Contrary to popular belief, it was the Portuguese and not the British who were the first to build major construction projects in India. Don Afonso de Albuquerque landed in Goa during the early 16th century and began creating settlements, forts, factories, and domestic buildings.
Bombay Victoria Terminus – Colonial Architecture that looks like St Pancras railway station in London
Photo from Flickr
The earliest buildings were entirely wood and heavily fortified. In the mid-16th century, the Portuguese began building with stone as their regional influence increased and they gained access to quarries. Soon thereafter, the Dutch, Danes, French, and English followed suit. Because of the perceived danger from locals, even the factories were built in a defensive posture, with long fences and gates. Inside these rudimentary complexes were courtyards, public administrative buildings, and warehouses. It was not until the middle of the 18th century when European colonials would begin building to the east.
The French established very exquisite structures at Pondicherry in Tamil Nadu and in Bengal. Notably, in 1766 the British destroyed the Baroque Government House in Pondicherry, built in 1752 by Marquis Joseph de Dupleix. After this victory, which was both systematic and symbolic, the British became the dominant faction on the eastern sea boarder. It was from this vantage point that the British paved the way for a new generation of architectural, economic, and governmental projects to begin.
1690 saw the founding of the East India Company in Calcutta, but by 1758, after a victory in the Battle of Plassey, Fort William was constructed. During the late 18th century, the British moved learned citizens into Bengal and began influencing local labor forces which meant the colonial government had a hand in most new architectural construction projects of the era. More European buildings, such as churches, tombs, and monuments to colonial figures were erected throughout the countryside. The British centralized governments locally and regionally in town halls which would be fortified with troops and modern weaponry.
Wealthy locals who cooperated with the British started to mimic the British colonials with their own private residences. Because of the mercantile explosion catalyzed by new markets and trade goods, houses became larger and required many servants to maintain. It was in these types of large residences that modern conveniences such as fans (pankha-s) were installed. The outskirts of major cities became grounds for new colonial housing and architectural projects. Stone walls and roof tiles became the standard, replacing the old clay and thatch bungalows.
Until the middle of the 19th century, architectural planning was primarily in the hands of military engineers and civil servants who were trained in and traveled from England. Although most military engineers were British, others were Irish and Italian.
One notable monument in Calcutta proper was the domed Rohilla Monument, built in 1817. This structure commemorated military victory, like many other monuments built in a Greco-style with pillars, undoubtedly a symbol of triumph. Between the years 1829 and 1837, military engineers constructed a beautiful palace at Murshidabad, outside of Calcutta. Duncan McLeod designed the Palladian palace. One enters the palace through a massive portico. Its pediment is triangular and sits on giant columns. Interestingly, after the construction of the palace, Nawab Feridun Jah added onto the structure. He built an imambargah to the north. This communal gathering space for Shia Muslims is the largest in all of Asia. The imambargah was deliberately built to match the European design style, ten years after its vision was first conceived by the architect Duncan MacLeod. The south facade faces the palace and has two storeys. The main entry way has the typical rounded arches flanked by Doric columns. Nawab Feridun Jah hired the famous architect Sadiq ‘Ali Khan to design the add-on. The palace and its subsequent addition represents a new shift in thinking in Indian architectural terms. In the mid-19th century, India was heavily colonized but still attempted to maintain a traditional element. For the Nawab, this meant drawing upon traditional Mughal architecture to build a standard (albeit massive) Shia Muslim communal space as part of a Palace complex that was built by Europeans. One may view this hybrid architectural type as a representation of India’s vast and interesting culture but also of its attempt to move forward in exploring new types of thinking.
The St. Martin-in-the-Fields church in London inspired many similar architectural formations throughout the Indian subcontinent. In Pune, there was St. Mary’s (1825); in Calcutta, there was St. John’s (1787) and St. Andrew’s (1818); in Madras there was St. George’s Cathedral (1816) and St. Andrew’s Church (1818). Most of these types of buildings that imitated famous architectural forms in Europe were redesigned completely from illustrations, itself a wondrous feat considering many engineers were not as superb as those actively constructing monuments in London.
The 19th century also saw an increase in what has been called Neo-Classicism. Architects became re-enamored with ancient Grecian architecture and sought to emulate ancient architectural tropes in India. Madras eventually became known as a “Greek city” because it exhibited so many Neo-Classical features. W.N. Forbes was one of the first to really re-introduce this line of thinking. At a young age, he drafted the Calcutta Mint (1824). The Doric order on the Silver Mint was inspired by viewing drawings of the Greek Parthenon. India was not alone in developing a Neo-Classical style. In Europe and the United States a similar trend began to emerge. Washington D.C., for instance, is an excellent example. Still today most of the buildings can be obviously viewed as Grecian influenced.
- A. King: Colonial Urban Development (London, 1976)
- S. Nilsson: European Architecture in India, 1750–1850 (London, 1968)
- T. J. Till Walsh: A History of Murshidabad District (London, 1902)