Status Symbols in India and their Colonial Roots – Part III: Architecture

The roots of colonialism in India have been firmly in place since 1858, when the British Raj came to power. India was completely transformed, and even since their independence in 1947, the country’s colonial past is apparent in the everyday lives of all Indians. A country that was built on a caste system, status symbols, and hierarchies have always been evident in India but exacerbated and developed throughout British rule. The white supremacy established by British colonialism has effects today seen in status symbols and standards of beauty, language, and architecture.

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Architecture in India has been studied and taught all over the world, as Indian architecture is revered for its intricate designs, vibrant colors, and beautiful shapes. However, colonial architecture is also found throughout the country, specifically in large cities such as Delhi and Kolkata. As the British Raj began taking control, colonial architecture was prominent in civic and utilitarian buildings such as railway stations, post offices, government buildings, and rest houses.¹ But this was only the beginning. As colonization progressed, the East India Company established three presidencies in Bombay, Madras, and Kolkata which resulted in an uprising of colonial architecture as they began to “set up the roots of colonization in the minds and hearts of Indians.” ² 

The city of Delhi was also built into an imperial city, becoming “New Delhi,” another major expression of the British imperial rule in India. However, the most significant example of this architectural evolution was in the city of Kolkata. The British had planned to transform Kolkata into a neoclassical-style city but received resistance from the locals, resulting in segregation during its development.³ 

What was ultimately created was the division of a “white town” and a “black town” in the city. The “black town” preserved the local architecture and was where the majority of Indians lived. The “white town” consisted of Fort Williams and the British settlement which adopted the neoclassical architectural style. Wealthy and powerful Indians also began building grand mansions of the same style in this town as well, as the architectural style increasingly became a symbol of wealth.³ Although many saw the surge of colonial architecture as an imposition on the traditional designs of ancient India, it is now often seen as a sign of status and is extremely apparent in wealthier areas of cities such as Kolkata, as once again, British influence is closely tied to power.

Ariana Bhargava

Ariana Bhargava is a high school student based in Massachusetts. She writes for Reclamation and Brown Girl Magazine. She is passionate about storytelling, activism, and photography.

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