A passport to enlightenment

November 21, 1997

SOUTHERN INDIA: Blue Guide. By George Michell. A and C Black 576pp, Pounds 16.99. ISBN 0 7136 4158 4.

Among the many travel guides to India the new Blue Guide covering south India is the latest and most extensive. Blue Guides on a country or a region appear usually many years after the publication of other guides on the same place, and when the tourist market for that country has proved to be sustainable, if not expanding. The Blue Guides are known for detailed, reliable records of sites of cultural and historic interest, and have been the companion of enlightened travellers for many decades. Until recently the countries covered by Blue Guides were limited, with emphasis on Europe and the old destinations of the Grand Tour, but with the gradual globalisation of the tourist industry in the past 30 years, and the opening up of new markets, there are now Blue Guides to countries of Eastern Europe, Northern Africa and the Middle East, as well as China, Malaysia and Mexico.

South India may be a new destination for the modern tourist, but the trade and wonders of India, particularly its southern regions, have attracted western travellers and travel writers since ancient times. The maritime trade route to India goes back to the classical period, and Roman coins found in south India - as well as Indian coins imitating Roman ones - provide archaeological evidence for what is well known through historical sources. The earliest "travel guides" to south India are those of the early Muslim geographers, such as the 10th-century Abu Sahl of Balkh, and Abu Ishaq of Istakhr. In addition to descriptions of the towns, ports and peoples of the region, they give an account of routes, the stages of the journey and the distances. Later travellers, particularly Marco Polo and the 14th-century Moroccan traveller Ibn Battuta, used such information during their journeys, and their travel accounts created an even greater interest in the region. It was the fame and wealth of the ports of south India which took the Portuguese to the Indian Ocean, and led eventually to the discovery of America.

The modern traveller too needs a handbook, and George Michell's guide follows the usual format of the Blue Guide series, giving a brief account of the history and culture of the region, followed by descriptions of the sites, as well as practical notes on currency, accommodation, and a carefully worded caution to women considering travelling alone. The most valuable asset of this volume, however, lies in the choice of author.

Michell, trained as an architect, is well known in south Indian studies, not only for his achievements in surveying the architectural remains of Vijayanagar, the capital of a powerful late mediaeval south Indian kingdom,but also for his other scholarly work, as well as publications aimed at the general reader, including an earlier guide to the Hindu monuments of India. However, what makes Michell stand above many other scholars is his interest in the region's people, his humility towards Indian culture, and his lack of that self-satisfied sense of superiority which still shines through the work, and conversation, of many other western academics. In the occasional scholarly gatherings he attends, his polite but firm replies to loaded remarks about the "inaccuracy" of work by "locals" make it clear where he stands, but at the same time he does not advocate the sycophantic approach towards the complex culture of south India evident in many other post-colonial publications aimed at a general readership. Michell's even-handed approach, and his many years of close observation of south Indian culture makes him well equipped to take on the task of writing a guide book for an area half the size of Western Europe.

The result is a well-structured guide which will be informative during the journey, as well as a useful source at home, and when planning a tour. The descriptions of the towns and monuments are usually supported by maps and plans. There is still a shortage of town plans, but this is mainly due to the lack of reliable source plans, as published town plans for many smaller towns do not exist, and those which do are often sketchy, out of scale, and unreliable. Nevertheless, accurate town plans are given where available.

There are a few errors, mostly minor. The date of the mosque at Cochin (Kochi) is given as 1420 instead of 1520 - not a printing error, but a reflection of a typing error in an unpublished report on the mosque. Cochin is better known for its Jewish community which migrated from the Middle East via the Indian Ocean trade route before the Christian era. There are two synagogues in Cochin. One founded in 1568 and restored in 1664 is better known and is described in detail. The other, perhaps older, is closed to non-Jews, but contains many Jewish records and inscriptions. This synagogue is not mentioned, although the remaining evidence of the fast-disappearing Jewish heritage in India is of much interest, particularly to Jewish travellers. Near Kodungallur (Cranganor) there is another synagogue, left unused since the immigration of the last families to Israel, but still well preserved. This monument is also omitted, although the temples and the old mosque of the town are well described. A notable error is the omission of the Khalji dynasty from both the text and the historical table, and the attribution of their achievements to the Tughluqs. The Khaljis were the most powerful of the sultans of Delhi, who conquered south India, including Tamil Nadu, and for the first time in history established an empire which ruled over the subcontinent, except the area of the present state of Kerala. The Tughluqs, for their part, lost the region to their local army commanders.

These errors or omissions do not, however, detract from the book's value and usefulness. The only major shortcoming is the lack of a detailed index.The brief index given is to the towns only, making it difficult to find information on particular monuments without prior familiarity with their location. Nor does the index give a simple reference to the page numbers, instead it indicates the state and the subsection of the book where the town is discussed. One is left with the impression that the publishers were in a hurry to distribute the book in time for this year's tourist season. We may hope that in the next edition the few errors would be amended and an extensive index provided.

Mehrdad Shokoohy is reader in architecture and urban studies, University of Greenwich.

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