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It is in vain, perhaps, to expect that the Literature or the Arts of any other people can be so interesting to even the best educated Europeans as those of their own country. Until it is forced on their attention, few are aware how much education does to concentrate attention within a very narrow field of observation. We become familiar in the nursery with the names of the heroes of Greek and Roman history. In every school their history and their arts are taught, memorials of their greatness meet us at every turn through life, and their thoughts and aspirations become, as it were, part of ourselves. So, too, with the Middle Ages: their religion is our religion; their architecture our architecture, and their history fades so insensibly into our own, that we can draw no line of demarcation that would separate us from them. How different is the state of feeling, when from this familiar home we turn to such a country as India. Its geography is hardly taught in schools, and seldom mastered perfectly; its history is a puzzle; its literature a mythic dream; its arts a quaint perplexity. But, above all, the names of its heroes and great men are so unfamiliar and so unpronounceable, that, except a few of those who go to India, scarcely any ever become so acquainted with them, that they call up any memories which are either pleasing or worth dwelling upon.
Were it not for this, there is probably no country—out of Europe at least—that would so well repay attention as India. None, where all the problems of natural science or of art are presented to us in so distinct and so pleasing a form. Nowhere does nature show herself in such grand and such luxurious features, and nowhere does humanity exist in more varied and more pleasing conditions. Side by side with the intellectual Brahman caste, and the chivalrous Rajput, are found the wild Bhîl and the naked Gond, not antagonistic and warring
one against the other, as elsewhere, but living now as they have done for thousands of years, each content with his own lot, and prepared to follow, without repining, in the footsteps of his forefathers.
It cannot, of course, be for one moment contended that India ever reached the intellectual supremacy of Greece, or the moral greatness of Rome; but, though on a lower step of the ladder, her arts are more original and more varied, and her forms of civilisation present an ever-changing variety, such as are nowhere else to be found. What, however, really renders India so interesting as an object of study is that it is now a living entity. Greece and Rome are dead and have passed away, and we are living so completely in the midst of modern Europe, that we cannot get outside to contemplate it as a whole. But India is a complete cosmos in itself; bounded on the north by the Himalayas, on the south by the sea, on the east by impenetrable jungle, and only on the west having one door of communication, across the Indus, open to the other world. Across that stream, nation after nation have poured their myriads into her coveted domain, but no reflex waves ever mixed her people with those beyond her boundaries.
In consequence of all this, every problem of anthropology or ethnography can be studied here more easily than anywhere else; every art has its living representative, and often of the most pleasing form; every science has its illustration, and many on a scale not easily matched elsewhere. But, notwithstanding all this, in nine cases out of ten, India and Indian matters fail to interest, because they are to most people new and unfamiliar. The rudiments have not been mastered when young, and, when grown up, few men have the leisure or the inclination to set to work to learn the forms of a new world, demanding both care and study; and till this is attained, it can hardly be hoped that the arts and the architecture of India will interest a European reader to the same extent as those styles treated of in the previous volumes of this work.
Notwithstanding these drawbacks, it may still be possible to present the subject of Indian architecture in such a form as to be interesting, even if not attractive. To do this, however, the narrative form must be followed as far as is compatible with such a subject. All technical and unfamiliar names must be avoided wherever it is possible to do so, and the whole accompanied with a sufficient number of illustrations to enable its forms to be mastered without difficulty. Even if this is attended to, no one volume can tell the whole of so varied and so complex a history. Without preliminary or subsequent study it can hardly be expected that so new and so vast a subject can be grasped; but one volume may contain a complete outline of the whole, and enable any one who wishes for more information to know where to look for it, or how to appreciate it when found.
Whether successful or not, it seems well worth while that an attempt should be made to interest the public in Indian architectural art; first, because the artist and architect will certainly acquire broader and more varied views of their art by its study than they can acquire from any other source. More than this, any one who masters the subject sufficiently to be able to understand their art in its best and highest forms, will rise from the study with a kindlier feeling towards the nations of India, and a higher—certainly a correcter—appreciation of their social status than could be obtained from their literature, or from anything that now exists in their anomalous social and political position.
Notwithstanding all this, many may be inclined to ask, Is it worth while to master all the geographical and historical details necessary to unravel so tangled a web as this, and then try to become so familiar with their ever-varying forms as not only to be able to discriminate between the different styles, but also to follow them through all their ceaseless changes?
My impression is that this question may fairly be answered in the affirmative. No one has a right to say that he understands the history of architecture who leaves out of his view the works of an immense portion of the human race, which has always shown itself so capable of artistic development. But, more than this, architecture in India is still a living art, practised on the principles which caused its wonderful development in Europe in the 12th and 13th centuries; and there, consequently, and there alone, the student of architecture has a chance of seeing the real principles of the art in action. In Europe, at the present day, architecture is practised in a manner so anomalous and abnormal that few, if any, have hitherto been able to shake off the influence of a false system, and to see that the art of ornamental building can be based on principles of common sense; and that, when so practised, the result not only is, but must be, satisfactory. Those who have an opportunity of seeing what perfect buildings the ignorant uneducated natives of India are now producing, will easily understand how success may be achieved, while those who observe what failures the best educated and most talented architects in Europe are constantly perpetrating, may, by a study of Indian models, easily see why this must inevitably be the result. It is only in India that the two systems can now be seen practised side by side—the educated and intellectual European always failing because his principles are wrong, the feeble and uneducated native as inevitably succeeding because his principles are right. The Indian builders think only of what they are doing, and how they can best produce the effect they desire. In the European system it is considered more essential that a building, especially in its details, should be a correct copy of something else,
than good in itself or appropriate to its purpose; hence the difference in the result.
In one other respect India affords a singularly favourable field to the student of architecture. In no other country of the same extent are there so many distinct nationalities, each retaining its old faith and its old feelings, and impressing these on its art. There is consequently no country where the outlines of ethnology as applied to art can be so easily perceived, or their application to the elucidation of the various problems so pre-eminently important. The mode in which the art has been practised in Europe for the last three centuries has been very confusing. In India it is clear and intelligible. No one can look at the subject without seeing its importance, and no one can study the art as practised there without recognising what the principles of the science really are.
In addition, however, to these scientific advantages, it will undoubtedly be conceded by those who are familiar with the subject that for certain qualities the Indian buildings are unrivalled. They display an exuberance of fancy, a lavishness of labour, and an elaboration of detail to be found nowhere else. They may contain nothing so sublime as the hall at Karnac, nothing so intellectual as the Parthenon, nor so constructively grand as a mediæval cathedral; but for certain other qualities—not perhaps of the highest kind, yet very important in architectural art—the Indian buildings stand alone. They consequently fill up a great gap in our knowledge of the subject, which without them would remain a void.