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Semaphore Towers ~ A Pre – Telegram Communication System

Semaphore Towers

A Pre – Telegram Communication System

Its a typical rural Bengal landscape, a villager makes is way through agricultural fields, but the chimney like structure is definitely unique. Its not a chimney of the brick kilns that dot the Bengal rural landscape nor is it a wtach tower used to keep eye on invading Bargi (Maratha).

Semaphore Tower, Parbatichak, Arambagh, Hooghly, West Bengal

Semaphore Tower, Parbatichak, Arambagh, Hooghly, West Bengal

Its a semaphore tower, quiet a few of which still dot the rural as well as urban landscapes of West Bengal, Bihar and Jharkhand.

Inside of Semaphore Tower at Parbatichak

Inside of Semaphore Tower at Parbatichak

A look inside the four story structure revels the absence of stairs. In most cases the wooden platform of the top have collapsed but a few towers the portions of the top platform can still be seen.

Semaphore, popularly known as visual telegraph or optical telegraph, was a most popular communication technology in the pre –  telegram days. It is a system of conveying information by means of visual signals, using towers with pivoting shutters, also known as blades or paddles. The signals were observed from the next tower by means of telescope and relayed on to the next tower.  It was first introduced in France by Napoleon in 1790s.

Semaphore was introduced in India by the British during 1816 – 1830 when series of towers were planned between Calcutta Fort William and Chunar Fort of Varanasi (Benaras). The line said to contain 70 – 80 feet high towers at an interval of 8 miles (13 KM).

A local escorts Amitabha Gupta to Ramsagar Semaphore Tower

A local escorts Amitabha Gupta to Ramsagar Semaphore Tower

Another line was planned between Calcutta and Bombay but there are no official records of the semaphore towers  actually being constructed on this line.

The amazing technology of semaphore died prematurely after the introduction of Telegraph, which was officially introduced in India in 1854.

Many of the semaphore towers on the Calcutta – Varanasi line have crumbled to dust but quiet a few have survived the test of time and centuries of human neglect and natural disasters and can still be seen to this day. Many are in reasonably good condition while some are on the verge of collapsing.

Some are located next to rail lines and roadways while some stands as sentinels amidst agricultural fields. Some are located atop hill tops while some located deep inside dense forest. Each of  these are semaphore towers have their own legends and have a number of folklore attached with them.  In Howrah and Hooghly the semaphore towers are called Girja (Church) and in Bankura and Purila they are known as Mancha (elevated platform).

As on 15 July 2013 the Telegram in India makes its way into history books Amitabha Gupta, a fellow photographer and history enthusiast, and I decided to take a tour (or rather several tours) to locate the semaphore towers.

1. Khatirbazar, Andul

District: Howrah, West Bengal

Semaphore Tower, Andul, Howrah

Semaphore Tower, Andul, Howrah

The semaphore tower at Khatirbazar,Andul is one of the easiest to spot. If you are travelling from the Second Hooghly Bridge a right turn from the Andul more (crossing) and a few minutes drive will take you to the semaphore tower located on a busy trijunction of three roads.

Locally known as Girja, the semaphore tower is in good condition and almost intact barring a few cracks. Sadly it is heavily encroached upon and even one of the entrance to the tower have sealed off by a wall of a shop.

The four storied tower is provided with arched entrances, windows and even circular ventilators. Each of the four tires are marked with projected rims. Portions of the top tier seem to have chipped off over time, as have the bricks from the walls.

A look inside reveals no trace of any staircase and the wooden platform on the top has long collapsed.

Every day thousand of locals pass by this historic structure with out knowning about its significance. But there are exceptions too a nearby shopkeeper provided us with the details of the towers history, which also included a brief on the semaphore system.

2. Dilakash, Jangipara

District: Hooghly, West Bengal

Semaphore Tower, Dilakash, Jangipara

Semaphore Tower, Dilakash, Jangipara

Similar to the Andul semaphore tower the one at Dilakash, Jangipara, Hooghly is also located on the road and easy to spot. If you are driving from Calcutta (Kolkata) take the Howrah – Jangipara road and just before reaching Sitapur Bazar take a left turn from the petrol pump. Its 9 km from the petrol pump.

But if you are travelling by public transport get down at the petrol pump and take a auto to Dilakash Girjatala. But mind you the auto ride is not for the faint hearted as you probably have to hung out of the overcrowded auto !!!!

Like the Andul tower the semaphore tower at Dilakash is also heavily encroached upon and on its arched entrance have been blocked .

Located on the right side of the road the semaphore towers stands like a sentinel towering above the encroached structure and the surrounding rural landscape.

The platform on the top, of the four tire tower, has long collapsed but traces of timber can still be seen in the intermediate stages. Overall the tower is in good condition.

This tower was also used as a survey post for the Great Trigonometrical Survey (GTS).

3. Parbatichak, Arambagh

District: Hooghly, West Bengal

Semaphore Tower, Parbatichak, Arambagh

Semaphore Tower, Parbatichak, Arambagh

The semaphore tower at Parbatichak, Arambagh, Hooghly is the grandest of the lot. Located in the midst of agricultural field the tower is totally free of encroachment and is in remarkably good condition. Even large portion of the top platform can still be seen.

The best way to reach the Parbatichak semaphore tower is to take the Arambagh – Bandar road from Arambagh. As you pass the village of Parbatichak you will spot the tower on the left located about 10 meters off the road in the middle of an agricultural field. Buses are also available but they can be horribly overcrowded, especially on weekdays.

Centuries of human neglect and effects of nature have little effect on the two century old tower. Even large section of the lime plaster on the inner and outer walls can still be seen. This tower was also used as a survey post of the Great Trigonometrical Survey (GTS).

An over enthusiastic local narrated a strange story of a magnet being dug up by thieves from the base of the tower!!! In spite of the strange story he was more or less aware of the significance of the semaphore tower and also provided us with the necessary information for tracking down the nearby semaphore tower in Goghat.

4. Goghat, Arambagh

District: Hooghly, West Bengal

Semaphore Tower, Goghat, Arambagh, Hooghly

Semaphore Tower, Goghat, Arambagh, Hooghly

The semaphore tower at Goghat, Arambagh, Hooghly is located on the Arambagh – Joyrambati & Kamarpukur road. But unlike the tower at Parvatichak it is not on the main road.

Located about half a kilometer of the road the tower can be spotted on the right (if you are travelling from Arambagh) just after leaving the village of Goghat. Take the right turn from Pachakhal Dhal and an unpaved road beneath a canopy of trees leads to the semaphore tower, locally known as Girja.

Buses are available from Arambagh but the last half kilometer stretch have to be covered on foot.

There is no constructional encroachment but the semaphore tower at Goghat is encroached with trees, including some recently planted eucalyptus trees. Apart from some huge cracks which passes through the arches the tower is more or less in a good condition.

The top platform no longer exists but the floor paved with thin bricks is almost completely intact, indicating that no one has ever dug it up in search of magnets or treasures !!!!

5. Ondagram, Bishnupur

District: Bankura, West Bengal

Semaphore Tower, Ondagram, Bishnupur, Bankura

Semaphore Tower, Ondagram, Bishnupur, Bankura

After a perilous experiences of hanging from autos and getting sandwiched in over crowded buses Amitabha and I decided to have a car for the semaphore tower exploration in the Bishnupur area of Bankura district. It was also great to have Dhananjoy, who have been an integral part of terracotta temple chase in the Bishnupur area, in the driver’s seat.

Our first stop was Ondagram, on the Bishnupur – Bankura road. The semaphore tower of Ondagram is visiable both from the road as well as the train line connecting Bishnupur and Bankura, in fact the tower can be spotted on the left just before the train enters the Ondagram station from Bishnupur. If you are travelling by road you have to take a right turn just before Ondagram to reach the semaphore tower.

There are at least 5 semaphore towers in Bankura District, 3 of which are in the Bishnupur region. The locals call them Mancha (elevated platforms) and wrongly known as communication towers of the Malla Rajas.

Located at the edge of an agricultural fields the semaphore tower at Ondagram is almost free from encroachment. Apart from the huge cracks through the arches the tower is in more or less good condition. Traces of the plaster can still be seen on the outer surface while majority of the plaster on the inner wall has survived the test of time.

6. Ramsagar. Bishnupur

District: Bankura, West Bengal

Semaphore Tower, Ramsagar, Bishnupur, Bankura

Semaphore Tower, Ramsagar, Bishnupur, Bankura

Located just beyond the Ramsagar station on the Bishnupur – Bankura railway line the tower is extremely difficult to reach. Although visible both from the Bishnupur – Bankura road and rail line it can be only reached by a half a kilometer of walk through agricultural fields.

A local villagers, who cultivates vegetable in the shadows of the Ramsagar semaphore tower volunteered as an escort.  It was monsoon time and the path was muddy, with the mud reaching well above our ankle and we had to made our way across a canal with knee deep water.

The tower was is bad shape the top has toppled off and the tower seemed to split into two. According to the locals the tower was struck by lightning causing extensive damage. The ruined tower flanked with two trees on either side and in the back drop 0f rural Bengal created a stunning spectacle.

7. Tantipukur, Bishnupur

District: Bankura, West Bengal

Semaphore Tower, Tantipukur, Bishnupur, Bankura

Semaphore Tower, Tantipukur, Bishnupur, Bankura

Tantipukur semaphore tower is the third and the last of the towers located in the Bishnupur region. Located deep inside the Joypur forest, an afforestation project of West Bengal forest department, it is extremely difficult to spot.

If you are travelling from Bishnupur just after pasing Tantiupara you will enter the Joypur forest. Soon you will come to a bridge across a canal.

Don’t cross the canal but turn right and move along the unmetaled road. Within 10 meters the semaphore tower, hidden inside the dense jungle, comes into view on the left. Do be very careful because quite likely you are going to miss it.

The only way to reach the tower is through the jungle is to scramble through thorny bushes infested with spiders along with their nets. The tower is covered on all sides by trees, planted by the forest department during an afforestation program, and is extremely difficult to photograph.

A strange spectacle awaited us inside the Tantipara semaphore tower. The base was dug up leaving a large hole several feet deep. It was probably a result of people looking out for hidden treasures or hidden magnets!!!!!!

8. Joychandi Hill, near Baranti (Boronti)

District: Purulia, West Bengal

Baranti 17

Semaphore Tower, Joychandi Hill, Purulia

As ones move further west into the western end of West Bengal the landscape changes. The flat flood planes of Bengal gives away to the undulating hills of Purulia.

Taking advantage of the hills they built the tower on strategic position on hill tops and thus increasing the visibility.

As the hills provided the natural elevation the semaphore towers were reduced in size. Unlike the three storied semaphore towers in the planes of Bengal those up in the hills of Purulia and Jharkhand were two storied.

The best way to vbiew the Jaichandi semaphore tower is from the nearby tourist spot of Baranti (or Boronti). Joychandi Hill is a rocky hill crowned with a temple of Devi Chandi. The temple is approachable by a meandering 480 step stairway.

Just below the temple stands the two storied semaphore tower. Although structurally sound it is not in very good shape and there are no traces of the wooden platform on the top.

Although not exactly on the top the tower is strategically built with with visibility on both eastern and western sides, thus providing an optical link between Calcutta and Benaras.

Other Semaphore Towers

Semaphore Towers in India not visited by me

  • Fort William, Calcutta
  • Latbagan, Barrackpur, 24 Parganas (North)
  • Satanpur Hill, Bokaro
  • Silwar Hill. Hazaribagh
  • Aarara, Bankura
  • Chhatna, Bankura

Future of Semaphore Towers in India

Nothing to Cherish

Even a few years ago a a similar semaphore tower stood next to the Bankura railway station, sadly it was broken down to give way for a stadium!!! Something which is only possible in a country like India.

While the semaphore towers in France and several other countries are maintained in their original condition. Several of these are even used as demonstration purpose making tourist aware of the the optical telegraph.

Can this be done in India or shall we leave the semaphore towers to crumble to dust ??????

Special Thanks:

  • Amitabha Gupta, friend and fellow photographer, for accompanying me in the hunt for semaphore towers.

Note:

  • This is a compilation article and would be updated from time to time.
  1. July 17, 2013 at 12:43 PM

    Thank you Rangan for the wonderful article. Just wondering how the person on duty must be climbing up to the top platform. Maybe there was no staircase for security reasons. Maybe there was a rope ladder, the person on duty pulls it up after climbing to prevent unwanted elements to come after him.

    • July 19, 2013 at 12:27 PM

      Thanks Dominic (Pouchong Lee) for your comment. There was no permanent stairs, but probably they used a wooden / bamboo ladder. Life Life was tough for the semaphore operator but sadly there is no record of their daily activity.

  2. July 17, 2013 at 3:50 PM

    Rangan da, use of semaphore in the Hooghly river for navigation of ships was quite common till a few decades back. you can still find semaphore on either bank of the Hooghly from Kidderpore onwards till Sagar island. can we have another documentation on that? i can help you out also.🙂

  3. July 17, 2013 at 7:14 PM

    Supratim, you are right on that point.

    Many of the places where 13 Semaphore telegraph stations was in action between Calcutta and Khejuri erected between 1831-1833, in the present day ( at least till 2005) three armed Tidal semaphores were being used to indicate the rise of the tide in the Hugli River. Although they have somewhat less significance as the whole system is computerized at present.

    Could you tell me if there are any masonry towers remains in this line or just the Semaphores ?

    • July 18, 2013 at 1:36 PM

      Amitabha da, so far as i remember, only a semaphore near Batanagar has its masonry structure remnants. In rest of the cases, hardly any structure remains. We studied semaphore (both theory and practical) as a mode of communication / tidal wave measurement during our course at Sea Explorers’ Institute. Anyway, i was wondering whether Bhalkimachan, near Guskara, is also a semaphore. Maybe not because of its different structure. Has it anything to do with the word, “machan”?

      • July 19, 2013 at 3:48 AM

        Supratim,

        Good to know that.

        Having tracked out the Calcutta – Chunar line ( 12 Stations discovered and looking for more), I am eager to track down the Calcutta – Khejuri line.

        Bhalkimachan is definitely not a Semaphore Tower.
        Apart from being a different shape than a Semaphore Tower, it does not fall in the line of
        any of three Semaphore Lines from Calcutta which existed in the early 19th century.

        The Chunar Line went from Fort William to Howrah, Hooghly, Bankura, Purulia and then into Bihar. I have mentioned the route in details in my blog.

        And the Calcutta Barrackpore line also does not include Burdwan or Birbhum in it.

        I found that In Bankura (and also in Jharkhand) any unrecognized tower like structure is referred to as Machan. Looks like in Burdwan they had same idea.🙂

      • July 19, 2013 at 12:29 PM

        Yes Amitabha da, Bhalkimachan cannot be called a semaphore tower. But it came to my mind after reading your post that “machan” was a common word for the towers.🙂 Anyway, i read your blog yesterday after Rangan da sent the link. It’s simply superb with intricate details.

    • July 19, 2013 at 12:54 PM

      Thanks Supratim and Amitabha fro the long thread of discussion. Really Amitabha’s and my blog post on the semaphore towers have created quiet a sensation !!!!! Also thanks to people like Supratim for adding on more infos.

      The Semaphore tower near Batanagar really sounds interesting, but Bhalki Machan is definitely not a semaphore tower not it is a GTS one. Amithabha has also pointed out that it does not fall on any of the propose semaphore lines, nor does it fall on George Everest’s Calcutta latitude. It was probably a real machan used by locals rajas for hunting!!!!

      Thanks Supratim your comment only shows that we have a long way to go in unfolding the mysteries of Semaphore in India.

  4. Indrani Chatterjee
    July 18, 2013 at 3:43 AM

    Great work all around, in photographing and investigating the remains of the semaphore towers. Since I work on the land records of the same region prior to the 1830s, my guess is that these towers were built on lands that were confiscated by the Company from many of its defeated rivals in the region- like the Sufi Afghan fortholders of the Birbhum raj, the holders of the Mayurbhanj dynasts etc. In addition to many of those family members being impoverished over time, these towers have also come to remind locals of a past they would much rather forget. Hence nobody either wishes to preserve these towers, nor do historians find traces of these towers in the official documents. That makes your work even more necessary, and admirable. Best regards.

    • July 19, 2013 at 12:34 PM

      Thanks Ms Indrani Chatterjee not only for the comment but also throwing light into an area of which I was totally unaware off.

      From my research I found that the semaphore communication was never used widely even in the two decades before the introduction of the Telegraph, may be the reasons pointed by you were the cause of the downfall of semaphore.

      Thanks once more.

  5. Premasish Roy
    July 18, 2013 at 1:16 PM

    I appreciate your sharing of this wonderful retrospective vista of a structure which had hardly arrested people’s attention to ponder over or had been conveniently overlooked by the passerby. I really admire this piquant research-bent of mind of yours. Indeed!! It’s a very informative article. It reminds me of coming across such Semaphores but I never knew its purpose and function. I remember faintly that I have seen one such Semaphore near Kamarhati on B.T.Road. Well, I am not sure whether it is a Semaphore or something else but it resembles one of those structures. I appreciate your quest for knowledge and its presentation through your impeccable photography. I have coined a sobriquet for you – “Photoscient Rangan” – Premasish Roy.

    • July 19, 2013 at 12:39 PM

      Thanks Premasish for your long and inspiring comment.

      The towers seen by you on BT Road, near Kamarhati (there is also one in Paikpara) are not semaphore towers. They were GTS towers used during the Great Trigonometrical Survey. In fact the GTS survey in Bengal was headed by non other then Sir George Everest himself.

      A semaphore tower is circular while a GTS tower is square. This is the main distinction between a semaphore and GTS tower.

      If of the semaphore towers were also used as GTS towers, as I have mentioned in my blog.

      Thanks once more.

  6. Saurab Basu
    July 18, 2013 at 10:11 PM

    This is Bad… You Two did not even let me know… Not fair

    • July 19, 2013 at 1:18 PM

      Saurab nice to hear from you after a loooong time. You have been in hibernation mode for a long time.

      Our Semaphore Tower exploration is far from over and hope to see you travelling with us in overcrowded non AC buses or hanging behind autos and making way through dense vegetation of thorny bushes infested with spiders. Not to mention the the long walks through ankle deep mud and knee deep waters.

      Hope to see you in our next semaphore tower exploration!!!1

  7. yousuf
    July 21, 2013 at 12:22 AM

    Amader gram’r barir okhane erom ekta tower achhe, amra Girja bolei jani….sunechhi survey’r jonno banano hoyechhilo….tobe semaphore kina janina…amader gram Burdwan > Raina P.S> Ebidpur gram

    echhara aro kichhu dure khondoghodh thanay Burdwan-Berugram route e onchol bole ekta jaygay erokom tower’r dhonsabosesh achhe…sekhaneo jete pare..

    amar naamTai dewa hoyni…

    Md Yousuf Hayat

    • August 1, 2013 at 9:51 PM

      Thanks Yusuf for providing the information. I am planning to visit the places soon. I will let you know about my findings.

      Thanks once more.

  8. Commodore B K Mohanti
    July 21, 2013 at 3:36 PM

    I was certainly fascinated by this info.Being an old naval officer having used semaphore it made a lot of sense.

  9. July 22, 2013 at 10:29 AM

    Thanks Rangan for the detailed article, valuable photographs and your research. I work for BBC in Delhi and was doing Telegram story last week. But I didn’t know that such kind of mammoth structures exist on Indian soil. Thanks again for your insights. Would be glad if you could send me the big pics of these magnificent structures. My email is- ___________

    • August 1, 2013 at 9:55 PM

      Thanks Ajay, feel proud to receive a comment from a some one who works in BBC.

  10. JOYDEEP SIRCAR
    July 25, 2013 at 2:20 PM

    I am very pleased, Rangan, at your meticulous perseverance. Keep it up. What happened to the 49th Bengalis?
    Take a look at the recent additions in my blog (JOYDEEP SIRCAR : An eclectic collection.
    All the best.

    • August 1, 2013 at 9:50 PM

      Thanks Joydeep Sir. Just had a look at your blog it looks wonderful. I will definitely read it in details.

      I am still working on the 49th Bengali Regiment, it would take a few days time.

      Thanks once more.

  11. July 28, 2013 at 10:21 PM

    Hi Rangan,

    You have indeed taken lot of pains to produce this Wonderful post! I have linked back to this post.🙂

    • August 1, 2013 at 9:45 PM

      Dear Sir (tvraraj) thanks for your comment and also for providing a link. You too have a wonderful blog and really honored to get a link from your esteemed blog.

      • August 1, 2013 at 9:52 PM

        Dear Rangan,

        It is indeed my pleasure to encourage young writers like you. For this reason I repost articles of others that really impress me.
        🙂

  12. October 2, 2013 at 3:17 PM

    Thank you Rangan ji for valuable information.

  13. August 6, 2014 at 8:24 AM

    Rangan, I learnt many things from your blog. Thank you very much for the images and information.

    • December 5, 2014 at 3:14 PM

      Amal da your comments and inspirations are a constant source of encouragement.

  14. Dr. Dilip Kr. Sarkar
    November 29, 2015 at 10:31 PM

    Thank you Sir. Useful Infos. I have seen two other semaphore towers : one between Nalikul and Kamarkundu railway station (on the northern side) on Seoraphuli-Tarakeswar branch line, and another in the Joypur forest in Bankura district – southern side of highway. I like to be enlightened.

    • November 29, 2015 at 11:39 PM

      Thank you sir for the comment. I have mentioned about the Semaphore Tower in Joypur Forest. The actual name of the place in Tantipukur, please do have a look again.

      For the tower between Nalikul and Kamarkundu railway station (on the northern side) on Seoraphuli-Tarakeswar branch line, it is a Great Trigonometrical Survey (GTS) tower not a semaphore tower. GTS towers are generally square while the semaphore towers are square.

  15. Pradip Ghosh
    April 17, 2016 at 11:00 PM

    Sir the range of the telescope at that time was around 20 Km . Why we see these towers in so less in number now considering some of them has been demolished. I personally visited the one in Khatirbazar.

  1. July 28, 2013 at 10:15 PM
  2. December 21, 2015 at 10:33 AM

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