Saturday, 31 May 2014

Spence's Hotel and The Treasury Building

Spence's Hotel photographed by Fredrik Fiebig, 1851. The railings and Western gate of Government House are visible on the left

Jules Verne, in his 1880 novel “The Steam House” (French - La Maison à Vapeur) wrote of a group of British colonists travelling around in a wheeled house, pulled by a steam-powered mechanical elephant. Like all his stories, it does not seem very fantastic or farfetched today. In the novel, there is a reference to a hotel in Calcutta. He writes, “I left the Spence’s Hotel, one of the best in Calcutta which I had made my residence ever since my arrival”. Started by John Spence in 1830, Spence’s Hotel was the first hotel of Asia, and was located at the corner of Esplanade Row West and Government Place West, just across the road from the Western gate of Government House (Raj Bhavan).

Treasury Building, Southern view

However, as the Empire grew, the colonial Government however, began aggressively acquiring all properties around Government House for construction of offices and residential quarters for the small army of staff that was needed to keep the government machinery functioning smoothly. The land on which Spence’s stood was taken over by the Government in the 1880’s, and Spence’s was relocated to Wellesley Place, from where it continued to operate, until it was eventually demolished.

Treasury Building, Northern view

What was once Spence’s is today a Government building. The plaque inside it’s gates tells us that it was constructed between 1882 and 1884, under the aegis of His Excellency The Marquis of Ripon, and that the government architect was a certain Mr. E.J. Martin. The massive building, extensively ornamented, occupying an entire city block, was originally meant to accommodate the Financial Department of the Government of India. It is presently home to the Principal Accountant General (audit & accounts), Government of West Bengal, and is called the Treasury Building or A.G. Bengal.

Phoenix ornamentation on a roof corner

The similarity in appearance between this building, and the more famous Writers Building, which is just down the road, is due to both being built in the same late-French Renaissance style. Along with it’s exquisite external ornamentation, the building has tall, beautifully arched windows, matching sets of Corinthian pillars and railed roofs with pair of phoenixes at intervals. Although officially built for the Financial Department, the building has, during the Raj years, housed various other departments as well, such as the Pay Office, the Revenue Department, the Records Department and the ominously named General Superintendent of Thuggee & Dacoity.

Plaque inside the building with details of construction

All these offices would pack up for the summer months, and head to Simla, with their documents and all, to operate out of the new Imperial Secretariat Building there at Gorton Castle, built in 1904. Although a 130 year old heritage building, the Treasury Building is still a fully functional government office, and hence entry and photography inside the building are not ordinarily permitted. There is no restriction on shooting it from outside though.

- by Deepanjan Ghosh

Spence’s Hotel photograph courtesy

Thursday, 29 May 2014

McLeod House, 3, N.S. Road

McLeod House today
Calcutta’s Dalhousie Square is one of the last surviving colonial areas of the world. Due to it’s proximity to the Hooghly river, it developed as a major centre of commerce, and is dotted with heritage buildings, all originally belonging to mercantile houses. Now, whenever Indians think of colonial rule, the vast majority think of English people. But the fact is that an extremely large number of mercantile houses in Calcutta, and indeed all over the world, were run by the Scots. In the Dalhousie Square area may be found evidence of this in the form of Balmer, Lawrie & Co, Gillanders, Arbuthnot & Co, Mackinnon, Mackenzie & Co, Shaw, Wallace & Co and many others. Calcutta’s Scottish connection is not limited to Mercantile houses either. There is a Scottish Cemetery at the crossing of Karaya Road and Acre Road which is the final resting place for more than 1600 of Scotland’s sons and daughters.

McLeod & Co. was founded in 1887 and was one of the largest merchants and agents in Calcutta at the beginning of the twentieth century with interests in tea, coal, rubber, steamer services, indigo and light railways. McLeod House may be found on the Western side of Dalhousie Square, located near the crossing of Council House Street and Hare Street, next to the much more flamboyant Royal Insurance Building. Although the building is not as extensively ornamented as some of the other buildings in the Dalhousie Square area, it is in good condition, and continues to be used as an office today. 

- by Deepanjan Ghosh

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Ezra Mansion, 10 Govt. Place, East

Ezra Mansion
At the corner of Waterloo Street, opposite Great Eastern Hotel, stands a derelict, exposed brick structure. Only the letters I, O and N are visible on it’s façade. Those three letters form the last part of the word mansion, and the name of the building is Ezra Mansion. As far as I can tell, it was constructed by Calcutta’s Jewish real estate tycoon, David Joseph Ezra, in the early 20th century. The portico extending over the pavement originally had cast iron posts which have been replaced with brick piers. The cast iron railings however remain. This is the man who was behind the Esplanade Mansions, Chowringhee Mansions and Ezra Street is named after him.

Though today it is in serious need of repair, in it’s heyday, Ezra Mansion housed Cuthbertson & Harper, one of Calcutta’s best shoemakers, and J.C. Hanhart & Co., jewelers. Cuthbertson and Harper's sign can be seen in the photograph of the building in Intach's book, "Calcutta: Built Heritage Today". It continues to function today as an office block. 

- by Deepanjan Ghosh

Monday, 26 May 2014

Francis, Harrison, Hathaway and Company, Govt. Place, East

In the late 19th Century, departmental stores in Calcutta rivaled those in European cities. The modern departmental store evolved from shops that were originally known as “drapers”. “Draper” was a term for a retailer or wholesaler of cloth that was mainly for clothing, says Wikipedia. One of the earliest such shops in Calcutta was Francis, Harrison, Hathaway and Company of Government Place, East.

Francis, Harrison, Hathaway and Company in it's heydays
My investigation was sparked by a photograph of Francis, Harrison, Hathaway and Company in Montague Massey’s Recollections of Calcutta for Over Half a Century. The building, I thought, looked familiar, and upon sifting through my photographs, I realized I had photographed it on one of my earliest walks through the Dalhousie area, which is the central business district of Calcutta. Back then, when we had no name for it, we referred to it simply as the Times of India building, since the newspaper’s offices occupied part of the building. A phone call to Sashi Dhacholia, a very senior member of the Benett, Coleman & Co Ltd (TOI’s parent body) team, revealed that the newspaper had infact occupied these premises for four decades or more, on rent. The owners were the Mallicks, of Marble Palace fame.

The building today
A phone call to Hiren Mallick of the family revealed a treasure trove of information. The property had been acquired by the family in the 1850’s, and TOI had been operating from the premises since their arrival in Calcutta. The building has been home to many British firms over the years, one of them manufacturing one of the earliest “Arrowroot” biscuits in India. It is still home to the (originally German) machine tools company Francis Klein, and the Ranger’s Club, which was once The Calcutta Naval Volunteers Club. The famous Ranger’s Lottery would happen from these very premises. Tito's bar operates from one corner of the building. The property was particularly prized for it’s overlooking Government House (now Raj Bhavan) and members of the Mallick family would gather on the building’s two balconies which offered a unique view of the Viceroy’s processions from the eastern gate of Government House.

Tito's bar
Francis, Harrison, Hathaway and Company had around 11 European staff members which was considered very large for the time. By the end of the century they had around 40. Among them were several people who went on to start successful businesses of their own. In 1880, there was a certain Mr. E. Whiteaway who ten years later was the partner of Whiteaway Laidlaw, in Chowringhee. Their humongous building is now known as the Metropolitan Building and is still one of the architectural landmarks of the city. There were also P. N. Hall and William Anderson, who started Hall & Anderson’s, which, within a few years, began to give tough competition to Francis, Harrison, Hathaway and Company.

The building today clearly looks battered and bruised. I hope that the Mallick family will consider renovating it sometime soon. It would be a pity to lose yet another one of the city’s connections to it’s colonial past.

- by Deepanjan Ghosh

2, Camac Street

His name was Arathoon Stephen and he was born in Isfahan, Iran, in 1861. An Armenian, he came to Calcutta as a penniless refugee sometime in the early 19th century, and began life by selling jewellery from a wheelbarrow. Later he set up shop on Chowringhee, and made his fortune in the real estate development business. He is the man who built The Grand Hotel on Chowringhee and Stephen Court on Park Street. Both structures are standing and are in use today.

Newspaper advert of Stephen's shop on Chowringhee

Not too many people are aware that this millionaire lived in Camac Street, and the building that he lived in also remains standing. On 2 Camac Street, on the corner of Middleton Row, stands a nondescript old building. The only way to tell that this isn’t just another building, is when stands infront of the petrol pump on Camac Street and looks up. The ornate decorations on the terrace wall, along with the urns are a clear indication of the period this house was built in. This was once home to the real estate magnate, who died on the 14th of May, 1927.

External view of 2 Camac Street, with part of the petrol pump visible in the bottom left

The building is in a grubby state, although a peep inside will tell you that it was once quite something. The solid wooden staircase, the porcelain tiles along the walls, and beautiful wooden elevator all bear witness to this. The building is currently in mixed usage, with residential flats and a few offices. Mayfair hotels was said to have it’s offices in this building.

Driveway of 2 Camac Street

While the Calcutta Corporation has declared this a heritage building, there have been attempts made by unscrupulous developers to bring it down, and although a heritage structure not too many people seem to be aware of the history of the building. Stephen’s granddaughter, Irene Harris, was said to be living in Stephen Court at the time of the devastating fire of 23rd March, 2010.

Monday, 19 May 2014

Dumraon House, 26 Camac Street

The en masse migration of labourers and daily wage earners of Bihar to Calcutta is well known. They still form a large part of the menial workers of the city. But not many are aware that the upper crust of Bihar society also had a presence in Calcutta, and like all other communities that came here, they left their mark on the city.

Surrounded by new flats and glitzy commercial buildings, at 26 Camac Street, stands Dumraon House. Dumraon is one of Bihar's oldest municipalities and one of India's oldest princely states. It came into being under Narayan Mal, who through his friendship with Mughal Prince Khurram, received the title of Raja. The 4th ruler of the dynasty, Raja Horil Shah (1708 – 1746) shifted the capital to Dumraon, which was initially called Horilnagar. Skip ahead 200 years and we have the birth of Maharaja Bahadur Ram Ran Vijay Prashad Singh in 1907. Ascending the throne on death of his father, Maharaja Bahadur Sir Keshav Prashad Singh in 1933, Ram Ran Vijay Prashad Singh inherited a depleted treasury and massive debts owed due to almost continuous litigation. He was able, through his short reign, however, to revive the fortunes of the family. To augment the family’s incomes, properties were acquired outside Bihar in places like Calcutta , Dehradun, Mussoorie, Shilong and many other places. The property on Camac Street was acquired during this period, and Dumraon House was constructed in 1922.

Some will no doubt recall the company Dumraon Textiles, which was started by the Maharaja’s son, Maharaja Bahadur Kamal Singh in 1968.  Dumraon House today continues to function as what the official records call a building of “mixed usage”. There are residential flats, as well as commercial establishments functioning out of the building. There is a large open space in the rear, which is used as a car park, and part of it has been converted into a garden where the building’s ‘darwaan’ lives with his family.

One of the most famous people to emerge from Dumraon was the Shehnai maestro, Ustad Bismillah Khan, who was born in Dumraon, on 21 March 1913.

- by Deepanjan Ghosh

  • I am grateful to Shivang Vijay Singh of the Dumraon royal family for his comments on the article.
  • Thanks also to Tirtha Tanay Mandal for pointing out certain errors in the original post, which have now been corrected.


Sunday, 18 May 2014

Nakhoda Masjid

Nakhoda Masjid as seen from an elevated position across the street
It is perhaps difficult to imagine for anyone living in the city now, but Calcutta was once a bewildering melting pot of people and cultures, much more so than it is today. The capital of British India, and the principal port in the East, people from all over India, and indeed, all over the world, settled here, and each of these communities left their mark on the city. Among the settlers were the Memons of Kutch. The Kutchi Memons are a community of Sunni Muslim traders, and their contribution to the city’s architecture may be seen even today, towering above the chaos of Burrabazaar, Calcutta’s central business district. Nakhoda Masjid is Calcutta’s principal mosque, with a capacity of 10,000. Completed in 1926, at the cost of Rs. 1,500,00.00, the architecture of the mosque is an imitation of the mausoleum of Mughal emperor Akbar in Sikandara, a suburb of Agra.

The courtyard
A friend once asked me, “why is it called Nakhoda? Doesn’t that seem like an ungodly name”? Unlike what many may think, Nakhoda does not mean the place of no God. The Kutchi Memons, who built the mosque, were a community of seafaring traders, and the word Nakhoda means mariner. Nakhoda Masjid therefore means Mariner’s Mosque. The mosque may be entered, and most parts of it are open to visitors, at all times except during prayer. Women must remember to dress modestly, which means no shorts, mini skirts, spaghetti tops and the like. It is advisable for women to cover their heads using scarves or something similar. Shoes must be removed before entering the mosque, and you would do well to carry a bag in which to place them and carry around with yourself, because, according to locals, people with nimble fingers are all around.

The main entrance to the mosque
The fascinating architecture of the mosque makes for great photographs. One the outside, there are 3 domes and the two principal minarets are 151 feet high. There are an additional 25 smaller minarets. On the inside, the gateway is an imitation of the Buland Darwaza of Fatehpur Sikri. Intricate carvings and beautiful ornamentation may be seen on the walls.

The area surrounding the mosque is filled with shops serving some of the most delicious food. For beef eaters in particular, the biryani from Aminia, the chaap from Bombay Hotel (aka Bambaiya), and if you’re lucky, the nihari served at the crack of dawn in winter, at Sufiya Hotel, directly opposite the mosque, is top class. Don't eat beef? No problem. Chicken and mutton are available as well. If you visit during the holy month of Ramzan, and can brave the crowds, do pick up some of the Bakarkhani, a kind of sweet, flat, bread, sold on the streets.

Fountain and the pool for ritual ablutions. Marble blocks seats all along the edge.

Prayer times for the faithful

- by Deepanjan Ghosh

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Who is the Manik of Maniktala?

The plaque atop the entrance of Manik Baba's shrine

Maniktala, or Manicktollah, many say gets it’s name from the Pir, or Muslim saint Manik Baba, who’s mazaar or shrine stands near the crossing of Acharya Prafulla Chandra Road and Maniktala Street. The mazaar may be entered through a narrow passage, shoes must be left outside, but photography once inside the shrine is permitted. All that is known about Manik Baba is that his real name is Syud Husain-ud-Din Shah, and that he came to Calcutta from upper India, some time in the early 1800’s. But, Maniktala is clearly marked in Wood’s map of Calcutta, which is from 1784. This would seem to rule out any possibility of Manik Baba’s name being given to the place. The only other option left to us then, is that of Manikchand. Manikchand ruled Calcutta as the deputy of Bengal’s Nawaab Siraj-ud-Daulah, after the siege of Calcutta in 1756. Siraj renamed the city to Alinagar, after his grandfather, Alivardi Khan. 

Walter Granville's Incredibly Gothic High Court

“Close to the eastern bank of the Hooghly river…near Fairlie Place, stands the majestic sandstone and red brick structure of the Calcutta High Court…” – from The High Court at Calcutta, 150 Years: An Overview

Front view of the Calcutta High Court. Standing tall is the statue of Surya Sen

3, Esplanade Row (West), was once the location of the Supreme Court of Bengal. The adjoining apartments were home to Sir ElijahImpey, it’s first Chief Justice, and his family. The stucco buildings were demolished in 1862, and in it’s place came up the present main building of The Calcutta High Court.

Designed by the then government architect, Walter L. B. Granville, The Calcutta High Court is the oldest high court in India. Granville was also responsible for the G.P.O. Building, which came up in place of the old Fort William, The Imperial Museum, which is now the Indian Museum, and the Calcutta University’s erstwhile Senate Hall. Although the court was established as the High Court of Judicature at Fort William on 1 July 1862, the neo-gothic style building was constructed in 1872. The Calcutta High Court is said to be based on the famous Cloth Hall of Ypres, Belgium. When the Cloth Hall was destroyed by German artillery in World War I, the plans of the High Court were sent for, to aid in it’s reconstruction. The impressive pillars on the front of the building contain some extremely beautiful capitals, carved out of Caenstone. Biblical figures of Truth, Benevolence, Charity and others appear surrounded by foliage. 

The capitals on the pillars, carved out of Caen stone.
There is a provision for visitors to enter the High Court, after obtaining a special pass, but photography inside the building is not allowed. A painting of Sir Elijah Impey hangs in Court Room No. 1, painted by the celebrated Johann Zoffany, who’s Indian take on Da Vinci’s Last Supper may be seen on the walls of St. John’s Church.

The Calcutta High Court presently has jurisdiction over the state of West Bengal and the islands of Andaman and Nicobar. The statue of Masterda Surya Sen, mastermind of the Chittagong Armoury Raid, infront of the court was placed there post independence. Thacker's Guide to Calcutta confirms that "in the plot of ground before the High Court is the full length statue of Lord Northbrook (Viceroy 1872-1876) and beyond is that of Lord Auckland (Governor General, 1836-1842) looking towards the gardens which bear his family name". The bit about Auckland is probably a reference to the Eden Gardens, conceived in the late 1840's by him, and initially named Auckland Circus Gardens. It was rechristened Eden Gardens in 1854, after Emily and Fanny Eden, the sisters of Lord Auckland.