Victorian Gothic at Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC)

Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), also known as Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai or Bombay Municipal Corporation, is India's richest municipal corporation and responsible for developing and maintaining the civic infrastructure of the city and tax collection. It was established with the passing of the Bombay Municipal Corporation Act in 1888. The headquarters are based at the BMC building which also feature (along with the Gateway of India) on the seal of the corporation.

V-shaped plot at intersection of Mahapalika Marg and DN Road

Bombay Municipal Corporation commissioned Frederick W. Stevens to design a new building to hold its offices. The site offered was a V-shaped plot opposite Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus (CSMT, formerly Victoria Terminus) at the intersection of Mahapalika Marg (formerly Cruikshank Road) and Dadabhai Naoroji Road (formerly Hornby Road).

Statue of Sir Pherozeshah Mehta

A prominent member of the Parsi community in Bombay, Sir Pherozeshah Mehta drafted the Bombay Municipal Act of 1872 and is thus considered 'Father of Bombay Municipality'. He became municipal commissioner of Bombay Municipality in 1873 and its president four times—1884, 1885, 1905 and 1911. A statue of Sir Pherozeshah Mehta was installed in front of the BMC building in honor of his role in the establishment of the municipality.

Coat-of-arms of BMC

The coat-of-arms of the Brihanmumbai Mahanagarpalika (Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai) is prominently displayed on the facade of the BMC building. It is a four-panel shield surmounted by a heraldic lion and a blooming lotus at the base. The Sanskrit motto यतो धर्मस्ततो जय: Yato Dharmas Tato Jayaḥ (Where there is Righteousness, there shall be Victory) is inscribed in gold at the bottom.

Facade of BMC building with coat-of-arms

Sir Bartle Henry Frere, governor of Bombay Presidency between 1862–67, demolished the ramparts of Fort George to allow Bombay to expand beyond the fort walls. As the city limits expanded, there was need for a municipality to overlook the civic infrastructure development of the suburbs. Accordingly, the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai was created in 1865, and Arthur Crawford was appointed the first municipal commissioner.

Allegoric figure of urbs primus in indis

Frederick W. Stevens used allegorical figures to represent concepts like progress and prosperity. This, for example, is a Christian motif of a winged angel holding up a miniature ship to highlight Mumbai's association with maritime trade. The allegoric figure represented is urbs primus in Indis (Latin for the ‘primary urban city of India’), which was adapted as the motto of the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation.

Central tower and dome of the BMC building

Till the mid-nineteenth century, public buildings in Mumbai adopted architectural styles popular in Europe. Notable among them were the Neo-Classical and Gothic Revival styles. By the time Frederick W. Stevens started working in Mumbai, in 1869, a new eclectic form was gradually taking shape that incorporated European forms mixed with Indian elements inspired from Hindu and Islamic architecture. This new style came to be known as Indo-Saracenic.

Indo-Saracenic domes on the BMC building

The Indo-Saracenic style developed by British architects used motifs inspired from Mughal architecture and those of the Deccan Sultanates, from monuments built by the Adil Shahis (Bijapur) and Qutub Shahis (Hyderabad) to make them look more ‘Indian‘. A prominent adaptation by Frederick W. Stevens was the use of the onion-shaped dome with finial on top, which appears in buildings designed by him, including at the BMC.

BMC offices along Mahapalika Marg

Bartle Frere had envisioned Mumbai as urbs primus in Indis as early as the 1840s, when he collaborated with architect Henry Conybeare for building the Afghan Church at Navy Nagar, Colaba. His vision of Mumbai as India's prime city set in motion the Gothic Revival phase, which reached its peak under his patronage and in the last decades of the nineteenth century.

Detail of porte cochere on Mahapalika Marg

Frederick W. Stevens designed the CSMT and BMC buildings within a decade of each other. As a result, both buildings have common features, design elements and building materials. Stevens described his building style as ‘...a free treatment of early Gothic with an Oriental feeling, which, I consider, the best adapted for the site the buildings are to occupy.’

Stained glass windows

Frederick W. Stevens was primarily influenced by Gothic architecture, and it is in Gothic that most of his projects were executed. Within the Gothic genre, Stevens had a particular liking for Venetian Gothic, which originated in Italy in the twelfth century. Inspired from Venetian Gothic, Stevens used stained-glass windows extensively throughout the BMC building.

Ox-eye window

An important design element Frederick W. Stevens borrowed from Venetian Gothic architecture was the use of a flower-shaped oeil-de-boeuf (ox-eye window in English), which let in natural light during the day. Though strictly not a window, because it was covered in stained glass, this circular opening is typically placed in a roof slope as a dormer, or above a door or pair of windows (as seen here).

Gargoyle holding Flagstaff

Gargoyles are another design element Frederick W. Stevens incorporated from Venetian Gothic architecture. Gargoyles, chimeras and griffons became very popular motifs in cathedrals, churches and castles in the Middle Ages in Europe. In Mumbai, they appear extensively in many of Stevens’ buildings, notably more at CSMT. At the BMC building, they are used sparingly, perched on top of turrets.

Chimera holding heraldic shield

Though they are mistaken as lions, the 'lions' at the BMC building are chimeras—a mix of various animals—hence they appear with wings and a serpentine tail. The chimera has been attributed to the British dominance over land, sea and air. However, it is more likely that the motif was inspired from the flag of the Republic of Venice, which featured winged lions, one of the many elements Frederick W. Stevens incorporated from Venetian Gothic architecture.

Porte-cochere at the intersection of Mahapalika Marg and DN Road

The main entrance to the BMC building is positioned at the elbow of the V-shaped plot, facing CSMT. The entrance has a six-pillar porte cochère (coach gateway). This was originally designed for horse-driven coaches but was later adapted for motor vehicles.

Entrance lobby with security systems

The entrance lobby is a confluence of raw materials used in construction of the BMC building. The doorways are flanked by marble colonnettes with decorative floral capitals. In addition to iron gates, a variety of security systems are now installed here. Nowadays, this is the entrance through which visitors are screened and allowed inside the building.

Hunting scene on pillar capital

Animal figures feature extensively on the BMC building. They are often camouflaged within the dense floral motifs on pillar capitals. The animals are found in Mumbai and provide an important local context to the buildings, representing the ecological diversity of the region. They include squirrels, owls, herons, monkeys, snakes, peacocks, rats and other animals.

Commemorative plaque laid by Marquis of Ripon

The foundation stone for the BMC building was laid on December 19,1884, by the Viceroy, the Marquis of Ripon. The commemorative plaque can be seen inside the BMC building at the entrance lobby. However, work on the site started five years later, on April 25, 1889. After four years of construction, BMC building was finally completed on July 31, 1893.

Triple arched entrances with ox-eye window

Design for the BMC was to be selected via a competition open to architects from London. First prize was won by RF Chisholm who proposed a Hindu-Saracenic style. However, the project got delayed by a few years as new sites were considered. During the delay, Chisholm's design fell out of favour with authorities and call was made for fresh proposals.

Arcade on second floor gallery

FW Stevens submitted two coloured drawings of his design, one of its exterior and one of the Council Chamber, backing it with convincing arguments. He had visited Europe to study town halls and proposed a well-ventilated building for the municipality. Steven's new design was accepted and he was awarded the project, and Chisholm's proposal was cancelled.

Grand central staircase flanked by pair of Chimeras

Highlight of the BMC building is its spectacular central hall that greets visitors as they enter through the porte cochere. The hall is located directly below the inner dome and serves as an atrium, through which a grand staircase rises, flanked by a pair of winged lions. The staircase winds up to connect arcaded corridors that runs around the hollow central core.

Commemorative plaque with project cost

Commemorative plaque dedicated to Frederick W. Stevens as the designer and superintendent of the Municipal Buildings. Below Stevens is his assistant and resident engineer, Rao Sahib Sitaram Khanderao, who would later design (with DN Mirza) the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. Also mentioned is Grattan Geary, who was President of the Corporation and friend of Stevens. Stevens had designed Geary's private villa at Lonavala.

Detail of supporting brackets

Detail of brackets inside the BMC building. These were inspired from Hindu temple architecture. The amalgamation of Hindu and Islamic architectural details with the overall Gothic style was a delicate and gradual process which Frederick Stevens successfully managed to balance, thereby guaranteeing his pre-eminence in this style during the zenith of Bombay Gothic architecture.

View of the inner dome from the lobby

Frederick Stevens incorporated a double dome inside the main tower of the BMC building. The outer dome is visible from the street, but the inner dome is visible only from the entrance hall when the visitor looks up. The inner dome was inspired by the Gol Gumbaz at Bijapur. However, spanning just 45 feet in diameter, the inner dome is much smaller in scale compared to the Gol Gumbaz, which is the largest unsupported dome in India.

Portrait of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj

Post-independence, images of British administrators were removed, and new icons were added. Among the new installations was this portrait of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj placed in the lobby of the grand staircase. Not only is Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj a national hero, during his lifetime, he was much praised for taking an interest in the welfare of his people, in line with the core objective of the BMC—to uplift the quality of life of Mumbai's citizenry.

Portraits of Jyotirao Phule, Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj and Dr BR Ambedkar

Though externally the BMC building has largely retained Frederick Steven's original design, the interiors have periodically been modified to cater to political and nationalistic compulsions after the end of British rule. Here, for example, portraits of Jyotirao Phule, Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj and Dr B.R. Ambedkar have been added over doorways.

Party offices of corporators

Over 128 years, the BMC building has been modified to make provisions for piped water, electrical fittings and other modern amenities. The usage of spaces has also changed as the municipality has expanded its way of functioning. For example, rooms on the ground floor have been converted to offices of political parties who send elected corporators to BMC.

Garden at rear

The V-shaped plot allotted for the BMC building considerably limited the kind of freedom Frederick Stevens had while designing CSMT and his earlier projects, where the plots were larger and symmetrical. To maximize the available space, Stevens pushed the building to the edge of the plot, which opened enough space at the rear that he used as a garden.

Lift Shaft

Frederick Stevens raised the height of BMC to 235 feet. At the rear of the tower, he made provision for a lift shaft, making it the first building in Mumbai to use a hydraulic lift. The water which was used in running the lift was stored between the outer and inner domes of the tower. The tanks had a capacity of 40,000 litres.

Detail of Pigeon Fountain

At the rear of the BMC building, at the end of the garden, Frederick Stevens installed a pyav (fountain) which was a source of drinking water for horses. This fountain has figures of birds on them, hence known as the Pigeon Fountain.

Wooden jali work on corridors

Externally placed pipes drain rainwater from the roofs during the monsoon season. The pierced wooden jalis allow for the play of light and shade in the corridors of the building. They were made by Telugu-speaking craftsmen at the JJ School of Art and were meant to provide shade during summer months and protect the corridors from rain and sunlight.

Ox-eye windows with stained glass decoration

Frederick Stevens’ design of large windows allowed plenty of natural light and breeze to pass through, keeping the buildings ventilated and illuminated. This was a practical necessity because at the time of its construction, buildings didn't have electricity. The BMC building was, in fact, the first building in Mumbai to be fully electrified before inauguration.

Wooden cantilevered staircase

CSMT and the BMC building were among the first in Mumbai to use cantilevered staircases. The stairs were instead embedded in the wall at one end, with the other end 'free'. Sitaram Khanderao, who assisted Stevens on the BMC building, would go on to use cantilevered stairs for the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, which he designed in collaboration with D.N. Mirza.

Viewing gallery inside Corporation Hall

The viewing gallery inside the Corporation Hall. The hall was extensively damaged in a fire outbreak and was restored in 2000-01 by conservation architect Vikas Dilawari. Visitors need to climb up a cast-iron spiral staircase to reach the viewing gallery above, an idea Stevens borrowed from the Glasgow City Chambers, in Glasgow, Scotland.

Chair of Mayor of Corporation

Chair of the mayor with BMC coat-of-arms. Though the mayor is the first citizen of Mumbai, the position is ceremonial. Executive power is actually wielded by an IAS officer who serves as municipal commissioner. Elections are held every five years and elected corporators are responsible for the basic civic infrastructure and enforcement of tax collection.

Busts of Dr BR Ambedkar, Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj and Veer Savarkar

The Corporation Hall has a collection of busts and statues of prominent personalities from Indian history, freedom fighters and eminent citizens of Mumbai who contributed greatly in the development of the city. Seen here are the busts of Dr B.R. Ambedkar, Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj and Vinayak Damodar Savarkar.

Bay window at end of Corporation Hall

Frederick W. Stevens had originally designed a full-height bay window decorated with stained glass at one end of the Corporation Hall. Light entering through this window naturally illuminated the hall. In front of this bay window was a raised platform used by speakers. This arrangement was later changed, with the raised platform now moved to the side.

Mahatma Gandhi Statue inside Corporation Hall

Marble statue of Mahatma Gandhi inside the Corporation Hall. Hanging from the ceiling are microphones marked with numbers for respective speakers, one of the many additions made to suit changing technology. The original stained-glass panels from the bay window have been replaced with metal plaques commemorating Mumbai's history and prominent landmarks.

Corporation of Bombay acronym in gold leaf

The Corporation Hall is richly detailed with moulded wooden panels covered in gold leaf. Busts of figures representing the various communities of Mumbai hold heraldic shields with the initials CB marked on them (CB stands for Corporation of Bombay). The ceiling is made of unpolished teakwood.

Portrait of Keshav Sitaram Thackeray

Large framed portraits of prominent Mumbai citizens hang from the upper level of the Corporation Hall. This is Keshav Sitaram Thackeray (1885–1973), father of Balasaheb Thackeray, founder of the political party Shiv Sena. K.S. Thackeray was an author and social activist. He was also one of the key leaders of the Samyukta Maharashtra Samiti that campaigned for the creation of Maharashtra state based on linguistics and for inclusion of Mumbai as the capital of Maharashtra.

Stained glass window detail

Another architectural feature common between the BMC building and CSMT is the extensive use of stained-glass windows. They depict various themes linked to the evolution of Mumbai under the British Empire, for example, in this window, the wooden ship is symbolic of the maritime trade that brought wealth and colonial administration to the city.

Detail of local flora and fauna

Detail of a monkey plucking mangoes. Stevens was keen to provide an Indian context to his buildings, not only through architectural forms but also by depiction of Indian flora and fauna, and how they behave in their natural environment. Stevens himself designed the artwork of various flora and fauna scenes that find extensive depiction in the BMC building.

Corridor with Minton tiles

Often overlooked and under-appreciated in the detailing of BMC is the extensive use of Minton tiles for the flooring. These tiles were originally imported from Staffordshire, England. The Minton's were experts in ceramic design and a leading tile manufacturer in Victorian England. Their tiles were much sought after and were used in some of the iconic buildings of the nineteenth century, like the US Capitol and both houses of the British Parliament.

Balustrade around inner dome

Though artificially illuminated now, the inner dome was originally ventilated with natural light entering through large portholes. The dome has a balustrade running around its perimeter from where visitors can look down to the entrance gallery and grand staircase below. A running band of floral motifs carved in stucco adorn the base of the perimeter.

Restored inner dome

The inner dome is located at a height of 90 feet from the ground. In recent times, the inner dome has been beautifully restored as part of ongoing conservation efforts. Other than structural restoration, the dome has been painted and special lighting has been installed for daytime illumination

On the second level inside the BMC building, stained-glass windows illuminate a museum which traces the evolution and history of the Municipal Corporation and the stellar role of Frederick W. Stevens in the design of the building. This museum also has a collection of old maps of the Greater Mumbai Region and old photographs of Mumbai.

View of CSMT from BMC

Frederick W. Stevens died in 1900. During his professional career as an architect, Stevens was exceptionally prolific. Many iconic buildings in Bombay are his masterpieces. This includes, in addition to the CSMT and the BMC building, the Royal Alfred Sailor's Home (Maharashtra Police Headquarters), the Bombay, Baroda & Central India Railway Offices (Western Railway Headquarter), the Chartered Bank building, the Mulji Jetha Fountain and the Army and Navy Cooperative Society Store.

Chimera at BMC overlooking CSMT

In 2018, UNESCO awarded World Heritage status to the Victorian Gothic and Art Deco ensemble of Mumbai. In its citation UNESCO noted ’Both the Victorian Gothic and the Art Deco ensembles exhibit an important exchange of European and Indian human values over a span of time. The Victorian assemblage of grand public buildings created an Indo-Gothic style by blending Gothic Revival elements with Indian elements, with adaptations in response to the local climate by introducing balconies and verandas.’