Story of the Government House – How it all started

“… he made himself beloved by both the subject many and by the dominant few’ and ‘enjoyed among the natives a popularity… such as no other governor has been able to attain’… I could still hear ‘nurses sing children to sleep with a jingling ballad about the fleet horses and richly caparisoned elephants of Sahib Warren Hosein…” Thomas Macaulay

Much as he might have been hated by a large section of the British aristocracy in India, ‘Sahib Warren Hosein’, as Warren Hastings might have been called by the native Indians, had managed a strange magical hold over the mind of the people of the country. The man who gave the British empire it’s first strong footing from an administrative point of view was indeed a man of magnificently strong character. Given the importance of his position and the fact that he was in charge during the early days of the Company in India, it was necessary for the East India Company, and therefore the British Lords back home to provide all possible support to the Governor-General of the Indian Presidency. And Warren Hastings, without a doubt, was doing his job well.

Warren Hastings was allotted, by the imperial authorities, a one-storeyed mansion close to the business district, to work closely with the administrative and business hub that lay around the Dalhousie Square. In fact, he was believed to have spent a large part of his working weeks in this house between 1774 and 1785 till he resigned and left for England. In fact, his much-disputed second wife, erstwhile Baroness Marian Imhoff was also believed to have lived on these premises for quite a while.

Located very close to the river, there is an interesting anecdote about the house as narrated by one of the bookstall owners in the building. The legend goes that quite a number of Hastings’ enemies had mysteriously gone missing. Apparently, Hastings was believed to have been using a portion of the premises for silent unofficial executions of his enemies and rivals from a round tower at the back of the building used for hanging. The tower opened to a well that was connected to the river and once the dead bodies were flung into the well, they would get auto flushed into the river and be swept away by the tide. A large room now used as a godown was believed to have been used as a stable during the times of the first Governor-General of India.  

Current state of Hastings’ Town House at 7A Kiran Shankar Roy Road with the marble plaque. Picture courtesy: Indrajit Dutta

The once Town House of Warren Hastings stood on Hastings Street, named after its occupant. Post-Independence, the official address changed to 7A Kiran Shankar Roy Road. The property, now three-storeys tall and called Jitendro Chambers had been purchased, along with its adjoining land, by the illustrious Mallick family. The once busy, political mansion now stands as a run-down, derelict office complex with 12 tenants and 50 sub-tenants – a mute spectator to the changing times that have rendered it from being the centre of attention to a semi-forgotten piece of architecture. Even the marble plaque mentioning the once-illustrious resident seems to be lost behind the polythene sheets hung by street-side vendors, who crowd the façade of the close to the 200-year-old unrecognized heritage building.

As I had mentioned in one of my posts on the St. John’s Church, Warren Hastings, acquired the land from Raja Nabakrishna Deb of Sovabazar. While the massive church took a few years to complete and Hastings could not see its consecration, the Vestry room, had been already been made functional. It was, in fact, being used by Warren Hastings and the Church Committee comprising apart from him, Edward Wheeler, John Stable, Chaplain William Johnson and several others of high rank. And while the Church Committee hardly had things to discuss since the finances for the church were pretty much in place, it was technically used to discuss matters of governance of the then Colonial India. With the church providing room for official meetings, some of them began to be shifted there from the Town House.

The Town House, however, was not the official Governor’s House. In fact, it had all started off from a different location altogether – Alipore! Yes, with the Zoo on one side and extensions of Alipore the jail compounds on the other, the Belvedere Estate justified its name. Gifted to Warren Hastings, the then Governor-General of India, (or bought from) by Mir Jaffar of the Bengal Nawab Conspiracy infame, the ornate house and grounds today is part of the National Library compound.

The Hastings House and other structures within the Belvedere Estate, with their Italian Renaissance-style architecture, were a true fit to the meaning of the term “belvedere”. Unlike what most of us might think, “belvedere” is NOT a British aristocratic family name but Italian for “beautiful view” or “architectural structure built in an elevated position to provide lighting and ventilation and to command a fine view”. As a matter of fact, the Belvedere family line was traced much later in North America.

A view of Hastings House. Picture Courtesy: Bourne and Shepherd

So, the Hastings House in the premises of the Belvedere Estate served as the official residence of the Governor-General of India till 1785, at which point Hastings sold the property before he was officially called back home to England and tried for impeachment. But that too is a tale for a later time.

The next four Governor-Generals had rather short stints and resided at the Buckingham House. Now, the land on which Buckingham House stood, and the magnificent Raja Bhavan now stands, belonged to one Mahmed Reza Khan. Why it was called Buckingham House, remains a mystery, but it could possibly be traced back to the colonial hangover Indians had from the British rule! If the British Monarch resided at the Buckingham Palace, the Indian premier should at least live at the Buckingham House!

The owner, Mahmed Reza Khan, of course, was a beneficiary of British favours and was assigned the administration of Bengal including the 33 villages that lay on the eastern shore of Hooghly river, following the grant of Diwani rights of Bengal to the East India Company in 1765 by Emperor Shah Alam. Chitpur was one among “Dihi Panchannagaram” as the cluster of villages were known and being strategically located on the banks of the river, had its own situational advantages. The Nawab of Chitpur – Mahmed Reza Khan decided to reside in this most strategic locale in a pretty ornate house surrounded by gardens close to the Chitpur Strand Bank Road. With very good terms with the British, who considered him as a personage of the first rank, the Nawab reigned for a sizable number of years from his palace and the area surrounding his residence also boasts of a street named “Nawab Patty Street” till date. Now, let us once more get back to the stories around Government House, as it was called back in time.

So, Lord Wellesley assumed office as the Governor-General of India in 1798 and shifted to the Buckingham House. The small townhouse, however, failed to match up to his expectations and he took up the initiative of constructing a palace fit to house the ruler of the British Empire in India. Such was his haste that to live in the magnanimous palace that he had moved in even before the last of the construction workers had wrapped their work up and evicted the palace. Ironically, his stint in his imposing palace of dreams was rather short-lived. The Government place was completed in 1803 and Lord Wellesley was summoned back to England just about a year later.

View of the Raj Bhawan compound

Built between 1799 and 1803, designed by Captain Charles Wyatt after the majestic Kedleston Hall, the family residence of the Curzon family, albeit bigger and grander, the Raj Bhavan, as it is now called is a three-storied building built in the neo-classical style with Baroque overtones. In sync with the British Imperial vision, this building was strategically built a little distance away from the rest of the metropolis placed right amidst acres of garden and greenery.

More details on the grandeur and history of one of the most opulently built palaces adorning the Kolkata skyline in the next post. See you soon…

Reference:

  1. http://www.victorianweb.org/history/empire/india/29.html
  2. https://puronokolkata.com/2014/03/02/belvedere-house-alipur-calcutta1838/
  3. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/noun
  4. https://www.britannica.com/art/belvedere
  5. https://www.heritagekolkata.co.in/visiting-places/raj-bhavan-kolkata
  6. http://cscs.res.in/irps/inter-asia-cultural-studies-summer-school-2018/the-chitpur-walk
  7. https://www.thestatesman.com/supplements/the-house-that-time-forgot-157307.html
  8. http://www.bongblogger.com/house-of-warren-hastings-in-kolkata-calcutta/

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