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,1 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 through agriculture, live in villages, and rarely see any of the great architectural monuments upon which academic specialists focus their attention. Their humble traditional domestic buildings, often of timeless beauty, are of a sort labeled “vernacular.” In their shapes, sizes, and materials, those we admire—not the coldly brutal concrete blocks erected in the name of progress, but the ones built in traditional ways—have scarcely changed over many centuries. Comparatively recent portrayals of them in sensitively observed Mughal miniature paintings of the later sixteenth and earlier seventeenth centuries show that then, as now, they were constructed from locally available materials, such as mud brick and wood. Immaculately swept and whitewashed, each building contains a place of worship, such as a Hindu shrine, or is close to a place for Muslim prayer.
Appealingly pure, the buildings’ outlines seem not to have been built but to have grown on their own. They have been softened to skinlike sensuousness by rain, wind, and constant massage by people and animals. Few buildings elsewhere seem so alive. Outer walls are adorned by the women of the family with vividly fresh paintings in whitewash, ephemeral creations replaced after every monsoon, or refurbished to celebrate marriages or other family events. Usually these ideographic pictures are apotropaic—intended to turn away evil spirits—and scrupulously follow regional patterns as ancient as the forms of the buildings themselves. Their precursors could be the seeds from which developed the sculptural friezes, inscriptions, or ornament admired on India’s grander buildings.
Within their simple but elegant compounds, most Indians live and work together in very close quarters, conforming to the “joint family system.” These small spaces are shared not only by several generations of one family but also with domesticated animals and visiting friends. Through the millennia, families have adjusted to being so clustered together. In this sardine-tin existence, the establishment of an ancient, orderly pattern of authority has contributed to harmony. The senior male of the family in effect “reigns,” usually assisted by a “cabinet” of senior womenfolk, younger men, or anyone powerful and clever enough to be influential. In this environment, which encourages respectful physical familiarity of a sort many Europeans and Americans artificially cultivate through group therapy, there has traditionally been little privacy beyond psychological buffer zones. Everyone saw, heard, rubbed elbows with, and inhaled the breath of everyone else. Most people accepted this mode of life, which encouraged conformity and mutual understanding. Flight was the only solution for those unable to adjust to family pressures or for those so modest they found it painful for their intimate lives and feelings to be on view. For these sufferers, traditional India provides escape hatches, one of which is to become a wandering ascetic.
Although trying to some, the joint family system usually encouraged harmoniousness, probably by exposing so openly both everyone’s worst and best qualities. There was ample time for gup, the sharply analytical gossip of the sort psychiatrists might be tempted to share. How enlightening it must be to study home-grown eccentrics so like those vividly and humorously described in R.K. Narayan’s novels of life in Malgudi. (And could anyone not seem eccentric when studied and listened to round the clock?) The fruits of such engaging if at times excruciating analysis of domesticity are apparent from traditional Indian portraiture. Although artists unsparingly noted every quirk of gait, epidermal blemish, buck-toothed malocclusion, pockmark, and psychological or spiritual deformity, they were rarely unkind. One can see behind the scowls.
Indian tolerance of eccentricities has extended to outsiders as well as to family members and other Indians—even to foreign architecture. On the whole Indians have welcomed seemingly peaceful strangers as well as foreign ideas, customs, techniques, and motifs. Once allowed entrance, however, these outside forces were analyzed and evaluated. Whoever or whatever failed to fit into the Indian mode was either reshaped along Indian lines, isolated, driven out, or encouraged to wither away. Classical architectural motifs brought to India in the aftermath of Alexander the Great’s Indian adventures left few traces except in Gandharan reliefs. Le Corbusier’s unsuitable, impractical creations in Chandigarh and Ahmadabad gradually erode. Although for a time their forms echoed and re-echoed in often comical pipsqueak villas, shops, and chicken coops, their concrete surfaces have now blackened and cracked, having fallen victim to the Indian disinclination to accept them—which is not quite the same thing as disapproval. One day, perhaps, Corbusier’s style will re-emerge, Indianized beyond recognition. Somehow, despite the absence of anything resembling zoning regulations, Indian architecture maintains its aesthetic unity. Blessedly, the same human filtering system that excludes many fine but unsuitable Western-style contemporary buildings will have screened out worse eyesores, India’s suburban “chateaux” with their aggressively dyed marble walls.
Stone (undyed!), stucco, wood, and brick, not reinforced poured concrete, are India’s ancient building materials; and in making use of them India is fortunate to possess a powerful, highly skilled, and peripatetic work force. Probably unique in the world, India sustains legions of artisan families—perfumers, sweets makers, bronze casters, chemists, and many others—all quietly but rigorously trained by apprenticeships within their castes or subcastes. Through them, a vitally creative asset from old India lives on, partially compensating for the hazards of the population explosion. Carrying out craftsmanlike work far above the level of the work of machine-age culture, they can be admired, hard at work, building today’s Bauhausian high-rise office buildings and apartment blocks. Entire families clamber high in the air on wobbly scaffolding made from branches of trees tied together with pieces of string.
These builders, so like the acrophiliac Mohawks in America who are also oblivious to cranes and excavating machines, bring to mind other ingrained Indian characteristics. Since early times, Indian craftsmen have explored, analyzed, categorized, and codified every possible architectural idea, material, and technique. Only after these have been perfected, through centuries of trial and error, are they fully accepted. But once they have passed stringent tests, they become part of the unshakable Indian way. Thus, the picturesque middle-aged ladies climbing ramps and ladders with large bowls of cement balanced on their heads differ little from their ancestors whom we see in miniatures in sixteenth-century Mughal historical manuscripts. They and their caste fellows from the same roaming community of builders all possessed—and possess—trade secrets perfected over many centuries and still effective. Often virtuosic, these closely held techniques have given economic security to people vulnerable to poverty.
These underappreciated builders, who deserve to be honored as national treasures, are responsible, in large measure, for India’s architectural heritage and qualities. Directed by architects working in the styles of their regions and periods, some of their roving forebears may have created both the great temple at Ellora and the cave at Elephanta by chipping them out from massive rocky cliffs. Possessed of the craftsman’s intuitive sense of “right” proportion, others may have shaped and polished subtly rounded marble slabs for the dome of the Taj Mahal, or chiseled and raised into position the formidable stones of Rajput forts.
Down the road from these medieval-seeming construction workers, we come upon admirably skilled stonemasons, probably members of a splinter group from the same caste of aerialists. Like their pipe-legged colleagues, these drillers and chippers of red sandstone or marble are traditional craftsmen whose progenitors might have worked for Raja Man Singh of Gwalior during the fifteenth century, or for Emperor Jahangir in the seventeenth. During the nineteenth century, they might have created Indo-Saracenic jalis, pierced stone windows, under the direction of Sir Gladstone Soloman—ornaments as potently Indian in spirit as Bombay’s splendid, would-be Victorian railway station. While I write, such master craftsmen are busily finishing scores of jalis for a palace looming on an oceanside cliff in Mexico, the sub-imperial whim of an international magnate.
It would be hard to overemphasize the importance of traditional Indian life to the development of Indian architecture, whether Hindu, Buddhist, or Muslim. Were it not for India’s penchant for categorization and compartmentalization, as reflected in its caste system, the skilled builders would never have held together and developed and maintained their mastery. And had they not refined their secret techniques, India’s architectural heritage would likely be less brilliant, and less permanent. Also emerging from the Indian way of life, specifically from the custom of people working together in close proximity, is the scale of most traditional Indian buildings. Before the mid-seventeenth century, when imperial Roman grandeur was brought to India from Europe by the British and other colonizing powers, most Indian buildings, except for a few tombs, were built on the scale of the human body. Even mighty rulers occupied small spaces, as can be seen in the palaces of such powerful figures as the Hindu maharajah of Gwalior, the Mughal emperor Akbar the Great, or his grandson, Shah Jahan. Their sleeping quarters—“chambers of dreams”—were intimate, better suited to whispered conversations, recitations of poetry, or musical recitals than to the courtly mobs invited to share the matitudinal toilet of le Roi Soleil.
Similarly ungrandiose, albeit noble and impressive, were traditional Indian audience halls; and sprawling as were their exterior complexes, with courtyards, gates, and processional paths large enough for herds of elephants and cavalries of horses, they, too, were suited to human, not superhuman needs. Those needs, however, included space for elephant combats, festivals, and parades, along with ample windows, balconies, and ramparts from which to survey the spectacles. After 1947, when the “native states” came to an end, once splendiferous raos, rajahs, maharajahs, and nawabs must have sighed with relief. Glutted by a near century of pseudo-ducal grandeur in British-style palaces, they could return at last to the smaller quarters enjoyed by their precolonial ancestors.
If the princes—except for a few colorful eccentrics—refused to live like gods themselves, they treated the gods lavishly, according them every royal privilege and more. Although most early Indian palaces were not only small but were made from wood, thatch, and mud brick, temples and mosques were built to last, usually of stone. In South Indian temples, constructed of massive rock, with skyscraping pinnacles, images receive more than imperial attention. Temples maintain stables of elephants trained to bow down in worship and participate in sacred processions. At night, priests attended by musicians scurry through lamp-lit corridors bearing bronze goddesses on palanquins to visit the gods. Nevertheless, interiors of temples and mosques were also intimately small, with sacred spaces for small numbers of men performing rituals or recitations, activities hard to carry out in larger spaces in which the human voice could not be heard clearly. Few Indian temples or mosques are comparable in size to such Roman or Renaissance buildings as the Pantheon or St. Peter’s. A survey of Hindu architectural reliefs and images reveals that they, too, are rarely larger than their worshipers. Even the guardian figures of the great temple at Tanjore are notably smaller than their confreres in the Buddhist temples of Heian or Kamakura, Japan. In keeping with their use, temple and mosque courtyards, where large numbers of devotees gathered, were far more spacious, akin to comparable spaces in palaces and forts.
In traditional India the sacred is all-pervasive, and far outranks the secular, from which it is inseparable. Hindu houses or palaces invariably include rooms for worship; and Muslim ones are always provided with access to mosques, however small, usually independent or semi-independent structures. Ground plans, even for forts and palaces, were often based upon the sacred geometry of mandalas, or psycho-cosmo-grams. If these powerfully auspicious forms were efficacious for building temples or shrines, they were also appropriate to the dwelling places of rulers assumed to possess divine powers, or at least to be closer than ordinary men to the gods, or to Allah. And inasmuch as traditional Indians of whatever station in life conformed to a model in which the village elder or father of the household “reigned,” humble houses usually were smaller versions of royal ones. The close link between this world and the other is at times surprising, as in the case of marble effigies of a maharajah and maharani in their splendid tomb. A century after their deaths, they are daily served meals and entertained by recitals of classical religious music. The maharani’s majestic sari is also regularly replaced.
As with other Indian art forms, Indian architecture has been enriched with complex elements arranged according to rhythms reminiscent of Indian music. A South Indian temple’s staccato repetitions of major and minor forms sometimes bewilders those whose eyes and minds are accustomed to postmedieval Western art and architecture. The excessive complexities of the temples remind me of the ear-boggling intricacies of Kerala drumming I once heard there just before flying to Vienna, where I attended Don Giovanni. How difficult it was, after Kerala, to readjust to Mozart’s seemingly simple tempos! India’s musical rhythms, related to its genius for higher mathematics, are but one aspect of the differences which make much Indian music and architecture difficult to appreciate for uninitiated Westerners. Not only is it foreign, but, unlike most Western art, it is visionary. Moreover, the vision differs from Western ones in having internal rather than external sources. A friend who has compiled information on personal visions—flashes of light, Saint Francis, et al.—assures me that all visions, even those of people who have forsaken religious orthodoxies, are appropriate to the upbringing of those who have them. Roman Catholics see Christ or the Virgin Mary, Muslims Fatima, Jews Abraham or Moses. Moreover, the visions of Europeans and Americans conform to the naturalistic styles associated with our classical and Renaissance legacy, from images by Raphael, Michelangelo, or, alas, by the anonymous masters responsible for baby-blue and pink garden statuary.
Such visions, which might by now derive their styles from film and TV, differ considerably from Indian ones, which like Indian art and architecture (and our own medieval traditions) come not from this world of appearances but from the other world. Although the powerfully silhouetted gopuras of South Indian temples symbolize sacred Mount Kailasa, their shape is not based upon any mountain one might see or climb. Rather, like that of the rest of traditional Indian art and architecture, its inspiring form derives from the unseen realms of traditional imagery. It is not a mountain observed from nature, but one conjured up through meditation.
Both Tadgell and Michell know India’s buildings at first hand. George Michell is rightly admired for his excellent fieldwork in South India at sites of the Vijayanagara period; and Christopher Tadgell admits he is dedicated to South Asian architecture to the point of “consumptive obsession.” Both delight in India, and have visited most—if not all—of the monuments described in their books. Their problems, arousing our sympathy, are of other sorts. However great their devotion, industry, and intelligence, they live in an age of compressed expression, when specialists are encouraged to cram as much data as possible into the smallest of spaces. Reducing the numbers of their words, images, and monuments must have been a dismaying task. Their predicament brings to mind the contemporary French sculptor César’s squashed automobiles, seeming fossils of contemporary culture. Although we may enjoy César’s brutalized bits and pieces of Peugeots, Citroëns, Fords, and Bentleys, we may lament that so much has been lost in the metallic crunch. The cars are not only nonfunctional but unidentifiable.
There are other problems, too. Many of today’s historians of art and architecture, fearful of hyperbole, avoid evocative treatments of the very structures they want us to understand and admire. Instead of communicating the look of a building or explaining its interior spaces, light, scale, they limit themselves to providing historical and cultural background, a few measurements, and a physical description of the sort one might find in an auction catalog. However accurate might be their facts, and however appealing might be the starkness of their immaculate orderliness, one longs for passages that carry us beyond the austere basics. We crave more than soulless, fleshless, lifeless skeletons. At risk of being battered by academia as a deluded, old-fashioned romantic, I have to say I want to learn more about the actual experience of moving about in the buildings and to be given a sense of their aesthetic character. I miss the sort of passage—however flamboyant—quoted from Goethe’s account of Strasbourg Cathedral by Nikolaus Pevsner in his masterful An Outline of European Architecture. Observing the Cathedral, Goethe evoked the Gothic spirit in architecture. He wrote that the Cathedral
rises like a most sublime, widearching Tree of God, who with a thousand boughs, a million of twigs, and leafage like the sands of the sea, tells forth to the neighbourhood the glory of the Lord, his master…. All is shape, down to the minutest fibril, all purposes to the whole. How the firm-grounded gigantic building lightly rears itself into the air! How filigreed all of it, yet for eternity.2
That Nikolaus Pevsner had learned something from Goethe is apparent from the following passage, also taken from his excellent Outline. Transporting us into Michelangelo’s Biblioteca Laurenziana in Florence, he writes:
In its spatial treatment the Laurenziana…exchanged the balanced proportions of Renaissance rooms for an anteroom as tall and narrow as the shaft of a pit, and a library proper, reached by a staircase, as long and narrow as a corridor. They both force us, even against our wills, to follow their pull, upward first and then forward. This tendency to enforce movement through space within rigid boundaries is the chief spatial quality of Mannerism.3
Unfair as it might be to compare a passage from Dr. Tadgell’s monumental and admirable History of Architecture in India to those quoted from Goethe and from Dr. Pevsner’s introduction to the architecture of Europe, there is still some point in doing so. Here are Tadgell’s admirably clinical words about one of Mughal architecture’s finest monuments, the mausoleum housing the tombs of the father and mother of the wife of Emperor Jahangir at Shahdara, near Agra, which he describes earlier as an “exquisite miniature.” As one enters, he writes, the arcaded base of another emperor’s tomb
has become the main element of the mausoleum itself, with chattris [canopies or kiosks] on octagonal minarets at the corners and frontispieces in the centre consistent in scale with the flanking arcades but lightly projecting only at Shahdara. A screened pavilion covered by an elegant canopy with padmakosha [lotus forms] and kalasha [water pitcher or vase shaped] shelters the cenotaphs of the Itimad-ud-Daulah and his wife.
The two color illustrations of the exterior help to explain Christopher Tadgell’s enthusiasm for this modestly scaled but magnificent building. Nevertheless, one wishes that he had described for his readers how it feels to enter the airy chamber on the upper level with its pierced white marble walls, cenotaphs, and the constantly changing shadows. Above all, one wishes that he had brought to life its dazzling, boldly scaled arabesque floor, a “carpet” in predominantly buff, bluish gray, and black pietra dura.
Tadgell’s starkly black-bound book, with its 336 densely packed pages of photographs, plans, background material, and concise accounts of hundreds of monuments merits much respect. It belongs on the bookshelf of every Indianist, traveler, and architect. Too weighty and bulky for suitcase or backpack, it should be studied before one’s Indian visits as an invaluable source of information. The author has taken on a serious challenge, nothing less than what his title implies, writing a history of architecture in India from beginning to end.
He divides Indian architectural history into the very early period, the subject of a prologue, and four chronologically arranged chapters covering the later periods. The first of these, extending from the fourth century BC through the fifth century BC (“Buddhism Predominant; the Advent of Hinduism”), concentrates upon such matters as changing religious doctrine and the architectural heritage of the stupa and the monastery—all in the compass of thirty-six pages and seventy-odd photographs, diagrams, and maps. The second section extends from the fifth century AD through the thirteenth (“Buddhism Transformed and Eclipsed; Hindus Predominant”). Part Three carries us from the thirteenth century through the eighteenth (“The Advent of Islam; Hindus and Jainas Defensive”), while the fourth section is devoted to late India, concluding with the Umaid Bhavan in Jodhpur, a magnificent Art Deco monument, completed in 1947. While it is regrettable that his book barely refers to the vernacular traditions which are so fundamental to the development of more elevated levels of Indian architecture, it provides an excellent and useful survey.
George Michell has concentrated more narrowly, limiting himself to royal palaces and forts. Of the two books, his, with its striking dust jacket, informative and amiable prose, ample color and black-and-white illustrations, and diagrams, is the more inviting and approachable. Not content with the descriptive but slightly amateurish photographs that—in an inverse of photo-snobbery—enhance the academic austerity of Tadgell’s book, Michell acquired the services of Antonio Martinelli, a skillful Italian photographer who not only uses a parallax correcting lens but knows that to take good photographs in India one must use natural light and rarely click a shutter between 11:00 AM and 4:30 PM. Michell’s book seems to have been intended for coffee tables and for moderately ambitious tourists in need of a well-illustrated guide, and also for the small, fussy world of specialists in Indian architecture—George Michell’s followers—who may be tempted to pillage it for information and ideas. Michell’s visits to sites, libraries, and knowledgeable friends served him well. So did his publishers. They have provided seventy pages of generously readable type and many informative illustrations, in addition to Mr. Martinelli’s photographs, which in their perspectives sometimes suggest the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich. Michell brings much grace and learning to his discussions of the divine power of kings, defense and security, formal reception at court, royal worship, privacy and pleasure, and a catch-all entitled “Essential Services”—all excellent preparation for visiting forts and palaces. Because the earliest surviving palaces are comparatively late—built during the fourteenth century—Dr. Michell has written an interestingly speculative essay on their lively predecessors entitled “Palaces lost and imagined,” and illustrated by renderings of a relief from Bharhut and wall paintings from Ajanta, with informative quotations from the Arthashastra, an early text on statecraft.
His book is a pleasurable guide to places that everyone who is interested in, and enjoys, architecture should visit. One wishes at times that the writer and photographer had traveled farther and stayed longer. The section on Mughal India, for instance, carries us only to Fatehpur Sikri, Agra, and Delhi, omitting the major palace compound at Lahore and a large number of delightful lesser ones. Inasmuch as the attractive but skimpy selection of buildings includes the Moti Masjid (Pearl Mosque) in the fort at Delhi, one wonders why they did not take another day or two and visit the sparer, more poetic marble pavilions on the embankment of Ana Sagar at Ajmer. They might have lingered, too, in Rajasthan, instead of limiting Rajput sites to the eleven most often visited. Although he has omitted Bharatpur, Bikaner, Jaisalmer, Kishangarh, Dr. Michell chose well, concentrating on those that are accessible, welcoming to visitors, and whose settings, ramparts, courtyards, wall paintings, and darbar halls are likely to satisfy most visitors.
If at times, as in the presentations of Gwalior, Orcha, and Datia, author and photographer seem to have been in a hurry, and the pictures outweigh the text, several sites have inspired slower, deeper reflection. Dr. Michell’s words flow most generously about Southern India, where his enthusiasm seems shared by Mr. Martinelli. At Madurai, for instance, the photographer’s eye was so capivated by the extravagant detail of the interiors of Tirumala Nayaka’s touchingly overblown palace that the images in the book are even better than those taken by P.A. Johnston over a century ago, when the building already suffered from picturesque neglect.
Especially in relation to Dr. Michell’s text, Martinelli’s photographs make The Royal Palaces of India an enjoyable as well as instructive companion to Christopher Tadgell’s weightier, and more serious, book. To return to one’s shopping-basket image, one could say that Dr. Tadgell’s book is nourishing, mindfeeding like dal and chapatis or dosas, spiced with lemon pickle, to which Dr. Michell and Mr. Martinelli’s adds the luxurious zest of a mango fool.
June 8, 1995