Ancient India created jaw-dropping architectural marvels long before West found civil engineering

Today, many people in India and the world think that architecture or civil engineering is a very new technique which has come to India from the west. Not only this, today’s engineering colleges are taught mostly in the context of western civil engineering and cement-based structures. These modern science cement structures gradually become weak and start falling apart after 30 years. However, one wonders how fortresses, palaces and temples built in ancient India have stood intact for so many hundred years now. Our ancient books on architecture and monuments give us an insight into the knowledge and techniques that India possessed about building designs and construction.

A comprehensive form of architecture in India: 

Ancient Indian architecture was very comprehensive. It included cities, buildings, temples, sculptures, and painting. The cities consisted of roads, water supply system, public utility, bathroom, drains, buildings were also categorised according to their shapes, their direction, measurement, type of land/soil on which they were built, nature of objects used in construction etc. And most importantly, all the structures were integrated with nature. In the water supply system, the idea of dams, wells, basins, canals, rivers etc. was also considered. For centuries, construction work was done in villages and cities of India on this basis. For craft work, soil, inlays, limestone, wood, metal and gems were used. Each of these materials was properly tested and used as per their need.

The opinion of ancient sages on land use and construction:

Ancient India not only practised scientific methods of design and construction but also documented them for future generations. Here are some tips given by ancient sages on selection of site and construction

(1) Vishwakarma Vastu Shastra- Vishwakarma explains the first point of construction in the ancient book Vastu Shastra  पूर्व भूमिं परिक्ष्येत पश्चात्‌ वास्तु प्रकल्पयेत्‌’, This means that before construction one should test the land. Vishwakarma further says that construction should not be done on the land which is very mountainous or on land with large cracks.

(2) Kashyap Shilpa (Craft) – In this ancient book, Kashyap Rishi has said that the foundation should be dug until water is seen because this way you would ensure that you have reached the rock level and the foundation would be strong.

(3) Bhrigu Samhita – In this scripture saint Bhrigu says that before buying land, one should test it for form, colour, juice, smell and touch. Rishi Bhrigu also explains its methods in his book.

Ancient cities of India found on the basis of archaeological discoveries:

The Great Bath of Mohanjodaro

(1) Mohanjodaro (Sindh)

The Mohanjodaro, created 3000 years ago, is considered as a wonderful piece of civil engineering. Found in archaeological excavations even the ruins prove that this town was well settled and its buildings and roads – all were made using symmetry and geometrical measurements. The roads found in this city were straight and were made from east to west and north to south and surprisingly they were at an angle of 90 degrees from each other. Buildings were also constructed in proportion. The intersection of the corners, the heights of the walls was equal. The city had public buildings, gardens, a restaurant, a large public bath as well as residential buildings. There was a provision for bathroom, living room etc in the residential buildings. The public buildings were 11.82m long, 7.01m wide and 2.44m high, and there were two streams of water. The building material and bricks of the walls were coated with a substance on which there was no effect of water. Archaeological research shows that people living here were well-versed in the construction techniques.

Ancient Dwarka

(2) Dwarka

Dwarka, also known as Lord Krishna’s city, also narrates a similar story. Dr S R Rao discovered Dwarka in the archaeological excavation and found that the ancient city (Dwarka Nagar) was well built and settled. There was a wall around the city. The stones used for the construction of buildings did not erode despite the fact that the city was very close to the sea. Two-storey buildings, roads and water system are also found in the city. Copper, bronze and some alloys with zinc mixed up to 34 percent have also been found during the excavation. The size of columns, windows, etc reveals that they were designed with a complete mathematical precision.

Lothal Port

(3) Lothal port (Saurashtra)

The port of Lothal was built 2500 years ago, where not only small boats but large ships also halted. The fact that the port was a busy one a big city was also established near it. Its composition was almost like Mohanjodaro, Harappa. Roads, buildings, gardens, public utility buildings etc were part of the design of this port city. Interestingly, the cremation ground was made far from the urban settlement. The advanced civil engineering at that time is also evident from the fact that Lothal port was spread to 300m north-south and 400m east-west and to prevent it from storms and floods, 13m tall walls were built using bricks, soil and other materials. This port was more developed than the Phoenician and Roman ports built in the later times.


(4) Varanasi (UP)

Claude Batley, author of The design development of Indian architecture has written in the book that India’s great heritage has been neglected. Many modern buildings, despite their grandeur, are unfavourable for India due to climate, monsoon winds, hydroelectric and vertical sunlight. The essential features of India’s traditional architectural craft are stone chair, thick walls, tilted windows for air circulation, an internal courtyard, basement, and a top roof. These features were kept in mind in the Indian architectural craft, with a view to provide the various facilities for the inhabitants and also ensure the health of the community.

Varanasi is considered as the world’s first planned city. Professor Bhimchandra Chatterjee scholar of hydro-power engineering in ancient India writes that the people of ancient city Ayodhya tried for four generations to bring Ganga from the Himalayas but only Bhagirath finally succeeded in bringing the river to the land. Not only this even the flow of the river was redirected towards the Bay of Bengal. When Ganga reaches Varanasi, it flows northwards and branches out into – Varuna (a tributary of Ganga) and Assi (a rivulet). As river Ganga has confluence with the two (Varuna in the north and Assi in the south) and feeds them with its water, the city of Kashi got its name Varanasi. When the intensity of water is very high in Ganga, the excess water flows out through Varuna and Assi. There is no other example to show such a brilliant way of preventing floods.


(5) Kanchipuram

The rare example of town planning in ancient India is also visible in Kanchipuram town. C P Ramaswami Aiyar, a lawyer, administrator and politician who served as the Advocate General of Madras Presidency (from 1920 to 1923) wrote that the ancient city Kanchipuram is a rare sample of the traditional best city planning.

Not only this, the Porumamilla water reservoir and Anantaraja Sagar Dam (Andhra Pradesh) built in South India in 1367 AD, also tell the story of irrigation, craft and technology in India. Inscriptions made on two stone-slopes towards the nearby temple reveal that it took just two years for the construction of the dam. For this, one thousand workers were employed and one hundred vehicles were used to reach the stone construction site. The inscription also tells that twelve important points which are necessary for the construction of a good pond were considered during the selection of the site and construction of this reservoir.

Ancient temples of India: Majority of the temples built in ancient India followed the architectural principles and are marvels of civil engineering.

Kailasa Brahma temple
  • The Kailasa Brahma temples which are the largest and most beautiful temple of Ellora in Maharashtra, all its parts are flawless and artistic. Its length is 142ft, width is 62ft and height is 100ft.
Lingaraja Temple
  • Lingaraj Temple of Orissa is the best specimen of art. The height of the temple is 144.05ft and is surrounded by a 7.5ft massive wall. It has four major parts: Vimana, Jagmohan, Nat Mandir and Bhag Mandapa. The temple has many beautiful idols of deities and several episodes of Ramayana and Mahabharata engraved on the walls.
Khajuraho Temple
  • Temple of Khajuraho in Madhya Pradesh – It was built during the 9th century. Previously, there were 85 temples, now only 20 are left. The temple of Khajuraho is synonymous with sculptural art. On the exterior walls of the temples, one can find sculptures (carved out of stones of the walls) of desires of men and women while Shivaling (Symbol of God) is established in the sanctum sanctorum. It depicts that when we come into this world, we think that only our desires and materialistic things give happiness, but when we depart everything appears useless and we realise that finding God gives the ultimate happiness.

These are just a few examples through which India’s great architecture can be understood. There are millions of such examples scattered in every district of India. It is necessary today to find and restore these heritages and learn from them. If West can be proud of its skyscrapers and modern structures like the Eiffel Tower, why cannot India take care of its thousand-years-old heritage buildings? It is the need of the hour that India must understand its ancient science and promote it in its education system and research.