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RUINS OF CALCUTTA – The Old Silver Mint

The Old Silver Mint

There stands on the Strand, facing the River Hooghly, an old and yellowish dilapidated building, with its imposing facade, like a replica of the Athenian Temple of Minerva. This palatial building  was once the old mint complex of Calcutta, popularly known as the Old Silver Mint.

During the early days, The East India Company had no right  to mint its own coins and therefore, had no other way but  to send its gold and silver reserves to the Murshibabad Mint of the Nawab, where the metals were converted to coins. The Company used to take delivery of the coins, after paying the standard duties and the mint charges. But when Lord Clive recaptured the Fort by defeating Siraj-ud-Daulah on 2nd January 1757, Siraj- ud- Daulah was forced to agree to give the said right to East India Company on the 7th day of February 1757. He agreed to allow them to establish their own mint and issue silver and gold coins (known as Siccas and Ashrafis or Mohurs) struck on the standard of the Murshidabad Mint. These coins were valid for  circulation throughout the regions covered under the jurisdiction of the Nawab, namely Bengal, Bihar and Orissa, without incurring any additional expenses.

Mohur produced by the Mint
Mohur produced by the Mint

Accordingly, the First East India Company Mint, known as “Alinagar-Calcutta Mint” was set up in a building next to the spot of the infamous “Black Hole” in the old Fort, at the site where the General Post Office stands today. It is to be noted here that, in those days Calcutta was known as Alinagar, named after Alivardi Khan, the Grandfather of Siraj. Interestingly, the first silver coin minted by the Calcutta Mint was never circulated, it was carefully preserved as a valuable historical  exhibit in the British Museum while the first gold mohur that was minted at the mint is reportedly in the collection of a foreign coin collector.

The second Calcutta Mint was located just at the opposite to the western entrance of St John’s Church. It was equipped with the new updated  machinery (still based on the hand operated screw principle) imported from England  in 1790. It was founded on the site of Gillet Ship Building Establishment, one of the docks from which several cargo ships were launched.

The Old Silver Mint painting by Thomas Princep - 1829
The Old Silver Mint painting by Thomas Princep – 1829

The foundation of the third Calcutta Mint, better known today as the Old Silver Mint, was laid on Strand Road in March 1824. The new building was to be constructed on a piece of waterlogged marshy land owned by the East India Company near a quay on the Hooghly. The site, on the bank of the Hoogly River, was chosen by the British as the river was an effective and easier means of transportation of goods and raw materials in those days. It is also said that Raja Nabakrishna Deb of Sobhabazar, Prince Dwarakanath Tagore of Jorasanko and Raja Prasanna Thakur of Pathuriaghata –  the three eminent personalities of the period  – had played a key role in the establishment of the Old Silver Mint in that particular  business area, now known as Burrabazar. Whatever may be case, the new mint was opened for production from 1st August 1829.

The magnificent facade of the building of the third Mint, based on a design of the Parthenon, the Greek Temple of Minerva, stood on the Strand Road, just at the junction of Cotton Street and Clive Street. It is said that in those days the location of the Mint Building was known as “Burdwan Raja’s Bazar”. The Mint started to operate from 01 August 1829. An annexe building,  known as the “Copper Mint”,  was built to the north of the Silver Mint in 1860 for the exclusive production of copper coins which began operation in April 1865. The silver and copper mints both used to function side by side and produce coins of bronze, silver and gold.   Both these mints were well equipped with the new coining presses supplied by the Boulton and Watt of Soho, Birmingham, England. Apart from the coins, during the British Regime, Calcutta Mint also made medals and decorations for the army personnels. History says that, there was a time when approximately  3,00,000 to 6,00,000 silver coins were manufactured here daily. This mint was the first in Asia to successfully process pure nickel for coinage purposes. Silver coins were minted here till 1952 and, thereafter, it functioned  as a silver refinery. But that too came to an end in 1972, and the silver reserves were transferred from here to a new facility at Taratola in 1985.

In fact, since the opening of the new Government of India Mint at Alipore on 19 March 1952, the Old Silver Mint has lost its glory and fell from the grace. Since then, the Old Silver Mint has remained closed, and the building remained neglected and uncared for. For more than four decades, it acts as a storehouse of the old machinery and also used to camp a battalion of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF). Still standing on the bank of the flowing river as a helpless witness of its glorious past, this beautiful structure is now waiting for its cloudy future.

Today, the magnificent structure stands in a dilapidated and distressed condition in the midst of the crowded Burra Bazar, the prime wholesale market of Kolkata. There is no point in or around the site where one can stand calmly and appreciate the beauty of the nearly 200 year old pompous structure, now decaying in the heart of a throbbing city. It almost goes past un-noticed. Today the site is divided into three parts by the circular railways and the Strand Road. Today it cannot be imagined as a wholesome singular campus extending towards the flowing river. The crumbling wall plaster and the wild growth of foliage barely hide the grandeur of the Grecian Doric columns of the Mint. It almost looks like a haunted place with chipped off  plasters from the walls and the columns, with shabbily built newly constructed brick check posts in and around the mint, with its broken windows and the seedy  hallways. The structure had been retrofitted to its limits, erasing a glorious chapter of history. The last part of the site is beyond the circular railway, and is supposed to be connected to the river. However, the connection to the river has been lost by an old rusty warehouse, probably belonging to the last part of the British era itself. The ground level of the warehouse has become a thoroughfare, which  extends into the famous flower market by the river, although, the river itself is not accessible anywhere around the Mint.

Of late, at the instance of Mr. Gopalkrishna Gandhi, Ex-Governor of West Bengal, along with the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage, a detailed project has been planned to restore and renovate all the buildings in the complex, not only for their historical importance, but also in the interest of the promotion of heritage tourism.

The complex of the Old Silver Mint consists of eight structures. The original building of the mint with the magnificent façade like the Temple of Minerva in Athens is planned to be converted to a museum to exhibit the artifacts such as coins, notes, machinery and medals. An archive and a center for Indian Cultural studies are supposed to be set up in the quarter of the Mint master. The Copper Mint will be renovated to accommodate a Convention Hall, while the present CRPF Quarters will be converted into an entertainment center for performing arts. The Red and the Yellow buildings are to be joined together by a footbridge to form a glamorous heritage hotel. Finally, an ethnic food court will house the site of the erstwhile warehouse.

No doubt, it is a dream project. But unfortunately, little has been done till date to make the dream come true.

The Yellow Building
The Yellow Building
The Red Building
The Red Building
The present day river front
The present day river front
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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