The Ochterlony Monument : Standing Tall
On the north-eastern quadrant of the Maidan, facing Esplanade East, stands tall the Ochterlony Monument which, for decades has been amongst the most prominent landmarks in the city. It was erected in honour of a distinguished soldier, Major General Sir David Ochterlony, the hero of the Nepalese War (1814-1816). Sir David Ochterlony was born in February 1758 at Boston, U.S.A. He joined the East India Company's army as a cadet in 1777 and rose to the rank of Major General. He died at Meerut in 1825. In the year 1828, the monument was built under the expert supervision of architect J.P. Parker who executed the design of Charles Knowles Robinson at a cost of about Rs. 35,000 which was met by public subscription. In 1969, however, it was renamed Sahid Minar or Martyrs' Column in memory of the Indian freedom fighters who had laid down their lives for freedom of this nation.
The Ochterlony Monument is of a predominantly eastern design, with a rare combination of three different styles of architecture. The base is Egyptian, the column Syrian, while the dome with its metal cupola is essentially Turkish. The height of the monument is 158 feet, the spiral staircase within contains 198 steps from the ground level to the first balcony and another 25 from the first to the second balcony. For years the Ochterlony Monument has been administered under the supervision of the Kolkata Police, and climbing to the top is possible only after a requisite trip to Lalbazar to sign necessary paperwork. However, a trip to the top is well worth the trouble, as from here one can marvel at the spreading panorama of the busy city below.
Brian Paul Bach in his book Calcutta's Edifice states, “After entering the burial vault looking metal doors, one suddenly faces 215 whitewashed corkscrew steps, made of Chunar stone. Suddenly there is a deserty feel, rather like climbing the minar of an ancient arid fortress. For here at the bottom of the steps, is an instant remoteness from the city centre, tempered by the magic of the insulatory Maidan. Poised at the base of the tube, a draft of air spirals upwards—the smokestack principle. Yet the perspiration flows in the closeness, adding to the utter, unexpected sensuality exuded at every angle, up, down, and out the tiny air/light perforations, which appears with far too little regularity on the way up.”
There are audio tricks as well. Anyone talking inside the column's entrance can be clearly heard at the top of the stairwell so many metres above. Near the top, the stairs become ultra-narrow, which increases the urgency of the inevitable anticipation. Then, like the burst of freedom at the top of all such vertical tunnels, light, high Maidan ionosphere (it seems), and altered realities present themselves, proving that we have arrived at a castle in the air.”
A visit to the lower observation gallery is truly praise-worthy. On the slightly cramped top gallery, one can stroll towards the southern side and soak himself in the breath taking views, particularly during a rush hour on Chowringhee Road, or better still, when a vast political rally taking place in the nearby Maidan.
The top level of the Ochterlony Monument is more restricted in its strolling area, but further ascent is inexorably mandatory. The railings of the outside are quite high and the superstructure remains solid, though in medium wind some swaying is barely detected. The monument survived the great cyclones of the 1960s without significant damage.
One needs to carefully observe the fashion in which the foundation has been laid as it illustrates the engineering techniques and methods employed when heavy-weight edifices were erected in a geological setting where there are virtually no alternatives to the famous Gangetic alluvial soil. In the case of the Ochterlony Monument, eighty-two logs of Sal wood were driven right into the heart of the soil to create a solid foundation for the superstructure. Their 6 metres lengths were dug to a depth of 2.4 metres below the surface of the ground. Then a teakwood frame was laid down, and upon it, 2.4 metres of slid masonry was built. Then rose the base and the column above it.
Not surprisingly, the construction crew faced a great deal of hardship in hoisting the building materials to the uppermost levels. The principle of the construction of the staircase is unique and praise-worthy. The inverse of each step is joggled by means of pieces of cast iron, laid in white, lead into the end of those above and below, and the outer ends of the step are secured into the brickwork. The Ochterlony Monument is quite well maintained and the base of the column and its adjoining area is surrounded by the central bus terminus that is an epicenter of activity among travellers. This lends a certain character to this place, that is a unique experience in itself. An individual visiting the monument on a lazy afternoon can often witness a game of cards at its base. One can dig into various food items sold in the nearby stalls. Life almost never comes to a standstill around this place. The surrounding is always bustling with life and activity.
The Maidan adjoining the Ochterlony Monument has been host to endless political and trade union meetings. During these political congregations the adjoining Maidan put on a completely different garb. The custom of convening political seminars and meetings started in 1931 when a historical convocation took place here, presided by Kaviguru Rabindranath Tagore. The humanitarian poet had strongly condemned the vandalism of the imperialist British Government that had ordered the shooting of a youth dead in the Calabooze in Hizli. In many ways life in Kolkata revolves around the Ochterlony Monument and its adjoining Maidan. And the city's skyline and identity will not be complete without this Monument, which despite the changing times is still standing tall and proud.