As I read Vasco da Gamas 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 Indias 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 Indias 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
Indias trade and political fortunes. In this age arose a
brilliant star on Indias 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
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
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 suns
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 Singhs attempt to introduce a
renaissance in astronomy never took off due to chaos in the country,
nevertheless in Pandit Nehrus words Jai Singh would have
been a remarkable man anywhere and at anytime.
TAJ MAHAL: An Emperors Lament
Established as one of the Seven Wonders of the World
it was in fact Shah Jahans 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 Jahans reign, this building is the most perfect.
By moonlight, by sunrise and sunset, the Taj is a flawless monument.
Its 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 lovers lament
for his beloved. It celebrates her memory, snatching from times
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.
KHAJURAHO TEMPLES: Frozen Passion
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
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 Saksin, 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
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 Times
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.
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
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
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,
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
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 creators
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
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.