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The Seven wonders of India

As I read Vasco da Gama’s ‘Route to India – 1497’ nearly 500 years after it was written, my imagination was stirred. I became obsessed with the idea to discover more about India. Early this year I decided to rediscover the magnificent monuments I read about. I wanted to translate the written word into a visual understanding of India’s history. In my mind the strands of classical tales were interwoven. I wanted to experience what writers and travelers like Vasco da Gama, Marco Polo, Huien Tsang, Paez, Numiz, had seen and recorded. And like these indefatigable travelers I set off and what I saw I would like to classify as the seven wonders of India.

For centuries the suns of India’s skies have shone over some of the most beautiful and evocative monuments in the world. These monuments owe their execution and conception to the imagination of men who dared to extend their ideas to the farthest limits of human thought. As kings and emperors, they were able to translate their ideas into bricks, mortar, marble and stone and leave for future generations their comment on immortality. These monuments range though a time-span of centuries and the major philosophies of the world. And yet there is an underlying oneness to bind each of them to one another.

The seven wonders of India, the seven ragas or the seven notes of the octave resound with philosophical unity. They are like rare but dissimilar pearls bound together on one string. Because Indian art and architecture are firmly rooted in Nature, Indian aesthetics is both mundane and transcendental.

Religious sensibility in India always felt the presence of God in the world and in fact saw the world as an immense shrine to God. In this concept of the world, the temple for example, was meant to be a shrine that symbolized the world-shrine. A microcosm that contained the macrocosm. “The sanctum of the temple was a miniature womb of divinity and its tower a Cosmic Personae”. The towers were the world-mountain, peopled by gods, and men and the flora and fauna of the earth. In many south Indian temples, the tower is populous with statuary. So temple architecture also repeated itself as the design of the central sun, and the orbiting planets of the solar system are repeated in the atom, with its planetary electrons. With this, philosophers felt, one should be able to glimpse the designer in both.

The axis of creativity rests on the interaction of purusha and prakriti, Man and Nature the soul and the body, the builder and the monument. Both the concept of purusha and prakriti belong to the Samkhya school of philosophy, which is allied to its physical counterpart, Yoga. There are references to Samkhya in the Gita, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. It is one of the oldest streams of thought. It is a philosophy of duality without which there can be no creation. We might also ask ourselves what inspired men to create this profuse wealth of shrines, this spilling over, to the gods? What compelled an emperor to build, to immortalize the memory of his love! Or what drove a king propelled by the stirrings of curiosity, to build a star-gazers monument to plot the course of the planets?

JANTAR MANTAR: Time-keeper of celestial bodies

The Jantar Mantar was conceived as a quest for discovering the mysteries of the Cosmos. The Jantar Mantar, is a corruption of the Sanskrit word yantra mantra meaning instruments and formulae. It was built not only to verify astronomical observations made at Jaipur, but also to stimulate interest in astronomy which had become enmeshed in theory, superstition and religious jargon. Following the style of an observatory at Samarkhand, huge masonry instruments were built, keeping in mind the rules of astronomy, the position of the equator, latitudes and longitudes. The observatory at Jaipur has the samrat yantra, the jaiprakash yantra, ram yantra and the ‘composite insturment’ includes a sun-dial and a massive hemisphere on the northern wall.

India, in the early decades of the 18th century was a land to turmoil, the Mughal empire was collapsing, its chiefs were busy in internal quarrels, and the Marathas, Portuguese, British, French and Dutch were fighting for the over lordship of India’s trade and political fortunes. In this age arose a brilliant star on India’s political and intellectual horizon – Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh II, Rajput ruler of Amber, founder of Jaipur, a great builder and ruler and an exceptional astronomer.

Commissioned by Emperor Muhammed Shah, to correct the existing astronomical tables and fix planetary positions anew, Sawai Jai Singh-II, accomplished the task in seven years and for this task, built the first stone observatory in Delhi in 1724 and in Jaipur in 1728. Not only did the masonry instruments suit his purposes, they also satisfied his architectural instincts. Apart from being a permanent memorial to his genius, is secured for him a place along with such distinguished observatory builders like Prince Ulugh Beg, Tycho Brahe and John Flam steed.

The samrat yantra consists of a massive triangle with a curved structure on both sides. The face of these masonry instruments is lined with marble and has astronomical gradations that may be used to give the local time according to the shadow cast by the triangle and to study the position of the sun and stars by using a metal rod.

The jaiprakash yantra is in the form of two hemispherical bowls representing the celestial spheres and the use of a vertical rod in the center give different positions of celestial bodies during the day and night, the gradations are etched on the marble lining.

The ram yantra is in the form of a high cylinder surrounded by circular walls and the shadow of the sun on the vertical and horizontal marble gradations via the cylinder, indicates the altitude and the azemuth or declination of celestial bodies.

The composite instrument is heart shaped and has massive triangular central gnomon and circles and the edges of the gnomon and circles are marble-topped and their etchings were used to give the mid-day times of Greenwich (England), Zurich (Switzerland), Notkey (Japan), and Seritchew Islands (Pacific Ocean) as these places and sun observatories too.

On either side is small samrat yantra giving the Jaipur local time and on top is a sun-dial which shows the sun’s position, besides a massive semi-circle on the 5 inclined north wall that shows the entry of the sun into the astrological sign of Cancer.

Sawai Jai Singh’s attempt to introduce a renaissance in astronomy never took off due to chaos in the country, nevertheless in Pandit Nehru’s words “Jai Singh would have been a remarkable man anywhere and at anytime.”

TAJ MAHAL: An Emperor’s Lament

Established as one of the Seven Wonders of the World it was in fact Shah Jahan’s resolve that the Taj should surpass every building in the world. Structured in white marble the, pristine purity of the Taj draws visitors from every corner of the globe. Its untouched beauty is a manifestation of the creative principle honed to a point of such refinement, it becomes ethereal. The imagination transcends all constraints to soar on the wings of white marble. Perhaps the Taj is indeed a perfect monument, an embodiment of human devotion. The vision of the Taj is like experiencing the slow unfolding of a raga. A raga which pervades the senses from the minarets to the jewel-like virtuosity of the pietra-dura (inlay motifs). The designs of the borders of the pictures painted by the court painters of the time. As a monument of love it is fittingly described as, “The earth has nothing more fair to show.” The white marble structure for the dead empress was to be complemented by a black marble tomb in which the mortal remains of Shah Jahan were to be interred. This was never erected as history tell us. The Mughal emperors were thus romantic to the last, reaching out for the unattainable. Of all the jewels of Shah Jahan’s reign, this building is the most perfect. By moonlight, by sunrise and sunset, the Taj is a flawless monument. It’s every facet unimpeachable, as it turns its face to the changing courses of the sessions and to the hours of the day and night. It is the tomb of dedicated love and a lover’s lament for his beloved. It celebrates her memory, snatching from time’s relentless hands, a perfect crystal. “The inner process of realization, in the Taj, has indeed synchronised with the outer world, and has been transformed.” As it has been transforms all those who view it with “a willing suspension of disbelief.”


The Khajuraho temples in Madhya Pradesh, built by the Chandela Kings in a burst of creative activity during 950-1050 A.D., are one of the greatest architectural wonders threat India has produced. As they were built in a remote spot, these magnificent temples were saved from the idol-breaking frenzy of early Islamic invasions and are a living testimony to the kings of Bundelkhand.

These temples pay homage to the Hindu Pantheon of gods and Jain Tirthankaras and their murals and motifs depict scenes from hunting, feasting, and dancing with a pronounced accent on the various aspects of sensual love.

“Above, half seen in lofty gloom! Stange rocks of a long dead people Loom! / What did they mean to those Who now are dust! / These rioting Figures of love and lust?”

(The Garden of Kama)

Tantricism and the Shakti cult where the pancha makaras (five tenants) matsya (fish), madira (wine), maithun (sexual activity), mamsa (meat), and mudra (gesture) were to release the human spirit from the bondage of the flesh, these are the possible explanations for the sculptural sensuality of Khajuraho.

Architecturally, the temple followed a three or five part floor plan. The larger temples have a ardhamandapa (porch) then a mandapa (hall) leading to a mahamandapa (main hall) from where a aunterale (vestibule) led into the garbhagriha (sanctum) containing the devta (god) or devi (goddess). An enclosed pradakshinapathar (corridor or verandah) runs around this sanctum.

In the smaller temples the second and the last feature was omitted. Each component of the temple was toped by pyramid shaped towers – leading in ascending order like a series of mountain peaks to the soaring sikhara (world mountain or tower) with a crowing amalata ginale giving grandeur to the entire structure.

The ornate vertical elements are balanced by horizontal bands of sculpture running round the temple, superb in execution and seeming to grow out of the temple itself, they merge beautifully with the overall design.

Out of 85, 20 temples survive around and they are all aligned east-west, made of sandstone blocks fitted together and may be divided into west, east and south groups.

In silhouette, the temple resemble, a series of mountain peaks, an analogy to Mount Meru, the abode of the Hindu gods and belong to the Nagara, north Indian style of architecture.

The erotic carvings of Khajuraho are seen not only for what they are, but also as the transition from a worldly sensual plane to an absolute transcedentalism, via a catharsis. This also perhaps epitomises the purusha-prakriti relationship. Purusha, the silent witness, the S’aksin, the jiva or spirit, and what we see, is only a manifestation of the creative generation of prakriti. And prakriti has the formidable power of containing within herself the forces of creation, in her union with purusha.

When we look at Khajuraho, perhaps we are seeing not only the ‘springs of love and passion’ but also a way to liberation, the cessation of desire, ultimate realization, and finally moksa (freedom from worldly desires and salvation). We participate violently in life and yet rise above it.

THE KONARAK SUN-TEMPLE: Chariots of fire

The Sun temple at Konarak or the Black Pagoda embodies this almost celestial yearing to be one with the ultimate reality, to be at the center of the creative energy. To take a leap into the light. The Sun temple with its thundering horses and the wheel of life symbolizes the bhavachakra, the eternal cycle of death and rebirth.

Discovered in 1902, the removal of debris and sand revealed a temple dedicated to Surya, the Sun God and represents the culmination of centuries of experience in temple building.

Tradition visualises Surya standing in Time’s winged chariot urging on his team of seven horses and blazing his way through the heavens. These he invokes so that

“When he has loosed his courses from their station/Straightaway night over all spreads her garments.”

(Regveda. 11.115.4)

This allegory is frozen into visual room in stone in the shape of a ratha or chariot or wheeled car pulled by the seven horses of the sun. The base thus is an immense terrace with 12 giant wheels fixed on either side, each 10 feet in diameter representing the 12 months of the year and each wheel represents the eight phars (quarters) into which day and night are divided. The steps in front of this terrace are supported by seven horses representing the seven days of the week. On the platform the temple building consists of a jagamohan (an assembly hall), 100 feet wide and 100 feed high and a sanctum sanctorum with a sikhara (tower) over 225 feet, was built. At its base a lifesize and minutely carved statue of the Sun God reflects his glory at sunrise, noon and sunset.

Most of the masonry in this monument is composed of blocks of laterite and chlorite, but the bonding wast not done by mortar but by a system of counter-paise. The entire exterior of the monument has been moulded and chiseled in the form of abstract geometrical ornaments, fabulous beings, half human and half divine figures and of every known subject, motif and technique. The erotic sculptures on the exterior were used as an artform, as a cathartic agent, as a symbolic representation of worldly pleasure contrasting with the bare and austere interior. Also as an interpretation that the sun warms all life and thus everything is sacred from the most carnal, to the most refined. To emphasise our philosophical discussion we quote from Tagore, “God is enshrined in our hearts. He stands and sorrow, separation and union. This life is his eternal temple.”

VIJAYNAGAR (HAMPI): Wonder and awe

The glory of the city of Vijaynagar with its towering gopurams, richly sculptured surfaces are another testimony to the greatness of human thought. The kings of Vijaynagar capitalized on legends which go back in time to epic age of the Ramayana. Even today pilgrims come by the hundreds, taking paddles boats across the river to the island of Anegoudi, where Rama is said to have killed the monkey god Bali and enthroned his brother Sugriva and thus enlisted the army of monkeys to wage the war against the demon king of Lanka.

The text of the Pampa Mahatmya mentions a tank where Sita bathed, known as the Sitakonda on the southern bank of the Tungabhadra, situated near the Kodandarama temple. Between the rocky outcrops and now buried under peepul trees, are innumerable shrines built to Hanuman, with the overpowering presence of the monkey god, glowing a hot orange, within the dark interior of the caves.

It has always been the privilege of rulers in India to assume the nature of divine kingship which would invest their reign with greater authority. In this case the architecture and imagery of the temple and the rituals enacted at the royal courts confirm their association with Rama, the most heroic of god kings.

It is not surprising therefore to find that the kings of Vijayanagar thought it fit to capitalise on these legends, and to assert their supremacy by associating themselves with gods and heroes.

Perhaps the most celebrated amongst the temples of Vijayanagar is the small but exquisite Hazararama temple which was the royal shrine. On its walls are narrated the three different accounts of the Ramayana on three horizontal registers carved like a scroll.

The most glorious chapter of the Vijayanagar dynasty begins with the reign of Krishnadevaraya in the 16th century. Inscriptions relate his expeditions and victories as far as Ceylon and as close as Raichur – once again confirming his personal history as being linked with Lord Rama. In his reign huge gopurams (temple towers) were built as towers of victory and new cities called Krishnapura, after the Krishna temple, Vithalpura after the Vithala temple and Tirumaledeviamrapathi, after his queen, were constructed.

The ruins of Hampi cover almost 10 square miles of terrain, and conjoined with the natural architecture of rocks are like an elemental set for king Lear. The grandeur is unforgettable. Hampi was visited by two Portuguese travelers between 1520-1535 Domingo Paes and Fernao Nuniz who chronicled the glory of the Vijayanagar kings. Paes wrote to say that it was as large and as beautiful as Rome and that he hesitated to describe it grandeur. “for fear it should be thought fabulous.”

In fact Hampi today echoes the words of Ozymandias, King of Kings.” “Look on my works ye mighty and despair!” But at the zenith of its power the Vijayanagar kingdom illustrates the south Indian style of architecture. The roofs and superstructures are shaped like pyramids and cones, which philosophically symbolizes the vault of the sky, aspired to, by the straight ascent of the high gate-towers. The outer world is indeed transformed into the Cosmic Person.

MEENAKSHI TEMPLE MADURAI: Adoration and prayer

The Meenakshi of Madurai belongs to the pre-eminent temple city of Tamil Nadu, which has often been called the Athens of India. According to legend, Madurai is the actual site where the wedding between Shiva and his consort Meenakshi took place.

According to philosophical delineation this may be seen as a symbiotic relationship between purusha and prakriti.

The soaring and exquisitely carved gopurams or towers, seen over and over again as the Cosmic Personae, enclose this temple dedicated to the wife of Shiva. The south gateway contains the twin temples of Shiva and Meenakshi and is about nine storeys high (150 feet). The highly dense statuary of the south Indian temple is in evidence. Not only are there the gods and goddesses on the world-mountain, but man and his universe are represented with its flora and fauna. In fact, the Meenakshi temple complex, is a city-temple, one of the largest and certainly one of the most ancient.

No text can really do justice to the Meenakshi temple. The gigantic temple complex, the gigantic statues, exploring the entire range of human emotions, everything here is a larger than-life exposition of the splendour of Indian art.

The temple at Madurai follows the precepts of the sutradhar (the architect/craftsman) in ancient scripts. In fact as regards the sculptured statues, it seems as though they are impelled by a driving force from within the vyaktavyakta (the form to be) and the figures seem to throb under their creator’s touch. The murtis (images of the Godhead) are abundantly and urgently alive and life wells up in the figures. Man, again in conjunction with Nature, purusha uniting with prakriti, the soul breathed into the body, creates the monumental complex at Madurai, inspiring awe and adoration in the minds of human beings.

THE CAVES AT ELLORA: Womb of divinity

This ancient rock complex at Ellora near Aurangabad carved 107 feet deep is an invocation to the glory of man and the grandeur of God. The cave was a parallel sanctum as compared to the “sanctum sanctorum” of the temples of Hindu India, and the cave constituted “a miniature womb of divinity.”

Ellora is unique in that it fostered the growth of three separate religions, Hindu, Buddhist and Jain, side by side. It is a historical growth in stone, both in the sphere of architecture and sculpture. In the 34 caves at Ellora we see the evolution of the all-pervasive meditative faces of the Buddha, the massifs of the Hindu images and the flamboyant Jain sculptures of the 9th and 10th centuries. Of all these awe-inspiring sculptures, perhaps the Kailash temple is the epitome of these caves.

Legend traces one of the 12 jyotirlingas of Lord Shiva to a village called Elapura, and from medieval times this has been a place for pilgrimage for the devotees of Shiva. This temple was erected by the second Rashtrakuta king and was “the abode of Svaymumbur Shiva and no artificially made dwelling.” But the Kailash temple is actually a huge monolithic shrine and an identical replica of the Virupaksha temple at Pattadakal. In fact it is carved out of an entire mountain and raised to twice the size of the Virupaksha temple. Its central tower reaches a height of 30 meters stands in a spacious court of over 80 meters and is 45 meters wide. It is therefore not surprising to note that the Kailash temple took longer to build than the reign of a single king, and certainly more than a whole century to sculpt and carve and evolve into a living and complete monument. The legend derived from the Linga Purana is that both Brahma and Vishnu were quarelling to establish their dispute the image of the sacred lingam was projected before them blazing and towering to a great height and Vishnu became a boar and Brahma a swan, but they could not define Shiva’s energy.

Though Shiva stands at the epicenter of the Kailash temple, it is also the mountain of the gods (Meru) and represents the whole of the Universe. Carved on its walls and in the adjacent temples are all the gods and all the epics, including the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.

Ellora, in all its awe-inspiring and mind-blowing glory evolved through the centuries, reminds us and underscores the philosophy of Indian aesthetics. That Man and Nature, purusha and prakriti, combine a creative union giving us and the future generations, an unforgettable stance to eternity.

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