February 27, 2014

Tohfewala Gumbad, Deer Park, New Delhi

Veiled by an envelope of thick vegetation and hidden from onlookers by a curtain of trees that conspire to deepen its charm by adding layers of canopy around it, the Tohfewala Gumbad in Delhi’s verdant Deer Park is on a deeper level also obfuscated by a veil of mysteries and comes as a surprise even to the hardiest of Delhi’s architecture enthusiasts, even the ones on a lookout for it. It is not uncommon to come across tombs and heritage buildings in the most unlikeliest of places in Delhi – cramped between high rises, semi absorbed into buildings and urban centers, seated amidst landfills or simply overtaken by foliage – but Tohfewala Gumbad, deep red in color with a dripping of black along its top as a result of withstanding season after season of rainfall, dew and harsh summer, peeping from behind the greenery with its simple, stark walls and an architectural design giving proof to its strength and endurance brings a smile on the face of every heritage lover who chances upon it. It isn’t that the tomb is very well maintained, on the contrary it has been allowed to waste as a result of official negligence and obduracy with its walls displaying signs of decay and the platform on which it and several other graves rest crumbling slowly. Nor is the tomb an artistic delight, again on the contrary, the walls are simple, plain with not an iota of ornamentation within or without the tomb. The feeling is simply indescribable – after traversing the thickly vegetated park and moving to-and-fro along the curving and looping pathways looking for these medieval structures, coming across this simplistic tomb in the midst of all the trees and shrubbery is like meeting an old friend unexpectedly! 


Dating back to Tughlaq era (AD 1320-98), the modest tomb reflects all the features that the Tughlaq structures displayed – lack of ornamentation, walls sloping slightly to the outside, use of trabeated entranceways (stone beams of gradually increasing size kept on top of each other to fill space and form a rudimentary arch) despite there being available the architectural skills to build proper arches, kanguras (adornment resembling militaristic battlements) on the roof as well as the octagonal base of dome and an exterior appearance meant to convey massive strength. It is no wonder that the tomb survived eons even though many others that came later disappeared in the face of natural and elemental fury. Apart from the high plinth on which the entire structure and the auxiliary graves rest, the tomb proper also sits on a low plinth of its own. 

Historians point out that Tughlaqs (Qaraunah Turks born of Turkish fathers and Hindu mothers) possessed Turkish strength and Hindu modesty. So do their buildings apparently.

Like the exteriors, the interiors too are exceedingly simple – there is no ornamentation and the walls were once only covered with a layer of plaster which has mostly peeled off since; the monotony is broken by the thick arches that exist above each of the four entrances and the squinches along the corners that help support the load of the heavy dome. Four small square holes are set like a plus sign above each entrance, more for the sake of adding character than for providing ventilation. Interestingly, the tomb is pierced by an entrance along each of its face and the western wall isn’t filled up like in most contemporary structures to act as mihrab (wall indicating direction of Mecca that is faced by Muslims while offering prayers). The four graves within are surprisingly well preserved, each in perfect health and retaining the original designs and features – each of the occupant is male, as identified by the wedge-shaped protrusion atop each grave, however the identity of those buried here is unknown. An argument about the state of the graves that are crumbling outside the tomb can be made, but then the authorities already have their hands full and cannot perhaps make efforts for another structure (a theme recurrent in the past few posts too!) that is otherwise too at the mercy of vandals as so glaringly noticed by the messages left by them in paint on the interior walls of the tomb. Welcome to Delhi, a city so full of culture and heritage that it decided to forget and ignore parts of the same when it couldn’t cope up. Sadly though, there aren’t many who will cry at the loss of these unknown, unsung structures.

Safeguarded by a shy protector

Another structure, known as Thanewala Gumbad, in Shahpur Jat locality nearby is often confused to be Tohfewala Gumbad as a result of a mistake o the part of archaeological authorities. For details of the same, refer Pixelated Memories - Thanewala Gumbad.

Location: Deer Park
Nearest Metro Station: Hauz Khas
How to reach: One can walk from the metro station; availing a autorickshaw is advisable since the distance between the two is roughly 2 kilometers.
Entrance fees: Nil
Photography/Video charges: Nil
Time required for sightseeing: 20 min
Relevant Links -

February 22, 2014

28th Surajkund Crafts Fair, Faridabad

After staying in Haryana for almost 22 years, I finally visited Surajkund crafts fair – that iconic Mecca of unparalleled art, captivating handicrafts, vibrant hued textiles, unsurpassable heritage, striking paintings and mouthwatering food that comes alive annually every spring in the rocky outcrops designated as Aravali Hills at the intersection of state boundaries of Haryana and Delhi. Set opposite the ancient Surajkund water reservoir (now dry), that was a site for both religious congregations and monarchic attempts at achieving immortality through massive architecture, in a super-vast multileveled arena conceived and built for the very purpose of hosting it, the annual occurrence draws hundreds of sculptors, weavers, artists, painters, merchants and cooks, the last being not so skilled as the rest, and millions of visitors and patrons. The arena – barren rocky outcrop flanked as far as one can see with stunted, thorny trees interspersed by wide pathways and majestic gateways designed after various ancient temples and tribal constructions throughout the country – becomes a whirlwind of colors, textures and faces.

Welcome to Surajkund!

The international fair, held every year from February 1-15 and organized by the Indian government’s Department of Tourism (Ministry of Culture and Tourism) in collaboration with Haryana Tourism, aims to depict the uniquely vast diversity of Indian art forms and heritage in a landscaped visibly rural setting besides providing a platform to select artists and craftsmen, distinguished and often awarded for their ingenious skill and artistic innovation, to interact with patrons and sell their wares from the over seven hundred hut-like stalls in the premises without any middlemen – it is a much grander, more sophisticated and more amplified version of the Dilli Haat which does the same, but in much smaller premises, throughout the year (refer Pixelated Memories - Dilli Haat). For security reasons, public transport like autos and buses have to drop visitors considerably away from the arena and the parking is located even further away (thankfully we had access to the VIP parking!) – yet if the continuous crowds consisting both Indian and foreign tourists and numbering in hundreds moving to and fro between the fair grounds and the drop point are any proof, the charm of the fair refuses to thin out during its entire duration and the merchandise never ceases to attract and amaze even more visitors!

Arts, handicrafts, food, culture and photography!

The place of honor is of course Haryana’s, since the state hosts the event every year, and many of the dance and cultural performances draw from the state’s impeccable tastes and interesting history, but alongside another state and a foreign country are designated as a unique theme state and partner country respectively for the cultural festival and requested to send in contingents of artists and craftsmen to showcase their skill and artistic traditions – this year, the positions were accorded to Goa and Sri Lanka and apart from Haryanvi dancers and performers, there were many hailing from the theme lands. Sri Lankan flags fluttered jovially as they surmounted the numerous vibrantly painted makeshift gateways lining the arena pathways as representative of Sri Lankan art and culture while posters and thick placards embossed with colorful wavy flourishes and “Go Goa” tourism campaigns identified the state’s enviable position and presence in this year’s celebration of art and crafts.

A taste of Goa in Haryana

For sale were literally thousands of exquisite items – colorful textiles originating from different Indian states, sculptures crafted out of stone and clay and painted brilliantly or inlaid very dexterously with colorful stones, unparalleled brass work, intricately carved woodwork and furniture still smelling of fresh varnish, cottage industry craftsmanship items like terracotta idols, paper mache stuff, sea shell decorative items and curtains, tribal masks and statues of pagan deities, ornaments and jewelry, Rajasthani puppets in myriads of designs and sartorial choices, glasswork lamps and ornamental accessories like kitchenware and vases, paintings sketched on cloth and paper and set in large wooden frames, beautiful idols of elephants, camels and birds adorned with glittering beads and shimmering sparkles – I cannot even begin to describe the variety of items for sale since it is so very vast – the photographer in me went crazy experiencing this delightful extravaganza of colors and compositions. The sun might have been shining brilliantly and forcing most visitors to seek refuge under the makeshift shops and counters, but not me! No no, I clicked to my heart’s delight and it seems like I shall be hopping to the fair again and again in the coming few years to click at the numerous sights and the heartwarming little sculptures and patterns!


And if that is not enough, the global affair seems to be a natural draw for circus entertainers and joy ride installations – with so many visitors around, why should they miss their chance to make a few extra bucks – in a considerably lower setting than the rest of the arena are set numerous rides, from the massive Columbus’ ship executing pendulum movements on their levers and the scarily thrilling Ferris wheels, to the small merry go rounds and hopping frog rides meant for the little visitors, the fair has it all. The “Well of Death” – where cars and motorcycles are driven by bravehearts on the vertical walls of a huge cylinder while from the top stunned onlookers gaze with their jaws dropping wide and their eyes shining with excitement – seems to be amongst the most famous attractions, given the nearly thousand-strong crowd teeming with amazement surrounding the area. My parents tell me that I’ve been to the fair once when I was still a toddler, I do not remember anything else except glimpses from the “Well of Death” that I enjoyed while being perched upon my father’s shoulders – of course I cannot place the glimpses in a setting or another fair, and have to take my parents’ words that it must be Surajkund. 

This isn't even a miniscule fraction of the crowd.

At sudden instants and without any premonitions, the arena would come alive with the sounds of traditional folk songs and the beat of drums and the crowds would rush towards the stages set for the dancers who would perform very short lived sequences and plays before heading back to their designated seats – given the meager size and height of the stages and the enormity of the crowd, very few actually are able to see, leave aside click, the performances, and sad to report I was never once amongst those happy few even though I stayed at the fair for nearly an entire day. Throughout the arena are thrown in numerous artists working on the go – calligraphists skilled in such nimble work that they can pen entire texts intricately on a single grain of rice and willing to exquisitely illustrate one’s name on the same, fine sketch artists, painters and henna artists; besides these there are the usual vendors offering lemon sodas, ice creams, cold drinks and candy floss.

Another elephant

Located amidst the usual art and craft counters are numerous stalls stocking pickles of scores of different types fermented in dozens of oil and spices preparations, teas and coffees of numerous origins and aromas, and “churans” (sweet and spicy preparations composed of several natural products like spices, seeds and flavors, meant to aid digestion and bowel movements). Every state also sets up a food stall that introduces visitors to the cuisine of the state and serves up a variety of local dishes – I tried the Goan pork curry served with bread and shredded onions – in my opinion, very overpriced for the quantity I received and not at all reminiscent of the delicious pork dishes I’ve had – in fact, it rather tasted of eggplant curry more than pork! But disappointment is usually what you savor when you go out on a limb to try another state’s renowned cuisine in your own state. 

Try some sweets

Following lunch, I bought a number of items to adorn my room with besides again embarking on a clicking spree. Before heading back home, don’t forget to visit the tourism and information kiosks set up by various states in the permanent chambers in a corner of the arena – besides looking at the numerous huge information panels and posters, one can also collect brochures detailing the state’s cultural and tourism highlights, cuisine, shopping details and historic legends. Done with the fair, I had really wanted to visit the Surajkund reservoir immediately opposite the entrance gate but half of the massive crowd, perhaps tempted by the sight of chiseled stone steps on which one can rest their tired ass – tired is what you are after spending a day at this cultural fiesta – had had that same idea much before me and the area was so stuffed with people that the lone guard on duty was facing trouble ushering them in. I decided not to increase his already disproportionate trouble, and though I was disappointed as I always am when I see a monument but have to leave without exploring and photographing it, I was happy too since I could go home earlier and dive into the hundreds of photos I clicked and write about this aspect of the city. Satisfied, now I am.

An artist from Rajasthan

How to reach: Surajkund is located in Faridabad, approximately 8 km from south Delhi. Interstate buses and autos ply along the arterial Mathura Road throughout the day - get down at Badhkal and from there take an auto going to Surajkund fair (they only go there while the fair is on). Alternately, if driving from Delhi, one can also access Surajkund from near Tughlaqabad and past the Karni Singh Shooting Range.
Entrance fees: Rs 70/person (Rs 35 for senior citizens and students upon showing photo ID card)
Photography/Video charges: Nil
Time required for sightseeing: 3 hrs
Related post - Pixelated Memories - Dilli Haat
Suggested reading - 

February 18, 2014

Bagh-i-Alam ka Gumbad, Deer Park, New Delhi

Though Bagh-i-Alam ka Gumbad literally translates to “the tomb within the garden of the world”, there is nothing grand or striking about Deer Park in which this imposing tomb stands to consider it a garden of worldly beauty – in fact, it isn’t even a garden, the unruly tracts of vegetation, the massive trees with their twisted branches and gnarled trunks, the all-invading thorny shrubbery and the dense foliage give it the appearance of a forest. The only exception to this pervading sense of being in a small forest is brought about by the presence of jogging tracks and physical training equipments thrown in at intervals with boards and signages explaining to the visitors the purpose and guide to the equipment – in that sense, it is indeed the garden of the world, striving to keep people healthy so they remain in this mortal world a bit longer!

Masculine and towering

The number of visitors that this magnificent tomb attracts would put many of the more famous monuments in the city to shame, but the latter can keep heart as most of these visitors are either couples who are looking for a quiet spot for a quick make out or vandals on a lookout for space where they can carve their names and love letters – the massive entrances set within three of the four walls of the tomb (the fourth acts as mihrab – the wall that indicates the direction of Mecca and is faced by Muslims while offering prayers) are barred with grilles to keep both categories of people out. Of course it escapes the attention of civic authorities that the grilles would also prohibit the entry of monument lovers and heritage enthusiasts.

The largest of the three tombs in Deer Park (the other two are Tohfewala Gumbad and Kali Gumti), the structure is built with locally quarried stone – the red and grey stone blocks are fitted together to create a striking patchwork that further plays with sunlight to present a picture filled with brilliance and glimmer bouncing off each of the fragments. Externally, the single chamber gives a semblance of being divided into floors through the use of arched niches set on three levels – only the niches on the ground level and adjacent to the entrance act as windows, the rest are filled in with the same dressed stone that faces the rest of the structure – the niches are deep-set and couples were engaged in various physical activities in many of them (of course I do not mind, nor should you, reader!).

A beauty, overshadowed

The entrances are trabeated (stone blocks of gradually increasing sizes kept on top of smaller blocks so as to span a distance and give the appearance of a rudimentary arch). Arched windows exist above the entrances and these display remnants of vivid blue tiles which were used to break the monotony of the grey and red stonework but in my opinion fail to do the job, especially on a scorching summer afternoon. Both the entrance and the window are set within a larger arched niche which is further housed in a rectangular frame projecting outwards through the wall face. The roof and the drum (base) of the hemispherical dome are decorated with a line of kanguras (battlement-like ornamentation).

I had the pleasure of encountering two guys sitting on the staircase leading to one of the entrances and trying to light up a marijuana joint but failing repeatedly – they definitely were not engineers; engineers know how to light joints (as I demonstrated to them a few minutes later). The reason for recounting this is to point out that engineers don’t frequent the park (owing, perhaps, to the lack of girl friends that most of them face!?) but the park has become the haunt of marijuana/alcohol consumers. Peering in through the grilles, one can make out the design of the simplistic mihrab within as well as the intricate patterns in blue, red and white incised plasterwork that adorn the dome interiors – a huge central medallion depicts beautifully-executed floral patterns set within concentric circles of calligraphy and geometrical motifs. The medallion is further enclosed within two concentric stars done with bands of red paint – each vertex of the star is bound on both sides by vertices of the other star and a small teardrop shape medallion graces each of the vertices.

Dome interiors: Plasterwork details

The teardrop medallions also follow the scheme of the larger medallion – floral designs set within a band of calligraphy and geometrical motifs. The designs invoke a sense of awe at the brilliance of the artists who worked on these patterns and crafted them with unmatched grace and precision. The mihrab bears an inscription referring to the construction of the tomb – it was commissioned by one Abu Saiyyid in AD 1501 to house the mortal remains of a mendicant Sheikh Shihab-ud-din Taj Khan. Sultan Sikandar Lodi reigned over Delhi at that time and his rule saw many mendicants and saints arriving from Afghanistan, Persia and beyond settling in Delhi. Imam Zamin, who is buried in the World Heritage Site of Qutb Complex, also arrived in Sikandar Lodi’s reign (refer Pixelated Memories - Imam Zamin's Tomb).

A colorful teardrop

Adjacent to the tomb is an exquisite Qibla (wall mosque) with a large courtyard meant to seat the devotees bound to it. The Qibla has five arched niches set within larger rectangular indentations – the central of these niches is the largest both in terms of height and width. The wall extends and folds along the edges so that an additional niche also flanks the two sides of the courtyard adjacent to the Qibla. The entire length of the wall is topped by pretty neat leaf-motifs; smaller niches line the wall and would have perhaps once also provided holds for keeping small lamps; two neat rows of graves line the prayer space; light and shadows playfully create patterns along the courtyard. The wall shows signs of cracks and in many places the plaster has flake off to reveal the underlying layers of rubble – still it’s in pretty good condition if compared to the other two tombs in the park.

Prayers, graves and desolation

The central niche is flanked towards its back by turrets that convey masculinity despite their slenderness; towers exist at both ends of the Qibla wall. The towers are octagonal and thick but not solid – there are arched entrances built right through them. It is from behind the wall that one notices that these structures have largely been consigned to vegetation – foliage reaches right upto the Qibla, trees overshadow the tombs and in many instances the branches simply droop over the structures.

It is actually a pity that such splendid structures are hidden from general public and allowed to become the haunts of vandals and anti-social elements; had these been located elsewhere in the kind of garden settings that these were envisaged with, they would have been the treat of the place and a joy to behold.

Tower view

Even today the structures would prove to be magnetic towards visitors, but if only the park is well maintained and the portions of it that have become overly vegetated cropped and landscaped along with the provision of visitor facilities like clean drinking water and toilets – though there are water taps located right next to the park entrance, either they weren’t working or looking at their condition one began to suspect if they are hygienic and the water served clean. There are no toilets even in the famous Hauz Khas complex adjacent to the park, so fat chance of the introduction of such facilities here. As I said, it’s a pity, except that the pity doesn’t come from the authorities who have convinced themselves that only a handful of monuments in the city deserve their attention and conservation efforts and have turned a blind eye to the rest. Makes you think that the Ministry of Culture and Tourism is actually a farce – all they are concerned with is the tourist flow and would actually restore only those monuments, organize such concerts and events where tourist footfall is expected and conveniently forget the rest.

Forgotten - Mihrab within the tomb

Location: Deer Park
Nearest Metro Station: Hauz Khas
How to reach: One can walk from the metro station; availing a autorickshaw is advisable since the distance between the two is roughly 2 kilometers.
Entrance fees: Nil
Photography/Video charges: Nil
Time required for sightseeing: 20 min
Relevant Links -

  1. Pixelated Memories - Imam Zamin's Tomb
  2. Pixelated Memories - Kali Gumti, Deer Park

February 08, 2014

Sunehri Masjid (near Red Fort), New Delhi

Dusk was setting in and I was still walking along the periphery of the magnificent fortress that is Shahjahan’s legacy in the city of cities, unsure whether to head home or explore the old city some more, I let my feet guide me. The last vestiges of daylight were slowly giving way to creeping darkness; birds had returned to their nests in the trees and the lofty electricity towers that span this city like sentinels possessed with the sole aim of supporting a veil of thick black cables, the chirping soon grew to proportions that could drive anyone paying attention insane – it’s another thing that no one was paying any attention to the screeching and cawing birds – it was the night bazaar that had everyone’s eyes, as the morning traders collected their wares and folded their makeshift shops, their places were taken by evening traders – the aromas of rich, mouth-watering foods wafted through the smog-filled air, cars and autorickshaws competed in bouts of mad honking against each other, halogen bulbs threw yellow light that seemed inviting in the darkness of dusk but were soon overshadowed by the high beams of passing cars, a police patrol sirened its way through the flood of humanity that had littered on the streets like ants gathering around sugar. The ruckus, the din, the lights and the noise – each conspired to create an environment meant to overawe and trap visitors, to amaze them with new sights, to bind them with delicious smells.

Golden Mosque

It was under these circumstances that I found my way to Sunehri Masjid (“Golden Mosque”) located near the Delhi Gate of the Red Fort – a small mosque with big dreams, Sunehri Masjid is a child’s replica of the gigantic Jama Masjid that Shahjahan (ruled AD 1628-58) had commissioned at the height of Mughal supremacy (refer Pixelated Memories - Jama Masjid). But that’s where the similarities stop – while Jama Masjid’s towering minarets loom above the cityscape, this little mosque is overshadowed by the trees that populate its courtyard; massive gateways mark the entry to Jama Masjid, a small entrance is all that the Sunehri Masjid can boast of. One last similarity between the two mosques is that no priest climbs up either’s twin minarets to call the faithful to prayer – he won’t be heard from the height of Jama Masjid’s towers, he won’t be able to fit in Sunehri Masjid’s towers.

The entrance is decorated in patterns and artwork and is perhaps the most interesting feature of the mosque – embedded within the rubble periphery of the courtyard, the gateway possesses the flowing curves and arches that were a trademark of Mughal architecture, though like the rest of the artwork these too appear understated. The gateway opens to a wide staircase that leads up to the mosque’s courtyard; a peep back reveals stairs leading from the courtyard to the gateway’s roof level – one wonders how far one can see after climbing atop this small structure – not very far if you ask me. 

Entrance gateway - Modest

The mosque’s bulbous domes and slender minarets are hidden from view by a curtain of canopy – trees that decided to outgrow the structure they were supposed to beautify. It’s prayer time, about a dozen or so men are gathered in the mosque’s interiors listening to the sermons being delivered by an Imam (priest) – darkness covers every face, there is not a light in the mosque though one can make out the cheerfully painted interiors in the light of the setting sun. I would have loved to see some more but the Imam asked me (rather roughly) to step out of the mosque even though I wasn't inconveniencing the devotees in any way - how was I to know that it would be prayer time and you would take offense even if someone comes and stands in the end just so s/he can admire the mosque?? The interior artwork has disappeared, long buried under thick coats of paint; a cobwebbed fan looks desolately from behind the central arch, perhaps a beautiful handcrafted lamp hung in its place once. Rolled up prayer mats stand against each arch wall; one notices that the courtyard floor has flower-shaped depressions meant as ornamentation along its entire surface. A plaque above the central arched entrance is inscribed with details of the mosque’s construction – it was commissioned by Mumtaz Mahal Sahiba Qudsia Begum and its building was overseen by Nawab Bahadur Javed Khan, the mother and head eunuch respectively of Badshah Ghazi Ahmed Shah Bahadur (reigned AD 1748-54). Qudsia Begum (aka Udham Bai) was once a dancer – she must have been pretty good at her art because the Emperor Muhammad Shah (ruled AD 1719-48) decided to marry her and placed in her tender hands a contingent of 50,000 armed soldiers. The Queen slowly became so influential that she began to dictate the affairs of the state; she became one of the royal administrators when her son succeeded her husband – apparently Ahmed Shah was illiterate in the arts and learning and untaught in military and martial training (illiterate, a prince? Surprising, right?). 

Close up - The only view unimpeded by the tree line

The mosque, completed in the year 1750-51 towards the fag end of the once mighty empire, adds to the list of buildings the Begum patronized (another is the Qudsia Bagh mosque-garden complex in Kashmere Gate area), though am yet to learn why she is considered a patron of arts and architecture if she commissioned only two buildings and her own son was never educated in arts and learning – a clear example of overstated royalty, and of course, poor parenting!! The mosque’s onion domes were once gilded with copper and that gave it its glistening golden tint and hence the name – the copper was replaced with red sandstone facing when the last Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah “Zafar” II had the mosque repaired in the year 1852. Not that his devotion helped him – he was the Emperor of a finished empire, wisp of an already extinguished fire, lording from a fortress that had become a skeleton of its former glory over a territory that was his only in name – he was removed from even the nominal position merely five years after he had the mosque repaired, tried for war crimes perpetrated against the British during the First War of Independence/Sepoy Mutiny of 1857 and exiled to Rangoon (Burma/Myanmar). Strange is the tide of life – a dancer becomes an Empress, an Emperor becomes a prisoner!! 

For details and photographs of the Sunehri Masjid on Chandni Chowk street, refer - Pixelated Memories - Sunehri Masjid

Location: Near Delhi Gate of Red Fort
Nearest Metro Station: Chandni Chowk
How to reach: Buses plying from different parts of the city for Red Fort/Delhi Gate (of Shahjanabad)/Mori Gate will drop you opposite Red Fort. Walk towards the Delhi Gate of Red Fort; Sunehri Masjid is near the parking lot.
Open: Sunrise to sunset
Entrance fees: Nil
Photography/Video charges: Nil
Time required for sightseeing: 20 min
Relevant Links -
  1. Pixelated Memories - Jama Masjid
  2. Pixelated Memories - Red Fort
  3. Pixelated Memories - Sunehri Masjid (Chandni Chowk street)

February 01, 2014

Standard Life Assurance Corporation Building, Calcutta

You don’t have to be a monument lover or a history seeker to appreciate the plethora of culture & heritage that remains strewn throughout the beautiful city of Calcutta – from the idol makers of Kumartuli to the bazaars of Ghariahaat, from the Chinese temples of Tiretti Bazaar to the Buddhism centers of Tangra, from the old Bengali households of South Calcutta to the ferry ghats around Howrah – the city oozes heritage through each corner & crevice. And what better place to look for heritage in this essentially old city than the British-developed BBD Bagh area (formerly Dalhousie Square)? If you are done with the Writer’s Building, Andrew’s Church & the General Post Office, you can always head down to tick off other must-see buildings – Reserve Bank of India, Raj Bhavan & so on – you cannot by any chance miss the captivating building belonging to Standard Life Assurance Corporation. One of the most striking buildings built by the British in the city, this splendid red structure, despite its present decrepit state, is a gem for the architecture & heritage fanatics – though plants & weeds seem to have overtaken the building’s dominating corner tower, its stucco artwork & ornamental figurines are still in a good enough shape to make passer-bys take notice & gape – so much so that I stopped the auto I was in to get down & photograph the building in detail! The structure was designed by the Mumbai-based architect Fredrick W. Stevens (who also designed the inspiring Victoria Terminus at Mumbai) and constructed between February 1894 – May 1896. An exquisite example of Victorian architecture, the fine details of the building cannot escape a onlooker.

An insurance building - what's its worth??

Though the building has been declared a heritage structure, much of it has gone to the dogs – portions have been abandoned; restoration and conservation work are unheard of; parts of the building appear to be under a spell that’s keeping it from running aground. The old windows have been taken over by air conditioner units & a poster hangs over the façade connecting its two units; the paint has become blackened over time and the walls appear dilapidated – yet the rust red building somehow manages to appear attractive. The domed corner tower is surrounded by miniature domed towers; the figures of a young lady carrying a lamp and a Grim Reaper carrying a skull are prominently displayed on the left and right side respectively of the circular arch above the entrance. The figures are said to represent life & death – it’s another thing that they are mostly obstructed by electricity wires hanging taut between the pillars opposite the building. It is rare to find artwork of such superior craftsmanship and skill even in a city as old as Calcutta; it isn’t rare to see such artwork crumbling to dust in the absence of proper maintenance and upkeep. The red brick façade is reminiscent of times long gone; the air conditioner-choked windows are topped by round ventilators which are flanked by cherubs holding the ventilator between them.

The new and the old

The triangular pediment above the circular archway is faced with more figures – the scene is from the Biblical “Parable of Ten Virgins” and makes up the actual logo of the company. The parable is unanimously attributed to Jesus Christ and appears virtually unchanged in all New Testament manuscripts. It stresses on the importance of preparedness under all circumstances – for death in the case of an insurance company, arrival of Jesus in the case of the original story. It goes something like this (Matthew 25:1- 13) –

(When asked for the signs of the second coming of the Son of Man, Jesus replied) 

“Then the kingdom of heaven shall be likened to ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. Now five of them were wise, and five were foolish. Those who were foolish took their lamps and took no oil with them, but the wise took oil in their vessels with their lamps. But while the bridegroom was delayed, they all slumbered and slept. 

And at midnight a cry was heard: ‘Behold, the bridegroom is coming; go out to meet him!’ Then all those virgins arose and trimmed their lamps. And the foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise answered, ‘No, lest there should not be enough for us and you; but go rather to those who sell, and buy for yourselves.’ And while they went to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the wedding; and the door was shut. 

Afterward the other virgins came also, saying, ‘Lord, Lord, open to us!’ But he answered and said, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, I do not know you.’ 

Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour in which the Son of Man is coming.” 

One, two, three..ten virgins!

Colonial Life Assurance Company came into being in the year 1846 with the objective of providing life insurance to British citizens heading to one of the colonies – given lack of facilities in the colonies, the mortality rate was high and the British insurance companies were reluctant to allow their policy-holders to travel and work in the colonies under such conditions – Colonial Life Assurance treaded where no company had before – it offered attractive terms gauged according to colony-specific conditions. Business soon grew in leaps and bounds and in 1871 Colonial Life merged with Standard Life Assurance Company (formerly Life Insurance Company of Scotland) which had been into such operations since 1825 and was a leading name in this trade. Following the merger, the company located its head office in Edinburg (Scotland) and regional offices in Calcutta, Mumbai (then Bombay), Canada, Shanghai and Uruguay. The Calcutta office used to be housed in this very building.

One of the finest examples of Victorian architecture in the city and boasting of delicate artwork that remains unsurpassed except for a few instances, the building remains one of the least famous heritage structures in the city – even more famous than it would be the simple plaque installed in the wall of Presidency Hospital to commemorate Ross’s discovery of Malarial vector (it featured in the bestselling novel “The Calcutta Chromosome” by Amitav Ghosh). 

Heritage defiled & obstructed!

A sign of the way history in general is treated in this country, the building stands in its solitary corner lamenting the presence of very few sympathizers in the crowd of thousands that passes it every day. Perhaps it wishes that the British had carried back their structures too when they departed from the country; perhaps it hopes for a better existence in near future – but then what hope does an old, broken building like this have in a country where plaques have to mention “Affix no posters” along the periphery of the Parliament House?? (Refer Pixelated Memories - Parliament House, New Delhi) I’m waiting to be proved wrong.

Location: BBD Bagh
Nearest Bus stop: Esplanade
Nearest Metro station: Esplanade
How to reach: One can walk/take a rickshaw or auto from Esplanade to BBD Bagh.
Entrance fee: Entry restricted - a few Govt. offices are still housed in the building.
Photography/Video charges: Nil