Saturday, January 01, 2011

Essay on Hindu architecture

In the year 1834, one Ram Raz, a retired native Judge and magistrate at Bangalore, published an “Essay on Hindu Architecture” that for the first time demystified and explained, in English, the hitherto-obscure science and grammar involved in the design and construction of temples. The book also had several illustrations or “plates’ as they were called.

In an introduction to the book, Richard Clarke of the Royal Asiatic Society says:

The introduction to the European public of an " Essay on Hindu Architecture," and by a Hindu, would seem to mark an epoch not only in the history of the science but also in that of the Hindus themselves.
Their palaces, their temples, the stupendous pyramidal gateways leading to the latter, the colonnades and porticoes with which they are surrounded; some of " a thousand pillars," others equally remarkable for their elevations, richness, and grandeur of design, have for ages been the objects of admiration to the traveller in the East ; and, though it had long been known, proverbially, that the Hindus possessed treatises on architecture of a very ancient date, prescribing the rules by which these edifices were constructed, it remained for the author of this essay to overcome the many, and almost insurmountable obstacles to the substantiation of the fact, and to the communication of it to the European world in a well known language of Europe.

The author, Ram Raz, explains in his foreword:

Works on Silpa Sastra are very scarce in this part of the country; and even the few scattered fragments that can be had are scarcely intelligible to our best educated pundits, as they are so full of memorial verses and technical terms, that none but those who have been regularly initiated in the study of the art, can comprehend them fully.

As to our Silpis themselves, you know they are generally men of very limited acquirements, and totally unacquainted with the science, so that the task of explaining this obscure subject has become exceedingly difficult. I often attempted to unravel it with the assistance of many artists and pundits who had been supposed to know any thing of the matter, and as often despaired of meeting with any success.

At length I have fortunately found a good sculptor of the Cammata tribe, a native of Tanjore, who is well acquainted with the practical part of the Hindu architecture, and with most of the terms used in the art. With his valuable aid I have already been enabled to solve many intricate problems, and to remove many difficulties against which I had long been struggling.

It is a melancholy truth, that those venerable sages to whom our works on arts and sciences are attributed, in endeavouring to communicate instruction to the world have been guided rather by a mistaken ambition of rendering themselves reputable by the difficulty and abstruseness of their style, than by an anxiety to make themselves intelligible. And to this indeed is that almost general ignorance among the Hindus in the arts and sciences chiefly ascribable.

The essay explains how precise rules were laid down for arrangement of various structures, with an emphasis on perfect symmetry. The level of ‘engineering detailing’ that was done is quite remarkable.

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