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Belvedere House-Kolkata

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 Asia’s 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 Ganga’s tributary which fringed Alipore’s jungle country) to set up a factory.

Historians however 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 Bengal’s Governor at that time with the legendary Warren Hastings, occupying a relatively modest office as the East India Company’s import warehouse-keeper.

Mir Jafar moved to Kolkata where he is thought to have owned a large court house. But troubled with Qasim’s machinations, Jafar settled within the safety of British Army fortifications at Alipore. While in Kolkata and before the treaty which reinstated him as Bengal’s 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 Company’s council desiring to construct a bridge across the Tolly’s 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.

Chroniclers’ accounts are hazy around this period of Belvedere’s 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 Estate’s financial value comes to light for the first time in Mrs. Tolly’s 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 Belvedere’s history before the grand mansion became the East India Company’s 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 Viceroy’s 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 Nehru’s dream of a treasure-house of books for citizens at large and the zeal of Kesavam (the then librarian) dashed the Army’s 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.

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