Ancient Indian Architects and Craftsmen

Building monuments, constructing sculptures, carving ornate art, and placing all of this side-by-side has been a part of Indian culture since the very first material records. Like other classic civilizations, India’s long history of architectural development may be briefly traced by studying the theory of art in texts and by investigating the guilds which were responsible for the production of material goods.


Modern day Sculpture Artists in India learned their skills and techniques from their parents. Even in this 21st century mostly they use the same instruments sizzle and hammer that are used by their ancestors in 7th century to carve the stones into stunning Sculptures

In Sanskrit tradition, the sage Vishvakarma is the source of all creative consciousness as it pertains to building objects. Creating architecture, at least according to most texts which describe the traditions of craftsmanship, is akin to creating the world in a divine sense. Vishvakarma is often associated with Brahma, the Hindu god to which creation is attributed. Today, Vishvakarma is the patron god of architects and deities purely because sacred scriptures say that he is the ultimate reality and controller of such kinds of creative forces. Like all tradition sciences in India, the science of architecture was transmitted orally for centuries, from craftsman family to craftsman family. Most families inherited their occupation from the preceding generation, just as princes inherit a kingdom from their father, the king, or mother, the queen. Learned masters of crafts would take apprentices and often adopt them into their family if they were not already a son or nephew. Interestingly, the four varnas, namely the priests, the kings, the merchants, and the servants, all may participate in craft construction, at least according to the Arthashastra and Vishnusmrti, lengthy documents that describe nearly every facet of a kingdom and its constituent parts. Goldsmiths in Maharashtra traditionally associate with the Ahirs, a shudra caste. Later, the Ahirs merged with the Sonars, forming the Ahir-Sonars. Now, they refuse to take food from anyone other than Brahmins, thus showing the upward mobility that can sometimes be possible among craftsman families.

Craftsmen are called ‘shilpin’ in Sanskrit, a word derived from ‘shilpa,’ meaning craft or art. Thus, ‘shilpani’ are works of men. According to the Aitareya Brahmana, an ancient section of the Vedas preserved in Vedic Sanskrit, shilpani are literal imitations of divine forms. Of course, these divine forms are limited by the qualities of being human, a less-than-divine form of life that is unable to properly understand divinity and divine forms of art. As such, the tools of craftsmen are necessarily blessed as divine instruments for creation. Axes, lines, hammers, and other tools are worshipped with the same paraphernalia as divine images of which puja is done. Incense, flowers, rice, and milk all may be offered to these tools. Using the tools requires a great deal of learning, concentration, and self-control, all features to be cultivated and praised in holy texts.

Architects were initiated into their craft by the drawing of a Vastu-purusha-mandala, a cosmic diagram of existence on earth. Knowledge of this diagram, which is itself a site-plan, allows the architect entrance into the divine epistemes required to construct real buildings. The purpose of the module plan of the Vastu-purusha-mandala is to awaken latent creative energies which are derived from the Great Architect, i.e. Vishvakarma. Other craftsmen have different, but similar, types of initiations. Artists must draw abstract configurations by hand and memory.

Guilds were organized by trade and family. Many seemed to have functioned like modern unions and worker guilds. Much evidence from ancient times suggests that wealthy patrons contracted guilds who then were responsible for the work, the laborers, and the designs. One very early and excellent example comes to us from the Buddhist site of Sanchi in modern Madhya Pradesh. There, a local ivory-carving guild seemed to oversee the massive stone construction project. Ivory-carvers are frequently mentioned in many traditional Sanskrit texts as working in a variety of contexts. Given the Sanchi inscription, it is clear that this particular guild knew how to work in more materials than just ivory, such as stone, wood, and presumably brick.

Some recent archaeologists have attempted to understand working with traditional materials in ancient India better through ethnoarchaeology, a method of inquiry into the past based on practicing brickmaking in a traditional Indian setting. In modern Malapannagudi, brickmakers still make bricks similar to how they might have 2,000 years ago. Here, guilds work with 30 or more employees. Despite using some new methods, such as coal-firing, which allows for higher temperatures which in turn produces stronger and larger bricks, the guilds still utilize many traditional techniques. Brickmaking begins with soil softening with water so that the next day the soil may be easily extracted to a location suitable for mixing dirt with water and rice chaff. Roughly eight tins of husk are required for 1,000 bricks. Brick moulds owned by the head brickmaker are used to form the bricks. Each brick tends to have a “maker’s mark” on it. Such marks are necessary for financial transactions rather than for claiming credit, although they may symbolically function for this reason as well. After forming the bricks in the moulds, the bricks dry for three days. 20,000-30,000 bricks are fired in a kiln at a time. The process of firing a solid brick may take eight to fifteen days, depending on whether or not it is a rainy season or not. Compensating for the fact that during the ancient period coal was not used, bricks may have taken twice the amount of time to fully form.

Bricks often served as the earliest foundations for ancient monuments, especially early Buddhist and Brahmanical buildings. One of the earliest surviving religious structures in India, the so-called Jivaka-arama outside Rajgir in modern Bihar, can still be seen in remnants today. The outline of the structure, which Buddhists claim to be an early monastery, may be seen from the bricks, although the structure may not have ever been a monastery. It is possible that the structure actually served as a storehouse for other materials, possibly even rice husk, which is a main ingredient in the construction of bricks. From the reign of Ashoka all the way into the reign of the mighty Vijayanagara kings, brick use remained constant. The architects and artisans hired by wealthy patrons would be required to muster the resources, the manpower, and the designs for every feature in an ancient building, not too different from how buildings are designed today. Bricks tended to be a cheap, easy to make, strong, and light building block for superstructures. Many scholars theorized that wood was used in a similar fashion prior to the reign of Ashoka in the 3rd century BCE, but this cannot be confirmed or deny since wood decays easily while bricks tend to stand the test of time. At Vijayanagara in the 16th century of the Common Era, bricks were used for most of the superstructures. One scholar believes that it would have only taken two to three years to produce all of the bricks necessary to create the large city of nearly one-hundred thousand people. In contrast, using other materials may have been much more expensive and time consuming.

References

  • L. Fogelin: ‘Brickmaking in Malapannagudi: Ethnoarchaeological Research and Archaeological Implications’, Vijayanagara: Archaeological Explorations, 1990-2000, ed. J.M. Frtiz, R.P. Brubaker, T.P. Raczek (2006), pp. 577-586.
  • J. L. Kipling: ‘Indian Ivory Carving’, J. Ind. A. & Indust., i/7 (1885), pp. 49–53
  • S. Kramrisch: ‘Traditions of the Indian Craftsman’, The Journal of American Folklore, 71.281 (1958), pp. 224-230.

Author: Eric Jogga

I am a PhD candidate at a top American university. I study Sanskrit, Pali, and Prakrit languages. My interest is primarily in: Ancient India, art, archaeology, architecture.

Comments

  1. It is mind boggling to see these sculptors do their work in the same way their ancestors performed several thousand years. I am sure India has given many architectural techniques to the western world. Where did you take the photo?

  2. Vastu is a part of Vedas, which are believed to be four to five thousand years old. Through penance and meditation yogis of that period acquired answers believed to have come from the cosmic mind itself to their questions. Hence Vedas are heeded with divine knowledge. The art of Vastu originates in the Stapatya Veda, a part of the Atharva Veda.

  3. Nihar Parida says:

    what was the importance of corridors in Indian architecture. I am referring to the havelies and jamindar mansions. Was there any social importance for these structures. was there any climatic importance to these structures. why the earlier houses had huge corridors.

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