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Towering messengers of a bygone era

Gurvinder Singh | Updated on May 18, 2018 Published on May 18, 2018

Count me in: There is no record of the number of towers that are still around. Seen here is one at Parbati Chowk in Arambagh. Photo: Gurvinder Singh

Space crunch Nearly seven shops have come up at the outer boundary wall of the semaphore tower at Khattir Bazaar in Andul, off Howrah district images: gurvinder singh

Count me in There is no record of the number of towers that are still around. Seen here is one at Parbati Chowk in Arambagh

Older than telegram, they were used to relay military information across large distances. Today few recognise the historical worth of the semaphore towers of Bengal and Jharkhand

Surajit Mandi looks up quizzically every time he strolls past a tall tower standing amidst paddy fields at his village Parbati Chowk in Arambagh, off Hooghly district, around 100 km from Kolkata. He wonders about the purpose of the chimney-like structure that has stood there quietly for ages, witnessing the changing landscape. The 50-year-old Mandi and his fellow villagers call it a girja (a word usually used for ‘church’ in Bengali) and it has become a local landmark.

Count me in There is no record of the number of towers that are still around. Seen here is one at Parbati Chowk in Arambagh

 

“I have seen this girja since childhood. It could be several centuries old or perhaps before the British came to India. It looks like a watchtower to guard against approaching enemies,” says Mandi, recounting what little he’s heard about the structure from his grandparents and other villagers.

A few kilometres away, a similar structure stands at Nobason Mouza village in the same district. Villagers here too call it a girja and believe it was a watchtower built by a local maharaja before the British arrived in India.

Sadly, none of them are aware of the true nature of these structures and their history, which has long been ignored by successive governments. The structures are, in reality, semaphore towers, which can be counted as one of the early modes of communication in the country, pre-dating the arrival of telegram, and nearly four decades before the first train ran between Bombay and Thane in 1853.

According to heritage enthusiast Rangan Datta, the semaphore towers — popularly known as visual telegraph or optical telegraph — were introduced by the British in India during 1810-30. A series of 70- to 80-ft-tall towers were built at 13-km intervals between Calcutta’s Fort William and Chunar Fort in Varanasi.

“The towers were constructed on an experimental basis, mainly to convey military information before telegram arrived in the country. The technology was imported from France, where it was introduced by Napoleon in the 1790s. The towers in Bengal are four-storeyed and 75-80 ft tall, while those in Jharkhand were 40-50 ft because they were built atop hills.”

 

Information was transmitted by means of visual signals, perhaps using pivoting shutters (also known as blades or paddles), Datta explains. The signals sent out by one tower were observed from the next tower by means of a telescope and relayed to the next tower in the series. “It took just 50 minutes for the message to travel from Calcutta to Chunar. The advent of telegram in the 1850s sounded the death knell for the towers,” he says.

Today, many of these towers have crumbled to dust or been razed down due to governmental failure to preserve them. When contacted, Gautam Haldar, deputy superintendent, Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), Kolkata circle, said, “There are several structures such as the semaphore towers that are not under our protection. It is not necessary that every old monument has to be covered by us. It would be better to give a written application to the ASI and then we would look into it.”

The historical structures have become easy targets for encroachers. Around seven shops have come up at the outer boundary wall of the semaphore tower at Khattir Bazaar in Andul, off Howrah district. Worse, a shopkeeper blocked one of the entrances with bricks to build his shop. On the inside, the place has become a dumping ground for garbage and an open-air toilet.

Space crunch Nearly seven shops have come up at the outer boundary wall of the semaphore tower at Khattir Bazaar in Andul, off Howrah district images: gurvinder singh

 

As several towers have been razed down to make way for modern buildings, there is no record of the number of towers that are still around in Bengal and Jharkhand.

Datta has visited 11 towers in Bengal and collected information on three more in Silwar Hills (Bokaro), Satanpur (Hazaribagh) and Babudhi (Dhanbad) in Jharkhand; he believes there could be many more of them.

Some of the semaphore towers in Bengal are still in good condition. “Most people aren’t aware of the rich history of the towers. It could be turned into a new tourist attraction and help generate employment for the local youth. Unfortunately, however, the towers turn into a den of antisocials and drunkards after sunset,” said Sukumar Rai, a young local in Nobason Mouza, pointing to the empty liquor bottles strewn around the place.

Once sentinels that served as vanguards for future technology, today these towers sadly have no one looking out for them.

Gurvinder Singh is a freelance journalist based in Kolkata

Published on May 18, 2018
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