A personal travel blog by Ms. Reetwika Banerjee
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Looking at the present conditions of the surroundings, who could imagine there stands a 1st century BC obliterated building belonging to the Sunga-Kusana period? Bored of spending our weekends in a typical metro lifestyle, this time we looked out for a vintage touch. Thanks to sources on internet, we discovered an intriguing place which has no authentic version of its original owner at a stone’s throw distance from Kolkata airport – the ‘Clive House’ of South Dum Dum, also referred as ‘Dumdum House’ at times.
Glimpse of Clive House
91, Rastraguru Avenue is the postal address of the site and is popularly identified as ‘Clive House’ bus stop near ILS Hospital. Located at just 6 kilometres from Netaji Subhas International Airport along Jessore road, this ancient construction popped like a hidden wonder for wanderlusts like us. We had been to the locality several times earlier but could never expect to encounter a mound from Before Christ epoch right at the heart of Nagerbazar market.
Lower Ground in front of the Obliterated House
Soon after crossing the crowded junction, we took a sharp left when GPS location finder declared, “You have arrived.” It was quarter past three on a summer afternoon – as expected, there was not even a single person to ask for help. Standing amidst a concrete wilderness full of overgrown high rises and colourful apartments, a splash of private playground was the only breather around where our vision could stretch beyond a yard. Utterly frustrated, I was literally about to abuse GPS for the wrong marking right when one of us spotted a worn-out turret behind the ground. It definitely had a century old looks but reaching there was an exploration.
Thin Approach Road
Danger notice in front of the building
Parking our car near the football ground, we dared a gutsy stride through the thin brick lane along the ground’s barbed perimeter wall. You won’t believe, after taking say fifty odd steps from the motorway, we discovered a whole building – there were two storeys full of deep-rooted shrubs hanging from the roof and adjoining walls. A blue board revealed that the structure is an identified archaeological site of ASI.
Dilapidated southern entrance
Way though the peripheral slum
We were yet to find out the main entrance of the building. The exterior appearance did not look very reliable to breach the bambooed demarcations. Taking a few steps further, we reached almost the backside of the mansion depicting a renovated entrance from the northern side. Geographical directions are not important here, but history says Robert Clive was very particular about erecting prominent southern entry gates in all his residences. If this house belonged to him, we thought then there must be a lavish entrance in the opposite side. That instigated us to take a round of the rectangular edifice.
Semi-circular stairway at the northern entry
While walking down the four sides, history beckoned us to an unknown bliss – giant wooden windows that lost their grandeur over time, a lavish balcony in the second floor, semi-circular flight of steps, an extended portico, pillared hallways with fallen roofs, arched staircases, crumbled ceilings, remnants of overhanging lanterns, broken coloured glasses and many antique assets in ruins; perhaps only appreciated by the resident pigeons of urban era.
Present condition of the interiors
External renovation work stalled
Refugee nuisance along the boundary of a ‘protected’ monument
The periphery of the mansion is dwelled by a slum of refugee families who migrated to this side of the city during partition of Bengal. Their clumsy lifestyle inside such a heritage house was highly degrading the historical value of the building, posing a nuisance for the cleanliness of the site as well. We did not take the risk of stepping into the core of the building. Clicking a few snaps from the boundary, as we headed our way back, met an octogenarian from the same slum who narrated us the various folklores about ‘Clive House’ – adding the perfect touch to our vintage hunt.
Glimpses of Bara Kothi (Clive House)
Way back in the 17th century, there used to be a single-storey gold decked harem of Alivardi Khan, the Nawab of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa. During the Nawabi regime, it was popularly known as ‘Bara Kothi’ (Grand Brothel). Right beside it was a gardened lake where white lotus bloomed round the year. The old Nawab was very fond of it and thus lovingly called it ‘Moti Jheel’, a namesake of his grand lakeside palace in Murshidabad. The premises was built on an elevated land and thus often referred by the Nawabs as ‘Dumdama’ which in Farsi (Persian) means ‘artificially raised mound’.
Ever since Robert Clive visited Calcutta, he always had greedy eyes on this lavish abode of the Nawabs. It is said, when the British marched towards Siraj’s camps in 1757, Clive had already ordered colonial kinsmen to reconstruct the building as per his newly married wife’s architectural fascinations and strictly instructed to complete the renovation before his homecoming. Eventually after he won the Battle of Plassey against Siraj-ud-Daullah, it was occupied by the British and renamed to ‘Clive House’ in honour of Lady Clive.
Now it is definitely a million-dollar question, how demonically overnight, an all-new floor bigger than the original with expatriate decorations could be completed. Some people even say that the original building of the Nawabs was demolished, looted and an artificial hillock was created piling up the debris in the middle of the lake dividing into two landscaped gardens on either side of the new construction. The one at the northern side was referred as High Ground (as it was slightly elevated than the other) while the one in front (southern side) as Low Ground.
This is what is found in the pages of history, but the haunting past of the mansion predates way beyond that. Even before the Nawabs, the site belonged to the Portuguese and Dutch traders who used to secretly hide their wealth and fire arms here in an underground chamber put up with extreme defence. That was the underlying reason of the differential architectural pattern of the two storeys, unusually thick walls of ground floor and low ceiling height of the upper level. The Europeans strictly prevented any aboriginal residential clusters to grow nearby but people staying at a distance from the castle often used to hear heavy sounds of underground canon testing (without realizing the source though). They thought it to be a haunting sound originating beneath the ground, thus referring the building as ‘Dam Dama’ which in colloquial language denotes heavy sound) and eventually got renamed to present day’s Dum Dum. There is an ordnance factory even today near ‘Clive House’, not sure if that too has its origin deep-rooted to the history of the ruins.
Another school of thought says the land actually belongs to a several millennium old civilization originating back to Sunga-Kusana time when the area used to be a royal courtyard. Ganges being nearby fostered civic developments of a wealthy and bourgeon merchant community conducive to an early urban settlement. With time as the river changed its course, the residents also slowly deserted the place migrating towards the south. Centuries later when Portuguese and Dutch merchants camped here, the ancient brick walls were overgrown by a thick layer of green grass – looking alike a mound from a distance. Later when they discovered hidden treasure inside the earthly cover, the foreigners erected a robust dome like a warehouse with thick walls (four to eight feet) and a moat around it, secretly continuing with their treasure hunt beneath the ground. Restricted public entry prevented trespassing which made their search easier.
Antique punch marked coins, seals with Nagari script inscriptions like ‘Samapasasya’ (meaning ‘belonging to Samapasa’, a language commonly used during 8th century AD in this belt of the country), exquisite terracotta plaques, bone jewellery, beads, semiprecious stones (like Lapis Lazuli, Jasper, Agate etc) raw crystals, pottery, cast copper and iron figurines, sculptures (including stylishly fabricated blackware, greyware and redware prevalent in 2nd century BC), a covert surface built of primeval lime and brick mortar stretching across an entire trench, a sunken fireplace surrounded by innumerable tortoise shells, fish scales and other artefacts excavated from the northern side of the property in recent years, indicate the feasibility of such a local hearsay.
Whatever be the obscure origin of the house, one thing we understood that it has undergone several rounds of hand changes – the latest of which is also more than 250 years old and still voicing its royal existence. This historic ‘Clive House’ was Lady Clive’s first city residence after she travelled to Calcutta all the way from London with her newly wedded husband Lt. Colonel Robert Clive. All other buildings named after Clive was in the honour of Mr. Clive and this perhaps is the only one named after his lady. Sources say Robert Clive used this residential complex as his seat of governorship for three years from 1756 to 1760 and right here the historic treaty between Mir Jafar and British was signed. Lady Clive loved the scenic gardens from her second floor balcony and often enjoyed kitty parties with her European acquaintances. The locality was always very important from a city life perspective and thus country’s one of the oldest airports was built here in 1924 and continues to be the largest air traffic hub of eastern India.
With time, the southern entry of the building has fallen down and restoration of the same could not be made possible. Though, the northern entrance has been recently renovated, but due to the risky condition of the ceiling, public entry is now prohibited. The same is also displayed with a notice from the authorities, blocking the entrance with bamboos. Though in skeletons, rightly claimed by the timeworn man, it’s ought to be the oldest edifice of Kolkata still surviving the ravages of time as a silent spectator of the glorious past of our country.