What is Saracenic Architecture ?

According to a modern writer, Fergusson’s writings on the history of Indian architecture through his construction of religious and racial categories was entirely ‘in terms of the buttressing of a single, homogenous colonial project’1, and a ‘source of ideas for the improvement of architecture in England’.2 In this classification attempted by Fergusson, he was guided by the Rankean historicism and European susceptibilities. Taste was the measure of perfection against which the stylistic units were classified. In his schema of world architecture, there were two ‘dimensions’, one chronological and the other topographical on the basis of which to divide the various styles. In the first category, according to him, the world architecture could be divided into Christian and Non-Christian or ‘Heathen’. These two divisions, according to him were ‘very nearly equal in the importance of the objects described, and very easily distinguished from another.’3 Topographically, all architecture could be classified as either Eastern, or West Asian. According to him the two great styles however were the Christian and the Saracenic which sprang from the Roman which ‘was the great transitional style between the ancient and modern world’.4

It is interesting to note that although Fergusson employs the term ‘Saracenic’ to collectively designate the styles and traditions as they developed after the coming of the Turks, his attitude towards it is more positive. The ‘Saracenic’ or ‘Mahommadan’ started with ‘Ghazni’ style, which was a stepping stone by which the western architecture was introduced in India. In fact, the fusion of Islam in India, in the words of Fergusson, freed the Indian artists from the ‘trammells of Puranic mythology’.5

Fergusson’s sub-classification of Saracenic architecture of India shows it to be a mixture of Hindu and Muslim forms. His classification of architecture was thus aimed at propagating the colonial interests of projecting the ‘decaying’ nature of the Eastern Civilization and the superiority of the West. On the other hand, this scheme, as Juneja points out, was also an attempt to “assimilate the ‘other’.”6

A severe critique of Fergusson was ultimately made by E.B. Havell who faulted the former for a lack of “essential Indianness” in the use of racial or ethnic categories.7 Havell found fault with Fergusson’s ‘persistent habit of looking outside of India for the origins of Indian art’.8 According to him all “Saracenic symbolism in architecture” was borrowed directly or indirectly “from India, Persia, Byzantium or Alexandria”.9 To Havell, the mihrāb was a Buddhist loan of the niche to Islam. Even the term butkhāna used by the Arabs for the temples was a corruption of ‘Boud-khana’ or Buddha-house.10 In fact he went on to argue that the ‘Saracenic’ art which came to India had been Indianized before it crossed the Indus.11 Thus the bulbous dome, as at the Taj Mahal, was a derivation from the Buddhist Stupa tradition.12

The obsession with ‘Indianness’ and identification with Aryan philosophy pervades the entire work of Havell. His first chapter, in the form of an introduction, deals with ‘Hindu and Saracenic art’ and the ‘Pointed Arch’. The next chapter elaborates on ‘Hindu Symbolism’ and the indigenous origins of the Taj. The next three chapters are in a chronological treatment of various regional styles like Delhi, Gujarat, Gulbarga, Mandu, Sarkhej and Gaur. The sixth chapter focuses on architectural elements like Indian arches, brackets, capitals, domes and sikhara. The next eight chapters again have a chronological framework.

A perusal of Havell’s work brings out the sum total of all the prejudices of a colonial and communal approach. The term ‘Saracenic’ appears like an anathema with all its prejudices unhindered.

The term ‘Saracenic Architecture’ was used for the styles followed by the ‘Moors’ (Muslims). The term had a long pedigree going back to the period of Crusades fought between the Christians and the Muslims. It connoted an architecture of the followers of Islam who conquered Persia, Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Arabia and Spain. It was chiefly an architecture of temples and mosques. Amongst its characteristic features were counted the pointed or horse shoe arch, domes, minarets, coloured decorations with red, blue, green and gold geometrical patterns and designs, an emphasis on arabesque and a total absence of sculptures.

Having its origins in the Crusades, the term Saracenic was sometimes used in the pejorative sense. Fergusson, on the other hand, used the term as an all purpose name for the Muslim Architecture, whether in India or outside. Unlike Havell, Fergusson appears to be fairly aware and conscious of the term’s negative connotation and thus alternates the term with ‘Mahommadan’.

Even shorn of its pejorative sense, the term ‘Saracenic’ is still problematic: It borrowed heavily from two very diverse sources. On the one hand it included Persian tradition or style which was based on the vault; on the other it also included the Roman and Greek traditions from which it borrowed the true arch and the dome. Muslims joined both the streams to give shape to the ‘Saracenic’ or Muslim style.

The term ‘Saracenic’ is now out of use. The term in use presently is ‘Islamic Architecture’, and for India, Indo-Islamic. The term in any of its form further is consciously religious and thus still problematic.

The term Saracenic / Mahommadan or Islamic Architecture for the medieval period in India used in the way that Fergusson, or for that matter Havell used, would convey the pre-supposed use of arcuate: Arcuate being Islamic and Trabeate, Hindu.

Indo-Saracenic Architecture in the Colonial Period

The Indo-Saracenic style, also recognised as Indo-Gothic, was a style of architecture used by the British architects in the late 19th Century in India. It drew elements from native Indian architecture, and combined it with the Gothic revival style. In India, it was followed by a combination of different styles specific to the regions – Edwardian Baroque with Indo-Saracenic and a fusion with European architecture. 

In Edwardian Baroque with Indo-Saracenic style, the building designs were adopted from the Mughal and Rajputana styles of architecture. Key features of this category were use of Jalis – decorated stone screens – Chajjas, domes, and so on. This era also marked the accomplishment of two contrasting cultures, Indo-Saracenic Art or Indian -Islamic Art. 

The architecture of Syria and Egypt acquired a fundamental character of its own distinguished by standardised forms and concepts. The other side of Indo-Saracenic dealt with fusion with European Architecture. 

Many European architects who arrived in India took the elements of the Indo-Saracenic architecture and applied the same to the Gothic and Victorian architecture popular at that time and also to many buildings built during the 19th Century. The Palace in Mysore is a fine example of this style. IndoSaracenic architecture in India came into prominence during the latter part of the 19th Century. With the coming of the pattern, a majority of the patrons felt that they needed to be part of a particular style, which at times led to a highly inventive blend of Western and Oriental design. 

Characteristics of Indo Saracenic, which were considered for a majority of buildings of this style were onion (bulbous) domes, overhanging eaves, pointed arches, vaulted roofs, domed kiosks, pinnacles, towers or minarets, harem windows, open pavilions and pierced open archading. The chief historians of this style of architecture were Robert Fellowes Chisholm, Charles Mant, Henry Irwin, William Emerson, George Wittet and Frederick Stevens. Architecture of this era gave rise to grand public buildings, such as clock towers, courthouses, civic and municipal establishments, government colleges, town halls, railway stations, museums, and art galleries. Blend of Muslim designs and Indian materials developed by British architects in India during the late 19th and early 20th Centuries were perfect reflections of Indo-Saracenic architecture. Diverse Hindu and Mughal architectural elements were combined with Gothic cusped arches, domes, spires, tracery, minarets and stained glass, in a wonderful, almost playful manner in this epoch.

Indo-Saracenic architecture found its way into public buildings of all sorts, such as railway stations, banks and insurance buildings, educational institutions, clubs and museums. Chepauk Palace in Chennai designed by Paul Benfield is said to be the first Indo-Saracenic building in India, which incorporated elements and motifs of Hindu and Islamic precedents. Other outstanding examples are spread across the country – the Muir College at Allahabad, Napier Museum at Thiruvananthapuram, the Post Office, Prince of Wales Museum, University Hall and Library, and Gateway of India in Mumbai, M.S. University, Lakshmi Vilas Palace at Baroda, the Central Railway station, Law courts, Victoria Public Hall, Museum and University Senate House in Chennai, and the Palaces at Mysore and Bangalore.

Chatrapati Shivaji Terminus: Its majestic appearance best represents the architecture of colonial India. The combination of brick and stone along with various oriental elements enhances the appearance of CST. The domed roof is highlighted with designed ornamentation. CST is a blend of Victorian, Hindu and Islamic styles emphasising on buttresses, domes, turrets, spires and stained-glass windows. The Central Dome has eight decorated ribs highlighting Victorian elements. Adding to the station’s beauty are stained glass windows, colourful tiles and decorative iron grilles. Beneath the dome are brilliantly coloured stained glass windows, decorated with foliage. 

Engineering, Agriculture and Commerce are represented by the gaples crowned by sculptures. The Neo-Gothic vaulted roof with wooden ribs over the hall provides an impression of Victorian Gothic elements. Chatrapati Shivaji Terminus is the best example of Victorian Gothic architecture in India.

Syed Ali Nadeem Rezavi


[1] For a detailed analysis on this see Monica Juneja, Architecture in Medieval India, Forms, Contexts, Histories, Permanent Black, Delhi, 2001, pp. 14-25

[2] Fergusson, History of Indian and Eastern Architecture, op.cit., pp.5-6

[3] Ibid, vol. I, p. vii

[4] Ibid, I, viii

[5] Ibid., pp.45-46

[6] Juneja, op.cit., p. 19

[7] E.B. Havell, Indian Architecture: Its Psychology, Structure, and History from the First Muhammadan Invasion to the Present Day, London, 1913, pp. 1-13

[8] Ibid., p. 2

[9] Ibid., p. 4

[10] Ibid., pp.5-6

[11] Ibid., p. 11

[12] Ibid., pp. 23-24