INDIAN CULTURE & DESIGNPencil-sharpening and procrastination must be the twin banes of anyone attempting to write anything that endeavors to embrace India in its entirety. It just is not possible. Even the great travel writers have been floored by the extraordinary cornucopia that is India: writers such as Hsuan Tsang from seventh-century China, the Frenchmen Bernier in the seventeenth century and Rousselet in the twentieth, and the Englishmen Colonel Todd, Bishop Heber and Kipling in the nineteenth century, to name only a few. All have been amazed and exhilarated by the diversity of India, and by its wondrous buildings and the exquisite skills of its painters, decorators and craftsmen and women. Not least among these travelers was the American writer Mark Twain, who journeyed to India in the late nineteenth century to describe it for a curious audience back home. In the end, Mark Twain concluded that no less ambitious a title than 'India- the Land of Wonders' would suffice.
India's history is so wide-ranging and ancient as to be overwhelming: archaeological excavations in Gujarat have revealed evidence of settlements dating back to 3000 BC; indeed, India contains the oldest living city in the world, the holy Hindu city of Varanasi. Whereas most of the world's continents can boast one major empire or civilization, India has bred a multitude, including the great Buddhist empire of Ashoka and the medieval Hindu empire in the south. From the sixteenth century, the great Mughal dynasty reigned from Delhi in the north, before the British arrived to make Calcutta in the east- the second city of their world empire. Only since 1947 has India been its own unified master.
All this history and culture are bounded by one of the longest coastlines in the world. Within this natural boundary lies a breathtaking variety of landscapes and habitats, including the world's highest mountains and areas of greatest rainfall; parched deserts and teeming rainforests; great rivers that meander so shallowly to the coast that each year they devastating floods; arcadian pockets such as the valley of Kashmir, sitting in the cupped palms of the Himalayas; miles of coastline that produce one of the great staples of life, salt; and fertile lands that grow spices for the world and which in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries attracted the attentions of European maritime adventures like bees to a honey pot.
Much of India's culture and wealth has been influenced and created by trade and the subcontinent has for centuries been criss-crossed by trade-routes. One of the most famous, still in existence after hundreds of years and now more congested than ever, is the 'Grand Trunk Road' which crosses the country from the Pakistan border in the west to Calcutta in the east. Nor were trade routes confined to the land, for India also boasts an ancient tradition of navigation on the high seas, with redoubtable merchant adventurers developing huge fortunes. The togas worn by Roman senators were made from Indian cotton and scraps of cloth of Indian origin dating from around the ninth century have been found in Lower Egypt; much later, some of the battleships for Nelson's Trafalgar fleet were built in India from Indian wood. Not surprisingly, foreign merchants and adventurers yearned to investigate the source of this trade and discovered the wealth they presumed it must have created. Thus, it was that trade, with its accompanying exposure to the wider world and to other societies and cultures, attracted waves of the inquisitive and the avaricious- including the Mughal, Portuguese, Dutch, French and British- over hundreds of years.
Such epic comings and goings have left their mark on India and are most immediately visible in the country's architectural legacy: Lord Curzon, British viceroy from 1898-1905, declared that India possessed 'the greatest galaxy of monuments in the world'. Today, its architecture encompasses an extraordinary variety of forms and styles, reflecting differences in climate and religion, as well as the legacy of numerous invaders and colonizers. Before these cultural and physical invasions, however, India had already developed its own distinctive styles. Examples of these are evident in the painted caves of Ajanta from the Buddhist period (3rd to 5th centuries AD) or the Hindu southern capital of Vijayanagara (1350-1565 AD). But so much of India's distinctive architecture owes its unique character to a cross- fertilization of cultures, marrying the Mughal with the Rajput, Muslim concepts with Hindu craftsmanship, Hindu styles with British tastes. The results of this cultural journey now encompass architectural extremes, from the simplest of human habitations, the indigenous roundhouse, to the ultimate in sophistication, elegance and artistry, as represented by the Mughal Taj Mahal. Perhaps more than any other country, India has absorbed a huge diversity of cultural influences, subtly adapting them to its own needs, at the same time without diluting that inherited a sense of a special Indian identity.
The Indian creative canvas, with its constantly shifting cultural nuances, has found expression in every conceivable material, metamorphosing the basic components of stone, wood, mud, iron and paper into a staggering variety of expressions of human delight and exuberance. Religion has been the catalyst for much of this adventure into decoration, in the form of the Hindu temple, the Muslim mosque, the Buddhist shrine and the Christian church. And secular influences have indulged no less in the art of ornamentation, conspiring to elicit flamboyant acts of collective extravagance from a people who individually have tended to be rather sober and respectful.
Ornamentation finds further expression through colour, which in India is used in vivid, kaleidoscopic fashion. Colour is applied to virtually every imaginable human creation, from the mundane to the most refined. In the spring festival of Holi, it is even used to celebrate life itself, as Day-Glow pink powders are flung about with wild, raucous abandon in a huge nationwide celebration. During Diwali, the Festival of lights, many millions of fireworks explode in iridescent rainbow colours as, not satisfied with colouring the earth, Indians set out to paint the heavens as well. Colour is everywhere in India, both physically and metaphysically. Entire towns or cities may be painted in a single colour, such as the blue of Jodhpur in Rajasthan, an earthly echo of the colour of the blue god Krishna. Saffron is the colour of religious asceticism, white of mourning. Colour is also used as a form of identification, as in the beautiful turbans of Rajasthan. At annual cattle and camel festivals, the many thousands of people who gather from all over western India can deduce from a single glance at the colour and pattern of a man's turban not only the district he comes from but even the village.
One of the greatest and most profound expressions colour in India is to be found in its textiles. And yet again, India compounds the difficulties that face anyone attempting an overview of this tradition, with an apparently infinite number of forms, styles and uses evolved over millenia. Great centres of textile production have sprung up all over India and some locations such as Kashmir for its shawls, southern India for its silks, Varanasi for its silk sarees etc. Gujarat in the north-west is another historic centre, producing textiles that were lauded across the worldas far back as 15th century. Bespoke products were made for the various international markets and textiles created for the Mughal court in Delhi and the royal families of Thailand, Burma and China attained the most exquisite heights of refinement and sophistication. European demand was so great that Italian, French and British adventurers established thriving trading houses in Gujarat in order to satisfy the requirements of their aristocratic clients. So delicate were Indian muslins that when laid on grass at dawn they might be mistaken for dew and some shawls were so fine that they could be drawn through a ring taken from a slender finger. Today, Varanasi is renowned for its hand-woven Benares silk brocades, Jaipur is famed for its hand block-printed fabrics and the district of Kutch in Gujarat is noted for its exquisite embroideries.
Along with the textile trade, there developed many other artistic and creative crafts, including carpet- weaving, wood-carving, brass work, stone carving and pottery. Carved wood was used all over India, but most particularly in Gujarat and Ahmedabad, where it was worked with exquisite intricacy and applied to the great merchants' houses or havelis. In this city with its almost equal populations of Hindus and Muslims, craftsmen from both communities vied with each other in both the craftsmanship and the artistry of their designs, producing remarkable feats of wood-carving. Elevated standards were also attained in the marble masonry work inlaid with precious stones that was perfected in Agra and which is displayed not only in the magnificent Taj Mahal but also in the small and proportioned tomb of Itmad-ud-daulah. Nothing short of sublime, this monument is encrusted with a decorative inlay of cornelian, jasper, lapis lazuli, malachite and other stones, while the designs of the fašade echo -the beautiful garden that surrounds it. Virtuoso marble masons transformed great sheets of white marble into the fine fretwork of jalis (pierced screens) which create dream-like patterns of dappled light within the enclosed verandas.
The crafts of India are the creation of generations of families who over the centuries have honed their particular art to remarkable heights of refinement. Typically, sons were introduced to their fathers' speciality from a young age. In due course, taking over the bulk of the work and the responsibility for supporting family and parents, retirement was the signal for the older generation to start work on their magnum opus, a labour of many years, which when finished was worthy of the gods themselves.
It is these craftspeople who are the heroes of India's creative heart. They, more than anyone, have created the look of India today, through a myriad of architectural masterpieces and fine works of art. And they have made not only the monumental but also the domestic and practical. India looks at this extraordinary abundance of creativity as seen in the Indian home and its interiors, designs and decorations. It focuses on one particular area of the subcontinent, stretching from the Arabian Sea to a point in the low foothills of the Himalayas and taking in Gujarat, Rajasthan and Delhi. It is route that provides a wealth of breathtaking imagery from the graceful halls of Samode (Rajasthan) to the stunning facades of the grand mansions of Shekhawati (Rajasthan), and from the tribal roundhouses of Kutch to the sophistication of a contemporary Delhi residence.
Rudyard Kipling described the Taj Mahal as the 'Ivory gate through which all dreams pass'. The same may be true of any dwelling place, however grand or humble. Superb India Tours, during your India travel, will unfold before you the diversity and exuberance of Indian interior, a constantly evolving synthesis of India past and present.