Great Monuments of India is very much a coffee table book. That being said, it packs a lot of fascinating information into an easy-to-read format, is saturated with incredible images and provides plenty of inspiration for would be travellers.
Great Monuments of India is a selection of 11 sites that best capture – in sandstone and granite and marble – the story of India’s past and its people. This book is not meant to be a comprehensive survey of every significant historical structure found in India; even so, its selected monuments encompass the period from the third century BCE to the middle of the 17th century, presenting an architectural history of India that also explains key religious and political developments. The monuments have a wide geographical spread too, from Buddhist funerary mounds in central India to temples in a South Indian port city and a hilltop citadel in western India. All are masterpieces, encapsulating India’s rich legacy to our shared global heritage.
The above quote comes from the Introduction to Great Monuments of India and is as good a summation of what this book is, aims to achieve and what it is not, as any. The eleven sites it refers to, all of them UNESCO World Heritage sites, are:
Sanchi (construction begun 3rd Century BCE)
Mamallapuram (7th-8th Century CE)
Khajuraho (10th-11th Century CE)
Qutb Minar (12th Century CE)
Konark (13th Century CE)
Hampi (mostly 14th-16th Centuries CE)
Humayun’s Tomb (16th Century CE)
Fatehpur Sikri (15th-16th Century CE)
Amber Fort (16th Century CE)
Red Fort (17th Century CE)
Taj Mahal (17th Century CE)
The Introduction provides a fascinating overview of the history of Indian architecture divided into seven major periods – chronologically; ancient India, the emergence of Buddhist and Jain architecture, a ‘Golden Age’, a transitional period, the Mughal Era, the colonial era and post-independence. Despite this apparent neatness, within each period and transcending them all is the reality that defies separation and categorisation and the abundance of complexity and diversity that students of Indian history are familiar with.
Each of these eleven sites show the unmistakeable signs of the merging of ideas, themes, styles and techniques from varied sources. These influences are both indigenous – in the merging of Buddhist, Jain and Hindu styles for example – and foreign, with influence from Greece, Central Asia, China, Persia and the greater Islamic world.
The chapters for each of the eleven sites begin with descriptions of the era in which they were built and the rulers responsible for their construction. From there the reader is taken on an extensive tour of the site, noting the layout of all the main structures and their features, the materials used and where they were sourced, the relevance and meaning behind the art, the innovation and techniques behind their production.
The most important decision for the creators of a book like this to make is the selection of sites to include. A clear effort has been made in this book to get this right. The sites seem to have been selected on a basis of those that are emblematic of the stages and diversity of Indian history with a little thought also given for the fact that they have also witnessed considerable history. I am no expert to judge what other sites might have been included in addition or at the expense of these eleven though I have some ideas from my own trips around India. Perhaps extending list of sites into the colonial and post-colonial eras may have been interesting.
I have a lot of these large hardcover books. Most of them are not what I would call ‘coffee table’ books; they are very much books to be read and absorbed like regular books and only differ from other books mainly in terms of their size and abundance of illustrations. Great Monuments of India is, however, a coffee table book. It is a book to be enjoyed by being picked up, opened to a random page, looked at, browsed, put down.
As such, it is very visual; every page is full of exquisite photos and diagrams. The writing, not clearly attributed to a specific writer (Dr Narayani Gupta is named as the ‘Consultant’), is in short, factual, to the point paragraphs. At times it was even a little repetitive – something that is less likely to be noticed by a reader treating it like a coffee table book. I wondered at times if it assumes too much prior knowledge of the reader. And, despite the abundance of images in the main section of the book, the introduction could have used a few more to illustrate the things being discussed and the main text could have used more maps to provide greater context. But these are probably the sorts of concerns beyond the mandate of a coffee table book.
Great Monuments of India also has a clear tourist book aspect. Even to the extent of a section at the back providing details about how to get to these sites and what else is in the area that is worth visiting. It was this tourist book aspect that reminded me of why I bought this book in the first place. Apart from containing many beautiful images and fascinating information, I wanted a reference to complement my own memories. Because, out of these eleven sites, I have visited six (I can’t remember why I didn’t see the Red Fort despite ample time in Delhi, while I missed out on Fatehpur Sikri because I had less than two days in Agra with so much to see). So my enjoyment of this book came mostly from reliving the memory of my own visits there and to increase my own appreciation of these sites with some interesting facts.
I believe anyone interested in getting a copy of this book for themselves should do so for similar reasons; either as a quick trip down memory lane or for inspiration for all you hope to one day see yourself.