Stretching north-west across West Bengal and Jharkhand, and all the way to Chunar near Varanasi are sentinels of a forgotten era. Planted squarely in fields, crowning gentle hillocks, tucked deep inside forests, and scattered alongside busy highways and railway lines are mysterious towers that have refused to budge for 200 years.
These giant towers, made of brick, exhibit another peculiar feature – incredibly, they were built in a straight line from Fort William in Calcutta, then the capital of the Bengal Presidency, to Chunar – a distance of 694 km!
Locals have no idea what they are or who built them. Clearly, they were not chimneys, neither were they watch towers or lookout points. To make sense of them, locals in some places call them ‘machans’ (watch towers) or ‘girje’ (church). In Bankura district of West Bengal, fables of Malla Kings having built these towers to ward off attacks from Maratha Bargees are very popular. Oddly, the truth about these towers is far more fascinating than local folklore suggests.
These are the forgotten Semaphore Towers of India, built by the British East India Company to transmit messages across great distances. Together, they formed a system of communication called the ‘Semaphore Telegraph’. Predating the electrical telegraph, it consisted of two movable ‘arms’ (indicators) at either end of a crossbar or beam (regulator) that was mounted at right angles, in the middle, on a pole. The apparatus was then fixed atop a tall brick or stone tower so that it was visible from a great distance.
Some semaphore telegraphs used movable paddles or shutters instead of wooden arms but they all worked in the same way – the movable elements or indicators pivoted and changed position, and when they along with the crossbar were viewed together, they symbolized an alphabetic letter. The words, phrases and symbols thus formed were coded into a system for quicker transmission of information.
Two people, each armed with a telescope, were stationed at windows on either side of each tower. Using the telescope, they would ‘read’ the signal from the adjacent tower and convey it to the semaphore operator, who would then repeat the signal from his tower by cranking handles connected to the wooden arms or indicators.
To read these signals accurately, the towers – according to some estimates, there were originally around 45 of them – were built in a straight line of vision, each tower at a distance of between 9.5 to 13 miles from the next. And, on a clear day, messages were passed from Fort William in Calcutta to Chunar in just 50 minutes.
The semaphore telegraph, a seemingly rudimentary contraption, was actually a brilliant invention that has its roots in the French Revolution. Established in France in 1792 CE, it was invented by Claude Chappe, who had been commissioned to build a communications system by the Revolutionary army, which needed to transmit messages in the shortest possible time.
It was Napoleon Bonaparte who recognized the potential of this system and began carrying a portable semaphore while on his military campaigns.
The French military’s successes meant that the British imitated Chappe’s invention in 1794, and implemented it in England. In 1813, there were several proposals to install a Semaphore Telegraph – also called a Visual or Optical Telegraph – in their colonies, especially in India.
The First Semaphore Line
It was still early days for the British in India, and the East India Company was unfamiliar with the terrain, climate and people on the subcontinent, especially in the hinterland. But they realised that to rule a vast country like India, communication was key and they had no choice.
Several lines were proposed, all of them originating in Calcutta, including one all the way to Bombay. Eventually, the Company chose the line between Calcutta, and Chunar, an important military outpost near Allahabad . On 21st October 1817, Sir George Everest was tasked with surveying a distance of 640 km between Calcutta and Chunar. He took exactly a year to complete his survey.
Accordingly, a line of towers was to be built through Howrah, Hooghly, Bankura, Purulia, Chas, Chandankiari, Gumia, Hazaribagh, Katkamsarai, Kanhachatti (near Chatra), Sherghati, Dhangain pass into Gaya, and finally to Chunar. This was through the Old Benaras Road or Military Road, which ceased to exist after the Grand Trunk Road was built.
India’s landscape is rugged and varied, and the going was tough. For instance, hilly regions like Bankura are dotted with tall hillocks and British engineers had to keep improvising as they built the towers. In Manbhum (now Purulia) and Bihar (part of it now Jharkhand), they built two-storey towers atop hills, while on flat land, the towers were four storeys high.
The book The Worldwide History of Telecommunications (2003) by Anton A Huurdeman notes that there were 45 semaphore towers on the Calcutta-Chunar line. It is hard to say how many still exist.
In A Brief History of Hooghly District (1902), Lieutenant Surgeon Colonel D G Crawford mentions six towers in Howrah and Hooghly – at Mohiari (Khatirbazar at Andul), Baragachia, Dilakhas (9 km from Sitapur), Haiathpur (9 miles north-east of Khanakul), Mubarakpur (at Parbbatichak on the Bandar Road) and at Nabasan (Goghat).
The towers of Baragachia and Haiathpur have crumbled while the rest are still standing. Further down the line, towards Bankura, Crawford mentions seven towers, of which five are still standing – in the Tantipukur jungle, Ramsagar, Salghata at Onda, Chhatna and Arrarah village near Jhantipahari.
There were two more, one of which was in Bankura town. Although it collapsed long ago, the area where it stood is known as ‘Machantala’.
The main operating station on the Calcutta-Chunar line was at Fort William in Calcutta. A 100-foot tower was built in 1824 to provide a vantage point as a signalling system for ships passing by. Later, in 1881, the Calcutta Commissioner installed a huge ball (time ball) on the tower as a timepiece for shipping. It would be raised at 12:55 hours and lowered at 13:00 hours daily, to indicate the time. Since then, the tower has been dubbed the ‘ball tower’.
The towers in Jharkhand and Bihar are not well-documented. The most prominent one in Jharkhand is on Silwar Hill at Hazaribagh and is featured in the book Bihar – The Heart of India (1949) by Sir John Houlton. I have also located semaphore towers in these two states, in Babudih village, Satanpur Hills at Bokaro, Bhusua Hills, Katkamsandi and near Sasaram.
More Semaphore Lines
Apart from the Calcutta-Chunar semaphore line, there was another, from Calcutta to Barrackpore. Since the distance was just 25 km, there appear to have been only two towers on this line. One of these was the main operating station at Fort William and the other inside the premises of the Flagstaff Bungalow at Barrackpore. The Flagstaff Bungalow tower still exists but is not accessible to the public. In the middle of this route is a tower on the Barrackpore Trunk Road, which may have been a connecting point between the two ends. The wooden planks and rod are still in good condition.
The Company intended to set up two more lines – Calcutta to Bombay and Calcutta-Nagpur – but they did not materialize. Operating the Calcutta-Chunar line itself cost Rs 3,500 a month and there were no funds to build any more towers.
Besides, the shutter system was growing obsolete, as opposed to the movable-arm semaphore, which was noted for its simplicity, durability and being user-friendly. It was also probably getting more and more difficult to employ a skilled operator who would sit for an entire day atop a tower in hot and humid conditions, with his eye on a telescope.
The Semaphore Telegraph was never used for public service and was mainly for military use. Finally, the Calcutta-to-Chunar line was abandoned as a failed project, in 1828.
Oddly enough but probably out of economic compulsion, a semaphore line was created between Calcutta and Khejuri in 1833. At that time, Khejuri was an important port in Bengal and a detailed description of the Calcutta-Khejuri Semaphore Line is available The Asiatic Journal and Monthly Regsiter for British and Foreign India, China and Australasia (1833), VOL X. The line had 13 stations and was built at a cost of Rs 25,000 as an initiative by the different mercantile houses of Calcutta .
These towers were severely damaged and some totally destroyed by the hurricane of 1847. The southern-most semaphore tower operated from the Kaukhali lighthouse, which too crumbled a long time ago.
The semaphore system was not economically viable and its fate in India was finally sealed when the electrical telegraph system was introduced in India in 1850.
End Of The Line
There are no records to indicate how many semaphore towers have survived in India. What we do know is that although robust, those that have been documented are in a sorry state. Still, the surviving towers hint at what they must have looked like 200 years ago.
The base of each tower has two doors facing each other. Each floor has two windows and some small, round outlets probably for ventilation. Some of the towers have wooden planks fixed horizontally, at the junction of each floor, probably the supports of the floor of each storey.
In some semaphore towers, like that those at Andul and the one on the Barrackpore Trunk Road, the planks are more or less intact. In some, a partial roof exists, like at Parbatichak at Hooghly, Satanpur Hills at Bokaro, and the one on the Barrackpore Trunk Road at Kolkata. There were no permanent staircases to climb up these towers; wooden ladders were used instead. On the outer walls of the top floor, there are some marks which may have been made to fix ropes to attach the semaphore apparatus atop the tower.
Countries like England, Malta and Germany have rebuilt some of their semaphore telegraph towers, throwing them open to the public so that they can learn about their heritage. In India, there are many towers that can be restored, sending out their last and final message. Alas, no one seems to be listening.
Amitabha Gupta is a heritage enthusiast, travel writer, photographer and blogger who has been writing on the heritage of Eastern India for numerous travel magazines and publications.