22 Apr 2022

Romancing The Stone- Rear Window To India’s Architectural Legacy


If stones could speak, what unknown narratives they would reveal from India’s lost past. From the corridors of power, to its religious diversity to its community roots, let’s take a peek through the rear window of into some compelling architectural marvels.

A teardrop on the cheek of time

Time travel was never so romantic till you gaze awestruck upon the world’s most spectacular monument to love. Yes, this is the fantastic Taj Mahal, made of pristine white marble, is sheer poetry in stone. Never was love more richly showcased as has been that of the Mughal emperor Shah Jehan for his beloved wife of 19 years, Mumtaz Mahal. Come here by day or by moonlight to recapture the essence of that most magical of human emotions between a man and a woman. The Taj, in the northern city of Agra, is considered the jewel of Islamic art in India and one of the universally admired masterpieces of the world's heritage.

An Emperor’s Dream Capital

The fortified city of Fatehpur Sikiri, was created by the third Mughal Emperor, Akbar, in the 16th century as the new bastion of Mughal rule in India, in place of Agra. Remarkable for its planning and architecture Fatehpur Sikri was carved out of red sandstone and with local skills as a seamless melange of Mughal and Indian architectural delights. Pierced by seven gates, it was surrounded on three sides by solid walls, and a massive artificial lake on its fourth flank. Space and function were used for optimum comfort in the complex, filled with royal residences, pavilions, halls and meeting areas. The Jami Masjid looking westwards towards Mecca lies in geometric alignment as the Royal Complex. Points of interest also are the tombs of Sheikh Salim Chishti and Islam Khan is one such space. Unmissable too are the elaborate gateways, the Shahi Darwaza and the Buland Darwaza, Queen Jodha Bai’s palace and courtyard and Pachisi Court. Look out for the splendour beautifully corbelled column inside the Diwan-i-khas, the stunning intricately carved stonework in geometric and floral patterns, carvings and stone-inlay work used so extensively here.

Jaipur city’s Vedic ways

Today, a UNESCO-acclaimed World Heritage Site, Jaipur city has its architectural roots in India’s Vedic traditions. When Swai Jai Singh II shifted the capital of the Kachhwa rulers from Amer in Rajasthan in 1727, he commissioned an architect who understood the auspicious tradition of building from the ancient Indian treatise Vastu Shastra. Though conceived as a modern city of its times, Jaipur was firmly embedded in Vedic architectural tenets. It was one of the best planned cities of its day.

In the nine-grid setting of the new city, niche areas were also established for trade and commerce, apart from the areas for the royal quarters, the administrative buildings, the residential blocks and leisure spaces. The atmospheric streetscapes of the walled Old Quarter have protected the legacy of the local commercial, artisanal and cooperative traditions of the city to this day.

Portuguese Vernacular

A tour of Goa’s Panjim city is to dive deep into India’s ancient ties with the Portuguese who arrived on Indian shores as traders and then gobbled up a sizeable chunk on the west coast as rulers for 400 years. Marvel at the serene beauty and traditional lines of its churches– Se Cathedral, St. Francis of Assisi, and St. Catherine Chapel and Basilica of Bom Jesus. When Old Goa was ravaged by disease, Panjim became the new seat of governance for the Portuguese. The Latin Quarter Walk in the picturesque Fontainhas area in Panjim city is perfect for uncovering the history and architectural heritage of Portuguese Goa in a nutshell. Fontainhas has been a UNESCO -acclaimed World Heritage Site since 1984.

Taking French leave in Pondicherry

The ancient port town of Pondicherry served as a pivotal trading hub for the French East India Company on the Coromandel Coast; it also served as the capital of the French posts in South India. Dig deep into its French heritage as you trawl the tree-lined spaces of Rue Dumas, Rue Romain Rolland, Rue Sufferin and Rue La Bourdnais in the city's French Quarter (White Town/Ville Blanche). Architectural landmarks include structures such as the Hotel De Vile (Town Hall) Notre Dame Des Anges, Dune De L’Orient (Government House), Cluny Embroidery Centre, École Française d'Extrême-Orient (French School of the Far East) and Gratitude, a restored colonial home and many elegant French villas and cafes.

Shimla of the Raj

The summer capital of the British in India, from 1865 until World War II was the small hill town of Shimla in Himachal Pradesh. This cool and sylvan spot served the British India Empire for seven months, when the sahibs ran away from the punishing heat of an Indian summer. Unravel the mysteries and the stories of of its Raj roots in the line-up of vintage buildings along the Mall, a beautiful promenade bristling with English-style cottages, contemporary houses and an antique bazaar with a maze of narrow alleys. In 2002, 97 century-old buildings were designated as heritage structures by the Town and Country Planning Department; it also designated the stretch from the Secretariat in Chotta Shimla to the gate of the Indian Institute of Viceregal Lodge as a Heritage Zone. Unmissable stopovers on your bucket list for the Victorian and Post-Victorian architecture include the General Post Office, Christ Church, the Railway Board building, Raj Bhavan or the secretariat, Town Hall, the Gaiety Theatre the Bandstand, some heritage hotels, old banks, and government offices.

A wander along the streets of the fresh places you visit offers amazing new ways to love them and ponder over their pasts. The architectural grammar of each street corner provides the visitor an invaluable resource for doing that deep dive into its history and heritage–and community roots.

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