World History Through Architecture: History Carved in Stone

In our World History Through Architecture class, students have been exploring how buildings in history, reflect both by their inherent structural design and in reliefs on the monuments themselves, a particular worldview and moment in history.

What do we mean? Here is a practical example.

In this class, we use the History Quest: Early Times to explore select moments in world history. In the chapter on early India, we explored the ancient city of Mohenjo-daro, which went back to 2,600 BC. Then, we jumped forward to explore India with the arrival of the Aryans — bringing with them the caste system and Hinduism. More recent in time, Buddhism was founded in India by the person of Siddhartha Gautama, born in the 6th century BC.

Stupa No. 3 at Sanchi attribution CC BY 2.0

Nowadays, it’s not unusual to see an image of Buddha in Pottery Barn – or even on the dashboard of a car. Many people think images of Buddha go way back in time, perhaps illustrating that the Buddha wanted people to worship him. In our class, we discussed that this was not the case at all. Near Bhopal, India, at the site known as Sanchi, there are several stupas, which are mound-shaped reliquaries — places to hold the relics of a revered individual. Very early on, in the Buddhist monument of the Great Stupa at Sanchi (featured image in post), symbols such as footprints, wheels, or a canopy under a Bodhi tree where Buddha gained enlightenment were often used to represent Buddha; the human form was not used to depict him until much later. Relics of the Buddha were held in the stupa iteself until Ashoka took them out in 3rd century BC. The stories highlighting Buddha, Ashoka, and other figures were carved in 4 cardinal gates that surround the structure. Participants would walk around the stupas in meditation, contemplating the teachings of Buddha. The complex was enlarged to over time by a variety of rulers. Siddhartha Gautama taught that to be relieved of suffering in this world, people needed to cut out their desires. He had personal integrity in this as he was a prince who renounced his nobility after seeing suffering in the world.

Here are a few of the reliefs at Sanchi which depict several symbolic representations of Buddha.

Depiction of Buddha as footprints
Depiction of Buddha as a wheel (dharmachakra)*
Enlightenment of the Buddha, Buddha symbolized by the Pipal tree and the rectangular throne below it*

In considering monuments throughout history, an opportunity is provided to see history from another point of view. To better understand how people in various time periods viewed the world, an exploration of iconography choices tell a lot about both technology and worldview.

World History Class: Student Work

Below are a few student examples of our recreation of this historic and iconic monument from the age of early Buddhism in India. Using clay, students made miniature monuments of the Great Stupa. Noora and Noureen did an amazing job with their models!

If you are looking for a hands-on middle school class, check out our second semester! We will head to the Middle Ages to explore history — through looking at the buildings!

* Starred images plus featured image (top) by Biswarup Ganguly, CC BY 3.0

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