Colonial (English) Architecture in India


The first thing that comes to mind while thinking about colonial architecture for most people is the bungalows in Lutyen’s Delhi and yes, of course, Connaught place situated in the heart of Delhi. But before we get into what colonial architecture was and meant for the subcontinent, let us talk about how the originated or came into being.

Colonial architecture in India kickstarted with the need for the British and other European powers (French & Portuguese) to fortify their positions. The British along with the other Europen powers came to India on the premise of trading. Slowly and steadily they built trading posts. As their business grew in India, the trading posts grew in size and later needed to be consolidated and fortified. These trading posts grew into the first forts of colonial India.

Initially, the forts or the defensive structures were built in an ad-hoc manner to fortify the trading posts which protected them from the attacks. As time went by these structures became more well defined. They started resembling the forts in Europe and were designed according to the design practices prevalent in Europe (as according to their thoughts in regards to an ideal fortification). Example- Fort Willaim, Kolkata.

Colonial (English) Architecture in India

The significant change in colonial buildings came about after the British won over the Nawab of Bengal to conquer the Bengal region. This was the first time the British had administrative control over a part of India. This resulted in a number of buildings being built by the English for consolidating their trading concerns and also to establish themselves in the region. This period saw buildings being built for the governors, trading posts, ancillaries buildings and defensive structures. The colonial style of architecture in India was slowly picking up.

The second boost for colonial architecture came after the Revolt of 1857. After this point, the British crown took over administrative control of the nation from the East India Company. It is from 1857 to 1947 that Colonial architecture in India reached its full glory.

The first buildings which came up in British India were to build up the infrastructure so that goods and soldiers could move freely about in the country. The development of the postal system, railways and the development of the metropolitan cities of Chennai, Delhi, Mumbai, and Kolkata played a significant role. A number of administrative buildings were set up to rule the subcontinent. Another important building typology which developed during that period were the churches. Along with building places of worship for themselves, the British wanted to “enlighten” the indigenous population with Christianity. Thus, a number of churches were built in the interiors of the country with that purpose in mind.

Colonial (English) Architecture in India

Another interesting building typology which was influenced by colonial architecture are the regional palaces and administrative buildings which were built by the local ruling Maharajas. The Maharajas, many of whom were educated in England were influenced by the Colonial style of architecture. Also, they wanted to impress their colonial masters with their newest showpieces, which often took the form of buildings. Examples- Umaid Bhavan Palace (Udaipur), Cooch Behar Palace, Hazaduari palace, etc.

Some of the great examples of colonial architecture in India are Edward Lutyen’s Delhi, Connaught Place, Victoria Terminus in Bombay, the Rashtrapati Bhavan and so on and henceforth. Now that you have a fair idea of how the colonial architecture developed in India let us dwell on the reasons behind the design of colonial buildings.


Colonial (English) Architecture in India

The British architects at that period were highly influenced by the classical styles of architecture. The classical orders (Roman & Greek) was the inspiration behind the colonial buildings in India. Impressive and symmetrical facades, arcades, colonnades, ionic/doric/Corinthian columns adorned many a colonial building in India. This characteristic is present in many iconic buildings such as the Connaught place, Lutyen’s area in Delhi, Rashtrapati Bhavan, etc.

The style in the later years also incorporated many an indigenous feature. For example, the Rashtrapati Bhavan included the use of jaalis, a stupa, Mughal-inspired archways and entrances, lattice work like a dome which is native to the country rather than transplanting or forcing upon an entirely new style as previously done.

Thus, one can say that in a sense a new style of architecture was developing. One that amalgamated the indigenous with the western style of architecture. This style was further carried forward by Indian architects in the post-independent India.

Features of Colonial architecture in India –

The following are some of the most well know features prevalent in most of the colonial buildings in India.

Impressive and symmetrical facades

Colonial (English) Architecture in India

Colonial buildings are known to have impressive and symmetric facades. This feature as discussed was inspired by the classical orders of architecture, namely the Greek and the Roman styles. The colonial buildings in India had a high central mass and were often accompanied by classically styled columns.

Most colonial buildings were designed to be authoritative and assertive of the British influence over India. They were meant to symbolize the power and the might of the British empire in India.

Another lesser known feature of colonial buildings is that they checked for optical correction to make them even more attractive. Optical Correction is the science of designing buildings so that they do not look distorted when seen by a viewer standing on the ground. This practice started with the Greek Temples which were designed keeping in mind the golden ratio. One of the primary goals of the designers at that time was to create the perfect building and this was an attempt at just that.


Colonial (English) Architecture in India

Colonial buildings architecture in India was highly inorganic. Everything was planned to perfection. There was no scope for organic shapes and improper planning. This thought process was along the lines of the British thought prevalent then. The British empire had got to its dominant position because of their planning, processes and great organization skills. This reflected in their formal and relatively cold architecture.

Basic Bungalow-

Colonial (English) Architecture in India

Let us study in detail the basic building block of Colonial architecture in India the colonial bungalow. These villa like structures were built for the resident British population in India. It was the officer’s grade, and above that were given these posh structures for residence. These bungalows varied in design from place to place depending upon the area as well as the rank of the officer who was to live there.

The typical bungalow comprised of the following –
A driveway complete with a porch
Large lawns
Central Residential building with classical colonnades
Servant quarters
Stores for firewood and other supplies
A garage/stable for the motorcars/horses
A kitchen garden
A guard house with a periphery wall

Colonial (English) Architecture in India

The spaces in a bungalow were designed in a manner which segregated the building from the city and the street life by creating a buffer. This was in contrast to the architecture prevalent in India which thrived wherein life in the city thrived around the streets and the marketplaces.

Thus, a clear sense of hierarchy of spaces was maintained. The public areas were segregated through semi-private ones (gardens) which lead to the private space of the central residential building which was further separated into a number of different spaces. The buildings were designed to be well-ventilated with high ceilings. Also, the services in the were grouped together and were restricted to a particular part of the building (the service core).

Sewage System-

The British in India were successful in establishing an efficient and an effective sewage system. The sewage systems in India at that time comprised of open drainage networks, deteriorating sewage systems from the Mughal era and of course there were areas where no sewage system existed. Thus, establishing a sewage system was a major step towards development at that point in time. But one has to bear in mind that the British did not do it to develop the country rather they did it to increase their living standards and not their Indian subjects.

(Note- Some enlightened rulers of several states had established proper drainage and sewage systems for their cities. )

Roads ( Planning Patterns)-

Colonial (English) Architecture in India

The development of roads and planning patterns of the British in India was similar to what the American builders and planners do. The overall pattern of the design was rectilinear/ radial. The primary thought process was to remove all vegetation and natural topography of the site to create a flat, “buildable space.” Wide roads were provided with houses on sides of it. Further, the houses were offset from the roads to create plush gardens for recreation and to create a buffer between the house and the road (the public and the private).

Conclusion –

Thus, it is safe to say that colonial architecture had a major influence on the architecture in India. The Western classical styles slowly but steadily merged with the indigenous design. This merger expedited in the post-independence era to create the architecture that we see in modern India.

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