Colour photographs by the author, and black-and-white illustration from Walter K. Firminger (see bibliography). [You may use these images without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the photographer and (2) link your document to this URL in a web document or cite it in a print one. Click on all images for larger pictures.]

High Court, Kolkata, India

Side elevation along Dalhousie Square (now known as Bibadibag or B.B.D Bag, the initials standing for three prominent freedom fighters).

Walter Granville's General Post Office, built in 1864-68, stands on a historic spot. The north-west corner of Dalhousie Square was the original location of Fort William, where, according to a disputed account, many British troops were taken prisoner by Nawab Siraj-ud-Doolah in 1756, and suffocated to death overnight in its grossly inadequate dungeon or "Black Hole." Their monument in nearby St John's churchyard is the second to have been built, at Lord Curzon's behest, and the story is still repeated today.

A happier monument to the British presence here is the splendid building which still graces the site, "a noble, even stately structure of considerable sophistication dominated by a corner dome and punctuated by huge rusticated pylons which are linked by Corinthian colonnades." Following this account of it, Philip Davies judges it to be "Granville's best classical composition," noting also that the main hall, rising the full height of the building, "provides a grand setting for the tide of humanity that ebbs and flows beneath the dome" (207)

Left: Monument to the "Black Hole," inscribed with the names of well over a hundred dead. Right: The magnificent dome of the General Post Office is nearly 120' tall, and widely visible.

The site remained "at the heart of the city" even after the relocation of Fort William (Bach 377), and the building became its new landmark. According to the Rev. Walter K. Firminger in his Thacker's Guide to 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.

The end of this description is rather anti-climactic, perhaps a case of British reserve rather than any reservations about the building itself!

Full view of the General Post
Office

View of the General Post Office, reflected in the water of the old Lal Dighi tank around which the square is built (Friminger, facing p. 20).

It is hard fully to appreciate even the most notable of Calcutta's old buildings now, because of the press of people and especially traffic, and the crumbling infrastructure — broken pavements, for instance. But Jan Morris reminds us that things were quite different once: "when Calcutta's trees had not grown up yet, when its plaster was still brilliantly white, its porticoes were noy yet cracked or crumbled, there was a Grecian brilliance to it all which painters loved and foreign visitors wondered at" (206).

References

Bach, Brian Paul. Calcutta's Edifice: The Buildings of a Great City. Kolkata: Rupa, 2006.

Davies, Philip. Splendours of the Raj: British Architecture in India, 1160-1947. London: Penguin, 1987.

Firminger, Rev. Walter K. Thacker's Guide to Calcutta. Calcutta: Thacker, Spink & Co., 1906. Internet Archive. Web. 31 January 2013.

Morris, Jan, with Simon Winchester. Stones of Empire: The Buildings of the Raj. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983.


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Last modified 18 February 2013