Monday, 20 October 2014

Hastings Chapel, Clyde Road

Me and my friend Amartya were on one of our Sunday morning rounds of the city when we stumbled upon Hastings Chapel. We do this almost every Sunday, walking the streets of Calcutta, with our cameras, photographing heritage buildings, and often discovering things that we never knew about. This was one of those things.

Located on the corner of Clyde Road and Strand Road, the Hastings Chapel is a rather simple and straightforward affair, architecturally speaking; a pediment, supported by 8 Doric columns, painted yellow and blue, with a simple cross atop the pediment. In front is a small and somewhat unkempt garden. Walk in and you find an almost Spartan atmosphere. The Altar is lacking in any ornamentation as is the rest of the church. Elegant and slim columns support the beams of the flat roof. To the right of the altar is a piano, which was being beautifully played for the Sunday mass. Immediately to the right of the door, on the wall are four marble plaques, to commemorate four souls. There is one to Mary Sophia, who, we are told was the wife of the Rev. T.E. Slate, who was the pastor of the congregation worshipping in this chapel. There is one to Mrs. Mullens of Bhowanipore, who died on the 1st of November, 1861. There is one to Rev. James Edward Payne, who died also in Bhowanipore, in 1886 and was twice the pastor of the Church, and finally one to the Rev. John Henry Parker, who also died in Bhowanipore in 1858. Nothing more than this, not a single scrap of information, could we find when we were there. I came back home dissatisfied and determined to do some digging.

Plaques in Hastings Chapel
This would be a good place to acknowledge the invaluable assistance provided to me in this matter by Ruma Debnath. Many years of devotion to the Church have given her a special talent in such matters. We had picked up a little pamphlet on our way out, which told us that Hastings Chapel was now being run by the United Missionary Church. Through contact information provided on that pamphlet, Ruma was able to contact a priest from the UMC who tells us that the Church was meant for use by the officers of the East India Company, and post the mutiny of 1857, the British Raj. That is not difficult to believe, given that the nearby area contains a naval station, the INS Netaji Subhash. The Church eventually fell into disuse and for many years, remained abandoned, and was taken over by the United Church of North India in 1956. They, in turn, leased it to the UMC. A Church leasing a Church to another Church? Whoever’s heard of such a thing?!

A few more missing details are filled in by Prasenjit Das Gupta’s book “Ten Walks in Calcutta”. The Church was probably built in the 1840’s, and its foundation stone was probably laid by Lady Bentinck. The key word in the previous sentence is “probably”. When originally built, it was meant to serve the large number of seafaring people coming to Calcutta, through the docks in Kidderpore and Garden Reach. It was originally set in much larger grounds, but that has been appropriated by the Ordinance Factory Housing Estate which now stands next to the Church. Richard Barwell, the man who leased the grounds of the old St. Anne’s Church to Thomas Lyon for constructing Calcutta’s iconic Writers’ Building, lived close to this place. Was he a congregant of Hastings Chapel? Who knows?

Hastings Chapel interior
Another thing that bothered us right from the time we walked into the Hastings Chapel was its spartan look. Old Churches have wooden benches. Made from heavy teak, these benches last much longer than people and many Churches in Calcutta still have the original benches from when they were built. Here, we found modern steel chairs. The benches, the priest says, were “removed”. Removed? Does he mean stolen? He is unwilling to elaborate further. Same goes for the marble on the floor; removed and replaced with modern cement. How very curious!

Poring over books and trawling the internet produced no further results. Attempts to contact the UCNI did not prove fruitful either. If you happen to know more about this Church, drop me a line, will you?


Ten Walks in Calcutta - Prasenjit Das Gupta

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Jewish Cemetery, Narkeldanga Main Road

“…Thy sons and thy daughters shall be given unto another people, and thine eyes shall look, and fail with longing for them all the day long: and there shall be no might in thine hand.

The fruit of thy land, and all thy labours, shall a nation which thou knowest not eat up; and thou shalt be only oppressed and crushed…”

Deuteronomy 28:32-33

Such were the terrible curses that would befall the Jews if they ever strayed from the path of the Almighty. In reality, first the Assyrians, then the Babylonians and finally the Romans forced the Jews from their lands, and they wandered the earth, for many years a stateless people. With their pragmatic and business oriented approach to life, they prospered wherever they went, but I wonder how many of the Jews who came to India from Aleppo in Syria, Isfahan in Iran and of course, Baghdad in Iraq, ever imagined that their mortal remains would be interred in a place called Narkeldanga.

Monday, 13 October 2014

Martin & Co., Clive Street

There is a red building that stands sandwiched between Gillander House and Coal Bhavan on Clive Street (now Netaji Subhash Road). One look at the building and you’ll know that the top two floors were added on much later. While the bottom three floors are ornamented the top two are bland and uninspiring. Get closer to it and you will find a door with a most striking design. I am no architect so I can only guess that the correct word to describe the projection all around the door would be a canopy; an arched canopy to be exact. It is painted in the red and yellow shade of the building and has quite a bit of ornamentation inside. The door itself is fancy looking, made of wood with glass panes with cast iron grilles on top. The old, dirty, cracked wooden boards on its right side contain the names of the many offices which occupy the building, but there is nothing to identify what the building once was. This was the original office of one of Calcutta’s most important and powerful engineering firms; Martin & Co.

Martin & Co. building today

Friday, 10 October 2014

Maghen David Synagogue, Canning Street

“Are you sure that’s a Synagogue”? Jewish Israeli tourist Or Tovi sounded skeptical as we crossed the road. “It has a clock tower; I think it’s a Church. I have never seen a Synagogue which looks like this”. But once he set foot inside, his skepticism changed to open-mouthed awe. “I have never seen a Synagogue so beautiful. There is nothing like this in Israel”. Such is the magic of Calcutta’s Maghen David, the grandest Synagogue in the East.

Monday, 6 October 2014

Murshidabad House, Park Street

For three years of my life, six days a week, I travelled from my home in the Ballygunge area in the South of Calcutta, to Park Street (now Mother Teresa Sarani), in the heart of the city, to attend college. And yet, for those three years, it never occurred to me to peep inside the high walls that stood just opposite the college, on the corner of Park Street and Rafi Ahmed Kidwai Road (previously Karbala Road). Some time in the last few years, one of the two wooden gates of that compound collapsed, revealing a vast unkempt lawn, and a grand building in a truly deplorable state. This ruined building is Murshidabad House, once home to the family of Mir Jafar Ali Khan Bahadur, known to Bengalis simply as Mir Jafar, the archetypal traitor.

Murshidabad House today

Monday, 29 September 2014

A Pandal-Hopping App for Android

Durga Puja, the biggest festival in my part of the world is here, and for all those in Calcutta who are hopping pandals and own Android phones, there is good news in the form of an app from Ancile tech Solutions. The App called Puja Parikrama allows you to navigate to pandals using Google Maps. You can even share stuff on Facebook, make wishlists of pandals you wish to visit, your favourites and all that jazz.

Suppose you're in Salt Lake and want to know what are the places to visit, simply search for Salt Lake and you'll get a list of pandals in the area. Alternatively, you can just click the "near me" tab, and the app will throw up all the pandals near you, with directions. Tap on each pandal, and navigate to it via Google Maps. The app is free, and is quite useful, but I would like to see more pandals added to the list. I would also like to see something like Zomato's user ratings and reviews, which will help determine, for a lot of people, what to visit and what to skip. There is a "Top Rated" tab, which will hopefully become much more useful as more and more people download and start using the app.

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Hong Kong House, Dalhousie Square South

Photographers, who place a subject off-centre in a photograph, will often attempt to balance the frame with something else on the other side. Something similar happens in Calcutta’s Dalhousie Square. The entire Northern side is dominated by one single building, Writers’. It is the supreme, the ultimate of Calcutta’s heritage buildings, perhaps challenged only in importance by the Victoria Memorial. The Southern side, says author Brian Paul Bach, in his book Calcutta’s Edifice: The Buildings of a Great City, forms an impressive “jawaab”, so to speak. Dalhousie Square South contains four or three buildings, depending on how you count. There is the CTO complex, which may be counted as one, or as two separate buildings, one older, and one newer. There is the Standard Life Assurance Building, which is one of the most flamboyant buildings in the area. And finally, there is Hong Kong House.

Hong Kong House