TRAVELERS THROUGHOUT the ages have written about the rich expressions of the country's culture. Megasthenes the Greek reported in awestruck wonder the sights he had seen in the third century. Hiuen Tsang, scholar-monk from China, spent twelve years studying at the 5th century Buddhist University at Nalanda. It was his translations of Buddhist scriptures that introduced the religion to the Far East. Inspired by the 13th century accounts of Venetian traveller Marco Polo, the Portuguese set out to trade with India.
It is from these and other such writings that it is possible to fill in the gaps that time and nature have created in the material heritage that still amazes visitors to India. Ruins of planned cities built of brick testify to the existence of a flourishing civilisation more than 5,000 years ago. Elegant pottery thrown at a wheel graced their homes; metallurgy was known and practiced to produce both ornaments and images; children played with clay toys; and seals of authority stamped articles of importance.
The existence of urban centres and craftsmen implies the regular production of surplus in agriculture. It also presumes the existence of an efficient administration and stable economic system that could make available this surplus to non-cultivators who could then direct their energies in other directions. That such an infrastructure existed is testified to by the rapidly expanding tapestry of art and architecture from the second century on.
Growing ornamentation in stone architecture and sculpture accompanied the spread of Buddhism. At Sanchi, Madhya Pradesh, where the relics of Buddha are said to be interred, stone stupas and rock cut shrines seem to emerge out the hillsides. Beautifully sculpted panels and medallions depict the incarnations of Buddha and his teachings in parables. Costumes, jewellery, hair-style and ornamentation all are portrayed in delightful detail. The later, Mahayana Buddhist period, includes images of the Buddha, till now deemed improper to portray. Exquisite murals depicting scenes from his life illuminate the dark caves at Ajanta in Maharashtra and still take ones breath away.
This association of fine arts and architecture with religion is characteristic and is best expressed in the Hindu temple. As the focus of religious, social and economic life, it was the creation of archi¬tectural genius. Sculptors and artists as well as thousands of skilled craftsmen contributed their best to create symphonies in stone with every aspect of human existence captured in profuse and intricate detail. The temples at Halebid and Belur in Karnataka carry friezes based on the epics; those at Khajuraho portray an exuberant eroticism; and every one of them draws attention to the all pervasiveness of the absolute being.
Music and dance are also forms of worship and an intrin¬sic part of temple culture, particularly in South India. Their portrayal of the gods and their joyous celebration of the many moods of life is in itself an offering and worship.
With Islam entered the tall, wide archways, pointed onion domes, minarets and the prolific use of jalis. Some of the most famous monument of North India, including the Taj Mahal, belong to this period. Floral motifs and calligraphy replaced representation of the human form. Marble and red sandstone came to be the materials of choice, with building surrounded by enclosed formal gardens divided into quarters in the charbagh style. Under royal patronage, Indian literature, music and dance blended with the poetic tradition of central Asia in new forms and themes.
The British differed from other rulers in their attitude to the country. The East India Company had come to trade not to make this country home. Initially small, modest functional buildings and churches were felt to be sufficient. But, as their power grew so did the scale of buildings. The coming of the Crown to India brought with it clubs and bungalows geared to making a ‘hostile' land habitable as well as administrative buildings designed to awe and overpower. Mumbai, Cheennai and Kolkata are all dotted with massive colonial structures – Gothic arches, seated lions, stained glass and filigreed ironwork – underline the power of the rulers. In Delhi, a whole new city was built.
Even more importantly, times were chang¬ing. The West was going through social change as well. As the subcontinent opened itself, the winds of change blew its way. The English language opened up a world of new philosophies, travel opened up the world. Indians went abroad to study. It was a fertile time for the proliferation of new ideas and the pursuit of a new identity.