It’s called the ‘Taj of the Raj’, and with good reason. It’s jaw-dropping, it’s built of the same white Makrana marble as is the Taj Mahal, and just like the monument it tries to emulate, it too honours the memory of a woman.
The Victoria Memorial was built as a tribute to England’s Queen Victoria, Empress of India during the Raj, when India was ruled by the British Crown. It was constructed between 1906 and 1921, after Victoria’s death in 1901.
A grand museum in Kolkata today, the monument still casts a regal air and is possibly the most awesome reminder of the Raj in India. But even a monument as well-known as this has a few secrets.
Here are five facts about the Victoria Memorial that you may not know.
1. ONCE A PRISON!
Long before the Victoria Memorial was built here, this was the site of Kolkata’s Presidency Jail. Established in 1778, one of the jail’s famous inmates was James Hickey, who launched India’s first newspaper, Hickey’s Bengal Gazette. Hickey was imprisoned here, on trumped-up charges, for exposing the corruption of Warren Hastings. Older texts refer to this area as ‘Harinbari’ or ‘deer house’, suggesting that there may have once been a hunting lodge here. Some say it was a ‘zoo’ because the jail inmates were treated like ‘animals inside a cage’! In 1906, the jail was shifted to Alipore and the site was used to build the Victoria Memorial.
2. THE BONG CONNECTION
The contract to build the Victoria Memorial was awarded to Messrs Martin & Co, which was part-owned by a Bengali, Sir Rajen Mookerjee. Initially hired to build only the foundation, the firm’s work impressed the British and it ended up building the entire monument. Mookerjee was later knighted. Martin & Co continues to exist, although Mookerjee’s family is no longer at the helm.
3. BUILT OF THE SAME MARBLE AS THE TAJ
Known as the ‘Taj of the Raj’, the British wanted the Victoria Memorial to boast the finest quality as did the Taj Mahal in Agra. So they used the same marble from Makrana in Rajasthan. Martin & Co set up a quarry in Makrana and the East India Railways transported the marble to Calcutta for free.
4. VICTORIA MEMORIAL WAS ONCE COVERED IN DUNG
During World War II (1939-1945), as the Japanese inched closer to Calcutta, the former capital of the Empire (it had long since shifted to Delhi) became a target. At midnight on 20th December 1942, the Japanese bombed Calcutta, endangering the beloved memorial of the British. A unique attempt was made to ‘hide’ the Victoria Memorial, so it was covered in cow dung!
5. OTHER VICTORIA ‘MEMORIALS’ IN INDIA
When Queen Victoria died in 1901, the British wanted to build many small memorials in her honour all over India. But Viceroy Lord Curzon wanted one grand monument in the imperial capital that would captivate every visitor to Calcutta. Ironically, the British capital was shifted to Delhi even as the memorial was being built, in 1911. But did you know that there are smaller versions or mini ‘Victoria Memorials’ in cities such as Lucknow and Allahabad, where a statue of the Empress is housed under modest canopies?
The Victoria Memorial houses hundreds of fascinating exhibits from the days of the Raj, including weapons and armour from the Revolt of 1857. But who knows what secrets lurk within its walls?