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

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