Ancient World

The Persian Empire

From the Achaemenid Empire, established by Cyrus the Great, to the Parthian and the Sasanian Empires before Islam took over modern-day Iran, the Persian Empire flourished far and wide.

By: Priya Narayan

The Persian Empire was centred in modern-day Iran. Over the centuries, a series of imperial dynasties ruled the region. It all started when Cyrus the Great united two Iranian tribes – the Medes and the Persians – to establish his rule in 550 BC, marking the birth of the Achaemenid Empire. The empire expanded far and wide. He took over Media, Lydia and Babylon and conquered regions right up to Egypt in the west and India in the East.

The art and architecture of Ancient Persia were influenced by the works of neighbouring empires of Rome, Greece and Egypt to name a few. Magnificent palaces, columned halls, striking towers and high terraces characterised the architecture. Unfortunately, these structures faced destruction especially with Alexander the Great’s decision to burn Persepolis.


Achaemenid Empire

The Achaemenid Empire that was established by Cyrus the Great, focused mainly on constructing larger and more exquisite structures than their predecessors. The grand palaces consisted of sculptures and reliefs that depicted royalty and supernatural creatures. Bas-reliefs and sculptures glorifying the king have also been found in the streets within the empire. Elegant columns inspired by Greek architecture are also significant features of this era.

The city of Pasargadae is important when it comes to the Achaemenid Empire since it was the capital. Not just that. Some of the more important structures were built on this site. These include Cyrus the Great’s tomb, the Citadel, an extensive audience hall and parks with bridges and open-columned pavilions. What is unique about this site is that it was built in such a way that it could withstand massive earthquakes – up to a magnitude of 7.0 on the Richter scale.

Parthian Empire

The empire was followed by the Parthian invasion. They took over Persia and conquered Mesopotamia, extending their reign as far as Turkey. The empire was located on the Silk Road which enabled trade between central Asia and Europe.

The architecture of the Parthian Empire was influenced by the Achaemenid and Greek architecture, yet it had its distinct features. The Round Hall of Nisa serves as an example of the same. While it is similar to Hellenistic palaces in terms of the incorporation of marble statues and carved ivory, it differs in form and structure.

The iwan is another interesting Parthian contribution. Although they were built even during the Achaemenid Empire, it was the Parthians who built these structures on a large scale. Iwans were audience halls with arches, barrel walls, columns and support roofs. One of the oldest is located at Seleucia.


Sasanian Empire

The Sasanian Empire followed afterward and it was the last Iranian Empire before the rise of Islam. The empire spread up to Syria and north-west India. However, their artworks have been discovered even in Central Asia, China and France.

Much of Sasanian architecture influenced Islamic structures later on. Innumerable iwans were built during this period, especially in the capital city of Ctesiphon. The Palace of Sarvestan was also considered a grand and unique structure in terms of the techniques employed in its construction.

The architecture of this period was characterised by distinctive use of spaces, unique panels and motifs, mosaic decorations and paintings that decorated the walls, ceilings and floors of buildings.

The Iranians were the ones who revolutionised the construction of domes. While it was difficult to set semi-circular domes on top of square buildings, the Iranians designed octagonal buildings which would make it easier to rest the domes on. These domes were distinguished for their height, form and proportion. While the inner halls were large and spacious, the outer surface was decorated with mosaic art work.

The Persian Empire was unique when compared to other civilisations. It was vast and its structures were beautifully designed with great importance given to architecture, art and poetry. Moreover, the presence of many emperors over such a short span led to development and also a mix of many cultures which is evident in their structures.


Persian Art

Persian Art had a very close relationship with poetry, religious and philosophical thinking which is evident in their style and themes. It was unique and dealt with themes such as the meaning of life and man’s struggle for survival. They depicted his desires and aspirations and his need to see life with security, self-confidence and great inner strength.

Arab Conquest of Iran

The Arab conquest of Persia happened in stages. They first attacked Mesopotamia, the political and economic capital, in 633 AD when the region was still under the Sasanian rule, but eventually lost control to Persian counter-attacks. The second invasion in 636 AD marked the end of the Sasanian Empire in west Iran. What was left of the empire was wiped out in 651 AD with a third invasion. The Persians were forced to flee with Islam becoming increasingly prevalent in Iran and the neighbouring regions.




The major religion that was followed in Persia was Zoroastrianism. The founder of the religion, Zoroaster divided early gods based on his religious philosophy. Zoroastrianism was as spiritual as it was religious. It influenced many religious systems that followed it. However, today, the population of Zoroastrians has diminished to about 2.6 million most of who live in India and Iran.

A Walk Down The Great Wall

A Walk Down The Great Wall

From the Great Wall to the Silk Road, from mausoleumsto pagodas, Ancient China stands for beauty, symmetry and tenacity.

By : Priya Narayan

Ancient China was never as popular as certain other civilisations like the Indus Valley or the Greek or the Roman ones, but its history and culture are so


intriguing that it’s just as important. It all started on the banks of Huang He or the Yellow river where the first settlements emerged and gradually made way to dynasties. Some cultures also developed along the Yangtze river.

Ancient China is characterised by its unique architecture which reflects its rich culture and heritage. With architecture and culture forming a close relation, most buildings contained cultural connotations and knowing the culture helpsus understand their structure and design better. The dynasties that ruled included Shang, Zhou, Qin, Han and Tang dynasties to name a few and they contributed greatly to the construction of these structures.

Right up to the Han dynasty, timber was one of the primary materials used for construction. They incorporated paintings and carvings for a more exquisite look. The builders also perfected the art of earth ramming and learnt how to fire tiles and use stone in structures.

Unlike many other dynasties, buildings constructed during the Song dynasty were more beautiful and rich in diversity. Although built on a smaller scale, the structures were created on more complex models, making them more fascinating. Their unique style and composition is what makes Chinese architecture stand out even today.

Religious Structures

The Ancient Chinese believed in the after-life and spent a lot of time wondering about the same. They started constructing grand mausoleums, located according to feng-shui,so that they could live comfortably even after they died. Altars and temples were also built as ceremonial sites for offering prayers and sacrifices. Pagodas, important Buddhist features native to India, were octagonal towers which served a similar function as Buddhist stupas.

The structures were flexible and elegant, designed with gorgeous ornaments. The ancient buildings consisted of columns, beams and purlins and mainly used wood. Wood enabled a kind of flexibility to the structures. Dougong, one of the most important characteristics of ancient Chinese architecture was a design found only in China. The structures also had rare designs for roofs and corners and overhanging eaves which were not only pleasing to the eye but also very functional.


Symmetry in structure

Ancient Chinese architecture also comprised building complexes with palaces, temples and folk houses. They centred on courtyards. No two sceneries were ever the same and you can observe the change as you walk into different parts of a single building. The builders had an axis-centred principle which made the buildings look quite symmetrical from all sides. This goes on to show the emphasis the Chinese laid on harmony and symmetry.

The flexible, functional, symmetrical structures were nothing less than beautiful. To add to it, the architects used ornaments to make the buildings more colourful and to bring out contrast and elegance. The use of these ornaments or paintings depended on the local

customs. Moreover, decorations and furnishings were also given equal importance with various patterns, wall paintings, carved beams, couplets hanging on the pillars, inscribed boards, screen walls, ornamental columns and flowers.

Great Chinese structures

Some of the famous structures include The Great Wall of China which is considered one of the seven wonders of the world. In addition to that, the White Horse Temple, the Magao Caves, the Summer Palace and the Forbidden City are other important and classic structures. Chinese architecture is not only exclusive but also exquisite and with its unique features fused with a rich culture, every structure is nothing less than a wonder of the world.


The Teachings and Travels of Buddha

The Four Holy Places

The four holy places where Buddha had set foot draw thousands of followers each year – Lumbini, Bodh Gaya,Sarnath and Kusinagar.Buddhism as a religion started about 2,500 years ago and is followed by
millions of people around the world today. There is no God as such but Buddhists follow the teachings of Buddha with regard to Dharma. It is more spiritual than religious and Buddha preached enlightenment.

Birth – Lumbini
Buddha was not always the spiritual person that we know today. He was born in Lumbini to King Sudhodana and Queen Maya Devi into the warrior clan of kshatriyas. It is believed that he started
walking and talking as soon as he was born. Back then, Gautama Buddha was known as Siddhartha Gautama.

Lumbini continues to hold the Shakya Tank, the remains within the Maya Devi Temple and the Ashoka pillar. Remains of many viharas and stupas can be seen too.

As the story goes, the king decided to call a council of Brahmins to bless the child and tell his future. To his dismay,the Brahmins predicted that the boy would either become a great monarch or an ascetic. In order to protect his son from a life of spirituality and asceticism, Sudhodana went to great lengths to train him in warfare and not expose him to any kind of suffering.

Youth – Kapilavastu
However, at the age of 29, Siddhartha wished to go out and see the city of Kapilavastu, the capital of the Shakya Kingdom. There was much enthusiasm and the whole city was decorated.


Anything upsetting or anyone suffering was kept out of his way. But, on his ride, Siddhartha came across an old man, a diseased man and a decaying corpse.

This saddened him and he started thinking about life and death and suffering. He then came across a hermit who was sitting peacefully on the sidewalk.

Despite his unkempt look, he appeared satisfied with life. Siddhartha then felt the need to leave his family and his present life behind and to seek answers.To this day, remains of the eastern gate of the palace through which Siddhartha Gautama left the palace on his horse,Kanthak are visible in addition to many stupas.


Enlightenment–Bodh Gaya

Buddha discovered the importance of moderation and how it is necessary to balance things in life. He realised that suffering and death are part of life and wished to find a solution for the same. He meditated under a Bodhi Tree in Bodh Gaya for 49 days and attained enlightenment at the age of 35. That is when Siddhartha became Buddha. He gained insight into the cause of suffering and how to eliminate it. The Bodhi Tree stands to this day in present-day Bihar.

Buddha’s Relics

Relics of Buddha are located in many different places. He had once given some of his hair to two merchant brothers – Taphussa and Bhallika. It is believed that his hair has been preserved in Shwe Dagon, a temple in Rangoon,Burma. Moreover, relics of his right tooth have been retained at Dalada Maligawa in Sri Lanka.


Buddha Teaches – Sarnath

He spent the next few years travelling and preaching what he had realised. He gave his first sermon in the current-day deer park of Sarnath, which is 13 km to the north-east of Varanasi. People started
following him and he formed a Sangha with his disciples. He roamed on foot mostly in the Gangetic plains around Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and southern Nepal.The deer park, the Dhameka Stupa and relics of Buddhist monasteries and stupas make it worth the visit.

Through all of these phases, his father tried to make contact with him and to call him home. When he finally did come, he gave a sermon on Dharma which made many members of the royal family join him. Two of his cousins and his seven-year old son Rahula also followed suit. His foster mom wished to
join him then but it was only much later that Buddha permitted women to join the Sangha with the understanding that men and women have the same capacity for attaining Nirvana. It was at Vaishali that he first ordained female nuns.


Not only was he known for his principles and teachings but also for his miracles. His story with the murderer, Angulimala who was known for killing people and chopping off their little fingers and hanging them around his neck is quite well known and is also narrated to children as a fable. When he
wanted to kill Buddha, Buddha with only his words convinced him to leave his life of murder and greed.Angulimala eventually became a monk and joined Buddha.


Parinirvana – Kusinagar

Gautama Buddha passed away in Kusinagar at the age of 80 with the words– All composite things are perishable.Strive for your own liberation with diligence. Buddha’s parinirvana stupa and the parinirvana temple are the holy sites to visit in Kusinagar in addition to the remains of many other stupas.

Ancient Greece – Birthplace of Western civilisation

From architecture to philosophy and medicine, mathematics
and science to biology and psychology, ancient Greece has had a lasting impact on the modern world.

By Priya Narayan

GREEK civilisation led to the birth and more importantly, the development of
subsequent civilisations.


If you don’t remember studying Euclid and Pythagoras, Hippocrates and Alexander in school, you will at least be familiar with Zeus and other mythological characters. The civilisation was known for its rich culture and its contribution to the fields of art, literature, philosophy, mathematics and geometry to name a few.


The architecture of ancient Greece became the foundation for architectural styles that developed later. The Doric, Ionic and Corinthian are the three orders or templates that lay down the rules regarding the design and construction of temples. They dealt with aspects of shape, proportions and details.

The numerous temples built by the Greeks were meant not only for housing the figure of the deity but were also precise in their structure and design. The architects used sophisticated geometry while constructing the columns around the temple so that they looked perfectly harmonious. They were often built with soft rocks, soil, charcoal or marble chips that enabled construction of large structures despite uneven terrains or rigorous weather.

Temples had bronze or painted sculptures, depicting stories of Greek mythology or the city’s history. Sometimes, an Acropolis or ‘high city’ with multiple temples was built in a single area such as the one found on the hilltop overlooking Athens. The Parthenon and Propylaea are famous temples from some acropolises.

The stoa, a structure common to both temple complexes and marketplaces (agora) refers to a long, narrow row of columns that created a kind of enclosure to the main structure. Such structures were also used for storage or as meeting places. Stoas are a common feature of ancient Greek architecture and the frequency with which one can find them shows the need to maintain uniformity in structures within the cities.

Theatre contributed greatly to ancient Greek culture. The Greeks often built semi-circular theatres on hillsides where the slopes enabled a better seating design for people to view the stage at the centre. The entrances on either side of the stage had grand arches with a screen behind the main stage. Some theatres could seat as many as 20,000 people and had remarkable acoustics. Theatres were meant not only for plays but also for poetry recitals and music competitions. Dionysus Eleutherius is one such famous theatre from Athens.

Houses in ancient Greece were either constructed with mud, brick or stone and were generally single or double-storeyed. Greek towns, however, lacked planning and the structures and paths were quite chaotic. There were other large fountain houses for collecting water; assembly halls for important town meetings; stadiums for foot-races and other competitions; gymnasiums which had wrestling grounds and running tracks.

Houses in ancient Greece were either constructed with mud, brick or stone and were generally single or double-storeyed. Greek towns, however, lacked planning and the structures and paths were quite chaotic. There were other large fountain houses for collecting water; assembly halls for important town meetings; stadiums for foot-races and other competitions; gymnasiums which had wrestling grounds and running tracks.

Apart from architecture, philosophy became an important field with Plato, Socrates and Aristotle’s theories that majorly dealt with the ideas of reason, life and existence. Greek literature similarly consisted of numerous canons. Homer’s epics like Iliad and Odyssey are examples of the same. Pythagoras, Euclid and Archimedes’ discoveries are known application-based theories in the fields of mathematics and science. Astronomy also developed during this period. Hippocrates, the father of medicine, is studied even today in the fields of biology and psychology.

As Plato once said: “The beginning is the most important part of the work.” Much of Greek architecture was adopted by the Romans who succeeded them. With their depth in mythology, their strong culture and sense of religion, their ideas of education and mathematics, their magnificent structures, their popularity in theatre, art and music, ancient Greece was nothing short of a mini-perfect world.


Greek mythology
Greek mythology is a large set of stories that attempt to explain the beginning of existence and the life events of Gods and Goddesses. These myths talk of how chaos existed before life originated, they talk of Zeus as the leader of all other Gods and Goddesses and how he created humans and many such stories. Greek mythology now finds itself in book series like Percy Jackson, in video games like Wrath of the Gods and in films like Battlestar Galactica.


Alexander the Great
Aristotle’s disciple, Alexander was an ambitious ruler who wanted to take over the world. He never lost a battle and his armies brought him right up to India where he defeated King Porus. However, his army realised the strength of Indian rulers and were tired from all the fighting. Alexander finally decided to go back home.

The Mayan Civilisation

With temple-pyramids that were perfectly aligned with the sun and the stars, observatories, astronomy, mathematics and a calendar system, thrived the ancient Mayan civilization for over 3000 years.

By Priya Narayan

In Central America’s southern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, western Honduras and El Salvador rest the remains of an ancient civilization which had raised moments of doomsday anxiety in the modern world with a calendar that ended on 21st December 2012.

It emerged in 2600 BC, evolving into many independent states before declining around 900 AD. The perfect geometrical temples, palaces and observatories that the Mayans left behind are all the more impressive for having been built without metal tools and implements.

Known for their art, mathematics, astronomy and complex religious beliefs, the Mayans were one of the ancient civilizations with a deciphered hieroglyphic script, giving us a glimpse into their life and beliefs. They were skilled farmers who had cleared vast tracts of the tropical forest, built underground reservoirs to store rainwater, and were skilled weavers and potters with extensive trade networks.

The Mayan cities were densely populated and were generally the administrative and religious capitals. Unlike the neat perpendicular grids

of other ancient civilizations, these cities were unplanned with temples and palaces being torn down and rebuilt over time. This left the Mayans with city boundaries that were not well-defined, although a few had moats or defensive earthworks around them. City walls were rare, and the few that were found, dated to the collapse of the civilization, pointing towards cities under siege at this stage.

Tikal in Guatemala is home to many of the magnificent structures, including the Temple of the Giant Jaguar, Temple of the Masks, the North Acropolis, among others.


The towering temple pyramids were built from hand cut limestone blocks, often with paintings on them and images carved. Some housed tombs of high priests with personal items buried with them.

While temples were the imposing structures, palaces made up the bulk of Mayan construction. Single-storeyed in general and built on platforms lower than those of temples, palaces had multiple rooms and one or more courtyards. Yet, the narrow and spartan rooms raise doubts which do not have answers – did the rulers and the elite actually live in them? Or as a few other archeologists conjecture, did priests, nuns or religious figures occupy them?

Reservoirs, steam baths and ball courts were common too. The cities often had pillars or stelae, built sometimes on platforms, and facing important


temples and palaces, usually with an altar in front. Religion was central to the Mayans who worshipped hundreds of Gods and compounds were built for citizens to view the frequent religious ceremonies performed on platforms above the cities.


People continue to gather each year at the temple pyramid, El Castillo in Chichen Itza, the principle Mayan city in the Yucatan peninsula during the vernal and the autumnal equinoxes. The Sun gradually illuminates the stairs of the pyramid and the serpent head at the base, creating the image of a snake slithering down the sacred mountain.

This is just one example of the Mayans aligning their ceremonial buildings with precision with the Sun and the stars and they did this to venerate the Gods. Visit the Tomb of Pacal, the Mayan Emperor, in the Temple of Inscriptions at Palenque and you’ll find that it’s aligned with the Sun. At winter solstice, the Sun enters a temple doorway as it crosses the sky, falls on the back wall, and when the Sun sets, it is in line with the centre of the temple roof, seeming to descend the temple stairway into the tomb, thus equating Pacal’s death and entry into the underworld with that of the Sun.


Mayan art is known for its intricate designs and paintings, decorations on ceramics, flint, bone and shell, in addition to decorated cotton textiles. What little metal they used was for ceremonial purposes and in necklaces, bracelets and headdresses. Carvings in wood, stone and clay were found in Mayan sites, so were terracotta figurines.

Much of the art, inscriptions and architecture were commissioned by kings to be remembered over the centuries. Copan’s hieroglyphic stairway with statues, figures, ramps and the central stairway depicts the history of the royal descent.

The Fall

Out of the many theories that try to solve the mystery of the Mayan decline, the more popular ones refer to drought and climate change. Sediment samples from Belize’s Great Blue Hole, an underwater sinkhole, showed fewer tropical cyclones and longer droughts during the period of the Mayan decline. This in turn could have led to famine and war and the eventual disintegration of a once great civilization.

Doomsday Prophecy

21st December 2012 has come and gone, and the earth lives on. When the date was still some months away, doomsday theories ran rife based on the fact that the ancient Mayan calendar ended on that day. The Mayans with their advanced astronomy, mathematics and calendar, it was argued, had foreseen the world’s end.

Saner voices said that it simply was the end of the 13th Bak’tun, an approximately 400-year period in the Mayan long count calendar and with the end of the day, the new cycle begins.

Indus Valley Civilisation

Indus Valley’s relics tell us the story of this ancient civilisation, its yet-to-be deciphered script leaving us with only theories about why this well-planned, peaceful civilisation disappeared.

By Priya Narayan

Indus Valley or the Harappan Civilisation was one of the first civilisations and continues to be one of the most intriguing ones. Not only was it spread across a vast area covering many present day countries – Afghanistan, Pakistan, India – it was also ahead of its time in its technology. One’s interest is piqued when one sees the undeciphered script; the craftsmanship of jewellery, pottery, sculptures, figurines, seals; their practical knowledge of mathematics and early dentistry.

Flourishing almost 5,000 years ago along the Indus river, the civilisation’s most famous sites are Harappa and Mohenjodaro. Archaeological evidence of terracotta toys, pots, vessels and urns show that the civilisation thrived on trade and agriculture. The presence of Indus seals in Mesopotamia goes to prove the trading history of the civilisation. The granaries – massive structures constructed with air ducts and platforms, allowing safe storage of large quantities of grains – point towards its reliance on agriculture.


Part of the Bronze Age, the inhabitants knew metallurgy – they had used copper, bronze, lead and tin. Mud bricks or baked bricks, uniform in dimension were used in construction. It is believed that wood was used in structures like the warehouse, although there is no concrete evidence, since wood does not last as stone does across millennia.

Sites in Gujarat

Dholavira, Lothal and Surkatada stand as the civilisation’s reminders in Gujarat. Evidence suggests that Harappans probably moved here when the civilisation was on decline.

Dholavira, one of the largest Indus Valley sites in India, lies in the Rann of Kutch. It is known for its large stadium and its unique underground reservoir which may have been used for rainwater harvesting.

Lothal, translating to ‘Place of the Dead’, is a couple of hours drive from Ahmedabad. It is famous for its shipping dock for trade and the warehouse for storage of trading goods.

Surkatada, known for its painted pottery, is located near Bhuj. It is characterised by the burial of utensils with the dead which was common during the mummification of pharaohs in Egypt.

Why did the Indus Valley Civilisation disappear?

Lack of evidence of weaponry of any kind indicates a peaceful lifestyle with little conflict. Many theories exist for the decline and disappearance of the Indus Valley civilisation. Some point towards disease, others towards shifting of the river Indus, yet others point towards a natural decline. Perhaps, the most interesting theory is that of Aryan invasions aided by natural decline, leading to the end of the civilisation.

City Planning

The Citadel, prominent in Mohenjodaro is one of the largest and most important structures in the Indus Valley civilisation. Rising above other structures of the city, often as high as 12 metres, they were constructed on mounds of bricks. The Citadel is believed to have been used for administrative or religious purposes. It is also possible that the ruling class lived in this area. While the Citadel was considered the higher and the upper portion of the city, walled outside this structure was the lower portion which consisted of houses, larger buildings and public baths.

The town was so well-planned that broad streets intersected at right angles along which houses were built. These lanes were lined with drains which led sewage out of the city. It is believed that the lanes and drainage system were constructed ahead of the houses. Water and drainage from the houses, kitchens, roofs and latrines was collected in separate pits which were regularly cleaned.

Houses differed by social class. The rich had baked brick houses with large courtyards that led to multiple rooms. These houses were constructed on plinths and must have stood slightly above street level as stairs were used at the entrance, opening into lanes rather than onto the main street. The entrance generally led to the courtyard of the house which often had a private well that could be accessed by outsiders though a separate opening. Toilets within the building were directly connected to the drains outside. Often, these structures were two-storeyed with open roofs and spaces for windows.

One of the first of its kind, The Great Bath was a large 12m x 7m brick water tank made water-tight using gypsum and bitumen (natural tar) with a ledge around it. Stairs descended into the pool from the north and south ends. Two large doors served as the main entrance in the south and rooms were lined parallel to each other on the eastern side. A drain pipe collected water from the main bath with smaller pipes connected to the rooms on the east. These pipes led to the main drainage lines on the streets. The baths may have been used not just as public baths but also for religious rituals or by the clergy.


The Assembly Hall was another large building made of kiln-baked bricks with multiple pillars within the structure. It was probably used as the ruler’s court and as the municipal office in charge of town planning and sanitation.
The Indus Valley sites also had interesting structures like public toilets, water tanks, step wells and dockyards. Despite the presence of these well-planned structures, no major architectural work was found that could represent power and wealth. Cities were organised for comfort and convenience, not something one can find easily even today.

As much of this civilisation remains a mystery, the sites continue to fascinate archaeologists, tourists and students from around the world.