Excerpts from ‘Ornamentation in Traditional Indian Architecture’

Art History/Craft History

Excerpts from ‘Ornamentation in Traditional Indian Architecture’

Dhar, Parul Pandya


The talk focused upon the concepts and visual manifestations of ornament in the architectural traditions of ancient and early medieval India. In the process it highlighted the manner in which artists and artisans created myriad visual representations of some formal concepts in the history of traditional Indian architectural ornament.

‘Ornament’ in the Indian tradition assumes meanings that go far beyond the scope of mere ‘decoration’. Sanskrit terms that convey the notion of ornament also point towards the inherent rationale of ornament in the Indian tradition as being integral to the significance and form of the concerned object. The most prevalent of all these terms is alamkara (alam+) that means ‘rendering adequate’ or ‘making effective’. Parallel terms in Sanskrit that also convey the idea of ornament are bhushana, abharana, and aharya. Bhushana (verb: bhus) refers to ornament as the means by which the efficacy of a subject is increased or empowered. Abharana (a+bhr) stands for ‘assumption’ or ‘attribute’ in the sense of ‘becoming’ and therefore ornament as abharana lends meaning to the subject by means of its attributes (for example, as in iconographic attributes, jewels, or any form of symbolic ornament). Aharya (a+hr) as ornament is closely allied in meaning. These meanings and connotations of the various ancient Indian terms that convey the idea of ornament demonstrate clearly that ornament in the classical Indian tradition had a sense/ intention that could not be separated from its form/ structure.

Yet, logical or ideational aspects went hand-in-hand with utilitarian aspects in the history of traditional Indian architectural ornament and some utilitarian features of traditional Indian architectural gradually became part of its ornamental vocabulary. With time, as the architectural expressions of early medieval India grew more and more complex, the different architectural elements such as pillars, ceilings, traceries, ornamental archways, doorframes, etc. also exhibited a varied repertoire in response to functional as well as other cultural requirements. This richly illustrated lecture looked at the inter-relationships between theory and practice in the evolution of Indian architectural ornament.

To highlight the above-mentioned issues, the lecture examined certain broad concerns pertaining to Indian architectural ornament:

  • The etymological and linguistic basis of terms with connotations of ‘ornament’ in the Indian tradition was examined first.

  • From functional form or structural concerns to ornament as symbolic form: To highlight this aspect, the gavaksa (dormer) as architectural element and as ornament was chosen. Its origins in structural and functional concerns such as those seen in early caves and chaityas (eg. Lomas Rishi cave near Gaya, Bhaja in the Deccan region), as well as their depiction in early sculptural reliefs from Bharhut, Sanchi and Amaravati were examined first. The speaker convincingly traced the gradual transition of this element into a symbolic ornament seen on stone temple surfaces – walls, bases, and particularly, the web of gavaksas on the offsets of the northen Indian temple superstructures, such as say, Mukteshvara in Bhuvaneshvara or the Khajuraho group of temples in Madhya Pradesh.

  • Architecture decorated with architecture: The speaker explained how miniature shrine models enveloped the exterior sheath of the temple in multiple permutations and combinations by taking examples from diverse regions of India, such as the southern temples from Mahabalipuram, Pattadakal, Halebid, and others as well as northern temples such as Kandariya Mahadeo in Khajuraho, the Sun temple, Modhera, and several others. This was quite in consonance with the Indian concept of manifestation – of evolution and involution.

  • With time, as the architectural expressions of ancient India grew in complexities and elaborations, the structure as a whole as well as its individual components such as wall surfaces, jalakas (traceries), toranas (ornamental archways), vitanas (ceilings), etc. developed a specialized language of ornament. Practice preceded codification in the form of technical treatises on traditional architecture, and functional, technical, symbolic and other cultural concerns went hand-in-hand, resulting in a vast vocabulary of ornament during the early medieval period of Indian architectural expressions. The speaker took a selective cross-section of this vast and varied repertoire of alamkara or ornament from sites as far removed as Nagada near Eklingji in Rajasthan, western India to Lingaraj in Orissa, eastern India, to Belur and Halebid in Karnataka and Mahablipuram in southern India.

  • The inherent validity and honesty of traditional Indian architectural ornament as integral to the structure in question was well demonstrated through the lecture as well as through the rich and varied visual material.

National Museum Institute, New Delhi
14th July 2006
India International Center, New Delhi



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