Facing the River Hooghly, with its imposing façade resembling a replica of the Athenian Temple of Minerva, still stands on the Strand an old and yellowish dilapidated building, a neglected building that was once the main building of the old mint complex of Calcutta, popularly known as the Old Silver Mint.
During the days of Nawab Siraj- ud- Daulah, the Brish East India Company had no right to mint its own coins and was compelled to send their gold and silver reserves to the Murshibabad Mint of the Nawab. Consequently, the precious metals belonging to the company were converted to coins in the Murshidabad Mint and the minted coins were delivered to the company, after payment of the standard duties and the mint charges. The company was eager to avoid this unnecessary expenditure and wanted to solve the problem for good. Naturally, on 2 January 1757, when Lord Clive recaptured the Fort by defeating Siraj-ud-Daulah, he took the opportunity and compelled the Nawab to sign a treaty granting them the permission to set up their own mint and manufacture their silver and gold coins, known as Siccas and Ashrafis or Mohurs. These new coins, minted by the East India Company, were made valid for circulation throughout Bengal, Bihar and Orissa, the regions covered under the jurisdiction of the Nawab, without incurring any additional expenses.
Since during those days, Calcutta was known as Alinagar, named after Alivardi Khan, the Grandfather of Siraj-ud-Daulah, the first East India Company Mint, was known as ‘Alinagar-Calcutta Mint’, which was set up in 1757 in a building near the northern side of the present building of the General Post Office, next to the spot of the infamous Black Hole. However, the first silver coin minted by the Calcutta Mint was never circulated in the market, it became a collectors’ item and was carefully preserved as a valuable historical exhibit in the British Museum in London. There is no trace of the first gold mohur, minted at the Calcutta mint, which is considered to be in the collection of an unknown foreign coin collector.
The second Calcutta Mint was established just at the opposite to the western entrance of St John’s Church, on the site of Gillet Ship Building Establishment on Church Lane in 1790, equipped with the new updated machinery (still based on the hand operated screw principle) imported from England. However, this was taken over by the Stamp and Stationary committee in 1833.
In the month of March 1824, the foundation of the third Calcutta Mint, better known today as the Old Silver Mint, was laid on Strand Road, on a piece of waterlogged marshy land owned by the East India Company near a pier on the River Hooghly. The site was chosen by the British as the river was an effective and easier means of transportation of goods and raw materials in those days. It is said that, three eminent personalities of the period, namely, Prasanna Kumar Tagore of Pathuriaghata, Prince Dwarakanath Tagore of Jorasanko and Raja Nabakrishna Deb of Sobhabazar were the chief exponents of establishing the Old Silver Mint in that particular business area, now known as Burrabazar. Nevertheless, under Major General Forbes the construction of the massive building with an impressive facade majestically decorated with tall Doric columns, was completed 1830, though the production of coins had begun on 1 August 1829.
According to some scholars, in those days the location of the mint building was known as ‘Burdwan Raja’s Bazar’. In 1860, an annexed building, known as the ‘Copper Mint’ was built to the northeast of the Silver Mint, for the exclusive production of copper coins which began operation in April 1865. The two independently operative concerns were spread nearly over five hectares of land.
Both the Silver and the Copper Mints used to function side by side and produce coins of bronze, silver and gold and both were equipped with the new coining presses imported from the Boulton and Watt of Soho, Birmingham, England. It is maintained by many that, there was a time when the Silver Mint used to manufacture about 3,00.000 to 6,00.000 silver coins daily. This mint was the first in Asia to successfully process pure nickel for coinage purposes in 1907 and in 1918, the Mint created a world record by producing 19, 00,000 coins in one single day. Apart from the coins, Calcutta Mint also made medals and decorations for the army personnel.
Till 1952, the Silver Mint used to manufacture coins and after that, it functioned as a silver refinery. However, that too came to an end in 1972 and in 1985, the silver reserves were transferred to a new facility at Taratala. In fact, since the opening of the new Government of India Mint at Alipore on 19 March 1952, the Old Silver Mint had lost its past glory and fell from the grace. Since then, it has remained neglected and uncared for. For more than four decades, it had been used as a storehouse of the old machinery and camp a battalion of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF). The long ignored majestic building still stands today on the bank of the flowing river as a helpless witness of its glorious past and the beautiful structure is now waiting for its cloudy future.
Since the magnificent structure is situated in a crowded and busy area, it is impossible to take a clear view of it and appreciate the beauty of the nearly 200 year old pompous structure, now decaying helplessly in the heart of a throbbing city. Today the complex is divided into three separate sections by the circular railways and the Strand Road and it is impossible to imagine it as a singular campus extending towards the flowing river. With chipped off plasters from the walls and the Doric columns, with its broken windows and the seedy hallways and with the wild growth of the unwanted foliage, the grand building now almost looks like a haunted place. The shabbily built new brick check posts in and around the mint seem to be completely out of place and eye sores. The last part of the complex, which is beyond the circular railway, is supposed to be connected to the river. Unfortunately, the connection to the river has been blocked by the presence of an old rusty warehouse. Today, the ground level of the warehouse is used as a thoroughfare, leading to the famous flower market by the river, although the river itself is not accessible anywhere around the Mint.
The building of the Old Silver Mint had been declared as a heritage property by the Kolkata Municipal Corporation, but nothing was done to save the Old Silver Mint. During 2008, Mr. Gopalkrishna Gandhi, the then Governor of West Bengal, took up the matter with the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) and it was reported that INTACH had prepared a project report on restoring and renovating the national property back in 1987, much before the KMC gave it a heritage status. In fact, a detailed project had been planned to restore and renovate all the eight buildings in the complex and on 10 July 1980, pre qualification bids were received from eight developers. It was decided that the original building of the mint with the magnificent façade like the Temple of Minerva in Athens, will be converted to a museum to exhibit the old coins, notes, machinery and medals. The quarter of the Mint master will be converted to be used as an archive and a centre for Indian Cultural studies. The Copper Mint will be renovated to accommodate a Convention Hall and the present CRPF Quarters will be an entertainment centre for performing arts. The Red and the Yellow buildings were planned to be joined together by a footbridge to form a glamorous heritage hotel, while an ethnic food court will house the site of the erstwhile warehouse.
The present day river front - inaccessible from the Mint complex to the general
The Real estate Company, which bagged the contract, was hopeful about completing the project within 2010. Unfortunately, nothing has been done till date. The Old Silver Mint still stands heavily guarded and nobody is allowed to get inside the building without prior permission from the authority.