From Shikharas to Jaalies: The Influence of Ancient Indian Architecture

Deepa Limaye, LEED AP

Deepa Limaye, LEED AP

Ancient architecture has always inspired and influenced designers by blending old concepts of design with new materials and ideas. As an outcome of this fusion, new designs have been brought forward into the modern era. A direct result of geographical, climatic, ethnic, racial, historical and linguistic diversities, ancient Indian architecture has an influence that can be seen and experienced in many forms to this day.

To celebrate AAPI Heritage Month, we sat down with Deepa Limaye, a Senior Project Manager and Multifamily Residential Studio Leader in Gresham Smith’s Life and Work Places market, to discuss the ancient architecture of her homeland, along with the influence it’s had on her both personally and professionally.

How has the architecture of ancient India influenced modern-day architecture?

Deepa Limaye: Ancient Indian architecture has a rich heritage that is deeply rooted in its ancient civilization and culture. Over time, it has continually transformed itself to where it now blends in with India’s modern-day architecture. For example, temple architecture, Islamic architecture and Buddhist architecture styles have brought in strong forms and features such as arches, courtyards and intricate “jaalies”—or fenestrations/lattice screens—that are not only used in all modern buildings in new India, but are also strong architectural features globally. The use of locally available natural materials, something we see more and more in architecture today because it’s such a cost-effective and eco-friendly practice, was also the norm in ancient Indian architecture.

By the 1990s, sustainable design had become a commonplace term associated with design and construction practices. However, its origins can be traced back to ancient Indian architecture. Tell us a little more about that.

Deepa: The conscious attempt to incorporate sustainability features as a major part of architectural design in India began with its historic building types. For instance, internal courtyards were an integral part of a traditional Indian home’s layout. They facilitated the flow of cooler air into the interiors during the summer and brought warm air and sunlight into the home during the winter. So, they served as a natural source of cooling and heating from an energy-efficiency standpoint.

Jaalies also served as a great source of natural ventilation and were good for keeping rooms cooler in hot climates. Water features and ponds were another sustainable and beautiful way to reduce summer heat. Decorative overhangs that acted as shading devices to cool ancient Indian buildings were an important sustainable element also. All these features are prominent in modern homes in India.

Kusum sarovar ancient abandoned temple in India UP

What other features of ancient Indian architecture do you see in India today?

Deepa: India has a huge diversity of culture. Because it differs from state to state, it has impacted the architecture in each region from ancient times to the present day. For example, the southern part of India is very religious and more devotion focused. So, the architecture that has evolved is all of the great temple architecture, which has spurred many strong architectural elements over time, such as decorative columns/colonnades, courtyards, arches, decorative plinths (pedestals) and the ever-evolving temple “shikhara,” which in Sanskrit means a top or a spire. All these features are reflected in typical South Indian traditional architecture and are well adapted to modern homes and buildings.

Northern India, however, is vastly different in its culture from Southern India, as it was primarily ruled by Islamic invaders followed by the British reign, which is reflected in its colonial architecture. A good example of colonial architecture is the Indian Parliament in New Delhi. Northern India also features a large number of mosques—like the Taj Mahal, for example—that are well-defined by a variety of arches. As with Southern India, the architectural styles found in present-day Northern India are a big nod to its past.

Woman in red saree/sari in the Taj Mahal, Agra, Uttar Pradesh, India

Arches are perhaps the most recognizable feature of ancient Indian architecture used in temples, mosques, palaces and other buildings. How do we see that influence today?

Deepa: Arches are such a strong form and take their inspiration in large part from ancient Indian architecture. Today, they’re a key element in architecture across the world and are used in virtually every type of structure—from a church building to an aqueduct. Designers are constantly finding new and innovative ways to use the arch aside from a purely structural standpoint. For example, our architects incorporated a large arch feature into the design of the main entrance at Nashville’s Parke West residential tower as a welcoming element because of the form’s ability to stand out. Arches also serve as a unique and appealing design element aesthetically because of their ability to cast light and shadow.

India is your home country in which you’ve studied architecture and ancient Indian architecture. How have your roots influenced you and what you bring to Gresham Smith?

Deepa: Growing up in a country with such a rich culture, and having been exposed to great architectural history and its evolution, has not only helped me grow in my career, but has also helped me to become both a sensitive and mindful professional in the field of architecture. It has also made me extremely receptive to what great design is, and in many ways, it has humbled me.

From a cultural perspective, there is a strong sense of inclusion in India that comes from the major diversity within the country. For example, a person from the southern part of India might not speak the same language, eat the same food or wear the same clothes as someone from another region. Therefore, from a very early age, we learn how to communicate with a diverse range of people and personalities—it almost becomes a sixth sense.

As the old quote says, “You never truly understand a person until you consider things from their point of view.” And I believe the cultural background I bring to my role as a project manager and studio leader at Gresham Smith helps me to better understand people and their respective points of view—whether we’re talking about a design, a proposal, or even project fees and deliverables. I learned a long time ago that there are always two sides to every coin.