Monday, October 10, 2016

Why an American Millennial Cares about Ancient Gujarati Architecture (and you should too)

The Indo-Saracenic style as seen at Prag Palace in Kutch, Gujarat, India. (Photo from Creative Commons)
The Indian state of Gujarat, at the edge of the eastern Pakistani border, is a medley of cross-cultural influence. As it is the home of several prolific seaports — including Lothal, an ancient Indus Valley Civilization city and purportedly one of the world’s first seaports; Surat, the principal port of the Mughal empire and the site of trade between merchants from cities such as Beijing and Venice; and Bharuch and Khambhat, which were utilized by the industrious Maurya and Guptan empires — and also a close proximity to the Silk Road, the state was (and still is) the site of consistent cultural exchange. As beliefs and goods were traded, so too were architectural styles, as people moved to and from Gujarat, taking with them their aesthetics. As early as the late thirteenth century, the Gujarati people were introduced to Islamic styles, and by the nineteenth century, British Gothic style started merging with pre-existing Islamic and Hindu aesthetics as the Indo-Saracenic architectural style took hold. If one looks at the historical development of Gujarati style, one can arguably discern the core elements of the Gujarati style by observing which design choices persist throughout time. These elements reveal the endurance of a unique Gujarati architectural identity, as the architecture came to serve as a representation of the people that occupied them.

The Sun Temple of Modhera, 1026-27 CE. (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)
The occupants, who included patrons as well as native Gujarati people, varied. In addition to sultans and caliphs, patrons included traveling merchants as well as foreign clerical personnel. These patrons commissioned buildings that emulated the styles of their cultures, perhaps in order to feel more at home in Gujarat. Yet still, core Gujarati characteristics persist, even in buildings that incorporate foreign styles. Because patrons, including merchants who frequently travelled to and from Gujarat and foreign clerical personnel, as well as sultans and caliphs, would fund the construction of structures that emulated the styles of their culture, perhaps in order to feel more at home in the unique location that Gujarat offers, many of these consistent aesthetics unique to Gujarat manifested in architecture that emulated foreign styles. These structures, especially as they frequently employed indigenous craftsmen, still exhibit elements unique to Gujarat despite incorporating foreign design elements. These craftsmen, who belonged primarily to guilds, followed a set of conventions outlined by the śāstras (technical or specialized manuals in a defined area of practice). These arguably led to the retention of traditions that may have not otherwise survived the foreign pressures for stylistic change that were produced by the interaction with other cultures. The maintenance of these manuals conceivably indicates the importance of cultural identity to the Gujarati artists, architects, craftsmen and people, as it suggests that these individuals not only intended to follow design and structural choices that worked but also intended to follow design and structural choices that reflected a community history of architectural traditions.

In a culture so flavored with the aesthetics of other societies, the retention of uniquely Gujarati design choices – namely an affinity for heavy interior patterning and specific design motifs (especially of entry arches), both of which I will explore in more detail in my upcoming post – indicates the resilience of indigenous traditions despite the trade of ideas that occurred throughout many centuries and empires. This preservation of style suggests to me that while outside influence may be extremely salient, cultures still interpret and reflect these influences in a way unique to their own society.

Intricate wall patterning along the sides of the Adalaj Stepwell (1499 CE). (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)
The aforementioned Sun Temple of Modhera contains a Gujarati-style entry arch. (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)
In a similar vein, in today’s society, in light of globalization and the proliferation of the internet and travel, we are often faced with the question of whether we should preserve unique cultures or strive towards a medley of traditions and aesthetics that are shared by a global community. The evolution and maintenance of a core Gujarati style offers an interesting case study of the preservation of culture and cultural identity, despite interaction with other societies and the movement of people to and from the region over centuries. In the future, humanity may look back at the architectural structures of our modern-day cities, such as my hometown of Birmingham, and analyze it much in the same way as I am looking at Gujarat, in order to reveal the architectural identity of our society.

From top left: Downtown from Red Mountain; Torii in the Birmingham Botanical Gardens; Alabama Theatre; Birmingham Museum of Art; City Hall; Downtown Financial Center. (Photo and caption from Wikimedia Commons, 2011)
Much of what drew me to Gujarati architecture in particular is its staunch difference from Western architecture, which is what has surrounded me my entire life. Analysis of South Asian, or in this case Gujarati, forms and spaces reveals that universal design or structural choices are extremely rare and the elements that we may take for granted in our culture may not be exhibited in others. Therefore, analysis of specifically Gujarati architecture allows for me, as well as other Western scholars analyzing South Asian art, to see what makes our architecture unique by comparison – something that isn’t often immediately recognizable.

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