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Architectural Alchemy: Unveiling the Magic of Indo-Saracenic Architecture

India is a diverse country with various architectural styles. Whether it is the vernacular architecture of the south or the Brutalist architecture rampant in the northern belt, the nation boasts of a plethora of designs. Every new ruling party (the Mughals, the princes, and more) produced marvellous architectural wonders which still stand today. When India was still colonized, the Britishers made colossal buildings adhering to the Greek and Roman Classical architecture style. However, the revolt of 1857 changed everything.

To reassert power, the Britishers mixed elements of Islamic, Neo-Gothic, and Neoclassical styles to give rise to Indo Saracenic Architecture. These buildings employed modern techniques and elements (concrete and steel) while still maintaining a stance of ‘Indian-ness’. But what is Indo Saracenic Architecture? In this article, we will answer all the burning questions on Indo Saracenic Architecture.

What is Indo Saracenic Architecture

Indo Saracenic Architecture is also known as Indo-Gothic, Neo-Mughal, Mughal-Gothic, or Hindoo-style architecture. The practice was prevalent during the 19th century. The style focused on reviving the dying craftsmanship. Hence, any building made in the Indo Saracenic architecture style will undoubtedly be embedded with several decorative motifs. The term ‘Saracen’ refers to nomads or ‘desert people.’ Soon the term began to imply Arabs or Muslims. 

Indo Saracenic Architecture in Chennai – Chepauk Palace
Courtesy – Wikipedia

The origin of Indo Saracenic architecture can be traced to the Britishers’ inane desire to be seen not as the colonizers but as a generous monarchy. Hence, most of the foundations in the Indo Saracenic architecture buildings have a British layout, topped by Islamic or Indian style. This was a clever move to keep the Indian population under control. However, the practice began vanishing in the 1920s, restricted only to princely states or official commissions. This was due to the expensive costs of resources required, the declining indigenous knowledge & skill of the labourers, and the frequent customization of ornamental patterns.

Characteristics of Indo Saracenic Architecture

Most of the buildings made in the Indo Saracenic style have bulbous (onion-like) domes with overhanging bracketed eaves. The design of the arches was myriad. One may find either pointed, cusped, scalloped or horseshoe shapes in these structures. In West Bengal, the roofs were curved. Another striking quality is the extensive use of pinnacles, minarets, and towers. They were erected on top of octagonal, square, or round domes.

Courtesy – Wikipedia

The misguided grandeur of the Britishers led to the creation of an open pavilion. The use of ‘jaali work’ gained notoriety. These perforated, latticed, or openwork screens were quite common inside these buildings, but they were also implemented in the windows or balconies. Their entrances were called ‘iwans’. The gates were often built under an arched facade. The ornamental motifs resemble Islamic, Hindu, and Byzantine styles. As is the case with Gothic architecture, these buildings carried vaulted roofs as well.

Examples of Indo Saracenic Architecture

The Chepauk Palace is considered to be the first foray into Indo Saracenic architecture in Chennai. Although this style was an Indian staple, it also spread to Sri Lanka, Malaysia, and the United Kingdom. 

Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, Mumbai

The Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus is a glowing example of Indo Saracenic Architecture. The building has several domed roofs along with numerous pinnacles. It was designed by Frederick William Stevens and Axel Haig. The iconic building has made itself a symbol of Mumbai with its pointed arches and turrets. In 2004, it was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Another striking feature of the buildings is the many gargoyles that sit at the top also acting as an ornate water sprout.

Courtesy – Imaginoso

Victoria Memorial, Kolkata

Victoria Memorial is yet another example of Indo Saracenic Architecture. It has stained glass windows, which is a prominent feature of Gothic architecture. The gigantic white marble museum features octagonal domed chhatris and several corner towers. It was designed by Sir William Emerson and Vincent Esch. 

Courtesy – The Tiles of India

Image Courtesy – Bhopal Heritage and History

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