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
PHOTOGRAPHS OF LASCAR MEMORIAL TAKEN BY AMARTYA SAHA