A magnificent mix of spires, cusped arches, onion domes, vaulted roofs, dome-shaped pavilions, pinnacles, minarets, intricate tracery, pillars and overhanging eaves, the Indo-Gothic (also known as the Indo-Saracenic, Hindu-Gothic, Mughal-Gothic or Neo-Mughal) was an architectural style developed by British architects in British India in the late 19th century. Structures observing the principles of the movement are found in present-day India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Malaysia and even in England.
This confluence of East and West was medieval Indian Islamic (Mughal) and some Hindu architecture meeting the Gothic Revival and Neoclassical styles of construction that had become popular in Victorian England – and it was manifested in government buildings, law courts, railway stations, post offices, palaces for local royals, churches, schools, colleges, town halls and museums throughout the Indian subcontinent.
The pivotal players of the movement were Edwin Lutyens, Herbert Baker, Henry Irwin, Charles Mant, Frederick W. Stevens, Robert Chisholm, William Emerson and George Wittet – some of whom had designed important buildings in Britain and other colonies as well.
In an article (“A Tradition Created: Indo-Saracenic Architecture under the Raj”) on the website britishempire.co.uk (run by the Plymouth, UK-based history teacher Stephen Luscombe), Thomas Metcalf, an historian of colonial India, mentions a crucial event in the development of the Indo-Gothic style:
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. Copings and plinths were gathered in one volume, arches in a second, brackets in a third, and so on. 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. Indeed the drawings were grouped together in parts, with each sheet loose, in order that ‘different examples of architectural details may be compared and selections readily made.’
With the publication of these volumes a distinctive style of Indian architecture commonly known as the ‘Indo-Saracenic’ – came of age. It has long been fashionable to disparage, perhaps with an amused condescension, British attempts 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 Raj.
Much British building in India harked back to Western classical models, for the ‘eternal principles’ and ordered beauty’ of these buildings embodied, as Herbert Baker argued, ’eminently the qualities of law, order, and good government’ which the British held out to their Indian subjects. But the British sought as well to place themselves in the line of the great Indian empires of the past, and so, during the later decades of the nineteenth century, set about creating a style of building Indian in appearance, but Western in function.
Although the Indo-Gothic buildings were originally and essentially dedicated to the realisation of imperial ambition, one cannot deny or downplay the role they have played in the urbanisation and modernisation of south Asia. These structures helped establish definite administrative spaces, communication networks and transportation facilities in an entire subcontinent. Additionally, they remain powerful and concrete testaments of attempts at cultural assimilation. The colonisers here, in curiosity and with at least some humility, offered room to the colonised. And by “not foisting on them fashions and designs that were utterly foreign to their aesthetic sensibilities” did not thwart their identity.
The British Empire: A Very Short Introduction (2013) by Ashley Jackson
The Rise and Fall of the British Empire (1997) by Lawrence James
Raj: The Making and Unmaking of British India (2000) by Lawrence James
Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Search for Global Power (2002) by Niall Ferguson
Cities of Empire: The British Colonies and the Creation of the Urban World (2014) by Tristram Hunt
An Imperial Vision: Indian Architecture and Britain’s Raj (1989) by Thomas R. Metcalf