The Golden Lands by Vikram Lall
In his recent book on architecture of Buddhist world, Vikram Lall weaves a historical narrative of its architectural traditions.
Buddhist architectural heritage hasn’t really engaged us except for our touristic outings and other recreational activities. While history of the faith is analysed, understood and followed the world over, its architecture somehow bypassed our attention largely. But architect Vikram Lall is fixated on this aspect of Buddhism and has been researching it for years now. The principal architect and partner of Lall & Associates, Lall launched “The Golden Lands”, a book describing the history, styles, and interpretation of Buddhist temples, monasteries, and ancient monuments across Southeast Asia. It was released last year in London, Brussels, Hong Kong, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur. In India, it was launched by Buddhist leader Dalai Lama.
At India International Exhibition, Lodi Estate, Lall is currently holding an exhibition of some of the photographs from the book. A book discussion also took place alongside with the likes of Lokesh Chandra, Kapila Vatsyayan, S.C.Mallik, Shyam Sharan and Nalini Thakur. Lall, who has designed buildings like Akshardham Temple and Buddha Smriti Park in Patna, takes a few questions about his pet project on email. Edited excerpts from the interview:
Do you think Buddhist architectural heritage got overshadowed by the faith or never understood properly?
Indeed, while there are several works on Buddhism’s philosophy and history as well as on its art and archaeology, there are very few exclusively on its architectural traditions. The architectural understanding of its important monuments is low but most importantly there is negligible work done so far on constructing a historical narrative of its architectural traditions. As Buddhism spread out of India to diverse regions from Afghanistan to Japan, deep cultural connections were formed between these places – and its architectural traditions can be truly understood if we look at all of them together, holistically. And this is what I have been endeavouring to do over the years.
In India so much more attention has been given to tombs and palaces of the Moghuls and Rajput kings and temples of Central and South India in comparison to the thousand years of architectural history that existed abundantly, though now mostly in ruins.
As a consequence Buddhist architectural heritage, has lost its sense of meaning and context and is being packaged as tourist attractions or picnic spots, much as the head of Buddha serves as an icon of spas and massage parlours. Architectural remains of Buddhist monuments serve as isolated settings for tourism – or cinematic settings for song and dance sequences in Hindi films.
This is not a diatribe against the neglect and misuse of Buddhism heritage but about the absence of sufficient architectural knowledge of the built environment that was shaped by Buddhism. And this is the project that I have started, though quixotic, to make a comprehensive narrative of architecture of Buddhism.
How does it hold its own among other architectural styles that preceded or succeeded it?
The architectural traditions of Buddhism are rooted in the architecture of its own times and that which preceded it. In stylistic terms there is more in common between what has been labelled as Hindu or Buddhist or Jain architecture as they all emerge from the same pool of speculative thought, cosmology and patterns of patronage — which are universal. However, their buildings were influenced by local architectural traditions of places where they were conceived. And Buddhism has spread to places that often had varied building traditions such as Japan and Myanmar.
How much of the philosophy of Buddhism is evident in its architecture and what are its most common traces?
In fact, architecture in the Indic context is a very sophisticated concept that can be read entirely as the representation of philosophy and speculative thought — it is first and foremost an attempt to manifest the idea of reality. Several architectural devises such as the notion of centre and axis-mundi, the cosmic diagrams of the mandalas, the cosmic mountain and the ideas of accession towards higher consciousness and the inter-connectedness of elements underline the design of these monuments and can be traced to these monuments across Southeast Asia and elsewhere.
Is the effort solely aimed at understanding the Buddhist architecture or are we looking at Buddhism through it?
I would like to distinguish my work as not on Buddhist architecture but on the architecture of the Buddhist World where I attempt to explain the history and theory of architecture of several such monuments that have been shaped by the philosophy and practice of Buddhism in different cultures. But it is more than just decoding individual monuments. It attempts to tell a complete story and build a narrative of the evolution of architectural ideas — of their beginnings in India and their travels across, along with monks, to several countries and their changes and transformation and rebirth and reincarnations in those countries. It is a way to understand the material of Buddhism and in that sense also a window to its philosophy and practice.
It is also an attempt to address a larger issue of architectural historiography in India — where an architect seldom writes its history. Writing the history of Indian architecture has generally been undertaken by historians and archaeologists whose disciplinary perspective has shaped our understanding of buildings of the past, which often remains inadequate both for understanding its complete meaning as well as for developing strategies of architectural conservation. I have therefore looked at buildings not only in terms of its age and stylist appearances — organised in art-historical frameworks, like archaeologist and art historians — but as architectural products answering the logic of construction material and technology and addressing the functional necessities of its purpose.
It wouldn’t have been possible to include each and every Buddhist structure. What guided your selection in the book?
To grasp the cultural dynamism of over 2000 years spread across over 20 countries, I have surveyed numerous monuments and over time built a comprehensive repository of buildings. Of these only those monuments have been selected and presented in the book that exemplify the architectural narratives that I am building. Each of these monuments have been documented not only through photographs and traditional drawings of plan, elevation and sections but also by modelling them on computers as virtual models — these models can be instantly upgraded as and when more research is undertaken — and is one of key features of my ongoing study.
Have you planned more books?
My work is organised according to cultural landscapes within which countries have been grouped based on a few key parameters — all of which go beyond the limitation of defining culture within political boundaries. So I have 6 groups – Southeast Asia (covering Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Indonesia), Indic region (covering India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka), The mountains (covering Bhutan, Sikkim, Tibet, Nepal, and Mongolia), The Sinosphere (China, Japan, and Korea) The Silk Route, and The contemporary sites (India and western world). Part of this research is being published, in six volumes called “Architecture of the Buddhist World” with each of them devoted to a cultural region. The present book “The Golden Lands” focuses on Southeast Asia.