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History of Architecture (AP313) | Essay | 2014

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Term Paper for History of Architecture (AP131)

Roll Number: 14
Sushant School of Art and Architecture

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Indo-saracenic architecture developed in India during the late 19
century under
the British Raj. It combined the features of Hindu and Islamic architecture with the
western elements. Buildings belonging to the Indo-saracenic architecture
referenced to Indias architectural past and reflected the Gothic and Neo-classical
style that was prevailing in England at that time. It can be considered as a hybrid of
the diverse architectural elements of Hindu and Mughal architecture with Gothic
elements like arches, domes, spires, tracery, minarets and stained glass.

This style of architecture which developed under the British rule in India had major
prominence in the late 19
and early 20
century. Before the revolt of 1857 the
building that were being constructed were functional and served their purpose of
trade. Till then the style of architecture, in no way, exhibited a sense of power or
authority. But post 1857, the liberal and utilitarian view of Indian society changed
and so did the British style of colonial architecture. The Indian empire became
formalized and the British Raj distinguished themselves from the people. The
architecture then supposed to have a dominating impact on the native people. A
feeling of authority and power was implicated through the buildings. Whereas, the
style of buildings post 1857 changed and started to make connections with the
colonized land. It adopted ideas and elements from the native place and developed
a style that was intermediary to the Indians and the English.
In their time as administrators, the British built up a vast, transcontinental brick-
and-mortar system of infrastructure schools, railways (1) (2), railway stations,
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ports, banks, post-offices, libraries, universities, administrative and bureaucratic
offices, even palatial residences. The collective architecture of these myriad English
structures built over centuries came to represent the British rule in India.(1)
Thus, we can state that the colonial architecture in India oscillated between foreign
design idioms (such as the Gothic Revival style of Bombay and the Classical Revival
style of Calcutta) or the overtly stylized amalgamation of English and Indian
architectural motifs and is termed the Indo-Saracenic.
Indo-saracenic architecture is also a fascinating example of negotiation of ethics
and power politics in the medium of architecture via exchange of aesthetic features.
The Britishers, thus, tried to encapsulate Indias past as well as their Gothic and
Neo-classsical styles into one building. This way the Indians remained content and
the legitimacy of the British rule was also implicated.

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Part of the Indo-Saracenic ideal was lodged in the colonial stereotype of the
putative decline of Indian civilization. The English claimed that they had
succeeded in conquering India because Indian civilization had begun to decay. One
of the chief proponents of this idea was James Fergusson, the first historian of
Indian architecture. Without any understanding of the functional or conceptual basis
of Indian architecture, Fergusson classified and evaluated Indian buildings based on
their formal properties and proposed that Indian architecture periodically went into
decline and that it had thus to be revived by contact with foreigners.(2)
The high priest of Arts and Crafts Movement, John Ruskin believed that there was a
need to reeducate native craftsmen in European aesthetics while preserving and
reviving their craft traditions. European art with Indian craft in the service of
modern colonial buildings was, therefore, the 19th-century recipe for a modern
Indian architecture.(2)
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. 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.
With the publication of these volumes a distinctive style of Indian architecture that
came to be known as the 'Indo-Saracenic' - came of age. It has long been
fashionable to disparage, perhaps with an amused condescension, British attempts
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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
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'.

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Indo-saracenic architecture found its
way into public buildings of all sorts
such as railway stations, banks and
insurance buildings, educational
institutions, clubs and museums.
Chepauk Palace in Chennai designed
by Paul Benfield is said to be the first
indo-saracenic building in india,
referred to as licentious "eclectic" incorporating elements and motifs of Hindu and
Islamic precedents. Outstanding examples are spread across the country with major
influence in cities like Calcutta, Delhi, Madras and Bombay- Muir college at
Allahabad, Napier Museum at Thiruvananthapuram, the Post Office, Prince of Wales
Museum, University Hall and Library, Gateway of India in Mumbai, M.S. University,
Lakshmi Vilas Palace at Baroda, the Central Railway Station, Law courts, Victoria
Public Hall, Museum and University Senate House in Chennai, the Palaces at Mysore
and Bangalore.
Robert Fellowes Chisholm and Henry Irwin were among the leading practitioners of
the time. Chisholm, one of the most gifted English architects working in India, was
a vehement supporter of Indian craftsmen. He believed that architecture in India has
to be inspired by the native styles of art that exist in India. He belonged to the
generation of professional architects who believed more in exploring their
professional freedom than in following designs from ideological strictures. It was
this search that led him inevitably to eclecticism. Chisholms finest works survive in
two cities in India Madras (Chennai) and Baroda (Vadodara).

SENATE HOUSE in Chennai by
Figure 1: Chepauk Palace
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The design of this building was chosen
through an open competition announced
by the madras government in 1864.
Completed by 1879 at a cost of Rs
289,000, the senate house was to serve as the examination hall and offices of the
madras university.
This design of this building is inspired by the Byzantine and built in the Indo-
saracenic style, the Senate House is the ultimate manifestation of this style. It
Double height

Figure 2: SENATE HOUSE in Chennai
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comprises of large two floor high central hall, 16m high, measuring approx. 50m by
15m, and has a capacity to seat 1600 people.

Though laid out as a simple rectangle, a strong variation in form is achieved on the
sensitive lacing of the four towers on simple square projections that fall behind
each of the side entrance porches. These towers are covered by pendentive bulbose
domes that are highly articulated with intricate surface decoration.

Figure 4: South Elevation

Figure 5: Longitudinal Section
Figure 3: PLAN
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Arches and domes are covered with flowing geometric patterns. Tinier cupolas on
octogonal drums pin the corners with a series of turrets lining the east and west
sides. Impressive double floor high verandas on the east and west faces are lined by
stone columns with sculptured capitals bearing human figures and Hindu icons and
support large horseshoe arches trimmed in stone.


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Mayo College was a kind of English
boarding school for the Indian
Rajput princes. The school was to
provide training in self-reliance,
moral duty and team spirit to make
a young ruling elite fit for service to the Empire.
Mayo College displays many of the key characteristics of the blended Indo-
style. It features Mughal style cusped arches, the Bengali chattris, which were
understood as typically Hindu, an overhanging chajja from the pre- Mughal era,
various cupolas and two octagonal minarets topped by Hindu shikara. It is the
architectural fusion of both the Muslim and the Hindu styles of India, but also
shows an order and a technical as well as scientific perfection which were
understood as the key values to Europe.

Figure 7: MAYO COLLEGE in Ajmer

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The general post office on the north beach road is today known as the Rajaji Salai. It
has been described as one of the major historic structures on the beach road which
lend a character to it. It was designed and completed in 1884 by Robert Fellowes
It has been laid out as a rectangle measuring about 100m x 50m, with a floor area
of over 5000 sq.m. A courtyard in the east-west direction bifurcates the building.
The main postal hall is located on the southern face of the building. It has a height
of about 13 m and measures 30m x 15m. The building is mostly brick which has
been painted on the exterior in red and the interior has been plastered white.
The building has Hindu designs in most of its embellishments. The roofs in the
buildings are varied. There is the flat roof and the gable
roof with dormer windows. There are also towers of
varying heights intercepting the gables. The projecting
eaves are supported by stone brackets and this seems to
be a Hindu influence. The arches in the veranda and the
exterior are pure saracenic. However, the arches in the
interior of the building show gothic influence.
Its pillars are of corinthian order and has square flat
topped towers. The gabled ventilators on the roof
besides a chimney and some of the fenestrations reflect a Victorian "country-
colonial. The arches, columns, and all other details are cut in stone. The arches
which occupy the longer faces of the building have on them intricate jali work
carved in stone. The roofs may have been inspired by the timber roofs in Kerala,
also seen in another design by R.F. Chisholm in Travancore - the Napier museum.
Figure 8: GENERAL POST OFFICE by R.F. Chisholm
Figure 9: Faade of the Post Office

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It was an idea which brought a balance between being an imperial power, and
building with context to only the place it was built in. The Indian entablatures were
based on a system of geometry and proportions. They were based on the
proportions of internal planning of the buildings. Indo-saracenic, however,
employed the same Indian details onto a design based on different proportions. The
details which were to be slender are now robust.
So, the style is indeed a mixture of Indian and Islamic architecture but it remained
basically British in sitting, spatial organization and composition. It did evolve over
time and the degree of complexity in the homogeneity of the design increased in
the manner of their borrowing from the Indian prototypes. The eccentricity in the
buildings makes them interesting as well as hard to interpret as a style. It was a
conscious attempt by the British to show a sense of belonging to the country.

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1. Metcalf, Thomas R. An Imperial Vision: Indian Architecture and Britain's Raj. s.l. :
Oxford India paperbacks.
2. Architecture in British India. A Tradition Created: Indo-Saracenic Architecture
under the Raj. [Online]
3. Marshall, P. J. The Cambridge Illustrated History of the British Empire. s.l. :
Cambridge University Press, 2001. ISBN: 0521002540, 9780521002547.
4. Francis D. K. Ching, Mark Jarzombek, Vikramaditya Prakash. A Global History of
Architecture. s.l. : John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
5. British Architecture in India. [Online]
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6. Robert Chisholm the Indo Saracenic Man. [Online]