Knowledge on the Move. Historical Preservation and Knowledge Practices between Colony and Empire

by Indra Sengupta


“Surely the judgment of … men arrived at on the spot is worth a great deal more than the dogmas of a Committee, the majority of whose members have probably never set foot on Indian soil!”

John Marshall, Director General of Indian Archaeology, 1906


© British Library Board Shelfmark 10.Tab.30.(1)Plate 4 A building in ruins in the forest, painted in the pituresque tradition by Thomas Daniell, 1749-1840, “Oriental Scenery. Twenty four views in Hindoostan”, drawn and engraved by Thomas Daniell, 1789-1790

Knowledge as an analytic category to understand social relations and the relationship between society and state has a long history in scholarship. In the study of colonialism, knowledge as a means to understand the operation of imperialism and the hegemonic cultural practices of colonial regimes, broadly known as colonial knowledge (Cohn 1996), has gained currency since the publication of Edward Said’s “Orientalism” in the late 1970s, and the influence of Foucauldian analyses of the relationship between knowledge and power in civil societies. Until recently, less explicit attention has been paid to knowledge as a spatial category (see Burke 2000, 2012) and the relationship between knowledge in imperial-colonial contexts and geography (space, place/location, networks), distance (between centre and periphery, between peripheries and between centres; see Cooper and Stoler 1997), the multidirectional movement of knowledge between centres and peripheries (Juneja 2001), and what this means for our understanding of colonial knowledge. In this article, I look at a controversy involving the colonial state and the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings in Britain (SPAB, established 1873) and surrounding a particular knowledge practice in colonial India in the late 19th and early 20th centuries – the preservation of ancient buildings. I show that local practice in the colonies, far away from the metropolitan centre, was less subject to the disciplinary straitjacket of contemporary European knowledge practices, could allow for greater agency of local tradition, and in the final count modified to a degree the universalist claims of the discourse on preservation of historic buildings in metropolitan Britain.


Preservation: a Victorian debate

Historical preservation as practised by the colonial state in India in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries had its intellectual origins in Victorian debates on collective memory, the meaning of old buildings as repositories of the past and the preservation of historic buildings as authentic sources of human history. The debates became linked to a general critique of Victorian industrialism and capitalism by John Ruskin and William Morris. Ruskin and Morris saw these as the main threat to the decline of traditional crafts and the death of the traditional craftsman/artisan. The death of the traditional craftsman however had a specific implication for the way in which ancient, historic buildings were to be treated: in contrast to an earlier generation of architects, Ruskin and Morris, and SPAB decried restoration as fake, a falsification of history, and advocated the conservation and protection of old buildings. Restoring buildings in the nineteenth century, using modern, industrial skills in place of traditional ones, could only result in a copy, in a work bereft of its original intent and meaning. Hence, the main goal of the care of ancient monuments was not to restore them but to repair and conserve them from falling into ruin. Preservation in colonial India in the early years of the twentieth century turned out to be a challenge to this philosophy.

Empire, colonial knowledge, and preservation

From the beginning of colonial rule, India’s historic architecture – as a source of India’s history – formed a part of colonial knowledge, a particular way of knowing India that would serve the ends of imperial hegemony. In the early days of conquest visual representations of India were framed as landscapes and architecture in ruin, which cultural historians have described as representations of India’s civilizational degeneration and decline, symbolic of a land waiting to be saved by a morally and materially superior Britain (Metcalf). The state of India’s historic monuments, and the seeming lack of interest amongst Indians in preserving the relics of their own past was attributed to their lack of awareness of history. In colonial discourse on British India, the duty of bringing historical awareness, progress and civilisation to India fell on British rule, and the colonial state power was justified as an instrument of control on the basis of a particular kind of knowledge of India.

The preservation of historic buildings was not a matter of much concern for the English East India Company (EIC) and it was gradually from the 1870s onwards but particularly from the late 1890s, when Lord Curzon became Viceroy of India (1899 – 1905), that a policy of state care of monuments and historic buildings crystallised, when seminal legislation was passed (Ancient Monuments Preservation Act of 1904) and funds were released for monument protection. Colonial administrators such as Curzon and the high-ranking colonial officials of the Department of Archaeology, such as John Marshall, its Director-General, were trained in classical studies and their view of the past was deeply rooted in nineteenth-century historicism. Hence, preservation practices announced by the state stemmed from nineteenth century European historicism and the ideas of preservation that had been made influential by William Morris and SPAB. The historical authenticity of a building was at the core of their ideas of care of Indian monuments, as their task as custodians of India’s culture was to educate their Indian subjects in their own history. However, in practice, preservation turned out to be far more driven by local conditions on site, or what John Marshall called “on the spot”. This “faraway knowledge” was flexible and not bound to the rulebook, it was knowledge that was produced and practised on the move. Let us now turn to a technical debate between colonial government preservationists and SPAB to examine the significance of this kind of “knowledge on the move”.

Knowledge afar, knowledge on the move

© British Library Board Shelfmark WD 586 A company officer about to sketch a ruined temple, perhaps at Vijaynagar. Note the Indian servants in attendance. Watercolour. Originally published/produced in India, 1790-181

When from the 1880s preservation began to draw the attention of colonial officials such as Henry Cole Hardy, the First Curator of Ancient Monuments in India, the officials realised that the principles of historical preservation in India had to be suited to local conditions. The chief problem they were confronted with was that of destruction, and the immediate goal was to control damage. As a result, far away from the scrutiny of preservationist lobbies in Victorian England, the lines between restoration, repair and maintenance were at the very least blurred and far less ideological than in England. Colonial records make frequent reference to decisions made on the basis of pragmatic factors, such as climatic conditions or cost, that decided whether a building ought to be merely maintained, or restored (what Morris and Ruskin described as ”fake” or falsification of history), or preserved in its historical authenticity. A central concern of Curzon and Marshall, for instance, was the beautification of monuments and sites, with gardens meant to provide monuments with what was deemed as an appropriate aesthetic setting. However, often beautification took precedence over historical accuracy, as in the case of the gardens of the Taj Mahal in Agra, which were reconstructed specifically on Curzon’s orders, with the picturesque rather than historical authenticity in mind.

Muslim monuments and living traditions

Particularly interesting was the case of Muslim, especially Mughal, monuments and the way in which colonial officials advanced an argument of exceptionalism as a counter-argument to the reservationist agenda. Since the early days of colonial rule, the care of Mughal monuments drew considerable attention even when the EIC otherwise adopted an indifferent attitude to historic buildings. The British were always conscious of the standing enjoyed by the Mughal rulers in India and they were careful to position themselves as the natural successors to the Mughals as the legitimate sovereign rulers of India. In the heyday of monument protection following the passing of the Act of 1904 much was made of Mughal monuments: John Marshall referred to the need to maintain the Taj Mahal and other Mughal buildings because “they still serve on occasion as the noblest and most imperial settings for the highest functions of the State” (Marshall 1906). In fact, Mughal buildings were frequently used to stage colonial rule in the form of the great imperial durbars of 1903 and 1911. Hence, these were not ”dead” structures belonging to the past, with a historic meaning but “living” buildings that the colonial state still used for its state functions and were imbued with a political meaning that was rooted in present-day concerns of imperial sovereignty. In response to criticism by SPAB and other preservationists in Britain with regard to the historical inauthenticity of the care of monuments in colonial India, Marshall deployed the argument of the ”living tradition” of skill and crafts of Muslim craftsmen: unlike their counterparts in Europe, these craftsmen were repositories of a tradition of craftsmanship that had remained unbroken since the buildings themselves were built. He argued that their inherited skills could be legitimately used to restore or retouch Mughal monuments, without compromising the historical authenticity of the monuments. “There has been no failure of continuity in their traditions. The workmen can, if they like, execute their copies as well today, as they could the originals three or four hundred years ago … Their restoration is unlikely to give rise to errors ….” (Marshall 1903). The result was thus not forgeries, but something essentially authentic, produced in a present in which the past remained alive.

© British Library Board Shelfmark Photo 430/79(205)
The use of Mughal monuments for grand official ceremonies. The Delhi Durbar, 1 January 1903. Lord Curzon reading the King’s Message to his Indian subjects during his speech. Photograph by Bourne and Sheperd

The argumentative power of the living tradition of unbroken skills of craftsmen on the imaginary of preservationist lobbies more generally and SPAB in particular was considerable. In India could be found something that European culture had long lost. Hence, universalist notions of preservation, based on a European experience of industrialisation, could be held up as inadequate to serve the needs of monument care in all parts of the world. This was a fundamental challenge to the universalist claims of the Victorian preservationists that ”ancient” monuments only had meaning as relics of the past. The argument seems to have succeeded: in 1906 the prominent art copyist and SPAB member Christiana Herringham visited India and spent much time observing the work of the colonial government in saving India’s endangered buildings. By the time she returned to England she was convinced that restoration in India did not in fact constitute forgery, as it was done by means of traditional Muslim craftsmen of a living tradition. Christiana Herringham declared to SPAB upon her return, “Saracenic architecture … is a counsel of perfection, it does not decay beautifully. You long to repair it” (Herringham 1907). For the first time, restoration and repair were placed on an equal footing with preservation and accepted as both aesthetically appealing and intellectually honest. Subsequently, SPAB accepted that in the case of “modern” buildings restoration might in fact be justified. Thus, the central principles of historical preservation that had become a universalist norm in Western Europe by the early twentieth century were repeatedly flouted by “knowledge on the move” from the imperial centre to periphery. This knowledge was more ad hoc and fluid in the periphery of the empire than in the metropole and on the face of it was based on an argument of exceptionalism of regions far away from Europe. Significantly, however, this kind of exceptionalism produced by ”distant” knowledge in turn made its way back to the metropolis to make the case for a less universalist, more nuanced form of historic preservation, based on an acknowledgement of the role of living tradition in preservation practices related to structures that were newer, where one could trace living traditions of craftsmanship.


Author: Indra Sengupta is the Head of the India Research Programme at GHI London and MWS India Branch Office, Delhi. Her research interests include the production and practice of knowledge on India in colonial India and Europe, German Orientalism, and monumentmaking practices in colonial India. Her current research is on monument making in late colonial India, incorporating local, colonial, and metropolitan perspectives.

This article was first published in print in the magazine Weltweit vor Ort.

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