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  • Writer's pictureBenny Kuriakose

British Architecture in Trivandrum

Until the 19th century, traditional public buildings in Travancore such as palaces, the jail, the public granary, and the fort area were built in traditional Kerala architectural style, under the supervision of the Maharaja of Travancore. With the increasing presence of the British in the late 18th and early 19th century and the establishment of the British controlled PWD, the British influence on architecture and town planning also increased dramatically. The result was that most public buildings built in the State of Travancore during the latter half of the 19th century were designed by British engineers and executed by the PWD departments. This blog post provides a detailed history of the PWD department and the type of colonial architecture that existed in Trivandrum.


Trivandrum East Fort Area
Trivandrum East Fort Area

List of Contents



1. The Public Works Department, Travancore


Regarding the early history of the public works department whose responsibility it was to construct public buildings, Mr. T. K. Velupillai had written that, “Till the year 1008 ME [1832-33], there was no distinct agency for the execution of public works. In that year, the Maramath Department was formed as a branch known as the Panivakai Marath. In the year 1011M.E [1835-36 A.D.] Lieutenant Horsley was appointed engineer in the Thirunelvei and Madurai districts. He was urged to inspect and direct the maramath work in this state. This arrangement continued for some years (from 1836-1854). A small establishment consisting of a surveyor and a draughtsman, which had been attached to the Residency at Trivandrum to work under the orders of General Cullen, was absorbed in the P W D department, which was newly created. Mr Collins was appointed state civil engineer in 1035 M.E. (1859-60 A.D.). He was succeeded by Major Greenway, who was in turn succeeded by Mr. Barton in [1862-65 A.D.]. After Mr. Barton's appointment, what had been a small establishment under Mr. Collins quickly grew into a huge department. Mr.W.C. Barton was the first chief engineer and it was after his appointment that the department grew in size. The department of public works was organized in 1860. But it was only in 1863 that any substantial work was commenced. In that year Mr. Barton was named the state's chief engineer. From the engineering point of view, Travancore was a virgin field.”


2. Development of the Travancore PWD Department


The public works department was mainly engaged in the construction of buildings for the Maharaja and many maiden ventures such as hospitals, observatory, museum, zoo, markets, roads, canals drainage and water supply, bridges, and even dams. Most engineers employed with the Travancore Government had prior experience with other Governments (Government of Mysore, Madras, Nizam etc.), in the field of public works. Many engineers took their degree from Britain. They came to India and joined the services of the provincial government.


Trivandrum Zoo
Trivandrum Zoo

Advertisements regarding the vacancies of engineers were published in various professional journals and newspapers such as the Madras Mail and The Hindu. Engineers of European origin could join the Travancore Government only after obtaining sanction from the Government of India. Among the many engineers who had taken bachelor of civil engineering degree from the Madras Engineering College, only the top-ranking student would be appointed as Assistant Engineer in the Madras Public Works Department. Others who were appointed as overseers used to apply to Travancore Public Works Department, expecting a higher salary.


The chief engineer was the head of the Public Works Department, under whose direction the public buildings were designed and constructed. There were no architects, but there were engineers who had architectural training. Mr. Archer Bastow from Australia, who was appointed on a salary of Rs. 600 per mensem (per month) was one among them. Chief engineer W. Jopp wrote to the Travancore government recommending the appointment of Mr. Bastow. He had taken the degree of M.A. (Master of Arts) and M.C.E. (Master of Civil Engineering) at the University of Melbourne.


He also passed an examination and obtained certificates from the Victoria Board of Engineering as Municipal Engineer and Hydraulic Engineer. He is also a passed Architect. He was employed for 4 years in the architectural branch of the public works department of Victoria. He was then transferred to the engineering branch and has since been engaged on sea coast works, harbour improvement, swamps reclamation, road and bridge construction. In the case of the few buildings where stone inscriptions could be found, there is no mention about the designer of the building. In one of them, the names of the Maharaja and the Dewan are mentioned.


In the case of the public offices (the present Secretariat Building), the name of the Chief Engineer Mr. W.C. Barton is also mentioned, while in the case of the public library, the names of the Chief Engineer, the Executive Engineer and the Assistant Engineer are mentioned. There were qualified draughtsmen employed in the department, but they were in short supply. The quality of the drawings was quite good. Professional jealousy was common among the engineers. In the absence of the Chief Engineer, A. H. Jacob the acting Chief Engineer wrote to the Dewan of Travancore on 19th may 1893 drawing his attention to the cracks, which developed in the record room, constructed north of the public offices.


The present Secretariat building that contains the name of the Chief Engineer Mr W.C. Barton
The present Secretariat building that contains the name of the Chief Engineer Mr W.C. Barton

He wrote, “I have the honour to inform you that, there is a crack in the west face of the building now in the course of completion in Huzur compound, and another in the southern side. These cracks appeared several months ago but Mr. Jacob did not then consider them of sufficient importance to warrant the pulling down of the south-west corner. I however consider that it is unsafe to complete the buildings in its cracked state and desire to dismantle the whole of the south-west corner, a laborious and somewhat costly operation, but I cannot think that it would be right to do otherwise.” Mr. A.S. Jacob, on his return from leave, wrote to the Diwan on 27th April 1894 that the cracks are not at all dangerous.


His observation was that of an engineer who had wide practical experience. “The so- called cracks are not of the slightest importance and are due to unequal settlements possibly caused by the building being far from a lengthened period without a roof, enabling the weather to act upon the foundation. They were of course made the most of and exaggerated to a palpably ridiculous extent by the acting Chief Engineer Mr. Horsley, for reasons apparent to all and consistent with innumerable former criticisms on works proposed and carried out under my designs. Anyone at all experienced in architectural work will know that such unequal settlements are very frequent in all large buildings and in such, what are called hair cracks, may be found in the adjoining main public buildings. Such cracks occur in innumerable places.”


3. General Features of 19th Century British Architecture

There is no definite style used in the buildings. Modified classic orders were used for the public offices, which were constructed in 1869. A type of neoclassical style was popular through the beginning of the 20th century in many buildings. For example, the façade of the law college, which is now the account general’s office, displays Corinthian and Doric columns. Doric columns were popularly used in many ordinary residential buildings designed by carpenters till two decades ago.


Many important public buildings built towards the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the present century have many Victorian architecture features. It is to their credit that the buildings designed by the British had respected the traditional Kerala architecture. The buildings designed by the British engineers were very much suitable to the local climate. They had a verandah all around the buildings to protect the walls from sun. The rooms were large and well lit.


They had large windows on at least two sides of the room to facilitate cross-ventilation essential for a warm, humid climate. The layouts of the buildings were very different from that of the vernacular buildings. Large buildings had a linear plan. Internal courtyards were not common. Curved walls with timber roofs can be seen in many buildings. Two storeys buildings became common although they were costlier. In many residential buildings, the kitchen was a separate unit connected by a covered passage. The ground floor would consist of the reception room and the dining hall. The bedrooms would be upstairs.


3.1. Gardens

Under the British engineers the concept of gardens became important. Many residences were built on top of hills such as the observatory hill and the Kowdiar hill, some of them in isolated places such as the Barton hill. Gardens were designed and special care was taken to maintain them. This is in sharp contrast to the places that were built inside the fort. Great care was taken in the planting and caring of shade trees. As soon as the building was completed, shade trees were planted. They were also planted on the sides of important roads.


It was believed that the trees helped in reducing the temperature inside a building. The British resident had written to the Diwan on 30th April 1894, “I have the honour to inform you that the officiating residency surgeon on a late inspection of the escort lines (the present police training college) at Trivandrum has recommended that trees be planted in the lines to protect the men from the heat of the sun.” Special funds were set apart for the care of newly planted shade trees. There was even a notification in 1907 regarding the prevention of damage to the avenue trees.


A view of the gardens at the Trivandrum Zoo
A view of the gardens at the Trivandrum Zoo

3.2. Building Materials


Lime surkhi concrete was used for foundations of some buildings. For the extension of the Kanakakunnu bungalow the specification was as follows. The concrete to be composed of 3 parts measure of good hard broken stones and 1 part by measure of mortar The broken stone to be ½ “gauge laid and rammed layers of 6”thick. The mortar is composed of 1 part slag (slaked) lime, 1/2 part surkhi (brick powder), ½ part clean sharp river sand.


Portland cement was also used in Travancore quite early. The earliest record of its use was for pointing of paving tiles in the central jail in 1890. It was considered a superior material and the use of lime made from shells was continued for plastering, matter etc. Clay tile flooring was very common. Cement flooring was of a later date. Marble was used only in important buildings. Teakwood floor was used in Victoria jubilee town hall.


Laterite was widely used for the super structure and foundations in Kerala. It was a material not found in England. The British engineer might not have even heard of this material before coming to India. Although laterite was perfectly strong to build two or three storeys structures, the engineers had doubts about this on 6th July 1897. The Chief Engineer Mr. Jopp wrote to the Dewan about the extension to the Kanakakunnu bungalow. (Plate 4) “I visited the bungalow opposite the observatory yesterday. The site and position of existing buildings are well suited to such extension as you mentioned. The existing buildings are of laterite and I doubt whether it would be wise to add to them by raising upper stories.”


Bricks were used for all buildings of importance. There were government brick fields and officers were put in charge of them to supply for government constructions. Thampanoor brick field, which is now a residential area, was one of the earliest. The brick field tank was situated between the housing board junction and the Vanross junction. The bricks for the public offices and many other important buildings of a later period came from here. Especially bricks were manufactured for arches and pillars.


Teak or jack wood was used for woodwork in all-important buildings. Thembavu and Anjli were used for buildings of lesser importance. Bamboo was used for scaffolding. Hot tar used to be applied for the preservation of woodwork. Apart from being cheap, it was considered good for lasting and general appearance. Green paint was commonly used for woodwork and cast iron railings. The roofing for the public offices, which was completed in 1869, was that of corrugated iron sheets.


The painted cast iron railing at the public offices
The painted cast iron railing at the public offices

When the new record room was being completed, Dewan Shungra Subyer wrote to the Chief Engineer on 9th march 1893. “Is it too late to think upon avoiding the corrugated iron roof which I see is being put on the new building on the northern side of the public offices? If not I would prefer tiling. However airy the building may be, experience has shown that iron roofing would make it hot as it does in the case of the public office building now used. These are the only public buildings, I believe provided with metal roofing.”


Corrugated iron roofs did not gain much popularity as in other colonial countries such as Australia or Africa. It was used only on lesser important portions of buildings such as verandahs and temporary extensions. Even before the advent of reinforced cement concrete, terraced roofs were used in buildings built by the public works department. Although they were suitable for England, they were not suitable for a heavy rainfall area such as Kerala. Cement concrete was used for the roofing of verandahs and porches. The terraced roofs were kept in reasonable repair by periodical coating of a composition of tar and asphalt. But this was not permanent work. It had to be done once or twice a year, which increased the maintenance costs. The terraced roofs on all the buildings in the civil hospital (now general hospital) were changed to corrugated iron sheets.


The Trivandrum general hospital.
The Trivandrum general hospital.

Reinforced cement concrete slabs had been used in Travancore since 1900. Initially they were used only for the intermediate floors and the roof was timber. Many important bridges have been constructed of reinforced concrete. Although wallpapers were widely used in England in the latter half of the 18 century, their extensive use was rare in Travancore. But wallpaper bought from Oaks & Co Ltd was used in the Victoria Jubilee Town Hall. In Victorian India, stencil designs painted on the walls were used when patterns were desired.


Victoria Jubilee Town Hall
Victoria Jubilee Town Hall

Water pipes and cast iron gutters were imported from Britain. They were purchased in bulk quantities. Iron railings were used in many important buildings such as the offices, Napier Museum, Victoria Jubilee Town Hall, Industrial Schools of Arts and H.H. Maharajas College (the present University college). These ornamental railings were designed by the public works department but were ordered from England. The ornamental railings and gates to the school of arts cost the government Rs. 5,250/-