Tuesday, 5 February 2013

The mud in the secret room

Libraries, they say, are treasure troves of knowledge. They store information right from fiction to works of art, literature to mysteries, science to philosophy and what not.
How many of us, when we were children or even in the first blush of youth, felt being a part of a secret cult, secret society or like Hardy boys and Nancy Drew felt detecting things.
Or what say, if like Harison Ford in Indian Jones we discovered a secret chamber on a well-known library. The only difference is that the library is in India and not in Italy as in the film. If Indian Jones could manage to break a flooring on the ground of the library which led to a secret chamber, what if  there was similar secret chamber but it had no entry or exit.
And what if the building in India was constructed several centuries ago and it housed some of the most distinguished figures to have set foot on India.
Well, say yes to all of these things. This is what happened in real life in India unlike the reel life of Ford in Indiana Jones And the place was good old Calcutta, the first capital of British India.The period-2010 of course.
This is what and how it happened
It was 2010 and the officials of the National Library in Kolkata had vacated the building. They had shifted India’s largest collection of books, periodicals and journals to another building temporarily.
The library had been shifted to Bhashya Bhavan from Belvedere House from where it had functioning from for several decades. The centre had decided to take up repair and renovation of the British built structure.
When the structure was fully vacated and being readied for renovation at a cost of Rs. 135 crores by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), they had stumbled upon a secret chamber or room.
The secret room soon set tongues wagging and rumours spread thick and fast. For some it held treasures, For others, it held secret papers and articles of the British. A few others hinted at the treasures in the house hidden away by Mir Jaffer.
For the ASI, the secret room soon turned into a headache. They could not break into the room as it was a heritage building and no  construction or demolition or even breaking up was allowed.
Meanwhile, pressure was building up to unlock the room and find out what secret it held.
The secret of the room soon became a topic of debate even among the intelligentsia of Calcutta or rather Kolkata. The history of  Belvedere House made matters all the more mysterious.        
The Belvedere House on Belvedere Road in Alipore was a protected monument and it had been used by the British more than two centuries ago.
It was built by Mir Jaffer, the Nawab of Bengal, in 1760s. He soon gifted it to Warren Hastings, the first Governor-General of India. In 1780, Hastings sold the building which later went on to become the official residence of the Lieutenant Governors of Bengal.
So, the secret chamber had people linking it to Mir Jaffer and all the people who stayed there. From 1854 till 1914, the building had been home to several high ranking officials.
What gave a romantic touch to the secret chamber was that it had remained hidden for more than 250 years of its existence.
A few people even hinted of a secret underground tunnel connecting Belvedere House to Fort William.
The building was thrown open to the public only in the closing stages of the 19th century. It was then that the British decided to station their Imperial Library at Belvedere House. It was opened to the public in 1896. Almost a decade later, Lord Curzon merged it
with the Calcutta Public Library which was founded in 1836. The combined library was opened to the public on January 30, 1903.
After Independence, it was again renamed as the National Library and its management was handed over to the Ministry of Culture and Tourism at the Centre.
Very soon, it became one of the biggest libraries in the world. It has lakhs of books covering almost all the languages of India. At the latest count, it has a collection of over 2200,000 books.
Over the years, the building was only given minor repairs. When things took a turn for the worse, the Centre decided to take up a comprehensive project to repair and refurbish the building and also modernise the library.
The heritage wing of the library was then earmarked to get a coat of paint and other repairs. The ASI, which has undertaken the task of conservation, expects to complete it by 2014.
Coming back to the story of the secret chamber. It was opened months after it was discovered. Well, do you know what the eager archaeologists found. 
The secret chamber was full of mud. A series of experiments later revealed that the British had purposely built the chamber and filled it with mud to ensure correct balance of the building and strengthen its base.
This secret was unravelled almost an year ago-that is in November last. The 120 square feet room was full of mud. And the only treasure-mud that can rightly be claimed to be as old as 1760s. This was of course a tame end to an otherwise exciting discovery of a secret chamber in the 21st century.
The next time you visit Kolkata, hop on to a taxi and travel to Alipore. Visit the National Zoological gardens and the National Archives there. Check out the Belvedere House too. And also all the other British type buildings in the locality.  


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