The Story of India's Arch

- Rohit Priyadarshi Sanatani

The arch, as we know, is an architectural device that has been used by man since ancient times. Some early examples from the ancient Near East employed the basic principles of the arch in construction1, but the Romans were the first to fully utilize the structural advantages of the true arch, vault and dome. Arches and arched openings are one of the essential elements in the vocabulary of Roman architecture. With the advent of the arch, it became possible for builders to span large openings without having to provide any intermediate supports, as it almost eliminates tensile stresses on the building materials. Dealing with tensile stresses had always been a problem faced by builders, as not too many of the common structural materials used during that time were good in tension. This problem was now overcome, and large interior spaces could be capped by vaults or domes. This system however did transmit lateral loads on the supporting piers or walls, which thus had to be adequately reinforced. (Fig 1). 

Fig 1. The true arch

The true arch did not feature in the architectural vocabulary of ancient, or even early medieval India. We do get quite a few examples of arch-like openings in the Buddhist rock cut architecture of ancient India.. None of these, however were true 'constructed' arches, applying the knowledge of the principles of arch action. They were simply openings that were 'cut out' from a single mass of rock in the shape of an arch. One of the earliest specimens of such 'arches' can be found in the Barabar Caves in Bihar (3rd centiry BC)2. Such openings went on to occupy a reasonably prominent position in the architectural language of Indian rock cut architecture, as we see quite a few recurrences of such openings as it evolved through the centuries. The 'kirtimukh' or sun windows that are to be found in a number of the famous caves of Ajanta are in fact similar rock cut arch shaped openings.(Fig 2.) The Buddhist 'chaitya' halls, too were covered by rock cut barrel vaults, a few brilliant examples hailing from the caves at Ajanta.

         

Fig 2: Rock cut arches at Ajanta.

Arch shaped openings made a complete disappearance in the temple architecture of India. Notwithstanding a few disputed and isolated specimens3,4, the subcontinent seemed to be largely unaware of the structural principles and methods of construction of the true arch. Hindu temple architecture employed post and lintels, or corbelling in order to span openings. The post and lintel method is a 'trabeated' system of spanning an opening, whereby a horizontal 'lintel' beam rests upon two vertical 'posts', thereby supporting the load above (Fig 3.). Tensile stresses once again come into play in the lower portions of the horizontal lintel, and thus limit the maximum span of the system. Corbelling involved successive overhanging courses of masonry rising up to cover the entire span (Fig 4). This method was not effective in spanning large openings either. Even the largest, and most mature  Hindu temples in the nation boasts of innumerable corbelled openings, including corbelled cross vaults, but not arches5. Interior spaces of such temples were thus usually of a very human scale, as opposed to the monumental interior spaces that were to be found in contemporary churches and mosques in other parts of the world.

     

Fig 3: Post and Lintel system

It was in 1192 AD, with the establishment of the Delhi Sultanate, that rulers adhering to the Islamic faith penetrated the heart of the subcontinent. And along with a new religion, came a whole new vocabulary of architecture. Islamic architecture had traditionally employed true arches and domes in the construction of mosques and tombs. The 'arcuated' style was in fact also prevalent in pre-Islamic Sassanid Persia6, and was thus absorbed into the architecture of the new religion. It was in the Great Umayyad Mosque at Damascus (715 AD) that we find one of the early examples of the Muslim adaptation of the arch. With the capture of Delhi, the construction of mosques was commissioned by early rulers of the Sultunate. One such structure is situated within the present day Qutb Minar complex, and has come to be referred to as the 'Quwwat-ul-Islam' mosque. The new rulers naturally expected such buildings to consist of the pointed arches and domes that were so common in the traditional religious architecture of Islam. The local builders employed for their construction were however mostly Hindu, and did not have a working proficiency in true arch construction. So they would have to create arched openings, or at least come up with openings that would resemble the true arches that the patrons were familiar with.

The result was an unique invention. The masons continued to corbel openings as was common in Indian temples. However, they simply chiselled the inner surfaces of the corbels, so as to externally resemble an arch (Fig 4). These openings could never be as large as true arched openings, but visually achieved arched forms nevertheless. The arch shaped opening had made a reappearance in the subcontinent. Other buildings of early Sultanate however did not employ the arch at all, and continued to resemble 'Hindu' structures. A good example of this is the 'Gandhak ki Baoli' (early 13th century) at Mehrauli.

           

Fig 4: 'False' corbel arches at the Quwwat-ul-Islam Masjid, Delhi.

Such 'false' corbel arches continued to be used in the early Islamic architectural vocabulary of India. The first ever monumental Islamic tomb to be built on Indian soil, 'Sultan Ghari' (1231 AD) and the tomb of Iltutmish (1235 AD) are notable examples7.  Outside Delhi, the 'Adhai din ka Jhopra' (1199 AD) at Ajmer is also a notable specimen from this unique phase in the architectural history of the subcontinent. 

The year 1287 AD was a critical point in the evolution of Indian architecture. It is to this year that we can trace the first appearance of true arch construction in the mainstream architectural language of subcontinent. The tomb of Ghiyasuddin Balban, located in Mehrauli, Delhi, just a little way off from the Qutb complex is the earliest Sultanate structure to have true arched openings8 (Fig 5). The Indian builder had finally begun to internalise the structural principles of arch action. The true arch had entered the architectural vocabulary of India more than 2000 years after it's first use in this world. 

And it will be an understatement to say that this reshaped the evolutionary trajectory of architecture in the Indian subcontinent for the coming centuries. 

         

Fig 5. The true arches at Balban's tomb (1287 AD).


References:

  1. Peters, John P. “University of Pennsylvania Excavations at Nippur. II. The Nippur Arch.” The American Journal of Archaeology and of the History of the Fine Arts, vol. 10, no. 3, 1895, pp. 352–368.

  2. Grover, Satish. (2010). Buddhist and Hindu architecture in India. New Delhi: CBS & Distributors.

  3. Soundara Rajan, K.V (1979-80). The Use of the Arch in the Kushan Palace at Kausambi. Puratattva No 11, pp 96-99

  4. Coomaraswamy, A. K. (1927). History of Indian and Indonesian art (p. 1965). New York: Dover publications., pp 73-74

  5. Brown, Percy. (1965). Indian Architecture: Buddhist and Hindu Periods. D.B Taraporevala and Sons

  6. A History of Architecture: Sir Bannister Fletcher.

  7. Sharma, Y.D. (1974). Delhi And its Neighbourhood. Archaeological Survey of India, pp 56,68

  8. Sharma, Y.D. (1974). Delhi And its Neighbourhood. Archaeological Survey of India. pp 65-66


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