The central thesis of V.S. Parmar’s book is an important one. In the footsteps of subaltern historians he attempts to shift the focus of architectural history of India away from monumental architecture—palaces, temples, mosques tombs, to ‘lesser buildings’—domestic architecture, market places, inns and community halls. He claims that the ‘meaning of Indian architecture’ had been distorted by earlier historians and ‘one of the purposes of this work is to overcome that inadequacy’. There are several other shibboleths he sets out to tackle. For example, historical structures are usually studied in isolation and not as part of a pattern of settlement in a village, town or city. Therefore, ‘it is commonly assumed that all medieval palaces were located in the centre of towns, but this is not true for Muslim settlements such as Delhi, Agra or Ahmedabad. To describe a Mughal palace without emphasizing and explaining its eccentric location on the periphery is to misrepresent its wider architectural implications’.
Parmar also attacks the ‘one-sided specialist approach’ of art historians who have dominated architectural historiography. Their engagement with architectural matters have only provided limited insights into the creation of architecture. He cites the example of the curvature of the temple shikhara which art historians ascribe to aesthetic or theological concerns of ancient builders, but their views do not contend with the fact that building in stone and corbelling inwards inevitably produces the curvature: ‘This curvature was a matter of engineering and not of aesthetics’.
Parmar therefore suggests that the process of construction of ancient buildings must be studied in the field and not by analysing how they conformed to the prescriptions contained in the Shilpa Shastras. He asserts that these texts are not important to understand architecture because it did not mediate architectural form. Quoting several well regarded scholars he points out that the descriptions in these texts are generally ‘so vague that it is difficult to reconcile them with the examples which have came down to us’. This lack of co-relation between the text and the actual configuration of the building leads him to characterize the Shilpa Shastras as merely theoretical writings of theologians and learned brahmans and distinguishes their texts from the manuals of architectural and artistic practice compiled by builders and craftsmen. ‘In the real world of architectural construction temples were built by imitation: one generation copying the predecessor or one architect his rival, but always with some modification to keep client interest alive. That is why temples in each region show so great a similarity to each other and yet do not match texts’. As the title of this book suggests, Parmar is particularly concerned about the neglect in the study of the sociological (or anthropological) context within which Indian architecture evolved. As an architect specializing in architectural history he says that he was able to redress this lacunae by being ‘gradually drawn into a study of culture and lifestyle for which a knowledge of sociology, archaeology and anthropology became essential’. The strength of the book derives from this shift in perspective which he uses to throw new light on familiar architectural monuments.
Rather than follow the standard division of architectural history into periods according to the dominant religions of the time—Buddhist, Hindu and Islamic, or according to dynasties, such as Gupta and Chalukyan, he categorizes buildings according to their function, to which he adds the religious or social dimensions as and when required. Thus, the structures are classified as places of worship, places of burial, dwellings etc. This enables him to compare within each category buildings of different faiths and different social backgrounds.
The book is divided into five sections. In the first he discusses settlement patterns. Given the diversity of India, he however concentrates only on the Gujarat region. Most of the material in this section is not new because it is reproduced from his earlier publication, Haveli – Wooden Houses and Mansions of Gujarat (Mapin Publishing Pvt. Ltd., Ahmedabad, 1989). He highlights pragmatic issues such as socializing among various communities and security concerns to explain the morphology of settlement patterns. He has undertaken emperical studies of tribal settlements in Gujarat and the City of Ahmedabad to arrive at his conclusions. In this manner he tries to show how the ‘texts’ are of no use to understand spatial characteristics of traditional settlement patterns.
In the next section he focuses on the individual house, residence and palaces—again restricting himself to Western India. An interesting characteristic of the architecture he describes is the absence of both privacy and possessiveness in the spatial delineation of traditional buildings like havelis, for example. He attributes this to the early nomadism of the society, the climate and the imperatives of living in a joint family which does not encourage privacy or possessiveness. In this section he also describes the Mughal and Rajput Palaces which he bases mainly from secondary sources. In one case, for example, he takes issue with G.H.R. Tillotson for relying on the Mansara, a southern text, whereas he says that the text relevant to the context he refers to would be Samaranganasuthradhara of Raja Bhoj. Thus we find him engaged in lively debates at many levels—textual and field observations to make his points.
The third section deals with funerary monuments of Northern India. Parmar begins by describing the various ways of disposing of the dead through history (and pre- history), pointing out the difference between the rituals of a nomadic and a settled community. The monuments he looks at are Buddhist stupas and chortens, Rajput cenotaphs and chhatris, and Islamic mausoleums. The coverage is quite vast so the material in this section is thinly spread. The absence of visual references also makes the aesthetic points he makes difficult to appreciate.
In the fourth section, Parmar covers religious structures—chaityas, monasteries, temples and mosques. Here his speculative digressions leaves even less room for focussing on architectural matters. Many of his assertions are unconvincing, as for example, when he tries to explain the paradox of the decreasing size of the gopurams of South Indian temples as one proceeds to the centre. He claims that the outer gopurams were larger because the outer prakara or surrounding wall was larger in size in comparison to the inner ones, so the outer gateway ‘naturally’ had to be larger. The fact is that these temples were not built at one time as we see them today, so a more ‘natural’ explanation would take into account the human propensity among patrons and builders, to build bigger than their predecessors as the successive outer rings of prakaras were later added to the complex. Even the discussion on the erotic sculptures at Khajuraho and Konarak meanders pointlessly, adding little to the understanding of the architecture of these temples.
It is in the final section on structural materials in Indian architecture that one sees the main contribution of Parmar’s interdisciplinary scholarship and it is, according to me, his main contribution to Indian architectural historiography. This was also the strength of his earlier book, and much of the material has been reproduced from the earlier publication, but this time without the explanatory sketches.
In conceiving and writing this book Parmar has cut a lonely furrow in architectural historiography. Such grand objectives as re-writing history from the perspective of ‘lesser’ buildings require more substantial material to carry weight than what Parmar is able to muster. Unfortunately not many architects have even been interested in historical research let alone follow his footsteps, so the subject remains tentative and speculative. This weakness leaves the field open to traditional scholars of the Shastras and art historians who continue to examine architectural matters through their respective disciplinary lens, thus further substantiating Parmar’s complaint. When he has focused on the materiality of ancient building and analysed how it was constructed, Parmar has made important contributions to architectural knowledge. But his forays into the ‘social history of Indian architecture’ are largely from secondary sources and though interesting to read, are insubstantial in nature. However I do not want to belittle this work because the thesis underpinning it is compelling: he has devoted a lifetime (he died with the publication of this book) to pursuing his vision of architectural history, but it will require much more research by other like-minded architects to achieve the productive results he had expected in writing this book.
A.G. Krishna Menon is an Architect-Urban planner. He was the Director of the TBV School of Habitat Studies, New Delhi.