The Birth of Indic Architecture

Editor’s Introduction

In this article, rising University of Toronto scholar Randip Baskhi looks at the relationship between colonizer and colony as seen in architecture.

In many cases, we can see a clear link between architecture and the cycles of empire. There can be little question that the great 17th century Ottoman architect Sinan is an imperial architect, a rising-empire artist whose work seems to exist to glorify the Ottoman caliphates and their conquests; or that an equally gifted but entirely different architect, the 20th century’s Sam Mockbee of the Rural Studio, is a folk architect, a figure of the fourth (or mature-empire) quadrant. Mockbee is an architect whose work celebrates the common man, an architect who uses the castoff materials of empire to create work which cuts against the “imperial” grain.

Indic architecture today is vibrant and eclectic. Architects like Charles Correa, Sheila Sri Prakash and Eugene Pandala are creating dramatic, distinctive structures on the international stage. What was the first Indic building? When did the Indian culture break free of the heavy influence of Great Britain and classic western aesthetics to initiate its own style? Bakshi points to a single structure: the 1911 Viceregal Lodge, now known as Rashtrapati Bhavan.


The Birth of Indic Architecture

by Randip Bakshi

copyright @ 2011 Randip Bakshi

The English first came to what we now call the Indian subcontinent in 1615, during the reign of the Mughal Emperor Jahangir. They subsequently ruled India for over three hundred years, first under the guise of the East India Company and later as a direct crown colony. In their time as administrators, the British built up a vast, transcontinental brick-and-mortar system of infrastructure – schools, railways, railway stations, 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. Yet it is difficult to pinpoint when an “Indic” style of architecture – architecture of the subcontinent – emerged. What is Indic architecture? 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, termed the “Indo-Sarcenic.”[1]

This trend of a split personality between two Indian aesthetics continued until the creation of New Delhi as the imperial capital in 1911.[2] At New Delhi, colonial architecture can be seen to finally achieve an authentic synthesis between British thought and Indian aesthetics. It is this unity of disparate architectural elements that I will call Indic. To this end, I will argue that Britain’s search for an architectural style for its most valuable possession – the jewel in the crown – India, ends with the construction of the new capital at Delhi. I will use the example of the Viceregal Lodge (now Rastrapati Bhavan, or the Presidential Palace) – designed by Edwin Lutyens and Herbert Baker – and its architectural ornament to propel my argument.

How does the Viceregal Lodge function as an example of the Indic style? To answer this question, a number of factors must be highlighted. First, we must briefly survey British architecture in India up until the shift in the capital from Calcutta to New Delhi. What was the prevalent style in the colony before the shift? Was there a uniform style across India, or did every region have a different vernacular, a different regional accent or means of architectural expression? What influenced the design choices in these regions? Then, a brief biography of the architects of New Delhi – Edwin Lutyens and Herbert Baker – will be a starting point for the analysis of the Viceregal Lodge. What influenced the choices of the architects? How did they manage to create the “perfect” combination of Indian and English aesthetics? Did they embark on this project as a testament to British presence in India? Finally, the Viceregal Lodge itself will be analyzed to prove that the architecture at New Delhi superseded both the foreign design styles (Gothic Revival, etc.) and the exotic Indo-Sarcenic to create a true colonial architecture in India. What is different about the Viceregal Lodge – its ornamentation, its location, its structure, the floor plan, the construction material or the ideology behind its construction?


What Defines the Empire: Bombay Gothic, Calcutta Classical, or the Indo-Sarcenic?


Indian colonial architecture evolved in three distinct phases. To better understand the third phase, the drastic shift in the architecture at New Delhi, we must analyze the architecture prevalent in the colony before the transfer of capitals. Many factors influenced the buildings designed and constructed by the British; chief among them was the projection of power and control. It is with this mindset that British architects began dominating the visual landscape of India. In 1873, T. Roger Smith concluded:

“As our administration exhibits European justice, order, law, energy, and honour – and that in no hesitating or feeble way – so our buildings ought to hold up a high standard of European art. They ought to be European both as a rallying point for ourselves, and as raising a distinctive symbol of our presence to be beheld with respect and even with admiration by the natives of the country.”[3] [4]

It is evident from Smith’s conclusion that architecture must be European to inspire respect and admiration and also, to be “distinctive.” This idea of using a European style was preferred by both administrators and architects, most notably in Bombay and Calcutta. Yet, this was not the only argument in relation to defining the architecture of India. William Emerson – an architect in the Indo-Sarcenic style – suggested, “It was impossible for the architecture of the west to be suitable to the natives of the east.” [5]

What could define national identity, purpose, mission, and image together in a unified manner? This was a recurring question until the construction of New Delhi at the turn of the century. Take for instance, Calcutta and its abundant examples of Neo-classical architecture. It has some of the earliest monuments to British rule. Government House (Raj Bhavan) at Calcutta (Fig. 2) was built in 1803 by Captain Charles Wyatt (of the Bengal

Engineers).[6] Built in the Palladian Classical style, this residence of the Viceroy of India and later, the Governor of Bengal, is a testament to English control over the province of Bengal.[7] At the time, it would be the only “European” style building towering over the landscape of Calcutta. The Corinthian columns, portico-ed façade, the Classical pediment, and the Pantheonic Dome, all of these architectural elements reek of a foreign design style, transplanted onto the colony, much like British rule after the Battle of Plassey.

Thomas Metcalf suggests that the design for the Calcutta Government House is modeled on the country residence of Lord Scrasdale, Kedleston Hall in Derbyshire (1760) (Fig. 3).[8] Metcalf also proposes that the Calcutta design was not: “simply reproduced intact.”[9] The design was enhanced to project an image of grandeur and growing English power on the sub-continent. Clearly, the argument furthered by T. Roger Smith in 1873 was the same ideology followed by the directors of the East India Company. This building perfectly represents the early phase of the Raj, when the English had little or no information of the country they were expanding their rule over. This lack of colonial knowledge would lead to the Mutiny and thereafter, would begin the most ambitious building program any British colony had ever seen.


This building perfectly represents the early phase of the Raj, when the English had little … information of the country they were expanding their rule over.


The Classical style, which until the Mutiny, was the de facto British colonial style of architecture, was soon to be replaced by the Gothic Revival and the Indo-Sarcenic.[10] Nowhere is the Gothic Revival more prevalent than in Bombay. British expansion past the Presidencies of Calcutta and Madras, with the development of Bombay, along with the inclusion of provincial capitals, was a means to secure British presence in India. Colonial architecture announced to the natives the presence of their English masters, perhaps, like the all-seeing eye. It was a matter of surveillance and governance, which is why post-Mutiny the great information gathering exercise was instituted by the British. The first colonial census of 1872, followed by the emergence of photography, which allowed the administrators to record the people, culture, and landscape of India, was a means to understand the land and the people.[11] This is the reason that Indo-Sarcenic became a prominent style in the period after the mutiny. Is it any coincidence that the Indo-Sarcenic came to be the style of choice for the colonial public school, such as Aitchison College (1886), Lahore, Punjab (Fig. 4), Daly College (1882), Indore, Central States Agency (Fig. 5), and Mayo College (1875), Ajmer, Rajputana (Fig. 6)?


To answer this question let me progress logically from the Gothic Revival style at Bombay. Bombay began expanding under the governorship of Sir Bartlet Frere (r. 1862 – 1867), who tore down the walls of the old Fort St. George.[12] Christopher London argues, “A convinced Gothic enthusiast, he [Frere] devised a master plan for the city, and implemented his vision during his five year tenure.”[13] Prior to the Mutiny and the emergence of the Gothic Revival style, Bombay was molded in the same Neo-Classical framework as Calcutta.[14] Take for instance, Bombay Town Hall (1833) (Fig. 7) and the Mint (1829) (Fig. 8), both display the columns, pediment, and porticoes, so essential to the Classical style, but this would change shortly.

Two events ushered in “modernity” at Bombay. First, the construction of railway lines connecting it to the hinterland of India;[15] and second, the opening of the Suez Canal, which made the entrance to India closer at Bombay, rather than traveling to Calcutta or Madras.[16] With Frere’s Gothic vision, Bombay was on its way to becoming an international city. The Gothic style that came to define Bombay was unlike the Calcutta Classical, reminiscent of “traditional Indian palace architecture.” Yet it was still, at its core, a foreign architectural style constructed with local materials and sensitive to local weather conditions.[17] The most prominent Gothic buildings in Bombay include the Victoria Terminus Railway Station (1887) (Fig. 9), Senate Hall, University of Bombay (1878) (Fig. 10), Rajabai Clock Tower, University of Bombay (1878) (Fig. 11), and Bombay High Court (1878) (Fig. 12).

The Rajabai Clock Tower at the University of Bombay (Fig. 11) designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott is evocative of the shift in colonial architecture from Classical to Gothic. Reminiscent of Big Ben at the Palace of Westminster, London (1859), the Gothic clock tower at Bombay combined the British obsession with control.[18] In its “foreign” style it included sculptures of the twenty-four castes of India, combing the English need for information that led to colonial control, which ultimately led to order in the colony.[19] The architecture aimed at reinforcing the colonial hierarchy, and this was the message the “foreign” architectural style sent to the natives. Similarly, John Augustus Fuller’s Bombay High Court Building and Frederick William Stevens Victoria Terminus were masterpieces of Neo-Gothic architecture. The High Court building incorporated allegorical statues of justice and mercy, among many others, to symbolize English governance and law.[20] Victoria Terminus, with its massive Gothic dome and protruding gargoyles was testament to the mercantile prowess of the British.

These institutions of public governance and administration were shaped in a European style indicating the role of the English in ushering a colonized India into the modern age. It is no coincidence then that educational institutions like schools, libraries, and universities, were designed in the Neo-Gothic or Neo-Classical idiom, neither is it surprising that courts of law and railway stations were given the same design aesthetic. It would seem that Smith’s argument was indeed true in regards to the progression of Indian architecture, but such was not the case.

Architects elsewhere in India were perfecting a style which would be known as the “Indo-Sarcenic.” With the urgent need to understand the people of the colony, the British wanted to incorporate Indian design elements into their architecture. The “Sarcenic” arch and dome came to be the standard-bearers for this synthesis. The British were not concerned with India’s Hindu and Buddhist past – although they were aware of it – they consciously chose to revive the Muslim architectural heritage. Thomas Metcalf notes, “Central to the appeal of this [Sarcenic] style too, of course, were its political implications, for the Sarcenic style was the style associated above all with the Mughal Empire, whose power and majesty the British now wished to claim as their own.”[21] The Indo-Sarcenic style began with the work of Robert Fellowes Chisholm in Madras.[22]


The impact of this monument on the psyche of the Indian viewer as it juts out from the flat desert would reinforce the colonial objective of control.


To better illustrate the central argument posed in this paper, I will use the example of Mayo College, Ajmer and its architect, Major Charles Mant. Mant came to India in 1859 and was part of the Royal Engineers.[23] He trained in Bombay and worked on the University buildings as superintending architect under George Gilbert Scott.[24] Why did Mant move away from the Gothic, which he trained in and was accustomed to, to the Indo-Sarcenic? Metcalf suggests, “From 1872, Mant devoted himself wholly to elaborating an Indic style.”[25] [26] Mayo College (Fig.6) was one in a series of Chief’s colleges, set up to educate the nobility of India’s countless princely states. Its mission was to educate Indians in the manners, customs, and ways of the English. This mission came to be reflected in the architecture, which was simultaneously Indian – drawing upon India’s Mughal past – and British.[27] This systematic categorization – be it religion or architecture – is essential to understanding colonial ideology. Furthermore, the impact of this monument on the psyche of the Indian viewer as it juts out from the flat desert would reinforce the colonial objective of control. From this analysis, it can be concluded without doubt that the English lacked an architectural style for India, as contemporary monuments varied from the Gothic to the Indo-Sarcenic to the Classical.


[1] Anthony Welch, Martin Segger, and Nicholas De Caro, “Building for the Raj: Richard Roskell Bayne” in Reveu d’art canadienne/Canadian Art Revue, 34 (2009): 75.

[2] Robert Grant Irving, Indian Summer: Lutyens, Baker and Imperial Delhi (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1981), 5.

[3] T. Roger Smith, “Architectural Art in India” in Journal of the Society of Arts XXI (1873): 286.

[4] See also Thomas Metcalf, Forging the Raj: Essays on British India in the Heyday of Empire (New Delhi, India: Oxford University Press, 2005), 105.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Thomas Metcalf, An Imperial Vision, 12.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 12.

[9] Ibid., 13.

[10] In some cases it is difficult to distinguish between the Gothic and Indo-Sarcenic, such the Bombay Municipal Corporation Headquarters, which combine both styles, and in some it is clear which style is being employed. This is because there is no uniform architectural style for the colony.

[11] An excellent analysis of the colonial knowledge gathering exercise is presented by Nicholas Dirks in Castes of Mind. Two excellent resources on photography in India are The Coming of Photography to India by Christopher Pinney and India: Pioneering Photographers, 1850 – 1900 by John Falconer.  Also, Vidya Dehejia’s India Through the Lens: Photography 1840 – 1911, includes some relevant essays.

[12] Christopher London, Bombay Gothic (Mumbai, India: India Book House, Ltd., 2006), 18.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid., 22.

[15] The same reasoning would used to shift the capital from Calcutta to New Delhi, as Delhi would become the centre of six railway lines by 1910.

[16] Christopher London, Bombay Gothic, 25.

[17] Ibid.,

[18] Ibid., 44.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid., 52.

[21] Thomas Metcalf, An Imperial Vision, 58.

[22] Ibid., 59.

[23] Ibid., 66.

[24] Christopher London, Bombay Gothic, 43.

[25] Thomas Metcalf, An Imperial Vision, 67.

[26] Metcalf uses the term Indic to define architectural elements that are Indian in nature, such as chajjas, chattris, etc. I use the term Indic not to define Indian elements of architecture but instead, to define the third and final phase of colonial architecture in India (at New Delhi).

[27] Ironically, the term Indo-Sarcenic does not indicate a synthesis between English and Indian, if that were the case it would be Anglo-Sarcenic.


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