India’s Virtuoso Builders

The History of Architecture in India: From the Dawn of Civilization to the End of the Raj

by Christopher Tadgell
Phaidon, 336 pp., $49.95

The Royal Palaces of India

by George Michell, photographs by Antonio Martinelli
Thames and Hudson, 232 pp., $50.00

The vast Indian subcontinent is as densely packed with remarkable architectural monuments as tiny Greece. Because they had to decide which buildings to include in the books under review, Christopher Tadgell and George Michell must have felt like hungry men roaming a vast market crammed with delicious food, knowing that their shopping baskets could not contain nearly enough. One sympathizes with their publishers. Long gone, alas, are the days of lavishly produced heavy volumes, such as Meadows Taylor’s Architecture at Beejapoor, published in London in 1866, and illustrated with superb tipped-in photographs documenting single major sites. Gone, too, are such remarkable scholars as Stella Kramrisch, the late “white witch of Philadelphia,” whose The Hindu Temple, covered enormous scholarly ground. Her study is at once a substantial compilation of facts, a romantic evocation, and a meditation on Hindu India.

The present authors have clearly delighted in their work, particularly their many years on the road, and their delight is infectious. For one’s spirits soar as one travels to visit India’s temples, mosques, palaces, forts, tombs—even some of its railway stations and hotels—through busy towns, and past elegant village compounds of stunning purity. Although known as a paintings and objects wallah, I myself keep my eyes peeled for buildings of every sort, realizing that of all artistic expressions architecture is the most exhilarating but the least approachable, the hardest to analyze, explain, and illustrate. To understand structures so complex, one should not only view them as sculptures from every angle but also, whenever possible, have a sense of their uses, whether as living spaces, places of worship, tombs, forts, or whatever. One must also understand their engineering, materials, and step-by-step construction. Compared to pictures and objects of art, they are daunting in scale; and searching out enough examples to make comparisons requires extraordinary stamina and decades of extensive, costly, and often uncomfortable travel.

Buildings should be pondered inside and out, by night and day, and from season to season. They must be studied as parts of a whole, as separate structures, and in detail. Most Indian temples, like some Romanesque or Gothic cathedrals, are enriched by intricate iconographic programs of sculptured reliefs and images, as well as by wall paintings, each figure of which requires scrutiny. More time is required to study a building than to build it. Given the scope of these challenges, is it any wonder that so many of today’s architectural historians are desk-bound conjurers of theories based upon photographs, ground plans, and social documentation?

While on the road in India, one gazes at people, landscape, the backs of bullock carts or trucks, and buildings. One’s thoughts are abundant, stimulated by the slow unfolding of an ancient land. The Indian subcontinent includes every level of culture, from the elementally tribal to the highly sophisticated urban and international. Some recurrent thoughts from the road are relevant to the two books under review. Practically everyone knows, for instance, that most Indians support themselves …

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