Bombay Rising: The Building of Urbs Prima in Indis



Just beyond the row of coconut palms on the eastern fringe of Mumbai’s Oval Maidan in South Mumbai is a row of buildings of the finest architecture set in stone. This magnificent view, of the grand Gothic facades of the Bombay High Court, University of Mumbai and the old Secretariat, was the first glimpse of Bombay as seen by passengers arriving in ships, before they turned the corner and docked in the harbour on the city’s eastern shore.

This was the mid-19th century and the waters of the Arabian Sea were nipping at the western flank of what later became the Oval Maidan. Visitors sailing past thus had a front-row seat to Bombay’s Gothic row. They say first impressions are the most lasting impressions, and the Gothic sight that greeted first-time visitors to this city was no act of beautification – it was designed to evoke shock and awe.

The truth is that behind this row of splendid buildings was a Bombay only just finding its feet, a city on the cusp of expansion but not yet the great city it became in the decades that followed. So why the charade?

The original seven islands of Bombay came into British possession with the dowry of Catherine of Braganza in 1662, on her wedding to King Charles II of England. But it was the period from the 1850s to the 1920s that saw the transformation of Bombay into India's commercial capital.

It was during this time that visitors were given a grand Gothic ‘introduction’ to Bombay. This period also saw the construction of some of the city’s other iconic monuments like Victoria Terminus (now Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus or CSMT), the Gateway of India and the Prince of Wales Museum (now Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sanghralaya or CSMVS) in South Mumbai.

Municipal Office and Victoria Terminus
Municipal Office and Victoria Terminus|Wikimedia Commons

Preeti Chopra, Professor of South Asian Art and Architecture at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, in her article Refiguring the Colonial City: Recovering the Role of Local Inhabitants in the Construction of Colonial Bombay, 1854-1918, published in Buildings & Landscapes: Journal of the Vernacular Architecture Forum in 2007, believes that the great transformation began with the setting up of the first cotton mill in 1854 and it lasted till the end of the First World War in 1918.

While the cotton trade was a pivotal reason for Bombay becoming the ‘Urbs Primus in Indis’ (India’s primary city), there were many others, such as the Revolt of 1857, that played a part. After the Revolt, the British Crown took over the reins of India from the British East India Company. With the country now becoming the responsibility of the British government, the perception of India globally was vital to them. It was crucial for the British to project ‘power’ and ‘control’, and one way to do this was by building imposing buildings, structures that would evoke awe and amazement. Besides, a large proportion of the ruling elite in India was concentrated in Bombay, so it was even more appropriate to raise a magnificent city here.

This period of change coincided with the American Civil War, which lasted from 1860 to 1865, which fuelled the global demand for Indian cotton manifold. Bombay was well placed to fulfil this demand, with its port and the opening of the first railway line in India in 1853, which made transportation of cotton from the hinterland to Bombay much easier. In addition, the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 reduced the length of the journey from England to Bombay by a third, and made Bombay the first port of call in India for British ships.

The Port, Bombay by Francis Frith  
The Port, Bombay by Francis Frith  |Wikimedia Commons

All these factors made Bombay the showpiece of the British Empire in India. Apart from the British ruling establishment, Bombay was also home to wealthy Indian merchants like Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy, Premchand Roychand and Sir Cowasji Jehangir Readymoney, who had benefited from the opportunities that the empire offered, especially in the trade of cotton and opium. Their philanthropic work would go on to play an important role in funding the construction of the grand new city.

Till the 1850s, Bombay was a trading town largely restricted to the ‘Fort’ area on Bombay island (the most significant of the seven islands) and the areas around it, but with rising prosperity and the influx of people, the city needed to expand. This meant that the walls of the ‘fort’ had to be demolished. (The fort was a small, fortified town built by the British, within which most of the population originally resided. It extended from today’s Rampart Row at Kala Ghoda to Walchand Hirachand Marg facing the General Post Office, with its western wall running along what is now D N Road.)

The walls of the fort were demolished in 1862 under the governorship of Sir Bartle Frere. This not only freed up a large portion of land hitherto occupied by the walls, ramparts and moats, it also allowed the city to expand beyond this area. A period of intense building activity followed and the city witnessed the construction of splendid public and government buildings, especially in and around this area in South Mumbai, and these buildings played an important role in the projection of ‘power’. To accomplish this, the British used the colonial architectural styles of Victorian Gothic, Neo-Classical or Edwardian architecture. Interestingly, when these impressive buildings were being built in Bombay, these European styles had already fallen out of favour in Europe.

During this period, Bombay saw the creation and construction of the Bombay High Court and Bombay University in 1857. After the first railway line was flagged off from Bori Bunder in 1853, the grand Victoria Terminus was completed in 1887. The Sir JJ School of Art was founded in 1857; the Bombay Port Trust consolidated the ports under it in 1870; the General Post Office (GPO) with its imposing dome was completed in 1913; the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel was completed in 1903; the Prince of Wales Museum was completed in 1915; and the Gateway of India was completed in 1924, to name only some of the spectacular buildings constructed at the time, all of them in South Mumbai. While most of these buildings are over a century old, they are instantly recognisable as symbols of Bombay even today.

Elphinstone College
Elphinstone College|Wikimeida Commons

It is interesting to note that even though these buildings are thought of as ‘British buildings’, the funds came not just from the income of the British empire but included donations from the wealthy Indian residents of the city. For example, a large portion of the funds for the construction of Elphinstone College came from Sir Cowasji Jehangir Readymoney; the Sir JJ School of Art was funded by Sir Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy; and a significant portion of the funds for the Prince of Wales Museum was contributed by citizens like Sir Cowasji Jehangir Readymoney and Sir Currimbhoy Ibrahim. Hence, many of these ‘British buildings’ are more ‘Indian’ than you would imagine!

Prince of Wales Museum
Prince of Wales Museum|Wikimedia Commons

The construction of public buildings was the responsibility of engineers of the Public Works Department, a body which continues to exist and is still responsible for most of the public buildings in India. These buildings were mostly designed by British architects and engineers, but what one tends to forget is that the execution of work was done by Indians who were engineers, masons and craftspeople, who brought the designs to life.

Two of the most famous British architects, who designed some of Mumbai's most iconic buildings, were F W Stevens and George Wittet, two men who represented two different generations and styles in the architecture of Bombay.

F W Stevens
F W Stevens|Wikimedia Commons

Frederick William Stevens (1847-1900) was the man who designed Victoria Terminus. Stevens was articled in 1862 and, in 1867, became an engineer with the Public Works Department of the Government of India. The first major building he designed in Bombay was the Royal Alfred Sailors Home (1872-1876), which is today the headquarters of the Maharashtra State Police.

He went on to design the present-day headquarters of the Western Railway, headquarters of the Bombay Municipal Corporation, the Army & Navy Building and even a fountain – the Mulji Jetha Fountain. But his most significant work is Victoria Terminus, one of Mumbai’s most-photographed buildings.

Most of the structures Stevens designed are in the Gothic Revival or Neo-Gothic style of architecture. This style is characterised by flying buttresses, tall spires, stained glass windows and extensive statues on the exteriors.

BMC headquarters  
BMC headquarters  |Wikimedia Commons

The sprawling and majestic Victoria Terminus became the symbol of the ‘Gothic City’. The building was designed in a High Victorian Gothic design, which was based on late medieval Italian models, and took inspiration from the St Pancras Station in London. But what set it apart were Indian details and decorative work executed by students of the Sir JJ School of Art, then known as the Bombay School of Art. The very European gargoyles and figures take a very Indian form in this monumental symbol of the British presence in India.

Interestingly, Stevens’s son, Charles Frederick Stevens, who was born in Bombay, also went on to become an acclaimed architect. Charles, in fact, was a proponent of the Art Deco Style of architecture and one of his most notable works is Regal Cinema at Colaba, which sits across from the Royal Alfred Sailors Home designed by Stevens Sr.

The other prominent British architect in Bombay was George Wittet (1878 - 1926), who built some of Mumbai's other iconic buildings, most notably the Gateway of India and the Prince of Wales Museum.

Wittet was born in 1878 in Scotland, and worked in Scotland and England before moving to Bombay in 1904. One of his first assignments was the construction of the General Post Office (GPO), next to Victoria Terminus, where he worked under fellow Scot John Begg. They created the iconic dome of the GPO inspired by the dome of the Gol Gumbaz in Bijapur, Karnataka.

General Post Office
General Post Office|Wikimedia Commons

While Stevens was associated with Gothic Revival architecture, most of Wittet's creations are in the Indo-Saracenic style. It was a style created by the British as a blend of their perceptions of Hindu, Islamic and Rajput styles of architecture. Some of Wittet’s other buildings are the King Edward Memorial Hospital (KEM Hospital) in Parel, Prince of Wales Museum at Fort, which like the GPO is surmounted by a grand dome, and the Gateway of India on the eastern waterfront, at the northern end of Colaba.


Both Stevens and Wittet passed away in the city they left their mark on and are both buried in the Sewri Cemetery.

It is interesting to note that while cement had started being used in India in Stevens’s time, Reinforced Cement Concrete (RCC) had been developed by Wittet’s time. In fact, the domes of the GPO and CSMVS were both made possible due to RCC. Even though RCC allowed buildings to be constructed much more quickly and on a grander scale, it has a much shorter life than construction materials like the lime mortar and stone used earlier. Due to this, maintenance and restoration of these buildings is proving tricky.

Gateway of India
Gateway of India|Wikimedia Commons

The last public building that projected the power and might of the British Empire in India was the Gateway of India, built to commemorate the landing in December 1911 at Apollo Bunder of King-Emperor George V and Queen-Empress Mary. The monument was completed in 1924 and was designed by Wittet.

By then, the winds of change were blowing across the country and did not leave Bombay untouched. After World War I, new architectural styles were being adapted, which were seen as more ‘modern’.  Beyond the ‘old fashioned’, imperial architecture of the past, this was the beginning of Mumbai’s Art Deco era, which was characterised by streamlined buildings with understated ornamentation.

The buildings along the western flank of Oval Maidan and along Marine Drive, and cinemas like Regal, Eros and Liberty, all of them in South Mumbai, are some of the most characteristic ones built in this style. Interestingly, these were private buildings and not public ones.

No building or monument can be viewed in isolation from the political and socio-cultural milieu of its period. In Bombay, for around 75 years from the 1850s onwards, construction activity allowed the city to grow and expand while also sending a message to the rest of the world – ‘Bombay had arrived’. This posturing and the buildings it birthed continue to define Mumbai’s architecture and heritage to this very day.

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