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HERITAGE BUILDINGS OF COLONIAL CALCUTTA – Currency Building

The Currency Building, Calcutta

Once upon a time the spot was owned by the Calcutta Auction Company and a huge warehouse of the said company was reportedly stretched from Tank Square to Mission Row. It is said that, the warehouse was filled from one end to the other with various types of merchandise procured for auction. But the auction company was not doing well and finally closed around the middle of the 1860’s. Agra and Masterman’s Bank Ltd., a bank of repute, took over the site and erected a beautiful building in 1867 in the Italian style of architecture.   However, the alliance with the London based Masterman’s was short-lived and when the London concern dropped out, the bank assumed the title of Agra Bank Ltd. At that point, of time, since their resources became restricted, the bank sold the larger part of the premises facing Tank Square, to the Government. The Government was actually in search of a suitable building for the Currency Department, which was formed for issuing Government Currency notes for the first time, after the passing of the Paper Currency Act in 1861. The Government purchased the building during 1868-1869 for Rs.1.073, 109 and the Agra Bank withdrew to the rear part of the premises, numbered 26 Mangoe Lane, overlooking Mission Row.

Currency Building 1885
Currency Building 1885

The collapse of the Agra Bank in 1900 prompted the Government to purchase the massive    Currency Building, including the bank’s premises at 26 Mangoe Lane, at a cost of Rs. 377,230. The Lost Note and Registration Branch of the Currency Department was set up at 26 Mangoe Lane, and two out-houses were also constructed at a cost of Rs.1,46,606. From 1935 to 1965, the Reserve Bank used to manage the paper currency business from the building, after which it was occupied by the Accountant General, central, for some years.

Currency Building Entrance
Currency Building Entrance

The entrance of the building has a very handsome wrought iron gate, made in three parts, of a very florid design. Its large brick arches and Venetian windows with intricate designs were a real treat for the eyes. During its heydays the ground floor of the building was used as the Office of Issue and Exchange. The central hall was of very grand proportions, and lit by skylights around three large domes. Here were the exchange counters for notes, gold, silver and small change. The bulk of the silver was kept in strong vaults in Fort William, but a working reserve was kept in the Currency Office, in a vault with a six inches thick iron door, which was further protected by a second iron door, and last of all with a massive iron grating. The floors above were floored throughout with Italian marble, even to the third storey. This was also the official residence of the Assistant Commissioner, in charge of the Currency Office. Built of brick and lime, the roof of the building was arched on an iron joist, which collapsed with time. Archaeologists have discovered the evidence of an underground canal, through which water from the river Hooghly was channeled inside the building to cool the freshly minted coins.

An ornamented column
An ornamented column
The room where the currencies were kept
The room where the currencies were kept

Unfortunately, the decades of negligence and non-maintenance took its toll on the building and it was declared unsafe. Subsequently, the Central Public Works Department took over the charge of the structure and started to demolish it, with the intention to build a high-rise building on the site. But fortunately, good sense prevailed and timely intervention by the concerned authority saved the heritage building from being lost. It was declared as a heritage building by the Calcutta Municipal Corporation in September 1996. The Archaeological Survey of India took the charge of the structure in 2003, but got the possession only in 2005. However, full marks should be awarded to the Archaeological Survey of India, who has so far done a great job and almost completed the difficult task of restoration of the heritage building successfully.

The Currency Building undergoing renovations and restorations
The Currency Building undergoing renovations and restorations
Currency Building - Process of demolition
Currency Building – Process of demolition
Process of destruction
Process of destruction
Dibyendu Banerjee
Dibyendu Banerjee
Ex student of Scottish Church College. Served a Nationalised Bank for nearly 35 years. Authored novels in Bengali. Translated into Bengali novels/short stories of Leo Tolstoy, Eric Maria Remarque, D.H.Lawrence, Harold Robbins, Guy de Maupassant, Somerset Maugham and others. Also compiled collections of short stories from Africa and Third World. Interested in literature, history, music, sports and international films.

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