When I chanced upon Temple Chambers for the first time on my walk through Esplanade Row West in Calcutta (Kolkata), I didn’t even realize I was looking at a heritage building, leave alone a heritage building designed by Vincent J. Esch, who went on to work on the Victoria Memorial. For all its history, Temple Chambers is a rather shabby looking building, at least on the outside. It is clear that it was once quite something to look at, but now the signs of neglect are everywhere. Parts of the exterior of the building have been appropriated by squatters and pavement dwellers. The exterior has received a coat of cement but is devoid of any paint. And yet, Temple Chambers continues to serve some of the most powerful people in the city of Calcutta.
Located on the corner of Esplanade Row West and Old Post Office Street, designed by Vincent J. Esch, and built in 1910, Temple Chambers was originally meant to serve as offices of lawyers and barristers who worked in the High Court next door. That is a function it continues to perform, although the conditions have changed somewhat. Women have entered the profession for one. For another, offices in the building which once belonged to a single family are now shared by several lawyers working independently. The condition of the offices within Temple Chambers is dependent on the financial condition of the firms which occupy them. Among the best looking offices are those of Victor Moses & Co., founded by the Jewish Victor Elias Moses, who died in 1987. There are also the offices of Bose & Mitra, who deal in admiralty matters.
Temple Chambers has survived two fires, and was once declared a condemned building. The Calcutta Electric Supply Corporation had at one point considered turning off the building’s power supply due to non-payment of dues. But why would an office housing lucrative law firms not be paying their dues? The answer lies in the cess pool of litigation that surrounds all heritage properties in Calcutta. Temple Chambers is now a trust property. But renting offices within the building is all but impossible. The offices are, on paper, occupied by the same firms that rented them a century ago. Those firms have sublet the space to other firms, who have done the same to yet more firms. Meanwhile, the rent paid to the trust has remained unchanged. The occupancy changes on the basis of large sums paid up front, known as “salaami”. There had also been a proposal to connect the High Court to Temple Chambers via a sky-bridge. But objections were raised on legal grounds. The High Court is a public building, and Temple Chambers is not. According to the law, the two therefore cannot be connected in this manner.
References to Temple Chambers may be found in popular Bengali novelist Sankar’s novel “Kato Ajanare” (The Great Unknown). Sankar is the pen name of Mani Sankar Mukherjee, and at the age of 16 he had worked for Noel Fredrick Barwell, the last British barrister to practice at the High Court in Calcutta. He would go on to work for a motley collection of companies and people over the years, using his experiences as the basis of his popular novels, Chowringhee being one of them. Sankar captures Temple Chambers in the period immediately after Indian independence in his writings - “…just like a beehive — with attorneys cooped up in each cubicle. Sunlight cannot enter many rooms, so the electric supply company prospers… The lift has a musty odour”. That would not be an inaccurate description of Temple Chambers even today. While some of the offices are plush and air-conditioned, the stairs are wooden, creaky, and so old that one wonders if they can take the weight. Wires hang from every conceivable space, ably complimented by soot and cobwebs. Garbage is piled high next to the elevator. The once elegant marble tiles are cracked and worn down. And still Temple Chambers continues to be a prestigious address. If your business card has 6, Old Post Office Street written on it, then you are somebody important.
- by Deepanjan Ghosh
I am grateful to Advocate Shubhankar Nag for his help with this article.
Calcutta’s Edifice – Bach, Brian Paul
“Legal Structure”, The Telegraph, 30th March, 2008 – Das, Soumitra
Racecourse Architecture – ACC Distribution