Why the BJP need not be allergic to domes; they existed well before Islam

The dome — often credited to the ancient Greeks — existed in a rudimentary form even in ancient India, say experts.

ByPavan Korada

Published Feb 14, 2023 | 9:30 AM Updated Feb 14, 2023 | 10:32 AM

Telangana secretariat dome

Are domes on buildings symbolic of just the Nizam of Hyderabad, or do they reflect other cultures as well?

Telangana BJP president Bandi Sanjay Kumar believes it is the former — and thus a “symbol of slavery” — and has promised to demolish the recently-built “domes” on Telangana’s new secretariat building if his party were to gain control of the state.

Scholars disagree. While most say the origins of the dome can be traced to the ancient Greeks, some contend that, in fact, the architectural history of the design in India goes back even further.

“Dome-like features, say a prototype of the dome, had become a key feature of Indian architecture even before the Mughals arrived,” said Prof Sita Rama Lakshmi, associate professor, School of Planning, CSI Institute of Technology, Secunderabad.

Prof Mohsin Raza Khan, of the Department of History and Economics at OP Jindal University, said Bandi Sanjay’s viewpoint was “typical of the BJP” — a party that attacks domes by linking it to Islamic architecture.

“We have to understand that with this statement Sanjay is resorting to divisive symbolism,” he said.

Also Read: Will demolish dome of new secretariat building, says Bandi Sanjay

Greeks to Renaissance

The evolution of domes is a fascinating story that spans thousands of years and encompasses numerous cultures, traditions, and architectural styles, and dates back to the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia, Greece, and Rome.

In the 4th century BCE, the Greeks built “dome-like” structures, the “tholos” or the circular temple, said Prof Khan.

Tholos of Mycenae (Wikimedia Commons)

Tholos of Mycenae (Wikimedia Commons)

“The Greeks were the first to experiment with the dome,” he told South First. “However, it was the Romans who were known for their innovative use of domes in architectural design.”

Prof Khan was referring to the Romans from the eastern part of their empire, also known as the Byzantine Empire, which emerged in the 4th century CE.

“During this period, the dome became an important symbol of the Christian faith and was used extensively in churches and basilicas throughout the empire,” he said.

All this dome-building predates Islam — born in the early 7th Century CE — by centuries.

One of the most famous examples of Byzantine dome architecture is the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey.

He mentioned that during the Renaissance too, the dome became a popular architectural element in both religious and secular buildings.

“Renaissance architects, such as Bramante and Michelangelo, experimented with new forms of dome construction, creating structures that were both aesthetically pleasing and functional,” he added.

The dome of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome is one of the most famous examples of Renaissance dome architecture.

Also Read: Mysuru’s dome row pits BJP MLA, MP against each other

Domes in India

Sanchi Stupa in Madhya Pradesh

Sanchi Stupa in Madhya Pradesh (Wikimedia Commons)

Dome-like structure existed in ancient India, said Prof Lakshmi.

“Ancient Buddhist stupas like the Maha Bodhi temple in Bodh Gaya in Bihar and Sanchi Stupa in Madhya Pradesh are some of the earliest examples of the use of dome-like architecture in India,” she told South First.

“In Indian architecture, dome-like structures are commonly referred to as ‘gumbaz’ or ‘chhatri’,” she said; the first refers to domes in Islamic architecture, while the latter is typically used for similar structures in Hindu architecture.

Secretariat: Styles Blend

So how does one describe the architectural style of the newly-constructed BR Ambedkar Secretariat Complex in Hyderabad?

To Oscar Concessao of the architectural firm Oscar and Ponni Concessao, the design is “predominantly Classical Deccan Kshatriya”, and yet is a “fusion”.

“The overall design philosophy and the exterior architectural character and style are a fusion of the diverse cultures of the dynamic history of Telangana,” he told the media.

Concessao felt the structure blended the architectural style of Telangana and the Neelakanteshwara temple located close to Hyderabad, and Wanaparthy Palace.

“The design symbolises the secular and heritage continuity of contextual architecture,” he added.

Dome & the Indian Connection

Hagia Sophia

Hagia Sophia Istanbul (Wikimedia Commons)

The question that arises is, is there anything Indian about the dome? Or has the concept been imported in totality?

“It depends on what narrative lens one uses to see these things,” said Prof Khan.

“The BJP has always tried to push the colonisation narrative beyond the British period all the way up to the 13th century, when the first Delhi Sultanate was established by Qutb-Ud-Din-Aibak, thereby introducing a religious element into history to show that everything before the British arrival was not Indian. They are doing this to serve their narrow political interests,” Khan added.

St. Peter's Basilica in Rome

St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome (Wikimedia Commons)

“The massive dome style of architecture we see now was not indigenous to India. The Mughals brought this from Turkey and Persia. In the early days of Hindu architecture, ‘dome-like’ (prototype) structures were typically small and simple, and were often used to crown shrines and temples,” noted Prof Lakshmi.

“However, the Mughals, as part of settling in this part of the world, were forced to assimilate existing and imported local styles of architecture,” she told South First.

“Moreover, since they were also establishing their political power, they introduced a unique blend of Indian, Persian and Turkish architectural styles, which included the use of large, bulbous domes decorated with intricate patterns and geometric shapes,” Prof Lakshmi added.

Dome Politics

As for Bandi Sanjay’s comment, both professors felt that it smacked of unnecessary politicisation.

“In terms of the utility of the domes or dome-like structures, one needs to investigate the structure for their usefulness and not just the aesthetics. But to object to the structure solely as foreign, I feel, is unnecessary.

Telangana secretariat

Telangana secretariat (Supplied)

“In fact, in terms of inclusivity, I think it is a good thing to include eclectic architectural influences, be they Hindu, Buddhist or even Islamic,” Prof Lakshmi said.

Prof Khan sees shades of Babri Masjid in the comment.

“To my mind it is very clear that he is alluding to the razing of that other dome in Ayodhya on 6 December, 1992, which gave the BJP its first taste of mass political success,” he said.

“They are trying to replicate the same tactic in Telangana and I think it is extremely problematic.”