Every important city has one or more iconic landmarks, which symbolises the city. For example, while the Statue of Liberty stands for New York, the Eiffel Tower is identified with Paris and while London is represented by the Big Ben and the Tower Bridge, the Leaning Tower stands alone for Pisa. Likewise, thousands of people around the world are aware that the Tajmahal is the other name of Agra and Qutb or Qutub Minar means Delhi. Calcutta, which was the capital of British India until 1911, has at least three famous landmarks of its own, namely the Howrah Bridge, the Ochterlony Monument alias Shahid Minar and the beautiful Victoria Memorial Hall.
After Queen Victoria passed away on 22 January 1901, Lord Curzon, the then Viceroy of India, proposed to construct an appropriate and impressive memorial, dedicated to the memory of the departed Queen. The spot selected for the proposed memorial, very near to the St Paul’s Cathedral, was once occupied by the Presidency Jail, where Augustus Hickey, the founder of India’s first newspaper, Hickey’s Bengal Gazette, was once imprisoned. The jail was eventually moved to Alipore in 1906 and the old structure was demolished to make way for the Victoria Memorial. The fund required for the construction of the stately building, surrounded by lush green grounds sprawling over 64 acres, was raised through contributions by the British Indian states, Indian princes, ordinary people of India, the British government in London and personally by Curzon himself. William Emerson, the then President of the British Institute of Architects, designed a big and beautiful building for the proposed memorial and finally, the foundation stone was laid by the Prince of Wales, later King George V, on the 4th day of January 1906.However, before the completion of the huge building, the capital of India was shifted from Calcutta to Delhi in 1921 and the Victoria Memorial Hall was formally opened to the public by the Duke of Windsor on 21December 1921. The total cost of constructing the beautiful memorial came to Rs 105, 00,000.
Nestled amidst lush green gardens, the white Victoria Memorial Hall, located at the southern end of the Maidan, is flanked by Fort William, Calcutta Race Course, the Birla Planetarium, St Paul’s Cathedral, the Nandan Complex and Jawaharlal Nehru Road. Like the famous Tajmahal of Agra, the Victoria Memorial Hall of Calcutta is also constructed of white Markana marble from Rajasthan and is rightly nicknamed as the Taj of Raj. The majestic and exquisite memorial not only offers a real visual treat, but also stands as reminiscence to the rule of the British Crown in the Indian subcontinent. It is an excellent architectural gem, built in the Indo-Saracenic revivalist style, which uses a mixture of British, Mughal and other Islamic architectural influences. It is gracefully adorned with Italian style statues at the top of its entrances, along with the Mughal domes in its centre and the corners. The statues, which include the allegorical sculptures like Justice, Motherhood, Architecture, Learning and Prudence, are placed around the main dome.
Apart from that, the magnificent memorial is regally graced with tall, elegant open curved colonnades along its sides. Measuring 338 by 228 feet and rising to a height of 184 feet, the massive building is surrounded by beautiful sprawling ground and carefully maintained gardens, designed by the Scottish physician and botanist Sir David Prain and Lord Redesdale and adorned with ornamental palms, well maintained ponds and classical statues. The gates of the garden were designed by Vincent Jerome Esch, who was engaged by William Emerson, the designer of the project, as his assistant. A bronze statue of Queen Victoria, seated in a royal chair, dominates the approach to the memorial. There are many other statues around the building and inside the garden area, which include, among others, the statues of Edward VII, Curzon, Dalhousie and Hastings. Apart from that, sculpted in marble by Thomas Brock in 1921, a standing statue of young Queen Victoria, holding an orb and a scepter, adorns the centre of the main hall of the memorial.
However, one of the star attractions of the memorial is the Angel of Victory, a black angel made of bronze, with a bugle in her hand, standing atop its main dome. Fixed to its pedestal with ball bearings, the Angel of Victory rotates with the strong gust of the blowing wind.
The Victoria Memorial Hall in Calcutta is considered by many as a treasure trove, as it is equipped with 25 specifically arranged galleries, which include among others, the royal gallery, the portrait gallery, the sculpture gallery, the arms and armory gallery and the newly added, Calcutta gallery.
The royal gallery has a very rich collection of valuable paintings by the eminent European painters. It is, in fact, a storehouse of oil paintings of Queen Victoria, which include the young Queen while receiving the sacrament at her coronation in the Westminster Abbey in June 1838, her marriage with Prince Albert in 1840, the christening of the Prince of Wales, the marriage of the Prince of Wales, Edward VII, with Princess Alexandra and others. Apart from that, the gallery also has a large collection of paintings in oil and water colours, by the eminent European artists like Sir Charles D'Oyly, Johann Zoffany, William Hadges, William Simpson, Tilly Kettle, Thomas Hickey, Bultzar Solvyns, Emily Eden and others. Added to the immense treasure, the Memorial also houses the largest collection in the world of the paintings by Thomas and William Daniell. However, that is not all. Victoria Memorial Hall also houses an excellent collection of Indian paintings, which ranges from the Mughal and Rajput miniature paintings to the modern masters like Abanendranath Tagore, Gaganendranath Tagore, Nandalal Bose and others.
The Calcutta gallery houses a visual display of the history and development of Calcutta, from the days of Job Charnock and the British East India Company during the 17th century to 1911, when the capital of India was transferred from Calcutta to New Delhi. The gallery also displays a representation of the early 19th-century view of the Chitpur Road.
The Victoria Memorial Hall is the proud owner of the largest collection of antiquarian books like the works of William Shakespeare, the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, the Arabian Nights, along with the books about the Thumri music by Wajid Ali Shah and Kathak dance. It houses a desk owned by Queen Victoria, embellished with paintings of Indian birds and the queen’s rosewood piano. It also houses a host of valuable articles like the dagger of Tipu Sultan, the black marble throne that belonged to Siraj-ud-Daulah, a cannon used in the battle of Plassey, very old and rare books, valuable manuscripts like the Ain-i-Akbari by Abul Fazal, old coins, maps, rare postage stamps.
Lastly, it may be added that, the Victoria Memorial Hall, with its great central dome, clustered with four subsidiary, octagonal domed chattris, the high portals, the terrace and the domed corner towers present a fantastic feast for the eyes. Like the famous Tajmahal in Agra and the US Capitol in Washington DC, the incredible Victoria Memorial Hall in Calcutta is a massive and beautifully proportioned festival of white marble.