The Sethi merchants' havelis in Peshawar, 1800-1910: form, identity and status

Khan, S. 2016. The Sethi merchants' havelis in Peshawar, 1800-1910: form, identity and status. PhD thesis University of Westminster Architecture

TitleThe Sethi merchants' havelis in Peshawar, 1800-1910: form, identity and status
TypePhD thesis
AuthorsKhan, S.

This study of the Sethi merchants' havelis of Peshawar was undertaken with the premise that domestic architecture provides an alternative and compelling narrative about historical and cultural changes undergone by Indian society. The Sethi havelis constructed over a period of a hundred years (1800-1910) combined residential, business and communal spaces to form sprawling urban estates that dominated the physical environment as well as signalling a distinct identity for the clan. The Sethi havelis are important markers of the rise and peak of the merchant class of India that replaced the Mughal umrah from the 19th century. The havelis are indicative of not only the physical but the social space in society appropriated by the merchants.

The study of these havelis was carried out through documentary research and close investigation of the fabric of the buildings (making detailed survey drawings of plans, elevations and sections). The study has been set in the larger context of the analysis of regional and trans-regional trade, the development of the city of Peshawar in the various historic eras and the wider transformation of Indian society in the colonial era. This thesis looks at Peshawar not as an isolated city, but located within a larger and vibrant regional and national framework to understand the multilayered fabric of the city. This provided the
unique environment for the construction and development of the Sethi havelis.

Havelis were vital channels of indigenous patronage of architecture, and retained an alternative spatial culture to that of the colonial sponsored bungalows. Although they lost their appeal for many anglicised Indians who moved to the suburban bungalows, havelis continued to be inhabited by old aristocratic families who equated this lifestyle with 'holding on to family honour'. The haveli was a flexible typology which housed a traditional lifestyle developed around purdah, but was able to absorb the cultural changes of the early 20th century and facilitated transitions between the traditional and the modern. The haveli could also incorporate changes on its facade, becoming more extroverted in the 20th century, easily mixing stucco decorations, naqqashi and Shah-Jehani columns with stained glass, wrought iron balconies and gothic windows.

The Sethis became eminent merchant-bankers by successfully building relationships with the British in India and Amir Abdur-Rahman in Afghanistan, who allowed them a large share in the trade of the era. This financial success was expressed through the construction of the palatial havelis in the heart of the city as well as through the sponsorship of a large body of philanthropic works including mosques, gardens, wells, orphanages and serais. The identity of the Sethis was sustained through the building and occupation of these havelis. They indicate that architecture can be seen as proxy for its patron: while the Mughal Serai Jehan-Ara expressed the economic power of the Mughals(1526-1738), the continued occupation of the serai by the Sikh and British authorities
signalled their desire to be associated with this power. The construction of umrah havelis and later the Sethi havelis close to the power centre of the serai expressed similar aspirations. More importantly, the Sethi merchant havelis were important examples of indigenous architecture within the physical landscape which had been shaped by colonial interventions. As such they contested the physical landscape of colonial monuments(Cunningham clock tower and Hastings' Monument) on the Bazaar-e-Kalan as counternarratives.

The study fills a significant gap in the literature through its close consideration and analysis of the domestic architecture of Sethi merchants of Peshawar, thus contributing to the overall cultural history of the pre-colonial and colonial periods in the city's history. The thesis concludes that historical accounts that focus only on the study and descriptions of monumental architecture present an incomplete picture, which may be completed through the study of the domestic architecture of the eras (19th and 20th centuries).


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