Ancient History & Civilisation

4. Indian Architecture and Civilization

Decay of Indian art—Hindu and Moslem architecture compared—General view of Indian civilization

Despite the screen, Aurangzeb was a misfortune for Mogul and Indian art. Dedicated fanatically to an exclusive religion, he saw in art nothing but idolatry and vanity. Already Shah Jehan had prohibited the erection of Hindu temples;127 Aurangzeb not only continued the ban, but gave so economical a support to Moslem building that it, too, languished under his reign. Indian art followed him to the grave.

When we think of Indian architecture in summary and retrospect we find in it two themes, masculine and feminine, Hindu and Mohammedan, about which the structural symphony revolves. As, in the most famous of symphonies, the startling hammer-strokes of the opening bars are shortly followed by a strain of infinite delicacy, so in Indian architecture the overpowering monuments of the Hindu genius at Bodh-Gaya, Bhuvaneshwara, Madura and Tanjore are followed by the grace and melody of the Mogul style at Fathpur-Sikri, Delhi and Agra; and the two themes mingle in aconfused elaboration to the end. It was said of the Moguls that they built like giants and finished liked jewelers; but this epigram might better have been applied to Indian architecture in general: the Hindus built like giants, and the Moguls ended like jewelers. Hindu architecture impresses us in its mass, Moorish architcture in its detail; the first had the sublimity of strength, the other had the perfection of beauty; the Hindus had passion and fertility, the Moors had taste and self-restraint. The Hindu covered his buildings with such exuberant statuary that one hesitates whether to class them as building or as sculpture; the Mohammedan abominated images, and confined himself to floral or geometrical decoration. The Hindus were the Gothic sculptor-architects of India’s Middle Ages; the Moslems were the expatriated artists of the exotic Renaissance. All in all, the Hindu style reached greater heights, in proportion as sublimity excels loveliness; on second thought we perceive that Delhi Fort and the Taj Mahal, beside Angkor and Borobudur, are beautiful lyrics beside profound dramas—Petrarch beside Dante, Keats beside Shakespeare, Sappho beside Sophocles. One art is the graceful and partial expression of fortunate individuals, the other is the complete and powerful expression of a race.

Hence this little survey must conclude as it began, by confessing that none but a Hindu can quite appreciate the art of India, or write about it forgivably. To a European brought up on Greek and aristocratic canons of moderation and simplicity, this popular art of profuse ornament and wild complexity will seem at times almost primitive and barbarous. But that last word is the very adjective with which the classically-minded Goethe rejected Strasbourg’s cathedral and the Gothic style; it is the reaction of reason to feeling, of rationalism to religion. Only a native believer can feel the majesty of the Hindu temples, for these were built to give not merely a form to beauty but a stimulus to piety and a pedestal to faith. Only our Middle Ages—only our Giottos and our Dantes—could understand India.

It is in these terms that we must view all Indian civilization—as the expression of a “medieval” people to whom religion is profounder than science, if only because religion accepts at the outset the eternity of human ignorance and the vanity of human power. In this piety lie the weakness and the strength of the Hindu: his superstition and his gentleness, his introversion and his insight, his backwardness and his depth, his weakness in war and his achievement in art. Doubtless his climate affected his religion, and coöperated with it to enfeeble him; therefore he yielded with fatalistic resignation to the Aryans, the Huns, the Moslems and the Europeans. History punished him for neglecting science; and when Clive’s superior cannon slaughtered the native army at Plassey (1757), their roar announced the Industrial Revolution. In our time that Revolution will have its way with India, as it has written its will and character upon England, America, Germany, Russia and Japan; India, too, will have her capitalism and her socialism, her millionaires and her slums. The old civilization of India is finished. It began to die when the British came.

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