This persistent habit of looking outside of India for the origins of Indian art must necessarily lead to false conclusions. One may find primitive types, or any of the forms and symbols which Indian artists moulded to their own desires, and trace them back to their archaic roots in Chaldaea, Babylon, Assyria, Persia, or Greece; but for the vital creative impulse which inspired any period of Indian art, whether it be Buddhist, Jain, Hindu, or Muhammadan, one will only find its source in the traditional Indian culture planted in Indian soil by Aryan philosophy, which reached its highest artistic expression before the Mogul dynasty was established, and influenced the greatest works of the Muhammadan period as much as any others. The Taj, the Moti Masjid at Agra, the Jami' Masjid at Delhi, and the splendid Muhammadan buildings at Bijapur were only made possible by the not less splendid monuments of Hindu architecture at Mudhera, Dabhoi, Khajuraho, Gwalior, and elsewhere, which were built before the Mogul Emperors and their Viceroys made use of Hindu genius to glorify the faith of Islam.
The Anglo-Indian and the tourist have been taught to admire the former and to extol the fine aesthetic taste of the Moguls ; but the magnificent architectural works of the preceding Hindu period, when Indian sculpture and painting were at their zenith, but rarely attract their attention, though in massive grandeur and sculpturesque imagination they surpass any of the Mogul buildings. Even the term " Mogul " architecture is misleading, for as a matter of fact there were but few Mogul builders in India. The great majority of the builders employed by the Moguls—including not only the humbler artisans but the master-minds which directed them—were Indians, or of Indian descent. Some were professed Muhammadans, but many were Hindus. Mogul architecture does not bear witness, as we assume, to the finer aesthetic sense of Arab, Persian, or Western builders, but to the extraordinary synthetical power of the Hindu artistic genius.
It is of course a recognised fact that a certain type of the pointed arch was in use in Egypt and in Asia Minor even before the days of Buddhism, and long before the Hegira. But the mihrdb of Muhammadan mosques—the niche in the wall of the sanctuary—and all its religious associations from which the structural application of Saracenic arches started, was not in any way connected with this early type.
The permanent mosques of the first Arab disciples of the Prophet, like the churches of the early Christians, were in most cases not buildings specially constructed for their own ritual, but those belonging to rival creeds reconsecrated for the worship of Allah. When the Arabs started on their career of conquest, the first objects of their iconoclastic zeal were the temples and monasteries of the hated idolaters—the Buddhists of Western Asia. After smashing the images and breaking as much of their sculptured ornamentation as offended against the injunctions of their law, the buildings with the empty niches—the quondam Buddhist shrines— remaining in their solid walls were often converted into mosques.
The hallowed associations of generations of Buddhist worshippers still clung to these desecrated shrines, and the doctors of Islam found it necessary to explain them in a Muhammadan sense. Hence the mihrab—the niche of the principal image of Buddha—came to indicate the direction of the holy city of Mecca ; it was traced in the sand or woven in the prayer-mat as a symbol of the faith. The idea appealed strongly to the Arabs, for every mariner saw the mihrab in the bow of his ship and every desert nomad in the door of his tent. The sentiment of devotion which the image in the niche formerly inspired in the worshipper was thus transferred to the niche itself, and especially to the arch of the niche. The arrangement of niches in Muhammadan houses and palaces was a secular adaptation of the shrines of Buddhist monasteries. Here, then, was the psychological germ of the pointed style of architecture—Saracenic and Gothic—or of the idealism which was the motive force behind it.
What the mihrab was to the Musulman, the lotus was to the Buddhist and Hindu. The shining lotus flowers floating on the still dark surface of the lake, their manifold petals opening as the sun's rays touched them at break of day, and closing again at sunset, the roots hidden in the mud beneath, seemed perfect symbols of creation, of divine purity and beauty, of the cosmos evolved from the dark void of chaos and sustained in equilibrium by the cosmic ether,akdsha. Their colours, red, white, and blue, were emblems of the Trimurti, the three Aspects of the One—red for Brahma, the Creator; white for Siva, the Divine Spirit; blue for Vishnu, the Preserver and Upholder of the Universe. The bell-shaped fruit was the mystic Hiranyagarbha, the womb of the Universe, holding the germ of worlds innumerable still unborn. The lotus was the seat and footstool of the Gods, the symbol of the material universe and of the heavenly spheres above it. It was the symbol for all Hinduism, as the mihrab was for all Islam. Closely connected with the symbolism of the lotus was that of the water-pot—the kalasha or kumbhu—which held the creative element, or the nectar of immortality churned by gods.
The lotus in Hindu ritual must be taken to include the water-lily as well as the sacred lotus of Egypt and demons from the cosmic ocean. These two pregnant symbols were employed in Indian architecture and art, both structurally and decoratively, in an infinite variety of ways. The open lotus flower is used as a sun-emblem on the Buddhist rails of Bharhut, Sanchi, and Amaravati; the so-called " horseshoe " arch of early Buddhist gables and windows, derived from bent bambu, suggested the lotus leaf; Buddhist and Hindu domes, constructively derived from the bambu also, were made to imitate the bell-shaped lotus fruit and sculptured with the petals of the flower. The combination of the lotus flower, the bell-shaped fruit, and the water-pot forms the basis of the design of most Hindu temple pillars, the prototypes of which were doubtless the carved wooden posts marking the sacrificial area, in the ancient Vedic rites, to which the victims were bound.
Though the sacrificial element was excluded from Muhammadan symbolism, there was nothing in the latter, either in the abstract or in its concrete artistic applications, which would seem new and strange to the Hindu. A Hindu craftsman would instantly recognise it as part of his own. If the Musulman preferred to concentrate his thoughts on the Unity of the Godhead rather than on Its infinite manifestations, Hindu philosophy would not dispute with him on that account. The pointed arch was only the familiar lotus petal, the eye of the Gods, used constructively in a way the Hindu craftsman did not usually follow, except in the construction of shrines for his deities, for he preferred the beam and bracket as a structural device ; yet he could easily construct it by placing two brackets, or two series of brackets, opposite to each other. The Musulman dome in construction did not differ materially from the Hindu dome. All varieties of it had their Buddhist or Hindu prototypes, and were classified in the Silpa-sastras, the canonical books of Indian craftsmen. What is your favorite example of Indian architecture?
Compiled from "Indian Architecture" by Ernest Binfield Havell.