Semaphore Towers ~ A Pre – Telegram Communication System
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).
Its a semaphore tower, quiet a few of which still dot the rural as well as urban landscapes of West Bengal, Bihar and Jharkhand.
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).
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 ??????
- Amitabha Gupta, friend and fellow photographer, for accompanying me in the hunt for semaphore towers.
- This is a compilation article and would be updated from time to time.