Thursday, 25 December 2014

The Jagannath Temple of Mahesh, Serampore

The giant chariot or "Rath" of Jagannath at Mahesh
One of the earliest mentions of the village of Mahesh (pronounced Maa-hesh), now part of the town of Serampore in the Hooghly district of West Bengal, occurs in the works of 15th century poet Bipradas Pipilai. Bipradas is known as one of the contributors to the “Manasamangal” genre, and for having written many of the stories of “Chand Saudagar”. His descriptions of Mahesh are probably from around 1495. But the cult of Jagannath in Mahesh is much older than that. The area was probably under the rule of Oriya Kings, and as Lord Jagannath (Anglicized to Juggernaut) was the royal family’s deity of choice, it found acceptance among subjects here. Mahesh today, remains a centre of Jagannath worship, and is home to the second oldest “Rath Yatra” or car festival in India, after Puri. The story goes that Dhrubananda Brahmachari, a devout man of Mahesh had travelled to Puri to worship Lord Jagannath. It was his desire to give the deity “bhog” with his own hands, but this was prevented by the temple authorities. But right after this debacle, Lord Jagannath himself appeared to the heartbroken Dhrubananda in his dreams, commanding him to return to Mahesh, where he would appear to his devotee. Dhrubananda followed the instruction, returned to Mahesh, and by one account found an idol of Lord Jagannath trapped in the sands of the Ganges’ bank. An alternative version says Lord Jagannath had promised to provide to Dhrubananda, a Daru-Bramha, or the trunk of a Neem tree, out of which Dhrubananda had the idols carved out. These idols were that of Lord Jagannath, his brother Balarama, and sister, Subhadra. They were installed in the original Mahesh temple which dates back to 1397. But this temple is no longer in existence.

Friday, 19 December 2014

Mysore Palace

Let me begin with something basic that many Indians are unaware of. When I say Mysore, do you immediately think of Tipu Sultan? In that case, you should know that Tipu and his father Hyder Ali are just one small island in the ocean of the Wadiyar reign. The Wadiyars (sometimes spelt Wodeyar) were the Hindu kings of the Kingdom of Mysore. Starting with Yaduraya Wadiyar in 1399, they ruled Mysore almost uninterrupted right up to Independence. Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan usurped power through military might and ruled Mysore from 1761 to 1799. Their colluding with the French thoroughly alarmed the East India Company, which ultimately defeated Tipu and restored the Wadiyars to the throne, albeit with a serious caveat. Large parts of the Kingdom had to be ceded to the English, and what remained became in effects a British dependency, with a Chief Commissioner, a.k.a. “resident” dictating much of the King’s decisions.

Sunday, 14 December 2014

The Residency, Lucknow

“If we succeed in sweeping them all away, or absorbing them, we shall be at the mercy of our native army, and they will see it; and accidents may possibly occur to unite them, or a great portion of them, in some desperate act…the best provision against it seems to me to be the maintenance of native rulers, whose confidence and affection can be engaged, and administrations improved under judicious management” - Major-general Sir William Henry Sleeman to Lord Dalhousie from Jhansi, 24th September, 1848

Sleeman’s eerie prediction was to come true less than a decade later when dissatisfaction exploded into open rebellion. While Governor General Dalhousie’s Doctrine of Lapse had been used by the company to gobble up states where the king lacked a biological son, such as Satara in 1848, Jhansi in 1853 and Nagpur in 1854, “Awadh was an acquisition on a far different scale”, writes William Dalrymple, “and was practiced on a ‘faithful and unresisting ally’ without even the nominal justification of the absence of a recognized heir”. The annexation of Awadh or Oudh happened purely because the King, Nawab Wajid Ali Shah, had run into vast debts with the Company, and seemed unable to, or disinterested in paying them. With this annexation, centuries of established tradition, when it came to land, revenue collection, and even governance, was trampled under the Englishman’s boot. It is no coincidence that the largest number of recruits in the Bengal Army, which rebelled against its masters in 1857, was from the Awadh area. The igniting spark for the mutiny was supplied by the infamous Enfield rifle and its greased cartridges, which Hindu and Muslim sepoys feared contained the fat of cows and pigs. While in Meerut and Cawnpore (Kanpur), the massacre of Europeans was near total, Lucknow, the capital of Awadh, presents a different picture. Here, thanks to the foresight and preparation of Sir Henry Lawrence, 1700 Europeans were able to hold out for 87 days, against overwhelming odds. The place where they chose to make their stand was a compound of roughly 33 acres, containing a number of buildings inhabited by Company servants, European traders, and their families. Chief among the buildings was that of the British “Resident”, Chief Commissioner Sir Henry Lawrence, and the compound thus came to be known as “The Residency”.

Saturday, 6 December 2014

Bada Imambara, Lucknow

Jisey naa dey Maula, usey dey Asaf-ud-Daula

(He who is denied by Allah, is provided for by Asaf-ud-Daula, a proverb of Lucknow)

In 1722, during the reign of the Mughal emperor Muhammad Shah (one of the lesser Mughals), Mir Muhammad Amin Musawi, a.k.a. Saadat Ali Khan I was made governor of Awadh or Oudh province. Awadh, deriving its name from Ayodhya, was one of the 12 subahs or provinces that Emperor Akbar had carved out of his empire, for administrative efficiency, between 1572 and 1580. The grandson of a rich trader from Khorasan (in the North East of modern day Iran) who had migrated to India, Saadat Ali as his father before him, rose rapidly through the ranks thanks to military prowess, and found favour with the emperor. With him began the line of the Nawabs of Awadh. His son-in-law, Muhammad Muqim, a.k.a. Abul-Mansur Khan Safdar Jung succeeded him in 1737, and Safdarjung’s grandson, Muhammad Yahya Mirza Amani, a.k.a. Asaf-ud-Daula ascended the throne on the 26th of January 1775.

View from Bada Imambara's terrace

Thursday, 20 November 2014

Serampore Rajbari

Exactly how rich were the Goswamis of Serampore? Sample this. When the Danes, finding their factory in Serampore to be a losing concern, were looking for someone to sell their title of Serampore to, Raghuram Goswami offered to purchase it for the sum of Rs. 11,00,000! However the Danes found this sum to be inadequate and ultimately sold their possessions to the East India Company in 1845, for 12,00,000. The Goswamis of Serampore, are the descendants of one of the five Brahmin families whom Adisur, King of Gaur had invited to settle in Bengal, with gifts of land and monies, for the propagation of knowledge. One of his descendants was Lakshman Chakravarty. Lakshman was married to the daughter of Achyut Goswami, son of Advaitacharya Goswami, an ardent disciple of Sri Chaitanya. Lakshman settled in Shantipur, with Achyut’s family, and out of their marriage was born a son, Ramgobinda, who took on his mother’s maiden name, Goswami. It was Ramgobinda’s son, Radhakanta, who settled in Serampore. His grandson was Raghuram Goswami.

Serampore Rajbari South Block

Saturday, 15 November 2014

St. Stephen's Church, Diamond Harbour Road

We call it “the rocket Church”. I mean come one! How can you not? Take a good look. That unique looking steeple, that looks like the body of a rocket, complete with nose cone, and on both sides of the entrance, you see the way the walls are sloping? That looks like tail fins, right? The books say that the Church is typically Gothic in architecture, and that steeple, while unique, was never meant to look like a rocket. It was meant to look like a ship’s lantern from the old days. The reason why a Church with a steeple like a ship’s lantern is located on Diamond Harbour Road is simple enough to understand. The Kidderpore docks are nearby, and therefore, this area would have been filled with seafaring people. This would have been the first Church anyone would see when travelling East towards the city after disembarking from a ship. Located on 3, Diamond Harbour Road, St. Stephen’s Church is right next to the St. Thomas Boys’ School, but must be entered through the somewhat chaotic lanes of the Kidderpore Bazaar.

Monday, 10 November 2014

Radhanath Temple, Mondal Temple Lane

The temple as seen from a neighbour's rooftop
A little less than 30 kilometers to the South West of the city of Calcutta, is the village of Bawali. During the Mughal era, Raja Ram Mondal received from the emperor a royal charter granting him full control over fifteen villages (the East India company, in contrast, began with three). Thus began the story of the Bawali Raj family. Sometime in the eighteenth century, Robert Clive invited the Mondals to come and settle in Calcutta. In response, Ramnath and Manick Mondal moved into the area known today as Chetla, and settled by the banks of what was then the Adi Ganga; today’s Tolly Canal.

The family deity of the Mondals was Lord Krishna, and the temples that they constructed in the area, are to his various manifestations. The largest and most spectacular of them still exists, on the road named after it. Approaching the Radhanath Temple of Mondal Temple Lane can be somewhat tricky. If you’re coming from Tollygunge Phari, once you cross the bridge over the Tolly Canal, the second turn on your right is Chetla Road, but right turns into the lane are prohibited before 1pm, and therefore it is simpler to take the next right turn, a serpentine lane that connects with Mondal Temple Lane. Turn right at the T Junction, and keep a lookout to your left. The huge temple, located near the crossing of Mondal Temple Lane and Chetla Road, is easily visible even through the jigsaw of modern buildings.

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Turner Morrison & Co., Lyon's Range

The whole reason Calcutta developed into what she is today, was shipping. There are those who deny the role of the British in the formation of the city, or those who say that Charnock’s landing here could not possibly mark the birth of the city. But even such people agree, and the historic evidence is difficult to refute, that this part of the world was fairly active in trading, especially in textiles. The village of Sutanuti, some say got its name from the yarn, or suta, that was spun and sold from here, to European and other ships, which would venture up the Hooghly. During the British era, the imperial capital was the largest and most important port in the East of India, and many of the shipping companies that operated then, are still active today. Among them is Turner Morrison.

Saturday, 25 October 2014

Neveh Shalome Synagogue, Brabourne Road

…Velvet curtains in rich dark hues and embroidered in gold and silver, some with Hebrew lettering, hung down in rows from the ladies’ gallery. Glittering chandeliers shone down on a sea of heads wearing different coloured skull caps and swathed in prayer shawls, chanting and responding in unison to the Hazzan, a venerable king on the central dias…after hearing the Kol Nidre, I went home happy to be a Jew…

Sally Solomon, Hooghly Tales

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.

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

Saturday, 20 September 2014

The Imperial Department of Commerce & Industry, Council House Street

The Imperial Department of Commerce & Industry, North view

Taking up an entire city block, on the corner of Hare Street and Council House Street, on the South Western corner of Dalhousie Square (now BBD Bagh) is an Edwardian office block known today as the Commercial Library Building.  Montague Massey’s book, “Recollections of Calcutta for Over Half a Century” identifies this as the offices of the Imperial Department of Commerce and Industry. The book also says that this building was built on the grounds where the old Foreign Office once stood. 

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Ralli Brothers, Hare Street

Mention Ralli’s to anyone in Calcutta today and they will think of the sherbet and syrup making company. But Ralli Singh Arora who started that Ralli’s in 1898 in Calcutta, has no connection whatsoever with the Ralli’s building that stands today on Hare Street. The story of the company begins in 1815, in the Aegean sea, in the port of Chios, then part of the Ottoman Empire. The Ralli Brothers, a family of Greek merchants began importing corn, timber and hemp from the Black Sea to Leghorn on the Ligurian Sea, and from there to England, under the protection of the British fleet, stationed in Naples. By 1823, they had set up shop in England, expanding to Tabriz, Iran, by 1837. But important changes had happened in another part of the world by then. The East India Company’s monopoly in the Indian trade had been abolished, and Pandias Stephen Ralli, realizing that that’s where the future lay, decided to expand to India in 1851.

Ralli Brothers, Hare Street

Saturday, 6 September 2014

Fort Mornington Point, Gadiara

All that remains of Fort Mornington Point

Just over 80 km from the state capital of Calcutta is the village of Gadiara. A popular spot for picnics and day trips, Gadiara has three principal attractions. There is a government bungalow with beautifully manicured lawns, which is now available for picnics. There is a lighthouse, which is…err…well, a lighthouse, which did not interest me much. But the third item in the list most certainly did; the ruins of an old English fort.

Thursday, 4 September 2014

The Hanging of Maharaja Nandakumar

The well at the place of Nandakumar's execution

The trial and execution of Maharaja Nandakumar (referred to in contemporary documents as Nuncomar) was one of the most infamous episodes of the early days of the East India Company’s rule in India. Nandakumar was an Indian tax official, appointed collector of Burdwan and given the title “Maharaja” by Emperor Shah Alam II in 1764. A bitter enemy of Warren Hastings, Nanadkumar accused him, through a letter, of accepting a bribe from Mir Jafar’s widow Munny Begum for securing for her the guardianship of the Nawab Mubarak-ud-Daulah, then a minor. The case was taken up in the Supreme Council of Bengal by Hastings’ rival, Philip Francis. But Hastings was able to overrule the Council, and even though he admitted to accepting a bribe, could not be brought to book.

Sunday, 31 August 2014

Goenka Ghat and its Environs

Ram Chandra Goenka Zenana Bathing Ghat as seen from Howrah Bridge
The flower market at Mallik Ghat, near the Howrah Bridge is certainly not for the faint hearted, or the claustrophobic. Hundreds of stalls and thousands of people jostle for space, bargain and make purchases in an area designed to hold a fraction of that number. But for photographers, it is a paradise. Teeming with life and a riot of colours, it is full of opportunities for those willing to brave the crowds.

Rai Bahadur Bissessur Lall Hurgobind Sradh Ghat
We ventured into the melee on a Sunday morning in winter. Our objective was to locate and photograph the ornate ghats behind the market.  A walk across the Howrah Bridge early in the morning in winter is highly recommended, especially if you get there before sunrise. Watching the sun rise over the Ganges, known here as the Hooghly, and watching the first rays of morning light bathe the Howrah station is an experience to remember. The station complex looks rather like a fort when seen from the middle of the bridge. At the Calcutta end of the bridge, get off on the right, or southern side of the bridge and you can descend into the heart of this flowery chaos using a set of worn out and slippery stairs. Passing through the maze that is the market, as you try and get closer to the river, the first ghat you find, right next to the bridge, is the Rai Bahadur Bissessur Lall Hurgobind Sradh Ghat. All that is known about the gentleman after whom the ghat is named is that he was a rich Marwari businessman, and his “sradh” ceremony was conducted on that spot. The ghat that was erected in 1916 was probably meant as a sort of marker and memorial. Infront of the ghat maybe found a raised area with parallel bars. This spot was in use as a wrestling ring by local “pehelwans”. It may still be used for the purpose, but that seems unlikely considering the garbage that is found piled around the corners. Infront of the ghat was also a park, and it’s railings may still be seen, but the park itself has vanished, encroached upon for decades by slum settlements. Nearby are also five banyan trees, each containing a small shrine at its base.

Friday, 29 August 2014

Posta Rajbari, Ratan Sarkar Garden Street

Posta Rajbari

It’s a Sunday morning as our car ventures into the mercantile chaos of Calcutta’s Posta Bazaar area. The fact that even God took rest on this day, seems to have no bearing on the people who live and work here, because although we are assured by people familiar with the area that what we see is very light traffic, there are hardly any trucks for instance, the whole place is buzzing with activity. Burrabazaar is said to have been in existence before Siraj’s sack of Calcutta in 1757 and as we go past the old silver mint, now occupied by the CRPF, through roads and lanes that are almost as old as the city itself, we note the changing look of our surroundings. From the people who are mostly Bihari labourers, to the food which the street shops serve, to the ramshackle buildings with temples on their terraces, this is not a Calcutta that most people living in the residential areas in the South would be familiar with. Indeed, it doesn’t even look like Calcutta. Its appearance is more akin to small town UP or Bihar. We come to a halt in the heart of the bazaar, next to a petrol pump, and lo and behold, a small, but magnificent Rajbari seems to pop up, as if from nowhere, it’s recently painted façade standing out against a backdrop of squalor and urban decay.

Shyam Sundar temple courtyard
The Bengali word Rajbari literally means “King’s house”, but those who built these houses, were, mostly, not kings, atleast not in the conventional sense of the term. Raja was a title awarded by the British to large landowners, the zamindars, who would be responsible for tax collection and general administration of their vast estates. The actual job of collecting revenue would be left to the “nayeb”, the estate manager, while the Zamindar himself, with his accumulated wealth, would build a palatial residence and settle with his extended family, in Calcutta. Attached to the Rajbari would be the temple of the zamindar’s family diety; in this case, it is the temple of Shyam Sundar Jew.

Thursday, 28 August 2014

In Print - 2

If there's one thing I love more than taking photographs, it's telling stories, and war makes for some of the very best stories. Hidden in plain sight, in Calcutta's Dalhousie area, are remnants of a war that happened 258 years ago, when the Nawaab of Bengal, Siraj-ud-Daulah, sacked Calcutta. The ill-prepared and ill-equipped English were routed, and in a controversial, and hotly debated incident, 123 of them perished in what was to become known as The Black Hole Tragedy. I told this story for the readers of Alaap Parba magazine, in Bangla. 

There are some embarrassing typos in the article, including one which says that the original Holwell Monument was 500 feet tall (!!!), but I wasn't given the chance to proof check the article, so I can't really take responsibility for that. Also, had I known that they would print the photos in black and white, I'd have processed them differently. But inspite of the shortcomings, I think it's not bad for a start. I am grateful to Barnali Jana and the folks at Alaap Parba magazine for giving me this opportunity.

Here then, is the article for your reading pleasure.

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

In Print - 1

My first ever all colour photo publication, and of all places, it's in the Kolkata Police magazine! The April-May issue of The Kolkata Protector carried a photo-feature, by your's truly, on some of the architectural curiosities of the Dalhousie Square area. Here is the feature, for your viewing pleasure. I am grateful to Subhajit Bhattacharyya for this opportunity. Do leave your opinions and feedback in the comments section.

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Henry Martyn's Pagoda, Serampore

“Buildings have many lives”, Belgian photographer Luc Peters had once told me. For no building is this more true than for Henry Martyn’s Pagoda in Serampore.

Henry Martyn's Pagoda

Located in the Hoogly district of West Bengal, about 25 km away from the state capital of Calcutta, Serampore was once part of Danish India, under the name Frederiksnagore. But unlike Calcutta, which came into existence thanks to the British, Serampore may be said to be a pre-colonial town, having existed as a settlement before the arrival of the Danes. Of the several ancient Hindu temples that are found in the town today, one of the most important is the temple of Radha Ballabh.

The present Radha Ballabh temple
The story begins in the 16th century, with a man called Rudraram. Rudraram, who was living with his maternal uncle in the Chatra area of Serampore, came to Ballabhpore, and began meditating. The deity Radha Ballabh appeared to him in his dreams and instructed him to go to Gaur, the then capital of Bengal, secure a black stone, to be found atop the gate of the Viceroy’s private residence, and carve an image of Radha Ballabh out of it. Upon arrival in Gaur, Rudraram found the Viceroy’s Prime Minister to be a devoted Hindu, and was able to secure the stone. Transporting a stone which weighed several tonnes should have been a challenge but the legend says this was accomplished by supernatural means. The river apparently carried it straight to the Ballabhpore ghat! The idol, celebrated for its beauty, was carved, and set up within a temple in Ballabhpore. However, when the river Bhagirathi began changing its course, and came to within 300 feet of the temple, it was thought prudent to evacuate the idol, and thus, the present Radha Ballabh temple, about a quarter of a mile inland, came into being. The construction of this new temple is said to have been sponsored by the Mallik family of Calcutta, and it still contains Rudraram’s original idol. The old temple was abandoned, and left to be reclaimed by nature.

Sunday, 3 August 2014

Town Hall, Esplanade Row West

As Calcutta grew from Charnock’s small outpost of mud huts into a major city with a substantial European presence, the need for a proper Town Hall for social gatherings was felt. Up until that time, major gatherings would happen at the Old Court House, which stood where the St. Andrews Church stands today, or at the Harmonic Tavern (presently the grounds of Laalbazaar Police Headquarters), which was frequented by Warren Hastings’ friend, Richard Barwell. On 31st May, 1792, at Monsieur La Gallais’ Tavern the decision was taken to raise funds for a Town Hall, through public lottery. The building was to contain a spacious ballroom, a concert room, dining room, card rooms, dressing rooms, suitable offices and separate entrances for palanquins and carriages, with detached sheds for vehicles and their horses. Through successive annual lotteries, adequate funds were arranged by 1806, and the task of construction was entrusted to Colonel John Garstin, the Chief Engineer.

Garstin’s design was French Palladian, with magnificent Doric columns, and construction began on 1st December, 1807 and was completed and opened to the public on 22nd March, 1814, but problems plagued the Town Hall right from the start. Contemporaries of Garstin, including prolific diarist Richard Blechynden viewed Garstin as a bit of an upstart, and did not approve of his design, or the fact that the building cost a monumental Rs. 700,000 to build. Soon after opening, a portion of the front portico collapsed. Sometime later, the floor of the ballroom began to spring, and the whole structure had to overhauled in 1818-19. As per the terms of his contract, the expenses of the overhaul had to be borne by Garstin, which must have left his critics overjoyed.

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.

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

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

The McDonnell Drinking Fountain: A Forgotten Monument of Calcutta

On Esplanade Row West, opposite Calcutta’s historic Town Hall, and near the High Court, lies a forgotten monument of Calcutta. The Neo-Classical monument, located within the premises of the the West Bengal State Legislature, is a drinking fountain, with a lion’s head protruding from the front and a decorative urn on top. The marble plaque which identified the man the monument was dedicated to is long gone. This is the monument to William Fraser McDonnell.

The McDonnell Monument

McDonnell was born in 1829, and joined the Bengal Civil Service in 1850. On the two sides of the monument are the dates 1850 and 1886, which mark the 36 years that McDonnell spent with the service. Posted to Bhojpur (aka Shahbad), in Bihar, McDonnell was witness to the particularly savage fighting in the area on the outbreak of the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857. The fight in Arrah, where he was, was led by the formidable Babu Kunwar Singh. Outmanned and outgunned, the Company’s soldiers were forced to retreat, and it is during this retreat that McDonnell showed his bravery.

Dates on both sides marking McDonnell's career. In the centre is his signature.

On 30th July, 1857, 35 of the Company’s soldiers found themselves besieged in the boat, unable to make good their escape, as the boat’s rudder was secured to it’s side by lashings. Under heavy and constant enemy fire, McDonnell jumped out of the boat, and cut the lashings, freeing the rudder. His actions having saved 35 lives, McDonnell was awarded the Victoria Cross, becoming one of only 5 civilians to be so honored. His medal may be seen today in the Lord Ashcroft Gallery of London’s Imperial War Museum.

Wikipedia's picture of William Fraser McDonnell

The monument today is in a deplorable state. There are no markers identifying what it is. The brass troughs on both sides that once provided drinking water for horses are long gone. The Lion’s head shaped spout is broken, and the water that used to pour out of it has long since dried up. The ugly railing infront of it is used by locals to sun their laundry.

The Lion-Head spout

- by Deepanjan Ghosh

Saturday, 21 June 2014

Royal Insurance Building, Dalhousie Square

The insurance sector in India, in the days of the British Raj was initially completely dominated by British firms. Indians infact, were prohibited from buying insurance. Among the earliest companies to offer insurance to British subjects in India were Standard Life Assurance and The Oriental Assurance Company. Closely following them, came the Royal Insurance Company, and the grand building housing their offices in Calcutta survives to this day.

The Royal Insurance Building today
Royal Insurance was founded in 1845, and their Calcutta office was built in 1905. The architects were Edward Thornton and William Banks Gwyther. Located on the Western side of Dalhousie Square, at the corner of Charnock Place (now N.S. Road) and Koilaghat Street (now BTM Sarani), opposite the GPO building, the Edwardian style building, with it’s blood and bandage look has recently been spruced up, and looks very well maintained. The building sports a dome on it’s North East corner, which, though far more modest that the gigantic dome of the GPO, is elegant all the same. Originally accommodating Sandersons &. Morgans (Solicitors), and the Manufacturers' Life Assurance Company of Canada (1887) apart from Royal Insurance, the building continues to be used as an office.

Royal Insurance Building and GPO lit up to mark the visit of King George V in 1911
William Banks Gwyther, one of the two architects, is the man behind a prodigiously large number of buildings in Calcutta. Among them is the clock tower of Calcutta Port (1899), the Military Secretariat Building on Esplanade Row East (1901) and the headquarters of the Calcutta Municipal Corporation (1905). Gwyther received his technical training at the Thomason Engineering College, Rorkee, and entered the Bengal Public Works Department in 1876. He rose to be executive engineer, and was appointed Under - Secretary to the Government in 1892, reaching the rank of Superintending Engineer in 1903. His death, in Shillong, was announced in The Times of 29th June, 1910.

The Royal Insurance Company today operates under the name RSA Insurance Group Plc., RSA being the abbreviation of Royal and Sun Alliance. RSA operates in some 31 countries today. Curiously enough, the Royal Insurance Building has a twin in Liverpool, which, however is in far worse condition. Plans are on to convert Liverpool’s Royal Insurance Building into a hotel.
- by Deepanjan Ghosh