In depth: Intricate architecture of India's Golden Triangle

India's fascinating history can be viewed close up in its range of architectural monuments, many of which are protected by UNESCO's World Heritage List. From ancient temples to modern design, the Golden Triangle and around is home to many must-see sites
The Golden Triangle: Golden Temple, the main sanctuary of Sikhs, Amritsar, India
Golden Temple, the main sanctuary of Sikhs, Amritsar, India. Photo: Shutterstock

India's Golden Triangle and northern plains region is home to many fascinating architectural treasures, all markers of the country's distinct and rich history. Read on to find out more...

For more than 2,000 years, India has been witness to a succession of amazingly diverse artistic traditions. While Buddhist architecture and painting are now only found in the Himalayan valleys in the far north of India, temple construction and the fashioning of bronze and stone images for worship continue to be funded by wealthy Hindu and Jain patrons throughout the country. Indeed, Akshardham, reputedly the largest Hindu temple in India, was inaugurated in Delhi as recently as 2005.

Public mosques and tombs of saints are continuously refurbished and extended so as to serve the needs of India’s substantial Muslim population. The descendants of India’s royal families may have stopped building massive forts and sumptuous palaces, but many are successfully converting their ancestral residences into luxury hotels. Meanwhile, a new wealthy class of industrialists and IT specialists have begun to erect high-rise offices and ostentatious residences – the latest of which is 27 storeys high and includes three helipads and parking for 100 cars, while also employing 300 staff.

Temples in North India

From the 7th century onwards, structural temples were constructed in two contrasting styles. The nagara temples of northern India have square sanctuaries topped by towers with curving profiles, known as shikharas. In later times, these shikhara towers were multiplied and combined to create complex clustered forms. One of the best-preserved groups of fully evolved nagara temples is that at Khajuraho in Madhya Pradesh, dating from the 10th to the 11th centuries. Dominated by clustered shikhara towers that soar dramatically above their sanctuaries, the Khajuraho temples are approached through a line of porches and mandapas with projecting balconies. The outer faces of their golden sandstone walls are covered with carvings of gods and their consorts, as well as magically protective prancing beasts, and human couples in provocative sexual postures. Temple interiors feature ornate columns with angled brackets sculpted as alluring maidens.

Nagara-style temples in Rajasthan are often dedicated to Jain saints, such as those in the 11th  to 13th-century complex at Mount Abu. Here, temple sanctuaries are preceded by columned mandapas roofed with domical ceilings, with angled bracket figures and pendant lotus flowers, all in exquisitely worked, white marble. The temple at Ranakpur, dedicated to Adinatha, the first of the 24 Jain saviours, dates from the 15th century. Its central sanctuary is topped by a clustered shikhara tower. This is reached through elaborate but identical mandapas on four sides.

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Devi Jagdambi Temple, Western Temples of Khajuraho. Photo: Shutterstock

Mosques, tombs and palaces

With the establishment of Muslim power in Delhi at the end of the 12th century, the architecture and art of India came under the sway of well-established Islamic traditions imported from Iran and Central Asia. This is first seen in the mosques and tombs with pointed arches and lofty domes built for successive sultans in the 14th to 15th centuries, a tendency that was to continue under the Mughals in the 16th and 17th centuries. Yet these Islamic buildings were essentially Indian since they were constructed out of local materials by local workmen. This is already evident from the Quwwat-ul-Islam mosque and adjacent minaret, known as the Qutb Minar, in Delhi, which are the first monuments to proclaim Muslim supremacy in India. Its prayer hall has a facade of pointed arches built of sandstone without any mortar, in the typical Indian dry masonry technique. Arabic inscriptions bordering the arches are enlivened by sculpted lotus embellishment similar to that found on temples. The same motifs decorate the tapering flanged shaft of the nearby minaret that rises more than 72 metres (240ft) high.

Muslim religious architecture outside Delhi assumes a range of styles, reflecting the impact of regional building practices. Mosques and tombs in Ahmedabad in Gujarat, for example, have temple-like columns and corbelled domes, as well as perforated screens, known as jalis. The finest jalis in Ahmedabad are those in Sidi Sayyid’s mosque of 1572; they are carved with astonishing skill to portray palm trees and creepers. Basalt is the medium of religious architecture in Bijapur in Karnataka. The Ibrahim Rauza, built in 1626, is roofed with an exaggeratedly bulbous dome framed by ornamental turrets and finials. The walls of the tomb chamber beneath are covered with superbly carved inscriptions and geometric patterns. The nearby Gol Gumbaz, the mausoleum of Sultan Muhammad Adil Shah, who died in 1656, has a colossal dome, some 44 metres (144ft) in diameter, making it one of the largest in the world. This is supported on an ingenious structural system of intersecting pointed arches. In the middle of Hyderabad in Andhra Pradesh stands the Char Minar of 1591, named after its quartet of circular minarets, rising 56 metres (183ft) high. These frame the mosque elevated over the intersection of the two main streets of the city.

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Ancient colonnaded structure of Juma Masjid. Photo: Shutterstock

The Mughal Era

Mughal architecture begins with the tomb of Emperor Humayun in Delhi, completed in 1571. This stands in the middle of a vast char-bagh, or four-square walled garden with axial waterways, of obvious Persian inspiration. The tomb itself, raised on a lofty podium, has red sandstone-arched portals facing in four directions; above rises a white marble dome with a slightly bulbous profile, revealing Central Asian influence. The next three Mughal emperors were also responsible for building grandiose garden tombs. The most famous of these is the Taj Mahal in Agra, Uttar Pradesh, built in 1632–53 by Shah Jahan for his beloved wife Mumtaz Mahal.

The Mughals also undertook ambitious military constructions. The Red Fort overlooking the Yamuna River in Agra is protected by massive ramparts and a deep moat, mainly the work of Akbar. The same emperor was also responsible for founding the nearby palace city of Fatehpur Sikri in 1571. Its audience halls, residential suites and pleasure pavilions of different designs are all built out of red sandstone, and have survived amazingly well. The great mosque nearby is entered through a lofty arched portal. In the middle of its courtyard stands the white marble tomb of Salim Chishti, the saint who predicted the birth of Akbar’s son. Its veranda is lit by superb jalis with geometric designs.

In 1639 Shah Jahan founded his own new city, Shahjahanabad, in Delhi. Its Red Fort is entered through a great gateway facing the main street of the city. This leads via a covered bazaar to the audience hall that once housed the celebrated, gem-studded Peacock Throne. Beyond lie the private gardens and white marble residential pavilions, linked by waterways and scented fountains.

In spite of their grand planning and sumptuous ornamentation, Mughal palaces are now empty and forlorn. Nothing now remains of the woven carpets, embroidered textiles, silvered vessels and jade huqqa bowls that were produced in the imperial workshops. However, an idea of the Persian manner of these luxurious objects may be had from collections of Mughal art displayed in the National Museum, New Delhi, and Prince of Wales Museum (renamed the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya), Mumbai. Here, too, are miniatures that portray the Mughal emperors and their nobles, as well as episodes from Persian epics and Hindu legends. 

Realistic paintings of animals, birds and flowers prove that Indian artists took genuine delight in the world of nature. Evidence of this could be seen from the earliest miniatures, painted on palm leaves from the 11th century onwards, but really brought to prominence as an art form in their own right under Mughal rule.

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Red Fort in Agra, Amar Singh Gate. Photo: Shutterstock

Rajasthan palaces

Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, the Rajput princes of neighbouring Rajasthan were closely allied with the Mughals, with the result that their forts, palaces and arts were much affected by Mughal taste. Mughal-styled audience halls and residential apartments crowd the interiors of the citadels that mark the headquarters of the different Rajput families. The interior of the palace at Amber, capital of the Kachhwaha maharajas before their move to nearby Jaipur, even has a Mughal-styled shish mahal, or mirrored hall. Here, countless tiny pieces of reflecting glass are set into the plastered ceiling to create a glittering interior. Palaces at Kota and Bundi are enlivened with murals that depict contemporary life, with Rajput rulers receiving visitors, riding in procession, hunting deer, enjoying performances of music and dance, and going on pilgrimage to Hindu shrines. Some Rajput palaces still preserve their royal art collections, as can be seen in the spectacular costumes, carpets, weapons and miniature paintings on display in the City Palace Museum, Jaipur.

Here, too, mention must be made of the Sikh shrines of the Punjab, known as gurudwaras. Topped by Mughal-styled gilded domes, they commemorate the lives of successive Sikh teachers. The most famous Sikh monument is the Golden Temple in Amritsar, built by the fourth Sikh guru, Guru Ram Das, in the 16th century. A large tank was excavated, and the gold-covered temple built in its centre; the tank was then filled with water, the shimmering gold of the temple reflected on all sides to mesmerising effect.

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Bundi Palace, Rajasthan. Photo: Shutterstock

The British invasion

It was, however, the British who had the most widespread impact on Indian architecture. The star-shaped forts that they constructed in the 17th century to protect their trading "factories" at Chennai, Kolkata and Mumbai survive, though their ramparts and moats are now much dilapidated and overgrown. Churches within these forts display pedimented facades and pointed steeples typical of Classical Revival architecture. A similar mode was also adopted for the civic monuments that represented English supremacy on Indian soil, notably Government House in Kolkata, begun in 1758, and the British Residency in Hyderabad of 1809. Neoclassical facades even graced the mansions of wealthy English merchants in Kolkata.

In the 19th century, Gothic Revival became the preferred mode, not only for churches but also for urban projects. This is best seen in Mumbai, in the High Court (still called the Bombay High Court), Victoria Terminus railway station (now the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, known as CST) and University Library, all built in the 1870s and 1880s. The turn of the 20th century was marked by the invention of the novel Indo-Saracenic style, in which European Gothic features mingled freely with domes and turrets derived from Mughal and Rajput architecture. This somewhat eccentric idiom was also sometimes chosen by Indian princes for their public buildings, as in the High Court and Osmania General Hospital in Hyderabad. Indo-Saracenic royal residences also sprung up, like the exotic palace of the Wodeyar rulers in Mysore, which even employs cast iron and stained glass imported from Glasgow.

For their own monuments the British preferred a more restrained version of Classicism, such as that practised by Sir Edwin Lutyens and Herbert Baker, principal architects of New Delhi. Completed in 1931 with broad boulevards, imposing civic monuments and garden bungalows, the new British capital was dominated by a central axis, at the end of which stood the Viceroy’s House, now Rashtrapati Bhavan, residence of India’s president. This domed building is an eclectic blend of Buddhist, Mughal and Rajput features, organised according to Classical proportions. In the course of the 20th century, European Modernism took widespread root in India, mostly at the hands of English and German architects employed by local princes. The masterpiece of Indian Modernism is Umaid Bhavan, now a heritage hotel, commissioned by the Jodhpur maharajas. Its lofty domed rotunda and splendidly appointed Art Deco apartments were completed in 1944.

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Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, Mumbai. Photo: Shutterstock

Post Independence

Indian architecture after Independence displays a similar dependence on European models, especially once Le Corbusier and Louis Khan were invited to work in India in the 1950s. The layout and civic monuments of Chandigarh, new capital of Indian Punjab, reflect French urban ideals not necessarily suited to India. That the modernisation of Indian architecture is now an accomplished fact is obvious from the high-rise concrete and glass buildings that crowd most cities today. Some architects now seek an authentic Indian aesthetic by reverting to traditional materials, such as sandstone and marble, and geometric patterns borrowed from earlier Indian Islamic buildings.

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Architectural detail of the Chandigarh Legislative Assembly building. Photo: Shutterstock