India II

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Originally uploaded by vincusses.

This is the Rugabai stepwell at Adalaj in Ahmedabad, a stunning 15th century construction that Yatin Pandya toured us through last week. Stepwells were simply ways of getting water, but they were turned by Hindu craftsmen into architectural promenades of hidden and revealing views, repeating columns and frames, and a kinesthetic journey into spirituality and origins.

I remarked to Yatin that this tradition of “building down” five to seven stories may have been an inspiration for the great Kailash temple at Ellora, which is the most amazing piece of architecture in my experience, a four-story temple on a 300 by 225 foot site carved out of the moutainside FROM THE TOP DOWN 1300 years ago. I was shocked that Yatin had no theory for this, and perhaps the link between rock-cut cave architecture, which dates back over two millennia and the trabeated dugout stepwells of the 15th through 17th centuries is formulaic formalistic reductionism, although Yatin was typically generous in giving my idea space in his philosophy.

The traditions survived in the forms of Sharkej Roza and the Sati Sayeed mosque, whose famed tree of life jali window is the symbol of the city. Many of the 16th century sites were built for Muslim overlords by Hindu craftsmen, and like many of the landmark temples here, are thus examples of Indo-Saracenic architecture, details derived clearly from Arabic tradition while the forms and construction methods are more clearly Hindu.

I set off again this week for the National Trust meetings in New Orleans, and I am wont to list the similarities and differences between preservation in the United States and India. I am a person who sees similarity rather than difference; who finds the experiences and objects of experience almost infinitely analogous. But there are differences, as noted in the last blog, like skilled traditional craftsmen (they have them, we don’t, in general), and local historic districts (we have them, they don’t except in Mumbai) which I believe to be the most important aspect of preservation.

But perhaps the most important difference is the fulcrum that gives us the preservationist impulse: the disjuncture of tradition and modernity, a heaving chasm that began in Europe in the 18th century (or perhaps the 15th) and continues to operate in the developing world whereby industrialization and urbanization remove people from the traditional rhythms, social norms and beliefs of the static agricultural world for the ever-changing relativity of urbanity. You see, in the U.S. and Europe this transition is complete and there are arguably no surviving traditionalisms, only those that have been laboriously reconstructed or revitalized in the last 50 years, or perhaps the Amish and Navajo and like groups. In India, the urbanization process is quite incomplete, and traditions survive. Yatin writes that Indians live in three time zones – past, present and future – and their traditions are all still very much alive, never Williamsburged or Mount Vernoned but continuous.

Why then, preserve? It would seem the key preservationist impulse: nostalgia occasioned by loss, is absent in India, or present only for a small sector of the populace. And that may be true. I prefer to think that in India, as in the Historic District/Heritage Area movement in the U.S., that preservation is NO LONGER CAUSED BY NOSTALGIA but has in effect become a manner for expressing the continuity of tradition and history. But that may be wishful thinking. Twice we ate outside under the stars, traditional Gujarati thalis with infinite dishes and surrounded by cultural performances of music and puppetry and magic and dance but it was, in the end, an upper-middle-class restaurant that had preserved these intangible cultural traditions as a nostalgia-curative flavoring for meals enjoyed by those who have successfully made the transition to modernity.

And so again I wonder if this is continuity or disjuncture after all. I do not find the fact of commercialization itself is shameful – commodity and commodification are historic and perhaps even traditional. But perhaps the thalis, as spicy and delightful as they were, are in fact Williamsburgers of a sort.

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