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A Tradition Created: Indo-Saracenic Architecture under the Raj

The buildings the British built in India tell us much about how the British shaped India's conception of the past, explains Thomas R. Metcalf, and how they turned India's architectural heritage to the service of the Raj.

In 1890, Swinton Jacob, the Jaipur State's English engineer, brought out, under the patronage of the Maharaja, six large volumes entitled The Jeypore Portfolio of Architectural Details . These volumes brought together over six hundred large-scale drawings of architectural elements taken from an array of northern Indian buildings – mosques and tombs, forts and temples – dating from the twelfth to the eighteenth century. The work was organised not by period or by region, but rather by function. Copings and plinths were gathered in one volume, arches in a second, brackets in a third, and so on. The volumes were meant, Jacob wrote in the preface, not just for the student of Indian architecture, but as 'a set of working drawings' for the architect so that he might more readily make use of those various features, so full of vigour so graceful and so true in outline', in modern building. Indeed the drawings were grouped together in parts, with each sheet loose, in order that 'different examples of architectural details may be compared and selections readily made.'

With the publication of these volumes a distinctive style of Indian architecture commonly known as the 'Indo-Saracenic' – came of age. It has long been fashionable to disparage, perhaps with an amused condescension, British attempts to imitate in their buildings the traditional architectural styles of India. Yet these British buildings still tell us much about how the British shaped India's conception of its past, and how they turned India's architectural heritage to the service of the Raj.

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