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Southern India in historical focus

Print edition : Dec 27, 1997 T+T-

Southern India: Blue Guide by George Michell; A&C Black, London; W.W. Norton, New York; October 1997; pages 576; Pounds 16.99.

THE book, Southern India is the first of the Blue Guide series on the Indian subcontinent to be published. It is also the first authentic guidebook in a single compilation to the historical wealth of the States of Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Pondicherry, Kerala and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. This Blue Guide, written by the art historian George Michell, nets an extremely wide geographical area. Despite this, it has done an excellent job in ordering the abundant and bewilderingly diverse historical offerings of this vast region into a scheme - or several schemes - of travel and sightseeing for the historical traveller in southern India.

Michell's guide is aimed at the "enthusiastic but not necessarily experienced traveller, eager to take an interest in one or other aspects of southern Indian history, religion, archaeology, architecture and art." It is obviously written with the foreign traveller in mind - an introduction gives information on everything from passport formalities to advice to women travellers on sexual harassment (shamefully, a very real hazard for foreign women travelling in India). The substantive part of the book, however, deals with the itineraries or "travel hubs" for almost 400 separate localities, each with a map, a description of the historical sites in the vicinity and suggestions on suitable places to stay.

A major contribution of the Blue Guide to enlarging the sphere of popular interest in southern India's history is in integrating the smaller, off-the-main-line historical site or centre into the itinery of the serious traveller. There has, over the last two decades, been a surge of scholarly interest and writing on what were earlier considered historical sites of secondary importance, and the Blue Guide reflects this new interest. Many of these sites have been opened up owing to the phenomenal expansion of the communication network in recent times - once inaccessible sites in remote towns and villages can now be reached by rail and road, and there are places to stay at most smaller destinations.

Thanks to its rather comprehensive regional coverage, the Guide offers several informed travel options to the historical traveller with time and budget constraints. For example, if a traveller has a particular interest in Jainism and its growth in Karnataka, it would be relatively easy to choose site clusters of Jain monuments from the presentation provided by the Guide; or if a traveller has a special interest in rock-cut monuments across the geographical spread of southern India, the Guide saves the person a lot of time. A traveller who visits the Brihadiswara temple in Thanjavur, perhaps the most stunning example of Chola architecture, would be urged, thanks to the nature of the coverage in the Guide, to also see Tiruvaiyaru, Kumbakonam, Kilaiyur, Pullamangai, Swamimalai, Darasuram, Gangaikonda-cholapuram and Tiruvarur, to gain further insights to the evolution of Chola temple architecture.

Although the Blue Guide does provide information on localities of non-historical interest - hill stations, wildlife sanctuaries and so on - its primary focus is historical. Michell has provided a careful and competent description of the historical remains of southern India - monuments, both secular and religious; excavated archaeological sites and so on. This is the strength of the book; it is also its fundamental weakness.

The Blue Guide gives us a somewhat static sense of the past, of its grandeur and high life, perhaps, but it fails to people that past for us. Do extant monuments provide clues to the social and economic structure of early societies? Take Hampi, which contains the historical remains of a 16th century city. Michell gives us a thorough account of the monuments of the site, but conveys no sense of the economic rhythm and social flux of a flourishing capital city that attracted merchants and travellers from all over the world.

The explanatory notes to the sites and monuments in the Blue Guide do not give more than a brief political account of the dynasty to which the monument belongs, but there is nothing on the economic structure of that society and how it was organised; or indeed on any other aspect of the society, for instance, its technological or craft traditions. Thus Swamimalai finds a place in the Guide only for its Kapardiswara temple, and not for the nearly 1,000-year old bronze-making craft tradition of the Cholas that is still practised there. Similarly, the traveller to the temple town of Kancheepuram is not directed to see the art of silk weaving, another age-old tradition.

The narrowness of Michell's historical perspective is evident in his introduction to the general history of the region, which constitutes the first part of the book. It is a rather dull report on the rise and fall of various dynasties that ruled different parts of southern India. The view of Indian history as a succession of dynasties follows a certain logic. If warring Indian princes brought chaos and civil war to 18th century south India, it follows that British rule brought necessary order. Michell, it appears, subscribes to this archaic and incorrect view. (The 19th century, the period of British rule "brought peace and prosperity to southern India," he says.)

The Blue Guide remains an excellent introduction to the art and architecture of southern India. Its price puts it out of reach for the average Indian traveller; an Indian edition could well help solve that problem.