Sunday, September 20, 2015

HERITAGE OF KOLKATA (কোলকাতার ঐতিহ্য)

The Standard Life Assurance Building - Kolkata

The Standard Life Assurance Plc is one of the oldest & largest insurance companies in the world. It was originally a Scottish company, founded in Edinburgh in the year 1825 and was known as ‘The Life Insurance Company of Scotland’. Later in the year 1832, the company changed it’s name to ‘The Standard Life Assurance Company’. The company grew rapidly and also opened up overseas business, targeting the British Colonies. By end of 19th Century the company had business interests in Ireland, Germany, Canada, Egypt, India, Shanghai and the West Indies.

The company clearly saw opportunity in providing life insurance cover to British subjects settled in the colonies around the word. Most of the insurance companies were reluctant to provide life insurance to European people residing at these colonies, particularly in Asia, due to high mortality rate. And indeed this was a problem in India as the British and Europeans couldn’t cope with the heat and dust of the tropical weather and succumbed to deceases like malaria, cholera & black fever at very early age pulling down the average life expectancy. However Standard Life Assurance saw opportunity in this and aggressively built up business. In the year 1846, the company had set  up the ‘Colonial Life Assurance Company’ (the Colonial), which was specifically designed to handle business in the British Colonies and India, and could offer attractive terms based on the Colonial's more accurate assessment of mortality risk in the countries concerned. The Standard's association with India had begun with the founding of the ‘Colonial’ in 1846. Following the merger of the two companies, all Standard business in the East came under the control of the Calcutta office.

Later as the business grew, the company decided to set up it’s own office building.  Accordingly a plot at the corner of Dalhousie Square (South) and Red Cross Place (formally Wellesley Place) were acquired and a fine building was constructed between February 1894 & May 1896. The building is a classic example of colonial architecture with strong Victorian design influence. It has a prominent presence with the multi-domed tower on the north  east corner and a huge ornate archway  over the main entrance. There is a triangular pediment at the very top over the arched entrance where the sculpture representing the famous logo of Standard Life can be seen. Designed by the sculptor John Steel, the motif of the biblical ten virgins were adopted by the company as it’s logo. This is derived from the holy bible, parable of the Ten Virgins (Matthew 25:1-13,). The story in essence advocates people to be always prepared for the future contingencies and this co-relates with the need for life insurance.

Also just on top of the main entrance of the building, there are two bas-relief figures. The figure on the left of the archway is a young lady carrying a lamp and on the right it’s the figure of Grim Riper carrying a skull at the right. The two figures represent Life and Death respectively.

This beautiful building was designed by Fredrik William Stevens, the same man who had designed the ‘Victoria Terminus’ of Mumbai.

The HONGKONG BUILDING – Dalhousie; Kolkata

The Modern and the old..

A sportscar zooms past the HONGKONG building in Dalhousie, housing the eastern zonal head office of the global financial giant “The Hongkong & Shanghai Banking Corporation.”

Though HSBC opened it’s first branch in Kolkata in the year 1867, the current place was occupied by them at a later date. The site that Hongkong house currently occupies belonged to Mackenzie Lyall, auctioneers, who had monopoly in auctioning of opium. In fact HSBC, in it’s earlier days, was known to have made money by financing opium traders of China. This grand building was constructed in the year 1922, by Sir Rajen Mookherjee’s firm, Martin & Co. at a whooping cost of Rupees Twelve Lacs. But then globally HSBC is known to spend lavishly on their office buildings in major cities around the world. In many cities HSBC office buildings are landmarks.

It is believed that the designers of this beautiful structure with Edwardian & Neo-Gregorian style stone façade, were people from Palmer & Turner of Hong Kong. The Shanghai head office of the bank at the Bund area, facing Whampoa river which came up in year 1926, just four years after the HONGKONG house in Kolkata was completed, was designed and constructed by Palmer & Turner. One can see lot of design influence of the Kolkata building on the Shanghai head quarter. Later in 1935, the same firm also designed and constructed the Global Headquarter of HSBC at 1 Queen’s Road Central, Hongkong.

St Patrick’s Kirk: Dalhousie Kolkata

If you are wondering what a “Kirk’ might be, let me tell you it means a Scottish church.

Scotsmen are always keen on establishing their own Identity apart from the British. Kolkata under British rule was no exception where a considerable population of Scottish people came and settled down. Dr. James Bryce, a Scotsman took the initiative to build a Church in Kolkata for the Scottish community.

It stands tall at Dalhousie Square in Kolkata, just beside Writer’s Building.
It’s a magnificent white building, and bears a tall steeple crown with a weather cock on top of it. True to Scottish spirit, the steeple was made taller than the St. John’s church, (diagonally opposite to Raj Bhawan) the Anglican Cathedral of Kolkata.

There are six pillars of Tuscan order adorning the front.

The architect of this beautiful church was M/s. Burn Currie & Company. The construction had started in 1815 and was completed in 1818.

BASU BATI – BAGHBAZAR: Frozen in time

It was a hot and sweltering Sunday in the month of May. The heat was unbearable at 11am in the morning. Not the best weather to venture out but we had no option as we were told to come only at this time when the permission to enter the historical Basu Bati at Bagbazar was granted to us. Getting the permission itself was a long story but I will not elaborate on that. So the three of us got going. The destination was 65/2, Baghbazar Steet, where the mansion stands.

This is one of the prominent heritage properties of Kolkata owned by a Bengali Zaminder family. The Basu family had zamindari in Gaya and one of the many families of landlords who built up a fortune from Zamindari.

Mohendra Basu, the eldest son of the Basu family acquired the land where the building stands. His two brothers Nandalal & Pasupati Basu constructed this fine house and started living from the year 1878.

We left the busy Baghbazar Street and turned right onto the narrow lane. After fifty yards or so the narrow lane flanked by the thickly set houses suddenly opened up and the mansion with it’s huge doric styled pillars loomed large before our eyes in it’s full glory. The giant pillars at the front reached upto the roof and made up the porch. On the level of first floor, a platform like veranda with ornate wrought iron railings filled the void between the giant pillars and the main wall of the house. The wings of the house spread on both sides of the towering porch. On our right was a walled garden, obviously not too well maintained, lined with huge trees and thick shrubs underneath. The left wing is fenced off seemed to be in better shape with human habitation and a garden which is obviously taken care of.

Just beside the main entrance there is a marble plaque which says Rabindra Nath Tagore came to this house on October 16, 1905, on the day of ‘Rakhibandhan; to mark protest against division of Bengal by British Government. A ‘National Fund’ was also created in his presence for the sole aim of upliftment of the commerce and industry run by our countrymen.

We entered through the main door which opens up to a huge courtyard with a raised platform or ‘Thakurdalan’ on the opposite side where pujas used to be held. The main double storied dwelling area encircled the courtyard from other three sides with a running veranda with blinds. Across the length of the veranda are the row of rooms which conforms to the typical construction of Bengali houses of the rich during 18th and 19th century.

The show stealer of course is the magnificent “Thakurdalan” which hit’s the visitors eyes with all it’s grandeur. It is one of the largest Thakurdalan I have seen so far. A flight of stairs from the courtyard lead to the main platform where six huge ornate ionic style fluted pillars stood guard. Behind the main pillars there are four pillared archways which lead to the inner sanctum where the idol would have been placed during Pujas. The top portion of inner wall over the archways was once painted with murals but obviously the fine artwork couldn’t stand the wrath of time and negligence and only hints of the once beautiful murals could be seen now.

It was interesting to note that the main pillars on the outside are definitely influenced by European architecture prevailing in 19TH century but the construction of archways on the inner sanctum bear a strong hint of Muslim architecture. Of course I am not an expert in this field therefore I cannot say with certainty but this what I felt.

The huge mansion is now in dilapidated state and obviously the current owners are not maintaining or not in a position to maintain this heritage building as it should be. Nevertheless if still exudes the remnants of it’s past Glory when Bengal was leading in both culture and commerce.

 Some of you who watched the Bengali movie “Baishe Shrabon” (২২শে শ্রাবণ)have seen this house as a significant part of the movie including it’s climax scene was shot here.

For more detailed history of this house, I would urge the readers to go through the blog of my friend, Amitava Gupta, an avid blogger on history & heritage whom I accompanied. This is a fantastic read and gives the readers a lot of useful insight.


  1. Hi, wanted to know how did you get permisson to enter this beautiful house.i need to get some pictures too.

  2. Hi, wanted to know how did you get permisson to enter this beautiful house.i need to get some pictures too.