The road from the horse
racing turf in Kolkata sweeps across the Zeerut Bridge past the
Alipore Zoo and forks at a towering arched gateway. Enter through it
and you are suddenly enveloped by pastoral surroundings. The blare
of the traffic recedes as a monolithic building beyond a sprawling
compound peeps through the foliage of a banyan tree. This
edifice, known as Belvedere House, presently houses the National
Library one of Asias three largest libraries. The
library is the storehouse of a stupendous volume of books numbering
over a million.
What however is elusive
is the house itself. The story could well stretch back to when Job
Charnock sailed to Kolkata in the sunset years of the 17th
Century. The peripheral reaches of Kolkata stopped at Chowringhee
in those nascent years. Further down south were endless marshlands
and thickets. In the 1690s, Charnock is said to have chosen a patch
of land on the banks of the Adi Ganga (old Gangas
tributary which fringed Alipores jungle country) to set up a
believe that the roots of the Belvedere House lie in the late 1760s.
The first sketch of Belvedere House could have started taking shape
from the period when Mir Jafar Ali Khan, the Nawab of Bengal was
compelled by the East India Company to abdicate his throne at
Murshidabad to Qasim Khan in 1760. Vansittart was Bengals
Governor at that time with the legendary Warren Hastings, occupying a
relatively modest office as the East India Companys import
Mir Jafar moved to
Kolkata where he is thought to have owned a large court house. But
troubled with Qasims machinations, Jafar settled within the
safety of British Army fortifications at Alipore. While in Kolkata
and before the treaty which reinstated him as Bengals Nawab in
1763, Jafar is supposed to have gone on a spree, building
considerable property at Alipore. One theory says that Jafar could
have gited the magnificent Belvedere House to Warren Hastings.
In 1763 Hastings applied
to the Companys council desiring to construct a bridge across
the Tollys Nallah to my garden house. This
presumably is the Zeerut Bridge in Alipore today. It is possible
that the lyrical name associated with the garden house was conceived
of by the ever romantic Warren Hastings.
After the battle of Buxar
in 1764 Hastings left for England. Two governors, Verelst and
Cartier occupied the Belvedere during the period when Hastings was
away in England.
In 1770 Warren Hastings
sailed from England to take over as the Governor of Madras. En route
he met baron Von Inhoff and the bewitching Baroness Inhoff.
Following his stint at Madras, Hastings returned to Kolkata as
Governor in 1772 and to his garden house, the Belvedere. Only this
time with the enchanting Baroness Inhoff by his side.
It is history that a
deadly duel between Warren Hastings and his legal officer, Philip
Francis, was fought on the lush green compound of the Belvedere
House. The tale goes that the proverbial triangle had grown around
the irresistible baroness. Confronting a grave crisis Hastings and
Francis struck a deal that their rights over the lady should be
established by a draw of pistols.
As the first rays of the
sun streamed out on an August day (in the late 1770s) Francis and
Hastings stood eyeball on the Belvedere gardens their faces set
ablaze by the dawning light. Then they moved away from one another
and at the wave of a hand (from an overseer) swung around and fired.
The deadly crack of pistols rent the tranquil morning air. Philip
Francis lay sprawled on the ground gripping his blood-smeared arm
having escaped death by a whisker. An Australian historian, Arthur
Staples however is inclined to conclude that the fatalistic duel was
the outcome of bitter conflicts of a political nature between
Hastings and Francis.
accounts are hazy around this period of Belvederes history and
it is believed that Hastings finally sold out his prize garden house
to a Major Tolly in the 1780s. Tolly died in 1784 and his family
sold the property in 1802. Curiously, a hint of Belvedere Estates
financial value comes to light for the first time in Mrs. Tollys
sale application which called for a raise in the price of Rs.60,000/-
paid originally to Warren Hastings.
History buffs continue to
be baffled by grey areas in Belvederes history before the grand
mansion became the East India Companys residential quarters for
the Lieutenant Governor. From 1854 to 1911 the Belvedere housed a
calvalcade of Lieutenant Governors beginning with Halliday till the
British India capital moved to Delhi. After this it turned into the
Viceroys official residence. It is amusing to learn that the
basement of the Library, where the reservoir of books is now located
was the Vice Regal wine cellar. The army had also set its eyes on
Belvedere House after Independence. But Pandit Nehrus dream of
a treasure-house of books for citizens at large and the zeal of
Kesavam (the then librarian) dashed the Armys hopes.
An aged keeper confides
that creaking jackboots are sometimes heard scurrying through the
airy rooms at night. Hastings, it is believed, comes hunting for a
lost treasure chest. And on a full-moon night an apparition of
palanqauin bearers troops by and disappears into the dusky treeline
that hems the gardens on the south side.
In a moment of
distraction while strolling through the Belvedere gardens at the end
of a dull day you imagine hearing the strident ring of pistol shots.
And as you glance up the silhouettes of Warren Hastings and the
Baroness Inhoff melt away into the twilight haze of wintry sunset.