August 14, 2013

General Post Office, Calcutta

"Driving southward down the western side of Dalhousie Square we have the General Post Office and some magnificent commercial buildings on our left. The dome of the Post Office is one of the most conspicuous land-marks of Calcutta. The building was designed by Mr. W. B. Granville, and completed in 1868. The flight of steps at the corner formed by Koila Ghat Street and Charnock Place (i.e., the western side of Dalhousie Square), and the spacious Corinthian Colonnade scarcely fall short of being impressive."

- Rev. Walter K. Firminger, "Thacker's Guide to Calcutta"

“Calcutta?? What’s there to see in Calcutta??”
I’ve lost count of how many times my friends have exclaimed this statement in astonishment, especially when I mention having visited some monument/structure that not even most Calcuttans would have heard of. For most Indians, it would be either Victoria Memorial or Howrah Bridge or the Durga Puja celebrations that define Calcutta – that’s the very problem with Indian tourism – by letting one or two monuments/places to become the representatives of a city/state, we relegate the rest of the architectural heritage that city/state might possess to obscurity. But can a couple of places define Calcutta’s art & architecture in its entirety – what then of the famous St. John’s Church Complex where Calcutta’s history, in the form of the mortal remains of Job Charnock (the guy who established the city as a bastion of British supremacy in India), is buried?? Or the gigantic Tipu Sultan Mosque close to the Esplanade Square that was built by the exiled family of the mighty sovereign of Mysore? The invisible Chinese clubs of Tiretta Bazaar & Thai monasteries of Tangra that bring to the fore the flavors of Asia in this ancient city? But, the most endearing thing about this beautiful city is that here the heritage is not hidden from the masses, it isn’t the exclusive of tourists – Calcutta’s interesting & equally amazing history is part & parcel of the city’s everyday life – the city breathes its history, it knows how to live it. In fact, the city folk have amalgamated the city’s architectural & cultural heritage so integrally into their daily life that structures such as the Church of St. John or the General Post Office (GPO) haven’t been turned into isolated tourist spots that remain only skeletons of their erstwhile magnificence & glory; instead these structures still serve the city’s population in their original capacity, be it administration, relaxation or worship.

Calcutta General Post Office, view from Writer's Building

I agree that at times it is hard to appreciate Calcutta’s beauty; the city has turned into a congested mess with its traffic & crowds – the whizzing yellow taxis, the people scurrying to reach their destinations, the hawkers & the beggars – nobody is ready to stop for even a minute; leave alone photographing a structure without swarms of people buzzing around it, at times the milling crowds make it difficult to even get a full view of a structure. But though now dilapidated, these structures still bring to the front the glory the city enjoyed first as the headquarters of the mighty British East India Company & later as the capital of entire Indian subcontinent when it had been colonized by Britain.

The GPO, a magnificent white building, with a huge dome gracing its front end & Corinthian columns (slender fluted columns, topped by decorative leaves & scrolls) along its sides, is a brilliant example of the simplistic Edwardian architecture that was prevalent in Britain from 1901-14. What attracted me to the post office?? Didn’t I tell you of my interest in philately?? What better place to buy stamps to satiate my philatelic appetite than one of the oldest post offices in the country, one that reeks of history from each of its crack & crevice. The building was designed by Walter L. B. Granville (1819-1874), the same architect who also designed the Indian Museum (refer Pixelated Memories - Indian Museum), Calcutta High Court & the University of Calcutta (later destroyed). I have added links to the architect’s life history as well as the museum that I had visited on an earlier occasion in this article’s footer. The construction of the GPO started in 1864 & it was handed over to the postal department in 1868. It was commissioned by the British Government of Bengal to ease the administration of the postal & telegraph network of the province of Bengal; it has since then served as the chief post office of Bengal. 

Believe it or not, that magnificent dome looks small but is actually 220-feet high!!

Sadly, the crowd at the GPO began thinning after the advent of modern lines of communication such as email, telephones & SMS texting – the GPO has fallen on bad times & the bulk of post passing through it has reduced drastically, the structure remains more of a tribute to the glorious past. It stands at the centre of all posts passing through Calcutta, but also as a memorial to the city’s erstwhile position at the world stage. The GPO also has further gory history associated with it – it is built at the site of Fort William, the British outpost at Calcutta, that was the site of the “Black Hole Tragedy” of 1756 AD – a singular event where several British men & women were imprisoned in a small dungeon by then Nawab Siraj-ud-Daulah, leading to several deaths by asphyxiation & panic – an action that provoked the army of East India Company led by Robert Clive to attack the Nawab & impose heavy sanctions on him. The Company then became the virtual rulers of Bengal (of course, now the scale of the tragedy & the motives behind Clive’s attack are also under dispute – see post Pixelated Memories - Black Hole Memorial for the complete details). Along one of the staircases of the GPO, brass plates have been embedded in the floor to mark the dungeon where the “Black Hole” incident took place – however not many people are aware of this aspect of the GPO’s history. This is where the British rule in India started, sadly the brass plates are imperceptible & difficult to spot, just like the country’s history remains remote to the masses.

The plaque & the brass lines added to remind visitors of the Black Hole Tragedy (Photo courtesy -

Standing in the courtyard of the GPO, one can see history writ all over its newly whitewashed walls, the massive pillars seem to reflect pride & might at having carried the weight of the huge dome as well as the load of the entire communication service of Calcutta. The GPO has spawned an entire class of traders around its premises – there are some who sell envelopes, first-day covers, post cards & currency coins (the Reserve Bank is situated next to the GPO), others read & write letters for the uneducated, many others would perform legal paperwork & prepare documents for their patrons, some would even bring along their makeshift offices (consisting of rickety wooden tables & chairs) along with typewriters to draft letters for those who aren’t so fluent with the language of official communication.

One can see the GPO’s 220-feet high dome, complete with the big clock that graces its face & the Sanchi three-lion motif (the emblem of Indian state) from across the large water tank (locally known as “Lal Dighi”) that separates the GPO & the magnificent Writer’s Building (office of the Chief Minister of Bengal, refer Pixelated Memories - Writers' Building). Along with Writer’s Building, St. John’s Church (refer Pixelated Memories - St. John's Church) & the Raj Bhavan (residence of the Governor of Bengal), the GPO has become one of the defining landmarks of BBD Bagh Area, an old locality boasting of colonial architecture complete with pillars, idols, & imposing facades. 

I'm in love with this place!! - The Philatelic Bureau associated with the GPO building

On the inside, the GPO is much like any normal government office in India – clerks manning their stations, bundles of files stacked on & around their tables, many of these covered with thick layers of dust, gunny bags filled with papers & documents stacked along the corners, slow-rotating fans that creak more than they rotate, long queues of visitors lining up to get their work done. A Postal Museum was added to the GPO in 1884 & has on display a collection of stamps and postal artifacts such as letterboxes & seals. The GPO also boasts of a Philatelic Bureau which is a stamp collector’s delight, it was here that I bought stamps & first-day covers worth Rs 500 (as an indicator, except for the stamps, the entire trip cost me Rs 300, including Rs 200 for travel from Durgapur!!). The place is decked up with stamps on all sides, even the walls are adorned with large replicas of newly issued stamps, posters & information bulletins about Indian postal system.

It has even featured on a stamp.. (Photo courtesy -

Postage stamps worth 40 paise depicting the GPO were also issued by the postal department on its centenary celebrations in 1967 & 68. Several of those stamps I have in my possession, which brings me back to the question that my friends always pose to me, I answer it with another question - Isn’t it worth visiting a building that has been commemorated on stamps & still stands as a living testimony to the postal department’s establishment & continuing tradition of service to the citizens?

Location: Crossing of Netaji Subhas Road and Koilaghat Street, B.B.D Bagh Area. Ask your way around to Writer's Building from Esplanade Bus/Metro Station (refer Pixelated Memories - Writers' Building for identification). Traverse the pathway running along the tank opposite the Building to reach the GPO. Don't forget to photograph the ducks & swans that waddle in the tank!
Nearest Bus & Metro Station: Esplanade
Timings: 9am - 5pm
Entrance Fee: Nil
Photography/Video Charges: Nil
Relevant Links - 
  1. Pixelated Memories - Black Hole Memorial
  2. Pixelated Memories - Charnock's Tomb
  3. Pixelated Memories - Howrah Bridge & Railway Station
  4. Pixelated Memories - Indian Museum
  5. Pixelated Memories - Nam Soon Chinese Club
  6. Pixelated Memories - Sea Ip Chinese Club
  7. Pixelated Memories - St. John's Church
  8. Pixelated Memories - Tipu Sultan Mosque
  9. Pixelated Memories - Victoria Memorial
  10. Pixelated Memories - Writers' Building
Suggested Reading - 

1 comment:

  1. I liked the post. The length was just right, not too long or too short. Never compromised the details of the post!