Climatic influences on spatial organization are apparent in the centuries since 2000 BC during which the basic principle of a central court with rooms all around it emerged.   Excavations and studies by scholars reveal that the built form in those times had central open-to-the-­sky spaces in the houses of Mohenjodaro and Harappa.   The houses had no windows facing the street, but instead concentrated on the courtyard.  These internalized houses would have depended on the courtyard for light and ventilation.  Evidence of the high degree of crystallised house forms of the period indicate that the genesis of the idea of the courtyard could easily be traced back to a few thousand years before Harappa.  The essence of the space has remained unchanged over thousands of years.  It is this remarkable ability to demonstrate a meaningful continuum that makes these spaces so vital for a true understanding of Indian spatiality.  Variations on the theme were created depending upon different socio-cultural patterns and unique site conditions.  And while the people of the villages of Rajasthan still use the courtyard for living, foreigners in the period of the Raj made courtyards in their mansions for light.  Considering living patterns, very little activity may have taken place in the courtyard except cross movements.  However, the very fact that different rulers from various parts of the world who came to India continued with the courtyard shows its appropriateness for this region.  The courtyard is thus a timeless spatial element of Indian architecture; it continues to be as valid today as before.

Most domestic architecture in India is organised around central courtyards.  A courtyard's position becomes a principal organizing spatial element.  This room without a roof is often bounded by verandahs along its periphery.  Other rooms open into these verandahs creating a spatial organisation based on a hierarchical sequence of spaces ranging from open to enclosed.  The rooms get their light and ventilation from this courtyard and have very few openings onto the exterior.  This spatial sequence encourages the intermittent flow of activities responding to various private needs.  Also, the tropical climate of India demands air movement as well as shaded spaces for comfort.  The open, yet protected spaces, become the heart of Indian living.

Notions of privacy prevailing in the region mean that much of the activity of womenfolk is restricted within the limits of the house.  The male-female zones get defined in this area.  The courtyard with its surrounding verandah becomes the living room of the house, both literally and figuratively.

Ideas of function and space utility are not quite rigid in this context.  Enclosed rooms are primarily used for storage and during bad weather.  There is an extension of the kitchen into the courtyard with activities like chopping, drying, cleaning, etc.  On days with fair weather, even the actual cooking takes place in the courtyard with the family sitting on the floor for a meal.  This brings in an element of sanctity and therefore certain restrictions.  For instance, at places one may not be permitted to walk in with shoes on.  For hamlets, an open yard in front of the houses serves the same purpose.  Though not enclosed by rooms it is still defined, either by hedges or differences in plinth levels.  It can be said to belong to the same spatial family.

What begins as primarily a functional space with its genesis in climatic requirements has now become the soul of the house in the desert, especially in towns and villages that have denser fabrics.   The courtyards of Rajasthan which are now world famous have intimate scales, articulation with carved stone and a subdued quality of light.  With houses built back-to-back to protect them against the sandstorms and harshness of the sun and very few openings possible in the exterior walls, the courtyard becomes vital to provide for light, ventilation as well as an outdoor activity space.  The pols of Ahmedabad, a distinct urban fabric, show this characteristic.  The houses are long and narrow, with central courtyards.  Narrow streets, with houses often back-to-back, limit the amount of natural light that can be brought into the houses.  The courtyard becomes the primary source of natural light and ventilation. 

Variations in the generic form of the courtyard come from changes in materials, articulation of the enclosing elements, scale, proportion and complexity of plan.  The articulation of the sides of a courtyard is dependent on the kind of building and the users.  By and large they receive a treatment similar to the external facade; they are in fact facades inside the house.  In large houses, have/is, palaces or public buildings, the nature of the architecture is formal.  Hence, all sides tend to be of symmetrical, orthogonal and ordered.  In vernacular conditions where the houses are smaller, it is quite different.  Elements like niches, doors, openings, stairs, are placed as required, creating a spontaneous space.  These become the articulating elements in both the cases, but the manner in which they are placed changes the character of the court.  And this character is often a derivative of the function.

The courtyard is an essential organising element not only in the smaller houses, but also in large have/is and palaces.  In these cases, courtyards occur at several levels apart from the ground floor.  At the highest level they become enclosed terraces.  Their articulation and function are similar to those of a courtyard.  Naturally the degree of privacy gradually changes with the gradient.  In the Mardana Mahal (King's Palace), Udaipur City Palace, there are many courts at various levels considering that the palace is built on top of a hillock.  Each courtyard defines a particular function of royalty and has a resultant articulation.  Since it was the most important building of its time, to an extent symmetry was a constant preoccupation of the builders.  Colonnaded verandahs, elaborate zharookhas or blank walls enclose the courtyard depending upon its position in the overall schema.

Interestingly, even in palaces, the scale of a courtyard remains similar to that in small houses.  With the exception of courts where large gatherings are expected, like the Shringar Chowk of Jodhpur Palace, the courtyard is not very large.  In most cases it is scaled to human proportions making it a comfortable space to use.  As the houses become larger it is the number of courtyards and terraces that multiply, not the size as seen in the have/is of Jaipur or Jaisalmer.  A sequence of courts is generated based on a hierarchy ranging from public to private.  The method and material of construction could also have limited their size.  The materials used in vernacular architecture have, over the centuries, been stone and wood.  These have limitations in spanning.  It could be this capacity that could have determined the size of the courtyard and the module of the enclosing verandahs.  Another parameter could be that of plot size.  The long and narrow houses of western Indian towns shared long walls.  This restricted heat transfer through the walls.  Thus, it would be easier to build a sequence of courtyards.  And yet, we have seen in the palaces there was a preference for smaller courtyards.  The human scale was most important.

Instances of courtyards abound in the towns located in the northern Indian plains.  The plans show variations in the house form, though the courtyard remains the nodal point.  Initial observation shows that the sizes of courtyards vary considerably.  The larger the house gets, the bigger the courtyard.  This seems like a contradiction of the previous analysis.  However, a closer investigation reveals that while there is a degree of variation, the courtyard is rarely ever larger than a comfortable scale.  It is this courtyard that gives the porosity to an otherwise extremely dense urban fabric of an Indian city.

A courtyard is an integral part not only of northern India but also of the house in Kerala down south or a wada of Pune in central India.  The material changes from stone in the north to wood in the south.  The spatial organization remains similar with the courtyard being surrounded by a verandah and rooms.  In Kerala the rooms are more porous to the outside since the houses are not back-to-back.  Also, the requirement of cross ventilation is much higher considering the high level of humidity.  The courtyard provides for this much needed cross ventilation.  It allows for an increased depth in the houses which otherwise could not be more than two rooms deep.  The courtyard then starts taking on cultural connotations as it becomes part of a living space allowing for extension of household activity.  The courtyard is thus developed as an element to generate a microclimate within the house that is comfortable.

While the courtyard is the soul of domestic architecture, it is also an important element of institutional architecture.  Amongst religious buildings, the mosques invariably have a large courtyard in order to accommodate the people for mass prayers.  These courtyards are flanked by collonaded verandahs on three sides with the main mehrab area on the fourth side.  This kind of an organisation is found not only in India but along the entire belt that falls within this kind of arid and semi-arid zone.  "Courtyards were common to dwellings throughout most of the Islamic world, owing as much to earlier living traditions and climate as to any specifically Muslim requirements."  Courtyards as understood so far are not such a common feature of temples though several Jain temples like the one at Ranakpur do show this element.  The paradoxical nature of light, direct yet softened, is one of the most amazing results of the courtyard.  This ethereal play of light is one of the most beautiful experiences of Indian architecture.