To say that architecture also assisted in statecraft seems too far fetched a proposition. However, a survey of certain architectural features of medieval India reveals some underlying significance of structures of various use.

The architectural form, layout of buildings, urban planning, architectural styles, motifs, materials used, the technology and people involved in it tell a lot about the socio-political milieu of the times. The rulers employed every mechanism at their disposal not only to consolidate their hold on the kingdom but also to make their claim to the throne perpetual. This did not exclude architecture.

The common people, apparently passive recipients of royal dictates, policies and machinations, occasionally designed their response in the form of architectural structures that reflected their common aspirations. In the case of noblemen, types of dwelling places often reflected their fluctuating fortunes in the royal court. For the rulers, buildings were meant to demonstrate their power, wealth and grandeur.

A building is many things – a stylistic statement, a form shaped to its function, and a reflection of an era. As a work of art, a building serves the purpose of being a visual metaphor, announcing something in its own way about the power, existence, strength, protectiveness and structure of the institution it represents.

Agra Fort, built in 1565-1573 | Photo: Daniel Mennerich, Flickr

According to architecture historian at Massachusetts Institute of Teachnology (MIT), Timothy Hyde:

“Every building is ultimately a compromise. It’s a compromise between the intentions of architects, the capacities of builders, economics, politics, the people who use the building, the people who paid for the building. It’s a compromise of many, many inputs.”

Medieval Indian architecture, in which the Mughal architecture has a dominant share, was the product of a cross-fertilisation of artistic forms and architectural styles of so-called “Islamic” world and those referred to as “Indian” or “Hindu”, but which in reality, defied such generalisations.

For example, the Mughals copied the ‘Bangla dome’ from Bengal and used it in their structures. It originally imitated the double-roofed (dochala) or four-roofed (chauchala) structure of the thatched huts. Mughal buildings at Fatehpur Sikri displayed clear influence of the styles of Gujarat and Malwa.

Again, in Vrindavan, near Mathura, temples looked similar to the Fatehpur Sikri palaces. The intersecting arches in the roof of the Govind Deva temple at Vrindavan built in 1590 came from the style developed in Khurasan in Iran.

Fatehpur Sikri, Agra | Photo: Wikimedia Commons

How did a ruler reinforce his ‘divine right’ to rule?

The connection between royal justice and the imperial court was emphasized by Shah Jahan in his court in the Red Fort at Delhi. The Pietra Dura inlays that depicted the legendary Greek god Orpheus playing the lute adorned the background of the Emperor’s throne. Just as Orpheus’s music could calm ferocious beasts so as to coexist together peacefully, it seemed to say, the king’s justice would treat the high and low as equals, creating a world where all could live together in harmony.

The Rajarajesvara temple in Thanjavur was built by king Rajarajadeva for the worship of his god Rajarajesvaram. The king took the god’s name because it was auspicious and he would appear like a god. Similarly, Muslims take the names like ‘Mohammad’ or ‘Allah’ to appear noble and holy.

Shah Jahan’s halls were specially constructed to resemble a mosque and the pedestal-throne was referred to as ‘qibla’ (the direction that Muslims faced at prayer) implying, though in a subtle way, that he was the representative of God on earth.

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The temple was like a miniature model of the world ruled by the king and his allies. The largest temple was constructed by the king. The other, lesser deities in the temple, were gods or goddesses of the allies or subordinates (like samantas) of the rulers. We often see temple complexes consisting of a multiple of temples or multiple deities inside a single building.

Persian court chronicles described the Sultan as the “Shadow of God”. The inscription at the Quwwat al-Islam mosque – begun by Qutub ud Din Aibak in 1193 CE completed by Iltutmish and renovated by Alauddin Khilji in 1300 CE – declared that God choose Alauddin Khilji as a king because he had the qualities of Moses and Solomon, the great lawgivers of the past. 

Architecture also reflected the dynamics of power equations in the royal courts. During the early days of Shah Jahan’s reign, the nobility constructed their homes on the banks of the Yamuna river in the midst of ‘chahar bagh’ format brought to India by Babur. But the format was tinkered a bit.

The dwelling was not located in the middle of the Chahar Bagh as was the rule, but at its edge – close to the bank of the river. So, it came to be called ‘river front garden’. In the newly constructed capital of Shahjahanabad, the imperial palace commanded the river front. Only specially favoured nobles, like his eldest son Dara Shukoh, were given access to the river. All others had to construct their homes in the city away from the river Yamuna.

A view of Shahjahanabad in Delhi, overlooking the Yamuna river | Photo: The Illustrated London News, January 16, 1858, Wikimedia Commons

As the temples were often connected to the rulers, when one ruler attacked another ruler, he tended to destroy the latter’s temple. In the early ninth century, when the Pandyan king Shrimara Shrivallabha invaded Sri Lanka and defeated Sena I, the Sinhalese ruler, he is said to have removed all the valuables, including the statue of the Buddha made entirely of gold in the Jewel Palace and raged golden images in various monasteries.

This was avenged by his successor Sena II whose general invaded Madurai, the capital of the Pandyas and made special efforts to locate the Buddha statue. In the early eleventh century, when the Chola king Rajendra I built a Shiva temple in his capital, he filled it with prized statues seized from defeated rulers, including a Sun-pedestal from the Chalukyas and a Kali statue from the Palas of Bengal.

Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni tried to win credit among the hardliners in his native place as a hero of Islam by destroying temples, especially the one at Somnath. But he was just a ruthless and rapacious plunderer who used the slogan of Islam to gather supporters for his mission.

In the political culture of the Middle Ages, most rulers displayed their political might and military success by attacking and looting the places of worship of defeated rulers. It was to announce the complete destruction of the previous ruler in the eyes of the populace. And the deity who could not protect its worshiper was not worth anyone’s respect. The subjects had to accept the new ruler who had demonstrated his power. 

The Airavatesvara Temple, built by Chola king Rajaraja II (AD 1143-1173), Tamil Nadu | Photo: Richard Mortel, Wikimedia Commons

How did the common people express their hopes and aspirations through architecture?

In many places, the common people, like the Panchala or the Vishwakarma community consisting of goldsmiths, bronzesmiths, masons and carpenters, were essential to building of temples, palaces, and big public buildings. An image of a deity discovered in Mathura has a Prakrit inscription mentioning that a woman named Nagapiya, the wife of a goldsmith named Dharamaka installed it in a shrine.

The architect of Rajarajesvara temple, Kunjaramallan Rajaraja Perunthachchan, carved his name on the temple wall. We do not know if he did with the king’s approval. It only reminds us of the sculptor of Ozymandias who skillfully and secretly put his ideas on his creation, the statue of the arrogant king.

However, the current popular understanding of medieval Indian architecture, its evolution, forces influencing it and the dynamics causing the constructions and destructions is not based upon facts. Years of British colonial historiography built on the binary of ‘Golden Age ancient period versus Medieval Islamic invasions’ has resulted in a rather simplistic understanding of the development of medieval architecture in India.

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We have seen the devastating impact of such a narrative on the secular socio-cultural fabric of the country – referred to as the famed ‘Ganga-Jamuna Tehjeeb’ – by the Ramjanambhumi-Babri Masjid project. The one issue that facilitated the rise of the Hindu Right wing in India under the leadership of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) was the targeting of the Babri Masjid as the usurper of Ram’s birth place.

It became the single rallying point of the Hindutva bandwagon throughout the 1980s and 90s, because Babri Masjid was alleged to have been built by Mir Baqi, the first Mughal Emperor Babar’s general, on the exact spot of Lord Ram’s birthplace after destroying the existing Ram Temple. This understanding, however, has been firmly refuted by several eminent archaeologists.

Thus, there has been a selective highlighting of the destruction of certain places of worship while the rest remain ignored in popular historical-political discourses. That such historical materials are peddled frequently in election rallies to further a particular narrative does not help.

Views expressed are the author’s own.