Architecture – Meaning, Form and Context

In common parlance, architecture is a study of forms: about plans, designs, motifs and how they have evolved over time. But built spaces are a medium to study societies as well. Architectural spaces, both sacred and secular have a functional aspect, in the sense that they fulfil the need for what they were created. A temple or a mosque is a house of worship and a king’s tomb or a palace has royal connotations, a commemorative edifice proclaims what it is meant to, and houses are built to protect people and communities. Through these physical types, we get to know the technical knowhow of the times, the processes of their creation, patterns of patronage, and a given society’s metaphysical system as the architectural forms draw upon contemporary cultural and philosophical discourses. Power and authority are as much reflected in these built spaces as are notions of aestheticism that are otherwise embodied in contemporary literature.

Architecture is also a medium to study society because built spaces delineate communities, give them a sense of belonging and a cultural identity. Architectural forms become spaces where various identities and groups are formed, in which some are included, while ‘others’ are not. Often these spaces become sites of contestations, conflicts, state formation, assimilation and exclusion – generating multiple meanings. They are lived spaces with firm social moorings. At the same time, monuments, even religious structures have multilayered histories and not belong to one monolithic community or compact power structures. They are always shared spaces where different individuals and communities come together to create it. They have multiple affiliations. Architectural forms therefore, are not just a study of forms, the pure exotica, but they are a part of a larger social cultural history.

Religion, in all time and space has always been a major propeller of architectural creations as of other artistic activity. In the Indian context, from the Buddhist stupa and chaitya to the Hindu temple, and then to the Muslim mosque or the Christian church, religion has stimulated all art. However, this is not to mean that the Buddhist chaitya gave way to the Hindu temple to be replaced by the Muslim mosque and so on. There is no takeover of one style from another, nor is there any ‘high’ point or ‘low’ ebb. Present scholarship rejects the notion of a Gupta ‘classical age’ and post-Gupta centuries to be one of decadence. As a matter of fact, some of the finest temples were constructed in the post-Gupta period, as testimonies to India’s fine architectural tradition. Both sacred and secular architecture instead, manifests a continuous process of adaptation and transformation across different regions and communities and is as much inclusive of local forms as of forms that came from beyond the borders. Overlap and interaction is the key to understand Indian architecture.

And since there is no linear development in Indian architecture, the discipline being a multiple discourse, we need to move away from the primacy of one region, period, dynasty or patronage. This would then also mean that we need to move away from the factor of ‘influence’ and instead lay stress on the processes behind the architectural endeavours, which are multilayered, with multiple meanings and paradigm shifts. No architectural type is a self contained category with a monolithic identity. Monuments need to be analysed in relation to their own historical and ideological contexts. And finally, this would also mean, that architecture is not just a study of forms – of icons or decorative motifs, of spatial and scientific-technical production or of even the pure functional – but is a part of a larger history of culture, society and politics.

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