This book explores the manner in which European - well British anyway - people became familiar with India from the 1700s on. It is mostly about the discoverers, but also reveals a lot about what they discovered. And the mysteries that remain. The ancient Harappan civilisation - so developed and yet so static - the Hindu culture and the Buddha who grew within it (but where have the Indian Buddhist gone today - how were they driven away or why did the philosophy become unfashionable), the Jains - a sect of the Buddhists? And then there are the aboriginal peoples of India, the Moslem invasions, and, of course, the British.
I have had the good fortune to visit India on several trips - visiting the Taj Mahal, the caves at Elephanta, and Mahabalipuram. But the most spectacular site for me is Khajuraho. All these places are mentioned by Mr Keay (and, of course, many I have not visited) and I found it interesting to read about how each has a context in Indian history and helps us to understand better this continent of enormous population, of refined culture, and of such diverse mixtures of race. But the most amazing thing to me is the realisation that so many of these sites were abandoned ruins that had to be found, explored, restored, conserved. What rich pickings there were for those British colonials who took the continent to heart, and were not repulsed by its alienness.
Khajuraho is a case in point, where the erotic nature of much of the adorned temples was a real shock to early explorers. And yet Mr Keay has some great words for it:
"No pin-up ever approached the provocative postures, the smouldering looks and the langourous gestures of the Khajuraho nymphs. Serene rather than saucy, intent rather than ecstatic, they go gracefully about their feminine business, adjusting the hair, applying eye shadow, removing a splinter, approaching their lovers; then the kiss, the caress, the passionate love-making of first aquaintance, and the erotic experiments of a mature affection. Here there is love and beauty, passion and joy, instruction even and inspiration; but anything less sordid it is hard to imagine. One can only feel sorry for those generations of Europeans whose own sexual inhibitions prevented them from seeing it that way."
Mr Keay explores literature (such as the Ramayana), the leftovers of earlier civilisation (such as coins), architecture (Buddhist, Hindu and Moslem), and paintings. There are a couple of add-on chapters that seem a bit out of place, concerning flora and fauna. But I was a little disappointed that there was nothing of mathematics, astronomy, music .... But having said that, this is a good read and a great adventure story that features some extraordinary people.