The process of modern knowledge-making in late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century South Asia was closely connected to the experience of British colonialism.1 Driven by an interest to control and comprehend their emerging empire in the subcontinent, British colonial administrators and military officers set about collecting physical vestiges of the country’s past and categorizing information on its geography, history, and culture.2 Their efforts were mediated and supported by the efforts of Indian informants and assistants, and existing contexts, relationships, and connections were irrevocably altered. While the British might have been highly critical of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century South Asian life, the activities and publications of organizations such as the Asiatic (formerly Asiatick) Society held that “the arts and sciences of ancient India were of the highest standard.”3 For the orientalists who held this view, the source of such knowledge resided in so-called ancient texts.4 As an extension of this idea, architectural treatises written in the Sanskrit language came to be viewed as critical sources of knowledge. Apart from their intrinsic value as texts, treatises could provide evidence that the design and ornamentation of buildings (particularly Hindu temples), was an intellectual exercise rooted in the subcontinent’s unadulterated “classical,” and more significantly, “Hindu” past. A desire to elevate architecture to the rarefied realm of philosophy also drove the effort to closely align building practices and treatises.

As an Enlightenment preoccupation with classification extended to British attempts at comprehending all aspects of South Asian society, it resulted in the region being perceived primarily in terms of divisions along boundaries of religion and caste.5 Within this scheme, Hindus and Muslims occupied different social realms and were presumed to have inherited different histories. More specifically, Hindus were supposedly privy to a pre-Islamic religious, cultural, and Sanskrit linguistic heritage that the orientalists perceived as being independent of its more recent Islamic context. This matrix of rigid religious categories was overlaid on an older set of distinctions between “turushkas,” or Turko-Afghan Muslims, and a loosely conceived category called “Hindus.”6 While cultural, religious, and ethnic differences were a wellarticulated reality in pre-colonial South Asia, these were also significantly more porous than their interpretation within colonial scholarship suggested, and was applied to the interpretation of the architectural treatise as well.7 Texts that had circulated in the subcontinent between the twelfth and eighteenth centuries were plucked out of this context to stand as evidence of an unadulterated “Hindu” building tradition.

One of those who contributed to this assertion of Hindu architectural identity was an Indian scholar, Ram Raz (ca. 1790–1834). Ram Raz reconceptualized an architectural past through assessment and analysis of architectural treatises originally written in Sanskrit, and in so doing, attempted to free a newly defined category of “Hindu” architecture from its Indo-Islamic context and argued for its formation through timeless concepts and trends.8 Ram Raz showcased his findings in a volume titled, Essay on the Architecture of the Hindus, published by the Royal Asiatic Society in 1834. This publication ushered a new way by which an architectural past became legible. In particular, it marked a reorientation of the terms by which classical Sanskrit treatises on building practices were understood, as well as a shift in the conception of architectural categories and their relationship to religious affiliation. Treatises previously used to summarize practices and nomenclature for classifying typologies and ornamentation were now imagined as compilations of precise instructions. Ram Raz, influenced by European treatises on architectural practice, felt the need to demonstrate his findings through drawings based on European models used to illustrate neoclassical buildings (Figure 1). Ram Raz’s work, therefore, raises important questions about the historicity of the categories used to describe Indian architecture. Through a close analysis of the Essay, this article explores some of the ways in which Indians began to reconceptualize their architectural pasts, articulating these reinterpretations through colonial social, religious, and aesthetic constructs and technologies.

  • 1. . I would like to extend my sincere thanks to Swati Chattopadhyay for her insightful comments. Thanks also to Stephen Tobriner, Brian Curran, Robin Thomas, and Opher Mansour. This essay is published with support from the George Dewey and Mary J. Krumrine Endowment
  • 2. Bernard Cohn, Colonialism and Its Forms of Knowledge: The British in India (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996).
  • 3. Partha Chatterjee, The Nation and its Fragments: Colonial and Postcolonial Histories (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), 98.
  • 4. The term orientalist here refers to the work of scholars engaged in endeavors to study the culture, history and law of the “Orient” with an emphasis on linguistic accomplishments. Following the publication of Edward Said’s seminal work Orientalism (New York: Vintage, 1979), the term has been deservedly subjected to critiques and to further elucidations of the connections between such scholarly endeavors and the quest for European colonial domination in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. I use the term with due cognizance of the relationship between knowledge making and the quest for power. For more on the “Indological” aspects of Orientalism, see Ronald Inden, Imagining India (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990).
  • 5. Cohn, Colonialism and Its Forms of Knowledge.
  • 6. Brajadulal Chattopadhyay, Representing the Other? Sanskrit Sources and the Muslims (New Delhi: Manohar Publishers, 1998); Romila Thapar, “The Image of the Barbarian in Early India,” in Comparative Studies in Society and History 13 (1971), 408–36; Cynthia Talbot, “Inscribing the Other, Inscribing the Self: Hindu-Muslim Identities in Pre-Colonial India,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 37, no. 4 (Oct. 1995), 692–722. As these three scholars point out, distinctive ethic and religious identities were maintained within fluid definitions in pre-colonial South Asia.
  • 7. Richard Eaton has written on the cosmopolitan lives of Hindu and Muslim courtiers in fourteenth and fifteenth century Southern India. See for instance, Richard Eaton, “Rama Raya (1484–1565): Elite Mobility in a Persianized World,” in A Social History of the Deccan 1300– 1761: Eight Indian Lives (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 78–104
  • 8. I use the term Indo-Islamic to refer to events and architecture that can be dated after the late twelfth century, the beginning of a substantial Islamic polity in the Indian subcontinent. Although the term is colonial in origin, it describes a distinct departure in South Asia’s religious and cultural patterns.