Rediscovering Jharkhand’s legacy of colonial buildings

Print edition : February 12, 2021

The official residence of the Deputy Commissioner of Chaibasa, in West Singhbhum district, Jharkhand, dates back to the 1850s. Photo: Gopal Chandra Naskar

Simpson’s House, now the residence of the Principal of the Police Training College, Hazaribagh, dates back to the 1850s. Photo: Gopal Chandra Naskar

The Hazaribagh Central Jail dates back to the 1830s. On November 9, 1942, at the height of the Quit India Movement, Jayaprakash Narayan and five other freedom fighters made a historic escape from this jail. Photo: Gopal Chandra Naskar

The residence of the Deputy Commissioner of Dumka dates back to the 1880s. It is said to have originally belonged to the manager of the erstwhile Grant Estate of Dumka and presented as a gift to the then DC. Photo: Gopal Chandra Naskar

The Chalet House at Netarhat, Latehar district. It is famous in local folklore as the house where a British Governor’s daughter, Magnolia, fell in love with a local tribal man who worked as a household help. Photo: Gopal Chandra Naskar

The Gossner Evangelical Lutheran (G.E.L.) church in the heart of Ranchi, the capital of Jharkhand, was established in 1855. Photo: Gopal Chandra Naskar

The Raj Bhavan in Ranchi. Built in 1930-31 by the British architect Sadlow Ballerd, it is a grand structure surrounded by 62 acres of greenery. Photo: Gopal Chandra Naskar

The official residence of the Deputy Commissioner of Ranchi dates back to the late 1890s. Sitting amidst over five acres of lush gardens in the heart of the city, it is an example of a classical colonial bungalow. Photo: Gopal Chandra Naskar

The thanas, dak bungalows, jails, railway lines and many other such structures dating back to the 1800s that dot the landscape of Jharkhand stand testimony to the State’s colonial past and to the political and economic significance of the region.

ON January 9, 2016, when President Pranab Mukherjee inaugurated Audrey House, the 162-year-old colonial building on the premises of Ranchi’s Raj Bhavan, it provided a much-needed fillip to the rediscovery of colonial buildings of Jharkhand. Audrey House, built in 1854 by Captain Hannyington, Deputy Commissioner (DC) of Chotanagpur (1850-56), served as an extension of the Governor’s Secretariat when Ranchi was the summer capital of undivided Bihar. It had been in a state of neglect for a long time before its second spring in 2016.

The potters of Mahuadanr block of Latehar district gave the building its new lease of life. They took up the mammoth task of baking the over seven lakh pieces of khapra (semi-cylindrical clay tiles for the roof) needed to ensure that the building’s colonial aesthetic was preserved. The renowned sculptor Amitabh Mukherjee, under whose supervision the work was carried out, said that the biggest challenge was not renovating the building but conserving its original beauty. “Though we have replaced the sun-baked mud bricks with fired bricks, the walls have been plastered using the old technique of mixing sand, molasses and lime,” he said. Structural strengthening had to be done, and old wooden purlins and rafters were consolidated and part of the wooden floor was restored.

The renovation work took over two years and was carried out at an estimated cost of Rs.6.27 crore under the overall guidance of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH), New Delhi. Audrey House now serves as the hub of art and culture in Jharkhand. One of the halls inside the house was converted into an art gallery, which exhibits select paintings of artists of the State. An audiovisual hall hosts cultural shows and art conferences and an open-air theatre stages live performances. Every Saturday, starting at 6 p.m., an event called Shani Parab is held on the premises. Artists from across the State perform and present different art forms representing the many indigenous tribes of Jharkhand.

Fascinating journey

As a history buff and researcher, my curious exploration into the history of some of these dwellings where I myself had stayed started me on a fascinating journey of discovery of the colonial buildings of Jharkhand. Sprinkled across the length and breadth of the State, these buildings are a testimony to Jharkhand’s colonial past. Shah Alam’s grant of the diwani rights of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa to the British East India Company in 1765 is what first brought present-day Jharkhand in contact with the British. Over the years, concerns ranging from the Maratha threat, tribal uprisings, entanglements with local rajas, the economics of revenue collection, the extraction and transportation of minerals, and missionary activities led to a gradual expansion of British influence. This expansion of colonial power is reflected in the network of thanas, kutchery buildings (courts), record rooms, circuit houses, dak bungalows (circuit houses along the postal route for officials to spend the nights), jails and railways that dot the landscape of Jharkhand dating back to the late 1800s.

Another important set of structures were the official residential structures, or bungalows: a hybrid of the Indian thatched hut with a verandah and the British suburban villa. Built for British administrators, all these structures represent a unique mix of imperial preferences and economic interests adapted to the hot-humid weather conditions and the availability of raw materials. In this piece, I have attempted to knit together what is known about some of these colonial structures district wise from gazettes, conversations with past and present occupants, local folklore, media reports and archival material.

The British era is wonderfully evoked in the colonial buildings in present-day Chaibasa in West Singhbhum district. The recurrent uprisings by the Ho people, especially the rebellion of 1831-32, made the British realise the futility of forcing them to submit to the traditional chiefs and led to the eventual British occupation of the area. A wooden plaque with the names of erstwhile Deputy Commissioners dates the present DC’s bungalow to the 1850s. The sprawling single-storey structure has a simple symmetrical layout; wide colonnaded verandahs that insulate the main walls from the heat outside; high ceilings, multiple doors and windows to ensure natural ventilation and light; a coal-fired fireplace; and polished cement floors (still visible in places). Other notable structures in Chaibasa that date back to this period include the present-day Circuit House, which served as a dak bungalow during Company rule, and today’s Collectorate office, which served as a civil court.

Hazaribagh district is a treasure trove of colonial buildings ranging from the initial phase of Company rule (early 1800s) such as the old British cemetery and the old armoury building (now under the Public Works Department) to the buildings such as Rattray House and Simpson’s House that date back to the 1850s and continue to be lived spaces to date. One of the most famous colonial structures in the district is the Hazaribagh Central Jail, infamous as the Jungali Kalapani, which dates back to the mid 1830s. It was on Diwali night, November 9, 1942, at the height of the Quit India Movement, that Jayaprakash Narayan (JP) and five other freedom fighters made their historic escape from this jail.

Part of the folklore of Jharkhand now, the escape was audacious: a dinner table was put near the wall. Jogender Shukla knelt on it; a knotted rope of dhoti was tied around Suraj Narayan Singh’s waist; Gulab Chand Gupta stood on Shukla’s back; Suraj climbed on his shoulders and grasping the top of the wall drew himself up while the others clung to the rope; Suraj slowly descended on the other side and signalled; within minutes, Shaligram Singh, Ramanand Mishra and JP were over the wall. JP’s escape went unnoticed until the next morning. “Operation Manhunt” was launched but proved futile. Soon, JP, along with Aruna Asaf Ali and other socialists, organised an underground movement against the British rulers until his rearrest in Punjab in September 1943.

One of Jharkhand’s most impressive examples of colonial architecture is the present Hazaribagh DC’s residence. The day after JP made good his escape, this bungalow was where the then Hazaribagh District Commissioner, K.V.S. Raman, spent a sleepless night. It is a five-room structure that stands in the centre of a 27-acre estate, which includes three artificially created lakes. The bungalow exudes colonial charm with its period furniture, old lamps, tiled roof held up by wooden rafters, wood panel–lined corridors, high ceilings replete with vents and skylights, and airy colonnaded verandah, which runs around the house. A thick forest surrounds the bungalow, and picturesque walking trails criss-cross the estate. Stepping into the bungalow, it is hard not to picture the relaxed lifestyle of the white sahibs sitting on the verandah, sipping tea and enjoying the natural beauty of Hazaribagh.

Some of the other notable structures of the district are the present-day (Old) Circuit House, which was built in 1871; the Police Training College, formerly the Roman Catholic Mount Carmel School whose chapel still houses the remains of the Catholic church built in 1865 for the British troops in the cantonment; the Dublin Mission Hospital building; and St. Columba’s College (1897), which was modelled on Christ Church college in Oxford.

Dumka district is home to several colonial heritage structures. In 1855, in the aftermath of the Santhal uprising, Santhal Parganas headquartered at Dumka was carved out of Bhagalpur and Birbhum districts. In the late 1880s, British officials administering the area began to reside here. The present-day Dumka DC’s bungalow dates back to this period. It is said to have originally belonged to the manager of the erstwhile Grant Estate of Dumka and presented as a gift to the then DC. It is a fine single-storey structure with a deep rounded porch, tall columns, high ceilings replete with skylights (including a glass-panelled roof, which has been covered since) and a terrace. Even today, the vestiges of some of the other buildings of the Grant Estate can be seen in the present-day LIC colony adjacent to the DC’s residence.

Another notable structure that dates back to the late 19th century is the present-day Dumka Club or erstwhile European Club, which functioned as an exclusive club for white men. Dumka is home to many dak bungalows constructed along quiet, remote routes that provided rest and refuge to British officers traversing these hard-to-reach areas. The dak bungalows at Katikund and Shikaripada that were built in colonial times are still in use.

Oldest churches in Jharkhand

Dumka is also home to the oldest churches in Jharkhand: St. Andrew’s Church built in 1860 and the North Evangelical Lutheran Mission founded in 1867. Interestingly, in 1967, to commemorate the centenary year of the mission, a picture of the Lutheran church building of Dumka appeared on a Norwegian stamp with the inscription “Norwegian Santhal Mission” (Den Norske Santalmisjon).

Netarhat, in present-day Latehar district, is home to a large number of forest and district board bungalows. The most striking structure is the Governor’s “chalet”, which at present serves as DC Latehar’s camp court (before 2003 it served as a dispensary for the Netarhat School). Literally meaning the “wooden house”, the beautiful building, which Sir Edward Gait, the British Lieutenant Governor of Bihar and Orissa, commissioned, dates back to the early 20th century. Netarhat and the chalet house served as a summer retreat for serving British officers. The chalet is famous in local folklore as the house where a British Governor’s daughter, Magnolia, fell in love with a local tribal man who worked as a household help. She eventually committed suicide by jumping off a cliff on horseback to be united with her lover at what is today called Magnolia Point. Famed for its beautiful sunsets, Magnolia Point has a memorial describing Magnolia’s ill-fated love story.

In the 1830s, Captain Wilkinson chose Ranchi, the present-day capital of Jharkhand, as the headquarters of the South-West Frontier. Legend says that it derives its name from the word “archi”, which means bamboo forest in a local tribal dialect. The heritage structures in Ranchi district etch a multifaceted story of British days. This is perhaps best reflected in the churches that dot the fast-growing urban landscape of Ranchi city. In the heart of the city is the Gossner Evangelical Lutheran (G.E.L.)Church. Set up in 1855, it can be traced to the launch of the Lutheran Mission in India in 1845. Today, the 165-year-old structure stands tall, overlooking the bustling main road. The famed cannon balls embedded in its walls are a legacy of the revolt of 1857.

Built in 1930-31 by the British architect Sadlow Ballerd, the Governor’s House, or Raj Bhavan, in Ranchi is a grand structure surrounded by 62 acres of greenery. The main structure, insulated with double Raniganj tiles, instantly exudes an old-world charm and carries the indelible mark of the British era: Burma teak wood panelling, a manually operated lift to deliver food to the dining hall, the brass bells used to announce mealtimes, the billiards tables in the recreation room, the fireplace, the shuttered doors and skylights in each of the rooms, and the steam-based cooking system in the old kitchen. Legend has it that the house has an underground tunnel leading to unknown destinations, with the trapdoors in the floor of the Durbar Hall used routinely to authenticate the story.

The present-day residences of the DC and senior superintendent of police of Ranchi date back to the late 1890s. The DC’s residence, sitting amidst over five acres of lush gardens in the heart of the city, is an example of a classical colonial bungalow with a sloping tiled roof held up by wooden rafters. Its large central room is equipped with a fireplace that opens on both sides and a chimney. The colonial period horse stables have now been refurbished into staff quarters at one end of the house. The gardens are home to a historical grand banyan tree that predates the house by at least 300 years.

Some of the other notable structures in Ranchi are the Zila School, established in 1839; the famed mental health institute, known as the Ranchi European Lunatic Asylum when it was constructed in 1918; the Commonwealth War Cemetery built in 1942; and colonial bungalows such as the present-day residence of the Chief Justice of Jharkhand, constructed in 1930-31.

Each district in Jharkhand is home to similar fading colonial treasures. The old wing of the Sadar Hospital, which dates back to 1867; the district board bungalow, which now houses the district veterinary hospital; the bungalows of the DC and the superintendent of police; and the old police station are some of the notable colonial buildings in Palamau district. Khunti district has the police station where the tribal freedom fighter Birsa Munda was imprisoned; today, a discoloured signboard marks the spot.

In Deoghar town, the office of the Sub-Divisional Magistrate (SDM), colloquially called the English office, dates back to the late 1890s. In Chatra district, the SDM’s office was where Raja Ram Mohan Roy worked as a sub-registrar in 1805-6. In present-day Dhanbad district, a colliery line was laid in 1894; the present Divisional Railway Manager’s bungalow dates back to the early 1900s. The sprawling property is a classic example of a colonial bungalow and sits atop a rising slope in the midst of a beautiful garden with a colonnaded portico and a sloping tiled roof held up by wooden rafters. The British used the cantonment in present-day Ramgarh as a large prisoners-of-war camp during the Second World War, and in June 1942, it was converted into a United States Army training centre, the first of its kind on foreign land, where Chinese troops were trained to fight against the Japanese in north Burma.

Priceless assets

The structures highlighted above provide a tantalising glimpse into the colonial heritage of Jharkhand. There are many lesser-known structures out there waiting to be (re)discovered. These heritage buildings of Jharkhand are priceless assets of the newly created State and are a testament to the political and economic significance of the region. Today, Jharkhand has the opportunity and responsibility to preserve and protect these structures. The question of posterity becomes critical as we passively witness many of these structures languishing and/or being razed because of the connivance of builders, officials and politicians. Further, many of the colonial buildings discussed in this essay are mere shadows of their grand past selves. While occupation has ensured their survival, the caretakers/occupants, often unaware of the legacy of their dwellings, have modified the structures with little regard to the authenticity of the original construction.

Even small initiatives that seek to involve citizens, especially students, can give these heritage structures a second lease of life. It is not necessary to have top-down, state-driven, big budget plans. For example, a small step could be fixing a plaque on colonial buildings currently in use by government officials or as circuit houses, and so on. Placing such a plaque with an inscription stating why the building is a historic site (for instance, mentioning the year of its construction or that a notable person lived there or that a significant event took place) would underscore its importance among the general public and alter the way it is viewed and experienced. Neighbourhood schools could be encouraged to set up heritage clubs; involving students is excellent way to keep such structures alive in collective memory. No amount of reading of history can substitute for seeing something in situ. Schools, students and citizens can be made conservation partners, asked to explore their surroundings, conduct their own research, interview elders and make their own suggestions about the historical significance of their community and surroundings and maybe even nominate places that need to be commemorated. Historical buildings and other such structures pose limitless possibilities for the way we not only study, understand and teach students history but also how we record our lives and the structures we leave behind for future generations.

Hem Borker is an assistant professor at Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.

Gopal Chandra Naskar has an M.A. in visual arts from the Government College of Art and Craft, Calcutta.

All sketches were done by Gopal Chandra Naskar and his team while on a field trip to Jharkhand.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor