Beyond time and history
CAPTORS OF TIME Monuments of the Millennium: Achala Moulik; UBS Publisher Distributors Ltd., 5,Ansari Road, New Delhi-110002. Rs. 450.
MONUMENTS ARE historic marks of mankind and they connect man with time. They are symbolic of the periods when they were built, and of the then creative and artistic expressions of the best spirits and minds.
They are physical remains of the culture and civilisation of human chronology. They also reflect both the creative and destructive mentality of mankind at that time. There are thousands of monuments scattered all over the world standing as testimony to the transcendence of the ravages of time. It requires abundant erudition and understanding of the history, geography and culture to select the best ones among them spreading to millennia.
The book under review clearly brings out the erudition of the author in sifting the wheat from chaff, by selecting 34 monuments of the past millennia from different parts of the world, which are wide apart geographically, but stand out as the best pieces of humanity's contribution to history. Monuments also remind us of "man's recurrent proneness to criminal folly".
The world heritage list of the UNESCO has been the basic guiding factor, but the author has made her own selection based on the factors of historic significance traversing the gamut of human aspirations. The unique quality or representative character of a monument, architectural style, association with a historic event and universal relevance are factors that guided the fairness in selection. The book also rightly describes monuments as chroniclers of events.
There is also a sense of universality of the monuments in that despite the differences of race, creed and class, there is a universal urge to preserve the heritage of the monuments. The differences in style, texture and structure and purpose of the monuments are also brought out along with the qualitative transformation of the monuments in terms of purpose, like the conversion of the greatest church of the Christendom-Hagia Sophia to the largest mosque and that of Brandenburg Gate in Germany.
With a touch of lyrical style, the author defines "monuments as notes in the music of time marking the inexorable progress or regress of humanity". They also provide an incomplete or missing link in an incomplete historical or archaeological puzzle. Each monument thus represents a clue to the social structure and the stage of advancement of architectural marvel. Places of worship defy time because of the perennial reverence that people attach to these monuments. They continue to be living monuments since rituals are performed. Palaces of splendour and grandeur now remain museums and art galleries since the monarchies have become things of the past. There are also monuments that represent the national aspirations and dreams of the people of that country.
The author has meticulously described the physical, structural, architectural facts and symbolic significance of each of the monuments included in the book. Borobodur, the Buddhish temple on a hill, is "stone and air, sense and spirit, robust people pursuing life while the Buddha sits in solitary stillness awaiting his devotees". Rila monastery in Bulgaria is termed as an illustration of fusion of the religious and secular spirit in a national struggle. Pagodas of Pagan in Myanmar show the influence of India, Kampuchea and Sri Lanka while remaining Burmese in spirit and form. The exposition of Khajuraho and Taj Mahal, and temples of Vijayanagar in South India are in the correct perspective and the national pride has not reached hyperbole, which one would expect, from an Indian author.
However, the predominant and historical Indian influences in several countries in Asia, like Kampuchea, Sri Lanka etc., over the large number of Buddhist monuments, are clearly and logically brought out. Details of monuments, which do not exalt the spirit or are tributes to beauty and grandeur like the House of Slaves in Senegal, standing witness to the barbarity of mankind, have also found a rightful depiction. The Mayan pyramid temples of Guatemala, Machu Pichu in Peru, castle of Fasil Ghebbi in Ethiopia, and the underground Salt Chapel of Wieliczka in Poland are monuments included by the author which are lesser known. Every other monument in the book like the Palace of Versailles, Basilica of Rome, Kremlin of Moscow, Forbidden City of China, Statue of Liberty, Eiffel Tower, Sydney Opera House etc., are well known.
Two other monuments, though of comparatively recent origin find a place in the list. One is the Brandenburg Gate, which, in 1990 after the unification of Germany on the demolition of the Berlin Wall, became a symbol of unification and peace and prosperity; till then it was separating the two Germanys as per the original vision of its architect Karl Longhans! An accomplished author and scholar of the stature of Ms. Moulik would naturally select a treasure house of knowledge, which is the Library of Congress in Washington DC, USA. It has 84 million books and 20 million booklets, brochures, charts, maps and films! Another monument that finds place is the U.N. headquarters, but one wonders whether the selection is right, as it is just one among the skyscrapers of the area.
The author has taken pains to include very educative information on each of the monuments in a lucid and simple style of narrative. One is not able to make out whether she has been fortunate to give first hand information on each one of them. But as one who has been lucky to see a few of those described in the book, it can be confidently stated that the reader has not missed anything on each monument. The volume is comprehensive. The only deficiency is the quality of photographs in the book, which do not match with the quality of writing!
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