The City of Joy is an abode of historical mysteries. While many are talked about, some are tucked away in corners little explored or often less paid heed to. It is said that the city has history in every corner, some written, while a lot of it transiting orally over the centuries.
While books are the most authentic form of documenting history, there are other ways to record events.
Kolkata, or rather Calcutta is a home to several plaques,mounted on walls, waiting to be read, but passing, careless glances are all that they attract.
The list can go on endlessly but here are a few plaques that document interesting events that reflect Calcutta’s importance or mark milestones in the history of the city.
Plaque of the wreckage of Sir John Lawrence (Puri rail link)
There isn’t a Bangali babu who has never visited Puri. While theists make it a point to pay obeisance to Lord Jagannath, many frequent the place as a weekend getaway. The best way to reach Puri is to avail a train but did you know what led to the laying down of the Kolkata-Puri rail link?
Tucked away from public view, a small plaque on the right wall of Chotelal Ki Ghat, also known as Mullick Ghat, talks about a rather sad story.
The bilingual plaque reads, “The stone is dedicated by a fewEnglish women to the memory of those pilgrims, mostly women, who perished with the Sir John Lawrence in the cyclone of 25th May 1887.”
According to historians, the plan for a rail link between Kolkata and Puri was mooted in the 1860s by two British promoters of railway construction, Marshman and Stephenson, to allow pilgrims to board trains irrespective of their caste and creed. However, their petitions were turned down. In late 1870s, it was calculated that around five to six hundred thousand pilgrims visit Puri every year, which would guarantee a lot of profit. Taking advantage of the numbers and government ignorance, some foreign companies started steamer services from Kolkata to Chandbali in Orissa, now Odisha. As the fares were high, mostly the children and the womenfolk of the house would travel in the steamers, with the men used the Jagannath Sadak.
A steamer firm, McLin and Company, ran a regular service on its steamship ‘Sir John Lawrence’. On May 25, 1887, the ship sailed from Kolkata’s Chotelal Ki Ghat for Chandbali with 750 passengers, mostly women, and a crew of 30 comprising six Englishmen. Nothing was known of the ships for two days until another ship reported wreckage and dead bodies floating off the coast. The ship sunk with its entire passengers just a few hours after it had steamed off. Most of the women who perished were from well-to-do Kolkata Bhadralok families. The few Englishwomen who drowned were wives of high officials.
It was later found that the steamer was carrying more than its capacity and a faulty navigation by the shipmaster led to the tragedy. In 1881, Baikuntha Nath De, an influential Zamindar, founded the ‘Balasore Railway Committee’, which sent a carefully-prepared memorandum to the Government of Bengal asking for construction of a direct rail link between Calcutta and Madras through Orissa’s coastal plains and of a branch line to Puri.
The public pressure had its effect and a survey for a rail line from Calcutta to Cuttack, with a branch line to Puri, was finally sanctioned. The line opened in 1899 but the full journey was possible only from 1900 when the bridges over the major rivers of Orissa had been completed.
Plaque of Jatindra Nath Mukherjee
Mounted on a wall of the Oriental Seminary school building, theplaque hails one of its ex-students Jatindra Nath Mukherjee who joined theBengal Ambulance Corps (BAC) in 1914 during World War I.
The plaque reads, “This tablet is raised by the boys andstaff of the Oriental Seminary. In memory of Jatindra Nath Mukherjee an ex-studentand one of the first batch of the brave sons of Bengal who joined the Ambulance Corps in 1914 and was killed in the battle of Ctesiphon in Mesopotamia. All honour to the brave lad who died for his king and country in a foreign land.”
Elucidating on the plaque, C P Ghosal, an English teacher at the school whose arduous work on the institution’s history has led to an archive in the building, said, “In 1914, about 18 students joined the 49th Bengal Regiment. Jatindra Nath was one among them who possibly joined as a paramedic. While all the men returned, Jatindra Nath died in the war.”
Plaques at St. John’s Church
Plaques at St. John’s Church
St. John’s Church near Dalhousie is a house of plaques. Inside the church, you can hardly see a wall that does not boast of history. A few interesting ones among them are:
The two brothers’ plaque
Plaques are generally put up in memory of someone. Great souls who once tread upon the earth are mentioned in plaques. However, this one is probably the only that thanks God for the life of two young soldiers who came back from the Great War, alive.
The brass plaque reads, “To the Glory of God The mosaic panel in the apse of this church representing the baptism of our lord is dedicated by Lt. Col Franklin Marston Leslie V.D. and Emma Helen, his wife as a humble token of gratitude to almighty God for his great mercy in preserving the lives of their soldier sons Captain Andrein Franklin Leslie R.E. and Lieutenant Alexander Addis Leslie M.C. R.F.A through the Great War 1914-1918.”
The plaque of the White Mughal
Later made into a book by Willam Dalrymple called the ‘White Mughals’, the plaque talks in memory of Lieutenant Colonel James Achilles Kirkpatrick. Known as a White Mughal for his love affair with Khair-un-Nissa Begum in Hyderabad, Kirkpatrick was responsible for many negotiations for the British East India Company.
The plaque reads, “To the memory of Lieut.T Colonel James Achilles Kirkpatrick of the Hon.ble East India Company’s military-establishment of Fort S.t George; who, after filling the distinguished Station of Resident at the court of Hyderabad, upwards of Nine years, and fuccefsfully (probably mistaken for successfully) conducting, during that period, various important negotiations, died at Calcutta, 15th October, 1805; aged 41 year: This monument is erected by his afflicted father and brothers.”
The James Pattle plaque
Though not documented properly, legend has it that James Pattle, who joined the Bengal Civil Service, hated the natives to the core. So much so that he wished to be buried in England after his death. Following her husband’s last wish, Pattle’s wife Adeline was carrying his mortal remains to England when suddenly the rum-filled barrel where Pattle’s body was preserved burst open. It is said that the sight, much unbearable, took away Adeline’s life too in shock.
A little later, even the ship sank and all this happened when the vessel was in Indian waters. Thus Pattle’s wish of not being buried in India was royally dampened by Fates.
The Old Fort Plaques
The white towering building of the General Post Office (GPO) may be privy to a lot of letters written in hushed tones, sealed in envelopes and sent to people who receive the messages after much anticipation but little does it know that there was once a fort that stood tall in its place, spreading across the street around it till almost the end of Fairlie Place. Yes, it was the Old Fort that was demolished by Siraj-ud-Daulah after he came to know that the British were collecting tax without his permission.
The present day GPO still has a brass plate running on the staircase but is hardly visible and paid attention to. However, three plaques — one on the wall of the GPO and two on the walls of the Eastern Railway Headquarters — mark the end of the bastions of the Old Fort. There are other plaques too but are out of public view.
The one on the GPO wall reads, “The brass lines in the adjacent steps and pavement mark the position and extent of part of the south-east bastion of Old Fort William. The extreme south-east point being 95 feet from this wall.”
The first plaque on the Eastern Railway Headquarters reads, “Thebrass line in the stone on the adjacent ground marks the position and extent ofpart of the north-east bastion of Old Fort William.”
The last visible plaque reads, “The brass lines in the stone on the adjacent ground mark the position and size of part of the north west bastion of the Old Fort William.”
The plaque of William Makepeace Thackeray
We know him for his works, mostly satirical, through the innumerable literary pieces that he has penned are stillbooks of knowledge for us. However, did you know that William MakepeaceThackeray has a Calcutta connect?
Born on July 18, 1811, William Makepeace Thackeray was born in a building on the Mirza Ghalib Street which waslater turned into Armenian College. Sadly, apart from a plaque on the outerwall, no trace of the original building remains today.
The plaque reads, “In this housethe novelist William Makepeace Thackeray was born on the 18th July1811.”
Note of thanks:
- Blogger Rangan Datta whose blogs on several plaques intrigued me to write
- St. John’s Church
- C.P. Ghoshal, an english teacher at the Oriental Seminary
- Anunay Banerjee, who accompanied me to many of the places