“In the streets of Calcutta I sometimes imagine myself a foreigner, and only then do I discover how much is to be seen, which is lost so long as its full value in attention is not paid.” – Rabindranath Tagore
And who could say it better, than him? How often do we roam around the streets of Kolkata exploring and admiring what attracts people to the city? Hardly ever, as more often than not, in our daily rush we miss out on what others manage to see!
Dalhousie is one such part of the city that is perhaps overlooked every day by the thousands of office goers crowding office buildings, old and new. Although most offices in this area had been built by Europeans and have stood the test of time, there also are some relatively younger buildings that have come up with time. The more recent ones, however, do not generally have too many stories associated with them.
The older ones, on the other hand, still stand as mute spectators of centuries of change with stories buried deep within their high ceilings, broad walls and thick ornate pillars. And yet their Victorian facades offer a relief to sore eyes shrouded by the dark layer of smoke and pollution. One such majestic building stands on the eastern side of the famed Lal Dighi on Dalhousie Square – the GPO building.
Majestically occupying the Western plot along Charnock Place, later more popularly renamed Netaji Subhas Road, the plot has a history. As mentioned in my last post, it stands on the site of the southeast corner of the ‘Old Fort’ – the original Fort William, destroyed by Nawab Sirajuddaula during the Siege of Kolkata in 1756. The ill-famed guardhouse that was the site of the Back Hole of Calcutta lies in a narrow passageway to the north of the present structure.
The staircase at the eastern side of the present building still has a brass plate, indicating the eastern end of the Old Fort. Designed by Walter L.B. Granville, well known for designing the High Court of Calcutta and the Indian Museum, though each structure looks starkly different from each other. This gorgeous building was constructed by Mackintosh Burn Ltd. and was built at a whopping cost of Rs. 6,30,510 at completion in October 1868.
Administratively, only two-storeyed tall, it owes it’s overall height to the magnificent dome which alone stands about 120 feet high, supported by 28 Corinthian columns on the southeast part of the building. A multi dialled Victorian looking clock has adorned the building right outside the dome since 1896. Designed along the lines of Big Ben in London, this clock, as well as all others in the city were installed to remind “natives” of the “Supremacy of the Raj” with a clear message – your time is our hostage!
The General Post Office, however, was not always housed in this building. Introduced by Warren Hastings in 1774, the Indian Postal System had it’s first office on the Old Post Office Street, giving the street its name. On the 1st November 1784, it shifted to the corner of Lyon’s Range and Clive Street and thereafter in 1800, it moved further to where the Lalbazar Police Headquarter now stands. It was then called the Old Harmonic Tavern. It was next shifted to 2 Bankshal Street in 1808, following which, it finally shifted to its present location.
Quite a history there, isn’t it?
Right opposite GPO on the South Western side stands another heritage building with intricate designs in the plastered surface of the outer wall especially at the top of the main entrance opposite of GPO in white and gold. Contrasting sharply with the snow-white of GPO, the bright red of the Royal Insurance Building offers a stunning view, together with the white-domed magnificence standing right across the road.
As shared in an earlier post, the Europeans badgered by unsupportive living conditions led to the growth of the Insurance sector in India. Riding on this wave, Royal Insurance Company was the third to set up business in Calcutta. Founded in 1845, their Edwardian-style Calcutta office was built on the western shore of the Tank Square in 1905 designed by architects Edward Thornton and William Banks Gwyther. Interestingly, Gwyther received his technical education at the Thomason Engineering College, Roorkee and rose to be the Under-Secretary to the Government in 1892. While the Calcutta twin has recently received a facelift, curiously its twin in Liverpool is in shambles. So, we most certainly seem to be taking care of our heritage buildings better!
Further down the same stretch on the left-hand corner at the crossing of Netaji Subhas Road and BBD Bagh Street, hidden behind an overgrowth of trees, often unnoticed, is a rare, and perhaps only known work by the eminent British sculptor Edward Onslow Ford – an intricately sculpted white marble statue of His Highness Sir Lakshmishwar Singh, Maharaja of Darbhanga, inaugurated in 1904 by Sir Andrew Fraser, the then Lieutenant Governor of Bengal.
It is perhaps one of the very few statues depicting an Indian monarch sitting comfortably as if on his eternal watch of the Dalhousie Square, on his ornamental throne with a scimitar in the right hand and a shield in the left and wearing the ancestral headdress of his family. A known philanthropist of his time and perhaps one of the richest monarchs of his time, Maharaja Lakshmishwar Singh was known to have donated ₤3,00,000 during the infamous Bengal and Bihar famine of 1873-74 apart from commissioning and building roads, schools, colleges, medical facilities, bridges, libraries – you name it and he made it!
Appointed as a Member of the Supreme Legislative Council of the Viceroy and a founder member of the Indian National Congress, the Maharaja had argued and debated for the rights of Indians even when he was close to British Bureaucracy. His statue also proudly sports the chain of a Knight Grand Commander (GCIE) of the Order of the Indian Empire – An honour bestowed upon him in 1897 on the occasion of the Jubilee of the reign of Queen Victoria by making him a Knight Commander of the Most Eminent Order of the Indian Empire.
Together we will continue on this magical journey through the annals of history… so keep a lookout for more posts! Till then… stay safe and keep travelling back in time!