Hiding the “Taj of the Raj

The Victoria Memorial is almost synonymous with the City of Joy. It sits in the middle of the city like a big white marble block oozing out elegance and grace. However, its history has both shades of black and white attached to it.
A picture of Victoria Memorial under construction; Image Source- tuckdbpostcards

A picture of Victoria Memorial under construction; Image Source- tuckdbpostcards

After the death of Queen Victory on a cold chilly night in London, the British administration in India especially Lord Curzon was severely shaken as he shared a good relationship with her. There are reports of people gathering in Maidan to mourn for the death of the queen without having a morsel of food.

To pay homage to the queen and also to give a competition to the Taj Mahal, it was first decided that throughout the city of Kolkata there would be numerous small Victoria Memorials. Lord Curzon fully denied this idea as he wanted to build one grand yet simplistic structure. Thus, it was decided to build one grand structure made up of Makrana marble in an Indo-Saracenic revivalist style with elements of Islamic architecture as well.

If you look at the Victoria Memorial closely it looks awfully similar to the Taj Mahal with its one central mausoleum and four spires. For these reasons, it has been popularly heralded as the “Taj of the Raj”

It is interesting to note that although the British has grand intentions with Victoria Memorial they did not have the financial backbone at the time with all the Delhi Durbars and their huge expenditures. Thus, a British monument honouring a British monarch was made using the money of the “barbaric, uncivilized native Indians”.

The history of Victoria Memorial gets rather interesting and sketchy during the 1940s when World War 2 was at its peak. Although Kolkata (or Calcutta as it was called then) was not a direct player in the Second World War it was a colony of the Allied Powers and was frequently used as a base of British and American soldiers.

As a result of this, there were several reconnaissance and bombing flights made by the Japanese airforce to scope out and annihilate military settlements. The open skies of Kolkata became a battleground. These raids usually took place at the night. Numerous points of interest such as shops, streets and houses in the city of Kolkata were covered with thick black paper to camouflage them.

The major problem that looked the British administration in Kolkata straight in the eye was this - How do we camouflage a shining white block of marble in the middle of a big open maidan? The Victoria Memorial was obviously a point of interest for the bombers. The answer to this dilemma can be found in the classic hit song by The Rolling Stones called “Paint it Black!”

The white block of marble was covered with bamboo scaffolding and layered up with mud and dung to make it invisible to the Japanese eye. This was a top-secret consignment in the British administration, nobody knew of the decision neither was anyone allowed to click a picture of the monument.

However, it is believed that two American army photographers named Frank Bond and Frank Kagal sneaked in this one snapshot in 1943. Thanks to them we can still see what the Taj of the Raj might have looked like then.

The horrors of these few years in the history of Kolkata has found their way into colloquial songs that mothers recite to their children, it goes something like this - “Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Dha Ni Bomb feleche Japani” (Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Dha Ni the bomb has been blasted by the Japani)

A picture of Victoria Memorial under construction; Image Source- tuckdbpostcards

A picture of Victoria Memorial under construction; Image Source- tuckdbpostcards


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