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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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/-
3.3. Lighting Design
Coconut lamps were used in the old days, which were replaced by kerosene lights. Coconut oil burns very quickly while kerosene lights could burn all night. Kerosene lamps were replaced by gas lamps towards the end of the 19th century (1897-99). Two of the very decorative lamp posts named after Rama Rao and Padmanabha Rao are still standing. The junction where the former lamp is situated was known as the Rama Rao lamp junction.
The place where the gas plant was located is known as the Gas house junction. There was a shortage of mantles for a while. The chief engineer wrote to the Dewan regarding this, “A short time ago Messers Mansfield Brothers who have hitherto supplied us with mantles, suddenly wrote and informed me that they could no longer supply us. In the meanwhile foreseeing the possibility of our stock of mantles becoming exhausted before more could be procured, I purchased a sufficient number of the ordinary fish tail gas burner, which can be used without mantles. The gas burner that are now being fixed up in place of the mantles will not give as bright or efficient a light as the mantle but light will be good of uniform quality.”
There were a few instances when the leakage of gas had spread panic among the population. Soon after the installation of gaslights in Trivandrum, electric lights were also introduced in India. Towards the end of the 19th century many palaces in India had already been electrified. When the London based electrical engineering firm Donnison Berlyn & Co wrote to the Maharaja of Travancore explaining its importance, the Chief Engineer commented about it on 15th December 1897.
“As the government has already sanctioned the lighting of the town by gas there does not appear to be any room for an installation of an electrical plant also. It would therefore scarcely be necessary to put the firm to the trouble of supplying estimates.” The powerhouse near the fort was erected only in 1929, since electricity had become widely available by then. But Electric Construction Co. Ltd. Madras had prepared a scheme for street lighting as early as April 1898. The power to be derived was from Aruvikarai falls at some 15km from Trivandrum.
4. Issues With the Travancore Public Works Department
There were no standard plans for the construction of buildings. The department which was in need of a building would be sent to the Dewan who in turn asked the Chief Engineer to prepare the plan and the estimate. The plan thus prepared is sent to the Dewan also who asked the concerned department for comments. In many cases, this led to friction because the requirements also changed.
For instance, when the plan was submitted for the Bandstand in the Kanakakunnu palace compound, the public works department prepared the design based on the sketch submitted by the director of the Maharajas band unit. The present central stamp depot (originally the Treasury, Office and Post Office of the British resident) is said to have been constructed according to the plan of a post office in London.
These were built under the supervision of Maj. W.D.E. Ketchen, Madras light Cavalry, in 1818 A.D. Now only the entrance gate to the barracks remains awaiting demolition. The rest was demolished a few years ago to pave the way for the State Legislative Complex. There were standard plans prepared for the Anchol offices (post office) later when Durbar physician had asked the Dewan of Travancore for a standard plan for all the new dispensaries in the state.
Mr. J.Houston was not satisfied with the plans prepared by the public works department. The controversy occurred during the construction of a building for the fort dispensary. His objection was that the patients could see the compound of medicine being mixed. One instance, a patient threw away the mixture saying that it was only one-eight to one-sixth. He even recalled one instance where a patient threw away the mixture saying that it was mostly water. He thought that all these anomalies could be solved if there were standard plans for all the dispensaries.
Convict labourers were used in many of the sites near the Poojappura central jail. Much unskilled work was done by them including earthwork and roadwork. This helped to reduce the costs, but the work got delayed. The chief engineer wrote to the Diwan drawing his attention to the small out turn of the work at Kanakakunnu. In his reply, the Diwan, Krishnaswamy Rao wrote on 28th November1899 ``It is late in the morning when the convicts reach the work-spot as before they can be sent out for work, they have to go to latrine ground near Karamanay and back again to the jail for the morning meals. Again they have to stop work in the afternoon in time to bathe and take their evening meals preparatory to lock-up between 5 and 6 pm. I am endeavouring to arrange to send off the gang every morning in time to reach Kanakakunnu at 9 am and for it to be carried out there till 4.00 pm. Further, it will be a great convenience, and facilitate the timely sending out of the gang for work every day if the system of sending the convicts to the latrine ground near Karamanay is discontinued and a general latrine erected in the garden.” The first buildings in the Poojappura central jail was constructed only in 1886-87. With the addition of buildings including latrines, which took more than two decades, the above problem was solved.
5.Examples of British Architecture in Trivandrum
Mr. J.A. Brown, the then director of the observatory suggested in 1852 A.D. that a museum be established in Trivandrum. A museum society was started with Utthram Thirunal Maharaja (1857-60) as patron, the British resident as the President and Mr. Brown as the secretary. The museum was named as Napier Museum after a former Governor of Madras. It started functioning in the observatory buildings and then shifted to the public offices (plate 2) at the instance of Captain H.Drury who succeeded Mr. Brown. The present building (plate 6) was constructed according to the designs of Mr. Chisholm, consulting architect to the Government of Madras.
It was completed in 1880. Although the history of the museum gardens could be traced back to 1859, the present form is to be credited to two designers Rev. Pettigrew of the Church Mission Society was largely responsible for the initial layout, and Mr. F.J.Ingleby divided the land into terraces. The turfing was done during his time. Many trees were also planted. He had previous experience in gardening in London. The artificial lake with a small island in the middle was dug out in 1894, and boats were available for recreational purposes.
Captain Harold Ferguson who was the Director of the Government Museum and Public gardens wrote to the Dewan of Travancore on 2nd November 1901 regarding the construction of a Bandstand. “It is very desirable that the gardens should possess a building of this design peculiar to the country and unique for the proposed purpose. It will harmonise too with the museum building, which was designed to accord with the architecture of the country. Such a Bandstand will be a credit to the gardens and a source of interest to visitors.”
When the Dewan in his reply dated 13 November 1901 enquired whether a Bandstand like the one in the Kanakakunnu palace would not suffice, Mr. Ferguson replied in the negative. “As I propose to put up the new Bandstand close to the museum it must be in harmony with it.” The Bandstand that was constructed in 1902 is now in the museum gardens and has many features found in temples. The granite pillars have a traditional character with floral motifs carved on them. The steps leading to the raised floor have curved balustrades like those in a temple. The roof with four roof cars may have a Southeast Asian influence. The reptile house in 1907.
The Connemara market was opened in 1888. At that time, the city was mainly centred on the fort area. The need for a market arose in the northern part of the city where the new European population was living. Many bungalows had come up in the cantonment area during the latter half of the 19th century. H.H. Maharajas College, the public offices, Victoria Jubilee Town Hall, Industrial School of Arts and the Protestant church were the prominent public buildings in the area.
The Dewan of Travancore wrote to the chief engineer in May 1887, “A good market in trivandrum being a great desideratum, I request you will be good enough to submit a plan and estimate for creating one and suggest a central locality.”(18) The reason for building a very imposing entrance gateway on the west side of the market was it was a memorial to Lord Connemara’s visit to Travancore.
The market was planned as a fish, meat and vegetable market. With the opening of the market, many new shops were opened on its three sides. The south side was spared, as there was no gate to enter the market. The gate on the eastern side was not prominent and it catered to the needs of the local pedestrians. The locality surrounding the market is one of the most prominent shopping areas at present.
5.3. Madhav Rao Statue
Madhava Rao statue (plate 17) is situated in front of the public office. This is the oldest public statue in the state (1894). Sir T. Madhva Rao was the Dewan of Travancore from 1858 to 1872. He was instrumental in carrying out many administrative reforms. Even the public works department was started during his tenure. There were four cast iron lamp posts at each of the corners, of which only two are found today. These were made by Messers Andrew Handyside & Co., Britannia iron works, Derby England and the cost was twenty-one pounds and five shillings. The cost was borne by the government. The cast iron railings around the statue were made at the cost of thirty-seven pounds.
5.4. Kanakakunnu Palace
Kanakakunnu Palace, which is now used as a cultural centre, gained its present status in 1902. The Palace was once occupied by the Elayarajah, but after his death it had been lying vacant. In July 1897, the Diwan enquired of the chief engineer whether it was possible to make any additions to the existing structure. The additions contemplated were a dining hall and a building room. The existing living room was redecorated. It is now used as the reception of the conference centre. The existing porch was modified because of its inability to take wide carriages. The kitchen and carriage sheds were also constructed.
A covered verandah was added connecting the dining hall and the reception room. The dining hall is now used as the conference room. All these additions and modifications made the Kanakakunnu palace the most decorated British style building in Travancore. The new style of the building was to be ornamental. Regarding the old roof of the reception room, the chief engineer wrote to the Dewan on 19th July 1898, “The roof will remain of exactly the same form and appearance which is not ornamental nor in keeping with the style of building now being erected as the dining hall.”
Marble slabs were used for the verandah flooring. Provisions were made furnishing upholstery and decorative painting. The colours were imported through Messers Cakes & Co. for Rs. 400. “The walls will be decorated with ornamental design and painted with a calcarium. Below the ceiling will be a decorative plaster entrance and painted frieze... It [the estimate] also provides at a small cost for flagstaff tower and staircase, giving access from the body of the hall to the verandah roof. This will improve the architectural effect of the buildings and enable the spacious verandah roof to be utilised as a promenade, if desired. The face work is proposed to be Portland cement pointed. The original estimate provided for plastering, but in order to improve the looks of the hall. The former is substituted.”
Bandstand was constructed according to a sketch supplied by the Director of the Maharajah’s land unit. As the building is situated on the top of a base hill, a lightning conductor was also provided. Compound walls were constructed. The following is an extract from report made by the public works department regarding landscaping of the grounds at Kanakakunnu hill - “The uneven slopes will be cut into terraces and the slopes turfed. New roads will be laid down as shown in the tracing, one being used for approach and the other for departing from the building… The existing wall remaining alone, the main road is an unsightly Kyllas; this will be removed and replaced by a brick wall with a convenient entrance gate.” The new dining hall and the reception room was lit with three, four and five light chandeliers without glass pendants purchased from Messers Asher & Co. The verandahs, dressing rooms and passages were with suitable hanging and table lamps, which were purchased from Messer Ditmen & Co. from Bombay. Hanging lamps were with silk shades and table lamps were fixed on heave iron stands.
6.The Present State of British Inspired Buildings in Trivandrum
British buildings are part of Kerala’s history. Many British monuments are now being used as government offices and institutions. A significant number have already been demolished. In some cases, ugly additions have come up nearby. Protection of a site has always depended on enlightened government support. They should be conserved. The favourable factors are that the rooms are large and well ventilated.
When the question of constructing a record room on the northern side of the two storied public offices came up, the Dewan suggested to the chief engineer that it should be three storied for want of more space. Chief Engineer A.H. Jacob wrote back on 3rd July 1891, “I could not well recommend a third storey being added to the present design. I feel it would not be satisfactory architecturally alongside the public buildings.” This building was demolished only a few years ago to pave the way for the construction of a new building.
Many concrete structures, which do not respect the historical buildings, have come up very close to the public buildings. A new addition to the state government Guest House (originally British resident ‘s bungalow), new buildings near the account general's office (originally law college), a multi-storeyed building close to the postmaster general’s offices (originally chief engineers office), etc., are only some of them.
Another well-planned garden was laid in the British Residency compound at Thycaud. Most of it was destroyed with the construction of many buildings such as the railway Division Office, Gandhi Smarak Nidhi Office, Model School and the Government Guest house. What remains are some old trees and remnants of old slopes, tanks and Mandapas.
However, the extension made to the State Public Library and University Men’s Hostel more than three decades earlier goes well with the old buildings. In the case of the men’s hostel, exposed random rubble masonry had been used in the extension as well. Both the extensions are flat roofed. In the case of new buildings near the old public offices, an attempt was made to use pediments and round masonry pillars. But the decision to have more storeys makes the new additions discordant.
In the case of the Vellayambalam Palace (KELTRON headquarters), an attempt was made to have the new buildings harmonize with the existing place, by fixing fish scale tiles on a concrete roof for the new electronics research and development centre. There were some drawings of nature and deer on the walls of the dining room of the building. When this building became the head office of KELTRON, the maintenance workers started painting over them without the knowledge of authorities. When they rushed to the spot, part of the drawings had already been lost. The rest were preserved.
In most government offices today, the verandahs have been enclosed and converted into rooms. In most cases, it looks very ugly and the character of the building has been lost. Examples are the public offices (now the secretariat), the Barton hill bungalow (now the institute of management in government), Vellayambalam Palace (KELTRON) head quarters, and the women’s & children’s hospital.
Many structures such as the Madhava Rao statue, Rama Rao lamp and Napier museum entrance gates have been defaced by sticking posters of various events. The porch of the dispensary wing of the women and children’s hospital was demolished last year. The porch was in bad shape and the reinforcement steel was exposed to the weather. The solution done by the engineers was to demolish the porch. When such an act is done, part of the history of the buildings is also destroyed.
Conservation of old buildings, often by finding new uses for the buildings, provides new generations with an insight into their history and their society. Conservation is not opposed to the erection of new buildings, which are sympathetic in character, texture of materials, colour, scale and other visual elements. The issue, like everything else, must not be viewed as conservation versus development; both must coexist.
The motto of the sierra club “not blind opposition to progress, but opposition to blind progress,” is apt here. The idea that we should save everything is sentimental. At the same time, we cannot expect natural selection or survival of the fittest to occur. The argument is not against development, but rather against how it is carried out. It is not against all demolitions, but only against anything that is unnecessary and avoidable. New buildings are not always necessary required or desirable.
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