Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 3, 1999
George Michell The Royal Palaces of India New York: Thames and Hudson, 1998. 232 pp.; 250 color ills.; 44 b/w ills. Paper $39.95 (0500279640)

George Michell has been publishing on aspects of South Asian architecture for more than twenty years, offering volumes of often broad scope on little known or underdeveloped topics and monuments. From his many publications on the remains and archaeological activities at the South Indian site of Vijayanagara in particular, but also Chandragiri, Firuzabad, and Deccani architecture to his volume on south Indian architecture published as part of the New Cambridge History of India (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995), Michell has produced valuable documentation of the architecture of India, especially the south. The Royal Palaces of India is a welcome addition to the material available on secular architecture of India in general and palace architecture in particular. It is a beautifully produced volume illustrated almost entirely with color photographs created specifically for this publication.

This publication is not exactly new. The book was originally released in 1994 in hardcover; the current version is a paperback reprint. The quality has not suffered: the format is identical, the book is still bound, the paper is the same quality, and the photographs are, to this reviewer’s eyes, actually preferable to those in the original volume, where strong contrast caused some detail to be lost in the shadows. It is intended to be visually appealing and indeed it is, with more than 200 color plates that tantalize us with views of palaces built over the entire geographic range of the subcontinent from the fifteenth century until well into the twentieth century.

Scholarship on South Asian architecture has long been dominated by religious subjects, from ancient Buddhist monuments to Hindu temples and Islamic mosques. Secular architecture has begun to receive greater attention only more recently, with Michell playing a key role in this development. His involvement with the Vijayanagara Research Project, a multidisciplinary team excavating, analyzing, translating, and publishing material on Vijayanagara, capital of the kingdom of the same name in South India between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries, has yielded numerous publications on this site. Vijayanagara is unique in South Asia for its extensive remains and for what it has revealed of both religious and secular architecture in ancient India. The intersections and apparent interaction of both types of structures within parts of the vast site clarify the interrelatedness of religious and political functions under the aegis of the South Asian ruler, functions that were already well known from the surviving literature but rarely discussed in terms of surviving architecture. Vijayanagara spells these interrelations out “on the ground,” as revealed by the extensive plans of the site that have been published and analyzed by Michell and his colleague John Fritz.

Work at Vijanagara has also provided evidence for the nature of palace architecture prior to the fifteenth century, to which the earliest surviving remains of other palaces in South Asia date. Those remains elsewhere were either built under or inspired by rulers whose origins were outside the subcontinent and who introduced the use of stone for royal architecture. It has been assumed that earlier rulers in South Asia depended on other, more ephemeral, materials for creating their own dwellings, while reserving the use of stone for the abodes of the deities. Vijayanagara confirms that assumption; archaeological excavation at the site has revealed palace buildings of which only the stone foundations survive, but those indicate that the pillars were of wood, floors were covered with polished plaster, and roofs were covered by tile, all materials whose use were superseded when stone became the preferred material for palaces. Vijayanagara has also provided evidence of the mingling of these earlier architectural types with new forms introduced from Islamic courts in the neighboring Deccan, and thus exemplifies a model of the fertile exchange of architectural ideas and styles in a dynamic way. Through his deep knowledge of Vijayanagara and his extensive travels to and work on other sites, Michell has come to know Indian palace architecture well.

Other publications on South Asian secular architecture in recent years have tended to be more focused than this volume, such as a number of important scholarly studies of Rajput and Mughal architecture, which survey more restricted geographical and historical limits. Michell’s contribution here is to bring together into one succinct volume a geographically and chronologically broad and diverse body of material and to thereby make us aware of developments in palace architecture over time, from a tradition of secular building in ephemeral materials that no longer survives to the various accommodations to modernity constructed by Indian princes in the twentieth century.

The first sections of the book serve as context for the second. In these brief introductory chapters Michell aptly introduces the palace as a setting for royal life. In “Divine Power of Kings” Michell addresses many aspects of the symbolism of kingship in India, touching on the ways that dress, ritual, and courtly activity, as well as architecture, both support and shape the power of kings. The danger of such treatment, of course, is its tendency to essentialize kingship in South Asia and to ignore the changing developments over time and across regions. Nonetheless, his discussion of palace architecture as described in the Sanskrit architectural texts called the vastushastra, where it shares conceptually in the same cosmic symbolism as Hindu temples, underscores the notion that kings were invested with roles well beyond their often limited temporal power, and that palace architecture could also serve as a manifestation of those roles. Palaces, after all, are perhaps the most public, visible, and permanent expressions of a how a ruler wishes to be perceived. A book that spans the range of palace architecture in India thus invites us to consider Indian kingship in terms of what architectural form and style might tell us about these rulers.

In the following introductory sections Michell addresses the different functions that palaces encompassed, including “Defense and Security,” “Formal Reception,” “Royal Worship,” “Privacy and Pleasure,” and “Essential Services.” The nature of his task here requires that detail and difference are lost in the desire for brevity. At the same time, his desire to draw out the specific ways in which palaces functioned, and the needs they were required to accommodate, is valuable in developing the context for the description of various palaces that follows and provides the main content of the book.

Part Two, “The Buildings: Historical and Regional Traditions,” begins with a section titled “Palaces Lost and Imagined,” which attempts to describe how the countless palaces built in India prior to the fifteenth century must have looked. Michell draws on evidence from archaeology, from architecture as it is envisioned in early relief sculpture, and from literature of various types describing palaces. The remainder of the book is a series of succinct descriptions of the buildings themselves, divided into “Early Muslim Strongholds,” “Imperial Mughal Capitals,” “Rajput Forts,” “Citadels of the South,” “Princely Residences,” and “The Palaces Today,” the last a welcome reminder that a fair number of these structures are still in use, some as dwellings inhabited by the descendents of former rulers, some recycled to other purposes, including hotels. A particular strength of these sections is the quality of the photographs, even if necessity permits only selective views of selected examples. Most of the plans included in these sections have been published before, but not all in one place. Michell’s descriptions of the form, plan, and development of the palaces are lucid and straightforward; he avoids the cumbersome Sanskrit terminology for architectural elements that has been adopted elsewhere. At the same time, the nomenclature for buildings and other elements within palace complexes is adopted from the previous scholarship without question, to which some may object. But his intent here is not to offer new interpretations of such issues. Rather, he brings this material together so that it may be considered as a body, which is accomplished in a manner accessible to the general reader and the specialist alike. The brief glossary of Indian terms, the index and a good bibliography enhance the usefulness of the book.

The scope of Michell’s book is both its strength and its shortcoming. In its attempt to be comprehensive in a manner not previously attempted, it must be selective in its choice and brief in its treatment of monuments. It does not attempt to analyze the morphology or meaning of architectural form or plan within a region, across regions, or across time. Yet its very stunning and succinct presentation of such scope is also an important and vivid reminder of how much remains to be learned about palaces in South Asia and a challenge to other specialists to pursue such issues.

Mary Heston
College of Charleston