Sunday, 27 July 2014

Lascar War Memorial, Napier Road

Had it not been for the winter cold of Calcutta’s January, the Lascar War Memorial would probably have collapsed by now. On that fateful morning, in January 1994, some poor soul had lit a fire near the monument, to keep himself warm. As luck would have it, the billowing smoke was noticed by Commodore Bibhu K. Mohanti. Out on his morning walk, Commodore Mohanti rushed in, to investigate and was struck by both the beauty and significance, and sad neglect of the monument.

Who were the Lascars? The question is beautifully answered by Amitav Ghosh in his “Sea of Poppies”…

…He had thought that the Lascars were a tribe or nation, like the Cherokee or Sioux: he discovered now that they came from places that were far apart, and had nothing in common, except the Indian Ocean; among them were Chinese and East Africans, Arabs and Malays, Bengalis and Goans, Tamils and Arakanese…

With its roots in the Persian word “lashkar” meaning soldier, or army, or military camp, Lascar is a word used to refer to sailors from the Indian Subcontinent or other nations of the East, employed on European ships, from the 16th century, to the beginning of the 20th. This particular monument was erected by British shipping and mercantile companies to honour 896 Lascars from erstwhile undivided Bengal and Assam, who fought and died in World War I. The 100 foot tall monument, located on Napier Road in Calcutta’s Hastings area, was designed by William Ingram Kier, who was the architect behind the Bengal Engineering and Science University, Shibpur, Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur and the Kidderpore Bridge. He was also the man who replaced the spire of Calcutta’s St. Paul’s Cathedral after it was damaged in an earthquake in 1934. His design of the monument won him a prize of Rs. 500 in an international competition. The four sided tower has prows of galleys projecting from it’s four sides near the bottom, while it is capped by four small minarets and a large gilt dome. With it’s distinctly Indian look, I wonder if it would be fair to call this a specimen of the Indo-Saracenic school of architecture? The monument was unveiled on the 6th of February, 1924, by the then Governor of Bengal, Lord Lytton.

Under the aegis of Commodore Mohanti, the memorial was painstakingly restored over a period of nearly a year. Philips India was approached to provide lighting, various combinations of which were tested before the present setup was adopted. The monument was finally re-inaugurated in December 1994, on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of naval base INS Netaji Subhash. Kier’s son James and Commodore Mohanti had an emotional first meeting under the monument in 2012. The monument is visible from the Vidyasagar Setu, and looks beautiful in the evenings with the lights on. If you’re going for a drive, keep a lookout to the left as you climb the bridge from the Calcutta side.

As for visiting or photographing the monument, as the Bengali proverb says, “that jaggery has sand in it”. It seems, after a brief period of allowing people to visit the monument, and holding events like book readings there, the Navy has clamped down. We found the park locked, and the guards at INS Netaji Subhash informed us that to enter the park, we needed approval from an officer, who would only be available on weekdays, and even if we did get permission, entering the monument would not be possible, and photographing it, absolutely out of the question, since this was high security navy territory. My policy on this is very simple. I will not photograph key security installations, but if it is a memorial that I believe people ought to see, and there is no conceivable security risk other than red tape, then I will defy the rules. So while I stood guard, my friend Amartya crouched in the bushes and managed to take the photographs that you see accompanying this article.

Preventing people from taking photographs of monuments or iconic structures such as the Howrah Bridge citing security concerns is monumentally stupid, and is holding back the development of tourism in this part of the world. It is high time the government changed its archaic policies and let people become more aware of the beautiful country they live in.

- by Deepanjan Ghosh


Calcutta: Built Heritage Today - INTACH


Tuesday, 22 July 2014

The Chartered Bank of India, Australia and China, Clive Street

Of all the heritage buildings in Calcutta’s Dalhousie Square area, three are banks. There is the old Alliance Bank of Simla, which failed and got taken over by the Imperial Bank, which later became The Reserve Bank of India. There is Hong Kong House, headquarters of The Hong Kong Shanghai Bank, and there is the magnificent building of The Chartered Bank of India, Australia and China. I refuse to consider the Reserve Bank of India’s depressingly Stalinist looking headquarters a heritage building. The Chartered Bank Building is located at the corner of Clive Street (now N.S. Road) and Royal Exchange Place (now India Exchange Place). With its byzantine theme, and distinctive red and white stripes, it is one of the more easily spotted buildings in the area.

The Chartered Bank was founded by James Wilson in 1853, after he was granted a royal charter. The earliest branches were in Bombay, Calcutta and Shanghai in 1858, followed by Hong Kong and Singapore a year later. With the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, the bank played a major role in developing trade in the East. Today’s Standard Chartered Bank was formed in 1969 when Standard Bank of British South Africa merged with The Chartered Bank of India, Australia and China.

The building was designed by Calcutta based architect Edward Thornton who was working for Sir Rajen Mookerjee’s firm, Martin & Co. Edward Thornton, if you recall, also played a part in designing the flamboyant Royal Insurance Building. The distinctive red and white colour combination is created by the use of exposed brick and Porbunder stone from Bombay. Thornton’s theme seems to be arches, crowned by octagonal towers. A 110 foot tall clock tower may be seen on the Royal Exchange Place side of the building, while another 135 foot tower faces Clive Street. The building was constructed in 1908, and the cost of construction was Rs. 9,62,000. As was the norm at the time, a large number of firms had offices in the building, apart from the bank, including the rival firms of Bird & Co., and F. W. Hielgers & Co.

Although Standard Chartered Bank has offices right across the street, and is doing well, I fail to understand why this heritage building has such a forlorn look today. Plants have taken root in the cracks on the upper floors, dust covered interiors may be seen through cracked window panes on the ground floor. I can only hope that some sort of restoration is carried out soon, and the building is put to good use.

- by Deepanjan Ghosh


Calcutta 1940 – John Barry

Sunday, 20 July 2014

Finlay Muir & Co., Royal Exchange Place

Although some of the heritage buildings of Calcutta’s Dalhousie Square area are government buildings, the majority of them are, or were, offices of mercantile houses of the colonial era. The vast majority of these mercantile houses were Scottish, and among them was the headquarters of Finlay Muir & Co..

Finlay Muir building today
The company began with the Finlay family of Glasgow, who were in the cotton trade. James Finlay had, by the time of his death in 1790, established the firm in his name, as a manufacturer and merchant, trading in cotton, muslin, and other textiles. James’ second son, Kirkman Finlay, expanded the business further. He used his influence as MP for Glasgow, to break the East India Company’s monopoly in trade in Asia, and the first Finlay ship arrived in India in 1813. Demand for Finlay’s cotton fabric was so astronomically high in India that the company found this one market to be getting them more profits than all their other outlets in Europe and America. The first Finlay agency to be set up in India was in Bombay, in 1816.

7 years after Kirkman Finlay’s death, in 1842, John Muir joined the firm, and by 1861 became a junior partner. He gradually bought out all the other partners, leaving him sole proprietor by 1883. In the meantime, he and his cousin, Hugh Brown Muir, were forced to India as a source of cotton, since the American civil war put an end to supply from that part of the world. The Calcutta office of the now Finlay Muir & Co. was established in 1870. John Muir himself arrived in India in 1871, and began diversifying into jute and tea. It was this tea, that the company would be most identified with, their involvement in Indian tea estates continuing well after Indian independence, until 1983, when they were bought out by the Tatas. Finlay Muir & Co., known today simply as Finlay’s, continues to exist, with interests in tea, rubber, flowers and fresh produce.

The Calcutta office was originally at 15, Clive Row (now Dr. Rajendra Prasad Sarani), from where they moved to 21, Canning Street (now Biplabi Rashbehari Basu Road), and from there, ultimately to the present building, on Royal Exchange Place (now India Exchange Place) in 1912. Where the building stands today, there once existed the old “Thieves’ Bazaar”. The building currently serves as the offices of Allahabad Bank, and is well maintained.

- by Deepanjan Ghosh


  • Recollections of Calcutta for over half a century - Montague Massey
  • DBHKer's notes -
  • A History of Calcutta's Streets - P. Thankappan Nair

Saturday, 12 July 2014

Wallace House, 4 Bankshall Street

Although it is the English that most Indians think of when they think of the British Raj, there was a very large Scottish presence in Calcutta, and it was the Scots who ran the majority of businesses in Calcutta, and most of India. One such firm was Shaw Wallace, a name that most Indians are familiar with even today. Their building, called Wallace House, on 4 Bankshall Street, remains in good condition today.

The company was established in 1886 in Calcutta by Robert Gordon Shaw and Charles William Wallace. While not much information is available about Shaw, Wallace, it is known, was born in Calcutta in 1855, and was the brother of Major General Sir Alexander Wallace. Returning to India after completing his education, in 1875, he was invited by Shaw to join him as a consultant. The company at that point, managed tea estates in India and among them The Budla Beta Tea Company Limited. Under Wallace, they diversified into timber and textiles. Offices were established in Sri Lanka’s capital Colombo, in 1909, in the name of R. G. Shaw & Company, with Rufus Wilson in charge. On 1st January 1912, it became a branch of Shaw Wallace & Company (India). The address was No. 28, Chatham Street in the Fort. Wallace eventually became the Vice Chairman of the Anglo Persian Oil Company, which later became British Petroleum.

When he died, in London in 1916, Wallace was a rich man, but chose to donate large amounts of his amassed wealth. He was an alumnus of Framlingham College, and established there a scholarship. Once his immediate successors had all died, his residuary estate was used to set up a number of trusts, the largest among them being The Charles Wallace India Trust which supports Indians studying arts, humanities and heritage conservation, enabling them to travel to and study in the UK.

Shaw Wallace in India continued to operate under Indian management, shedding its diversified businesses after 1999, and continuing as a liquor manufacturer. It became the centre of one of India’s most famous corporate rivalries; that between Manohar Rajaram ‘Manu’ Chhabria and Vijay Mallya. After Chhabria’s death, it was finally bought by Mallya’s United Breweries Group, and merged with the company. The building on 4, Bankshall Street, still houses the company’s offices. Shaw Wallace Sri Lanka continues to exist, with interests in automotive products, packaged food, industrial solutions and manufacturing.

- by Deepanjan Ghosh



Monday, 7 July 2014

North Park Street Cemetery and The Robertson Monument

Although the Government has renamed Park Street to Mother Teresa Sarani, the people of Calcutta are not too keen to use this name. Somehow, “having a drink on Mother Teresa Sarani” just does not seem to have the same ring to it. Park Street of course was not the original name of the stretch of road that connects Lower Circular Road (now AJC Bose Road) with Chowringhee (now Jawaharlal Nehru Road). The original name, writes P. Thankappan Nair, was Badamtalla, from the large number of Almond trees growing in the area. Upjohn’s Map of Calcutta, from 1792, identifies it however, as Burial Ground Road. This name comes from not one, but four cemeteries located near the Lower Circular Road end of the causeway. The decision to locate cemeteries so far away from the centre of the city, indeed, right on it’s edge, was a deliberate one. Mortality rates among the Europeans in Calcutta in the early days were stupendously high, and the sight of a new funeral parade every few hours simply would not do. Of the four, the one that survives is the historic South Park Street Cemetery. But if there is a South Park Street Cemetery, was there ever a North Park Street Cemetery? As it turns out, there was.

Old photograph of North Park Street Cemetery. Robertson Monument visible bottom right

Once known as “The Great Cemetery”, the South Park Street Cemetery is a vast necropolis, housing the mortal remains of some 1600 inhabitants of the city, from the bureaucratic elite to men from the armed service, the so-called boxwallahs, to the wives and, regrettably, many many children of the rulers of British India. The marble plaque on it’s gates say it was closed in 1790. It’s younger brother, the North Park Street Cemetery sprung up on the opposite side of the street around 1785. But like many relics of the British Raj, Indian Independence sealed it’s fate.

Soon after Independence, the British Government withdrew all funding for the maintenance of civilian cemeteries outside Britain. Military cemeteries, such as the one in Bhowanipore, remained under the aegis of the War Graves Commission. The costs of maintaining vast cemeteries in the heart of the city being impractically high, the initial plan was to level both North and South Park Street Cemeteries and have in their place a “Garden of Remembrance”. Surprisingly, this disastrous proposal was wholeheartedly endorsed by the Bishop of Calcutta himself. Stiff resistance was posed however, by the citizens of Calcutta, and questions were raised in England. But how was the funding for maintaining the cemeteries to be secured? Collections were begun, but these were rudimentary in nature, and the sums gathered, paltry. Pressure was now mounting from the Chief Minister, Bidhan Chandra Ray, who was concerned that the cemeteries were being used as public latrines, and had become the favourite haunt of ruffians. Finally the decision was taken in 1953 to raze the North Park Street Cemetery, housing 450 tombs, and use the money from leasing out the land, to preserve the much more historic, South Park Street Cemetery. The younger brother would have to be sacrificed to save the elder brother.

North Park Street tombstones on South Park Street Cemetery walls
Among the tombs lost, were those of Richmond Thackeray, father of novelist William Makepeace Thackeray, and James Achilles Kirkpatrick, Resident to the Nizam of Hyderabad, and the principal subject of William Dalrymple’s brilliant book, White Mughals. Many of the plaques and tombstones from the North Park Street Cemetery may today be found on the walls of the South Park Street Cemetery. A large and exquisitely carved marble memorial toJames Achilles Kirkpatrick may today be seen on the Southern wall of St. John’sChurch in the Dalhousie area. The land where the North Park Street Cemetery once stood, is today occupied by the Assembly of God Church and the Mercy Hospital, founded by the tenacious Mark Buntain. But one solitary vestige of the past still lingers.


Robertson Monument, from Park Street
Tucked away in the Southeastern corner of the compound that houses Assembly of God Church and the Mercy Hospital is a curious structure. With a dome supported by Ionic columns, the structure is used as a storage space and even for drying clothes. This is infact, the last surviving tomb from the North Park Street Cemetery, as is known, by the few who know of it, as The Robertson Monument. Under this monument lie to mortal remains of eight members of the Robertson family: Francis Edmund Robertson, his wife Eleanora Katherine Robertson (11 Aug 1813 - 31 Aug 1834), Edmund Robertson (26 Jun 1850 - 29 Jul 1905), Nathaniel and Helen Robertson, their second son, Edwin Robertson, his son, Bertram Gerald Robertson (10 Jan 1884 - 25 Feb 1935), and baby Mary Ellen Robertson, who lived only for a day, 13th January, 1890. Edwin Robertson was a Senior Superintendent in the Calcutta Police. In the Lower Circular Road Cemetery there lies a William Cecil Robertson (9th Mar, 1855 – 22nd Nov, 1895), Inspector, Calcutta Police, who may be connected to this family.

Robertson family tombstones

Robertson Monument from within the compound
It is said that it was the police connection which saved this grave from being leveled, but it’s location must also have had some part to play. Positioned as it is, in one convenient corner, there would have been no need to demolish it for construction to proceed smoothly on the rest of the plot. The monument today is in fairly decent shape, though the writing on the tombstones have become obscured. Millions pass by it every day without realizing what it is, or was. Perhaps some day, the Assembly of God Church can do something to make the people of Calcutta a little more aware about this curious relic from their colonial past.

- by Deepanjan Ghosh


AMBIVALENT HERITAGE: Between Affect and Ideology in a Colonial Cemetery - Ashish Chadha
European Calcutta – Dhrubajyoti Banerjea
Calcutta: The Living City. Vol 1 – The Past – Sukanta Chaudhuri (Editor)


Thursday, 3 July 2014

The Oriental Assurance Building, Clive Row

When insurance companies began operating in India, their customer base was limited exclusively to Europeans. European companies and the government were concerned that there were no statistics available about native mortality, and that it was simply not possible to ascertain the value of a native life. The Oriental Government Security Life Assurance Company was in this regard, a pioneer among pioneers. Not only did it offer policies to Indians, Indians formed the majority of its directors.

Oriental Life began its journey on the 5th of May, 1874, from Bombay. The company was started by Mr. Duncan McLauchlan Slater, Fellow of the Institute of Actuaries, with Kamrudin Tyabji, Raghunath Narayan Khote, Jehangir Rustomjee Mody and 9 other wealthy Indians. By the 31st of November 1874 they had on their books 17 Policies, insuring Rs. 54,000 with an annual income of Rs. 2,812. Business was good over the next few decades and the company expanded rapidly, opening its first branch office in Madras, in 1901. The 2nd branch office was in Calcutta, and that building survives to this day.

Standing on Clive Row (now Dr. Rajendra Prasad Sarani), next to the iconic Gillander House, The Oriental Assurance Building, as the sign says, was constructed in 1914. “A somewhat free Renaissance treatment was adopted as the medium of expression keeping in view the commercial requisites of the Office”. As was the norm for the time, only a small portion of the building was occupied by the actual company that had it built. The rest was rented out as office space. Further branches were opened in Bangalore, Nagpur, and even Rangoon. Rangoon’s branch office survives to this day, and may be seen here.

Although it contains some of the finest stucco work on the Dalhousie Square region, short of the Standard Life Assurance building, the Oriental today is in very bad shape indeed. Chunks of collapsing masonry have damaged cars parked in the area. Portions of the staircase have collapsed, making access to the roof a dangerous proposition. Trees have taken root all over the structure, deepening cracks in the façade. Though the main door has “LIC City Office” painted all over it, one look through the door at elevator will confirm that the building cannot possibly be in use at the present time. A Security guard tells us that corruption and greed have been taking their toll on this entire neighbourhood; priceless furniture is being sold off for a pittance, many buildings are being illegally demolished.

It is a pity that such buildings in the heart of the city are rotting away. Owners and developers wait for the buildings to collapse, so that new office blocks may be brought up in their place. To be sure, demolishing older buildings and erecting new ones in their place is nothing new. The Treasury Building, for instance, stands on the grounds of what was once Asia’s first hotel, Spence’s. But these old structures add a character and look to the city, which new buildings are completely unable to do. There is nothing setting apart the buildings of Noida, Salt Lake and Singapore. Just across the street, the North British Mercantile Insurance Building, now the property of the LIC of India, is undergoing repairs, and looks resplendent with a fresh coat of paint. Pity, the same cannot be said of the Oriental.

- by Deepanjan Ghosh

Recollections of Calcutta for Over Half a Century – Montague Massey
A Short History of the Oriental Government Security Life Assurance Company

DBH Ker’s notes on Flickr

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

The Office of Military Accounts and Rai Bahadur Satyendranath Aditya

There only two buildings on the Southern side of Koilaghat Street (now Babu Tarapada Mukherjee Sarani). Between the corner of Charnock Place (now N.S. Road) and Bankshall Street lies the Edwardian “blood and bandage” looking Royal Insurance Building. The corner from Bankshall Street, Westwards, to the corner with Strand Road, is occupied by an extremely large and magnificent exposed brick and stucco building, currently in possession of the South Eastern Railways.

Upjohn’s map of Calcutta identifies this building as the Office of Military Accounts. The building originally provided accommodation for the Commissariat and Pay Offices, the Controller of Military Accounts, the Examiner of Commissariat Accounts, the Inspector General of Ordnance, the Pay Examiner, the Examiner of Marine Accounts, the Examiner of Ordnance and Clothing Accounts, the Examiner of Fund Accounts, and the Examiner of Medical Accounts. Today the computerized reservation system of South Eastern Railways takes up most of the building and people may be seen queuing up outside it’s counters as early as 6am on Sundays. The building also houses certain printing facilities of the government.

The Office of Military Accounts, Koilaghat Street

While the specific date of construction remains unknown, we do know that the building was built by the Public Works Department, Mr. C. A. Mills being the Executive Engineer in charge, assisted by Mr. William Banks Gwyther. The overall look of the building is very similar to two better known buildings nearby; The Writers’ Building on Dalhousie Square North and The Treasury Building on Council House Street. Indeed, the same crossed palm tree motif may be seen on the railings on this building and Writers’. The only publication to deal with the building at any length is British historian, film-maker and Indophile, Brian Paul Bach’s formidable tome “Calcutta’s Edifice: The Buildings of a Great City”. Bach says, “Being built in the Writers’ style, it has a multitude of points of interest. One of its most admirable features is the series of genteel balconies which extend the whole route of the second floor’s main windows. Their tokenism is noted, but what a splendid Neapolitan effect they make. The engaged columns all along the façade are topped with Corinthian capitals. They support an entablature (structure between the columns and roof) which is busy without being fussy, and conspicuous blank spaces in the wall surfaces are nicely accented by relief busts of utterly unknown and probably allegorical humanoids. The parapet all around is lively and cheerful, full of variety which in itself is a great achievement, certainly unlooked-at, but in prime repair. Finials of shapes inspired by Burmese or Sri Lankan abstractions of Buddhist pagodas, a low-profile mansard roof, little cupolas at different levels, dormer windows, and mini-pediments thrown in for good measure”.


Marble nameplate on the Rai Saheb's house on Lansdowne Road

Frustratingly little is available on this Calcutta personality, and all that can be gleaned from “Second supplement to Who's who in India: brought up to 1914” is this...

Satyendra Nath Aditya, Rai Saheb — of the Military
Accounts Department, Eastern Circle. The title of Rai Saheb
was conferred on him in June, 1912, in recognition of his
public services”.

But what manner of service did the Rai Saheb perform? Did he donate money to a worthy cause? Help start a school? Have a tank dug? It is impossible to say. His rather unique looking house, though, may be found still standing on 133 Lansdowne Road (now Sarat Bose Road). Like it’s former resident, no information is available about when the house was made, or who designed it. But it’s exposed brick frontage and the two castle-like towers looming above the neighbourhood, make it easy to spot.

There are two boards hanging from the building’s façade. One is the municipality’s warning that this is a dangerous and derelict building. The other is a board which announces that part of the building is being used as a municipal primary school. I wonder if the school is still operating. The poor can be far less caring about the dangers of collapsing buildings than those more fortunate.

The Rai Saheb's unique looking house on Lansdowne Road

The building is not listed anywhere as a heritage structure, and has passed into the hands of a promoter. A guard has been posted to the gate to prevent squatters (or curious urban explorers) from accessing the wooden staircase inside. Very soon, this unique piece of architecture will be brought down, and a bland or garish apartment block will take it’s place. Amit Chaudhary in a recent article mourned the wholescale destruction of such buildings. While they may not be heritage structures, they add a certain unique look to each city. There are the kind of buildings that set Calcutta apart. Unfortunately they are being replaced, shockingly fast by the bland uniformity of modern apartments and garish atrociousness of shopping malls. 

- by Deepanjan Ghosh