Facilitating understanding of architecture for children in its social and political context – Rulers and Buildings

There is this fascinating chapter in Our Pasts, the NCERT history textbook for class VII titled ‘Rulers and Buildings’. It tries to contextualize art and architecture in terms of its political and social import. Number of important features are highlighted to underscore the fact that monuments and buildings were built by monarchs across India, across religious denominations to make political statements. Some of the aspects that this chapter highlights are the following (the last one is my own reading which can also be added since coins can themselves be seen in terms of its artistic attributes) :

a. Access, controlling and facilitating water supply….

b. Building places of worship, palaces and monuments in all grandeur which invokes the monarch’s claimed proximity to the divine …

c. Incorporating symbols and methods of architecture from different cultures to indicate accommodation and tolerance…i.e. use of brackets in pillars by Mughals which was influenced by the brackets seen in Hindu temples or the use of Chattris which was basically a Rajput architectural feature…

d. Facilitating trade and monetizing trade through minting of coins with the king’s image and insignia

The above features can in simple terms describe the ways in which powerful kings and dynasties across time in India sought to legitimize their regimes. These symbolic means were used by the rulers across the world and not just India to sustain their authority invoking means other than use of overt force and terror. This in fact is one point I have been making repeatedly to underscore the fact that many aspects of what we term as culture – religion, art, architecture is not unconnected from the discourse of power and therefore in history we cannot look at the domain of culture as being autonomous from economic, social and political context. Despite the effort made in the NCERT textbooks towards this end, the understanding that culture is independent and separate from the domain of politics and power, from what I gather from interactions with both teachers and students, continues to hold its sway. This is of course not to suggest that everything about art and architecture are reducible to the discourse of power. The execution of many of the monuments with its unique architectural features truly reflect the refined artistic capabilities and sensibilities of both the ruling classes as well as the labouring classes who toiled to create such magnificent monuments. But the larger picture should not be lost sight of in our eulogizing of their aesthetics.

After highlighting the above features and aspects of monarchy, the teacher can use two activity sheets which I have included to reinforce these basic ideas. The first one is to ensure that students have read the text carefully describing some of the architectural principles that the Mughals followed in constructing their forts and palaces and designing their towns. For example the fact that Diwan i am is West facing is anomalous for as the chapter says Shahjahan built Diwan-i-am facing East so that as in prayers when Muslims pray towards West he positioned himself in that direction to make his connection with the divine telling to the people. And likewise the nobility were denied access to the river save Dara Sikoh.  

The second worksheet comprises of numerous photographs which are making statements about the linkages between the political rule and engineering and architectural feats accomplished and facilitated by these rulers. One can make copies of these and ask students, individually or in groups to determine which of these pictures are connected to the features and aspects (summarized above and to be discussed and debated with kids before hand) given in the chapter. Many features also overlap.  It would, rather a teacher should, in the process of adding more meat to this fascinating chapter also, possibly through power point presentation, highlight some of the important monuments, temples and forts of India and its architectural merits. – i.e. parts of a temple, structure of a fort, features of Sarcenic architecture, the Hindu and Buddhist influence on Sarcenic architecture etc.  If such a presentation precedes this activity, this worksheet which also involves highlighting the names of these monuments and places as well, would help the students to make their task easier.

My idea here is also to help kids to enable abstract thinking and arriving at more complex reading of history going beyond using mnemonic approach of highlighting and writing features in neatly stated ‘points’ and going beyond memorization.

 Activity sheet 1                                      Activity sheet 2

(Some formating error may occur on google doc but once you download in MS Word, matters should be fine...)