Political rivalry, architectural knowledge and colonial presence in the Indian Ocean

Nuno Grancho

Sixteenth century Portuguese read the early colonial takeover in Diu, a city in the western coast of India, for centuries tributary first of the Mughals and later of the Portuguese and peripheral to Kathiawar peninsula of present-day Gujarat. This is verified by relating to political and imperial discourses after the cession of the place to the Portuguese in 1535, by describing how urbanity was shaped by the earliest architectural events and finally by categorizing architecture in a Portuguese Imperial context.

After local building practice reached existence by the fifteenth century, changes continued to take place whether driven by political rivalries in the sultanate hierarchy, by introduction of Iranian architectural knowledge or by Portuguese colonial presence. By the time of the Mughal ascendancy in 1473 and Portuguese arrival in 1535, architectural traditions vastly different and regionally based like those of Gujarat entered into individual dialogues with both Mughal and European influences.

The description of the newly attained subjects in colonial context was not only a tool of territorial expansion and colonial government, but also the outcome of the dialogue (albeit unequal) between the Portuguese and the Indian local communities.  By considering accounts as well as mapping as an ethnographic process of cultural exchange, performance and translation, early Diu cartography sheds light as hybrid product of social negotiations and power relations. This allows us to approach the depictions not only as an instrument of government, but also as a mechanism of information gathering and circulation and ultimately as a political statement.

I will compare and contrast arguments from maps dated from 1538, 1635, 1783, 1833 and 1959 which portrait political deviation between historical visions and territorial, urban and architectural discrepancy of representation of the colonial city of Diu. Later, I will come back to the political connotations of the sources, which I think are important to understand the early political history of the Portuguese Empire in the East and its repercussions in architecture and urbanism of the early Portuguese colonial cities and its representation. Finally, I will end with the collection of valuable ethnographic novelties, many of them unknown in the West until the early sixteenth century and addressed by Portuguese authors.

This story of exchange, mobility, production and demand is the subject of this paper. Diu’s architecture and urbanism are emblematic of the depth, extent and critical role of the western Indian Ocean networks in mediating its oceanic relationships. Both its medieval character and colonial European architectural presence seems to have remained unchanged until today. My discussion will focus on Diu as an architectural and urban example of cultural encounter from the sixteenth until the twenty first centuries within the Indian Ocean realm and will attempt to discuss and characterise its singularity, circumstances and causes.