The Torana in Indian and Southeast Asian Architecture

Article excerpt

The Torana in Indian and Southeast Asian Architecture. By PARUL PANDYA DHAR. New Delhi: D. K. PRINTWORLD, 2009. Pp. xviii + 317, illus. Rs. 4200, $140.

A torana (as defined in the glossary of Dhar's book on the topic) is an "arched portal or festoon." This seemingly simple definition hardly suggests the variety and importance of the torana in the architecture of India and Southeast Asia. Yet any more detailed definition would require hundreds of pages of text illustrated with hundreds of examples, and indeed, this is what Parul Dhar has produced in her book on the topic.

She has divided her study into five chapters: chapter 1 focuses on the earliest toranas (ca. 300-500 C.E.); chapter 2 is a brief chapter on references to the use and types of torana in a selection of literary and textual sources; chapter 3 is a survey of toranas in South Indian architecture; chapter 4 is a survey of wraps in North Indian architecture; and chapter 5 surveys torapas in the architecture of Southeast Asia. The book is an extended typology that traces the development of the torana with representative examples moving from early to later time periods and within these by geographical locations. Such surveys are standard for outlining the general contours of broad art historical periods, including surveys of an entire culture's art history. These broad surveys suffer by being able to include only a small sampling of the art, with the resultant time gaps and lack of artistic relationships, and are limited in the illustrations that can be shown.

The reason Dhar's survey works so well is that it is organized around an enormous number of very nicely printed illustrations. I count some 359 illustrations, and there are in addition some 60 drawings. Thus, she is rarely talking about something that cannot be seen. In this regard the publisher has done an excellent job of laying out the art and the text. The illustration of the object being discussed is usually placed on the same page as the text describing it. The large number of toranas illustrated allows for a continuous developmental series with no chronological gaps. The survey also works because the topic is focused on an architecture element that can usually be illustrated completely.

The text that accompanies the illustrations is clear and well organized. It is almost entirely descriptive. Dhar does not propose any reasons or theories as to why the torana was so important in Indian and Southeast Asian architecture. Nor is there discussion of why the torana maintained some of its features, such as the depiction of the makara, as a primary element in the torana over thousands of years. In the book's lack of analytical discussion it maintains its value as a descriptive survey. Indeed, the extensive fieldwork sets up the topic for others to pursue.

A torana can be freestanding, much as a gateway, simply two upright columns with one or more crossbars. The crossbars of a freestanding torana are usually high enough to allow a person on a horse or elephant, or for carts to pass through, and are placed at entrances of both religious and secular structures. A torana can also be carved in relief on outer walls of a monument, often over a doorway or niche. They can also be placed as separate designs on walls. A torana can also be placed around an image, either as a freestanding frame or carved in relief. These are only some of the forms the torana can take. Likewise, the designs on the toranas are varied. Dhar has identified a number of design types based on references of types she has found in literature, inscriptions, and texts and on her fieldwork of the monuments. …