On Strand Road, almost at the same latitude as Howrah Bridge, stands one of the best specimens of quiet Doric power this side of Athens or Paestum. Known in turns as the Tuksal, the Silver Mint; the Old Mint, or simply The Mint, there are few buildings in the city that convey a more heroic and imperishable –yet cryptic – character.Indeed, for the observer today, the latter attribute is most prevalent.
When I first beheld the Mint as a new guy in town, the mighty frontage boldly and clearly faced the Strand with brooding (though not forbidding) confidence. Well, ‘tis over thirty years since, and certain dreary changes have brought out the same in me. I’m all for sensible efficiency, but it’s impossible not to be a curmudgeon when it comes to the flyover madness that has clamped down so heavily on Calcutta. So, respecting the Mint’s distinguished presence, let’s just pretend one doesn’t exist above Strand Road.
In the past, I always fancied this heavy facade would be at home as some institute in Dostoyevsky’s St. Petersburg, especially on a gloomy day of inky clouds. But this supremely Calcuttan fixture, happily still standing, is conspicuously veiled by trees. Always welcome in the city, they have nonetheless altered the anticipated impact. Yet, it is still possible to spot the protective Ashokan lions, up there in the middle of the tympanum.
The Mint Master’s House, directly opposite, remains intact behind its elegant fencing. I try to locate the narrow-gauge rails that connected the two, enabling coins to be trolleyed over for the Master himself to inspect, but in vain.
A quick dodge across the arterial’s oozing traffic, and another prospect is gained. Here, in the vast metropolis, the scene is pure rural Bengal: across an overgrown tank with requisite egrets, the serene poetics of a decaying rajbari appear. The seat of some long-extinguished zamindar family, perhaps? A forgotten estate of the Maharajadhiraj of Burdwan…? In any case, an exquisite study of first-quality heritage remains.
Intrigue builds exponentially. For a moment I feel like a kid assessing a derelict manor house for a way to sneak in for an innocent look-about. For me, attaining access would be equal to reaching the lantern in the Victoria Memorial’s dome, or the navaratna towers of Dakshineswar… With shutters shut fast for decades – except to an esoteric few – who wouldn’t be enticed?
Between the years 1824 and 1830, under the supervision of Major-General W.N. Forbes, local coolies raised this stout temple of coinage, built for the ages, as befitting its solemn hegemonic duty. After all, if the institutions of Empire were to be taken seriously, their size, bearing, and purpose had to reflect serious intent.
Like many Doric-styled structures, the Mint looks much larger than it actuality is. The mass is certainly sizeable, but drawing closer, right up to the cast iron-cum-razor wired barrier, the effect almost becomes intimate. The mood is more like a library, or archive, or even some grandee’s villa, than an industrial plant dealing with molten metals. From here rang countless coins that were fingered, tossed, saved, spent, scrounged for (and pilfered) in every bazar throughout Hindustan.
Uniform with the signature look of the City of Palaces, the building is essentially a brick construction, dressed in stucco, so as to give the appearance of stone. And there they are, like old soldiers pressed into guard duty for the duration: the Mint’s massive colonnade, assembled in orderly fashion, despite being subjected to some of Bengal’s most picturesque weathering. In fact, the distressed wall behind, like a Pompeiian fresco, is an artwork in itself.
Continuing on a military note, the Mint serves as an outpost of the Central Reserve Police Force, with an Officers’ Mess adjacent. A cheerfully-painted fortlet has materialised between two of the entrance columns, and olive drab tenting occupies territory in front of the main entrance.
Because he not only designed the Mint and oversaw its machinery, Maj.-Gen. Forbes was Master of the Mint for twenty years, and his bust was proudly displayed in the Bullion Room. Its current location is unknown to me, but there is a stately memorial to him in St. Paul’s Cathedral – which he also happened to design.
Near the super-heavy-duty foundation, a tablet stands, somewhat forlornly, which states that a Currency and Coins Museum might be around here somewhere. Things look pretty shut fast, and it’s not even a Monday. Much later, I discovered that such a museum was indeed set to open, along with a heritage hotel to help sustain the site’s restoration. Alas, the project was scrapped, basically due to the brutish flyover’s negative effects.
Well, if the day ever comes when no one wants this old Mint, I’d be glad to take it under care. Other cities would be ecstatic to have such a treasure. I know the feeling.
Stay curious, have fun, and be sure to come when Calcutta calls!