Friday25 July 2014

Building a Library 49: Encyclopaedia of Indian Temple Architecture, edited by Michael W Meister and MA Dhaky

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Robert Harbison picks 50 books that should feature in any architectural library.

Encyclopaedia of Indian Temple Architecture
South India, Upper Dravidadesa, Early Phase
Edited by Michael W Meister and MA Dhaky, 1986

These cumbersome volumes are the best place outside India to get an idea of the astonishing wealth of Indian medieval architecture. Two hefty tomes, one of text, the other of plates, they treat just a tiny area in central Karnataka less than a day’s drive from Goa.

Badami, Mahakuta, Pattadakal and Aihole aren’t exactly household names, which only makes it more thrilling to stumble across them. Badami’s ring of temples around a lake works like a big landscape garden. Mahakuta’s crowd of half-ruined buildings is buried in forest. Pattadakal is an outdoor museum, the richest architecture in the smallest area anywhere in India. Athol’s antiquities are threaded inextricably through the village, with shops leaning against the ruins and cows in the sanctuaries.

The encyclopaedia pays no attention to setting or the nearness and farness of towns. It leaves out the marvellous sculpted caves at Badami because they don’t count as full-fledged buildings. Luckily it makes an exception for the stupendous rock temple at Ellora, excavated from the top down out of a cliff. Only a tenuous thread connects this wonder with the little temples further south, but so what?

I can’t resist quoting from the description of this building, a lump of rock found in the landscape and sculpted out of recognition:
“The upapitha proper is made out of a kumbha-shaped jagati, a ksudra-vagani, tall kandhara, and plain pattika. What lends a strong individual character is the presence of large elephant figures (Plate 300) intermixed with simhas and vyalas in the kandhara (Plates 298, 301).”

You can see why I pored over the incredibly rich plates, plans and drawings for a long time before venturing far into such linguistic thickets. Now I’ve been through 30 dense pages on Ellora line by line, a trek that has brought it into dreamy focus without destroying its mystery.


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