Indo-Saracenic architecture

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Madras High Court buildings are a prime example of Indo-Saracenic architecture, designed by J. W. Brassington under the guidance of British architect Henry Irwin, 1892.
The Victoria Memorial, Kolkata, is one of the finest examples of Indo-Saracenic architecture. It also uses a mixture of British and Mughal elements with Venetian, Egyptian, Deccan and Islamic architectural influences.
The Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus (previously Victoria Terminus) in Mumbai, 1878–88

Indo-Saracenic, also known as Indo-Gothic, was a revival architectural style mostly used by British architects in India in the later 19th century, especially in public and government buildings in the British Raj, and the palaces of rulers of the princely state, reflecting and imitating contemporary and earlier high Indian architecture. It sought to replicate from Imperial Indian architecture, including Rajasthani, Mughal and Maratha eras, which the British regarded as the classic Indian style. The basic layout and structure of the buildings shared commonalities to that used in contemporary buildings in other styles, such as Gothic revival and Neo-Classical. Saracen was a term used in Europe until the 19th century referring to Muslim and/or Arabic-speaking people and regions of the Middle East and North Africa.

The style drew from western exposure to depictions of Indian buildings from about 1795, such as those by William Hodges and the Daniell duo (William Daniell and his uncle Thomas Daniell). The first Indo-Saracenic building is said to be the Chepauk Palace, completed in 1768, in present-day Chennai (Madras). Bombay and Calcutta (as they then were), as the main centres of the Raj administration, saw many buildings constructed in the style, although Calcutta was also a bastion of indigenous European Neo-classical architecture fused with Indic architectural elements. Most major buildings are now classified under the Heritage buildings category as laid down by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), and protected.[citation needed]

The style enjoyed a degree of popularity outside British India, where architects often mixed Islamic and European elements from various areas and periods with boldness, in the prevailing climate of eclecticism in architecture. Through architects and engineers transferred from India, the style was adopted in British Ceylon (present-day Sri Lanka) and the Federated Malay States (present-day Malaysia). The British were also keen to transfer the style outside the Indian Empire and the British Far East to the United Kingdom itself, with several examples of Indo-Saracenic architecture going up in the country, for example at the Royal Pavilion in Brighton, and the eccentric Sezincote House in Gloucestershire.

The wider European version, also popular in the Americas, is Moorish Revival architecture, which tends to use specific South Asian features less, and instead those characteristic of the Arabic-speaking countries; Neo-Mudéjar is the equivalent style in Spain.


Features of the style.
Indian architecture commissioned by Mughals.
Examples of architecture of the Mughal era.

Indo-Saracenic designs were produced by the British colonial government, reflecting the aspirational sensibilities of continental Europeans and Americans, whose architects came to astutely incorporate telling elite "Asian Exoticism" elements, whilst implementing their own engineering innovations supporting such elaborate construction, both in India and abroad, evidence for which can be found to this day in public, private and government owned buildings. Public and Government buildings were often rendered on an intentionally asina-style grand scale, reflecting and promoting a notion of an unassailable and invincible British Empire.[citation needed]

Again, structures of this design sort, particularly those built in India and England, were built in conformance to Indian standards in addition to indigenous British structural engineering standards of the 1800s, which came to include infrastructures composed of iron, steel and poured concrete (the innovation of reinforced cement and pre-cast cement elements, set with iron and/or steel rods, developed much later); the same can be said for like structures built elsewhere, making use of the same design vocabulary, by local architects, that would come to be constructed in continental Europe and the Americas: Indo-Saracenic's popularity flourished for a span of some 30-years.[citation needed]

Notable, too, is that the British, in fact Europeans generally, had long nurtured a taste for the aesthetic exuberance of such “Asian exoticism” design, as displayed in innovative Indo-Saracenic style and also in their taste for Chinoiserie and Japanned. Supported by the imagination of skilled artisans of various disciplines, aspirational exoticism promulgated itself across a broad demographic of British, European and Americas’ citizenry, Adaptation of such design innovations spilled over into and determined the aesthetic direction of major architectural projects, expressing themselves in the Baroque, Regency and design periods beyond.[citation needed]

Today, that spread of elaborate high Asian design fulfillment remains evidenced in many residential and governmental edifices wrought of the masterpiece initiatives of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries; much had initially been contributed by the stupendously rich and indulgent sea-merchant Venetian Empire, whose existence spanned nearly a millennium, and whose Gothic architecture came to incorporate a plethora of Asian exoticism elements, such as the Moorish Arch in its windows, related to the latter "harem window."

Generally, the insatiable craze for Asian exoticism relished those earlier periods, testamentary in their parallel Chinoiserie expression, likewise, ushered in this latter colonial British fascination with the luxuriant exoticism found in the Indian design milieu, whose characteristics includes the following vocabulary list of design elements and motifs (often paralleling and expanding upon the already ornateness of the earlier Venetian's unique Gothic-Moorish, also known as Venetian Gothic architecture ad-mixture):[citation needed]

Chief proponents of this style of architecture included Robert Fellowes Chisholm, Charles Mant, Henry Irwin, William Emerson, George Wittet and Frederick Stevens, along with numerous other skilled professionals and artisans throughout Europe and the Americas.

The British-era Islamia College was built in an Indo-Saracenic Revival architectural style in Peshawar, Pakistan.
The Rambagh Palace in Jaipur reflecting Imperial Rajasthani architecture. Early 20th-century.

Structures built in Indo-Saracenic style in India and in certain nearby countries were predominantly grand public edifices, such as clock towers and courthouses. Likewise, civic as well as municipal and governmental colleges along with town halls counted this style among its top-ranked and most-prized structures to this day; ironically, in Britain itself, for example, King George IV's Royal Pavilion at Brighton, (which twice in its lifetime has been threatened with being torn-down, denigrated by some as a “carnival sideshow”, and dismissed by threatened nationalists as “an architectural folly of inferior design”, no less) and elsewhere, these rare and often diminutive (though sometimes, as mentioned, of grand-scale), residential structures that exhibit this colonial style are highly valuable and prized by the communities in which they exist as being somehow "magical" in appearance.[citation needed]

Typically, in India, villages, towns and cities of some means would lavish significant sums on construction of such architectural works when plans were drawn up for construction of the local railway stations, museums and art galleries.

The cost involved in the construction of buildings of this style was high, including all their inherent customization, ornament and minutia decoration, the artisans' ingenuous skills (stone and wood carving, as well as the exquisite lapidary/inlaid work) and usual accessibility to requisite raw materials, hence the style was executed only on buildings of a grand scale. However the occasional residential structure of this sort, (its being built in part or whole with Indo-Saracenic design elements/motifs) did appear quite often, and such buildings have grown ever more valuable and highly prized by local and foreign populations for their exuberant beauty and elegance today.[citation needed]

Either evidenced in a property's primary unit or any of its outbuildings, such estate-caliber residential properties lucky enough to boost the presence of an Indo-Saracenic structure, are still to be seen, generally, where in instances urban sprawl has not yet overcome them; often they are to be found in exclusive neighborhoods' (or surrounded, as cherished survivors, by enormous sky-scarpers, in more recently claimed urbanized areas throughout this “techno” driven, socio-economic revolutionary era marking India's recent decade's history), and are often locally referred to as "mini-palaces". Usually, their form-factors are these: townhouse, wings and/or porticoes. Additionally, more often seen are the diminutive renditions of the Indo-Saracenic style, built originally for lesser budgets, finding their nonetheless romantic expression in the occasional and serenely beautiful garden pavilion outbuildings, throughout the world, especially, in India and England.[citation needed]

Indian context[edit]

Aitchison College in Lahore with domed chhatris, jalis, chhajja below the balcony, and other features, reflective of Rajasthani architecture.

Confluence of different architectural styles had been attempted before during the mainly Turkic, Delhi Sultanate and Mughal periods. Turkic and Mughal incursions in the Indian subcontinent, introduced new concepts in the much more advanced high architecture of India. The prevailing style of architecture was trabeate, employing pillars, beams and lintels, with less emphasis on arches and domes used during earlier Buddhist periods. The Turkic invaders brought in the arcuate style of construction, with more emphasis on arches and beams, which flourished with Mughal and Taluqdars by building and incorporating Indian architecture, especially Rajasthani temple architecture and Imperial Indian palace/fort/urban architecture as well.

Local influences also lead to different 'orders' of the Indo-Islamic style. After the disintegration of the Turkic Delhi Sultanate, rulers of individual states established their own rule and hence their own architectural styles which were imitations of local/regional Indian architectural schools. Examples of these are the 'Bengal' and the 'Gujarat' schools. Motifs such as chhajja (A sunshade or eave laid on cantilever brackets fixed into and projecting from the walls), corbel brackets with richly carved pendentive decorations (described as stalactite pendentives), balconies, kiosks or chhatris and minars (tall towers) were characteristic of the Indian imitated Mughal architecture style, which was to become a lasting legacy of the nearly four hundred years of the Mughal presence in these areas.

Mughal style[edit]

The term 'Mughal' style refers to structures built by Akbar, the third Mughal emperor. This style was an imitation of elite Indian style incorporating Timurid and Persian elements brought over by the tribes from central asia. Some of the significant architectural works of the Mughals are Humayun's Tomb, the Taj Mahal, the Forts of Agra and Lahore, the city of Fatehpur Sikri, Akbar's Tomb.

Decline and revival[edit]

Vidhana Soudha, Bangalore incorporates elements of Indo-Saracenic and Dravidian styles.[1] The construction was completed in 1956.

Shah Jahan was succeeded by his son, Aurangzeb, who had little interest in art and architecture. As a result, Mughal commissioned architecture suffered, with most engineers, architects and artisans migrating to work under the patronage of local rulers.

By the early 19th century, the British had made themselves the virtual masters of the Indian Subcontinent. In 1803, their control was further strengthened with a major defeat of the Marathas under Daulatrao Scindia. They legitimized their rule by taking the then weak Mughal Emperor, Shah Alam II under their protection, and ruling through him. However, their power was yet again challenged when in 1857, the Indian soldiers in their employ, together with rebellious princes led by Queen Laxmibai, lashed out in open revolt, which came to be known as the Revolt of 1857. However, this uprising was doomed from the start, and was crushed by the British with ferocity, marking the end of the nominal Mughal Empire, which had survived earlier under the patronage and protection of the Maratha Empire. At first, the new British regime sought to destroy symbols of Imperial Indian power, systematically destroying a number of Maratha Empire forts and palaces. There was even a proposal to demolish the Taj Mahal and sell the materials. Over the following decades, attitudes changed and the British established the Archaeological Survey of India in 1861 and restored several important monuments.

To usher in a new era, the British "Raj", a new architectural tradition was sought, marrying the existing styles of India with imported styles from the West, such as Gothic (with its sub styles of French Gothic, Venetian-Moorish etc.), Neoclassical and, later, new styles such as Art Deco. This produced a number of buildings with mixed influences. By doing this they kept Indian architecture while adding elements of British and European architecture; this, coupled with the British allowing some regional Indian princes to stay in power under agreements, made their presence more "palatable" for the Indians. The British tried to encapsulate South Asia's past within their new Indic buildings and so represent Britain's Raj as legitimate.[citation needed]

The main building of Mayo College, completed in 1885, is in the Indo-saracenic style, the architect being Maj Mant. Examples in Chennai include the Victoria Public Hall, Madras High Court, Senate House of the University of Madras, and Chennai Central station.

The building of New Delhi as the new imperial capital, which mostly took place between 1918 and 1931, led by Sir Edwin Lutyens, brought the last flowering of the style, using a deeper understanding of Indian architecture. The Rashtrapati Bhavan (Viceroy's, then President's Palace) uses elements from ancient Indian Buddhist era architecture as well as those from later periods. This can be seen in the capitals of the columns and the screen around the drum below the main dome, drawing on the railings placed round ancient stupas.

In British Malaya[edit]

Despite having relatively little relationship to existing architectural styles, the Indo-Saracenic style was officially introduced to the Federated Malay States in British Malaya (present day Peninsular Malaysia) by British engineers and architects who have worked in British India prior. During the design of government offices for the Selangor state government in Kuala Lumpur in the late 19th century, C. E. Spooner, then State Engineer of the Public Works Department, favoured a "Mahometan style" over a neoclassical one to reflect Islamic mores in the region, instructing architect A.C. Norman, with further assistance by R. A. J. Bidwell, to redesign the building.[2] Having previously served in northern India, Norman and Bidwell incorporated various elements of Indo-Saracenic architecture into the building. Upon completion in 1897, the government offices (now known as the Sultan Abdul Samad Building), which would later house the administration of the Federated Malay States and the various post-independence governmental departments, became the one of the earliest examples of Indo-Saracenic architecture in Malaya.[2] The building's construction inspired additional civic buildings in the vicinity to be built in a similar style, while the style's elements would see more limited adoption among private buildings in Malaya. Arthur Benison Hubback would later become the leading architect in the style in the Federated Malay States between the 1890s and 1910s, during which the style experienced its peak in popularity.[citation needed]

The style was also favoured as one of several adopted by British architects for Malayan mosques as they did not feel the need to adhere accurately to the cultural heritage and the traditional culture of the Malays, who remain prominent in Malayan society and are Muslims but lacked the means to design buildings of grand scales; both the Jamek Mosque and Ubudiah Mosque, both designed by Hubback, are examples of mosques that resulted from this fusion of style.[3]





Sri Lanka[edit]


United Kingdom[edit]



  1. ^ "Soudha: A tale of sweat and toil". Deccan Chronicle. 31 October 2010. Retrieved 11 November 2010.
  2. ^ a b Gullick, John Michael (1998). "The British 'Raj' style ", The Encyclopedia of Malaysia (Architecture), p. 82–83.
  3. ^ Mizan Hashim, David (1998). "Indian and Mogul influences on Mosques", The Encyclopedia of Malaysia (Architecture), p. 84–85.