September 27, 2012

Writers' Building, Calcutta


"The British had the idea, when they built grand buildings in India, that the very grandeur might help preserve the institutions they housed once the British had departed, as they knew they one day would.. All seem to say, monumentally, Keep me as I am."
– Simon Winchester, "The Legacy" (1997)

In the dramatically-charged political games of the past few days, almost all the shots seem to have been called either by Delhi or Calcutta (read Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee). If there is one place in Calcutta where the security and discipline appear at par with the area that surrounds the Indian Parliament (refer Pixelated Memories - Parliament House, Delhi), it would be the stretch of land housing Writers' Building (Bengal Chief Minister's office) – convoys of police vehicles and siren-bearing white ambassador cars (which have come to be associated as symbolic of high-ranking ministership and bureaucracy) do the rounds regularly, while armed, rifle-toting officers with several more guns in their holsters patrol the region. Photography is totally prohibited (!!). The only difference that the place bears with respect to the Parliament area is that it is not cut off from the rest of city and is, in fact, located in the midst of a densely populated, immensely crowded locale known as BBD Bagh where pedestrians and private vehicles share road space with taxis and vendors and shops selling cigarettes and cold drinks compete for side space with small, makeshift food outlets selling omelettes and parathas (Indian bread). Even the policemen manning the place are extremely polite and would immediately give one the permission to snap a photo or two and even guide one to the corner from where clicking photos is allowed, provided one looks earnest (or desperate!) enough.


Red and majestic - Central wing, Writers'


Locally referred to as Mahakaran, Writers' Building ironically neither houses writers nor is actually just a single building but a cluster of red-colored, massive four-floored brick structures that stretch in a line adjacent each other. The symmetrical terraces of some of these megaliths are decorated with numerous exquisitely-crafted sculptures and the façade of each, emblazoned with gold three-headed Sanchi lions, symbolic of national sovereignty, portray an impressively inspiring appearance. Designed by the architect Thomas Lyon and funded by Richard Barwell who was a member of Governor-General Hasting’s (officiated 1773-85) administrative council, the central structure was constructed sans any architectural features or decorations between 1776-80 with the purpose of housing British East India Company's clerks and writers (now you get the name, eh?). But the classic epitome of grandly imposing European architecture in India did not begin in its present form – according to British journalist Geoffrey Moorhouse, back then Writers’ looked like a “shabby hospital, or poor-house”. Additional wings were constructed later on, and several other decorative features such as the iconic pillars (each 32 feet high) and the splendid statues, designed by William Fredric Woodington, were added. The Greco-Roman architecture, complete with decorative Corinthian pillars and cream-on-red highlights have since then become one of the most stunning sights in the entire cityscape. By 1970, all 13 four-floored wings were complete (though only the central five, which functioned in the capacity of a guest-house, a worker’s accommodation and a training college during different time periods, are considered heritage structures).

Consisting of three plasterwork statues each and representing the four pillars of a society-state (justice, commerce, agriculture and science), four painstakingly-detailed sculpted clusters line the terraces – each cluster boasts of the Greek deity associated with that particular domain in the center flanked by a European and an Indian practitioner of these professions on either side – thus there is Zeus depicting justice, Hermes depicting commerce and Demeter and Athena portraying agriculture and science respectively. Several other sculptures, such as those of Minerva (the Roman Goddess of learning and justice, arts and crafts, wisdom and courage, poetry and music, here illustrated robed and holding a owl in her outstretched left arm) and majestic regal lions, too adorn the roofs of the superstructures.


The pillars of  a society (Photo courtesy - Wikipedia.org)


Large underground parking lots (also manned by policemen, so don’t try taking photos without permission) exist opposite the sober building complex while a small, hyacinth and garbage-clogged fresh water tank, locally known as Lal Dighi and disturbed only by a couple of flawless white ducks, exists behind it. The Dighi, whose immediate proximity and facilitation of a visually spellbinding composition prompted the choice for the building's location, is separated from it by short stretches of grassy green lawns enclosed within railings interspersed by shimmering steel poles surmounted by equally unblemished, glittering globes – the monotony of the sprawling green is punctuated by red pedestals on which sit black-brown bronze statues (a dense treeline exists only along the peripheries, perhaps to avoid security issues) – passer-bys use a well-trodden, garbage-flanked path running next to the Dighi as a thoroughfare, affording only the scantest attention to the massive inspiring buildings (including the shimmering dome of Calcutta GPO, another august colonial architectural legacy, refer Pixelated Memories - Calcutta GPO) standing on the other side, as if they are relics of a nearly-forgotten colonial past and not administrative legacies that continue to play an extensive role in national and state politics (Edit 2014 – Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has decided to undertake an exorbitantly expensive revival-upgradation plan for the majestic complex and most of the ministries and state departments have been shifted (for the time being) to another building (follow links in the end), further downgrading Writers' Building's bureaucratic and administrative standing, but nonetheless once more pushing it into the spotlight, especially with regards the concerns over the loss of heritage character and ornamentation and also the lack of sensitivity on the part of the artists and conservation authorities involved in the project with respect to the building's original appearance, intentions and artwork). Entry within the building is prohibited by permission and there is a limit to how much one can photograph it from outside, given the heavy presence of police personnel and the unrelenting stream of traffic and pedestrians. Soon one realizes that it is time to take leave and turn oneself towards the other architectural gems that hide in plain sight in the surrounding labyrinth of wide streets and snaking alleys. One hopes to someday return again.


Notice the statue of Minerva surmounted on the triangular pediment


Location: BBD Bagh
Nearest Bus stop/Metro station: Esplanade
How to reach: Walk/avail a bus/taxi from Esplanade which is efficiently connected to all parts of the city via a road, metro and tram network.
Entrance fees: Nil during office hours (9 am to 6 pm), but entry prohibited by prior permission/valid reason
Photography/Video: Prohibited, unless one obtains permission from the policemen on duty
Time required for sightseeing: 20 min (from outside only)
Other architectural/historic heritage structures located in the immediate vicinity -
  1. Pixelated Memories - Calcutta General Post Office
  2. Pixelated Memories - Nam Soon Chinese Club 
  3. Pixelated Memories - Sea Ip Chinese Club 
  4. Pixelated Memories - St. Andrew's Church 
Suggested reading - 
  1. Anistor.gr - The Writer's Building in Calcutta, India 
  2. Bbc.com - Article "India's West Bengal government moves out of Writers Buildings" (dated Oct 15, 2013) by Subir Bhaumik 
  3. Telegraphindia.com - Article "Back to the British drawing board for Writers’ restoration" (dated July 18, 2013) by Pranesh Sarkar 
  4. Telegraphindia.com - Article "Crowning glory of Writers’" (dated Aug 19, 2013) by Soumitra Das 
  5. Telegraphindia.com - Article "Power moves across river" (dated Aug 8, 2013) 
  6. Telegraphindia.com - Article "Writ of Writers’" (dated May 20, 2011) by Soumitra Das 
  7. Telegraphindia.com - Photo gallery - Writers' Building 
  8. Timesofindia.indiatimes.com - Article "Writers' revival plan 'flawed'" (dated Feb 19, 2014) by Ajanta Chakraborty  
  9. Wikipedia.org - Writers' Building

September 25, 2012

St. Andrew's Church, Calcutta


Boasting of an interesting tale behind its construction with simple yet quirky architecture for company, St. Andrew’s Church is perhaps amongst the least known of the heritage structures in Calcutta despite its prominent location in the famed historic area referred to as BBD Bagh (formerly known as “Dalhousie Square” after the then Viceroy, later christened after the three freedom fighters – Binoy, Badal and Dinesh). When the British writ reigned supreme in the country that had been converted into one of the colonies supplying expensive raw materials like spices and silk and providing a fledging market for cheap products like textiles, Calcutta was the capital of administration and BBD Bagh its heart where splendid structures straight out of Victorian England were raised both by the Europeans and the locals. The age was that of mingling of the Orientals and the Europeans, the period golden for the mercantile men, capitalists and plantation owners who decided to take risk and set up businesses offshore to maximize profits, the locals were forced to grow indigo and opium on their fields amid much hardship to supply to the markets in England and China respectively while the British East India “trading” Company was slowly expanding its influence over the subcontinent under competition from French, Dutch and Portuguese companies looking for their place in the spotlight – such were the conditions when the Scottish Minister Reverend James Bryce decided that the city needed an inspiring church for its Scottish population. Since the union of Scotland with England in 1707, Scots formed a large fraction of those coming to the subcontinent to eke out a living in the rapidly-expanding colonial trade and politicized administration of the controlled territories; they worked here as soldiers and mercenaries in service of both the Company and the local kings, doctors and surgeons, jute mill owners and captains, plantation owners and traders, missionaries and industrialists. 


A towering presence in the city and yet forgotten by the people!


The government of the day supplied land for building the hallowed structure and donations were raised by wealthy individuals for commissioning the church; but not only did Reverend Bryce think of building the magnificent church, he also decided that its spire ought to be higher than that of the nearby located St. John’s, an Anglican denomination church (refer Pixelated Memories - St. John's Church) – the latter wish annoyed Bishop Middleton, the first Bishop of Calcutta and the head priest of St. John's, who believed that only the English church has the authority to commission steeples and did not authorize the construction. Cruel words followed from both sides and an irritated Rev. Bryce pledged that not only will the spire of the Scottish church be higher, he will also have a rooster as the finial atop it that will crow on the Church of England’s head and remind them of this debacle – much to the mortification of Bishop Middleton, Rev. Bryce did obtain all the necessary permissions and permits for the construction and height of St. Andrew’s Church (or Kirk, as the Scottish churches are referred to) despite the entire bureaucracy and permits departments controlled by the English – hence the final result, a black rooster fixed on the finial atop the beautiful church. To pacify the enraged Bishop, the then government directed the Public Works Department to not touch the rooster whenever they undertake conservation and repair work at the church, a practice that has since been followed citing the controversial character and history of the rooster. 

Built over 1815-18 by the construction company Messrs Burns, Currie and Co. and dedicated to St. Andrew, the imposing church with its glistening white facade and tall Doric pillars is a striking sight to behold in the perennially congested and traffic-ridden BBD Bagh area – it is another matter that the handsome church square is so engulfed by fast moving vehicles that photographing the structure in its entirety becomes quite a feat (though my minimalist point and shoot camera had difficulty reading the brilliant white paint of the church building too against a deep blue sky interspersed with fluffy clouds) – but one can admire the church building, standing in all its majesty at the head of the broad road in vintage photographs. 


The magnificence of the massive church is only apparent here - poles apart from the congested, overcrowded and crumbling Calcutta of today (Photo courtesy - Oldindianphotos.in)


The urge to witness the black weather cock topping the conical spire lured me to St. Andrew’s but except for its interesting history and antiquity, the church doesn’t have much to show for; moreover as is the case with most churches, photography here too is restricted by the permission of the Vicar and since he wasn’t in the day I visited, I was allowed to only see the church interiors from the entrance and that too after much pleading with the person in-charge. I was able to sneak in just a single click and as is apparent, there isn’t much to see within the church too except for its simplistic white structure framed by tall ionic pillars and topped by low hanging lamps dangling from the blue-green ceiling; I’d let the photo say a thousand words since I cannot conceive enough thoughts to describe the structure. Interestingly, the church is the only one in India that is fully air conditioned, the air conditioners being visible in the photograph I clicked; also visible are the numerous stone tablets that adorn the walls and commemorate the Scotsmen who passed away while in India and were buried in the Scottish cemetery which falls under the aegis of this church. I wasn’t able to closely inspect and photograph these memorials since the caretaker had allowed me only to have a look at the prayer hall and return – newspaper articles suggest that as part of the conservation of Scottish heritage worldwide, the Scottish government has commissioned and funded a project under which both the church and the cemetery will be restored to their original pristine condition. 


Call me irreverent, but I had expected a more dazzling interior to match the passionate history 


Inspired by St. Martin-in-the-Fields of London, the Victorian architecture of the church building consists of a large square structure seated on a high plinth with a massive triangular facade supported on tall Doric pillars forming an elegant portico in the front and a high spire surmounting the building. The large black clock with orange dials was fitted on the spire in 1835. At the bottom of the plinth on which the church structure stands are two plaques – a simple wooden board that lists visiting hours & mass timings and an ornate iron one installed by Kolkata Municipal Corporation that provides a short history and photographs of the church. The interiors are dark and dimly-lit and the hour at which I visited the prayer hall was empty, in fact there was no one in the entire church except the caretaker. 

The wife of the then Governor-General of India, Lord Warren Hastings, laid the foundation stone of the church on St. Andrew’s Day (November 30), 1815 and since its conception it solely holds the responsibility for archiving of records (baptism, marriage & burial details), files and correspondence to the numerous Scottish churches existing in India, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Gulf nations as well as the maintenance of Calcutta’s Scottish Cemetery (opened soon after the church). While the church was under construction, another building close to its present location was used as a makeshift church for temporary basis. Besides the Scottish population of the city, the church also provided solace in the times of need to the local Bengali converts to Christianity as well members of other churches. Locally referred to as “Laat Sahib ka Girja” (“Church of the Governor”, I couldn’t fathom the reason for this odd vernacular christening), the beautiful building is hemmed in by some very important structures that can claim an essential architectural and cultural connection to Calcutta’s life and history, besides Writer’s Building and St. John’s Church, there is Tipu Sultan Mosque, Sacred Heart Church and a street leads straight to the historic but obscure “Quan Ti”, clubs-cum-shrines belonging to the Chinese community of the city (see links in the post footer). 


The church and one of the wings of the beautiful Writer's Building (Photo courtesy - Panoramio.com)


In reality, I had planned to visit St. Andrew’s much late in the day after finishing a tour of some of the more prominent structures that I mentioned above, but somehow I got lost in the jumble of Calcutta’s streets (despite, as always, having a handmade map displaying all the places I had to go as well as the routes and the time required for each) and turned up at this part of the city early in the morning even though I must have stopped a score times to click structures that caught my eye, street life and the trams. Needless to say, as Calcutta goes, the traffic even so early was a nightmare and the area was choked with pedestrians as well as vehicles; the entire area, on account of housing the office of the Chief Minister and the residence of the Governor, is very heavily guarded by police and paramilitary personnel and photography does invite a few unwarranted cautious stares. The sun, already high in the sky and scorching in its temerity, made the church’s flawless white dazzle brilliantly and as mentioned before, I had much difficulty clicking it with my simple camera – would suggest a very early visit if an uncrowded, serene click is the requirement. The church, with its painted exteriors and well-maintained grounds stand out in sharp contrast to the buildings of BBD Bagh, most of which have been accustomed to urban decay, collapse and a reoccupation by small shops, shanties (consider the street joining Tipu Sultan mosque to Sacred Heart Church) and vegetation (consider the fig tree emanating from the corner tower of Standard Assurance Corp. building). 


Noticed the rooster yet?


Hope the conservation project being spearheaded by the Scottish government doesn’t get entangled in India’s cumbersome bureaucratic hurdles but is fully supported by the governments of India and Bengal and the church is preserved for the benefit of the generations to come who too, like us, might be amazed by the age of colonialism and the spirit of the seafarers and merchants who reached out to distant foreign shores in search of business as well as adventure! 

A note about the significance of St. Andrew for the Scottish people - A fisherman by profession, St. Andrew was one of the twelve apostles of Jesus Christ and is considered the patron saint of Scotland among several other countries. According to one legend, the mortal remains of St. Andrew were preserved in Greece and a monk named St. Regulus had a dream invoking him to set sail and take the remains to the "end of the (known) world" for protection and build a shrine wherever he was shipwrecked - it is said that the said shrine was built in Scotland (though there is confusion regarding when Regulus lived - Scottish documents state 8th century but historical records peg the date at 7th century AD). Another legend says that during a battle in which they were vastly outnumbered, the Scottish king Oengus II prayed to St. Andrew that if he won the battle he will declare St. Andrew the patron saint of Scotland. The morning of the battle, the clouds formed an 'X' shape in the sky ('X' being the symbol of St. Andrew since he was crucified on an X-shaped crucifix) and the Scots were victorious. Since then the Scottish flag (and consequently the Union Flag) bears a white 'X' against a blue background.

Location: Next to Writer's Building, BBD Bagh
Nearest Bus terminus/Metro station: Esplanade
How to reach: Buses and metro are available from different parts of the city for Esplanade. Walk or take a taxi from there.
Open: Tuesday to Saturday, 9 am - 2 pm
Service: 9.30 am on Sundays; 9.30 pm on New Year’s Day, Christmas & Easter’s
Entrance Fees: Nil
Photography/Video Charges: Nil, but restricted by permission of Vicar
Time required for sightseeing: 30 min
Relevant Posts -
Suggested Reading -

September 19, 2012

Tipu Sultan Shahi Mosque, Calcutta


The 180-year old Tipu Sultan Shahi Masjid happened to be the second monument (or seventh if considering the 6 memorials/monuments within St. John’s Church complex as individualistic, refer Pixelated Memories - St. John's Church. Aakash feels those separate posts were a diversionary attempt at gaining extra popularity from a single place!) I visited when I travelled to Calcutta alone for the first time. I have come to realize that if one is interested in photographing historical sites and monuments, travelling alone, or occasionally with friends who share the same interests, is a far superior option than travelling in random groups since this way one can visit, explore and photograph all the places one wishes to without any time constraints or having to stop for frequent food/rest breaks. Of course the downside is that one has to foot all the expenses, which is quiet alright in a relatively less expensive city like Calcutta, but might be an issue in, say, a place like Delhi or Kashmir. But then why would one head to Kashmir alone!


A cluttered, forgotten existence - Tipu Sultan Shahi Masjid


Returning to the topic at hand – Tipu Sultan Shahi Masjid (“Royal Mosque”) happens to be one of the least known historic monuments in chaotic Calcutta. And this is highly surprising despite the fact that the city possesses a plethora of heritage sites boasting of varying antiquities – one, because the graceful white mosque is prominently located just off Esplanade which, by virtue of being a major metro station, intercity bus terminal and shopping and tourism destination (there’s Victoria Memorial, St. Paul’s Cathedral, St. John’s Church and Birla Planetarium, each located in immediate walking neighborhood – see links in the end), is one of the most important landmarks in the city, and second, the mosque’s startling nomenclature is assumingly bound to astonish and impress anyone who hears of it into researching its history. But that’s the issue – there are so many majestic monuments and heritage sites whose immense popularity easily dwarfs that of this elegant yet simple mosque that while in Calcutta and even when in the vicinity of Esplanade area, instead of inquiring about the curious case of a splendid little mosque that bears the name of Tipu Sultan who happened to be the legendary Emperor of far-off Mysore (then consisting most of Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and southern Andhra Pradesh), most visitors to the city and even a large proportion of the inhabitants end up spending their time admiring the sculptural magnificence of the nearby located Victoria Memorial or gazing at the changing (artificial) skyline in Birla Planetarium.


Window to an uncluttered past (Photo courtesy - Beautifulmosque.com)


An innovative genius and unparalleled military tactician who also possessed intimate knowledge of Islamic jurisprudence, shooting, horse-riding, Hindi-Urdu writing, poetry and economic systems, Badshah Fath Ali Khan Bahadur Tipu Sultan was instructed in military tactics by French officers in service of his father Nawab Hyder Ali Khan and is credited with creating the first prototype rockets which he used in wars against the annexing armies of British East India “trading” Company whom he continued to oppose and fiercely resist all his short life. Technologically advanced and financially capable, he employed several skilled European weapon makers and mercenaries, was aware of the potent warfare technologies of his time, possessed an extremely strong naval force consisting of numerous war ships and frigates and even went to the extent of suggesting an alliance based on mutual admiration with Napoleon Bonaparte who came as far as Egypt on a conquering spree to unite their forces. But he never came to Calcutta. Nope, not even for sightseeing! So why does a mosque in the administrative and heritage heart of the city bear his name? The mosque’s forgotten history begins soon after the Fourth Anglo-Mysore War (May 1799, Seringapatnam) in which Tipu was killed by the combined forces of British East India Company, Nizam of Hyderabad and Maratha Confederacy (each of whom he had triumphantly defeated, though not crushingly, in the past) and his entire family (3 wives, 12 sons, 8 daughters and nearly 300 relatives in total!), considered highly dangerous state enemies, was exiled to Vellore (Tamil Nadu) so they couldn’t indulge in inciting passions and rebellions in the name of the dreaded deceased “Tiger of Mysore”. Following the “Vellore Mutiny (1806)” seven years later, Tipu’s illustrious fourteenth son and successor (since the British administration only recognized him as head of the family) Prince Ghulam Mohammed Anwar Shah was re-established (with pensions and land grants) at then British capital Calcutta according to the uneasy Government’s orders. He commissioned the fine mosque in 1842 in memory of his dear departed father and consequentially it still bears the title “Shahi Masjid” (“Royal Mosque”).


Mosque interiors - Subdued royalty or classical architecture?


Despite his superb administrative, organizational and warfare capabilities, Tipu is considered (based on unreliable, highly biased early British sources who participated in wars against him) a fanatic bigoted Muslim and an extremely harsh, iconoclast ruler who heinously ordered destruction of numerous temples and shrines and oversaw the forceful conversion or merciless execution of hundreds of non-Muslims, especially Christians, besides following a “scorched earth” policy and pitilessly ravaging and impoverishing captured territories and destroying their economies and agrarian capabilities. His admirers continue to debate that he looked after his subjects irrespective of their religion and personal beliefs, employed Hindus at almost each of the influential court post and provided religious grants and protection against brigands to several Hindu temples, some of which existed in the immediate vicinity of his palace. Yet he remains a much abhorred and very controversial personality in Indian history – a patriot who relentlessly strived against foreign colonial rule, yet himself a foreigner who ruthlessly oppressed his subjects and executed those he considered unbelievers or heretics. It is therefore difficult to contend whether his soul would be pleased to see that at present people of all religions are welcome at all times of the day without any distinction or discrimination in the mosque built by his son to commemorate his regal existence. The stunning structure, with its numerous plaster-faced shallow domes, elaborate plasterwork and slender minarets, is an epitome of architectural beauty made more attractive by the subjection of meticulous attention to detailing. Appearing ordinarily nondescript from outside (which might be the reason for the relative lack of popularity it suffers from), the brilliant white structure fails to attract many visitors despite the fact that the numerous turnip-like domes, lean minarets projecting from meager ornamental pillars, exquisite plasterwork patterns especially along the back of the mihrab (western wall of a mosque that indicates the direction of Mecca, faced by Muslims while offering prayers) and arched entrances inset in thoroughly painted white walls prove to be interesting visual additions to the city’s streetscape especially when observed vis-à-vis the numerous rundown, makeshift shops that have come up against the sides and back that faces the arterial Esplanade street.


Smothered flights of regal glory


Numerous people dozed or sat gossiping in clusters on the checkered courtyard that appears like a massive, enclosed chessboard (the only thing perhaps missing are the chess pieces, they would have completed the entire visual scheme!); while the roof over the courtyard is supported on several simplistic narrow pillars, the long wall enclosing the mosque’s sanctuary possesses along its exterior face shuttered doors flanked by Corinthian pillars and further framed by taller thick fluted pillars. Near the entrance are set several taps where people gather early morning to wash and bathe; the mosque’s “wazu khana” (space for ritualistic pre-prayer ablutions), with its moist, patterned grey walls and long line of taps and stone blocks for sitting, appears highly symmetrical and visually appealing – I was told that the water in the wazu khana is potable and indeed many people were there filling large bottles. Restoration and repair work was being undertaken and scaffoldings enclosed the two lofty corner minarets that rise above the tree line that envelops them. Facing the entrance side, several chambers are located across the courtyard and have been converted into residential units – one can avail permission for photographing the mosque interiors from here – hardly ever is anyone denied consent, in fact more often than not one is taken within the mosque’s sanctuary where rows of complex four-sided pillars, shallow concave surfaces underneath each of the ten small domes surmounting the roof and several fans hanging like flowers from their thin stems make for visually compelling photographic compositions. The double-aisled prayer chamber has been spotlessly painted brilliant white throughout and possesses the same checkered floor surface that extends to the exterior courtyards; the only sign of ornamentation are the simplistic ribbed semi-circular arches decorating the entrances and mihrab niches; color is introduced in the form of multi-hued floresque stained glass windows inset within the semi-circular sections above each of the side entrances and mihrab niches.


Chessboard


The minbar (platform where the Imam (chief priest) stands and delivers sermons from) is equipped with mikes and sound amplification system. The politically active Imam, Maulana Syed Muhammad Noor-ur-Rahman Barkati, has been in the news lately for several highly debatable and subjective reasons, for instance, indulging in political debates and opposing the right-wing BJP party (most Hindus did not like it), solemnizing the marriage of a Muslim boy with a transgender (most Muslims did not like it), or organizing prayers for the soul of Osama bin Laden (nobody liked it!). It is interesting to note that he also happens to be the Mufti-i-Azam, or the “chief arbiter on Muslim issues for the country”! This is an eye-opener – firstly, because there are a number of more articulate and learned clerics in the country, and secondly, because one might further question if the Mufti-i-Azam’s mosque isn’t so well-maintained, what exactly is the status and condition of other historic mosques in the country?!

Several estimates put the precise capacity of the faultlessly designed mosque at 1,000 people, however, I really doubt if it can accommodate such a large gathering in a single go – though the courtyard is vast, it isn’t so large either – all in all it took me not more than 30-40 minutes to explore and photograph the entire place.


Such symmetry! - The mosque's "Wazu Khana" (site for pre-prayer ablutions)


The mosque is maintained by Tipu Sultan Shahi Masjid Protection and Welfare Committee, an arm of the royal family trust of Prince Ghulam Mohammed (which draws revenues from the vast properties and palatial mansions that the royal family owns and leases out throughout the city) and the present restoration project is being implemented by it at the cost of Rs 80 lakhs (approx. $145,000) to be also shared by the identical twin mosque at Tollygunge which unbelievably also shares the entire architectural plan and decorative ornamentation to the last minutest of details. However, as already mentioned, one has to concede that the Esplanade mosque isn’t very well maintained and could have been a beautiful sanctuary in this crumbling old city had attention been accorded to its exteriors which have been overtaken by makeshift shops.

Prince Anwar Shah road, which snakes its way through one of the most posh localities in the entire city, is named after Prince Ghulam Mohammed Anwar Shah. Ironically some of Tipu Sultan’s sixth-generation descendants, amongst them one also named “Prince” Anwar Shah, are reduced to lowly rickshaw-pullers plying their trade on the same road named after their ancestor! Others from this illustrious genealogical line have been renowned as members of legislative councils, political parties and business houses; one of them, Noor Inayat Khan, whose father happened to be the eminent Sufi saint Inayat Khan whose dargah (sacred tomb) is located close to Hazrat Nizamuddin’s in Delhi (refer Pixelated Memories- Hazrat Nizamuddin Dargah complex), participated in World War II as a British Special Operations Executive and was executed by Germans on charges of subversive sabotage and espionage – she is one of the only three women to have been awarded St. George’s Cross, Britain’s highest wartime honor accorded to civilians. Some years ago, the eminent businessman and UB-Kingfisher Group Chairman Vijay Mallya bid for and bought Tipu’s sword for millions of dollars from a London auction house in a much talked about deal that was hailed as a resurgence of Mysore’s pride and economic affluence. One wonders if the expectation that he had focused back home and perhaps attempted to find about Tipu’s surviving family and spared part of the gigantic sum for their and the mosque’s well-being be considered utopian?


A whiff of color!


Location: At the intersection of Esplanade Street (Dharmatalla Street/JL Nehru Street) and Sidho Kano Dahar, approx. 400 meters from Esplanade intercity bus stop/metro station on the straight road.
How to reach: Walk from Esplanade with your back to Hotel Oberoi Grand and the Indian Museum. Taxis/buses can be availed from different parts of the city for Esplanade.
Open: All days, 4 am – sunset
Entrance fees: Nil
Photography/Video Charges: Nil
Time required for sightseeing: 20 min
Other attractions located in the neighborhood -
  1. Pixelated Memories - Birla Planetarium
  2. Pixelated Memories - Indian Museum
  3. Pixelated Memories - Metropolitan Building
  4. Pixelated Memories - St. Andrew's Church
  5. Pixelated Memories - St. John's Church
  6. Pixelated Memories - Victoria Memorial
  7. Pixelated Memories - Writers' Building
Suggested reading -
  1. Ahmadiyyatimes.blogspot.in - History: Great-granddaughter of Tipu Sultan died in Nazi concentration camp
  2. Indiatoday.intoday.in - Article "Decline into poverty: Hard times for Tipu Sultan's descendants" (dated April 15, 1988) by Kamaljeet Rattan
  3. Livemint.com - Article "Why we love to hate Tipu Sultan" (dated Feb 01, 2014) by Vikram Sampath
  4. Mentalfloss.com - Article "4 Stories of Everyday Royals" (dated July 23, 2013) by Matthew Schneeberger
  5. Royalark.net - Khudadad: The Family of Tipu Sultan
  6. Telegraphindia.com - Article "Osama prayer fuels questions" (dated May 7, 2011) by Muzaffar Raina and Rasheed Kidwai
  7. Timesofindia.indiatimes.com - Article "Tipu Sultan mosques to get a healing touch" (dated Sep 11, 2010) by Subhro Niyogi
  8. Tipusultan.net - Article "From princes to paupers"
  9. Wikipedia.org - Shezada Hyder Ali
  10. Wikipedia.org - Tipu Sultan

September 13, 2012

St. John's Church, Calcutta


Located in the heart of Calcutta’s heritage zone, St. John’s Church is surrounded by several famous landmarks of the city including the mighty Writer’s Building & Raj Bhavan, the peaceful Andrew’s Church & Sacred Heart Church & the enchanting Dalhousie Square. & yet it remains one of the most serene spots in the entire city, untouched by visitors who might write love letters on its walls & hidden from the prying eyes of passerbys. Old, crumbling & cut off from the rest of the city, yet beautifully maintained, it hides several treasures in its bosom. The blackened, yellow walls & shutters, surrounded by memorials & mausoleums set in a garden of flowering trees & bushes, filled with birds & cats, seem inviting. The graves – old, yet still showing signs of their erstwhile magnificence - hold ancient stories within themselves, revealed only to the most obstinate of travellers.


St. John's Church


That particular day I was alone, no friend accompanied me to Calcutta, walking through the old lanes & bylanes & checking my hand-made maps for directions & asking shopkeepers & pedestrians when my maps misled me, I finally walked in St. John’s Church. A signboard outside it detailed its history, old walls reminded me of several structures that I have seen during my travels, each with its own story. This one seemed special, it invoked silence around itself, despite being located in a commercial neighbourhood. Cars did not honk much here, dogs did not bark. I walked around the church’s hallowed grounds, alone, not even a soul in sight. This was good, I could photograph it as much as I wanted, from different angles, different perspectives. The grounds were recently watered, yet no gardeners were in sight. Only a small family with a lady doing laundry & kids playing nearby in a corner. They did not pay any attention to me, nor did I to them. It seemed we were the only people left in the entire world, there was no other sound from the outer world. & yet we stood obvious to each other. A whitish grave on one side of the church caught my attention. The headstone proclaimed it belonged to Michael Knatchbull, Viceroy of Bengal. A heavy stone cross stood looking over it.


Michael Knatchbull's grave


Walking further, I gazed at the line of coconut trees on one side, proudly displaying their green fruit. On the opposite side was a row of gleaming cars, perhaps people just park their cars here, the entire place was empty as I said. I glanced at the drivers, many dozing off on the grass under the bright sun, some smoked, others gossiped. As earlier I moved ahead, I did not know if photography inside would be permitted, so wanted to take as much photographs from outside as possible. I noticed a small section of the garden walled, the gate perennially open. A few white structures stood inside. As I progressed, out came a small kitten, rolling around, smelling at the flowers, gazing at me in silent contemplation, perhaps wondering who this intruder was. It came close, yet maintained its distance, allowed me to sit even closer & take as many snaps as I wanted. The drivers started laughing boisterously as I crouched to photograph the kitten. Perhaps they did not know that it was his (or her??) land, his jungle. It sat there, imploring me to click more, but as soon as I tried to pat it, it sprung & retreated, not showing itself again that day. 


Along the diagonal..


I entered through the gates, perhaps this was the cat’s home, I could see several snake holes all around in the bushes. On one side of me stood two memorial tablets, one with a triangular head, and the other in a stair-pattern with three differently sized stones. I read what they had to say, prosaic & sad, they were perhaps built by near & dear ones on the passing away of a family member or may be a regimental acquaintance, after all St. John’s is one of the first churches to be built in Calcutta by the British East India Company. Job Charnock’s tomb, a diminutive, octagonal structure with a dome for a roof stood in the centre of the walled garden (refer Pixelated Memories - Charnock's Tomb). Charnock, a trader with the British East India Company, is supposedly the guy who established the city of Calcutta by combining three neighbouring cities into one & established the Company’s stronghold there (a claim that has since been rejected following an order by Calcutta High Court, refer to the post about the Tomb for details). In here are also buried Charnock’s wife & several others. I stepped outside again, that harsh sunlight again blinding me. I looked down, there was an iron plate down there, I push aside the soil & fallen leaves, there were more graves all around the memorial. I was standing over them. Forgotten, covered with compost & decay, unlike Charnock who lies in his tomb next to them. Are spirits & the dead also rich & poor, I wonder. I walk away, how long can I stay with the dead, they don’t speak. Nearby are other memorials too, this place is littered with them. There is a memorial dedicated to Lady Francis Johnson (refer Pixelated Memories - Lady Johnson's Memorial), another dedicated to the Second Rohilla War (refer Pixelated Memories - Rohilla War Memorial), & a third dedicated to the “Black Hole” tragedy of Calcutta (see Pixelated Memories - Black Hole Memorial). There is also the tomb of Admiral Watson, who helped Lord Clive of the East India Company capture Bengal after the Black Hole tragedy.


The walled garden, filled with several mausoleums & tombs


I notice many pigeons flocking to overhead electrical wires near Charnock’s Tomb, they cooed but their voices were lost before reaching me. I look at the church. Nothing, no sound, no soul in sight. I head to it. Its spire rose high, I look up but am again blinded by the sun. The large clock on the 174-feet high spire ticking slowly, even time seemed to stop here. I start observing the architecture of the church – designed with a Greek touch by military architect Lt. James Agg, the church was built with stone & brick (hence often referred in Bangla as the “Pathare Girja” or “The Stone Church”) mostly derived (or as many say, robbed) from the ruins of Gaur in 1787 on land donated by a local lord Maharaja Naba Krishna Deba. The church’s large square base, & the pillared portico look impressive. Lt. Agg was good at what he did. Lost in these & several other thoughts, & clicking pictures here & there, I move ahead. The entrance was on the other side. 


The Stone Church


Before reaching the entrance I see another grave-like memorial sitting in the church’s corridor. This one was skilfully sculpted, a glorious cross stood over it. It belonged to Lady Charlotte Canning, the wife of Charles Canning, the first Viceroy of India (refer Pixelated Memories - Lady Canning Memorial). She died of malaria & lies buried in nearby suburb of Barrackpore. But this memorial was designed elaborately & constructed in the corridor of the church. I photograph it & step down the staircase.


Charlotte Canning's memorial


The entrance seems far, I find pleasure in the wonderful gardens, fragrant flowers spread cheers around, yet the place seems desolate, the air heavy. At the entrance is a big visitor’s book kept on a stand, its torn pages fluttering with the breeze as if some invisible being was turning them over to find some reference. Scrawled comments & signatures graced its pages. Many were illegible. As I entered the entrance, I saw a room on either side – the right one barred by a large, carved wooden board (more on it later), the other open. A man sat stooped in his chair, pen in hand, writing furiously in the latter room. I knock, no response. I knock again. He welcomes me in, offers me a chair, and asks the purpose of my visit. He too found it a matter of extreme importance that someone was visiting this long lost place.


Inside St. John's Church (Notice the secondary arch on the right side & the golden-ish painting on the left of the altar)


I tell him who I am, what I do. Satisfied, he grants me permission to photograph inside the Church. Cheerfully I leave, the prayer chamber is huge, painted white, its walls covered with epitaphs (mainly of army officers and civil servants besides other prominent citizens) & sculptures. I look around, not sure what to photograph & what to leave. Blue-paned windows usher in sun’s rays to lighten the chairs & benches. An organ starts playing as I step on the aisle. Confused, I look here & there, not sure where the sound is coming from. It seemed as if the entire hall was vibrating. My heart thumping, I regain my composure. Two pretty foreigners sit in the front rows, reading quietly from their hymn books. I walk ahead, we talk. I notice the monstrous pipe-organ besides the altar. I ask the ladies if going in is allowed. They did not know. I started photographing the altar, it was beautiful - a blue-painted arched wall covered with a row of golden paintings. More flowers & candles on the altar, a golden cross graced the table. 


The Altar view


The altar was flanked by a shallow arch on its right side. Angels with folded hands guarded the arch & splendid stained glass windows depicting scenes from Christ’s life adorned it. The left side had a painting similar to Da Vinci’s “Last Supper”. But the characters seemed different, the props were different. The only character unmistakeable was that of Mary Magdalene sitting next to Jesus. I later read that this rendition of the “Last Supper” was created by England-based German artist Johann Zoffany. It is said that the artist scandalized the elite of that time by representing various known British personalities as Jesus & his disciples in this image.


Colorful..


I photograph as much as I can, then notice the organ player smiling at me. He steps down. An old, crippled man, he uses a stick as a walking aid. I acknowledge his presence with a smile & continue with photographing the church interiors. The two ladies come & talk to him, they move to a window & point out directions, and then they leave. 


John, the church's organ-player


The old man comes to me, asks my name & where I was from. I compliment him for the wonderful music he played. His name too was John, he says like the Church, I say like the saint. He tells me how he got crippled & asks me if I have taken as many photographs as I wanted for my writings. He then leads me to Warren Hastings room. It was the room right to the entrance, the door of which was barred with the wooden board. He switches on the lights (instructing me to switch them off when I am done). Warren Hastings was one of the Governor-Generals of British-ruled India. His room has been restored exactly to what it used to look like when he used it, & is decked with framed photographs hanging on the walls, old Bibles, wooden cupboards & furniture. A chair is placed in a sealed glass case, the inscription reads that it is the actual chair used by Hastings himself, since then preserved in its original condition. After I am done, I go back to the prayer hall, it seems much grander, yet lonelier without John & the foreigners. A wooden arching staircase on the right connects the first floor, I climb up but the door is locked. I step down again & look around one last time. The mighty organ was silent now, so was everything around again. Nothing, no sound, no soul in sight.


Hasting's room


I walk out again, silently contemplating the fates of numerous people buried here, hoping I come here again. Hoping then this beautiful place shows more signs of life, when people too tread its grounds along with the kittens.


Goodbye, dear friend!!


Location: BBD Bagh area. Walking distance from Raj Bhavan, the residence of Governor of Bengal.
Nearest Metro Station: Esplanade Metro Station
How to reach: One can simply walk from either Esplanade Bus Terminus or Raj Bhavan. Or take a taxi.
Open: All days, 10 am – 5 pm
Sunday service: 8–9 am
Entrance Fee: Rs 10 (for visitors on foot, you have to pay more for parking)
Photography/Video Charges: Nil
Time required for sight seeing: 1.5 hrs
Relevant Links - 

  1. Pixelated Memories - Black Hole Memorial
  2. Pixelated Memories - Charnock's Tomb
  3. Pixelated Memories - Lady Canning Memorial
  4. Pixelated Memories - Lady Johnson's Memorial
  5. Pixelated Memories - Rohilla War Memorial
  6. Pixelated Memories - Sacred Heart Church
  7. Pixelated Memories - St. Andrew's Church
  8. Pixelated Memories - Writers' Building
Suggested Reading - 

Charnock's Tomb, Calcutta



This post is part of series about St. John’s Church located in BBD Bagh area, Calcutta. The integrated post about the church and the structures within can be accessed from here – Pixelated Memories - St. John's Church

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"Calcutta, founded amidst the vilest climate, the remotest marshes, and the most intemperate people in India, embellished and aggrandized by successive Viceroys with monstrous buildings and preposterous statues, and breathing a preponderantly commercial opinion upon the fate of 300,000,000 people.."
– Robert Byron, "New Delhi", The Architectural Review Magazine (1931)

Inside a walled compound in a forgotten, desolate corner of St. John’s Church stands a diminutive octagonal structure – painted a serene white throughout and possessing a small dome and arched doorways, this unique structure is both a tomb and a memorial dedicated to the memory of Job Charnock. Surrounded by several more uniquely constructed memorials, Charnock’s tomb looks different – peaceful, otherworldly and charming in its own way. Pigeons coo around the obscure structures, scores of them perching on the numerous electrical wires hanging about the high rises that dwarf the church complex. One gets the strange sensation that only Charnock’s tomb is maintained and cared for in the walled enclosure while the rest have been forgotten, ignored. An administrator for the East India Company, Job Charnock was one of the first English traders to set foot in Calcutta – In fact, it is contended that Calcutta did not even exist that time and Charnock was the one who stubbornly merged three adjacent villages (Sutanuti, Kalikata and Goindpur) in the militarily strategic Sutanuti region on the banks of river Hooghly into one administrative unit christened Calcutta (from “Kalikata” – the land of Kali, the Hindu Goddess of death & destruction, but not in any way associated with the ancient temple of Kalighat, refer Pixelated Memories - Kalighat Temple) and established it as a British military and commerce stronghold in the face of administrative opposition and persistent run-ins with fellow English bureaucrats. The theory has been contested by many scholars, as well as the Armenian community of Calcutta who claim to have settled in the city over half a century before Charnock and his team; most notably, the Calcutta High Court noted in its rulings (2003) that Calcutta was already a full-fledged city on the trade route by the time the British arrived. Yet the lore goes on.


The compound housing Charnock's and Admiral Watson's memorials


Resisting arrest and evading pursuance by the armies of the Nawab of Bengal with whom he had differences arising out of alleged injustice in taxation and imposition of cruel custom rates, a physically strained and mentally fatigued Charnock arrived in Sutanuti in August 1690, after much harassment and trouble with the Mughal and Bengal forces, and assumed command as the Company’s Chief Agent in Bengal. His persistence in establishing the Co.’s stronghold and associated port in Bengal paid handsomely and within a few years the Co. gained the enviable position of a regional territorial power possessing a proper seafaring route. However, aggrieved and heartbroken at the demise of his Indian wife (supposedly named Maria, however no records exist regarding her identification – she is said to have originally been a Hindu Rajput princess Charnock rescued from the horrific tradition of Sati where a wife is forced to burn herself upon the funeral pyre of her (usually decades older) husband while he was posted in Bihar; she later converted to Christianity) and the consequent death of his son, Charnock passed away two years later and did not live to see the Co. he so loyally served yield fruit from his extensive labours. Upon his death, his eldest son-in-law Charles Eyre constructed this structure in his memory with black stone for the tombstone specially brought all the way from Chennai (then Madras) – the rock from which the stone was chiseled has since been identified and isolated as an individual geological formation not found elsewhere and named in his honor as “Charnockite” (Pallavaram black gneiss). Charnock had served the Company for 34 long years – a period in which he was maliciously and often falsely accused of corruption, mismanagement, weak control over the British establishment and policy paralysis besides possessing questionable morals and supplicating to pagan (Hindu) religion to appease his wife. To please the subcontinent’s puritanical English society whom Eyre was required to interact with and manage as the Co.’s Indian Agent and President of Bengal territory (positions once occupied by Charnock), the memorial stone makes no mention of Maria who too is buried with her beloved husband. Overtime, several other relatives and other prominent personalities who demised in colonial territory were also buried close to Charnock in the small compound. The small octagonal tomb sits on a low plinth and is built in two distinct levels, the upper being considerably smaller in its cross-section than the lower; externally the tomb is marked with slender pillars along each corner, simplistic battlements at the interface of the levels and horizontal embossments running all over its otherwise plain surface. Within the tomb were erected the three jet black stone tablets, each etched with fairly artistic Latin, English and Arabic calligraphic obituaries in white paint. The English translation of the central tablet commemorating Charnock reads – 

“In the hands of God Almighty, Job Charnock, English knight and recently the most worthy agent of the English in this Kingdom of Bengal, left his mortal remains under this marble so that he might sleep in the hope of a blessed resurrection at the coming of Christ the Judge. After he had journeyed onto foreign soil he returned after a little while to his eternal home on the 10th day of January 1692. By his side lies Mary, first-born daughter of Job, and dearest wife of Charles Eyre, the English prefect in these parts. She died on 19 February AD 1696–7”. 


The obituaries within, carved on a unique rock since christened "Charnockite"


Another tablet commemorates William Hamilton, a surgeon who gained prominence in the Mughal court by treating the then emperor Farrukhsiyar (reign AD 1712-19) when the British Co. officers visited the royal court in order to discuss trade rights and factory privileges, in the following words –

“Under this Stone lyes interred the Body of William Hamilton, Surgeon, who departed this life the 4th December, 1717. His memory ought to be dear to his Nation for the credit he gain'd the English in curing Ferrukseer, the present King of Indostan, of a Malignant Distemper, by which he made his own Name famous at the Court of that Great Monarch; and without doubt will perpetuate his memory, as well in Great Britain as all other Nations of Europe." 

On the ground around the tomb, blanketed by a meager layer of fallen dead and dry leaves and trampled regularly by unaware visitors, are several thick iron plates that on first observation appear to be rectangular manhole covers, but on close inspection can be identified as tablets engraved as memorials to the deceased. These too are part of the tomb, these too have been forgotten in the midst of the numerous tombs and memorials, many of which belong to more historically-renowned personages, that litter the hallowed grounds of St. John’s Church. 


Memorials around Charnock's mausoleum


Flanking Charnock’s modest mausoleum are two even smaller memorials – the first is made up of three connected but successively bigger memorial tablets enshrined in enclosing masonry rectangles while the second and the most ornate of all memorials commemorates Admiral Charles Watson, Commander of His Majesty’s Navies in East Indies. Relegated to a mere footnote in India’s colonial history, Admiral Watson played a noteworthy role in commanding the naval segment of the forces led by Colonel Robert Clive during the retaking of Calcutta after the British fortress had been seized by Siraj-ud-Daulah, the Nawab of Bengal, and its occupants confined to a small dungeon prison where supposedly 146 Europeans, including officers, women and children, died due to asphyxiation. This strange and horrific event was termed “Black Hole Tragedy of Calcutta” and prompted indignation and outrage among the British, leading to a treacherous war against the Nawab and subsequently his grisly murder – the entire event later was proved to be a hoax where a small incident had been blown out of proportion in order to generate an atmosphere conducive for military and territorial expansion in India. Incidentally, a memorial commemorating the said event was also erected nearby and can be read about here – Pixelated Memories - Black Hole Memorial. Outside the small enclosure and keeping these forgotten memorials company are beautiful but even lesser known commemorative structures dedicated to Lady Charlotte Canning, the Second Rohilla War and Lady Johnson (see links below). The Church came up close to the memorials much later in 1787 AD and was consecrated to St. John.


(Left to right) An indecipherable memorial commemorating three individuals, Admiral Watson's memorial and the spire of St. John's church looming behind the tree line


Location: St. John's Church, BBD Bagh
Nearest Bus stop: Esplanade
Nearest Metro Station: Esplanade
How to reach: Walk/avail a taxi from Esplanade. Buses are available from different parts of the city for Esplanade and BBD Bagh.
Open: All days, 10 am – 5 pm
Entrance Fee: Rs 10 for visitors on foot (parking charges extra)
Photography/Video Charges: Nil
Time required for sight seeing: 20 min
Relevant Links - 
  1. Anglicanhistory.org - "A History of the Church of England in India" by Eyre Chatterton
  2. Sankalpa.tripod.com - Calcutta Diary: Roots of Calcutta
  3. Telegraph.co.uk - Article "Calcutta was not founded by Briton, court rules" (dated May 18, 2003) by David Orr
  4. Thehindu.com - Article "A memorial at The Mount" (dated May 27, 2002)
  5. Timesofindia.indiatimes.com - Article "Armenians in search of Kolkata roots" (dated Nov 20, 2010) by Ajanta Chakraborty
  6. Timesofindia.indiatimes.com - Article "Job Charnock not Kolkata's founder: Expert committee" (dated Jan 31, 2003)
  7. Transparentchennai.com - Article "Job Charnock (1630-1692): The story of the Englishman who founded present day Kolkata and his connection to Madras" (dated March 1, 2013) by Anand Lakshmipathi
  8. Wikipedia.org - History of Kolkata
  9. Wikipedia.org - Job Charnock

Black Hole Memorial, Calcutta


This post is part of series about St. John’s Church located in BBD Bagh area, Calcutta. The integrated post about the church and the structures within can be accessed from here – Pixelated Memories - St. John's Church.


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"Of one hundred and forty-six prisoners, one hundred and twenty-three were smothered in the Black Hole prison, in the night of the 20th of June, 1756. Few survived capable of giving any detail of the manner in which it happened; and of these I believe none have attempted it: for my own part, I have often sat down with this resolution, and as often relinquished the melancholy task, not only from the disturbance and affliction it raised afresh in my remembrance, but from the consideration of the impossibility of finding language capable of raising an adequate idea of the horrors of the scene I essayed to draw. But as I believe the annals of the world cannot produce an incident like it in any degree or proportion to all the dismal circumstances attending to it, and as my own health of body and peace of mind are once again, in a great measure, recovered from the injuries they suffered from that fatal night, I cannot allow it to be buried in oblivion."
– John Zephaniah Holwell, "A genuine narrative of the deplorable deaths of the English Gentlemen, and others, who were suffocated in the Black Hole in Fort William, at Calcutta, in the kingdom of Bengal; in the night succeeding the 20th day of June, 1756" (1758)



A solitary edifice remembering the victims of Calcutta's Black Hole (Photo courtesy - Johnandlucyareback.blogspot.in)


The British East India "trading" Company, an early example of capitalist privatization and massive-scale political maneuvering and powerbrokership, was given the charter to trade silk, spices and jewels in foreign lands, most notably India and south-east Asia, by the British crown – the Company soon began to maintain its own army in the areas where it established factories, hired British army officers as administrators, maintained regiments of mercenaries and Indian soldiers and turned kingmaker in several regions where it practiced its writ by interfering with local politics and sovereignty of the kings and landlords and also through political intrigues and offering military assistance to the warring factions. The Company adopted a policy of high-handedness and abuse of its duty-free privileges when Mirza Muhammad Siraj-ud-Daulah ascended the throne of the Nawab (Provincial Governor) of Bengal and Bihar in AD 1756. Only 23-years old at the time of his ascension, the wise Nawab, from the very beginning of his reign, was worried stiff by the ever-increasing territorial power and influence of affluent foreign imperialist countries and their militarily-strong trading companies. And he had valid reason to be worried as well – the assiduously cunning British East India Company never wanted him to become the ruler of Bengal-Bihar, but instead supported, financially and militarily, his renegade uncles and cousins. Immediately upon ascension and as one of the first working orders he issued, an enraged Siraj demanded the fortifications and armouries of both the French and British strongholds in Calcutta be torn down. The French promptly obeyed, but the obdurate British did not comply, further refused to pay the respects due to him, and soon thereafter even indulged in rioting and war-mongering. Incensed, Siraj marched to Fort William, the Company’s military and trade stronghold, and laid siege to it. The fortress' Commander and other officers had escaped beforehand to safety, leaving behind only a small retinue of trained soldiers and civilians to defend it and they proved no match for Siraj's martial prowess and surrendered four days later. The fortress captured and its defenders imprisoned, Siraj handed them over for further dealings and interrogation to his commander Manikchand. It is said that 146 of the survivors of that melancholic siege and battle were confined overnight in a horribly small, poorly ventilated dungeon – consequentially, 123 of them died as a result of asphyxiation and the ensuing stampede when water was passed around the prison cell!


Commemoration (Photo courtesy - Heritagestructurewb.blogspot.in)


The entire miserably terrifying, heartrending brutal incident from British-Indian history is based on the account of John Zephaniah Holwell, who claimed to be a survivor of the “Black Hole” tragedy (nomenclature he himself invented – in a way, the credit for the christening of the spatial phenomena of gravitationally collapsed colossal objects discovered much later goes to him) and penned an exceedingly detailed account, filled with pictures of blackened windows, suffocation and terrible physical and mental atrocities, about the abominable incident. British politicians and public, outraged and vehement in their demands for retribution and vengeance, never asked questions about Holwell's stories nor accounted for the numbers of soldiers, dead or missing, following the incident. No other contemporary historian or even Company papers mention this particularly important incident, nor was a report of it made to the Company Director. Nevertheless, it gave Lieutenant-Colonel Robert Clive the opportunity to march from Madras with a regiment of especially trained soldiers and challenge Siraj-ud-Daulah's authority in the Battle of Plassey (AD 1757). The Company became the de-facto ruler of the entire province of Bengal after Siraj's capture and execution on the battle front, the ascension of his Commander and Paymaster-General Mir Jafar Ali Khan (with the Company's inauspicious blessings) as the (nominal) sovereign and the appointment of J.Z. Holwell as the Governor of Bengal. British Governors, administrators and politicians of the day magnified the incident by adding gruesome details, used it to justify their conquests over the “uncivilized and brutal” Indians and, considering the meteoric rise of Robert Clive and J.Z. Holwell, also milked its aftermath to their own personal advantage. Later British historians justified the conquest of Bengal through intrigues and treachery by considering it a just retribution for the tragedy and an essential requisite for the Company's trade and territorial supremacy – but what if the maligned event itself was a case of crookedness and falsehood?!

Today, many eminent historians, including the renowned British scholar J.H. Little, question the veracity of Holwell's eyewitness account and contend that the ghastly incident did not take place at all but was a fabrication by Holwell to blemish the monarch’s name and present himself as the hero of the day. Most historians, however, do accept that some prisoners were indeed put in the dungeon and many amongst them did die due to suffocation, summer heat and the ensuing stampede, but hotly dispute that Siraj was not personally responsible for their deaths and Holwell’s version is highly exaggerated in itself as 146 people could not have been physically confined in the said punishment room (14 ft X 18 ft) and only around 65 people were actually confined. They even deny Holwell's statements that the women prisoners of European or mixed descent were forcefully relegated to Siraj's harem. There are many other inconsistencies unaccounted for that render the entire episode a shameful sham – for instance, how did Holwell move about in the cramped chamber to comfort his co-prisoners like he claims to have done in his recounting? How did he observe their agonized faces and keep note of the time in his watch if the entire chamber was drenched in darkness and even the windows had been barred and blocked till not a stream of light escaped through? Also, it has been countered that Holwell and several other officials and military officers escaped from Fort William through a series of tunnels to the Hooghly riverfront from where they were transported to Chennai (Madras) by a ship and only 43 people, including many Indian soldiers, were left unaccounted for.


The monument at its original location, after it was recommissioned by Lord Curzon in 1901 (Photo courtesy - Wikipedia.org)


Besides penning the said book about the tragic incident, Holwell even commissioned a commemorative memorial edifice that was originally located near the present-day Calcutta General Post Office (refer Pixelated Memories - General Post Office) in 1760. Interestingly, the entire monument vanished without a trace in 1822! Some historians claim that it was demolished upon the orders of then Governor-General Francis Rawdon-Hastings who was disturbed by the congregation of barbers at all times of the day around the obelisk memorial. The "Black Hole" itself, afterwards transformed into an ordinary warehouse, was dismantled when the fortress was rebuilt several years later. It is surprising that an edifice remembering such a gruesome catastrophic event in British history was destroyed in its entirety and there was no monument whatsoever following its obliteration to mark the same. Another monument, exactly identical to the original in all aspects except a few further fabrications (discussed below), was rebuilt in the vicinity of Writers' Building (present day office of the Chief Minister of Bengal, said to be the actual site of the “Black Hole”, refer Pixelated Memories - Writers' Building) by Lord Curzon, then Viceroy of India, in 1901. But in addition to the twenty seven names that Holwell had furnished of the British officers massacred in the tragedy, Lord Curzon also added several more who were known to have actually died in the siege of the fortress and the skirmishes and fighting that followed! Epigraphs were inscribed on each side of the memorial. The one etched upon the orders of Lord Curzon reads –

"This Monument
Has been erected by
Lord Curzon, Viceroy and Governor-General of India,
In the year 1902,
Upon the site
And in reproduction of the design
Of the original monument
To the memory of the 123 persons
Who perished in the Black Hole prison
Of Old Fort William
On the night of the 20th of June, 1756.

The former memorial was raised by
Their surviving fellow-sufferer
J. Z. Holwell, Governor of Fort William,
On the spot where the bodies of the dead
Had been thrown into the ditch of the ravelin.
It was removed in 1821."

At the height of Indian independence movement, with the growing clamor, especially provoked by Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose, for removal of signs of British supremacy and colonial history, the memorial was removed in its entirety from the Writers' Building compound and shoved in a corner of St. John’s Church (refer Pixelated Memories - St. John's Church for more details and photographs) where it still exists.

The 50 feet (15 meters) tall, obelisk-like memorial surmounted upon an extremely high octagonal base, one of the earliest examples of British masonry in the country, is inscribed with the names of the 123 people (supposedly) killed while incarcerated in the Black Hole. One of the legends states –

"The names of those who perished
in the Black Hole prison,
inscribed upon the reverse side
of this monument
are in excess of the list
recorded by Governor Holwell
upon the original monument.
The additional names, and
the Christian names of the remainder,
have been recovered from oblivion
by reference to contemporary documents."

Citing the memorial's meager forgotten existence in the corner of the church complex, another engraving, belonging to a later date after the sober but shambolic edifice had been shifted here, notes –

"This Monument was erected in 1901
by
Lord Curzon on the original site of the Black Hole
(North-West corner of Dalhousie Square)
and removed thence to the Cemetery of
St. John’s Church, Calcutta in 1940."


The reason (Photo courtesy - Wikipedia.org)


Whatever the true story was, the event has become an important constituent of the annals of Indo-British history and has been one of those instances where stories, conceived out of half-truths and falsehoods and constructed on the premise of an irresistible and unquenchable lust for political and territorial power, repeated again and again become transformed to "truths", difficult to chaff from reality, in popular perception. Oddly enough, J.Z. Holwell, as a surgeon and commentator interested in Indian civilization and Hindu scriptures and culture, drafted massive essays titled "An account of the manner of inoculating for the Small Pox in the East Indies with observations on the mode of treating that disease in those parts" (1767) and "Interesting historical events, relative to the Provinces of Bengal, and the Empire of Indostan with a seasonable hint and persuasive to the honorable the court of directors of the East India Company. As also the mythology and cosmogony, fasts and festivals of the Gentoo's, followers of the Shastah. And a dissertation on the metempsychosis, commonly, though erroneously, called the Pythagorean doctrine" (3 vol., 1765-1771). The latter exhorted fellow British clergy, scholars and administrators to consider Hinduism as equivalent to Christianity and, in distant future much to the chagrin of his corrupted, hell-bound soul, was particularly used by Indian nationalists during the Independence Movement. Revenge is best served cold!

Location: Inside St. John's Church complex, BBD Bagh area (refer Pixelated Memories - St. John's Church),  approximately a kilometer from Esplanade square.
Nearest Metro station/bus stop: Esplanade
How to reach: Walk/take a taxi from Esplanade.
Open: All days, 10 am – 5 pm
Entrance Fees: Rs 10 for visitors on foot; parking charges applicable.
Photography/Video Charges: Nil
Time required for sightseeing: 10 min
Other monuments within the church complex -
  1. Pixelated Memories - Charnock's Tomb 
  2. Pixelated Memories - Lady Canning Memorial 
  3. Pixelated Memories - Lady Johnson's Memorial
  4. Pixelated Memories - Rohilla War Memorial
Relevant Links - 
  1.  Pixelated Memories - General Post Office
  2.  Pixelated Memories - Writers' Building
Suggested reading - 
  1. Books.google.co.in - "Calcutta: A Cultural and Literary History" by Krishna Dutta 
  2. Books.google.co.in - "India Tracts" by J.Z. Holwell 
  3. Books.google.co.in - "The Black Hole of Empire: History of a Global Practice of Power" by Partha Chatterjee 
  4. Caravanmagazine.in - Article "A Return to the Black Hole" (dated Oct 01, 2012) by Gyan Prakash 
  5. Columbia.edu - Early views - Hinduism 
  6. Telegraphindia.com - Article " MYTH OF EMPIRE - The story about the Black Hole of Calcutta refuses to die" (dated June 25, 2006) by Rudrangshu Mukherjee 
  7. Wikipedia.org - Black Hole of Calcutta 
  8. Wikipedia.org - John Zephaniah Holwell
  9. Wikipedia.org - Robert Clive
  10. Wikipedia.org - Siraj-ud-Daulah
  11. Wikisource.org - Holwell, John Zephaniah