Sunday, 27 July 2014

Lascar War Memorial, Napier Road

Had it not been for the winter cold of Calcutta’s (Kolkata) 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 Lascar War Memorial.


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 its four sides near the bottom, while it is capped by four small minarets and a large gilt dome. To the North Eastern side is the entrance to the tower. Through the door maybe seen the plaque with the dedication to the Lascars. With its 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.

Lascar War Mrmorial - the projecting prow with the waves at the sides

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.

Lascar War Memorial - the top of the tower, with the minarets and dome

[Edited to add in 2015] After my original post complaining about lack of access to the Lascar War Memorial, I received responses from Commodore Bibhu K. Mohanti, as well as the Naval Officer in Charge (West Bengal), Commodore Ravi Ahluwalia. Commodore Ahluwalia informed me that after its latest round of repairs and renovation in December 2014, the Lascar War Memorial was now open to visitors from 4:30 pm to 6:30 pm every day. At his invitation, I visited the memorial myself, and was pleasantly surprised to find the park open, and with no restrictions on photography whatsoever. With colour changing lights, and some very clever use of shadows, the monument now looks absolutely stunning, and I would say that for those with an interest in Calcutta’s (Kolkata) history, the Lascar War Memorial is an absolute must see. For those looking for directions to the Lascar War Memorial, here’s what it looks like in Google Maps. Do note that while entrance to the park is free, you cannot park your car or keep a taxi waiting anywhere on Napier Road. My suggestion is to travel by taxi or bus up to the Hastings end of the Kidderpore Bridge, and then walk it down. That way, you can also check out the site where Maharaja Nandakumar was hanged. My sincere thanks to the Indian Navy for doing such a wonderful job of preserving this beautiful and important monument.

Two Commodores in one post! A matter of great pride for me!

- by Deepanjan Ghosh


The Hanging of Maharaja Nandakumar

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.

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.

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.

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

Thursday, 3 July 2014

The Oriental Assurance Building, Clive Row

I am filled with a deep sadness every time I look up at the Oriental Assurance Building on Clive Row (now Dr. Rajendra Prasad Sarani). What a terrible fate for one of the city’s most beautiful buildings! 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. 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 structure and the few inhabitants that the building still has, in spite of a vacate order posted on the door, are at serious risk of being buried alive one day. The sheer architectural splendour of the building makes it all the more tragic. The Oriental Assurance Building is one of the finest buildings of the Dalhousie area, Calcutta’s (Kolkata) central business district.

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 (Mumbai). 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, built in 1914.