George Michell is a Professorial Fellow at the School of Architecture in Melbourne. He has dedicated the major part of his academic career to look at architecture in the medieval Indian context and more specifically at temple architecture. His prolific writings on temples in the Deccan and on the monumental ruins of the Vijayanagar Empire testify to his long term involvement with this knowledge domain and his command over the academic field of India’s architectural heritage.
The present monograph draws partly from Michell’s earlier researches but focuses on the latermedieval period leading up to the early colonial times. The time frame taken up for the study itself makes this monograph valuable because most studies on temple architecture take up the developments under the Cholas and Chalukyas rather than the period from the Nayaka rule onwards that is roughly the seventeenth-eighteenth centuries. In Northern India some major temples were constructed in the eleventh-twelfth centuries under the patronage of Chandelas of Khajuraho, Eastern Gangas of Orissa, Palas of Bengal and the Sisodia-Guhilot dynasty of Rajasthan. This book situates its analysis within a study of stylistic continuities in the earlier temple structures but moves rapidly to the state of temples during the Sultanate and Mughal periods, continuing the study into the colonial period.
This profusely illustrated monograph consists of four distinct analytical blocks in the place of the usual chapters. The author calls these blocks—‘Continuities, Revivals, Appropriations And Innovations’. The main body of the book is foregrounded by a historical and religious overview of medieval India focussing particularly on the devotional movements and the patronage of rulers and sectarian leaders to temples. Part three of this work looks at temples regionwise beginning from the Himachala-Himalayas and Jammu-Kashmir right down to Tamil Nadu and Kerala.
Somewhat unusually, Michell starts his book with destruction rather than construction. Drawing upon earlier scholarship including that of Richard Eaton, he meticulously maps the destruction of cities and temples as a result of Muslim invasions. To quote Michell, ‘There can be little doubt that the Muslim armies were systematic and effective in their destructive endeavours, as in the cities and towns of the Ganga-Yamuna river valley, extending from the Punjab to Bengal…. So thorough were the intruders in this regard that hardly a single Hindu or Jain monument was left standing in an almost 2000 kilometre long corridor’ (p. 20). This statement of the author is backed by extensive data in the subsequent pages.
The second point that Michell makes is that, systematically, Muslim places of worship termed ‘Conquest Mosques’ came up on the site of Hindu and Jain temples. To quote the author verbatim once again: ‘This practice of constructing Muslim places of worship out of stone blocks removed from Hindu and Jain temples was inaugurated in 1192 in Delhi, the first headquarters of Sultanate rule. The Quwwat-al-Islam masjid here was raised within the precinct of a great Vishnu temple, dismantled on the orders of Qutbuddin Aibek’ (p. 20). The author points out that surprisingly, the Sun temple at Khajuraho in Bundelkhand was spared, perhaps because of its interior location.
Michell describes the role of the Marathas who had emerged as the principal challengers of Mughal supremacy in Western and Central India as well as in the Deccan as prime architects in the process of temple revival and reconstruction. The process of revival began with the coronation of Shivaji in 1674 at Raigadh and gained momentum under the Maratha lineages—the Bhonsles of Nagpur in north-eastern Maharashtra, the Holkars of Indore, the Sisodiyas of Ujjain (both in the Malwa region) and the Gaekwads of Baroda (Vadodara) in Gujarat. Michell draws attention to the contributions of the Holkar queen Ahalyabai in this regard since she was instrumental in the reconstruction of the Vishwanath temple in Varanasi and the Somnath temple in Gujarat. Some unique features of Maratha temple activity can be seen in Goa. The Portuguese were, by and large, tolerant towards their Hindu population resulting in temple construction going on undeterred in the region. Many of these temples were financed by Maratha rulers and Shivaji is credited with building the shrine at Naroa. A profusion of temple construction and temple revival also happened under the Peshwas who were the architects of ‘Hindu Padpadshahi’. Bajirao the First built the famous Shantadurga temple at Kavele near Ponda. Michell points out that the Hindu monuments of Goa adopted a hybrid style which drew upon Catholic cathedrals and monasteries as well as Islamic religious architecture (p. 34).
In Bengal, the English East India Company lent its tacit support to temple building activities by the local Hindu Zamindars as well as some of the rulers of petty principalities. The reason for this was the connections between the commercial interests of the Company merchants and the business interests of the big landowners.
The third section of the book called ‘appropriations’ would have been better titled ‘confluence’. The author himself uses the term ‘borrowings’ in the opening passages of the text (p. 87) which is a better description of the architectural evidences of the emergence and growth of a composite culture. It is the opinion of this reviewer that the suitable term to describe the architectural structures/temples which came up as a result of cross-cultural influences should be called ‘borrowings’ rather than ‘appropriations’. This suggests an aggressive process of assimilating other styles rather than the cultural mosaic reflected in Indo-Islamic/Mughal architecture.
While the first section talks of encounters between Islam and the Hindu sectarians groups, resulting in large-scale temple destruction, this section refers to the evolving of an Indo-Islamic architecture especially in the context of the temples built by the Vijayanagara kings. In the context of northern India, the impact of Mughal architecture can be seen in the temples built during the reign of Akbar by his ministers Raja Todar Mal of Gwalior and Raja Mansingh of Amber. The most striking feature is the use of red-sandstone used extensively in Mughal architecture, in the context of temple building. Raja Mansingh’s Govindadeva temple in Brindavan which came under attack during the period of Aurganazeb, had domes, arches and wagon vaults along the pattern adopted in Mughal architecture. The author points out that Akbar’s Fatehpur Sikri had many of these features which get reflected in the Govindadeva temple built around 1590*. The obvious explanation for this sameness of features shared by Mughal Monuments and Hindu temples, as Michell points out, is that perhaps the same builders, masons and crafts-persons were employed at both sites.
The last analytical category used by the author is ‘Innovations’. Here the author brings in the construction of Jayastambha, literally ‘victory tower’, which served as a memorial/temple to those who had sacrificed their life for a larger cause (p. 105). Whether a victory tower can be termed a ‘vertical temple’ as the author tends to do, is however, highly questionable. Such a transposition seems to collapse the distinction between the ‘sacred’ and the ‘secular’. A similar transposition occurs in the case of the ‘chhatris’ which were commemorative structures. In the course of the eighteenth century these chhatris came up in the Maratha territories of Nagpur, Kolhapur Indore, Baroda and Gwalior. The reviewer feels that to call these structures as ‘temple like chhatris’ as the author has done (p. 33) would violate the very spirit of these constructions since one celebrates the undying divinity while the other is a memorial to the dead.
Another curious term coined by the author is that of ‘haveli temples’. He believes that a haveli-temple replicates the Mughal style in its arched entrances, long gateways, and arcades on three sides of the central courtyard. Michell gives the example of the Ramachandra temple at Jaipur in Rajasthan and the Radha-Shyama temple in Vrindavan. The author offers the interesting and plausible explanation for these temples being hidden in havelis. According to him the essential purpose was to save these temples from desecration by the Mughal forces.
In his overview Michell points out that cross-cultural influences in temple architecture, for which he uses the term ‘hybridism’, was the result of the migration of craftsmen—masons, smiths and architects across regions, from the North to the Deccan and into Maratha territory or Bengal. This extremely sensitive observation in the context of stylistic and technological influences on architecture, deserves greater focus and more in-depth studies by future scholarship.
Although this profusely illustrated book looks ‘coffee table’ material, its contents lift it out of this genre. To conclude, Late Temple Architecture of India has altogether been extremely interesting reading with pointers for future directions of research.
* Syed Ali Nadeem Rezavi’s book Fatehpur Sikri Re-visited (OUP, 2013) is a fascinating study of the architectural features of these clusters of monuments.
Vijaya Ramaswamy is Professor and Chairperson at the Centre for Historical Studies, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.