The British left behind an architectural legacy
which lives on in many of Bombays public buildings. Let us take
a look at the Anglo-Indian heritage which once gave Bombay the
reputation of the best Victorian Gothic city in the world.
When the British left
India, what remained behind was a legacy ranging from intangibles
like language, social customs, the modes of administrative
functioning, and more enduringly their buildings scattered across
twenty-four latitudes and windely varied terrain. A lot of the
construction in British India was the work of amateurs and military
engineers. Their work reflects a curious adaptation of local
materials and weather to a longing for home being expressed in the
implantation of European styles in a tropical land. In all of India,
apart from Shimla perhaps, it is the city of Bombay which shows the
greatest incorporation of a multitude of divergent styles popular in
the Victoria era.
As part of the Portuguese
Catharine of Braganzas dowery when she married Charles II,
Bombay passed into British possession in 1670. Not a mainland
settlement like that of Madras or Calcutta, it was originally a
string of islands sheltering the wide inlet of bom Bahia or beautiful
bay from the Arabian sea.
Unlike the other two
presidency towns, Bombays growth was peaceful, untroubled by
attacks from native potentates or foreign competitors. Slowly its
identity changed from that of an archipelago to a peninsula, as a
network of roads linked the several islands. It was only after 1850
and the cutting of the Suez Canal that Bombay boomed from a trading
port on a quiet backwater to a teeming, expanding metropolis.
Apart from the opening of
the Suez Canal several other happenings between 1860-70 explained the
sudden expansion of the city. The railways, the Empires
greatest capitalist expression linked Bombay with the rest of the
country. The demand for Indian cotton grew as American supplies were
cut off due to the Civil War. Sir Bartle Frere, a man intensely
interested in town planning and urban development was appointed
Governor of Bombay in 1862.
post-independence urban architecture in Bombay burgeons in a plethora
of concrete and glass angularly pushing skywards, public buildings of
a bygone era still remain like spacious islands of ornate
extravagance. These are nearly all the buildings of Sir Bartles
Bombay. Florence Nightingale, so impressed with the sanitary
arrangements incorporated into his town planning, is said to have
remarked on the fact that Victorian Bombay had achieved a lower
mortality rate than Londons (itself the lowest in Europe).
Together with Sir Bartle, James Trubshave, the architectural planner
had endeavoured to lay out a model business town of imperial Britain.
According to writer Jan
Morris, Bombay is one of the most characteristically Victorian cities
in the world, displayed all the grand effrontery of Victorian
eclectism. From the Fort the Fort area down to the cantonment at
Colaba still stand buildings with examples of diverse architectural
features such as German gables, Dutch roofs, Swiss timbering, Romance
arches and Tudor casements mingled with more ethnic oriental
British reaction to such
grand and diverse display was also equally diverse. While Aldous
Huxley is said to have sneered and dismissed Bombay s pretentious,
architectural historian, Gavin Stamp has called it the best Victorian
Gothic city in the world.
Perhaps the most fitting
monuments both in name and splendour, the very symbol of the British
in Victorian Bombay is a building that was opened in 1887 in time to
celebrate Queen Victoria Terminus or VT as it is better known today.
The bustling mass of
present day commuters appear totally unaware of the scale and
grandeur of the station. It is estimated that some two million
passengers use its services every twenty four hours. How many of this
number, I wonder ever stop and stare?
Looming above Hornby Road
is the great sandstone edifice, constructed in a blend of
Venetian-Gothic and Indo-Saracenic styles. The building has
innumerable domes, arcades, turrets and sculpted monkey-faced
gargoyles. On the central rounded dome is the gowned figure of
Porgress, with an unpraised arm like Libertys.
The building is
ornamented with a number of elaborate medallions, depicting apart
from Victoria and her Viceroy, the Chairman and Chief Engineer of the
Great Indian Peninsula Railway. The inside is no less grand being
designed under the supervision of Lockwood Kipling, father of the
great author. Figures of birds and beasts adorn the stairways.
Tall stained glass
windows reflect in jeweled tones on the glazed tile floor. The whole
is set off by the handsome figures of twin lions flanking the main
The first British
architect of repute to be represented in India was Sir Gilbert Scott,
the great English Gothicist. At the height of his fame (after having
designed the chapels of Exeter College, Oxford and St. Johns
College, Cambridge) he laid out the plans for the Bombay University
library and convocation hall, working entirely from his London
office. A visit to these buildings shows a marked resemblance to
Catholic chapels with typical features such as high arched ceilings
and glowing windows of stained glass.
The University complex
consists of a rectangular quadrangle surrounded by two story blocks.
Leading off the main entrance arcade is the liberty which has an
elaborate staircase, with corbelled dwarf columns upholding the heads
of Shakespeare and Horner.
The whole building is in
the pure gothic style with statue niches, open spiral staircases at
either side and buttressed balconies. Paid for partly by donations
from the wealthy Parsi citizens of Bombay, the building was later
crowned by an immense watchtower which houses twenty-four statues
representing the castes of western India.
suggestion of the convocation hall is reinforced by the Great Rose
Window illuminating it. The water spouts draining the roof are
modeled in the figures of gargoyles which in the words of
J.M.Maclean, Editor of the Bombay Gazette in 1876 show a want of
knowledge of anatomy. The suitability of such a Christian style of
architecture, completely untouched by Hindu or Saracenic features has
been much debated since the completion of the building in 1874.
Other educational institutions in the Gothic style are Xaviers
College and the Alexandria Native Girls School.
The neighbouring High
Court Building is also in the Gothic style with a similar spiral
staircase, but its lines are simpler and in the opinion of some, more
elegant. Another building much admired for its simplicity is the
Bombay Town Hall with its ribbed Doric Columns. Designed by Col.
Cowper of the Bombay Engineers, the original columns shipped from
England were too large and had to be used in the Byculla Church
Overlooked by the Town
Hall, the Elphinstone circle is passed by a wide thoroughfare on
which stands the Prince of Wales Museum located on a plot of land
known as the cultural Crescent Mr.Gandhi the present day curator of
the Museum, said it was begun in 1911 and incorporated in its design
a number of local styles. Bombay province at that time comprised
Gujarat, the northern part of Karnataka and parts of Maharashtra.
Mr.G.Wittel, the architect traveled around these three areas and
tried to include features from local temples and mosques in his
plans. While the yellow and blue basalt structure is topped y domes
in Karnatakas Islamic gol ghumj style the wide central hall is
supported by pillers in the Jain temple tradition. The Museums
pristine condition explains why it was awarded the first prize of the
Indian Heritage Society, Bombay chapter.
Justifiably proud of
their city, activists of Bombays Urban Conservation Society
have taken steps in the restoration of lesser known structure. For
example, the dilapidated Wayside Inn at the Kala Ghoda has been given
a facelift, but pains have been taken to preserve the chiseled wooden
brackets supporting the balcony whilst retaining the tiled porch at
A far far grander edifice
in which to dine, the Taj Mahal Hotel was constructed at the oceans
edge in 1903. It was built not by the British, but by one of the
most enterprising Parsees of all time, Jamsetji Nusserwanji Tata.
The idea of building a grand hotel was conceived by him when he was
refused entry into the nearby Watsons Hotel, on account of his
race. Today Watsons doesnt exist but the Taj has
prospered enough to give birth to a growing hotel chain. For
travelers on the P&O lines during the Raj, the Taj became as
welcome a landmark as another famous hotel, Raffles of Singapore.
It is on the very steps
of this hotel on the Apollo Bunder that the king Emperor George V
landed on his state visit to India. On his arrival the red carpet
passed through a temporary structure scaled on the lines of a mini
Taj Mahal in white plaster, but some 17 years later a memorial of a
more enduring nature was constructed-the Gateway of India. Built on a
plot of land reclaimed from the sea, it was designed by George Wittet
in the Gujarati style. Apart from commemorating the arrival of the
Emperor in India, it was to witness an equally historic departure.
This is where the last parade was held in 1947, when the British bade
good-bye to their Empire.
Most of the public
building in Bombay are still used for the purpose for which they were
originally designed. Today much is unchanged too at clubs like the
Bombay Gymkhana where members still order chhota pegs at sun down.
What is threatened is the dwindling private bungalow with its high
ceilings, deep verandahs and tiled floors. Tomorrows newspaper
will never carry an advertisement like that of the Bombay Courier in
1793 For Sale- a bungalow situated between the two tombstones on the
island of Coulaba.
Although shabbier and
more weather-worn than they were during the Raj, Bombays Anglo
Indian heritage continues to live on in its public buildings
conceived for the most part during Sir Bartle Freres
governship. It is ironical that the average Bombayite has no time to
spare a thought for Sir Bartle or indeed the British Raj today. Even
the memorial to sir Bartle, the Frere Fountain as it was originally
named is today known only as the Flora Fountain.