On Market Halls in Colonial India: Cursory Treatment, Awe-Inspiring Buildings

Hans Schenk

A large number of public market halls, containing food and non-food stalls under a single roof, were built by the British Indian administration or by Indian rulers in the so-called pseudo-independent Princely States, from the 1860s onwards. This study on these market halls by the architect and historian Pushkar Sohoni addresses several questions regarding these halls. A first one is why they have been built. A second question, which is according to the author directly related to answers to the first question, is how they look, to say it bluntly. 

The first question is actually put by the author in order to place the buildings in a broad societal context. This context has been given shape by the transfer in 1858 of the South-Asian possessions of the British East India Company to the British Crown, and the beginning of a new period of governing British India. The British colonial approach to governing India was characterized by Sohoni as a rational attempt to create a modern world, in which it “would civilize native populations in their own mould” (p. 28), i.e. to promote: “Regulation, discipline, and consumerism” as some desirable ”qualities of a native population to be governed” (p. 2). This would require tools of social control. Town halls and similar Government buildings would form such tools and serve as visible reminders of a triumphing empire. But this period is also characterized by Sohoni as encompassing a broadened and benevolent interest by local municipal bodies in the formation of a (bourgeois) civil society in urban British India, focusing in this respect notably on conditions of public health and sanitation. The concern for public health – and notably for its preventive dimensions –  generated a political mission of health which “would espouse public good and the well-being of society,”(p. 2). At least as far as the rapidly growing British population after the takeover of the Crown was concerned. “As part of their mission,” writes Sohoni about municipalities, “they constructed public markets where such conditions could be provided, inspected, and enforced” (p. 27).  Hence the carrot and the stick were presented, so to say, and both were supposed to be considered and literally to be seen as awe-inspiring.


On market halls, function, and style

The new constructed markets were often single and covered buildings, located at convenient places for the European urban communities (often in ‘cantoonments’ and ‘civil lines’), and they formed an addition to the omnipresent traditional urban bazaar, which was according to Sohoni perceived by the British colonialists as “an exotic and dangerous place, with equally strange and sinister merchants and goods” (p. 11). This mattered in view of the rapidly growing British (female) population after the takeover by the Crown. The colonial wives, writes Sohoni on p. 40, now often came from modest backgrounds and shopped by themselves. Hence, in 1871 the Calcutta municipal corporation even decided to build shopping opportunities for British residents as it became “increasingly important to have venues where European ladies could shop for household purchases in clean, safe, and sanitized premises” (p. 40). And at the same time, the functional market halls should also be “admired as an architectural creation,” defined by Sohoni as a “monolithic building that was a visual spectacle for the native gaze” (pp. 18-9). Here we have arrived at the sub-title of Pushkar Sohoni’s book. Then the next question that arises is: what type of spectacle, what type of architectural creation? 

Nineteenth-century Europe saw a range of fast-changing architectural styles in Europe, as Sohoni writes, and these styles reached British India as well. Hence Sohoni portrays Neo-classical, Late Baroque, and especially Neo-Gothic styles, with sub-styles such as Italian-Gothic and Italian Renaissance, being practised widely in train stations, post offices, cathedrals, etc. in the colony.[i] Neo-Gothic buildings are characterized in a nutshell by Sohoni as dominated by “vertical elements, like turrets, spires, tall pointed lancet windows with trefoil arches, and clusters of narrow piers forming columns” (p. 44). Next to these styles were Indo-Saracenic styles advocated by some architects as an appropriate architectural style for governance in India. Sohoni observes subsequently a “pastiche” of historic Indian architectural detail elements in “high colonial plans.” In a futile attempt to clarify this pastiche of styles, he adds: “Mughal pilasters and curvilinear Bangla roofs would jostle with medieval temple brackets and sultanate multifoil arches…” (p. 46). Eventually two styles dominated the market halls: Victorian neo-Gothic, favoured by the British; and Indo-Saracenic, chosen by many leaders of princely states as their own heritage. The latter was essentially neo-Gothic, looking Indian, but being English.

In five brief chapters Sohoni elaborates a little bit on several dimensions of the colonial Indian market halls. The concepts and appearances of markets and bazaars are introduced in Chapter 2, while in Chapter 3 the nature of the colonial governance – in terms of modernity and public health – are discussed. In Chapter 4 comes the role of the railways in city formation and the focal position of railways stations to the fore, in relation to the location of market halls. Chapter 5 discusses the market halls seen from the viewpoint of gender (notably referring to British women, but also to Indian middle-class women). Finally in this list, Chapter 6 explores the architecture of the halls at stake. These five chapters and an introduction (Chapter 1) fill the first 50 pages of Sohoni’s book, while the next 40 pages are devoted to an amply illustrated historical description and architectural analysis of 17 market halls scattered over the sub-continent. The chosen halls range from well-known halls like Crawford Market in Bombay (now Mumbai) to less known halls such as the Victoria Memorial market in Gwalior; from early ones as the Connemara market in Trivandrum (now Thiruvananthapuram), built in 1857, to recent ones like the Moazzam Jahi market in Hyderabad, from 1935; from still-existing halls to, e.g., the demolished Moore market in Madras (Chennai). 

Though the book accentuates an architectural appearance and a visual spectacle, there are also halls of a more modest design. Sohoni mentions a market hall in the minor princely state of Phaltan (Maharashtra), modest in scale and with a “relatively simple design” which did not “merit an entry” (p. 7). This is confusing of course: apparently market halls exist(ed) without the required architectural merits, mentioned hereabove. Even more surprising is that a hall in the princely state of Miraj in Maharashtra was not dealt with, as the town “had almost no European population” (p. 7). So what, there was a market hall after all! The “pragmatic reasons” which Sohoni mentions for these non-inclusions (and hundreds of other ones), are quite understandable. However, the given reasons for these two omissions do however weaken his theoretical underpinning of the concept of the market hall in British India (and in the princely states).[ii]   

In a brief Epilogue, the author presents the building blocks of an epitaph for the colonial market hall. First, Independent India did not need a political statement combining power and benevolence any longer. Utilitarian buildings, characterized by “Gandhian frugality… became the guiding principle for public works” (p. 92). Second, the halls stopped being upper-end spaces and became crowded, while informal markets burgeoned around the buildings, swallowing their grand architecture. Third, viral epidemics could be better resisted in the open air. And finally, online shopping emerged. Thus, writes Sohoni in the last line, “the market hall as a programme and type of public architecture … was contained with a century” (p. 93). 


Reflections on a more elaborate approach, a ‘slow boil’

Pushkar Sohoni has written a book on an interesting subject, and he is right that a focus on what he calls “a single architectural programme” (p. viii) – in this case the Indian colonial market hall – is beyond the beaten tracks of existing broad-based overviews of the British Indian endeavours with bricks, stones, and mortar. The market hall, as an often unexplored treasure, proved moreover to be a meaningful building in the towns and cities of the colony (and the princely states). Similar studies focusing on railway stations, town halls, and other dominant buildings would then certainly be welcome, the more so if they do not stop beyond Bombay’s Victoria Terminus, Calcutta Government House, or Tata’s Gateway. 

It Is, however, to be regretted that Sohoni has not taken his time to elaborate more on the qualities of his object of research and presentation. These qualities would certainly merit a deeper analysis: market halls, bazaars, food stalls, hawkers, and what have you, are basic in any urban fabric and can tell quite a lot of the city and its citizens where they function(ed) (or not). This pleads for a ‘slow boil,’ a deep-fried snack,[iii] when dealing with these halls as opposite to the chosen attractive food prepared in a pressure cooker and consumed in haste. The same holds true for Sohoni’s treatment of the chosen market halls. It is doubtful whether just mentioning a dominant style of a hall suffices, without entering in some detail what turrets, trefoil arches, or medieval temple brackets actually mean, accompanied by a few detailed illustrations. Sohoni’s book is, I presume, written for a somewhat broader audience than just professionals (in this case architects and architecture historians). Thus, in a nutshell: the author has missed the opportunity to make his subject more worthwhile by elaborating on what market halls should be, what they had been, or what they failed to be. He could have made the book similarly more worthwhile if he had given substantially more attention to each of the chosen halls (even those which were less admired as an architectural spectacle). 


[i] Further sub-styles are almost endless in numbers. Crawford Market is described as ‘twelfth-century Gothic’ on p. 53; Connaught Market in Poona (Pune) as ‘severe Gothic’, p. 58; Empress Market in Karachi as High Victorian Gothic (p. 63); etc. 

[ii] For the record: Connaught Circus in New Delhi (an outside shopping arcade, p. 22) did not qualify either as being a “grand urban design and a move away from the contained market hall … and rather …an inverted market hall” (p. 22). Neither was New Delhi’s Khan Market included. It was built after 1947 and the colonial era, and moreover was “a complete aberration in … architectural form” (p. 22). 

[iii] The term ‘slow boil’ originates from the title of Jonathan Shapiro Anjaria’s book The Slow Boil: Street Food, Rights and Public Space in Mumbai.