Buddhist Architecture - an overview

Heritage Architecture Dated:  Aug. 19, 2015
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sanchi stupa

One of the most prominent religions of the world produced some of the greatest architectural marvels, here is an insight.

Prince Siddhartha Gautam renounced luxury and pleasure of princely life. He meditated for several years to reach the path of peace and happiness and laid foundation of new religion –BUDDHISM.
(Buddha 563 BCE to 483 BCE).

The Buddhist Architecture is mainly based on this well known and followed religion. The Buddhist architecture has its roots deeply implanted in the Indian soil- the birth place of Buddha’s teaching. It began with the development of various symbols, representing aspects of Buddha’s life.

As only rock-cut examples are existent, the appearance of the structural temples is only to be conjectured from these. The rock-cut temples have but one external facade, which is in the face of the rock, and the architecture is therefore mainly internal, but interesting in showing an undoubted imitation of timber originals. Wooden forms were repeated long after their significance was dead. With the exception of the one facade, the ornament was lavished on the interior columns and roof, the former of which were short and over laden with ornament, the latter being generally semicircular, with ribs showing a timber derivation.

The monuments can be divided into:

1. Stambhas (or Lats).
2. Topes (or Stupas).
3. Rails.
4. Chaityas (or Temples).
5. Viharas (or Monasteries).

Stambhas (or Lats):- These were columns with carved inscriptions, the top being crowned with emblems, such as the elephant and lion, often resonant of Persepolitan architecture. The best example present in this time is known is the Lat at Allahabad, B.C. 250.

The Stambha erected by AshokaThe Stambha erected by Ashoka
Stambha at SanchiStambha at Sanchi

Stupas or Topes (Sanskrit sthupa = a mound):- This term denotes the mounds erected (a) to commemorate some sacred spot ; (b) to contain sacred relics and then known as Dagobas or receptacles for relics.

The principal group is that known as the Bhilsa Topes, north of the Narbada River, and the best known of the group is at the Sanchi Tope (B.C. 250-A.D. 100). Basically it is a solid mound of brickwork, faced with stone and cement and contains the relic near its base. It is 106 feet in diameter, 42 feet high, crowned by a "Tee" or relic casket, and is placed on a platform 14 feet high, surrounded by a procession path, railing and four gateways. An excellent model is in the Indian Museum, South Kensington. Other groups are at Sarnath (near Varanasi), Buddh-Gaya, Amravati (remains in the British Indian Museums), and Jarasandha.

Plan and elevation of a stupaPlan and elevation of a stupa
sanchi stupasanchi stupa

Rails:- The structure enclosing the topes or the stupas is called Rail. They clearly indicate a wooden origin and were elaborately ornamented with sculpture. The rail and gateways surrounding the Sanchi Tope are the best known, and date from the first century of our era. The height is 35 feet and width 30 feet. The symbolic sculpture is of historic interest: it tells the life story of Buddha, and illustrates the worship of relics, trees, the law, and battle scenes. These gateways are the prototypes of the numberless pailoos.

Chaityas or Temples(B.C. 250-A.D. 750):- These are the temple of the main shrine that are all excavated out of the solid rock, thus presenting only one external face. They recall the rock-cut tombs of Upper Egypt. The normal type resembles in plan an English three-aisled cathedral with circular apse, containing the shrine, at the end furthest from the entrance. The roofs are hewn to a semicircular form, and have ribs resembling timber work. In many, the frontal screen of horse-shoe form, through which the only light was admitted, was of wood. The principal groups are hewn in the face of the Western Ghats, to -the east of Mumbai, at Bhaja (B.C. 250), Nashik (B.C. 129), Karli (B.C. 78), Ellora, Ajanta, and Elephanta. The cave at Karli, resembles the choir of Norwich Cathedral in general arrangement and dimensions. It is 126 feet long, 45 feet wide and 45 feet high. The columns separating nave and aisles are octagonal, with elephant capitals, which support the circular roof.

Section through a chaityasSection through a chaityas
Chaityas at bhajaChaityas at bhaja
Section of chaitya at KarliSection of chaitya at Karli

Viharas or Monasteries:- The rock-cut examples are in proximity to the Chaityas. The normal type is a central square space, with or without columns, surrounded by chamber for the priests and occasionally containing a sanctuary for the shrine. In Gandhara (North-West India), General Cunningham has opened out some structural monasteries, probably of the fourth century A.D., some of which contain courts for shrines. Their details show Greek and Byzantine influence, the acanthus leaf, the Byzantine cube-capital and the Corinthian capital being met with. In Ceylon are numerous remains of topes, chaityas and viharas, principally at Anuradapura, the capital from B.C. 400- A.D. 769, and Pollonarua.

Viharas at Ajanta cavesViharas at Ajanta caves
Viharas at ElloraViharas at Ellora
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