Reliving History at Barrackpore

About 30 kilometres away from Kolkata lies Barrackpore.
Very much a part of our everyday lives., just another suburban town, or so it seems
But Barrackpore breathes history.

It is indeed of momentous historical significance.
This historic town has been a part of an incredible timeframe, from the consolidation of the British colonial power to the first mutiny, leading the way for our subsequent fight for independence.

As Anabel Loyd mentions in the foreword of the book ” Under the Banyan Tree, the forgotten story of Barrackpore Park”~ ” We are all part of our own, and the global historical narrative…The best we can do, is to use and exploit the memories and relics of our complicated and shared heritage to inform,  educate and enrich the present, in the always hopeful anticipation of lessons learned and informed futures”

The British had built cantonments all along the Ganges and Hooghly,  at places like , Dum Dum and Barrackpore.
Barrackpore cantonment had come up on the old Indian village called Achanok.
Ain-e-Akbari refers to Barrackpore as `Barbuckpur, ` It was probably a ` Mahal` or administrative unit under the Mughal rule. From the 17th century, the area was ruled over by a line of Zamindars based in Nona Chandanpukur, Barrackpore.

Once the cantonment was set up, directions from Fort William decreed that the military headquarters of the Presidency Division be set up at Barrackpore under a Commander in Chief. It was the residence of the commander in Chief that was appropriated by Wellesley in 1801 for building a weekend retreat. After the British crown assumed direct control of India, the sprawling Government House and the Government Estate were built in Barrackpore to provide the Viceroy with a suburban residence.

Once built, the delight of the house was its garden and the surrounding park.
Almost 350 acres of landscaped low hillocks and moulds giving it the appearance of a rolling parkland. The various Viceroys and Vicereines had added their own touches to this beautiful retreat. Lady Canning had made an Italian garden surrounded by a balustrade.
The second Lord Elgin had installed a sundial at the southern entrance.
Lady Minto had inaugurated a fountain in the south side and so on…
There was also the luxurious state yacht “Sonamookie” a wonderful houseboat for the carriage of men and materials for the Sahibs and ladies.
While the Government House in Calcutta was the lofty seat of the Empire, Barrackpore was a private realm, a cosy enclave where the rulers could withdraw and enjoy privacy.

Wellesley had also acquired land to build a straight road connecting Shyambazar in North Calcutta to Barrackpore. Thus was built the Barrackpore Trunk Road or BT Road as it is commonly called today .A series of semaphore towers were built along the road to serve as watchtowers. Back in those days coloured lights would be used as signals to convey messages. One such tower stands tall in the Barrackpore Park even today.

Over the years industrial areas had developed in and around Barrackpore.. Ichapore, Cossipore, Khardah, Titagarh, Palta had become factory areas of buzzing activity. The dusty haze of suburban factory towns and struggling daily chores make us unmindful of the glorious historicity of this region and the role it played  in the shaping of contemporary Indian history., It was right here between Calcutta and Barrackpore, that the movers and shakers stayed, ruled and the seeds of independence first sprouted.

It was therefore an absolute pleasure when we, a group of Heritage enthusiasts made our way to Barrackpore, just before the world shut down, last year.
We were really privileged that we were shown around by none other than Mr. Soumen Mitra who at that time was the Additional Director General of Police and Inspector General, Training.
His restoration and repair of the Government House, Barrackpore, the previous residence of the Governors-General of British India, was awarded the Heritage Conservation Award 2018-19 by INTACH. In 2020, he featured as a guest on the episode entitled “India” of Michael Portillo’s Channel 5 documentary ‘Portillo’s Empire Journey’, shedding light on, Barrackpore, the Government House and its history, and his own restoration of the building and grounds.
He and his wife Monabi Mitra have co-authored the book “Under the Banyan Tree” .He writes, “This is the story of Government House, Barrackpore, the life of this magnificent building is inextricably entwined with the lives of those it housed.”

And indeed a visit to Barrackpore is a trip down the memory lane of a significant part of India’s past.

Starting off with the gun salute ceremony and breakfast under the very Banyan Tree at the Police Academy, one is awed by the crispness of the place, and its beautification. There is a beautiful installation made by the famous artist Narayan Chandra Sinha made from empty bullet cases and ammunition containers.

Ceremonies under the Banyan Tree
At the Police Academy
The installation at the Police Academy made from empty bullet cases and empty ammunition containers

With the end of the British Rule Barrackpore became a remnant of an outmoded colonial order., while the cantonment functioned as a military area, the Governor General’s House had become derelict. It had been converted to a Police Hospital after independence and then it simply languished.
And yet what we saw and got to know of Barrackpore that 26th day of February 2020 has cast an indelible impression on us all.
The Minto Fountain , constructed in the time of Lord Minto originally placed at the Aviary pond  in the Minto Garden, the Lotus Fountain of Emperor Shah Jahan’s vintage, brought by the Marquees of Hastings from Agra Fort and placed on the southern garden of the Government House and the Lady Harding Bridge over Moti Jheel… All of this has been lovingly restored.

Minto Fountain

The aviary ruins were fascinating as was the World War II Memorial.

At the entrance of the old aviary
The Aviary ruins
World War II Museum

Fascinating also was Lady Canning’s corner,   she who contributed so much to the beautification of Barrackpore Park, and the statue of Lord Canning overlooking it.

Lord Canning

Breathtaking also was the Flagstaff House built in 1828 for the Private Secretary to the Governor General. Post-independence this has been used as the Governor’s retreat. The lawns of the Flagstaff House locally known as “LatBagan” was beautifully landscaped with flowers and plants. Strewn all across the beautifully manicured lawns were the statues of British administrators removed from Calcutta for being disturbing reminders of our colonial past. There was also the architectural magnificence of the Cenotaph built by Lord Minto in memory of those who laid down their lives in the Java expedition

Flagstaff House
Entry to Flagstaff House
The Statues of British Administrators at Flagstaff House
The Cenotaph

It is also worthy to mention the, four gates built  by Lord Wellesley,  of which the South Gate which marked  the entrance from Barrackpore Trunk Road stands tall till this day.

South Gate

But most importantly Barrackpore will forever be etched in our hearts as the place from where the seeds of discontent and mutiny began

The Barrackpore Mutiny of 1824  took place during the First Anglo-Burmese War , It is generally regarded as a dress rehearsal for the Indian Mutiny of 1857
This was led by Sepoy Bindee Tiwary. Indian forces of the 47th regiment were ordered to march to Chittagong by land because caste taboo forbade high-caste men to go by sea. Under the regulations they had to transport their personal effects, but had no bullocks available because the army had already engaged the supply
When the regiment refused to march, it was surrounded on the parade ground, bombarded by the artillery, and forced to flee under fire. The regiment’s name was erased from the army list, the ringleaders were hanged, and others were imprisoned

The Indian Mutiny, also called Sepoy Mutiny or First War of Independence, was the widespread but unsuccessful rebellion against British rule in India in 1857–59.
The pretext for revolt was the introduction of the new Enfield rifle. To load it, the sepoys had to bite off the ends of lubricated cartridges. A rumour spread among the sepoys that the grease used to lubricate the cartridges was a mixture of pigs’ and cows’ lard; thus, to have oral contact with it was an insult to both Muslims and Hindus. In late March 1857 a sepoy named Mangal Pandey attacked British officers at the military garrison in Barrackpore. He was arrested and then executed by the British
The immediate result of the mutiny was a general housecleaning of the Indian administration. The East India Company was abolished in favour of the direct rule of India by the British government

A beautiful, park is dedicated to Sepoy Mangal Pandey, the man who revolted against the oppressive power of British in 1857. The tree from which Mangal Pandey and Ishwari Pandey, two young sepoys, were hanged is still there. 
There is also the Annapurna Temple built by Jagadamba, the youngest daughter of Rani Rashmoni and it is a smaller version of the Calcutta Dakshineshwar Kali temple

The temple

We also saw the Gandhi Ghat and the memorial in his honour.

Gandhi Ghat Memorial

In the meantime the Government House has been declared a Heritage site and restoration is in full swing.
A gallery of Colonial History is already operational.

the Restored Government House

Barrackpore , the old British town, memories of colonial history, the retreat of the Governor Generals…of the melange of British of Indian foliage, of parks  and fountains and grand edifices and beautiful aesthetics
Barrackpore ,with the oldest banyan tree and the first Sepoy Mutiny ..
Barrackpore, so much now being restored,  for  us the progenies of Independent India
For us to know and uphold this town  the British so  loved and where the seed of independence first struck life…
A Walk down breathtaking history..

the River flows through Time
Ah Barrackpore !

Notes: Indebted to the book ” Under the Banyan Tree” by Shri Soumen Mitra and Smt Monabi Mitra and to my father for whom Barrackpore and Palta will always be special

28 thoughts on “Reliving History at Barrackpore

  1. Amazing to see the results of restoring the old Government House, If Somen Mitra took you around, I wonder if he showed you what used to be the official, designated bungalow for the training chief, that was in earlier days the ADC’s bungalow. What have they done to the bamboo-shaded walkway down to the ghat (not Gandhi Ghat, but the private jetty for the steam-boat that took HE and his entourage up and down)? The Government House used to be right on a bend in the Hooghly, and some of the old staff used to brag about being able to see for 20 kms, 10 towards Calcutta, and 10 in the opposite direction, due to the position.
    That Nissen Hut looks like the trainee policemen’s barracks; there wasn’t a World War II Museum earlier, so this must have been the idea of Mr. Mitra or somebody else equally erudite.
    It was nice seeing the South Gate. Just outside is a school, now called Barrackpore Government High School, that started life as a school set up by Emily Eden. Even though there were four armed police battalions and a ful-scope training establishment going on all together (Mr. Mitra, from the blog, seems to have been doing the Training bit), Lat Bagan was large enough to offer lots and lots of space.

    1. Dear Mr Gupta,

      A heartfelt thank you for your comment
      It has truly enriched my humble scribblings and inspired my cause.
      There is so much to see, so much to know.
      Bengal is a historic gem.
      Yet we know so little about it.
      Really grateful for your comment Sir.

      Warm Regards

  2. Dear Ipsita, you are doing a wonderful job for history as even these places will change but your record will remain. Proud of you for this fabulous work.

    1. Beloved Dr K,
      Over the moon. To make you proud makes me very very very glad
      My love and respect always
      Warmest Regards

    1. Beloved Di,
      Your appreciation means so much to me. Thank you so much for sharing my humble scribbling on your Facebook timeline too.
      Warmest Regards

  3. Very informative and a gripping story well written by my dear friend ipsita. Barrackpore which is close to my town was a common visiting place where few cousins still reside.. I was unaware of its historical background. The article is truly enlightening .

  4. Beautiful write up which takes us to past times.
    Many things we became aware of like history of Mangal Pandey.
    Lovely photos also part of write up.
    Now I have great desire to visit The Place.
    Wish corona issue gets over fast and we can travel.

    1. Dear Sir,
      Thank you so much for your appreciation. Please do visit Kolkata. Barrackpore is a 2 hour drive from Kolkata
      Warm Regards

  5. Very informative. Well written and illustrated. Was not aware that so much of history was still visible.

  6. Would love to visit the place. Need the exact location and address. And also if there’s a place to stay overnight. Indrani

    1. HI Indrani,
      This is in North 24 Parganas, West Bengal. about 2 hours from Kolkata by car. You could try the government guest house there. Do try booking through WB Tourism website. The guest house name is Malancha and is very close to Gandhi Ghat

  7. Well written I found it very interesting I used to visit Barrackpore on work and heard stories of saheb bagan incidentally there is a big pond there where rumor goes indiians were killed and tossed into the big pond.

  8. Indeed a beautiful essay on Barrackpore covering some known and less known pieces from history. I loved the lines dedicated to Flagstaff House. Thank you Ipsita for the lovely post.

  9. Ipsita this is a very interesting article on the prominence and yesteryears of Barrackpore. Very well written with easy comprehension evoking curiosity throughout. Loved it 👏👏

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