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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 40 September 30, 2023

How the English Built India – Brick by Brick I M R Narayan Swamy

Saturday 30 September 2023, by M R Narayan Swamy



Empire Building:
The Construction of British India 1690-1860

by Rosie Llewellyn-Jones

ISBN: 9780670099689
Pages: xi + 239; Price: Rs 799

Yes, the English landed in India purportedly to trade before they began pitting one kingdom against the other amid a crumbling Mughal order to gain lordship over one of the biggest countries in the world. Before the British Raj started ruling India directly after the 1857 War of Independence, it was the East India Company which took the first steps to build a modern India – a long and tortuous process which lasted some 170 years.
Most of the early colonial buildings admired even today were the work of engineers, not architects. We know that architects design buildings and engineers erect them. But that distinction was shaky in 18th-century India. Unfortunately, most engineers who executed India’s early built environment remain unknown.

The infrastructure associated today with colonization and which has been examined in this gripping book was initially developed to support trade. How it turned, subtly, into something else with profound consequences is part of the theme explored by Rosie Llewellyn-Jones, a renowned historian of colonial India.

The St Mary’s Church in Madras, the first Anglican church in India, was constructed between 1678 and 1681. The man who raised it was a gunner, William Dixon. It was constructed in such a way so as to resist artillery fire. This indeed was a key consideration for many of the early structures – they needed to withstand enemy attacks.

Two of the best-known Company buildings – Government House in Calcutta and the Residency at Hyderabad – were also designed by military engineers. Until the 1850s, India only had military engineers; civil engineers came only towards the end of the Company rule.

What work went behind these buildings in planning and execution in the absence of architects? Sadly, no 18th century indigenous drawn plans remain; one can only guess how information may have been conveyed from the planners (architects in later cases) to the builder and client. There are also no known models of the buildings from that era. The sole exception is a 19th century ivory model of the Hazarduari Palace at Mushidabad, the last capital of independent Bengal. The model is now in England. (The Company began to administer Bengal after 1765.) The lack of photography too would have posed problems.

One of the more famous buildings in Calcutta housed the Asiatick Society, which predates Britain’s Asiatic Society by nearly four decades. It came up on a plot of land granted in 1805. The building took three years to come up and remains at the original location – a corner site on Chowringhee and Park Street.

Calcutta and Bengal occupied a pride of place vis-a-vis the location of many of early British buildings. Backed by influential Hindus, the Hindu College was born in 1817 and later became the Presidency College. British lawyer John Bethune, with the support of social reformer Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar and others, started the Hindu Female School in 1849; it later became Bethune College. If the Company established a Muslim seminary in Calcutta in 1780, a Sanskrit College came up in Benares a decade later. A large observatory was constructed in Madras in 1792.

Road construction also took place extensively during Company rule. This was beset with problems because of India’s huge rivers. Technology available in the late 18th and early 19th century did not provide for erecting bridges easily. As the English consolidated their rule, it was vital to build roads between key cities and towns. Indians took to both the roads as well as railways with gusto. The Calcutta-Benares road saw heavy traffic. During one winter month alone, nearly 2,000 bullock carts, 84 wheeled carriages, 118 palanquins and some 780 people on foot used it.

But nothing the British built surpassed the cantonments that came up all across the sprawling sub-continent. Both in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, the cantonments remain one of the most significant reminders of British rule. Monghyr, now in Bihar, saw the first cantonment. Dinapur and Berhampore followed. Before the British called it quits in 1947, cantonments dotted the Indian landscape.

Similarly, the Anglo-Nepalese War led indirectly to the establishment of India’s first hill stations. Around 1820, the first permanent residence built in Shimla was named Kennedy House. Within 30 years, there were over a hundred new houses with fancy English names. Shimla was followed by Mussoorie, Landour, Darjeeling and Ootacamund. Murree, now in Pakistan, was developed after the annexation of Punjab in 1849. The Lawrence Military Asylum, a school for children and orphans of private British soldiers, opened at Sanawar near Shimla in 1847.

All the development during Company rule came at a cost – as it was to happen during colonial times. There were instances when greedy English officials engaged in construction made huge amounts of money and got away with it. The hill stations also exposed the wild life in the mountains to the bestiality of the English who routinely killed animals and birds for fun. Some English men even traded in birds, plumes and stuffed beats, making huge profits. More construction meant more trees were felled. In the process, over the decades, India was deprived of vast stretches of forests – an environmental disaster that continues today.

Besides the cantonments, the British rule saw the emergence of the three Presidency cities as well as several towns across the country, both on the plains and in the hills. Initially, these were exclusively for the British, with a military cantonment nearby. The new towns had banks, post offices, ‘Europe’ shops, lending libraries, hostels, clubs, theatres, assembly rooms, stables and bagh or gardens. There were also imposing bungalows with large compounds, the servants’ quarters tucked away at the rear.

All this did not come about easily. The first Company men in India lived in a place where the average life expectancy for Europeans was below 30 years of age. India then was also overgrown with dense forests. Death from wild animals, snakes and insects was common as towns and buildings began coming up. For better or worse, modern India has been shaped by Britain. This book, based on extensive research, gives us a peep into a world that is more or less forgotten now.

All this does not take away the credit for the many amazing buildings and structures that arose before the English and other Europeans reached India – both during the Mughal era and even earlier. But barring imposing Mughal monuments and mosques as well as finely built Hindu temples (mostly in southern India), all of them architectural marvels, nothing else remains. The Company and British structures do. They remained largely safe even during the 1857 revolt. As the author says: “The East India Company often got things wrong; but it got some things right too.”

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