The Ionian pillars of Sanskrit College today appear to be highly incongruous considering that the institution was set up to teach Indian Classical languages but the colonnaded structure serves as a gentle reminder of the era when the Colonial powers were ready to impart indigenous education instead of thrusting their own learning and culture upon the native population.
Conforming to this policy, in the early 18th Century, the British had set up Calcutta Madrassah for Muslim subjects and Sanskrit College for the Hindus. Prior to the setting up of the college, it was the toles, which imparted education to the students, especially Brahmins. Sanskrit learning used to be pursued in the traditionally long-drawn and exacting manner. Most of the toles were situated in North Calcutta; in fact Hatibagan had six toles while Simla had three. The two largest toles were run by Mritunjay Vidyalankar and Anatram Vidyavagish with 15 scholars in each. In 1818, William Ward enumerated twenty eight toles with a total of 173 scholars. They received generous material and moral support from rich Calcuttans, who wanted to surround themselves with the familiar Brahmanical atmosphere of their native villages.
It was under the influence of noted Orientalist, Horace Hyman Wilson (1786-1860), that the East India Company founded the Sanskrit College at Calcutta in order to teach Hindu Classics and Literature. Horace Wilson had come to India as a Company surgeon, worked at the Calcutta Mint, then managed Hindostanee Press and started the Sanskrit College, which was not only Orientalist but scientific as well; one important distinction between the Hindu College and Sanskrit College was that while the former started off as a private college the latter had always been a government institution under the Director of Public Instruction. Interestingly, Raja Rammohun Roy, instrumental in founding Hindu College was against the establishment of Sanskrit College.
Sanskrit College was established on January 1, 1824 at 66, Bowbazar Street. It was a rented house and college authorities bought a plot measuring 5 bighas and 7 cottahs at Pataldanga Square on the northern side of Gol Dighi to construct their own building. According to Radharaman Mitra, the entire land belonged to David Hare who donated two plots of land adjacent to Sanskrit College for building two single storeyed buildings on its either side for the junior and senior section of Hindu College.
On February 25, 1825, the foundation stone for the college building was laid with much fan fare. The Government allotted Rs. 1.2 lakh for the construction of the building. The building plan was prepared by B Buxton, Lieutenant, Bengal Engineers while it was constructed by William Burn and James Mackintosh. On May 1, 1826, Sanskrit College shifted from the rented premises in Bowbazar to its own building.
The facade was similar to its now forgotten neighbour, the Senate House. The front entrance is guarded by two mighty Ionic columns, which open into a concise columned courtyard of two storeys. “It is all very intimately massive, yet secure and even comforting. There was also no desire to ‘Indianise’ any such building; the British creators of Calcutta would proceed to design the city’s institutions with their own choices. Probably the issue of ‘Sanskritising’ a building like this never even came up,” wrote Brian Paul Bach in his book Calcutta’s Edifice: The Buildings of a Great City. A wide set of stairs on the northern side leads to the inner hall colonnaded with tall Ionian pillars and balconies. In old photographs the college building appears to be towering over vast stretches of vacant land, looking quite spacious and elevated enough for carrying out academic activities. The building was renovated in 1840.
At the beginning, admission was restricted to twelve-year old boys from Brahmin and Vaidya families. They had to study for 12 years and not only education was free, poor students and those who came from distant areas were also given `5 as monthly stipend. Classes were conducted both during morning and evening hours. The college remained closed on Sundays. Additionally, the students got leave during all Hindu festivals. Later on, a separate wing was opened for Vaidya (who traditionally practised medicine in Hindu society) students in 1826. They were directly allowed to join this stream without studying Nyay or Smriti. On August 1, 1831, a separate hospital and dispensary was set up for the training of these students in a house belonging to Rupnarayan Ghoshal in College Square. Students were imparted lessons by the Medical Lecturer of Sanskrit College, John Grant. “Though none of the Indian graduates in the College hospital had by 1831 been allowed to perform any major operations, they were regularly allowed to conduct minor ones like opening little abscesses and dressing sores and cuts”, wrote a historian.
However, the change in education policy of the British sounded the death knell of indigenous educational institutions such as Calcutta Madrassah and Sanskrit College. As advised by Lord Macaulay, William Bentinck almost decided to abolish Calcutta Madrassah and Sanskrit College. But there was quite an uproar and petitions signed by no less than 10,000 people were submitted to Bentinck. The new policy’s main principle was that “all funds appropriated to the purposes of education would be best employed on English education alone.” The College was saved because of joint efforts by public and Orientalists. However, Macaulay’s parting kick was to stop granting stipend to the pupils henceforth admitted to Sanskrit College though scholarship to junior and senior students were introduced in 1840.
Finally, it was left to its most illustrious student and later teacher – Iswarchandra Vidyasagar to perfectly graft English education with Sanskrit learning. In a report on the college, Vidyasagar suggested three main objectives – a real Sanskrit education, encouragement to Vernacular education and business-like course of English study. His reformist activities also began with Sanskrit College. He opened the doors of the college to all students without any caste bars. However, the glorious days of Sanskrit College was lost forever as students, guardians and teachers – every stakeholder started to hanker after English education at the cost of neglecting the past. Today, the college is just another undergraduate college under the University of Calcutta.
However, one more time Sanskrit College had shifted back to Bowbazar Street. During the month of September, 1857, when the rebellion was at its peak, the college building was converted into a hospital for injured soldiers. The college was shifted to 110 and 92, Bowbazar Street and the monthly rentals were `75 and `30, respectively. Three years later, on January 14, 1860, the college got back to its own premises but by then Vidyasagar had quit as the principal of the college.
Location: Bankim Chatterjee Street off College Street beside College Square
Timings: 10am to 4.30pm
Car parking: In the vicinity