This book is based on my PhD thesis titled 'Kings and Things: the Courts of Pre-Colonial South India'. When I began the fieldwork towards my PhD in September 1995, post-Nayaka south Indian palaces had received virtually no scholarly attention from art historians and archaeologists. I decided to examine several less-known courtly sites in southern Tamil Nadu, with a special focus on the late seventeenth/early eighteenth-century palace at Ramnad. I then linked my fieldwork with previous research on the courtly monuments at sixteenth-century Vijayanagara and seventeenth-century Madurai.
A key aim of this book is to describe the courtly domain of south Indian kingdoms according to the way they were experienced in the pre-colonial period. This requires one to reconsider the criteria previously used by art historians and archaeologists when studying Indian courtly material culture. The criteria reconsidered here relate to how palace space is defined. Looking at the hierarchical grading of south Indian kingship, as described in vastu shastra texts such as the Manasara, alongside empirical data gathered at pre-colonial courtly sites, makes it possible to discern a framework for understanding the hierarchical and spatial arrangement of pre-colonial south Indian kingdoms.
I have considered three key principles in my analyses of south Indian courtly material culture. First, the material features of south Indian kingship were highly idealized and provided a visual reference to the king's position within society. Second, space is definable only if it serves as the habitation of humans or gods, and not through the delineation of cartographic boundaries. Third, human-defined space is best understood as divided into interior and exterior realms. By assessing courtly material culture through these criteria, one gains a clearer understanding of how the king was perceived in the pre-colonial period.