalis. Some of the most
of North India, including
the Taj Mahal, belong to this period. Floral motifs and calligraphy replaced
representation of the human form. Marble and red sandstone came to be the
materials of choice, with building surrounded by enclosed formal gardens
divided into quarters in the charbagh style. Under royal patronage, Indian
literature, music and dance blended with the poetic tradition of central Asia in new forms and themes.
The British differed from other rulers in
their attitude to the country. The East India Company had come to trade not to
make this country home. Initially small, modest functional buildings and
churches were felt to be sufficient. But, as their power grew so did the scale
of buildings. The coming of the Crown to India brought with it clubs and
bungalows geared to making a ‘hostile’ land habitable as well as administrative
buildings designed to awe and overpower. Mumbai, Cheennai and Kolkata are all
dotted with massive colonial structures – Gothic arches, seated lions, stained
glass and filigreed ironwork – underline the power of the rulers. In Delhi, a whole new
city was built.
Even more importantly, times were
changing. The West was going through social change as well. As the
subcontinent opened itself, the winds of change blew its way. The English
language opened up a world of new philosophies, travel opened up the world.
Indians went abroad to study. It was a fertile time for the proliferation of
new ideas and the pursuit of a new identity.