Friday, June 24, 2011

Victoria Memorial Hall - Exquisite Beauty as Historical Legacy in Kolkata

When you read or hear references to the “Victorian era” in arts and literature, it pertains to the reign of Britain’s Queen Victoria from June 1837 until her death in January 1901. This was 63 years of peace and prosperity for the British people; an era preceded by the Georgian Period and succeeded by the Edwardian Period. More importantly, this pays homage to the longest reigning monarch in British historyQueen Victoria, Buckingham Palace’s first royal resident However, Queen Elizabeth II will surpass this record if she remains on the throne until September 9, 2015.

From May 1, 1876, Victoria carried the additional title – “Empress of India”. The imperial title had a sprawling coverage over a huge land comprising India (except Goa which was under the Portuguese and state of Sikkim), Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Burma.

Five years after her death, the foundation stone of the memorial was laid down in 1906, but it wasn’t until 1921 when the memorial hall was finally inaugurated. The British government didn’t spend a dime for its construction. It was funded by the British Indian states and well-heeled, albeit "generous" patrons who wanted favors from the colonial government.

A British architect named Sir William Emerson, who originally came to India to build an art school that didn’t quite materialize, was approached. Asked to design a building in Italian Renaissance Style, he bucked the idea and went on incorporating European and Mughal elements (Indo-Saracenic style) into the structure, employing white Makrana marbles. This would become Emerson’s crowning glory, who also designed Mumbai’s Crawford Market.

Victoria Memorial Hall is massive – 338 feet by 228 feet, and rises to a height of 184 feet. The memorial ground is a glorious breathing space of gardens and ponds, all 64 acres.


From Sudder Street, we hailed one of those ubiquitous Yellow Taxis. But one look at me, and the driver wouldn’t budge to drop down the meter. You have to remember that I was with Junaid who’s Indian (well, Kashmiri). I didn’t understand much of their verbal tussle. All I knew was, he wanted to charge us 250 rupees flat for a ride that only took us 15 minutes. People from our hotel said it's supposed to cost us in the vicinity of a hundred rupees. “He is a tourist. He is rich!” I could tell what he was saying. Indian drivers live in an alternate world of wide-eyed greed. Junaid and the driver went on for 5 more minutes before they finally settled down. All because I was an Asian foreigner who walked around with money on my face. Haha. I looked rich, I should pay 1,000 rupees for every kilometer my taxi takes me.


Now before anyone tells me that India is supposedly a cheap place for foreign travelers, think again.

Despite the relatively low standard of living in India, foreign tourists are exponentially charged for everything. So you can do the math: If you have 10 places to visit in Kolkata, you'd be expected to pay 250 rupees for one ride (regardless of the transportation). 250 rupees x 10 destinations – for the cost of transportation from point A to point B. That’s already 2,500 rupees just for transportation alone.

Now let’s add up the entrance fees. Victoria Memorial has a 5 rupee ($0.11 or PhP4.80) entrance fee for locals and 150 rupees for foreign tourists. Indian Museum has an entrance fee of 150 rupees ($3.34 or PhP145), plus 50 camera fee (5 rupees for locals). Now, if you have to visit 10 of such tourist sites, add up all the entrance fees, and you will need to rake up about 2,000 rupees for the entrance fees alone.

In a single day’s visit to 10 places, you would have to set aside a minimum of 5,000 rupees for entrance fees and transportation. We’re not even counting in hotel charges and food expenditure. If you were to visit 10 cities all over India, do the math and tell me if India is cheap. I am laying it here again just to inform the naïve and uninformed. India is indeed incredible, but there is an uneven price to pay for such eye-popping marvel. But we digress.

Our taxi dropped us right in front of the entrance gates of Victoria Memorial Hall. Junaid paid his 5 rupees. I paid my 150 rupees. I saw a vendor peddling maps of Kolkata. I knew I didn’t have enough time to actually use it, but I like buying maps since these aren’t exactly available in Power Books, Borders or National Bookstore. Besides, I might be back sometime in the future.

The white building was immaculate. I loved the gardens surrounding the hall; the ponds placidly taking the afternoon sun. Cameras were prohibited inside the building so we just walked around the museum, filled with sepia photographs. I saw photos of the Malay royalty from Shah Alam. The whole tour didn’t take an hour. It was too bad I couldn’t take photographs. Junaid and I proceeded to the benches outside as we basked in its laidback atmosphere.

The architecture was exquisite. If only I didn’t have to pay double for my taxi ride back to my hotel.

This is the Eye in the Sky!

Lion at the entrance.

Queen Victoria

Majestic garden and placid pond.

Howrah Bridge with their population of greed, err... I mean yellow taxis. FYI, you can't take photos of the bridge these days. Taking photos there constitute a felony.

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