It was one of those Sundays when the customary late morning breakfast at a cafe or a visit to the Mall to pick up weekly provisions seemed boring.It was a very warm June morning, a laid back tea in the bed would be most comforting, my driver who generally has a Sunday off called me to inform that he was available in the morning and I might make some plans to go somewhere.My mind danced at the joy of doing something unplanned-routines,deadlines ,alarm clocks had made life so predictable.Even a coffee with a friend followed a known destination.I asked my driver Rabi to come at 9.30 am sharp.Asked around the house if anybody was eager to accompany me and everyone shuddered at the idea when the mercury was touching 38 degree centigrade and I could offer no concrete plans or destination. Rabi was enthusiastic at the plan for I gave him no destination and asked him to simply drive along Red Road ,past Akashbani straight to Babu Ghat.
In Col Mark Wood’s Map of 1784 ,Babughat marked the southern boundary of Dhee Calcutta and today Babughat is synonymous with death rituals of grieving families,bus stands,milling crowds,priests,chants,people seeking salvation.
I stood in front of an imposing Doric column and arched gate with a plaque containing the following text-“The Right Hon’ble Lord William Cavendish Bentinck, Governor General, with a view to encourage the direction of private munificence to works of public utility ,has been pleased to determine that this Ghaut ,constructed in the year 1830,at the expense of Baboo Rajchunder Doss ,shall hereinafter be called Baboo Rajchunder Doss’s Ghaut”. The Ghat was constructed in 1830 by Rani Rashmoni ,the zamindar of Jan Bazar in memory of her husband Late Babu Raj Chandra Das.
Babu ghat as it is known in the cityscape was swelling with grieving families trying to finish the rites as fast as possible,hymns of the ceremonies traveled through the crowds and filled the air with a sense of melancholy.I stopped short of taking pictures of the rituals.The steps of the ghat were muddy and slippery,garbage of rotten flowers,cooked rice,earthern pots were heaped on the stairs. Babughat has an everyday life where death is synonymous with livelihood of the numerous priests who go about their work with a stereotype rhythm devoid of any emotions.The dead here is just a name and a gotra ,a mound of ashes in an earthern pot in a hurry to be immersed in the holy waters. I remembered that February evening years back when I too came here with the ashes of my most loved person-my baba. Kolkata on that hot summer afternoon suddenly seemed sad and embroiled in the ever going cycle of creation and destruction.The ghat was mostly crowded with grieving male members of every family,I felt a bit out of place in the ambience of grief and loss,I walked towards the car and asked Rabi to drive towards the High Court.
The High Court premises were absolutely empty except a few uninterested policemen walking about.Standing in front of the impressive building built in Neo-gothic style in 1872,I was starstruck seeing the oldest of all the high courts in India.The centre tower of the building is nearly 180 ft high with the capitals of the pillars built in Caen stone and is beautifully sculptured Walter Granville built the present building of the High Court on Esplanade Row. It has red brick facing with stucco dressings, above an “elegant vaulted cloister of Barakur sandstone with capitals of Caen stone”. Philip Davies described it as “the only significant secular Gothic building in the city”. Jan Morris characterized the building as “tremendous,” and “the most daunting building in town” Heritage commentators agree that the High Court structure was influenced by George Gilbert Scott design for the Hamburg Rathaus (1854-56), itself based on the Cloth Hall in Ypres. When the Cloth Hall was destroyed in World War I, the Mayor of Ypres asked for the plans of Calcutta High Court to help reconstruct it. I walked about the premises and turned left and saw the various entrances for the litigants,the lawyers,the clerks. Neighbourhood boys were playing cricket in the empty roads ,the arched windows had silent stories of great legal luminaries like Sambho Nath Pandit,Dwaraka Nath Mitter, Ramesh Chandra Mitter,,Gurudas Banerjee,Ashutosh Mukherjee who practised in High Court in the colonial period and the famous legal battles which echoed through the hallowed pillars of the great edifice.
The very name Town Hall recreated history classes of the school days in my mind.Images of the swadeshi’s and revolutionaries congregating at the Town Hall cloud my mind.To my lack of knowledge about the cityscape I have never been to the Town Hall all these years of my life in Kolkata. A stone’s throw from the High Court stands the Town hall built in Doric architectural style, the origin of which can be traced back to a meeting held in Le Gallais Tavern in 1791.The Town hall is currently under renovation but the glimpses of the pillars with the canons on the gateway of this milky white edifice made my day worth.
The Town Hall was not built by East India Company funds .When European citizens decided to construct a town hall with the purpose of holding meetings and formal receptions necessary funds were raised through public lottery. Plan for the proposed hall was sanctioned in 1807 and Col J Garstin completed it in 1813, Initially the Hall offered the Europeans of Calcutta a permanent public space where they could meet and discuss matters of common concern. Later joint meetings by Europeans and Indians became common .The Calcutta School-Book Society held several of its meetings in the Hall. A farewell was accorded to Sir Hyde East, a founding father of the Hindu college, at the Town Hall on the eve of his departure for England in 1821.In the second half of the nineteenth century Raja Rammohun Roy, Radhakanta Dev, Dwarkanath Tagore, Ramanath Tagore, Motilal Seal, SK Lal Mohammed, Rajendralal Mitra, Aga Mirza Shirazi held meetings in the Hall . The Sadharan Brahma Samaj was formally launched in a Town Hall meeting of 15 May 1878. The Indian Association and the Indian National Congress made use of the Hall on different occasions. In the 1890’s Jagadish Chandra Bose demonstrated his early experiments in electric waves in the Town Hall. Rabindranath Tagore delivered his famous speech Kantha Rodh in the Hall in 1898. The Swadeshi movement was formally launched from a Town hall meeting of 7 August 1905.After the First World War, the Town Hall gradually lost its aura and eventually became what it had initially been, a place for ceremonial gatherings. After the introduction of the Dyarchy in 1919 the Town Hall was used as the Council Chamber of the Bengal Legislative Council.The Town Hall today houses a very valuable archive where several first person accounts are treasured.
My happiness in gazing at the Town Hall had an abrupt end when I was walking back.The plaque of the Town Hall lay uncared for with wild bushes growing around.With a heavy heart when I turned to look at the building once again there was a sudden wind and the green cloth cover of the renovation work swayed and I got a glimpse of history.
Driving past GPO on an absolutely empty Sunday Road I asked Rabi to stop near Writers Buliding. Writers Building is more than a building or an architectural wonder,it is what Calcutta and later Kolkata has been over decades.Standing tall in the BBD Bagh area (Dalhousie Square) and covering the entire stretch of the water body, the Lal Dighi, a stately structure served as the secretariat building of the State Government of West Bengal. It houses stories of colonial rulers,the Communist government at its heyday,the withering away of the communist movement and later the government,the abandoning of the building as the seat of power by the new government.It is a story of grandeur as well as story of sadness.The road in front of the building was empty,there were a few police personnel and a lone RAF person guarding the lost pages of history.The red color stands bright and bold,several windows were broken or open.A picture of neglect was well written on the walls of Writers Building.
During the British rule, due to the increasing need for a building to carry out the various administrative works, the idea of constructing the first three storied building was conceived by Governor Warren Hastings. Clerks of the East India Company (EIC) began to reside in this building which was designed by Thomas Lyon, in 1777.What began as a resident for writers, deriving the name of Writers Building for itself, later became a major trading post for the British invaders. The Writers Building soon became the Secretariat of Bengal.The beautiful building with its Greeco-Roman architecture, contained a portico in the central bay and had several marvelous statues sculpted by William Fredric Woodington lining the terrace. In 1800, to accommodate the Fort William College and the Government Engineering College within its premises, a 128 ft long veranda was added.When the British Raj took over, a French Renaissance-styled makeover was given to the building, to make it more ornate and almost palatial in terms of its architecture.
I was walking on the opposite path of Writers Building as I looked up to click photos of the building with mansard roofs I was amazed to see several beautiful figurines adorning the terrace of the building.Noted English sculptor William Frederick Woodington had made them.Above the pediment in the central portico is the statute of Minerva.The Ashokan Pillar replaced the British Coat of Arms after independence in the middle of the pediment.Allegorical figures of Science,Agriculture,Commerce and Justice line the parapet.Embellished with floral carvings the cream colored statues stand in contrast to the deep red color of the building.The Writers Building stands in dignity and sadness,counting time it left behind and looking forward toa more respectable rehabilitation.
Walking straight down the road ,the white facade of St Andrews Church cannot miss one’s eyes.Located on 2/2, Council House Street, at the North Eastern side of the Writers’ Building, St.Andrew’s Church was basically built to serve the Scottish Presbyterian community of Calcutta. It stands on the plot, which was once occupied by the Old Court House. The Anglo-Indian Presbytery was created by the Charter of 1813 along with the Anglo India Episcopate and The Rev. Dr. James Bryce arrived in Calcutta on 28th November 1814, as the Chaplain at the Bengal Ecclesiastical Establishment. St Andrew’s Church, also known as the Kirk, is the only Scottish church in Kolkata. The foundation stone of the Church was laid on the 30th day of November, 1815 by Marquis of Hastings, which was also attended by The Countess of Moira and the Countess of Loudon. Since the foundation stone was laid by the Governor General himself, the Church was also known as Lat Sahib ka Girja. Designed by Messrs Burns, Currie and Co, the construction of the Church was completed in 1818, and it was dedicated to St. Andrew. Like the St. John’s Church, St. Andrew’s church was also designed in the lines of St.Martin’s in the fields, London.
The building consists of a massive square structure based on a high plinth with a massive triangular pediment, supported on the tall Doric pillars forming a royal portico in the front and a high spire on the top of the building. In 1835, a clock was fitted to the tower.Though the first Bishop of Calcutta objected to the idea of the erection of the spire, Reverend Bryce, went ahead with his plans to construct a spire which will be higher than the steeple of the St John’s Church. He also mooted a plan to place on the top of it a cock. Standing on the wide stairs of the church facing B.B.D Bagh the skyline of our city appeared fresh and vibrant .The clock of the church sill functions and the weather cock still dances to the tune of nature. The church inside like any protestant church is not ornamental though it has massive Doric columns and marble flooring.The organ pipe looks beautiful in its wooden facade.Since it was a Sunday I was lucky enough to be part of the service too.
It was nearly afternoon and the heat was taking its toll on me.But I thought the walk would not be complete without some fresh air of the river I started walking from Babughat towards Princep Ghat past the Gwalior Monument.The Gwalior Monument caught my eyes and I read the plaque describing the history and the architecture of the monument.In 1847, Lord Ellenborough built a Cenotaph to commemorate the memory of the fallen soldiers of the Gwalior War,1843.The British fought at two fronts at a time and attacked the Marathas simultaneously. General Sir Hugh Gough led the British army in the Battle of Maharajpore, while Lt. General Sir John Grey faced the Marathas in the Battle of Punniar. Both sides suffered several casualties, but finally the Maratha force was defeated and their guns and artillery were seized by the British.The octagonal cenotaph was designed in Indo-Saracenic style by Colonel H Goodwyn of Bengal Engineers, and the construction was executed by Jessop & Co. Crowned with a bronze dome,which was cast from the melted guns, seized from the Marathas the cenotaph was supported by pillars.From the entrance, a spiral marble staircase leads to the upper floor, which looks like a Mughal ‘Chhatri’.The Gwalior Monument was living history and with an awe for the British and respect for the Maharani of Gwalior I walked past towards the river front.
The river front with the calm waters ,the occasional steamers,the trudging boats,heritage on one side and technology on the other,I thought Kolkata still remains caught between its past and present.The much talked about triphala lights,the pollution from the factories across the other side,high rises standing tall in the sites of erstwhile jute factories fused to create a city scape unique to Kolkata. The tired salesman cooling under the tree, traces of rituals of death ,people engaged in collecting the holy water to be sold ,the lone idol left beneath the trees,families lamenting the loss of their dear ones…image,varied images of Kolkata …….Calcutta endeared me to the city where I was not born but where I grew up and now growing old.
The air around the river made me hungry but by then I wanted to be back home.Decided to give Rabi a treat and as I yearned fora strong filter coffee. I stopped at Prema Vilas at Lake Market on way back home.Ordered a dosa for Rabi and I settled for the sunday special brunch Puttu Kadela. As I put my spoon across the steamed cylinder of rice and coconut and dipped it in the rich black peas coconut milk flavoured Kadela my thoughts about Kolkata reiterated itself. Kolkata…Calcutta lives peacefully,fusing people together across religions,dialects and class .Both Calcutta and Kolkata lives in perfect symmetry ,history and future not at crossroads but in a beautiful melange of memories and expectations.