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Symbolism in Architecture: Its Manifestations in 15 Indian Marvels

Symbolism in Architecture is a design approach where architectural elements, such as shapes, materials, and structural features, are used to convey deeper meanings beyond their practical purposes. Symbolism in Architecture is a literary and artistic movement that uses symbols to represent ideas and convey deeper meanings. The creators communicate complex ideas and emotions indirectly, inviting viewers to engage with the work on a deeper level. It’s a common technique in literature, art, religion, culture, and architecture to add layers of depth.

Evidence of Symbolism in Ancient Indian Architecture

Symbolism played a significant role in ancient Indian architecture, reflecting the spiritual, religious, and cultural beliefs of the time.

a. Mandala Layouts

Image Credits: worldhistory.org

Many temples and architectural layouts were based on the Mandala, a geometric design symbolizing the universe. The central shrine often represented the divine center.

b. Expressive Carvings and Sculptures

Symbolism in Architecture
Image Credits: worldhistory.org

Sculptures of deities and celestial beings adorned temple exteriors, symbolizing divine protection. Elaborate carvings and sculptures depicted stories from Hindu epics like the Ramayana and Mahabharata, symbolizing the importance of religious narratives and teachings.

c. Symbolic Power of Motifs

Symbolism in Architecture
Image Credits: Wikimedia Commons

The lotus flower that means purity and the Swastika, an ancient symbol representing well-being, were often incorporated into architectural designs, especially in ancient Buddhist and Jain structures.

d. Use of Numerology

Symbolism in Architecture
Image Credits: Wikimedia Commons

The use of specific numbers in architectural elements, like the number of pillars, steps, or gates, often had symbolic meanings in alignment with religious or cultural beliefs. The Chand Baori stepwell in Abhaneri, Rajasthan, features a precise number of steps, creating a symmetrical structure that symbolises the spiritual journey associated with descending into the well.

e. Orientation of the Buildings

Image Credits: Maurice Glaize (aboutasiatravel.com)

Temple entrances were often oriented toward specific directions, symbolizing the importance of aligning with the path of the sun. Angkor Wat, Cambodia, is aligned with the cardinal points, and its central tower is precisely oriented to face the west, representing the cycle of life and death.

15 Indian Buildings That Are A Perfect Example of Symbolism in Architecture

Taj Mahal, Agra | Symbol of Love

Symbolism in Architecture
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A masterpiece of Mughal architecture and a symbol of love, the symmetrical design reflects the balance between life and death. The combination of Persian, Islamic, and Indian architectural elements symbolises cultural fusion. The gardens and water features suggest heavenly paradises, whereas the minarets, leaning slightly outward, underline protection. The overall symmetry and balance reflect cosmic harmony in this abode of love.

The Lotus Temple, New Delhi | Symbol of Purity and Enlightenment

Symbolism in Architecture
Image Credits: Tour My India

A Bahá’í House of Worship that exemplifies architectural symbolism with its lotus-like structure represents purity and enlightenment. Its nine sides and entrances solidify the belief in the house, in the number “nine”. As an inclusive space, the temple welcomes people of all backgrounds to pray and meditate, echoing the Bahá’í message of unity in diversity. Its simple and serene interior underscores the emphasis on ritual-free worship. This architectural masterpiece embodies the spiritual and inclusive values of the Bahá’í Faith.

The Khajuraho Temples, Madhya Pradesh | Symbol of Life

Symbolism in Architecture
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Situated in Khajuraho, they are a striking example of architectural symbolism. They feature intricate erotic sculptures that symbolise the celebration of life and love. The temples are laid out in a grid, symbolising a microcosm of the universe. The main temple, typically dedicated to a Hindu deity, is at the centre, while smaller temples and shrines surround it, representing the interconnectedness of the divine, human, and natural worlds.

Jaisalmer Fort, Rajasthan, India | Symbol of Power and Wealth of Rajput Rulers

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Perched atop a desert hill, formidable sandstone walls symbolise its historical role as a protective fortress. The intricate carvings, havelis, and temples within the complex represent the rich cultural heritage of Rajasthan. The fort’s golden hue harmoniously integrates with the desert surroundings, symbolising resilience in harsh conditions. As a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it continues to symbolise the enduring spirit of Rajasthan and serves as a major tourist attraction.

The Akshardham Temple, New Delhi | Symbol of Indian culture, Spirituality and Art

Symbolism in Architecture
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Dedicated to Bhagwan Swaminarayan, it embodies spiritual grandeur and reverence. Its intricate carvings and sculptures depict Hindu mythology, showcasing religious heritage and devotion. The central mandir serves as a place for meditation, and the temple complex includes cultural exhibition halls, highlighting India’s rich history and cultural diversity. Its gardens and reflecting pools symbolise harmony with nature, and the temple hosts a captivating light and sound show for storytelling and spiritual messages.

The Meenakshi Temple, Madurai | Symbol of Divine Feminism

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This magnificent temple, adorned with intricate sculptures and carvings, vividly depicts Hindu deities and spiritual narratives, symbolising the depth of Hindu faith. The thousand-pillared hall holds columns that represent various aspects of human life. Towering Gopurams serve as symbolic gateways to the spiritual land. The temple’s layout reflects a cosmic plan, and its Dravidian architecture showcases the cultural heritage of the southern part of India.

The Qutub Minar, New Delhi | Symbol of Victory of Islam

Symbolism in Architecture
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Built as a victory monument in the 12th century, it signifies the triumph of Islamic rule and the cultural shift during that period. The minaret’s intricate Islamic architecture features, like calligraphy, geometric patterns, and Islamic verses, symbolise the fusion of Islamic culture and Indian art. Its towering height emphasises the power of the Islamic rulers.

The Sanchi Stupa, Madhya Pradesh | Symbol of Life and Teachings of Lord Buddha

Symbolism in Architecture
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The stupa’s iconic hemispherical dome symbolises the cosmos. The harmika, a square railing atop the dome, represents the transition from the earthly to the spiritual realm. The finial, often adorned with symbols like the lotus, parasol, and wheel of dharma, symbolises Buddha’s enlightenment. The stupa is encircled by carved guardian railings, adorned with intricate depictions of stories from Buddha’s life. The stupa complex features four ornate gateways, called Toranas, each symbolising one of the cardinal directions.

Agra Fort, Agra | Symbol of Mughal Power and Grandeur

Symbolism in Architecture
Image Credits: Wikimedia Commons

An iconic symbol of Mughal history and architectural grandeur, it represents the historical power and rule of the Empire. The fort’s strategic location and imposing walls symbolise its military and defensive significance. Its intricate carvings, use of marble and red sandstone, and mix of Persian, Indian, and Islamic architectural styles exemplify the cultural opulence of that era. As a royal residence and political centre, it stands as a symbol of Mughal authority and governance.

Jawahar Kala Kendra, Jaipur | Symbol of Ancient Vedic Science

Symbolism in Architecture
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As a cultural centre, it personifies a commitment to preserving and promoting Rajasthan’s rich cultural heritage. Named in honour of Jawaharlal Nehru, it serves as a tribute to his vision of art and culture as essential for society. Its modernist design blends contemporary architecture with traditional elements, reflecting the harmony of old and new. The giant sun dial symbolises the importance of time and celestial rhythms in Rajasthan’s culture. The layout is inspired by the Vastu Purush Mandala, highlighting the importance of ancient Vedic science.

The Capitol Complex, Chandigarh | Symbol of the New India

Symbolism in Architecture
Image Credits: Dezeen

The design of the Capitol Complex by Le Corbusier stands as an architectural symbol of modernity, post-independence aspirations, and democratic principles. Its clean lines and functional design symbolise architectural innovation. The three main buildings within the complex represent the three branches of government, while the Open Hand Monument signifies unity and democracy. The integration of green spaces reflects harmony with the environment, and the open plazas encourage public participation. The extensive use of concrete symbolises modernity and material efficiency.

The Indian Institute of Management (IIM), Ahmedabad | Symbol of Modernity

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Louis Kahn’s design of IIM Ahmedabad is an architectural symbol of elegance and modernist design. Its use of natural materials, exposed brickwork, and abundant natural light symbolises an environment conducive to learning and intellectual growth. The interconnected buildings, open courtyards, and fusion of modernist and traditional architectural elements emphasise community, collaboration, and the enduring quality of education.

The Golden Temple, Amritsar | Symbol of Cultural Identity of Sikhs

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It stands as a profound example of architectural symbolism in Sikhism. As the holiest site for Sikhs, it symbolises their spiritual center. The gleaming Amrit Sarovar surrounding the temple reflects purity and the nectar of immortality. The temple’s gold-plated exterior represents richness and spiritual wealth. With four entrances welcoming people from all backgrounds, it embodies Sikh principles of equality and inclusivity. The temple’s design harmonises with nature, reflecting the Sikh commitment to environmental balance.

The Victoria Memorial, Kolkata | Symbol of Colonial Rule in India

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It is an architectural symbol of the British colonial legacy and its historical impact on India. It embodies the Indo-Saracenic architectural style, symbolising the cultural fusion of Indian, Islamic, and British influences during the colonial era. Serving as a museum, it houses a wealth of historical artefacts and artworks, symbolising its role as a guardian of cultural heritage. After India’s independence, the Victoria Memorial came to symbolise the end of colonial rule and the beginning of a new era in the country’s history.

The Sun Temple, Konark, Odisha | Symbol of Solar Worship in Hinduism

Symbolism in Architecture
Image Credits: Wikimedia Commons

It is an architectural marvel, symbolising the importance of solar worship in Hinduism. Its chariot-like design and intricately carved wheels represent the eternal cycle of time. The temple’s stone carvings blend art, culture, and spirituality, depicting life, mythology, and Hindu deities. The temple exemplifies the architectural brilliance of the Kalinga dynasty and is a testament to Odisha’s cultural heritage and its historical contributions to art and architecture.

10 Ways to Add Symbolism in Architecture Design

1. The Orientation of a Building

For example, aligning a building with the rising or setting sun can mean enlightenment or a connection to the natural world.

2. Incorporating Architectural Elements

Elements such as arches, columns, or domes that carry historical or cultural symbolism can be added. For example, Roman arches can symbolize strength and stability.

3. Symbolic Materials and Textures

Pick textures and materials that can add some narrative to a space. For example, wood can represent warmth and natural beauty, while concrete may symbolise strength and modernity.

4. Sculptures or statues

When placed around a building, they can represent specific individuals, ideas, or cultural values. For instance, statues of historical figures can celebrate a city’s heritage.

5. Colour Scheme

It can bring symbolic meaning to a design. Vibrant colours may symbolise creativity and energy, while muted tones can signify sophistication and elegance.

6. Incorporate geometric patterns or motifs

For instance, a lattice pattern can symbolise privacy and protection.

7. Play with Light

Use natural light and shadow to create symbolism. Stained glass windows in religious buildings can symbolise spirituality, while stippled sunlight filtering through trees can evoke a sense of serenity.

8. Landscaping

Use landscaping to complement architectural symbolism. Water features can symbolise purification, while lush gardens can represent growth and fertility.

9. Sustainable Design Elements

Incorporate design elements from specific cultures or historical periods to symbolise a connection to that heritage. For example, Greek columns can evoke notions of democracy and classical ideals.

10. Embracing Biomimicry

Biomimicry in architecture symbolises a harmonious coexistence with nature, translating the efficiency and beauty found in natural forms into meaningful built environments.

Symbolism enhances communication, enabling the expression of complex ideas, emotions, and cultural values that shape our perceptions and relationships with the world. It connects us to our heritage, beliefs, and shared human experiences, fostering a sense of unity. Symbolism in Architecture is also governing the modern buildings in India by influencing the design choices of architects and designers. They have started incorporating symbols and elements that convey cultural identity, environmental consciousness, and societal values.

Symbolism in architecture serves as a narrative thread, intricately weaving the story of a community’s history and character. Consider a community centre designed with symbolic elements. The building’s facade may incorporate cultural motifs, reflecting the diverse heritage of the community. Whereas, the choice of materials might align with the community’s environmental values.

And as architect Kenzo Tange says, “There is a powerful need for symbolism, and that means the architecture should have something that appeals to the human heart.

Content writing and research by Ar. Ishita Jindal

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