Tuesday 1 October 2013

‘Medieval’ India from a Western Perspective

This week I would like to step into an area Beyond Borders has not yet covered. BB has posted on China & the Middle East during the Western Middle Ages, but we have yet to discuss the subcontinent of India. As I am not specialist on Indian art and architecture, I’d like to give an analysis from the Western perspective. In this post I will examine cosmological features in Indian architecture at the Vimala Temple and Fatehpur Sikri. The cosmological ideologies and publications of Hipparchus, Pythagoras, Plato, and Aristotle had made their way to this region and as a result, there are cosmological symbols at Vimala and Fatehpur Sikri that are also seen at Western sites.[1] Although these features embody some Western qualities, they are prime examples of Indian mandalas.

Vimala Temple, Mandala Ceiling

As touched upon in previous posts, mandala is an Eastern term used to describe the intermingling of shapes as a means of representing the cosmos. The Vimala Temple, a fourteenth century Jain sanctuary, is home to many decorative mandala forms, the largest being that which covers the centre most part of the ceiling.[2] The Vimala mandala is a true monad, starting with a seed of one and branching into petals of four, six, eight, & twelve. The centre is the seed of the monad, which instead of representing the Christian God like in cathedral rose windows, possibly represents the twenty-fourth tirthankara, Mahavira.[3]  The next layer consists of four petals. The four-lobed form encompasses the one "seed" much like the pattern known as the Breath of the Compassionate, a symbol for universal balance.[4] Knowing that India was in possession of Greek philosophies, elemental theory can also be applied to this pattern; the four lobes/petals represent each of the elements, while the centre represents the impermeable aether.[5] The number four can also be a reference to the four cardinal directions. The four-lobed form is then surrounded by six, a number affiliated with the six-faced cube, the Platonic Solid symbolizing Earth.[6] The layer of six is followed by a layer of eight. I often interpret the number eight as a symbol for infinity as the figure 8 turned upon its side is the symbol for infinity. Being that the Vimala ceiling is a mandala, a symbol of the universe, the eight-lobed layer may represent the infinite life of the cosmos. The number twelve is represented differently than the others discussed. Four, six, and eight are all flower-like in form, while the number twelve is represented as twelve individual linga-like forms atop a four-lobed shape. My first assumption would be to consider twelve as a reference to the months of the year, but with this change of format, there is potential for cultural symbolism.

Close-Up of Akbar's Throne

Axis Mundi of Fatehpur Sikri

Fatehpur Sikri is a sixteenth century Mughal mandala with a strong emphasis on the patron. Although this image implies that this is simply a column and supporting beams in the centre of a room, this is actually the throne of the great Mughal king, Akbar.[7] The column is topped with a large, up-turned linga form. It is atop this form that Akbar received visitors who stood below. The use of a column in a cosmological representation in India dates back to the third century BCE in figures like the Ashokan Pillar.[8] Figures such as these are axis mundi, a means of connection between heaven and earth.[9] At Fatehpur Sikri, Akbar’s throne placed him between the two, potentially making him a great communicator for both heaven and earth, god-like, or a king ordained by the heavens over earth. The four beams that cross the room are aligned in the four cardinal directions, extending his rule across the globe. The column then acts like the centre of a monad, with the beams reaching out into the world.

Ashokan Pillar

Comparing the two, I find the mandala at Vimala to be the more recognizable, perhaps because it is two dimensional. Despite their different architectural styles, both the Vimala Temple and Fatehpur Sikri have potential Western symbolism within their mandala forms. Although there is much to be said on the Indian cosmological references  in these mandala forms, the Western philosophies suggested in this post are fitting in comparison to Western designs of the medieval period. What I can conclude from this brief study is that there is much to uncover in my future studies concerning the exchange of ideas between medieval Europe and the great subcontinent.


[1] North, John David. Cosmos: An Illustrated History of Astronomy and Cosmology. Chicago: University of Chicago, 2008. 174-77. Print.
[2] Huntington, Susan L., and John C. Huntington. The Arts of Ancient India: Buddhist, Hindu, Jain. New York: Weatherhill, 1985. 291-94. Print.
[3] Glasenapp, Helmuth Von, and Shridhar B. Shrotri. Jainism: An Indian Religion of Salvation. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1999. 74-75. Print.
[4] Daud Sutton, Islamic Design: A Genius for Geometry (Somerset: Wooden Books, 2007), pg. 8.
[5] Richard Foster, Patterns of Though: The Hidden Meaning of the Great Pavement of Westminster Abbey (London: Butler and Tanner, 1991), pg. 155
[6] Foster, 134.
[7] http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/255
[8] Huntington.
[9] Mircea Eliade (tr. Philip Mairet). 'Symbolism of the Centre' in Images and Symbols. Princeton, 1991. Keep in mind that Western axis mundi were also in creation in these early centuries and very similar to the Ashokan Pillar. Such structures include Trajan’s Column, dating 2nd century CE. The Ashokan Pillar greatly predates the dedication to Trajan, but perhaps this is another example of global artistic exchange.

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