The Deccan has been underappreciated: George Michell

The leading authority on South Asian architecture talks about the allure of Deccan architecture, his commitment to guidebooks and what lies ahead for the Deccan Heritage Foundation

Updated - January 08, 2024 12:13 pm IST

Published - January 08, 2024 11:37 am IST

A view of the Virupaksha Temple in Hampi

A view of the Virupaksha Temple in Hampi | Photo Credit: John Gollings

George Michell smiles when I bring up Victory City, Salman Rushdie’s marvellously irreverent novel about the mythical kingdom of Bisnaga. So, what does he think of Rushdie’s adroit retelling of the rise and fall of the Vijayanagara Empire?  “It is fun…very wicked,” he says, pointing out that many of the characters who are part of the kingdom’s lore and history, including Krishnadevaraya, the king, and Pampa, the goddess, are part of the book, albeit represented in a fantastical way. 

One thing, however, is the unvarnished truth. “Vijayanagar means Victory City,” he says of this medieval imperial power, whose architecture he has been studying and documenting for over three decades. A name that appears to be more than justified, going by most narratives, including the first-person accounts of foreign travellers such as lbn Batuta, Domingo Paes and Fernao Nuniz. “It was one of the great Hindu empires in India,” agrees George, the co-founder of the Deccan Heritage Foundation, who was recently in the city to deliver a lecture on the city plan of Hampi, the erstwhile capital of the  Vijayanagara empire at the Bangalore International Centre (BIC) in Domlur. 

And though the city lies in ruins today, abandoned after being destroyed in 1565 after the Battle of Talikota, it is also a time capsule of sorts, teleporting a visitor straight into this lost world. “One reason to study the Hampi site is that it was left, unlike Delhi or Hyderabad, which were rebuilt after being destroyed,” he says. “Everything you see there was built before 1565 and hasn’t been altered in later times, which means it is an ideal place to study,” believes George. 

The heritage of the Deccan 

It must have been a nippy day in December 1970 when George, then 26, got off a train in Badami, once the capital of the Chalukyas, the classical Indian dynasty which ruled parts of the Deccan between the 6th and 12th centuries. “We got there and started to measure away at the temples there,” says the Australian-born,  who had arrived there to study this ancient site as part of his PhD thesis. 

Though trained as an architect, graduating with a Bachelor of Architecture degree from The University of Melbourne in 1968, he did not enjoy working as one, he says. Instead, he found himself getting interested in working with ancient Indian architecture. So, he left Melbourne and went to London to earn a PhD at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). “To do a PhD, you have to pick a topic, so I thought about the temples around Badami,” said George, who had first seen these temples when he had backpacked through India as a student a few years earlier. “That is how I began working in this part of the world,” he says. 

George Michell

George Michell

Today, George is a leading authority on South Asian architecture and has written, co-authored and edited innumerable books about myriad sites of history and heritage in the country, including the Elephanta caves off the coast of Mumbai, Rajput palaces, the monuments and gardens of the Mughals and the temple towns of Tamil Nadu. 

The diverse architectural traditions of the Deccan Plateau, the triangular area sandwiched between the Western and Eastern Ghats, encompassing parts of Karnataka, Maharashtra, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh and Goa, is another thing that he has repeatedly written about. Since the Deccan is located between the North and the South, influences from both segue into it, says George, adding that the rocky terrain also allows access to “wonderful” materials like sandstone and granite. However, “It has also been underappreciated,” he says, recalling how when he began work in Hampi with the American archaeologist John Fritz in 1981, they had to camp amidst the ruins because there was nowhere to stay. “People didn’t go there. I remember them saying that it is not important,” he says.

Stepwells in Hyderabad restored by DHF

Stepwells in Hyderabad restored by DHF | Photo Credit: Maniyarasan R

And yet, as we now know, the city, which was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1986,  is full of architectural wonders, just like many other pockets of the Deccan Plateau, home to around 11 such sites. “We are not saying that the Deccan is the only important area,” says George. “But it is one that we feel very involved in because we are travelling, studying and living here.”

The Deccan Heritage Foundation

 In 2011, George and architectural historian Helen Philon founded the Deccan Heritage Foundation with Stephane Bloch Saloz as co-founder. “We always felt we should do something for the conservation of little-known aspects of Deccan,” he says of the organisation, whose website states that the foundation partners with experts and local residents to “protect, restore and promote the heritage of this rich region of South India through active architectural conservation projects that are socially minded and benefit those who live amongst them.”

A vital function of the foundation, an aspect George is keenly involved in, is the publication of various informative books about the region. “We feel very committed to the guidebook,” he says with a laugh. According to him, these small, modestly-priced and attractively-produced books are useful for people to learn and discover more about the places they visit. “It is often difficult to get a good guide there. This way, they can read the book and go around and see things,” he says of the books available in print and e-book format today. 

The Deccan Heritage Foundation also conducts talks and tours of the region and is even in talks with Digitour, an app that provides an immersive audiovisual guided tour exclusively of heritage monuments. “We are trying to work out how to collaborate with them,” says George, who believes that the general interest in history and heritage, especially among young people, has been steadily growing. 

Jayalakshmi Vilas Mansion

Jayalakshmi Vilas Mansion | Photo Credit: Surendra Kumar

Over the years, the foundation has been instrumental in restoring multiple heritage sites in the Deccan, including the Qanat/Karez water system of Bidar, the Sadar Sofa, Khwaja Bande Nawaz Dargah in Gulbarga and the architectural model of the former British Residency in Hyderabad. DHF’s most recently completed project was the restoration of the 16th century Gagan Mahal pavilion, Anegundi, from the Vijayanagara period, part of the Government of Karnataka’s ‘Adopt a Monument’ scheme. According to DHF India’s chairperson, Ambassador Latha Reddy, who was felicitated for this effort by the chief minister at a recent function in Bangalore, the next major project in Karnataka is the restoration of the historic Jayalakshmi Vilas Mansion in Mysuru. They are also working on a couple of projects in Hyderabad, continuing to grow their documentation and archival centre, and creating more educational books, the latest of which is a new guidebook on Mysuru and Srirangapatna, which will be launched in the city this month.

Rang Mahal Pavilion, Hyderabad

Rang Mahal Pavilion, Hyderabad | Photo Credit: Courtesy DHF

While the challenges of heritage conservation, whether it is funding, negotiating red tape or dealing with contested history and political volatility, continue, George believes that their work has made a difference. “The word ‘Deccan’ has a very different meaning today than what it was when we started,” he says. “We now understand that it is a special part of India and a tradition that is worth learning about.”

A panel discussion with the authors of the Mysuru and Srirangapatna guidebook, Dr. George Michell, Malavika Murthy, Caleb Simmons and Shivendra Urs will be held at  6:30pm at the Museum of Art & Photography (MAP), Bangalore on January 17. There will also be a book launch and illustrated talk by Dr. George Michell on January 18, 6:30pm at the Bangalore International Centre (BIC).

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