The Genteel
February 27, 2021


The grand Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (Victoria Terminus). Photograph © Herbert.

While a great number of magnificent structures adorn the streets of Mumbai, the greatest architectural marvels can be found in the southern part of the city. South Mumbai, particularly the Fort area, hosts several buildings constructed during the time of the British Raj. As prominent as these buildings are, the stories they possess are equally bewitching.

Rajabai Clock Tower

Mumbai's very own Big Ben, the Rajabai Clock Tower, was designed by an esteemed English architect named Sir George Gilbert Scott and the construction commissioned by Seth Premchand Raichand. Completed in 1878, the tower was built using locally available buff-coloured Kurla stone and, at 280 feet, was the tallest structure in Mumbai at the time. The tower was inspired not just by its British counterpart, but by Venetian and Gothic architectural styles.

Made up of three distinct components, the tower features an octagonal crown where sculpted figures are housed, representing the castes of India. Accompanying these figures is another set, infamous for being modelled by the assistant engineer, Rao Bahadur Makund Ramachandra. Other notable features of the tower include a porte-cochère (a porch at the entrance of a building to allow visitors to alight under shelter), a spiral staircase vestibule and stained glass windows, known as the best in the city.

Attached to the tower is a well-known story behind its commission and name. The tale goes that Raichand's mother, who was blind, was a strict Jain and believed in having her dinner before evening. Raichand concluded that the chime of the bell on the tower would allow his mother to know the time without anyone's help. So, he agreed to bear the entire cost of the construction with the condition that tower be named after her - her name being Rajabai. The tower cost a total of two lakh rupees (a little less than US$4000), a princely sum back then.

The Rajabai Clock Tower is India's answer
to Big Ben. Photograph © Nikhil Kulkarni.

To this day, the bell on the tower chimes a tune every fifteen minutes. Standing opposite it at night to observe its multi-coloured lights, the tower's newest contemporary addition, is a sight to behold.

Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation Building

The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) is the largest civic body in India and governs the city of Mumbai. The BMC has been housed in a number of different locations since its inception, but finally found a home opposite Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (earlier known as Victoria Terminus).

Of the two designs originally proposed for the building, the one that was selected was a Gothic-influenced creation of English architect Frederick William Stevens. The building's foundation stone was laid in December 1884 and the construction was completed in 1893. The most striking architectural quality of the building is its central dome, which rises to a height of 234.6 feet. The gable that stands just beneath the dome has a winged allegorical figure that is a representation of the "urbs prima in Indis," meaning "the first city of India" - as Mumbai (earlier, Bombay) was known at the time.

Another distinctively Gothic feature, the gargoyle, also adorns the building in the form of a winged lion. An equally impressive decorative feature is the statue of Sir Pherozeshah Mehta, the erstwhile municipal commissioner and serial president of the Bombay Municipality, which stands beneath the building's central dome. This style, of erecting statues of significant figures, is synonymous with English architecture and is abundantly evident across the Fort area in Mumbai.

Victoria Terminus

Victoria Terminus, later renamed Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST), was the lifeline of Mumbai's common man. Like the BMC building, Victoria Terminus was also designed by Stevens who is believed to have drawn inspiration from London's St Pancras Station, but evidently incorporates Italian and Indian styles of architecture also. Work on the building began in 1878 and was completed in 1888.

Unlike other designs of its time, Victoria Terminus features several Indian elements including peacock reliefs and verandas. The responsibility for this cultural immersion lay on the shoulders of Sir John Lockwood Kipling and his students from Sir Jamsetjee Jeejebhoy School of Art. Despite these influences, the structure was built in the Gothic style, as was befitting the High Victorian Gothic era during which it was constructed.

He [Stevens] made it a grand reminder that highlighted the glorious days of the Indian Railways.

Stevens, having spent a great deal of his life living in Bombay, made sure that local materials were used in the construction, alongside Italian marble and British-made columns and staircases. Porbandar stone was used for the facings, while the capitals for the booking halls were carved from white Seoni sandstone.

City historian, Deepak Rao, said of Victoria Terminus in an interview with a local newspaper, "He [Stevens] made it a grand reminder that highlighted the glorious days of the Indian Railways. It was as popular, if not even more, than the Taj Mahal. Stevens ensured it stood at a junction of four important roads. Such was his foresight."

The terminus is now an UNESCO World Heritage listed site and the headquarters of the Central Railway zone.

The Gateway of India

The waterfront-positioned Gateway of India is a physical reminder of the days before air travel, when the sea was the only way for travellers from abroad to visit old Bombay. The building of the Gateway commenced to commemorate the visit of King George V and queen consort, Mary of Teck, in December 1911. The royal couple only ever saw the design of the monument, by Scotsman George Wittet, as construction didn't begin until 1915 and wasn't completed in 1924, some time after their visit. The Gateway's design borrowed from Muslim and Hindu influences, as well as Roman styles.

Located opposite the famous Taj Mahal Hotel, the Gateway is a 26 metre-high, yellow basalt and concrete arch. The arch itself possesses Islamic influences, drawing from the architectural styles of 16th century Gujarat, whereas the decorations are derived from the design of Hindu temples. The stone for the monument was obtained locally, but the perforated screens, an important feature of the arch, were imported from Gwalior in central India. On each side of the archway are halls big enough to hold six hundred people at a time. The cost of the whole construction was 21 lakh rupees (approximately US$41,000).

The Gateway to India symbolises the
"old way" into Mumbai.
Photograph by © Rhaessner.

The entire harbour front was realigned in order to fit in with the plans to construct an esplanade that would sweep down to the centre of the town. However, due to lack of funds, the approach road was never built and, as a result, the Gateway stands at an angle to the road leading up to it.

The British ties of the Gateway indeed run deep. While the construction of the Gateway initially began to welcome the British royal couple, its significance was evoked again in 1948 when the last of the British troops passed through the arch as they left India, following the country's independence. The structure is, thus, a great symbol of India's historic past.

Mumbai has an extensive list of heritage buildings, of which these are merely a few of the most significant. Nonetheless, their colourful histories provide an insight into Mumbai's rich and eventful past.



Sign up to receive a weekly dispatch from The Genteel.

About Us

The Genteel unearths the forces shaping global fashion and design through the lens of business, culture, society and best kept secrets. 

More about us

Our Contributors

A worldwide collective of contributors currently form The Genteel. On a daily basis our team dispatches thought-provoking and insightful articles from the streets of Oslo, Toronto, Beirut, Moscow, United Arab Emirates, Seoul and beyond.