Visiting the Victoria Memorial at Calcutta: Tribute to the Raj
If you drive past the famous Maiden in Calcutta, you cannot miss seeing an imposing building in the center. It shines from afar and the white facade gives the monument a pure look. This is the famous Victoria Memorial, which for the last 90 odd years epitomizes the glory of British rule over India. It is named after Queen Victoria, Malika-e -Hind( empress of India). She died in 1901 and was the empress of India for 43 years. One will recollect that the crown took over the country and disbanded the East India Company in 1857 after the suppression of the Sepoys revolt.
The rule of Queen Victoria is a watershed in the history of India and during this period momentous changes took place. The army was modernized as per the latest principles by enunciating the Articles of War in 1893 and the framework of India as a nation was laid by enacting the Indian Penal Code and Indian Evidence Act. The hIgh Courts were created at Calcutta and Bombay. The framework of Indian administration and governance was created by forming the Indian Civil Service(ICS) and even the first train ran between Mumbai and Thane in 1861. This period also saw the establishment of the Indian National Congress party in 1885 by an Englishman Allan Octavian Hume, a retired Indian Civil Services officer. Thus the period of Queen Victoria by itself is a significant era in Indian history.
Construction of the Memorial
When the Monument was planned, Calcutta was the seat of the British Indian Empire and it was logical to have the monument built there. But by the time it was completed in 1921, the Capital was planned to be shifted to Delhi and the monument was overtaken by events from history. Much of its importance was lost, but its architectural splendor cannot be diminished.
The memorial named after the famous British queen Victoria is the heart and soul of Calcutta. It took eight years to build and incorporates Mughal and Western design concepts. The best part is that the memorial was built without any public money and its funding was all done by private Princes and Rajas who wished to curry favor with the imperial power. This was in response to an appeal by Lord Curzon and the Indian Rajah contributed Rupees one crore and five lakhs.
The man who conceived the idea of this monument is Ist Baron of Kedleston, the then Viceroy of India. Popularly known as Lord Curzon, he proposed a grand building with opulent gardens as a tribute to Queen Victoria.
Planning began in 1902 and on 4 January 1906, the foundation stone was laid by the Prince of Wales, later King George. Midway through the construction, King George announced in 1912 that the capital would be shifted from Calcutta to Delhi.
Lord Curzon left in 1905 and construction of the memorial was delayed. After 1912 enthusiasm for the project waned as Calcutta would now only be a provincial capital. Work again commenced on the prodding of the Bengal government and the memorial was opened in 1921.
Design and Architecture
The Victoria Memorial was planned in a way that it should rival the Taj Mahal. The chief architect of the Memorial was William Emerson (1843 -1924). He was a man who had spent quality time in India and had constructed many big buildings. He chose the Indo- Saracenic revival style which means that it was a mixture of the British and Mogul architecture. It also incorporated elements of Venetian, Egyptian and Islamic architecture. Just for the record the building is 338 x 228' and rises to a height of 184'.
Opulent gardens were laid out around the memorial complex. These were designed by Lord Redesdale and David Prain. An important landmark of the memorial is the Central Dome. On top of this dome is the figure of the Angel of Victory. This figure is 16 feet tall. Surrounding the dome there are allegorical Scriptures and above the North Porch, the references are to motherhood, prudence, and learning.
The memorial is built of Makrana pure white marble and in design, it echoes the Taj Mahal. It has four subsidiaries, Octagonal -domed Chatris, high portals, terrace, and domed corner towers.
The Victoria Memorial and the Taj
Sir William Emerson the man selected to design and execute the project was given a briefing by Lord Curzon. He had been visiting India since 1860 and had designed numerous buildings all over India. Lord Curzon wanted him to build a monument that could rival the Taj Mahal. The monument in its white marble splendor is spread over an area of 26 hectares with exquisite gardens. It is certainly a marvelous piece of architecture. No visit to Calcutta can be complete without a visit to this memorial.
The monument has lost much of its sheen with the capital shifting to Delhi, but it cannot be forgotten that this memorial is also a museum and brings alive the greatness of the Raj. There is a small entrance fee to visit the museum and memorial and its care and upkeep is the responsibility of the Central government.
Though the memorial in sheer physical and aesthetic beauty rivals the Taj, yet because of political considerations, its importance is downplayed. The monument houses statues and portraits of the greats of the Raj as well as sculptors and paintings of Indian soldiers who served the British. After independence, a fresh chapter of Indian leaders is also added.
But at the end of the day, the sheer beauty of the monument will overwhelm a visitor. It also means that the period of the Raj, just cannot be wished away as fiction. It was a fact of history as the displayed pistols of Warren Hastings, used in actual combat testify.
The victoria memorial is basically a museum. It has 25 galleries; namely the Royal Gallery, National Leaders gallery( added after 1947), the portrait gallery, central hall, sculpture gallery, arms and armory gallery, and a new addition, the Calcutta gallery.
The gardens of the memorial are spread over 64 acres and in my view better maintained than the gardens around the Taj. The entire site is a heritage site and maintained by the ASI( Archeological Survey of India); another British gift. The garden has many statues but there is a significant statue of Rajendra Nath Mookerjee, a pioneer industrialist from Bengal.
The garden is almost at the heart of Calcutta. It can be easily reached by tram car or bus and if required you can even walk down there from the five star Oberoi Grand and the Park Hotel.