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Notes on the Geography of Northern India: Calcutta Monuments

We're taking a wider loop here, reaching down the parade-ground or maidan and continuing east.  Thematically, the group is wider, too, including not only British monuments but Hindu and pre-Hindu ones.

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From the maidan we've stepped into one of the courtyard arcades at the Indian Museum.

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Off to one side, a room with this remarkable bust taken from Mohenjo-Daro, a city of the Indus Civilization, which collapsed before 2,000 B.C.  The site is now in Pakistan.

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Another view of this oddly realistic yet stylized figure, aristocratic and withdrawn behind heavy eyelids.

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Near the south end of the Maidan: St. Paul's Cathedral, designed by W.N. Forbes in 1819, begun in 1839, and finished in 1847 with the help of 15,000 pounds Sterling from the East India Company and 20,000 pounds from Bishop Wilson, who's buried inside.  In a rare moment of indiscretion,  Murray's handbook describes the cathedral style as "spurious Gothic." Thacker's Guide to Calcutta, 1906, calls the spire "the only part of the building which can be candidly described as graceful" (p. 74).

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The interior.

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Inside, a statue of Bishop Reginald Heber, Wilson's successor and a leader in the doomed effort to Christianize India.  While still in England in 1819, Heber had written "From Greenland's Icy Mountains," a stirring missionary hymn whose final stanza contains the lines: "Waft, waft, ye winds, His story,/ And you, ye waters, roll/ Til, like a sea of glory,/ It spreads from pole to pole."  Four years later, and after much hesitation, he accepted the position of bishop of all India.  He recounts his subsequent experience in Narrative of a Tour Through the Upper Provinces of India from Calcutta to Bombay, but the work itself wore him out.  Three years after arriving in India, he died at age 43 in the south, where he's buried in Trichinopoly.  The statue is by Francis Chantrey, a prolific Victorian sculptor.

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Still farther south at the end of the Maidan: the Victoria Memorial, launched by Curzon after the queen's death but not opened until 1921, when the Prince of Wales did the honors.

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A young Victoria stands in the Queen's Hall, the central rotunda of the building.  She manages to looks cool despite the heat. The building measures 339 by 228 feet, and every marble block was hauled from quarries in Jodhpur, on the other side of the country. It's the same Makrana marble that was used for the Taj Mahal, and it was ordered by Curzon, who was making a statement. Who paid for it? Well, officially, the people and princes of India, by voluntary subscription.

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Outside, Curzon gazes south.  This is one of the few spots in Calcutta was British statuary survives in place; once, it was as abundant in Calcutta as mushrooms after a spring rain, but after 1947 most of the statues were trucked a dozen miles north to Barrackpore. 

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On another side, Warren Hastings in his toga, with Hindu and Muslim counsellors.

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In yet another alcove, Lord Cornwallis, in his Lucius Quintus getup.  Cornwallis was an important figure in the establishment of British rule in Bengal.  His best-known accomplishment was probably giving aristocratic landlords (zamindars) the task of collecting taxes from the peasantry.  This "permanent settlement" was much less farsighted than the ryotwari one adopted in Madras, where taxes were collected directly by the government, but it probably seemed an altogether British solution to Cornwallis.

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Still farther south, the approach to the famous Kali Temple, from which the name Calcutta, or Kolkata, may be derived.

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This is the place, visually not especially dramatic, where Katherine Mayo began her inflammatory book Mother India (1927), which nominally attacked child marriage but at a deeper level openly admired India's Muslims while disparaging Hindus.  Her hook was the goat sacrifices that take place here daily--today, as in her time.  Murray in 1882 wrote that "a man of the name of Chandibar was the first priest appointed to manage the affairs of the temple.  His descendants have now taken the title of Haldar, and are at present the proprietors of the building.  They have amassed great wealth, not so much from the proceeds of the Temple lands as from the daily offerings made by pilgrims to the shrine."  Even today, guides will seize upon the naive foreigner, give him a quick once-through, and then put on the squeeze.

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A figure of the goddess.

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A breath of fresh air: the new Park Street Cemetery.

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Among its occupants is Michael Madhusudan Dutt, 1824-73.  Dutt is credited with creating modern literary Bengali, in part by infusing it with European forms and themes.  He introduced blank verse, for example, and his masterpiece, Meghnadbadh Karya, which is an adaptation of the Ramayana,takes an idea from Milton and inverts the demon-villain into the hero. Northern India: Calcutta Monuments picture 17

The old Park Street Cemetery, with its forest of monuments.

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This spiral-fluted one--from 1800 but renovated about 1900--is probably the best known.

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At its base, the famous poem that Walter Savage Landor wrote in memory of Rose Aylmer. Another stone on the tomb is much less familiar. It reads: "In memory of The Honorable Rose Whitworth Aylmer, who departed this life, March the 2nd, A.D. 1800; aged 20 years." Those words are followed by this verse: "What was her fate? Long long before her hour,/ Death called her tender soul, by break or bliss,/ From the first blossoms, from the buds of joy; Those few our noxious fate unblasted leaves;/ In this inclement clime of human life." The verse comes from "Night Thoughts," by Edward Young (1681-1765).

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Nearby, there's a monument to a scholar of lasting influence.

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It recalls William Jones, the man who established the linkages between Sanskrit and most European languages and in this way recognized the unity of the Indo-European language family.


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