India and the Buildings of the Raj

By Ninian, Alex | Contemporary Review, November 2002 | Go to article overview

India and the Buildings of the Raj


Ninian, Alex, Contemporary Review


THERE are plenty of examples of where improvements in the physical environment of towns and cities become the precursor of improvements in the lifestyle and well-being of their citizens. The decline or exodus of old industries has been reversed by towns and cities all over the world making a feature of historic landmarks, creating museums and exhibitions, building concert halls and opera houses, developing parks, open spaces, and walkways, cleaning up rivers, canals and docks, turning crumbling warehouses and old tenements into upmarket apartments. Think of London's Docklands, Glasgow as European City of Culture, Newcastle's town centre. Overseas, think of Boston, Singapore, Sydney, Toronto. All of these have re-invented themselves by improving their physical surroundings first and benefiting later from the resurgence and inflow of employment, finance and culture.

India is waking up to the possibilities of this process in at least some of its great cities, but in order to succeed it is having to come to terms with the special features of its individuality. The most obvious issue is that many of the landmark buildings were built by foreigners or at least during periods of foreign dominance. The government buildings and the former Viceroy's House of Lutyens in Delhi are a case in point as is the most famous building of all, the Taj Mahal built by the Moghul Shah Jehan. Fortunately, most Indians, whether they be the ordinary man in the street or whether they be politicians or officials, have relatively few hang-ups about these features of their past.

In some other countries nationalists have tried to play down or even destroy the landmarks of a colonial past, and communists have tried to obliterate the relics of royalty, but for the most part it is to the great credit of India that it has harboured so few vindictive ideas. Mention of communists is particularly pointed because the Marxist administration of West Bengal is among the leaders in restoring historic buildings and does not have any problem with featuring, among other things, Calcutta's Victoria Memorial.

And why should it? America does not deny its British past, nor does Britain deny the Romans or the Norman conquest. Spain does not deny its occupation by the Muslim Moors nor Greece the Turks. Like them, India has been enlightened enough to accept that history is history.

The earliest buildings of the British connection were those to do with trading rather than colonization. The very first, in 1608, was a 'factory' of The British East India Company at Surat on the north-west coast 150 miles north of Bombay. All that now exists is the graveyard for its British managers and occupants but it served as the template for later buildings which are becoming more and more valued. The standard design included warehousing and storage facilities for merchandise and ammunition, a church, a dining hall and a fortress, such that the entire expatriate community and their servants could eat, sleep, pray and be safe.

Fort St George in Madras in the south east followed in 1639 and although there have been alterations over the years, the basic layout is much the same as it was nearly four centuries ago. Madras, predating Calcutta with its early British connections, also has a house which was owned and lived in by Robert Clive and the oldest English church in India, St Mary's, built in 1680. Fortunately, the authorities in Madras and Tamil Nadu are very alive to the importance of these places to the economy and culture of city and state.

In many ways Delhi is, and was, the first city to see and benefit from the advantages of an architectural lead. Historically it came much later than Madras and Calcutta in the development of the British connection in India. Madras, as we have discussed previously, was originally a place for the traders of the East India Company and their warehouses-cum-fortresses reflected the primitive, pioneering conditions of the seventeenth century.

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