Indian Architecture of the 16th and 17th Centuries

This article is written in response to a question posted asking if there is anything written on Knoji on the subject of architecture within India dating from the 16th and 17th centuries. Much of the architecture dating from the first of the two centuries

The three major architectural monuments to the Moghuls of this period in history within the Indian sub-continent are constructed largely of sandstone and marble, showing the strong influence in design of their Persian origins. They are the Red Fort built between 1565 and 1574 at Agra, the nearby Taj Mahal built from 1628 and completed in 1658 and the walled city of Fatehpur Sikri constructed between 1569 and 1574.

Agra’s Red Fort is today a UNESCO World Heritage site and is in fact a walled city, located in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh and less than three kilometres from the more famous site of the Taj Mahal.

A fort of brick originally stood on the site, it was first mentioned from around 1080 AD when it was captured in battle and the ruined fort was rebuilt in red sandstone with the materials being transported from Rajasthan. Nearly one and a half million workers built the structure before it was completed in 1574.

During its history the fort was the site of a major battle in the Indian Rebellion in 1857, this led to the end of the rule in India by the British East India Company, it was replaced by almost a century of Britain’s direct rule of the sub-continent.

There were once five hundred buildings built in the designs of Bengali and Gujarati styles of architecture inside the fort, today less than thirty remain. Many were destroyed to make way for white marble palaces while others were destroyed when the British used the area for their barracks.

Fatehpur Sikri is a city within Agra district and was built when Akbar moved his capital and palace from Agra to the Sikri ridge. He named his new city Fatahabad, an Arabic word in origin meaning ‘victory. ‘It was later renamed to its present title of Fatehpur Sikri. The palace city is one of the best preserved collections of Mughal architecture to be found anywhere within India.

After its completion in 1574, it was abandoned in 1585 due to a shortage of drinking water and its close proximity to areas in conflict at that time. It was later occupied by Muhammad Shah from 1719 until 1748, his regent was murdered there in 1720. The complex today is mostly intact and spreads over an area of almost two miles (three kilometres) in length and one mile or one and a half kilometres wide. This is surrounded by a wall measuring five miles or eight kilometres in length and offered protection to three of its sides, the remainder was at one time protected by a lake. Apart from the imperial palace few other buildings are left standing.

What remains today resembles a ghost town; the buildings are in the styles of Gujarat and Bengal architecture with influences from Hindu and Jain craftsmen.

Agra’s and possibly India’s most famous structure is the Taj Mahal built between 1632 and 1653 by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan as a memorial to his third wife Mumtaz Mahal, it is renowned as one of the finest pieces of architecture built in the Mughal style and combines elements of Persian, Indian and Turkish architecture within its construction.

Materials used in the construction came from all across Asia and more than 1000 elephants were used to transport the white marble, jasper, jade and sapphire from places as far afield as China, Sri Lanka and Arabia. Twenty eight different types of precious stones were used during the construction by a team of the finest architects and designers of the time.

The 17th century saw the arrival of European’s intent on colonizing the region; the British arrived in 1615 and overthrew the Mughal Empire. Their influence on India over the next three hundred years remains to this day through many of the buildings and structures that were built in the major cities that were to come under British rule throughout this period of India’s history.

Madras was the home to the British East India Company and St Andrews Kirk has two British lions with the company logo engraved on them guarding the entrance. Fort St. George is a structure close to the beach and surrounded by the then named White Town and Black Town settlements.  This was later renamed as Georgetown. Calcutta was similarly divided into areas for the British and those for the local population.

The French colonized areas chiefly in the south of India after arriving in 1673 in what is today the state of Tamil Nadu. Many of the areas colonized by the French still retain their influence today through the adoption of names of some of the settlements given by the French to the styles of some of the villas that remain.

In 1605 the Dutch arrived with their interests through trading they set up the Dutch East India Company and colonized many settlements during the two centuries they remained in the region. As well as a trading post, they also left behind a Dutch cemetery, warehouses and a castle. The Dutch cemetery is the oldest European burial site in India; the graves resemble the style of architecture of the era used by the Dutch. They also had a palace, known as Mattancherry Palace, which was in fact built by the Portuguese but taken over when the latter lost control of the area around Kochi.

The Portuguese first arrived in 1498, not originally to trade as other later European arrivals intended but as missionaries to convert the local population to Catholicism. They first arrived in Goa and ruled this region for 400 years. The influence by the Portuguese on Goa remains to this day mainly through the churches and cathedrals. The Basilica of Bom Jesus holds the body of St. Francis, paintings of saints are displayed on the interior, the walls of which are covered in wood and gold leaf. The floor is constructed of white marble.


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Sandy James
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