INDIA HAS 18 OFFICIAL LANGUAGES, and its architectural history is just as diverse. Yet most Western architects would be hard-pressed to identify a pre-colonial Indian building by name, other than the Taj Mahal. Blame the knowledge gap on our standard histories of architecture, which, as everyone knows, focus almost exclusively on Europe and the United States. The near-complete omission of buildings from Asia, Africa, and South America (i.e., everywhere else) is no small problem in this increasingly global age, especially as U.S. architects increasingly look abroad for commissions. Practitioners setting their sights on India should benefit from a close read of Adam Hardy's The Temple Architecture of India, a smart, accessible history of religious architecture on the subcontinent.
The author, who teaches at the Welsh School of Architecture in Cardiff, lavishes particular attention on the monumental Hindu shrines of India's early middle ages (the 6th–13th centuries), which in most histories—and in the popular imagination—take a back seat to later, Mughal monuments like the Taj Mahal.
Hardy likens the Hindu temples' dynamic geometries to the religion's concept of the “unfolding cosmos.” The medieval Indian architect, or sthapati, based the design of every shrine and temple on a base unit, the aedicule, which he then projected, staggered, split, and multiplied from the center outward. While the results can seem riotous to Western eyes, the medieval Hindu temple boasted a taxonomy of parts as specific as that of classical Greece and Rome, and similarly based on the human body.
Next time you're meeting with potential clients in Mumbai or New Delhi, try saying the Sanskrit varandika, instead of cornice. They're sure to be impressed.