Lascar War Memorial, Calcutta (Kolkata)
Lascar War Memorial
~ Napier Road, Calcutta (Kolkata) ~
“He had thought that the Lascars were a tribe or nation….. he discovered now that they came from places that were far apart, and had nothing in common, except the Indian Ocean; among them were Chinese and East Africans, Arabs and Malays, Bengalis and Goans, Tamils and Arakanese.”
Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh
Sandwiched between the two buildings of the Navy House in Napier Road in Hasting region of Calcutta (Kolkata) stands a towering structure built in the honor of 896 Lascars, who died fighting for the British Navy during the Great War of 1914 – 18 (First World War).
The 100 ft memorial built in the Indo-Mughal style has prows of an ancient galley projecting from each side and is capped by four mini minarets and a large dome. Along the facade are undulating lines symbolizing waves.
Lascar War Memorial was erected by shipping and mercantile companies at the southern end of the Maidan, within 100 yards of Prinsep Ghat and in the shadows of the Second Hooghly Bridge. It was designed by William Ingram Keir, who was also the man behind the Kidderpore Bridge, buildings at Bengal Engineering and Science University in Shibpur, the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur, and Islamia College. He also replaced the damaged spire of the St. Paul’s Cathedral. The Lascar War Memorial earned William Ingram Keir an award of Rs 500 for its design in an international contest in 1920.
The Lascar War Memorial was unveiled to public by the then governor of Bengal, Lord Lytton, on February 6, 1924. A plaque inside the Lascar War Memorial stands as a witness to the historic event. The other plaque is in the memory of the 896 Lascars, although the term “Lascar” is not used. They have been mentioned as “Seaman of Bengal, Asam and Upper India.” The third smaller plaques tells about the renovation and lighting of the Lascar War Memorial.
After independence the memorial has practically forgotten and lay in utter neglect. During a trip to Kolkata in the 1980s, William’s son James Keir had noted with sadness that lack of upkeep had turned the monument decrepit and surrounding grounds riddled with overgrowth.
In 1994, commodore B K Mohanti spotted it during his morning walk and struck by its significance, decided to get it restored. “The first challenge to restore the memorial and its precincts was to determine who owned the land. Since it’s in Army land, it had to be transferred to the Navy. Then the ground had to be fenced off after 200-odd trucks that used to be parked there were evicted. Now, the challenge is to keep it in good shape and make citizens of Kolkata aware that a splendid memorial for subalterns exists,” said Mohanti.
Renovation and lighting was complete in December 1994 but did the Indian Navy take any steps to to make the Calcutans aware of its existence? My personal experience says no. I was almost held at gunpoint while shooting the Lascar War Memorial in 2010 and was forced to delete the photographs from my memory card.
But things are on for a change as in the recent past the Lascar War Memorial has been the venue for several cultural events. The Kolkata chapter of the Indian National Trust For Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) had meet at Lascar War Memorial on 3 Nov. 2012 with James Keir as guest. The Apeejay Kolkata Literary Festival (AKLF) was also held at the Lascar War Memorial on 13 Jan. 2013 and the photographs were shot at that time as I still don’t have the courage to go and shoot the memorial on an ordinary day !!!!
- Special Thanks to Nidhi Dugar Kundalia of Kindle Magazine for inviting me to the Apeejay Kolkata Literary Festival (AKLF)
- Oceans Apart by Soma Basu, The Statesman dated 20 Nov. 2011
- Forgotten War Memorial gets a place in history by Subhro Niyogi, The Times of India, 4 Nov. 2012
- Tears of Subaltern by Soumitra Das, The Telegraph, 12 July 2009