A Peek Into Colonial Agra, Mostly Along MG Road

In India when we think of British colonial architecture, we generally picture the “capital” architecture of Calcutta and Delhi, or then hill stations like Shimla, which the British escaped to for large parts of the year to escape the heat of Indian plains, which apparently they just couldn’t stand! However throughout India in cities and towns large and small, there exist rich troves of colonial architectural heritage that might not be as impressive in scale or as iconic as monuments such as Delhi’s Rashtrapati Bhawan (Viceroy’s Residence) or Calcutta’s Victoria Memorial Hall, or even the more acknowledged colonial urban landscapes of Bombay and Calcutta and Delhi, but the value of these buildings in smaller cities, as part of the architectural history of India, and their representation of an era in recent Indian history, is significant to say the least.

Unfortunately in contemporary India we pay even scanter attention to these colonial-era structures and urban localities, many of which date well into the 19th century and some even as far back as the 18th century, than we do to older architectural sites. For too many people, these historical structures are just “old buildings” ripe for demolition and appropriation in an economic environment of skyrocketing real estate prices, bendable rules and bylaws, almost no general appreciation for their historical value and resultant non-existent support for the maintenance and restoration of such structures. As such, the economic value of the land that they exist on is given much more importance than the historical value of the structures themselves. This is true not just of “British” colonial buildings, but also of “Indian” neighborhoods from the 18th, 19th and early 20th c, though of course the distinction between “British” and “Indian” is often more complicated than simplistic historical narratives or indeed architectural styles would suggest.

Very often this colonial-era architectural heritage is found in the Civil Lines and Cantonments of smaller cities and towns that were regionally important centers during British time. Agra, despite the overwhelming importance of its Mughal architectural heritage (and also because of its Mughal-era history and importance), is one such city. Another urban location for such colonial-era structures is the “old town” or “old city” parts of various towns and cities, which often have their urban roots in pre-colonial periods, due to which they accumulate architectural styles from pre-colonial (mostly Mughal-era), colonial, and 20th c avant garde periods, which include “desi deco” and modernist architecture. However these often dense and complex “old city” urban landscapes (which I have covered in other posts) are not what I’m dealing with here. Instead in this post I’m focusing on the sort of buildings seen, on the most part, in the more open and leafy civil lines and cantonments around the country.

I visit friends in Agra often, and so get opportunities to explore the city’s varied architectural heritage, mostly using Lucy Peck’s “Agra: The Architectural Heritage” as a guide. The structures I visited and photographed here are mostly along Agra’s MG Road and Civil Lines area. There are also a lot of buildings within the cantonment from this period, many of them very interesting bungalows, which will have to wait for a later post. Many of the buildings seen here have been conserved because they are churches or academic or administrative buildings, most still in use. These photos give an idea of some of the kinds of colonial-era structures present in various cities and towns throughout India.

St George’s Cathedral (1826), near the cantonment

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St Mary’s church, also near the cantonment area

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St John’s College (1914)

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The science block of St John’s college, across the road (MG Road) from the main college building. The massing of the front facade of this “Indo-Saracenic” building resembles that of a Mughal mosque’s prayer hall, with central iwan.

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Agra College (19th c), with neo-gothic elements and, for some reason, battlements

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Classical facade on a building facing MG Road

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An institutional building from 1891 along MG Road, with very whimsical neo-gothic styling

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Queen Victoria Inter College (late 19th c)

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St Paul’s Church (1855), now surrounded by modern academic buildings and play grounds

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Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception (1848)

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“Akbar’s Church”, from 1772 with additions in 1835

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Archbishop’s house, within the complex containing the Cathedral of Immaculate Conception and Akbar’s Church, gives an idea of what a large colonial mansion would look like.

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St Peter’s College (1846)

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John Public Library (1925), also in an Indo-Saracenic style

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Roman Catholic Cemetery

In the Civil Lines area is the Roman Catholic Cemetery, where some Britishers and Europeans are entombed in large Mughal-style affairs, indicating the “White Mughals” life (and death) of many earlier European officials in the 18th and early 19th c, who associated much more closely with Indians, including the late Mughal court, than Britishers in the second half of the 19th c onwards, especially after the 1857 revolt which among other things finally ended the vestiges of the Mughal empire.

Hessing’s Tomb (1803)

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Samru’s (Walter Reinhardt Sombre’s) Tomb (1782). This is the Samru of Begum Samru fame, i.e. the Luxembourgian husband of the Indian Begum Samru. The Begum has an eponymous mansion off Chandni Chowk in Delhi and was the ruler of Sardhana near Meerut.

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Other tombs and graves

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Other Structures

The 1720 Delhi Gate, part of the outer wall of Agra is pre-colonial, but at the beginning of the era of British influence.

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Gol Mandri (1882) is a memorial chattri in the middle of a neighborhood in the Civil Lines area.

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A 19th c commercial/residential building partially broken for road-widening.

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Building in the Civil Lines area.

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Examples of Art Deco structures along MG Road. These are probably from the 1940s and 50s, but part of the neglected urban history of the early 20th c.

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