A Tradition Created: Indo-Saracenic Architecture under the Raj


Architecture in British India
The buildings the British built in India tell us much about how the British shaped India's conception of the past and how they turned India's architectural heritage to the service of the Raj.

In 1890, Swinton Jacob, the Jaipur State's English engineer, brought out, under the patronage of the Maharaja, six large volumes entitled The Jeypore Portfolio of Architectural Details . These volumes brought together over six hundred large-scale drawings of architectural elements taken from an array of northern Indian buildings - mosques and tombs, forts and temples - dating from the twelfth to the eighteenth century. The work was organised not by period or by region, but rather by function. Copings and plinths were gathered in one volume, arches in a second, brackets in a third, and so on. The volumes were meant, Jacob wrote in the preface, not just for the student of Indian architecture, but as 'a set of working drawings' for the architect so that he might more readily make use of those various features, so full of vigour so graceful and so true in outline', in modern building. Indeed the drawings were grouped together in parts, with each sheet loose, in order that 'different examples of architectural details may be compared and selections readily made.'

With the publication of these volumes a distinctive style of Indian architecture commonly known as the 'Indo-Saracenic' - came of age. It has long been fashionable to disparage, perhaps with an amused condescension, British attempts to imitate in their buildings the traditional architectural styles of India. Yet these British buildings still tell us much about how the British shaped India's conception of its past, and how they turned India's architectural heritage to the service of the Raj.

Much British building in India harked back to Western classical models, for the 'eternal principles' and ordered beauty' of these buildings embodied, as Herbert Baker argued, 'eminently the qualities of law, order, and good government' which the British held out to their Indian subjects. But the British sought as well to place themselves in the line of the great Indian empires of the past, and so, during the later decades of the nineteenth century, set about creating a style of building Indian in appearance, but Western in function.

A few officials, anxious to encourage indigenous forms of craftsmanship and design, looked for inspiration to the untutored Indian artisan-builder. He alone, scholars like E.B. Havell insisted, could create a 'living art' deeply rooted in the soil of the country. Havell praised the inventive, yet wholly Indian, early nineteenth century palaces of Benares and temples of Brindaban; and he saw, above all, in the seventeenth-century palace at Madurai,

'striking indication of what the Indian master builder might have done - and still might do - for Anglo-Indian architecture if under the British Raj he were given the same opportunities as he enjoyed under Musulman rulers.'

Similarly the work of F.S. Growse in fostering the builders of Mathura and Bulandshahr won him the praise of men such as Lockwood Kipling, of the Lahore Museum, who saw in these buildings the 'living force' of Indian design, and authentic specimens of 'native art and feeling'.

Behind this revivalist enthusiasm lay the arts and crafts movement of later nineteenth century England. Following William Morris, these men recoiled from what they saw as the 'souless' and mechanical artifacts of the industrial age, and sought a return to the standards and ideals of an earlier day. In India, where crafts production still flourished, the movement found a receptive home and official recognition with the founding in 1883 of the Journal of Indian Art and Industry , a lavishly illustrated and meticulously produced recounting of the work of Indian craftsmen in a variety of fields from enamel and textiles to mosaic design.

As an architectural programme for British India, however, revivalism was shot through with inconsistencies. It was, first of all, incurably romantic. Writers such as Havell and James Fergusson, the pioneer historian of Indian architecture, obsessed by a search for the 'picturesque', singled out for the highest praise the deserted palaces of Dig and Orccha, and the 'fairy-like' structures of Udaipur and Bundi. More importantly, none of these enthusiasts traditional Indian building were prepared to see carried out on the ground what they advocated on paper. Above all they were not willing to leave the Indian master builder alone. Europeans, they agreed, could 'supply hints' and 'attend to administrative wants.' These 'hints' usually took the form of an insistence that the Indian craftsmen 'follow oriental designs'. How this worked in practice can be seen in the carving of the entrance gateways and screens to decorate the Jaipur Hall of the Imperial and Colonial Exhibition of 1886. The wood was supplied from Bombay, and the design worked up by Swinton Jacob. As if this were not enough, instructions were then issued to the wood carvers that 'as great a variety of patterns should be employed as possible, the ornament to be purely Indian, and no attempt to be made to work on other than the traditional lines.' Yet despite these detailed instructions, so the Journal of Indian Art insisted with unselfconscious irony, the workmen had not been interfered with, and the screens were as a result 'a good example of what uneducated men in the old time could accomplish.'

Then, too, these 'revivalists' were not wholly convinced that indigenous tradition could bear the weight of the building needs of the modern era. In the end Havell and Growse both acknowledged that Indian architecture required reinvigoration from without. Only by assimilating foreign forms into a new style could it 'display the union of western and oriental ideas in a concrete form which both nationalities could appreciate.' Sir Lepel Griffin, Agent to the Governor-General for Central India, insisted even more forcefully that 'the adaptation of Oriental art to modern requirements' necessarily involved the 'assistance' of such European artists as have been able, by a wider culture, to assimilate and reproduce what is best in the architectural methods of the East and West. '...Modern India is outgrowing the old style, and however much we may, in the interests of the picturesque, regret the change, it would be as foolish to resist it as to attempt to restore in England the thick walls and narrow windows of the Norman style of architecture.' The revival of Indian architecture was simply incompatible with the objectives the British sought to achieve in India.

But the question remained: which traditional forms were to be used for which modern purposes? What was the new assimilated architecture to consist of? The first step involved what might be called the 'disassembling' of the elements of Indian architecture. Jacob's Portfolio illustrates perhaps most vividly the nature of this enterprise. The British further categorised and labelled all decorative elements as either Hindu or Muslim. Scholars might disagree as to whether Hindu or Muslim elements predominated in any structure, but they insisted that these overarching communal categories defined India's architectural heritage. The results were sometimes seemingly paradoxical. The garden palace of the eighteenth-century Jat Rajas of Dig was, so General Cunningham of the Archeological Survey insisted, although built by a Hindu prince, 'a purely Mohomedan style' with 'very little trace of the real Hindu architecture about it, either in its outlines or in its details.' The plain hemispherical or round dome was similarly 'purely Mohomedan'. That Hindus, he went on,

'occasionally make use of similar domes is quite true. So also do they make use of English shoes; but no one has yet ventured to call them Indian shoes because they have been partially adopted by the Hindoos.'

Out of this study and analysis, so the British believed, would emerge a composite architectural style fitted for modern building. As precedent and justification for this 'reconstruction' of Indian architecture, the British looked back to the work of the Mughal and other medieval Indian builders. The architecture of those centuries they saw as a blend of Hindu and of Muslim elements; hence most appropriately called 'Indo-Saracenic'. This melded style reached its height in seventeenth-century Bijapur, if not even earlier, in the fifteenth-century Pathan kindoms of Gaur and Mandu. The buildings of this era, as contrasted with the ornate structures of later rulers, were, in their view, 'more restrained and flexible', simple yet dignified, eminently suited both to decorative elaboration and modern needs.

Despite this effort to place themselves within a common architectural tradition, British building in the 'Indo-Saracenic' style differed markedly from that of their predecessors. Indeed the term 'Indo-Saracenic' itself has now disappeared from scholarly discourse on medieval architecture, for it lacked the precision necessary to encompass a diverse array of building styles. The term remains, however, a useful label for the British buildings of the later nineteenth century in India. British building differed from Mughal not so much in its purpose - all Indian rulers sought by architecture to impress their subjects, and lay claim to political legitimacy - as in the assumptions which shaped it. As we have seen, the British set out self-consciously to create a 'traditional' style of architecture. Earlier Indian rulers by contrast simply worked within the canons of taste that existed in their time. For the most part each building, whether of a Hindu or Muslim ruler, a Man Singh of Gwalior or a Sher Shah Suri, ordered in its own way the elments which made up the architectural pattern of that particular era.

The British in their building made no attempt to be faithful to the stylistic canons of any period of India's past. Indeed they could not, for they looked at India's architectural heritage from outside, and with eyes trained by European Orientalist scholarship. For the Orientalist the 'East' was, as writers like Edward Said have recently pointed out, the archetypal 'other': an essentially timeless tradition-bound land sharply contrasted with the 'progressive' world of the 'West'. Its architectural elements, as a result, were, at the deepest level similar and interchangeable, rather like colours on a palette. Hence the British saw no inconsistency in drawing upon them indiscriminately as whim and fancy dictated. As these architectural details were all 'Oriental', they could be mixed together in any fashion, and the result would still be an 'Indo-Saracenic' building. Jacob's Portfolio , with its profusion of samples of plinths and copings and balustrades, all equally available for the needs of any builder, ideally served the purposes of such an architecture. What a successful Indo-Saracenic structure required was not stylistic consistency, but sensitivity to the 'Oriental' ethos. As Lord Hardinge wrote to Edwin Lutyens, when the latter wanted to use the round (or European) instead of the pointed arch in New Delhi.

'In your London surroundings you cannot feel the whisperings of the East, but I have lived fifteen years in the East, and I know and feel the language of Eastern buildings.'

The assumptions which shaped Indo-Saracenic building were by no means confined to architecture alone. They reflected the larger mentality that underlay the late nineteenth-century colonial enterprise. In its essential nature a work like Jacob's Portfolio was no different from the contemporaneous compiling of lists of tribes and castes, enumeration of 'martial races', or elaboration of rituals of precedence and hierarchy. Together with the imposition of categories like 'Hindu' and 'Muslim', each involved the self-conscious systematisation and reconstruction of India's heritage. Stung by the upheaval of 1857, the British in the later nineteenth century were determined to understand, and at the same time to control, the society over which they ruled. Jacob's Portfolio , like the District Gazeteers or the Census , carried with it a sense of mastery, of having understood the structure of values that gave India its distinctive character. Indo-Saracenic architecture, with the concept of a 'traditional' India, was not only a creature of British colonialism. It involved as well the presumption that the colonial ruler could tell the Indian what his heritage consisted of.

The Indo-Saracenic style gained further impetus from its close association with the Gothic. Though the two had of course a wholly different origin, they shared an exuberant surface decoration, arched gateways and other features; and these provided sufficient superficial similarity so that the taste for the one style reinforced the acceptability of the other. Indeed it was not uncommon to refer to the Indo-Saracenic as 'Eastern pointed or Gothic'. Nor were buildings which joined Gothic and 'Oriental' features at all rare. In Bombay and Madras especially, the predominant style for government and commercial offices was, as one critic described the Bombay Victoria Terminus, 'a free treatment of Venetian Gothic with an Oriental'.

To what extent did the Indian respond to the Indo-Saracenic vision of his past? The attitude of the Indian princes is perhaps the most revealing. Junior partners in the imperial enterprise, accorded after 1858 a secure berth in the new order, the princes possessed both the funds and the incentive to replace the fortified citadels of an earlier age with lavish new residences. These men, moreover, occupied a distinctive place within the emerging colonial culture. On the one hand, as Indians rooted in the past, they might well patronise indigenous architectural forms; on the other, as men anxious to win acceptance by their colonial overlords, they might equally be drawn to European styles, above all that of the Palladian country house, This tension gives to their building an exceptional interest.

At the heart of the new palace, shaping its form, was the new pattern of leisured princely life under the Raj. This required, as Sir Lepel Griffin noted, 'large well-ventilated rooms, light and air, wide staircases, and imposing halls.' The contrast between the old Bikaner fort and the new palace, built in 1896, could not be more striking. The one was a jumble of dark rooms scattered about courtyards of varying size, with the later additions piled on top of those built centuries before; the new palace by contrast was laid out around neat courtyards, containing square or rectangular rooms each furnished in the European style with its proper use defined. It was located as well outside the city. This, the Foreign Secretary noted, 'will be healthier both physically and morally for the young Maharajah.'

Many princes at all times preferred to clothe their new palaces in Europiean architectural styles. Some few, like the Maharaja of Kapurthala who put up a French Chateau in the heart of the Punjab, even hired European architects to insure a faithful reproduction of the chosen style. Such Europeanised structures served an important purpose: they reinforced the princes' claim to be regarded as an advanced or 'modern' elite worthy of association on near-equal terms with the colonial ruler. As the great country house symbolised the legitimated power of the Whig aristocrat, so too could the Palladian palace define a similar status for the princely ruler of Gwalior or Indore.

But the princes could not simply ignore Indo-Saracenic. The British insisted that this style represented their own architectural heritage. In the 1870s, when the Government decided to build at Ajmere a school for the education of the sons of the Rajput princes, the latter, when consulted, announced their preference for a European classical style of architecture. The British proceeded nevertheless to put up an Indo-Saracenic building. Such a style, they argued, was that of the Rajput chiefs themselves, hence most appropriate for a college in which their sons were to be educated. Nor could the princes mount much of a protest. Their position in the colonial order after all rested upon their claim to be a traditional elite who commanded the obedience of their subjects by virtue of hierarchical and deferential relationships sealed by time. So they could not disown Indo-Saracenic architecture without to some degree disowning themselves.

One reasonably successful strategy was that employed by the Maharaja of Jaipur. Though he kept Swinton Jacob on his payroll, he commissioned him to design almost exclusively railway and engineering works, together with such public monuments as the Albert Hall Museum. Spurning classical and Indo-Saracenic models alike, the Maharaja entrusted the building of cenotaphs, temples, and residences intended for his own private use to artisan craftsmen paid out of the privy purse. Jacob was asked to construct only one building within the City Palace. By an irony perhaps not wholly unintended, this building, the Mubarrak Mahal, was meant as a reception hall for the entertainment of visiting British officials. The 'colonial' building style was to be confined to the Maharaja's encounters with the colonial regime. For himself he kept his distance from it, and, so far as possible, from the British as well.

Over time most princes succumbed to the temptation to accept the British definition of their culture, and their place in the culture. It was both too powerful and too attractive. The Maharajas of both Kota and Bikaner in the 1890s employed Swinton Jacob to design new palaces, while Ganga Singh of Bikaner, Jacob's Portfolio in hand, scrupulously adhered to the same style in the additional wings he put up in the twentieth century. He scattered Indo-Saracenic public buildings across his capital city, and even had Jacob design an ornate cricket pavilion for Mayo College, Ajmere.

By 1900 Indo-Saracenic had become almost universally accepted as the appropriate style for substantial public building in India. Even in the far south, in Madras, buildings as diverse in character as the Moore Market (1898) and the Victoria Memorial Art Gallery (1906) conformed faithfully to its canons of taste. During the first decade of the twentieth century, however, architectural fashions were beginning to change. So too was the political environment in which building took place. Curzon's vice-royalty (1898-1905) foreshadowed the change. Despite his commitment to the preservation of India's architectural heritage, Curzon never conceived that an Indian style could convey the spirit of British Imperialism. From the outset he insisted that the soaring monument he planned to commemorate Queen Victoria's reign must be in a European style. 'What I shall want', he wrote, 'will be a simple, severe, but noble Italian or Palladian building'. He brushed aside the objections of critics, including the Governors of Madras and the United Provinces, and personally supervised the architect he hired to design Calcutta's Victoria Memorial Hall. In Europe too classical styles were sweeping back into public favour. As Lutyens wrote in 1903, a decade before his appointment to New Delhi

'In architecture Palladio is the game!!... To the average man it is dry bones, but under the hands of a Wren it glows and the stiff materials become as plastic clay.'

Although denied the prize of New Delhi, the new capital constructed after 1912, Indo-Saracenic architecture still left its mark on the face of India. A vast array of buildings - government, princely and commercial alike - remain to testify to its hold for nearly half a century over the Indian subcontinent. In the process the Indo-Saracenic builders reshaped India's view of its architectural heritage. What had been a loosely structured tradition carried forward by artisans working under the patronage of local princes was transformed into a consciously ordered 'traditional' architecture, its elements all arrayed before the prospective builder. With the emergence of Indo-Saracenic, India's architecture ceased to be a living force. Instead it was pressed into the service of British colonialism.

By Thomas Metcalf

Mayo College by Major Mant
Mayo College by Major Mant
Further Reading
India Discovered: The Recovery of a Lost Civilization
by John Keay

Flora's Empire: British Gardens in India (Penn Studies in Landscape Architecture)
by Eugenia W. Herbert

The Palaces of India
by Maharaja of Baroda

An Imperial Vision: Indian Architecture and Britain's Raj (Oxford India paperbacks)
by T. Metcalf

Colonial Modernities: Building, Dwelling and Architecture in British India and Ceylon (Architext)
Ed by Peter Scriver

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by Stephen Luscombe