The history of bungalows

An old-style tea garden bungalow


Close encounters of the colonial kind

 by  Malavika Karlekar

When the British came to India, working and living in an alien climate meant the need for appropriate spaces. As much of their work involved interacting with ‘natives’ in villages and rural areas, life under canvas for weeks on end became the norm for the administrator, judge and itinerant doctor. By the early years of the 19th century, then, the bungalow and the tent became enduring symbols of life in the colonies. According to Anthony D. King, who has researched extensively into the origins of the bungalow, the earliest ‘banggolo’ was a peasant’s hut in rural Bengal. Based on this prototype, by the last quarter of the 18th century a new form of dwelling with a pyramidal thatched roof and kuccha (usually mud) walls was constructed. Early bungalows had ceiling cloths that “looked just as nice as a whitewashed ceiling” but, wrote Rudyard Kipling in “The recrudescence of Imray”, “between the cloth and the dark, three-cornered cavern of the roof” lived “all manner of rats, hats, ants and other things”.

As more permanent structures appeared over time, these four-legged creatures had to find other abodes; the verandah was a useful addition to the bungalow, providing a salubrious ambience for the sahib‘s sundowner and, during the day, a semi-private space where the memsahib conducted business with the darzi(tailor), discussed meals and gave orders to the khansama (cook) andkhitmatgar (table bearer) and children played safely out of the glare of the tropical sun. For the district officer, it was often the designated waiting area for those who wanted to meet him during mulakati, public dealing hours. It was also where geckos hunted insects and the odd viper nestled amidst cushions…. Soon, recognizing the usefulness of the bungalow as a largely racially-defined space, dak (post), canal and forest bungalows were built to provide “private cultural territory to the Europeans”, says King.

In the closing years of the 19th century, bungalow-living started becoming popular among Indians, and princes, traders and business families, lawyers, doctors and of course civil servants, opted for the more compact structure. Rambling havelis and joint family mansions built around courtyards, terraces, roofs and separate spaces for men and for women increasingly co-existed with the better organized and often smaller bungalow. The gradual use of separate rooms with distinct functions led to what the historian, Christopher Bayly, has called the “colonization of taste”; I would add that the colonized were not only the Indians who opted for bungalow-living but also many colonials who brought with them legacies of different lifestyles. Class differences have strange ways of manifesting themselves and the ideal of the perfect home must have been a huge burden for many an embattled memsahib. There was something devastatingly regimented about the necessity of having a phalanx of menials, of a drawing room rather than a parlour and so on. Trophies of shikar (see photograph) were important ‘props’ in the growing theatre of empire, adding to the peculiarly colonial décor of rattan cane furniture, ottomans, pouffs and ubiquitous chintz upholstery.

Memoirs of these times provide many accounts of bungalow-living, some joyous and enthusiastic, others more complaining and dire. Some of these are now available to us in Respected Memsahibs: An Anthology, compiled by Mary Thatcher while she was archivist at the University of Cambridge’s Centre for South Asian Studies. Among the more interesting uses of the conventional bungalow was that by Reginald Maxwell, a district officer and amateur lepidopterist. His collection of Indian butterflies and moths – numbering almost 200 examples – was handed over to the British Museum in 1950. When he was the collector of Karwar, then part of the Bombay Presidency and not far from Goa, the couple lived in a wooden bungalow said to have been made out of the wood of a ship wrecked at sea. Apart from the usual bedrooms with dressing rooms, separate sitting and dining rooms, there was a work room where the butterflies and moths were pinned and set; this was in 1913, and as by this time domestic photography had become quite the norm, the room also housed photographic equipment used to visually record specimens. While the front verandah was used for meetings, casual entertaining and as a waiting area, the back verandah was converted into an additional experimental space with thick tumblers with lids and cages in which the larvae lived while feeding.

Bungalows were typically situated within compounds often bounded by brick walls, most with gardens, lawns and a line of servants’ quarters housing a variety of minor specialists. This not unsubstantial entourage was presided over by the memsahib. The kitchen (“a constant miracle of production”) was often detached from the house, the cooking ‘range’ a solid slab of concrete with holes along the top and side where wood if not charcoal was fed. To keep it going was the job of the cook’s ‘mate’ whose talent lay in maintaining invisibility from the sahib and his family. In fact, he was rarely paid, and it is rumoured that he might instead have paid the cook to act as his apprentice and gain experience for a job in the future.

When J.N. Gupta, a member of the Indian Civil Service, became collector of Rungpore (present-day Rangpur in Bangladesh), he was able to satisfy his passion for roses in his large garden and in winter, the mali never failed to supply the kitchen with green peas, little round red radishes, carrots, lettuce, cauliflowers and cabbages. Many years later, his daughter, Monica, reminisced about a life heavily dependent on the labour of others – apart from the kitchen and table staff, there was the paniwalla (water carrier) who would carry up water for the zinc bathtubs from a well in two empty kerosene tins slung on either ends of a pole, the sweeper who carted night soil in baskets to the latrine far removed from the house, cleaning and returning them to the ‘thunder boxes’ and of course, the punkhawalla (fan puller). She wrote of the punkha – a thick frilled white cloth attached to a three-foot-long horizontal wooden rod attached to a thick string that was pulled by the punkhawalla. Very often she would find the hapless man fast asleep “stretched out on his back, the string twisted around his big toe; the motion of pulling… automatic”.

Winter was usually the touring season, a time of great excitement for children and of stress for their mothers. Such periods involved weeks of bandobast – planning, organizing and frantic communication with persons in the areas to be visited. Then there were supplies to be arranged, porters hired, animals chosen to carry persons and loads. To say nothing of the fear of illness, insect and snake bites, and the occasional visit by a wild animal. In the pre-automobile days, the adults set out on horse-back, children in doolies (litter) and once a suitable location near the final destination was found, equipment would be unloaded, the animals tethered and tents pitched; this was preferably on the banks of a stream or river or in an open space surrounded by fields of mustard, vegetables and paddy. It was important to look for the shade of a few large trees. Generally the camp consisted of two large double-flap tents in which the family stayed, an open shamiana (marquee) where meals were served and several single-flap tents (choldaris) for the servants, chowkidars (guards) and one for the cookhouse.

Some parts of India made camp life extremely arduous as is clear from the memoirs of Beatrix Scott, whose husband was an Assam civilian. Heavy rain dominated many months and soggy bedding and clothes became an unpleasant fact of life. Mosquitoes, sand flies and blue bottles had a field day and picking leeches off one another was an occupational hazard after a day’s trek through the verdant jungle. In other parts of the country, some terrains invited bicycle riding, others dug-outs or even larger boats in which the party glided down rivers. Children roamed the countryside, gathering flowers and fruits, chasing butterflies, the older ones playing cricket or football on uneven fields. And evenings were the time of feasts on local vegetables and murgi(chicken), a chhota (small) peg for the sahib and a visit from the local shikari. As moonbeams skimmed off the river and tales of tiger hunts became more spine-chilling, a spotted owlet called its mate and somewhere a panther coughed. Everything looked perfectly calm, wrote Lyle Maxwell, “and yet one knew one was in some of the biggest jungles that are”, where Mowgli and Shere Khan roamed free, if not in reality then certainly in one’s imagination. If the colonial encounter was one of interfaces, then few things exemplified it better than bungalow-living and the tour with its life-in-the-raw experiences.

The author is the former Director General, National Council for Applied Economic Research




  1. Fine writing, and very informative about the uses of bungalows. I also enjoy speculating about the meanings embedded in bungalows, which even in the close-packed suburban settings of the west still retain hints of a more exotic past. Even a relatively small verandah imparts a unique feeling to the front of a house. Your post reinforces that the house-in-its-own-garden idea that shaped early suburban layouts clearly originates with the bungalow in its garden compound. I wrote in a post on colonial bungalows in Victoria, BC, that to my eye these buildings seem to call out for a landscape setting, and when on rare occasions they actually get one, they really do come to life. I’m very fortunate to inhabit a small but artistic bungalow with a remnant of its original setting! Here’s a link to my piece on Victoria’s colonial bungalows:
    I’ll be browsing further in your blog – I like the sincerity and sense of connection. Thanks.


    1. teabuddy says:

      Hello David,
      I thoroughly enjoyed the fine collection of Victoria’s colonial bungalows on the link. I have an amazing portfolio of tea garden bungalows that I want to make into a slideshow or an imovie and the project overwhelms me. I think I will just put them down as a collection, like you have done. Thanks for sharing. Cheers!


  2. Thanks Shona. You might consider using a blog post with cutlines to display your photos. I’d encourage you to publish them – they’re important artifacts. You can use a service like Flickr, but I find it clunky to figure out, and in the end you have the same thing you’d have with the blog post, but more hassles. Cheers, David


    1. teabuddy says:

      Will look into it. Thanks! 🙂


    2. teabuddy says:

      Hi David, I did manage to upload some of the tea garden colonial bungalow photos on PINTREST Do check it out!


  3. Sharmila Salvi says:

    Dear Shona a beautifully written piece of work and conjures up so much imagination about bungalow life. My father now aged 82 found this poignant piece – in fact he lived in the very bungalow in your piece in 1935-36 and then in 1939 when he was a young lad. The bungalow is in Karwar, India and was a government building where the District Judges and their families lived. My grandfather G.H Salwi was a District Judge in Karwar during the British Rule. My father has stories about cobras and vipers seen at first hand and monkeys roaming around the verandah in those times. Vipers would shed their skins on the verandah and the bungalow was surrounded by jungle. Thank you for sharing your writing. Sharmila Salvi


    1. Shona Patel says:

      Thank you Sharmila. Please give my best wishes to your father. It means a lot to me that he read and enjoyed Teatime. Cheers !


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