Chennai’s Gifts to the World: #4 – Indo-Saracenic Architecture

I know that I am laying myself open to expressions of outrage from other parts of the subcontinent which boast wonderful Indo-Saracenic buildings: Mumbai, Kolkata, Lahore, etc etc. But first hear me out.

The Wikipedia defines Indo-Saracenic architecture as:

a style of architecture used by British architects in the late 19th century in India. It drew elements from traditional Hindu and Islamic architecture, and combined it with the Gothic revival style favored in Victorian England.

It officially arose after 1857, when the British in the Subcontinent began to see themselves, and to wish to be seen, as rulers, not merely as traders. It is an (often-glorious, in my opinion) mishmash of styles. Think lots of cupolas, pointed domes, arches like flower petals, and so on. According to the Bombay Museum and History Today, Indo-Saracenic architecture had its birth in Bombay or Jaipur respectively, in the latter half of the nineteenth century.

However, in our own Chennai, nestled among a number of excellent Indo-Saracenic buildings from the late nineteenth century, is a neglected jewel. As Chennai historian S. Muthiah writes:

The high noon of [Indo-Saracenic] architecture was Lutyens’ and Baker’s New Delhi… Few remember that its beginnings were in the palace the first Nawab of the Carnatic, Mohamed Ali of Wallajah, wanted built in the Fort and then agreed to on a site across the river from its glacis.

He also accepted the services of Company engineer, later Company contractor, Paul Benfield to design and build the first British vision of a Hindu and Muslim architectural amalgam.

The Chepauk Palace was built in 1768 – almost a century before the term Indo-Saracenic came into official use.

You can see some excellent photographs of the palace, taken by ChandraChoodan Gopalakrishnan, in a previous posting here on Chennai Metroblogging.

In 1801 the British government took over the palace, along with the Carnatic – the Nawab’s kingdom – in return for settling part of the Nawab’s enormous debts. Later, as a consolation, they presented him with a new palace, which had been built as a British police court: the Amir Mahal, in Triplicane. The Amir Mahal is also Indo-Saracenic, but it owes more to the western side of that amalgam. It is earthbound compared to the Chepauk Palace.

Today the Chepauk Palace remains in government hands, housing the Tamil Nadu Public Works Department and several other offices.

The Nawab of the Carnatic is today known as the Prince of Arcot. The Arcot family (the only royal family in India which is still officially designated as such) still occupies the Amir Mahal, in Triplicane’s crowded heart. The current Prince of Arcot, Mohammed Ali, is known for his work toward harmony among religions. The prince has a website which includes a photo gallery, including a number of pictures of the Amir Mahal and its rooms.

Some of the many other Indo Saracenic buildings in Chennai include: the Madras University Senate House; the High Court (and another picture here); the Government Museum; the General Post Office; Egmore Station; Central Station.

3 Comments so far

  1. shek (unregistered) on December 2nd, 2006 @ 11:05 am

    Chennai does have Indo-Saracenic buildings,alright.But how many of them actually stand out?Barring a few such as Central,Southern Railway office etc. most of the buildings like those in mount road are marred by hoardings and billboards.In that aspect,Mumbai knows better to preserve the heritage of its buildings.

  2. Thad E. Ginathom (unregistered) on December 2nd, 2006 @ 3:01 pm

    Chennai doesn’t know how to preserve its heritage at all! Very sad.

  3. senthil (unregistered) on December 21st, 2006 @ 6:15 pm

    tat was a good information, could i get any other links or information about georgetown(chennai) and its present state ? i am doin an thesis on it

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