Documents of a dying world

Traditional Buildings of India
June 18, 1999

Few countries in the world can boast such a diverse architectural heritage as India. This is partly explained by the immense geographic scope of the country, extending from the alpine Himalayan valleys in the north to the tropical coast of Kerala in the south, and from the arid desert of Rajasthan in the west to the rain forests of Bengal and Assam in the east. The survival of this legacy into recent times has only been possible because of the comparative underdevelopment of India's rural districts. These regions are now experiencing profound economic change, with the result that buildings in mud, thatch, timber and terracotta are being rapidly replaced by concrete and corrugated iron.

Given the richness of this legacy it is saddening to discover a scarcity of professional publications dealing with India's indigenous architecture. Where are the books and articles documenting the painted mud houses of Orissa, the carved stone mansions of Rajasthan, or the intricately worked wooden houses of the Chamba valley in the Himalayas? While there is growing concern among architects and conservationists in India about these fast-disappearing indigenous traditions, their efforts seem to have resulted only in unpublished reports, such as those commissioned by Intach, India's most active heritage agency.

For all these reasons it is a pleasure to welcome this publication. Although the authors, Ilay Cooper and Barry Dawson, do not presume to offer more than an illustrated overview of the subject, readers should be grateful for the wide range of material, including generous and interesting photographs in both colour and black and white.

The book opens with a survey of the development of Indian architecture over more than 2,000 years. While the treatment is inevitably oversimplified, the authors make a useful distinction between kaccha , or poorly built and temporary architecture, and pukka , or permanent architecture. The next chapter surveys building materials and construction techniques across the whole country, equipping readers to follow the discussions yet to come.

The core of the book is represented by seven illustrated chapters, each devoted to a different region. The texts sketch the climatic, historical and social background for each zone before giving the salient features of sample houses and mansions, temples and mosques. Among the most striking buildings are the thatched granaries in the Churu district of Rajasthan, the vividly painted doorways of the shrines in Ahmedabad in Gujarat, the carved wooden gable of the Kodungallur temple in Kerala, and the decaying cement facade of a mansion in Puri in Orissa.

While the authors give sufficient details of techniques and styles for readers to distinguish different regional traditions, some readers might have appreciated more architectural plans, as well as maps of villages, towns and cities to show the spatial context of the buildings. A new generation of researchers is urgently required to record this information before it disappears altogether.

George Michell is a scholar specialising in the art and architecture of the Indian and Islamic worlds.

Traditional Buildings of India

Author - Ilay Cooper and Barry Dawson
ISBN - 0 500 34161 3
Publisher - Thames and Hudson
Price - £26.00
Pages - 192

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