In my last post I emphasised the contribution of the ‘Indian’ as opposed to the ‘Middle East’ traditions of religious architecture, and concluded there was still someting unique about the Gothic invention.
Having said that, one shouldn’t understate the uniqueness of the Indian tradition. It’s not just the continuity, and the scale of the resulting achievement, in which I include Borobodur, Angkor Wat and Todaiji: they are as much rooted in the Indian tradition as Chartres or the Sagrada Familia are in the middle eastern one. At the root of the tradition is a *theory* of sacredness-as-architecture which may once have existed in the west but which has been destroyed by the disjunctures in which text-based monotheisms replaced older traditions. India still has it: it’s ultimately Vedic, for which read ancient, in origin; it’s encoded in elaborated in both theory and pracitcal guidance, some of it relatively new, it encodes the idea – unbeatabably powerful from the point of view of making a sacred architecture – that the form of the structure may itself be sacred, and richly encoded with meaning.
If I had to boil the two architectural traditions down to two words, I’d say the western/Middle Eastern was about ‘structure’ and the Indian was about ‘form’, symbolic form.
As I work my way round the religious buildings of the world, I’m continuously impressed by the Indian achievement. Firstly, India and the Middle East are the two great fountainheads of religion itself: I guess the majority of the world’s population would describe themselves as either Muslim, Christian, Hindu or Buddhist, not to mention Jain, Sikh, Jewish or Zoroastrian… But secondly, the architectural results are extraordinary. For example, spaces designed for congregation are a defining feature of Islamic, Christian and Jewish buildings, and the origin of the synagogue is by the C3 and possibly earlier. But the caitya hall – while not quite congregational in the People of the Book sense, in that the monks who used it don’t represent an entire local community – is just as early: and basilican in plan to booth, 200 years before the Romans. Ashoka used the stupa to promulgate a state faith 500 years before Constantine did the same with the Christian church. Gandharan architecture shows a variety of arch-forms centuries before Islam and then Christian gothic get playful with their curves.
There also aren’t the painful (if very creative) disjunctures which characterise the Middle Eastern inheritance, with its dramatic rejection of paganism and sacrifice, and its huge infusion of Greco-Roman ideas (which ultimately make it as much as Med tradition as a Mid one). Instead, there’s relative continuity, especially with regard to an idea that seems to be Vedic in origin but which came to shape both the Hindu temple and the Buddhist monastery: that certain geometrical forms can embody divine ideas. The power of this principle flows out from India with enormous creative impact, from Japan to Java.
Having said that, there are things in the Middle Eastern tradition which continue to stand out as achievements not quite matched anywhere. Egypt had a mature, sophisticated cut-stone architecture for a millenium or two before anywhere else (India in fact comes to this relatively late). And — on its complex of peninsulas sticking out into the Altantic, on the way to nowhere in particular – the Christian architecture of Europe really is remarkable (it’s not just personal bias). No where else in the world does religious (or any other kind) of architecture display the structural daring, the stylistic restlessness, and the interest in space and (in particular) light that is seen here.
Still, for my money Angkor and Borobodur, not to mention the less hubristic Khajuraho, Sanchi and Ellora are up there with anything….