Streetwise Kolkata – Dalhousie Square: Once the British seat of power now a flashback of colonial rule

The impact of the city’s struggle to preserve its unique architecture is perhaps nowhere as visible as it is in this neighbourhood.

The massive Writers’ Building in central Calcutta is such an imposing structure that it is easy to miss the statues of three revolutionaries installed in front of it, relatively smaller in size. Set up after 1947 on the opposite side of the wide road in front of this building, the statues of Benoy Basu, Badal Gupta and Dinesh Gupta commemorate the sacrifice of the three men for the freedom of India.

In December 1930, the three entered the Writers’ Building, which housed the Secretariat, and shot dead Lt Col N.S. Simpson, the British Inspector General of Prisons, who was known for subjecting Indian prisoners to brutal torture in custody. Following the commotion, Badal Gupta consumed potassium cyanide, while Benoy Basu and Dinesh Gupta shot themselves to avoid capture. Basu was hospitalised but he died days later, while Dinesh Gupta survived the bullet injury, and was arrested, convicted and sentenced to death.

Originally named Dalhousie Square, post Independence, the area was renamed B.B.D. Bagh, after the initials of the revolutionaries’ names and a plaque was set up inside Writers’ Building in remembrance. Local buses in Calcutta often refer to the neighbourhood as B.B.D. Bagh, but both names for this location are frequently interchangeably used.

During the reign of George I that lasted between 1714 to 1727, the massive Dalhousie Square in Calcutta was known as Lall Bagh, with some historical references indicating that ‘Bagh’ was substituted for ‘Park’ by the English residents of the city. In his book ‘Calcutta, Old and New’, H.E.A Cotton provides some fascinating insight on what this neighbourhood looked like prior to the establishment of a commercial area by the British East India Company. “In the centre was the Lall Dighi, or great Tank, which had been in existence before the coming of Charnock within what was once the enclosure of the cutcherry of the former zemindars,” he writes.

That means, that even before the British settled in what later became the city of Calcutta, this neighbourhood of B.B.D Bagh or Dalhousie Square served as an area for administrative offices. “It was deepened and lengthened in 1709 and converted from a dirty pond full of weeds and noxious matter into a much needed reservoir of sweet water. The greater part of the western or riverside edge of the Park was given over to the Fort, which lay between the points now demarcated by Fairlie Place and Koila Ghat,” Cotton adds.

The reference to the Fort— what later came to be known as Fort William—is important because he writes, “It was now strong enough to ward off any attack by the “country powers” but the buildings within it had been erected very leisurely.” Here, Cotton is specifically referring to the attack by Nawab Siraj ud-Daulah in 1756, that resulted in the reshaping of Calcutta’s urban planning, especially areas dominated by the British and other Europeans.

Sometime during the tenure of James Andrew Broun-Ramsay, the 1st Marquess of Dalhousie, who served as the Governor-General of India from 1848 to 1856, the area was renamed Dalhousie Square in his honour. The tank in the middle of this square supplied essential drinking water for the growing metropolis of Calcutta and had been fed by a natural spring. While there is no direct relation to the presence of this tank and the neighbourhood’s namesake, Dalhousie, writes Cotton, “was quick to recognise that one of the chief needs of Calcutta was pure water, that it was no less important that means should be taken to introduce a proper system of sewerage and drainage, and that a survey of the town was urgently required for the purpose of ascertaining its manifold defects.”

The 244-year-old Writer’s Building that was built in sections over a span of several years, overlooks the tank known as Lal Dighi, that is still in existence. On the south-west corner of this tank is the statue of the Maharaja Lakhmishwar Singh of Darbhanga, who was known for his philanthropy.

This statue, sculpted by British sculptor Edward Onslow Ford, was possibly the result of Lakhmishwar Singh’s many contributions in public welfare in what is now Bihar and elsewhere in India. Singh was a member of the Supreme Legislative Council from 1883 until his death in 1898, where he also sat as the elected representative of the non-official members of the Bengal Council. “Few Asiatics have combined more successfully in themselves the apparently incompatible characteristics of East and West,” Cotton writes about the Maharaja in his book.

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In 1911, when King George V decreed that Delhi would serve as the new capital of British-controlled India, it began the slow shift of operations of many administrative offices from Dalhousie Square. Despite this change, the neighbourhood retained its importance as a commercial and administrative centre.

The area of the actual square itself is relatively small—about 800 ft to 800 ft in width and length. Photographs representative of this area invariably feature the square in the foreground with 206-year-old St Andrew’s Church, standing out in its distinct white paint and steeple in the background.

The impact of the city’s struggle to preserve its unique architecture is perhaps nowhere as visible as it is in this neighbourhood. Still the center of Kolkata’s business and administrative institutions, for the last two decades, Dalhousie Square has been caught trying to preserve its historical buildings and accommodate its populace’s needs, a majority of whom neither have the patience nor the care to look at the architectural wealth that surrounds them.

Along with the Writers’ Building, the General Post Office and the headquarters of the Eastern Railways are some of the most magnificent examples of colonial architecture in Dalhousie Square. This neighbourhood has some of the city’s highest concentration of buildings constructed in the colonial style, but much is changing, with property owners pulling down colonial-era structures and replacing them with modern construction. The others that are still standing are a mix of protected buildings with heritage status or those with semi-protected status, with their owners hoping that they crumble, either under the weight of the weather or other elements.

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