Hooked on History! - George Michell

George Michell, one of the world’s leading historians of Indian architecture, is a founding trustee of the Deccan Heritage Foundation (DHF), an organisation dedicated to promoting and preserving the Deccan’s culture and history. Having studied architecture in Melbourne, and Indian Art and Archaeology at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, he has conducted research at numerous heritage sites in India. His work includes more than 20 years documenting the ruins of Hampi and Vijayanagara together with the American archaeologist, Dr John M. Fritz.

Among his many publications are The Hindu Temple (1988), The Royal Palaces of India (1994), The Penguin Guide to the Monuments of India (1999), Architecture and Art of the Deccan Sultanates (1999), Princely Rajasthan (2004), The Majesty of Mughal Decoration (2007), Mughal Architecture & Gardens (2011), Falaknuma Palace, Hyderabad (2011), Late Temple Architecture of India, 15th to 19th Centuries (2015), Mansions of Chettinad (2017), and Buddhist Rock-Cut Monasteries of the Western Ghats (2017).

George is also the co-author for Islamic Architecture of Deccan India with Helen Philon, a lavishly produced book illustrated with splendid photographs by Antonio Martinelli. He is currently at work on the next major publication for DHF, Temples of Deccan India: 6th to 13th Centuries.

When did you first realise your interest in history and architecture?
As a 21-year-old architect in Melbourne, I made a trip to India in 1966 and travelled all over the country to visit historical sites. On my way back home, I passed through Bangkok and visited Angor Wat. After that, I was totally hooked on temple architecture and resolved to study more. Two years later, this interest brought me to the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, where I became friends with Helen Philon, a fellow student, who co-founded DHF.

What were some of your initial challenges while establishing DHF?
It was challenging to form a group of like-minded people of different backgrounds and to decide what initiatives we could successfully pursue. This was especially true, considering we are a charity with only modest financial resources.

Tell us a bit about your work in Hampi.
I began in 1980 with a small group of architecture students and a photographer. After I met the American archaeologist John Fritz, I returned each year for up to two months up until the winter of 2001-02. This more than 20-year work period was only possible since the Government of Karnataka Archaeology Department provided us with a camp in the middle of the ruins, where we were accommodated in tents, and then thatched huts, and south Indian vegetarian food provided by a mess cook! We must have had more than 200 young people at the camp, as well as visiting historians and other scholars, so it was like a field school.

Our mission was to map and measure the ruins of medieval Vijayanagara; we were not involved with excavation or restoration work. As you can imagine, during these years, we amassed a huge amount of data, much of which we published in reports, articles in scholarly journals and a series of monographs that we sponsored under our Vijayanagara Research Project. John Fritz and I have also co-authored a guidebook on the site which has become a hugely popular publication, selling several thousand copies each year!

Our field work at Hampi has now come to an end. We no longer spend the winter months in the camp at Hampi, but have relocated to more comfortable accommodations in Goa. But the work goes on; John is editing the data for more than 270 archaeological maps and we are in the process of donating all our pencil and ink drawings, photographs, and notebooks to the India Office and Oriental Collections of the British Library in London.

Which heritage site is most close to your heart?
Apart from Hampi, where we spent so many years, I’ve always had a soft spot for Badami and the surrounding temples at Pattadakal and Aihole, since these are the sites where I conducted the field work for my PhD in the early 1970s. I try to return to the Badami area whenever I come. Each time, I am reminded of the architectural variety of the temples and the sheer quality of their carvings, let alone the beauty of their natural setting. Pattadakal is now on the UNESCO World Heritage List, but in fact all the Early Chalukya monuments at Badami and Aihole deserve should be included.

Why guidebooks? What were your initial thoughts before producing them?
Many of us despair at the lack of information and depth of information available when we visit historical sites in India. Having a reliable guidebook at hand is invaluable to make sure we know the background of a particular monument and what to look out for as we proceed through and around it. I think that there are many visitors to Indian sites, both Indian and foreign, who would agree. And for this reason, I’ve been involved with guidebook writing for some years, beginning with my “Southern India” for the UK Blue Guides company. However, condensing all the essential information for a site or monument is a task equal to writing a full-scale illustrated book, since it has to condense all the data into a small format and a limited number of pages. But I always think of the reader as interested and wanting to be informed. It is quite a challenge!        – as told to Sumana