The architecture of India is rooted in its history, culture and religion. Indian architecture progressed with time and assimilated the many influences that came as a result of India's global discourse with other regions of the world throughout its millennia-old past. Though old, this Eastern tradition has also incorporated modern values as India became a modern nation state. The economic reforms of 1991 further bolestered the urban architecture of India as the country became more integrated with the world's economy. Traditional Vastu Shastra remains influential in India's architecture during the contemporary era.

This is very important part of syllabus for the exams conducted by Union Public Service Commission. For convinience, the chapter will divide the whole history of Indian architecture chronologically. Later, the thematic division will be studied, for instance, Buddhist, temple or Indo-Islamic Architecture.


Architecture in India
Architecture in India



The origins: Architecture began when the early cave man began to build his own shelter. Initially it was only out of need, but with the artistic faculties of man awakened, he began to build the shelters with inherent aesthetic sense that seemed pleasing to the eye. It is now evolved as a combination of needs, imagination, capacities of the builders and capabilities of the workers.

Why study Architecture: Architecture accommodates the cultural traditions and social requirements, economic prosperity, religious practice of different times. Hence, the study of architecture reveals the cultural diversities across the time spectrum.

Indian Perspective: Indian Architecture evolved in various ages in different localities of the country. After it's natural evolutions during the pre-historic and historic periods, it was generally affected by many important historic developments. Naturally, the emergence and decay of great empires in the Indian sub-continent shaped the evolution of Indian architecture. External influences have also had the influence on the nature of Indian architecture.
Let us have a look at the process of evolution of Indian Architecture.

Indus Valley Civilization (3300 BC – 1700 BC)

The Indus Valley Civilization (IVC) was a Bronze Age civilization in modern-day Pakistan and northwest India. The mature phase of this civilization is also called the Harappan Civilization, as the first of its cities to be unearthed was located at Harappa in 1920s. To date, over 1,052 cities and settlements have been found, mainly in the general region of the Ghaggar-Hakra river and its tributaries.

The Indus Valley is one of the world's earliest urban civilizations, along with its contemporaries, Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt. It had expert town planning and engineering skills. Advanced drainage system and planned roads suggest that it was sophisticated and highly evolved culture. The sites of the Indus Valley Civilization were excavated under the Archaeological Survey of India established by the British.

The Harappan people had constructed mainly three types of buildings - dwelling houses, pillared halls and public baths. They placed a high priority on hygiene, security and accessibility to the means of religious ritual.

Features of Harappan Architecture

Protection of Cities: There is evidence of fortifications with gateways enclosing the walled cities which shows that there may have been a fear of being attacked. All the sites consisted of walled cities which provided security to the people. At some sites a dominant citadal was excavated in the western part containing the public buildings including the granaries. Cities were built at the bends of rivers that also provided some protection by way of natural barriers of the river.

Building Technology: The people used standardised burnt mud-bricks as building material with standardised ratio of brick size. The establishment of settlements was generally near sources of raw material. Thick layers of well baked bricks laid in gypsum mortar were joined together for making the whole construction very strong. These constructions survived the ravages of last 5000 years.
It is not yet possible to know enough about the architectural skill and tastes of the people. However, one thing is clear, the extant buildings are giving no aesthetic considerations and there is a certain dull plainness about the architecture which may be due to their fragmentary and ruined condition.

Public Buildings: There is evidence of building of big dimensions which perhaps were public buildings, administrative or business centres, pillared halls and courtyards.

There is no evidence of temples but remains of some fire altars were found.[where] The public bath or the ‘Great Bath’ as it is called was excavated at Mohenjo-Daro was probably a place for ritualism. It is still functional and there is no leakage or cracks in the construction. It also shows the importance of ritualistic bathing and cleanliness in this culture.
Public buildings include granaries which were used to store grains which give an idea of an organised collection and distribution system.

Hygiene: In Harappa, Mohenjo-Daro and Rakhigarhi, the urban plan included the world's first known urban sanitation systems. ell planned drainage system in the residential parts of the city. Small drains from the houses were connected to larger ones along the sides of the main roads. The drains were covered and loose covers were provided for the purpose of cleaning them.

Grid layout and the Roads: The grid layout planning of the cities with wide roads at exact right angles was a peculiar feature of Indus valley civilization.

Pattern of Houses: The planning of the residential houses were also meticulous. Evidence of stairs shows houses were often double storied. Doors were in the side lanes to prevent dust from entering the houses. It is significant that most of the houses had private wells and bathrooms. Along with large public buildings, there is evidence of small one roomed constructions that appear to be working peoples quarters.

Economic Considerations: The urban agglomeration and production scale of this particular civilization was unsurpassed at the time and for many future centuries. The cities were built particularly at the bends of the rivers that provided water, easy means of transportation of produce and other goods. Lothal, a site in Gujarat also has the remains of a dockyard proving that trade flourished in those times by sea.

As the Indus Valley settlements were located on the banks of the river, they were often destroyed by major floods. In spite of this calamity, the Indus Valley people built fresh settlements on the same sites. Thus, layers upon layers of settlements and buildings were found during the excavations. The decline and final destruction of the Indus Valley Civilization, sometime around the second millennium BC remains a mystery to this day.


There appears no any connection between the cities built in the 3rd millennium B.C. and the architecture of subsequent thousand years or so; after the decline of the Harappan civilization and mainly the time of the great Mauryas of Magadha. During this time sculpture and architecture was utilising organic and perishable materials such as mud, mud­brick, bamboo, timber, leaves, straw and thatch, these have not survived the ravages of time.

Archaeological excavations indicate that the decline of Harappa drove people eastward. After 1900 BCE the number of sites in India increased from 218 to 853. Excavations in the Gangetic plain show that urban settlement began around 1200 BCE, only a few centuries after the decline of Harappa and much earlier than previously expected. Archaeologists have emphasised that, just as in most areas of the world, there was a continuous series of cultural developments. These link "the so-called two major phases of urbanisation in South Asia".

Vedic Period and Mahajanapadas Period

Vedic Society

The Vedic Aryans lived in houses built of wood, bamboo and reeds; It was mostly a rural culture and hence very few examples of grand buildings remain. Aryans used perishable material like wood for the construction of royal palaces which have been completely destroyed over time. The important feature of this period was making of fire altars which is a part of the social and religious life even today. Soon courtyard and mandaps were build with altars for worship of fire which was the most important feature of architecture. There are references of Gurukuls and Hermitages. Unfortunately no structure of the Vedic period remains today. Their contribution to the architectural history is the use of wood along with brick and stone for building their houses

Period of Janapadas and Mahajanpadas

6th century B.C. was a significant phase of Indian history as there arose two new religions - Jainism and Buddhism. Even the Vedic religion underwent a change. Larger states sprang up which provided for a new type of architecture. From this period only, Magadha started toexpand into an empire and development of the architecture received further impetus. Now onwards, Indian architecture can be traced in unbroken sequence.

Buddhism and Jainism inspired the development of early architectural style. The Buddhist Stupas were built at places where Buddha’s remains were preserved and at the major sites where important events in Buddha’s life took place. Stupas were built of huge mounds of mud, enclosed in carefully burnt small standard bricks. One was built at his birthplace Lumbini; the second at Gaya where he attained enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree, the third at Sarnath where he gave his first sermon and the fourth at Kushinagar where he passed away. These became important sites for Buddha’s order of monks and nuns - the sangha. Monasteries (viharas), and centres of preaching, teaching and learning came up at such places. Congregational halls (chaitya) for teaching and interaction between the common people and the monks were also built up. The stupa architecture was adopted in Southeast and East Asia, where it became prominent as a Buddhist monument used for enshrining sacred relics.

Now onwards religion had a good deal of influence on architecture, though the first temple building activity started only during the Gupta rule.

Dhamek Stupa, Sarnath
A stupa (Sanskrit: m.,स्तूप "heap") is a mound-like or hemispherical structure containing relics (typically the remains of Buddhist monks or nuns) that is used as a place of meditation.
Stupas originated as pre-Buddhist tumuli in which śramaṇas were buried in a seated position called chaitya. After the parinirvana of the Buddha, his remains were cremated and the ashes divided and buried under eight mounds with two further mounds encasing the urn and the embers. The earliest archaeological evidence for the presence of Buddhist stupas dates to the late 4th century BCE in India.
As the earlier stupas were built with non-durable materials such as wood, or that they were merely burial mounds, little is known about them, particularly the original ten monuments. However, some later stupas, such as at Sarnath and Sanchi, seem to be embellishments of earlier mounds.
The earliest evidence of monastic stupas dates back to the 2nd century BCE. These are stupas that were built within Buddhist monastic complexes and they replicate in stone older stupas made of baked bricks and timber. Sanchi, Sarnath, Amaravati and Bharhut are examples of stupas that were shaped in stone imitating previously existing wooden parts.
The stupa was elaborated as Buddhism spread to other Asian countries, becoming, for example, the chörten of Tibet and the pagoda in East Asia. Stupas were built in Sri Lanka soon after Devanampiya Tissa of Anuradhapura converted to Buddhism.

Types of Stupas

Built for a variety of reasons, Buddhist stupas are classified based on form and function into five types:

  1. Relic stupa, in which the relics or remains of the Buddha, his disciples, and lay saints are interred.
  2. Object stupa, in which the items interred are objects belonged to the Buddha or his disciples, such as a begging bowl or robe, or important Buddhist scriptures.
  3. Commemorative stupa, built to commemorate events in the lives of Buddha or his disciples.
  4. Symbolic stupa, to symbolise aspects of Buddhist theology; for example, Borobudur is considered to be the symbol of "the Three Worlds (dhatu) and the spiritual stages (bhumi) in a Mahayana bodhisattva's character."
  5. Votive stupa, constructed to commemorate visits or to gain spiritual benefits, usually at the site of prominent stupas which are regularly visited.

The shape of the stupa represents the Buddha, crowned and sitting in meditation posture on a lion throne. His crown is the top of the spire; his head is the square at the spire's base; his body is the vase shape; his legs are the four steps of the lower terrace; and the base is his throne.

Post Maha Janapadas Period (600 BC—200 AD)

Sixth century BCE marked the beginning of new religious and social movements in the form of Buddhism and Jainism which were part of the shraman tradition. In third century BCE, Ashoka emerged as the most powerful king of Mauryan dynasty and patronised the shraman tradition. Due to Buddhist influence, the stupa architecture became important and was adopted even in Southeast and East Asia. The Sunga dynasty and later minor dynasties also patronized the architecture.[citation needed]

Mauryan Phase (322-182 BC)


Coomaraswmy argued that the Mauryan art may be said to exhibit three main phases.

  1. Continuation of the Pre-Mauryan tradition, which is found in some instances to the representation of the Vedic deities (the most significant examples are the reliefs of Surya and Indra at the Bhaja Caves.)
  2. The court art of Ashoka, typically found in the monolithic columns on which his edicts are inscribed.
  3. Beginning of brick and stone architecture, as in the case of the original stupa at Sanchi, the small monolithic rail at Sanchi and the Lomash Rishi cave in the Barabar Caves, with its ornamentated facade, reproducing the forms of wooden structure.

Material used

The material prosperity of the Mauryans and a new religious consciousness led to achievements in the architecture. Wooden architecture was popular while the rock cut architecture became solidified. While the period marked a second transition to use of brick and stone, wood was still the material of choice. Kautilya in the Arthashastra advises the use of brick and stone for their durability. Yet he devotes a large section to safeguards to be taken against conflagrations in wooden buildings indicating their popularity.
Megasthenes (Greek ambassador of Selucas Nikator) mentions that the capital city of Pataliputra was encircled by a massive timber-palisade, pierced by loopholes through which archers could shoot. It had sixty-four gates and 570 towers. Even the palace of Chandragupta Maurya was a large palace carved out of wood. The remains of one of the buildings, an 80 pillared hall at Kumrahar are of particular significance. The 80 stone columns stood on a wooden platform and supported a wooden roof. The pillars are more or less similar to an Ashokan pillar, smooth, polished and made of grey Chunar sandstone.


Many stupas like those at Sanchi, Sarnath and probably Amaravati were originally built as brick and masonry mounds during the reign of Ashoka. Unfortunately they were renovated many times, which leaves us with hardly a clue of the original structures.

Pillars and their capitals

The Pataliputra capital, dated to the 3rd century BC, has been excavated at the Mauryan city of Pataliputra. It has been described as Perso-Iionic, with a strong Greek stylistic influence, including volute, bead and reel, meander or honeysuckle designs. This tends to suggest the Achaemenid and Hellenistic artistic influence at the Mauryan court.

The pillars erected by emperor Ashoka were carved in two types of stone.

  1. The spotted red and white sandstone from the region of Mathura.
  2. The buff-coloured fine grained hard sandstone usually with small black spots quarried in the Chunar near Varanasi.

The uniformity of style in the pillar capitals suggests that they were all sculpted by craftsmen from the same region. It seems that the stone was transported from Mathura and Chunar to the various sites where the it was cut and carved by craftsmen. They were given a fine polish characteristic of Mauryan sculpture.

These pillars were mainly erected in the Gangetic plains. They were inscribed with edicts of Ashoka on Dhamma or righteousness. The animal capital as a finely carved life like representation, noteworthy are the lion capital of Sarnath, the bull capital of Rampurva and the lion capital of Lauria Nandangarh. Much speculation has been made about the similarity between these capitals and Achaemenid works.

Rock-cut Architecture

Rock-cut architecture is the practice of creating a structure by carving it out of solid natural rock. Rock that is not part of the structure is removed until the only rock left is the architectural elements of the excavated interior. This architecture is mostly religious in nature.

Barabar and Nagarjuni caves: The oldest rock-cut architecture surviving today is found in the Barabar caves, Bihar. These caves were built by around the 3rd century BC by emporer Ashoka and and his grandson, Dasharatha Maurya.[citation needed] These caves are situated in the twin hills of Barabar (four caves) and Nagarjuni (three caves); the caves in Nagarjuna hills are also sometimes singled out as Naharjuni caves. Though Buddhists themselves, they allowed various Jain sects to flourish under a policy of religious tolerance. The caves were used by ascetics from the Ajivika sect, founded by Makkhali Gosala, a contemporary of Gautama Buddha and Mahavira. Also present at the site are several rock-cut Buddhist and Hindu sculptures.

Barabar Hill contains four caves: Sudama, Lomas Rishi Karan Chaupar and Visva Zopri. Sudama and Lomas Rishi are the earliest examples of rock-cut architecture in India. These caves greatly influenced the tradition of South Asian rock-cut architecture. In addition, the Barabar caves have large arches which are few in ancient history.

Nagarjuni Hills have caves which are smaller and younger than the Barabar caves. The three caves are: Gopi (Gopi-ka-Kubha), Vadithi-ka-Kubha cave (Vedathika Kubha), Vapiya-ka-Kubha cave (Mirza Mandi). Of these, Gopi and Mirza Mandi caves were devoted to Ajivika sect by emporer Dasharatha.

Rock-cut Architecture

Early caves: The earliest caves employed by humans were natural caves used by local inhabitants for a variety of purposes, such as shrines and shelters. The Rock Shelters of Bhimbetka, a World Heritage Site, is a perfect example of this type of architecture.

Cave temples: In historic times also, caves in India have long been regarded as places of sanctity. The oldest rock-cut architecture is found in the Barabar caves, Bihar built around the 3rd century BC. Other early cave temples are found in the western Deccan, mostly Buddhist shrines and monasteries, dating between 100 BC and 170 AD. The Western Ghats topography, with its flat-topped basalt hills, deep ravines, and sharp cliffs, was suited to cultural inclinations of monasteries. The earliest cave temples include the Bhaja Caves, the Karla Caves, the Bedse Caves, the Kanheri Caves, and some of the Ajanta Caves.

Historically, rock-cut temples have retained a wood-like theme in adornment which mimic timber texture, grain, and structure.
Relics found in these caves suggest a connection between the religious and the commercial, as Buddhist missionaries often accompanied traders. Some sumptuous cave temples, commissioned by wealthy traders included pillars, arches, and elaborate facades. In later caves, the facades were added to the exteriors while the interiors became designated for specific uses, such as monasteries (viharas) and worship halls (chaityas). The Viharas were residences of monks and the Chaityas were the cave shrines for congregational worship.

Over the centuries, simple caves began to resemble free-standing buildings, needing to be formally designed and requiring highly skilled artisans and craftsmen. Theses artisans had not forgotten their timber roots and imitated the nuances of a wooden structure and the wood grain in working with stone.

Early examples of rock cut architecture are the Buddhist and Jain cave basadi, temples and monasteries, many with chandrashalas.

Monolithic rock-cut temples: The Pallava architects started the carving of rock for the creation of a monolithic copies of structural temples. Until then, rock-cut cave temples didn't move south of Aragandanallur, with the solitary exception of Tiruchitrapalli on the south bank of the Kaveri River. The Kaveri was traditional boundary between north and south. The good granite exposure was generally abscent south of Kaveri for such architectural development.

A rock cut temple is carved from a large rock and excavated and cut to imitate a wooden or masonry temple with wall decorations and works of art.
Pancha Rathas, a UNESCO World Heritage Site is an example of monolith Indian rock cut architecture dating from the late 7th century located at Mamallapuram.
Ellora cave temple 16, the Kailash Temple was excavated from the top down rather than by the usual practice of carving into the scarp of a hillside. It was commissioned in the 8th century by King Krishna I and took more than 100 years to complete. It is a huge monolithic temple dedicated to Lord Shiva. There are 34 caves built at this site, but the other 33 caves, Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain, were carved into the side of the plateau rock. The effect of the Kailash Temple is that of a free-standing temple surrounded by smaller cave shrines carved out of the same black rock. The Kailash Temple is carved with figures of gods and goddesses from the Hindu Puranas, along with mystical beings like the heavenly nymphs and musicians and figures of good fortune and fertility.

Free standing structural temples: There is no time line that divides the creation of rock-cut temples and free-standing temples built with cut stone as they developed in parallel. The building of free-standing structures began in the 5th century, while rock cut temples continued to be excavated until the 12th century.
There are also a number of rock reliefs, relief sculptures carved into rock faces, outside caves or at other sites.

Early Common Era—High Middle Ages (200 AD—1200 AD)

Late Middle Ages (1100 AD—1526 AD)

Early Modern period (1500 AD—1947 AD)

Islamic Architecture

Indo-Islamic architecture encompasses a wide range of styles which helped shape the architecture of the Indian subcontinent from the advent of Islam in the Indian subcontinent around the 7th century. It has left influences on modern Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi architecture. Both secular and religious buildings are influenced by Indo-Islamic architecture which exhibit Indian, Islamic, Persian, Central Asian, Arabic and Ottoman Turkish influences, many of which themselves were influenced by Indian architecture through the spread of Indian culture before the advent of Islam.

Musim rulers always adapted their own requirements to the indigenous architecture of every foreign country that they conquered.

Commonornamental decoration was vital
open court in many cases was surrounded by colonnades
Differencesspacious prayer chambersmall shrine of the temple
light and opendark and closed
layout: emphasis on congregational prayer requires spacious courtyard with a large prayer hall, pointed towards Meccalayout: image of the deity, garbha-griha, and small halls in front for the worshippers
 trabeation, brackets, and multiple pillars to support a flat roof or a small shallow domearchuate, voussoirs, keystones, domes, resting on pendentives and squinches
 Idol worshiping Hindu tradition used sculptures of Gods and mythologies to adorn the constructionsAs replication of living things is forbidden in the religious tradition, they used arabesque, geometrical patterns and calligraphy onplaster and stone

mosques for daily prayers, the Jama Masjids, tombs, dargahs, minars, hammams, formally laid out gardens, madrasas, sarais or caravansarais, Kos minars, etc

Indo-Islamic architecture can be categorized into three broad classes, consisting of monuments built by the Delhi Sultans, the Mughals and the regional emperors.

But only during the Ghurid occupation in the 12th century A.D., the significant building activities began.

Before the advent of Islamic rulers, monumental constructions were already familiar in India. Techniques and embellishments like trabeation (the use of beam rather than arches or vaulting), brackets, and multiple pillars to support a flat roof or a small shallow dome were already popular. But the arches used were shaped in wood and stone, and were unable to bear the weight of the domes/top structures.

With Turkish rulers, the archuate form of construction was introduced. Now the arches could support the weight of the domes and needed the voussoirs (series of interlocking blocks) and fitted with keystones. The domes, resting on pendentives and squinches enabled spanning of large spaces leaving interiors free of pillars.

Delhi Sultans

The Delhi Sultanate is the name given to an Islamic Kingdom based mostly in North India around Delhi, ruled by five successive dynasties. The monuments built by these Sultans were the first examples of Indo-Islamic Architecture.


Regional Emperors

Maratha Architecture

Sikh Architecture

European colonial architecture

British Colonial Era: 1615 to 1947

French: 1673 to 1954

Dutch: 1605 to 1825

Portuguese: 1498 to 1961

Republic of India (1947 AD—present)


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