Globalised Since 1510: Transitional Morphology of Surat

in Overview
Published on: 14 December 2018

Binita Tamboli and Nikhil Sanjay Shah

Binita Tamboli is an architect by profession and is pursuing a Master's in Ekistics from Jamia University. Her research work majorly concerns history and philosophy.

Nikhil Sanjay Shah is a researcher based in Surat, with a keen interest in urban issues, historic studies and conservation, sustainable development, community participation and earth architecture.


Having been in existence since the Mauryan era, Surat is known for its entrepreneurship and cultural diversity. Also known as Suryapur (the city of the sun), it is situated on the banks of the river Tapi or Tapti. In order to understand Surat as a trading centre and a port town, one needs to understand the geographical attributes which has informed its setting, location and development. The course of the river and its navigability were detrimental to its development as a port; on the contrary, its connectivity with the hinterland enhanced its potential to flourish. The silting and shifting course of the river determined the region along which the population thrived.


Surat’s identity as ‘the gateway to Mecca’ was proudly sung by the religious leaders of Aurangzeb’s court. The journey to Mecca for any Indian Muslim started at the port at Surat. During the post-Mughal period, the region of Rander (the oldest settlement of Surat) became a prominent port. Later, the city of Surat came about, in which the most noticeable centre was Gopipura, where it is said that there used to be flags of 84 countries fluttering above the holy river Tapi. This led to the creation of Surat as an interaction point of the global trading community. Eventually it became the residence of the latter, resulting in cross-cultural connection, reflected in social and architectural morphology. A pluralistic society thus came about, eventually resulting in a hybrid style of architecture which can be observed even in the present context.


Gopipura and the origin of Surat as a city


The first few steps towards the globalisation of the city had been taken in the 15th century by the well-known Jain viceroy and trader Malek Gopi, who settled in Surat and introduced other merchants to the city. He was a pioneer and visionary who commissioned large-scale public works for the welfare of the community. He established the Gopi Talao (a lake) and the settlement around it. A large part of the city area of that time was developed and named after him, thus the town came to be known as Gopipura. The major contribution of Gopi was to invite other merchants and craftsmen to Surat for expansion of their business. With the establishment of the mercantile town and the connections of merchants throughout the country as well as the world, Surat became a global platform for business. It subsequently became the busiest port of India in the Mughal period.


In the Mughal period, Surat became the highest revenue-generating city of India. This attracted the English, and the East India Company established their first factory in the city. Historic records differ in their accounts of the kind of work undertaken by Gopi; but it is clear that he played an important role in the establishment of the city and attracted Portuguese traders to the Indian subcontinent. As noted by Sagufta Parveen (2014):


Surat became a convenient geographical location for exchange of commodities from northern India to the Deccan. Merchandise from Kashmir, Lahore, Agra and south India passed through Surat along with commodities from Europe and China. Everyone from the Cape of Good Hope to China, man and woman, was clothed from head to foot in material made in Gujarat. And most of it passed through Surat.


Also, as mentioned by Dr K.S. Mathew in one of his articles, Surat had contacts with China and other parts of Southeast Asian countries for trade. This was affected by Portuguese interference (Mathew 1984). Malek Gopi, however, insisted on maintaining business with them and argued for the same at the Champaner court. He also strengthened the position of Surat with Malaccan trade along with enhancing the capital and safe passage for other merchants. The business relationship with the Portuguese ended with the Battle of Swally in 1612, at Suvali in Surat.


However, with the British victory and the establishment of the first factory of the East India Company in Surat, there started a new chapter in the globalisation of the city in the beginning of the 17th century. Gopipura was a thriving economic centre during that time. The expansion in business activity created powerful mercantile elites such as Virji Vora, Abdul Gaffar, Bhimji Parekh, Rustam Manekji, etc. As the research of Ashin Das Gupta (1991) has demonstrated, the business elites of Surat and Gujarat came from vastly differing social backgrounds. Indian merchants included Hindus, Jains, Muslims and Parsis. But foreign traders from Armenia, Arabia, Turkey, Europe and other distant lands also lived in Surat and participated in its commerce during the 17th and 18th centuries (Haynes 1991). This confluence of communities became the starting point of the social morphological transition which reached its peak with the colonial establishments of the fort and British stronghold on the overall Indian subcontinent. As Ashlesha Khurana (2016) argues, ‘Surat was a city, before Bombay, New Delhi, Madras, Calcutta or Bangalore existed. It wasn’t designed by outsiders but had an urban culture developed by its citizens, much of which it retains today.’                                                                                                         

Looking back in time, at the way in which the settlement evolved, it is essential to trace the events that informed the architectural language, lifestyle and cultural reflections found in the region of Gopipura, a place bustling with life. These events, which had happened over a period of time, created a lasting impression on the architectural language of the city. It imbibed all kinds of stylisations—starting from traditional Indian architecture to the colonial style, from the art deco of the early modern architectural movement to neoclassic influence—all of which have been observed in practice even in present times.


There is ‘plasticity in the residential architecture of Surat’, as observed by many architects, historians and anthropologists who have been critically observing the historic core of the city. There is a hybrid and eclectic form of built spaces, evident in the ephemerally evolved characteristic old core. The street patterns so formed are specific to the communities and they influence the manner in which houses communicate with the ones in the surrounding. Despite the fact that they belong to people from different religions and economic status, the pattern co-exists till date, with the same spirit, which is a celebration of the cosmopolitan nature of the city itself. As quoted by B.G. Gokhale (1979), ‘In spite of the pluralism of its population the city was bound together (by) strong economic ties and had developed both the appearance and spirit of thriving metropolises, whose ties stretched far beyond its immediate surroundings to towns and cities hundreds of miles away.’ 


Though the beginning of the 18th century brought with it natural disasters such as floods, earthquakes and famines, the city still managed to survive. But, with the rise of Bombay as a new British port in the later half of the 19th century, Surat was no longer an important western port of India. The Tapi river, because of silting, became difficult to navigate, and as a result the ports were unable to support sea trade anymore. This shifting of the port to Bombay made an impact on the thriving and most vital aspect of trade. The city began to lose its status of cosmopolitan culture; however trading via the land route still remained the driving force of economy. The dependency on the trade of luxury goods decreased over time and eventually the agricultural market became stronger, and economy shifted from being global to more local. 


A strong colonial hold and establishment of Bombay attracted lots of elites to move from Surat to Bombay. This gave a chance to the new emerging merchant groups to fill up the vacuum, leading Surat into the 19th century. This incipient, altered social structure led to changes, giving rise to entrepreneurships of the Khatri, Ghanchi and Vohra communities although the Vaniyas and Jains still remained the stronger business communities. As mentioned by Haynes (1991), ‘pearl production received a considerable boost from the migration of Naginchand Jahverchand, known as the “king of pearl”, to the city after the 1896-97 plague in Bombay.’ With the beginning of the 19th century, Surat became the world centre for pearl industries where large quantities of pearl were brought from Arab traders to Bombay and then to Surat for further processing.


There were many phases in the trade history of Surat, which were governed by geographical changes and eventually reflected in the way of life of the city people. Nonetheless, even in present times, it continues to be a thriving trading town with an economy driven by textile, diamond, zari work, oil, natural gas and petroleum. This is the reason that it is known as the silk and diamond city of India. The life of the city has remained as vibrant and pulsating as its journey through the past, leaving its imprints deeply on its lifestyle, food, art and architecture, to be translated, carried forward or to be enhanced by the newer generations to come.


An amalgamation of architectural styles in Gopipura


These complex socio-economic factors were eventually reflected in the morphological transformations which can be observed in the physical changes in the structure of the buildings that were built over time. The oldest residences which can be seen today are not more than 125–130 years old, as during that time a fire had devastated the entire region. Yet, there have been numerous travelogues which have elaborate descriptions of the life during those times and the architectural manifestations of the prevailing societal conditions. As Fryers observes, ‘The town has very many noble and lofty houses, of the Moor merchants, flat at top and terraced with plaster,’ some of these building traditions have been carried forward even today (Gokhale 1979). Another avid traveller Frenchman Jean de Thévenot (1949) describes it aptly, 'The house of this town on which the inhabitants have been willing to lay out money, are flat as in Persia, and pretty well built; but they cost dear, because there is no stone in the country; seeing they are forced to make use of brick and lime, a great deal of timber.' 


During his travels in the Indian subcontinent (1666–67), and specifically to the prosperous city of Surat, Thévenot  mentioned the various influences of world architecture prominently seen in the residential forms. Even though major physical changes were due to the administrative structure of the city being governed primarily by merchants, it gave them much freedom of expressing the glories of the era, alongside the travel and trade influences which led to the exchange of ideas and formation of new aspirations. There was advancement in the construction technology, which would have been at par with global standards of the time, and the strong formation of community, which developed because of the economic ties. All this led to a sense of ownership which was unprecedented.


There are many building structures that elucidate not only the notion of plasticity which we observe, but also the global influences and the way they have been transformed over time. Firstly, we can observe the vernacular typology of the houses by studying the house located at Deputy No Khancho street. This is a single-storey structure which has intricately carved wooden brackets, traditional peacock motifs and is still owned by a Jain family. This house represents the typical characteristics of a Gujarati woodcarved house. Also the home and work relationship is very evident, as in the Indian context, where the otla (extended plinth and entrance to the house) not only becomes an integral part of the house, but also an important street element. It defines the transition space for the house from the street, essentially a place for a dialogue between individual and community.


As Gopipura was predominantly established by the Jain community, the central location, Shubhash Chowk, mostly has houses built by the Jains. Though the ownership has changed over time for lots of houses, it has led to either stagnancy or change in the facade of the houses. The otla and facade still remain important elements for the house owners as a place for community gathering and also the space to showcase their identity.


For example, a house in Motipol (Pearl Street) was built by a Jain pearl trader and sold to a Jain family, the Zaveris, who have continued to live there. The facade of the house has still remained the way it was, but there have been transformations inside the house to adapt to the changing needs of the family and their contemporary lifestyle. This particular house-form exemplifies a neoclassical style of architecture; it has an organised grid structure with Indian figurative and Arabic geometrical motifs, decorated with lime stucco and stone carving. This three-storeyed house has a flat facade with only the central balcony, supported by ornate metal sections, projecting out. The stained glass window is done in the baroque style and the false ceiling has intricate detailing. The third floor which had a veranda was removed; the entire storey was built as living quarters with a distinctive characteristic which represented the evolution of the facade.


Another house in Oswal Mohalla (street) was also built by a Jain pearl trader in the neo-gothic style, which comprises of arched windows and a baroque style of carving; yet there is a fusion of local influences because of regional craftsmanship. Since the house was bought by the Gandhi family which was majorly into grocery business, the house has reflections of it with a high otla (which also becomes entrance foyer) compared to other houses in the vicinity. The ground floor shows many transformations where the living room and the otla were turned into a shop. In spite of that the ornamented doors and windows were kept intact and used with a symmetrical style. The flat three-storeyed facade reflects the grandeur and magnificence of the neo-gothic style.


Yet another house, in Chhipwad, which built in the baroque style provides evidence of modifications, such as heavily adorned window sills and weather protection. The fusion of wooden architrave and lime stucco decoration portrays the adaptive modernity, where traditional identity is showcased with motifs such as boat and light house, reminiscent of the glorious past. Since the Chhipa community majorly worked with ship sailing it reflects the identity of the community as well, though the present owners of the house have no clue as to why the specific motifs had been used in the house or why it has been retained despite all the renovations done to the other houses in the neighbourhood.


This seems to be the case with a majority of the houses, where specific carvings, motifs or details and eclectic expressions in architectural styles have been carried out by previous owners of which only fading stories and anecdotes remain. In present times they are seen as a status symbol of the latest style in architecture and mark a stark presence amongst contemporary houses. These houses are mostly a hybrid expression; there is a prominent influence of one of the styles prevailing in that era and it local manifestations.


Another house in Deputy No Khancho Street shows a variation with the presence of a barricaded otla, which has a jhamplo (an ornate gate). There is a projection on the partially covered third floor and an open veranda on the fourth floor, which has wooden louvers and stained glass screens arranged in geometrical pattern. Other house forms which represent the influence of the Indo-Saracenic style with variations in projection style, are mostly seen in Daru Falia, where there is an arcaded colonial style otla and jharokha (small protruding arched balcony with screens) in fusion with baroque and Indian motifs, finely carved in stone.


A house in Parsiwad (a Parsi settlement) is yet another example of a house with arcaded otla and an elaborate veranda which has seating spaces and subtlety in the stylisation because of newer materials such as concrete and brick. The house also shows the early art deco motifs in a fusion with the neoclassical style which can be seen in the column capitol; the year mark of 1932 on the front facade speaks of the prevailing architecture style of those times.


A house in Kshetrapal Sheri (derives its roots from the God, Kshetrapal; an important deity for the Khatri community, believed to be a protector of Kshatriyas, and subsequently the street is named after the deity) exhibits the influence of the early art deco and neoclassical styles; it is reflected in the ribbon-like motifs which have a blend of wooden and stucco work. Even the interior of the house exhibits the details of art deco in its flooring and in the stained glass patterns of the partitions. The peculiar characteristics of the house are its minimal number of projections and lack of decoration. Another important feature is the small temple in front of the house with the domed roof which is still used to perform religious rituals on a daily basis. This goes on to say that traditional lifestyle continues even with the adaptive nature of the architecture. 


Two other houses in Moti Chhipwad Street (the sailor community engaged in pearl trade) and Chakawala Sheri (the Chakawala family was among the first to start the official banking system) are more elaborate art deco buildings in terms of the straighter lines and cornices. The house in Chhipwad has cornice windows and lintels with straight lines, but the arched window still remains. Though the house is used as a household textile production unit, it hardly exhibits the living patterns or identity of the owner; it retains the facade which has been maintained till date. Whereas, in the Chakawala Sheri house there is a reflection of the Bombay art deco; it has a modern style with individual balcony projections that form the facade and simpler art deco motifs with diagonal lines.


Not only have these, but the majority of the old houses in Gopipura, showed a combination of architectural styles. However, with the new contemporary style of architecture that is essentially post-modern and Cubist in nature, taking over the street and the unique identity of the houses and lanes, there is a diminishing sense of ownership amongst the people inhabiting the region.




Haynes, Douglas E. 1991. Rhetoric and Ritual in Colonial India, The Shaping of a Public Culture in Surat City, 1852-1928. Berkeley: University of California Press.


Gokhale, B.G. 1979. Surat in the Seventeenth Century: A Study in Urban History of Pre-Modern India. London: Curzon Press.


Khurana, Ashleshaa, Siddhartha Mukherjee, and Gaurang Joshi. 2016. Khoobsurat hope for heritage: gem of a city in the columns of the Times of India. Ahmedabad and New Delhi: Bennett Coleman & Co. Ltd.


Mathew, K.S. 1984. ‘Indo-Portugese Trade and the Gujarat Nobility in the Sixteenth Century: A Case Study of Malik Gopi.’ Proceedings of the Indian History Congress 45: 357–66.


Parveen, Sagufta. 2014. ‘Surat: As a Major Port-Town of Gujarat and its Trade History.IOSR Journal of Humanities and Social Science (IOSR-JHSS) Ver. VI 19 (5): 69–73.


Thevenot, Jean de. 1949. ‘Indian travels of Thevenot and Careri: being the third part of the travels of Jean de Thevenot into the Levant and the third part of a voyage round the world by Dr. John Francis Gemelli Careri.’ Edited by Surendranath Sen. New Delhi: The National Archives of India.