Monumental Histories

A journey through the lens of architectural photography: from India's most iconic sites to lesser known locations

Museum of Art & Photography

Museum of Art & Photography (MAP)

Colonnade at the Qutub Minar (1860 – 1870) by John Edward SacheMuseum of Art & Photography

Architecture & Photography

A uniquely symbiotic relationship has long existed between the disciplines of architecture and photography. Our first, sometimes even only, impression of a building is formed by a photograph, and a well made photograph can present a new side of even the most seemingly familiar structures. The images of past photographers not only shaped the way their contemporaries viewed the architecture of India, but also continue to influence the way we perceive our heritage today.

Iron Pillar at the Qutub Minar, Francis Frith & Co, 1869, From the collection of: Museum of Art & Photography
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Built in the early 13th century, the Qutub Minar is a great example of Indo Islamic architecture, and the highest brick minaret in the world. The complex includes other important monuments such as the Alai Darwaza, Quwwat-ul-Islam Mosque, the tombs of Altamish and Ala-ud-din Khalji, as well as the Iron Pillar, seen here, which has stood tall for over 15 centuries without corroding or rusting!

Untitled [Taj Mahal] (1995) by Tanwar TekeeMuseum of Art & Photography

The Photographic Frame

In this age of selfies, phone technology has been constantly evolving to produce sharper, smarter and more accurate cameras with higher resolutions, sensors that can (somewhat creepily) automatically detect when people smile and a range of other features. Today, we are entirely accustomed to effortlessly taking photographs with a touch of a button on our cellphones. 

By Bernard HoffmanLIFE Photo Collection

So it is somewhat difficult for us to imagine what this process might have been like in the 19th century with extremely bulky large-format cameras and long exposure times. Not including a range of additional requirements from plates to put inside the camera (copper, tin or glass), chemicals to coat the plate with, tools to handle these chemicals, paper to print the images and a portable darkroom setup. To create a single photograph, an early 19th century photographer had to transport equipment weighing a minimum of about 50 kgs! 

Shah Jahan's tomb in the Taj at Agra (19th to 20th centuries) by Unknown artistMuseum of Art & Photography

Even as photography was being developed in the mid-19th century, Indian architecture became an important subject of study. From early explorers and military officers to amateur photographers, a range of people worked on the early architectural surveys initiated by the British administration. Though drawings and prints continued to also be used to record monuments, as well as details of its aspects, for a time after its arrival, photography was soon to become the desired method of documentation. 

Screen found in the tombs in the Taj at Agra, Unknown artist, 19th to 20th centuries, From the collection of: Museum of Art & Photography
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One of the first individuals to build an extensive photographic collection of Indian architecture was James Fergusson, a Scottish merchant whose travels to Calcutta inspired his departure into architectural history. Although he began writing on Indian monuments as early as 1845, his first thorough study was only published in 1876.

The Taj Mahal from the corner of the quadrangle, Samuel Bourne, c.1865, From the collection of: Museum of Art & Photography
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In Fergusson’s view, architecture functioned as a text, capable of providing clues to India’s past, and photography was the most accurate means of capturing that tangible history for informed study and analysis. Similar beliefs in the value of architectural heritage informed the establishment of the Archaeological Survey of India by the British in 1861, with the responsibility of studying, and more importantly, preserving Indian monuments.

Taj at Agra, Unknown artist, 19th to 20th centuries, From the collection of: Museum of Art & Photography
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The Taj Mahal is undoubtedly India's most famous historical site, receiving millions of visitors every year. Considered a monumental symbol of love, it was built by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan to entomb his third wife Mumtaz Mahal who died in childbirth. Construction of the complex spanned 22 years and cost an estimated 32 million Indian rupees (the equivalent of over US $1 billion at the time).

Taj Mahal (Late 19th to early 20th centuries) by Samuel BourneMuseum of Art & Photography

Accounts have shown that, as a leader, Shah Jahan was more ruthless than romantic. For all its associations with devotion and ardour, the Taj was also a source of imperial propaganda. The complex’s ordered symmetry symbolised power and the perfection of Mughal leadership, while its grand scale and extravagance brought glory to Shah Jahan’s reign. This unobstructed view of the Taj from the opposite side of the Yamuna, hardly a possibility now, calls to mind the fact that the deposed emperor himself had spent the last years of his life gazing upon this 'crown of palaces' from a distance.

Interiors of Moti Masjid, Agra Fort (c. 1860) by Samuel BourneMuseum of Art & Photography

Located across the river from the Taj Mahal, is the city's second most popular historical site, the red sandstone Agra Fort, where Shah Jahan spent his imprisoned years. The Moti Masjid or Pearl Mosque, topped with three bulbous domes, is one of the gems within the fort, and is named so for its pure white marble interiors. It was added to the complex in 1654-55 by Shah Jahan, and its impact is to be accounted for by “its proportion, building materials and …cohesive harmony which is the hallmark of the best Mughal architecture”.

Khas Mahal, Agra, Unknown artist, Late 19th to early 20th centuries, From the collection of: Museum of Art & Photography
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Writing of the Khas Mahal, constructed within the Agra Fort in 1636, art educator, historian and artist E. B. Havell notes in 1906, "This part of the zanana forms the east, or river side, of the Anguri Bagh, or Grape Garden. There is an indescribable grace and charm about this quarter of the palace, to which the beauty of the material, the perfect taste of the ornament and elegance of the proportions, the delightful background of the landscape, and the historical associations all contribute."

Tomb of Itmad-ud Daulah, Samuel Bourne, 1864, From the collection of: Museum of Art & Photography
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Just outside the main city, also on the banks of the Yamuna, is the tomb built by the Mughal Empress Nur Jahan for her parents, Itimad-ud-Daula and Asmat Begum. Predating the Taj, this was the first example of a Mughal tomb faced in white marble that employed such a wide use of stone inlay to decorate its exterior. The tomb is situated within a classic charbagh (or square garden) which was divided into four quadrants by walkways with built-in water channels. This placement is symbolic of the four rivers of Paradise, of which the tomb and the tomb garden are meant to be an earthly representation.

The Great Gate, Fatehpur Sikri (1866) by Samuel BourneMuseum of Art & Photography

The Historical Context 

The academic study and conservation of history shaped architectural photography in the 19th century on the one hand. While on the other, it was driven by commercial interest. A growing market for architectural photographs as souvenirs and postcards for tourists and Europeans back at home, led individual photographers as well as firms such as Bourne & Shepherd or Johnston & Hoffman to add to the growing archive. Political motivations and imperialist agendas constitute the third aspect that informed this corpus of images.

Temple of Chamoondee on the hill with Idol Car, Mysore (1866) by Unknown artistMuseum of Art & Photography

The British administration’s larger interest in the archeological surveys was not really prompted by academic curiosity, but by a colonial power’s desire to map and categorise its colonised space. This bias is made still more clear through its interpretation and presentation of these images. The scholar Gary Sampson discerns in these photographs, the “paternalistic face” of the empire that dismissed the natives as neglectful of their own past and placed itself as the arbiter of India’s history. Legitimising not only the need for but also the desirability of British control over even the country’s most ancient heritage. 

Virupaksha Temple at Pattadakal, Unknown artist, 1866, From the collection of: Museum of Art & Photography
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Pattadakal, in Karnataka, represents the high point of art in the 7th and 8th centuries, which under the patronage of the Chalukya dynasty achieved a harmonious blend of architectural forms from northern and southern India. An impressive series of nine Hindu temples, as well as a Jain sanctuary, can be seen here, including the Temple of Virupaksha, built in c. 740 by Queen Lokamahadevi to commemorate her husband's victory in war.

Virupaksha Temple, Pattadakal (1866) by Col. Thomas BiggsMuseum of Art & Photography

This photograph was taken by the prominent British photographer, Col. Thomas Biggs. A member of the artillery, he was appointed as the first Government Photographer, Bombay, in 1854 with a commission to photograph architectural and archaeological sites. Over the course of 1855 he produced more than 100 paper negatives of Aihole, Badami, Bijapur and other sites in Western India.

Biggs found several of the sculptures he photographed to be "indecent", and Susan Hapgood notes that he "wrote a letter seeking permission to destroy any of the truly 'disgusting' sculpted figures he saw." This episode highlights the colonial (and Victorian) biases in interpretation that coloured architectural study and photography in some instances, and were employed to bolster ideas of the 'natives' as uncivilised immoral degenerates.

Sculpture panel at Hoysaleshwara Temple at Halebid, William Henry Pigou, 1866, From the collection of: Museum of Art & Photography
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This photograph was taken by Dr. William Henry Pigou of the Indian Medical Service (Bombay), who succeeded Biggs as Government Photographer at the end of 1855. When recommending him for the position, Biggs pointed out that “besides professing a good knowledge of chemistry, Pigou has the advantage of several years experience in Photography in this country,” highlighting his ability to cope with the demands of 19th century photography in a tropical hot climate.

Wall Relief, Hoysalesvara Temple (1866) by Andrew C. NeilMuseum of Art & Photography

In the Hassan District of Karnataka lies the town of Halebidu, which was once the capital of the Hoysala dynasty. Ruling between the 11th and 14th centuries CE, they were prolific builders whose architecture stood out on three accounts. Firstly, their syncretic structure, a hybrid of the nagara style temples of the north and dravidian style of the south. Secondly, their use of a soft chlorite-schist stone, known commonly as soapstone. Thirdly, rich sculptural decoration, particularly realised on the exterior walls of their temples. 

Wall relief from the western end of the Hoysalesvara Temple, William Henry Pigou, 1866, From the collection of: Museum of Art & Photography
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The intricate Hoysala sculptures and carvings feature religious and cultural iconography including gods, goddesses, dancers, musicians, hunting, processions, animals, mythical creatures, scenes from the Ramayana, Mahabharata, and more. One of the most artistically sophisticated Hoysala temples, the Hoysaleshwara temple – dedicated to Shiva and built in the 12th century – is well-known for more than 240 sculptures running along its outer wall, as well as additional bands of carved repetitive friezes.

Bund Garden, Poona (Late 19th to early 20th centuries) by Unknown artistMuseum of Art & Photography

The Picturesque Aesthetic

Emerging from the Romantic sensibilities of the 18th century, the aesthetic of the 'picturesque' developed in Britain was exemplified in the work of the foremost painters, draftsmen and poets of the day. Grounded in ideas of serene pastoral beauty and the sublimity of nature, it was also reflective "of a patriotic ideology that equated the...landscape with the nation and was accompanied by a huge increase in touring and travel literature that supported and encouraged tourism." 

The Mausoleum of Safdarjung (1865) by Samuel BourneMuseum of Art & Photography

Visual culture was essential to the manner in which the British constructed and visualised their Empire. This was especially true of the picturesque idiom, which had a powerful impact on almost all forms of imperial representation, from early landscape painting to photography and advertising from the mid-19th century onwards. Scholarship in this area has emphasised how through these forms, "the appropriation of land, resources, labour, and culture is transformed into something that is aesthetically pleasing and morally satisfying."

Loop on Darjeeling Himalayan Railway (c.1880) by Bourne & Shepherd StudiosMuseum of Art & Photography

The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway was the first, and remains the most incredible, example of a hill passenger railway. Opened in 1881, its innovative design used ingenious engineering solutions – including six zigzag reverses and three loops – to tackle the difficult terrain and build an effective railways network which greatly influenced the social and economic development of the region.

Although the number and order of the loops and reverses have changed significantly and multiple times over the years, the railway line remains open and is a UNESCO heritage site today. Today, one can still ride a steam locomotive (popularly known as the toy train) to experience what travelling in the region over a hundred years ago might have felt like!

Government House showing the South Eastern Arch, Calcutta (1867) by Samuel BourneMuseum of Art & Photography

Archiving Time

Architecture and photography, share in common, an ability to carry within them traces of historical truths and realities. They are also both situated simultaneously in the past and the present, carrying echoes of moments and lives lived, while seen and framed within contemporary contexts. As such, they serve as witnesses, testifying to historical events and time (and the passage of time). Given this, architectural photographs become multilayered texts – simultaneously focusing meaning upon, and dispersing meaning away from, a particular structure.  

Ruins of the Residency, Lucknow (1860) by Shepherd & RobertsonMuseum of Art & Photography

The Lucknow Residency was home to the British Resident General, a representative in the court of the Nawab of Oudh (or Awadh). It was where the British made their final stand during the Siege of Lucknow, a key part of the 1857 Rebellion. Alternately remembered as the Mutiny, Revolt or the First War of Independence, the year of 1857-58 witnessed Indian sepoys rising up against the East India Company all across northern India. By the end of it, Mughal rule in India had officially been brought to an end and the power of governance transferred from the Company to the British Crown.

The ruins of the Residency, Lucknow (Mid to late 19th century) by Francis Frith & CoMuseum of Art & Photography

After 1857, the Residency was never rebuilt, and its walls remain scarred by cannon shot even today. It was the only place in India (in fact, the British Empire) where the Union Jack was flown 24 hours a day by special dispensation. The day before India became independent, the flag was lowered, the flagpole cut down, and the base removed and cemented over, to prevent any other flag from ever being flown there. As a gesture, the flag that flew over the ruins was sent to King George VI.

Kanpur Memorial Church (Mid to late 19th century) by Samuel BourneMuseum of Art & Photography

Not all that far from Lucknow was Cawnpore (Kanpur), the site of the Satichaura Ghat and Bibighar massacres during the rebellion. Unprepared for an extended siege, the British surrendered to the rebel forces under Nana Sahib, in return for a safe passage to Allahabad. Their evacuation however, turned into a massacre with the boats meant for their travel burnt, almost all of the men killed, and 120 British women and children captured. These hostages were then housed in cramped, abysmal conditions at the Bibighar and eventually massacred as well. In memory of those who lost their lives in the siege, the Memorial Church was built.

Marochetti's Angel statue at the Kanpur Memorial Church (1864) by Samuel BourneMuseum of Art & Photography

Nana Sahib had intended for the captured women and children to serve as a bargaining chip in his dealings with the relieving British force marching onto Kanpur. When this plan failed, it was decided to eliminate them in what was to become one of the bloodiest scenes of the rebellion. Around 200 deaths ensued, and it was decided to throw the corpses down a well. The episode made an enormous impact due to its viciousness and the targeting of women and children, fuelling cruel retaliations by the British. Some years later, an Italian sculptor was hired to place an angel atop the well – its iconography inspiring various interpretations from visitors, from resurrection and pity to victory.

The Cathedral, from the West, Calcutta, Samuel Bourne, 1867, From the collection of: Museum of Art & Photography
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The histories that resound in buildings and are glimpsed in their photographs are not always so bloody, of course. St. Paul’s Cathedral, believed to be the first Anglican church in India, is noted for its Gothic architecture. The present-day seat of the Diocese of Calcutta, it was designed in the early 19th century to represent the glory of Christ and the grandeur of the British. A key figure in its construction was Bishop Daniel Wilson, the fifth bishop of Calcutta, who found the pre-existing St. John's Church not measurable in scale to the position occupied by the British and in short, "mean, inappropriate, and incommodious."

The Cathedral and Bishop's Palace, Calcutta (1867) by Samuel BourneMuseum of Art & Photography

St. Paul's Cathedral was finally consecrated in April 1847 and the Bishop's throne known as the Episcopal throne was placed on the high altar. It had taken about 8 years to build and cost close to 5 lakh rupees at the time! Wishing to stay closer to the cathedral, Wilson also shifted the Bishop's Palace from its previous address in Russel Street (later christened as Bishop's House) to its present day location.  

In his book, Splendours of the Raj: British Architecture in India, 1160-1947, Phillip Davies writes: “The building was constructed in a peculiar brick especially prepared for the purpose, which combined lightness with compressional strength; the dressings were of Chunar stone, and the whole edifice was covered inside and out with polished chunam.” Following the 1897 earthquake and the subsequent massive earthquake of 1934, when Calcutta suffered substantial damage, the cathedral was reconstructed to a revised design. Of particular difference is the present tower which was erected after the original spire was irreparably damaged. 

Ruins of Martand temple, view from South (c. 1865) by Francis Frith & CoMuseum of Art & Photography

Enduring Records

Photographs of historic monuments in India from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were created for a variety of social, economic, scholarly and political reasons. Embodying the presuppositions and biases of the colonial world, they remain enduring records of both the monuments and the complex socio-cultural realities of their time. Post Independence, these monuments were to become part of the nationalist narrative – reimagined in newer ways and repurposed in new rituals. Yet, the manner in which they were imagined, understood and framed in earlier years and colonial times continue to influence our view and appreciation of them.  

India Gate, Kinsey Brothers, Delhi, 1930s, From the collection of: Museum of Art & Photography
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For example, India Gate (originally called the All-India War Memorial) was built in 1921 as a memorial for the troops of British India who died in wars fought between 1914 and 1919 – mainly World War I and the Third Anglo-Afghan war. Located in the centre of New Delhi and at the axis of power, this monumental sandstone arch was to eventually become a symbol of Independent India – the starting point of its Republic Day parades. Since 1971, it has also housed the Amar Jawan Jyoti, India’s tomb of the unknown soldier. The gate's similarity in appearance to the Arc de Triomphe in Paris is often noted, allaying it to a long history of triumphal arches, believed to have begun with the Romans. Perhaps this is where the real magic of architectural histories lie – in their ability to not only speak to the contemporary moment and their distant past, but to enable the imagination of a larger narrative of human civilisation.

Credits: Story

Google Exhibit | Curation & Content: Shilpa Vijayakrishnan

References & Further Reading:

Ed. Elanor M. Hight and Gary Sampson. "Colonialist Photography: Imag(in)ing Place and Race", Routledge, 2004

Jeffrey Auerbach. "The picturesque and the homogenisation of Empire", The British Art Journal. Vol V, No. 1, 2004

Ed. Mrinalini Rajagopalan & Madhuri Shrikant Desai. "Colonial Frames, Nationalist Histories: Imperial Legacies, Architecture and Modernity", Routledge, 2012

Saloni Mathur. "India by Design: Colonial History and Cultural Display", University of California Press, 2007

Ed. Vidya Dehejia. "India through the Lens", Freer Gallery of Art, 2000

Zahid R. Chaudhary. "Afterimage of Empire: Photography in Nineteenth-century India", University of Minnesota Press, 2012

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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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