The Pioneering Architectural Styles in Chennai

Chennai, being one of the cultural centers of South India, is home to a host of different architectural styles, dating from ancient India, all the way up to 21st century renovations. Here I will break them down, in chronological order:

Dravidian Architecture
This style of architecture originated in South India by the Dravidian people, and has been influenced throughout the years by eight different empires- the Cholas, the Chera, the Pandyas, the Pallavas, the Rashtrakuthras, the Chalukyas, the Hoysalas, and the Vijayanagra. The main features of Dravidian architecture is that of a square courtyard, a gopuram, or an ornate tower that precedes a temple, and a mandapam, or a pillared pavilion that passes through the gopuram. All of these elements can be seen in Chennai architecture, though they blend in so well that they are rather unnoticeable. Numerous houses built in Chennai in the early 20th century have a square courtyard with four surrounding wings. Even the meekest of temples in Chennai have a gopuram guarding the gateway, filled with intricate tiers of Hindu deities. Often, these tiers will have a dominant gold-and-blue palette, with other colors for accents.  And while not all temples have a true mandapam, every temple has large stone pillars in the Dravidian style.

A house made in the contemporary Dravidian style, with a square courtyard and surrounding wings.

gopuram of a temple. Note the predominantly blue-and-gold palette.

Another gopuram, except this one is unpainted.

Indo-Saracenic Architecture 
This is one of the most distinctive architectural styles in the city, especially considering that the style was pioneered there. Indo-Saracenic architecture is a amalagm of European, Indian, and Islamic styles of architecture. Combining the pinnacles of Gothic architecture, the chhatris of Indian architecture, and the minarets of Islamic architecture, Indo-Saracenic architecture is a breathtaking combination of Western and Eastern sensibilities. These buildings were built during the British Raj era of India in the late 19th century, and thus reflects Victorian styles that were in vogue back in Europe, while taking styles of religious or royal Indian and Islamic architecture and putting it into a nonreligious context . The vast majority of these buildings are a rich brick red, though they sometimes can be white. Notable examples of Indo-Saracenic architecture include the Chennai Central Station, the Chennai Government Museum, the Ripon Building, and the Madras High Court.

The Chennai Central Railway station, which is now a major transport hub for South India.

The Government Musuem- note the chhatri in the picture.

The Victoria Memorial Hall and Technical Institute, while not technically in the Indo-Saracenic style, was designed by Henry Irwin, a British architect who also designed the Government Museum, as well as numerous other notable buildings.

21st Century Renovations
Chennai is currently undergoing vast urbanization in terms of infrastructure. The city is essentially like a cell phone- the version five years ago is virtually unrecognizable to the version now. A few years ago, numerous buildings swapped out their hues of beige and pale pink for vibrant hues of blues and yellows and pinks and greens and purples. So now, virtually every building is a veritable explosion of color. Sometimes these colors are neon. This is coupled with the fact that Chennai now has murals throughout the city. They depict Indian culture in the best way possible- by holding them up to the streets. It was originally an initiative by the former Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, to make sure that the low-slung walls of the city weren’t completely papered with political ads and flyers. This policy has been surprisingly effective. No one wants to deface portraits of elephants and dancers. However, the architecture of years past is slowly being demolished, to pave the way for new infrastructure to accommodate Chennai’s exploding metro. A metro railway system is currently under construction, and some historical buildings in the way are either abandoned or demolished. Some developers, however, are retreating to the outskirts of the city to build their plans. To take advantage of the large metro population of Chennai, numerous developers are building sky-high luxury apartments, with a glamorous Manhattanite sheen.

A street in Chennai, with popping colors in the background.

A residential Chennai home, with a palette of mauve.

Another residential Chennai home, with a palette of bright orange and yellow.

The Trevelyan Building, built in honor of Sir Charles Trevelyan Bart, but is soon to be abandoned, due to the construction of the metro railway system. Observe the construction that is occurring int he far left of the photo.

The new luxury apartment buildings built by  Hiranandani in the outskirts of Chennai.

Opinions on the abandonment of historical architecture vary greatly- should we preserve these buildings or abandon them for more avant-garde pursuits? However, whatever your opinion is, we should all be able to appreciate the work of art that is Chennai architecture- one that tells a rich and storied history of a Chennai past and a Chennai to come.

Author: Apoorva Malarvannan

My name is Apoorva, and I am currently a high school student in the Greater Twin Cities area. I enjoy reading, writing, speaking, and photography. I have a blog here:


  1. The Gopuram is found in many South Indian houses and temples.
    It is sad that most of these old historical architectures are being neglected and abandoned due to lethargy and re tapism.

  2. Nice photos, are they really going to demolish the Trevelyan Building which is near to Central Railway station in Chennai?

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