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Indian architecture – a time for slow looking

My trip to India last month presented an opportunity for me to engage with architecture and structures completely new to me. After a complete immersion in Indian culture, what remains with me now I’m back in the saddle is the luxury of slowing down – the chance to stop and properly look, unfiltered by commentary or the need to document.

I spent two entire days in Agra at the Taj Mahal, Fort and tombs discovering so much more than a vision of an iconic building. The complex, sheltered from the outside for centuries, defies comprehension. It goes without saying that the beauty and perfection are extraordinary, but what I found interesting was the theory that in all the earthly perfection of the Taj there is the occasional deliberate mistake creating an imperfection to remind us that only God is perfect and that we are mere mortals.   

I was able to while away time at the complex, exploring the wider site and particularly scrutinising the Bachcha Taj, sometimes known as the Baby Taj, a Mughal mausoleum, the numerous well-preserved tombs and the unmissable Fort.

Unbelievably when visiting the Bachcha Taj I was the only person present, allowing me a one-to-one with the tomb and its surroundings, their surfaces, inlaid marble, stone carving and almost unfathomable craftsmanship. Really looking and becoming immersed beyond just taking photographs allowed me to absorb the whole sequence of sites, beyond just the Taj Mahal.

In Jaipur I encountered the extraordinary Jantar Mantar. On first sight it feels like a contemporary sculpture park, but it is in fact a series of stone-carved astronomical instruments that demand a very different kind of slow looking. The system allows a trained observer to find the time of day and position of the planets with amazing accuracy. I met with a local professor of astrology who gave me a personal astrological reading, with striking accuracy!

From stargazing at Jantar Mantar I went on to Bandikui, not far from Jaipur, where I found another structure and concept to which I have no reference point in the UK. A stepwell is a unique form of ancient underground architecture: its structure is created by excavating a pit and surrounding it with dramatic, almost brutalist, steps leading down to a pond at the centre. 

In addition to its function as a watering hole that can accommodate the fluctuating levels of seasonal water, the stepwell hosts ceremonial activities – like a temple dedicated to water. I was staggered at the boldness and functionality of the architecture, as well as the tranquility of such an engineering endeavour.

Back in the extraordinary city of Jaipur, I was privileged to be invited to visit private homes, in the ownership of the same families since the 17th century, the City Palace being one. The owners provided access to not only private art and jewellery collections, but to the broader setting and design of these historic interiors. 

It was a unique opportunity to witness crafts and skills – from marble inlay, miniature painting and the use of semi-precious stones within a suite of rooms still in use today. I was overwhelmed by entire spaces that incorporate decorative craftsmanship on a level of detail that you might expect from a single jewel or object.

Two contrasting gardens are my final recommendations. The eponymous Vidyadhar Gardens in Jaipur, astonishingly only completed in 1988, are named for Vidyadhar Bhattacharya, chief architect and planner of Jaipur in the 18th century. 

Meanwhile, the gardens at Humayun’s tomb in Delhi were commissioned by his first wife in the mid 16th century. Having started my career in Southern Spain I’ve always been aware of the global influence of the design of Mughal dynasties but nothing had prepared me for the Humayun’s tomb, Sunder Nursery and the Lodhi gardens. The gardens, a genuine paradise on earth, take the axial design layouts to the limit. 



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