EXCLUSIVE Fort William: A Timeless Citadel Preserving the History and Honoring the Legacy of the Indian Army

Exclusive Story by Joydeep Dasgupta, Editor and Defence Journalist, News Sense

Fort William stood firm embracing the glorious history from the past, which has defined and shaped India as it is today over the years. Built as a symbol of power in the heart of the Kolkata city, at a time, when the Sun never sets for the British Empire.

The present fort was built and named after British King William III in the year 1775, after the destruction of an another fort adjacent to the existing Fort William near the General Post office area of present day Kolkata. The fort was built in the year 1660 and was captured and destroyed by the then Nawab of Bengal Siraj-ud-Daula.

Every layer of Fort William carries a saga from the pages of history as it houses series of heritage buildings from the famous Dalhousie Barrack to Kitchener House to the Netaji Cell, which otherwise was a distant dream for the civilians, thanks to the Heritage walk, through which Indian Army wants to bring every individual face to face with the glorious past of our country.

As we enter Fort William from Swarnim Vijay Dwar or East Gate, we get an over view of the Fort William, which is now the headquarters of Indian Army’s Eastern command, which is spread over an area of 177.42 acres, covered by the Hooghly River from the three sides and Maidan to its east.

On the right side is the majestic Vijay Smarak or war memorial inaugurated by then GOC in Command, Easter Command, Lt General R.N Batra in the year 1996. The war memorial has the names of the soldiers installed, who has laid their lives during two prominent wars in the Eastern front, faught against China in the year 1963 and with Pakistan in the year 1971. Apart from the martyrs of the war, names of the soldiers martyred during various insurgency operations in Northeast India are updated time to time. On the important occasion like Vijay Diwas, the wreath laying ceremony is held at the Vijay Smarak.

As we proceed further towards to central part of the Fort William which houses the Dalhousie Barrack, St. Peter’s Anglican Church and Kitchener House, one can witness the moat. The moat is a wide and deep canal dug around the fort and is directly connected to river Hooghly and whenever there is threat from enemies the moat was filled with water to stop the enemies from proceeding further to the heart of the Fort William.

The entry of the fort is through the East Gate, from over the moat, which is considered the significant entry point to the Fort William. Interestingly the gate is built curved shaped to prevent entry to heavy unusual vehicles such as tanks and others to avoid full fledged attack. Apart from East Gate there are six other gates to enter Fort William.

Once we enter through the East Gate, on the right side is the Command Museum with six separate galleries. The building once used to be the store house of arms and ammunition is now the store house of all the historical information connected to Fort William. The story of the old fort William to the present day Fort William in the form of models, images and paintings with connected information such as the Fort William was built at an estimated cost of Rupees 22 lakh, which exceeded later are housed in the first gallery.

The second gallery is dedicated to the Sino Indian conflict of 1962 with anecdotes and heroic acts of our war heroes during the Battle of Tawang. Story of Jaswant Singh and Jaswantgarh, which is now located on the way to Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh, who single handedly stopped the Chinese forces for three days before laying his life for the motherland.

Third gallery of the command museum is dedicated the Indo-Pak war of 1971 and the story of the creation of a new nation ‘Bangladesh’. In the gallery one can witness the upside down flag of Pakistan and the instrument of surrender, which was signed by Lt General Jagjit Singh Arora of Indian Army and General AK Niazi of Pakistan, after the surrender of Pakistani forces in East Pakistan.

The last gallery of the museum is dedicated to the art and culture of the Northeastern States including Aruanchal Pradesh, Assam, Nagaland, Manipur, Mizoram, Meghalaya and Tripura. The food habits, local wears and handicrafts are on display.

In between the museum a separate gallery is dedicated to the arms and ammunition which are on display and are used by various forces from Mughal era to Britishers. The most attractive part of the arms museum is its door, which is regarded as the first bullet proof door of the Fort.

After the museum, is the turn to visit the oldest church of Fort William, St Peter’s Anglican Church.  The historical St. Peter’s Anglican Church in Kolkata is part of erstwhile Fort William that was rebuilt 1780-81 by the East India Company on the banks of the Hooghly river. As the English company was expanding after Lord Robert Clive had a firm grip on the vast territory of Bengal upon the death of ruler Nawab Siraj-ud-Daula in July 1757, the new fort needed an English church to meet the spiritual needs of the English company’s employees.

The architect John Brohier set the church in polygonal form with a view to accommodate additional defensive measurements. The English East India Company faced continued threats from the local as well as neighboring rulers. Brohier designed the church in Neo-Gothic style that was widely followed in Europe. The foundation stone of the church inside the fort was laid in 1822 and was opened for worship in 1825. The consecration ceremony was done in 1828 by William Prinsep after whom the famous Princep Ghat is named. William Prinsep was a businessman associated with the Calcutta firm named Palmer & Company.

The church is in the center of the old fort that was built under the guidance of Captain Hutchinson.  It was built to withstand any bombardment from the intruding enemy. St Peter’s Anglican Church is no longer functional and has been turned into an Eastern Command Library to cater to the Indian military officers.

Located on the ramparts of Fort William, our next destination was Kitchener House, which got its name much later after Field Marshal Horatio Herbert Kitchener, the 1st Earl Kitchener, who occupied it during his tenure as the Commander in Chief between 1902 and 1909. He was one of the most celebrated officers to have taken over as Commander in Chief of British Indian Army. Lord Wellesley, Governor General of India, also stayed here from 1789 to 1803. After the capital of India was shifted from Kolkata to Delhi in the year 1912, Kitchener House became the officer’s mess of the Bengal Presidency.

The architectural marvel combines Georgian and Gothic styles and houses a spacious porch with antique furnitures. The elevation, the dining table where 26 people can eat together is still used by visiting guests and particularly the ‘Time Gun’ used to signal ships crossing the River Hooghly is a must watch.

The last and final destination for the visitors is the four storied Dalhousie Barrack, which houses more than 1,000 soldiers with separate facility for the storage of arms and ammunitions. The barrack has a significant history associated with it, as it houses the Netaji Cell.

It was in the year 1940, when Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose was kept in the cell for days. When he started hunger strike inside the cell, the Britishers fearing uprising outside were forced to release him and kept him in the house arrest at his family residence in Elgin Road, Kolkata. The cell is maintained as a mark of respect for the most beloved leader of the India’s freedom movement.

As we come to an end, some instructions if you plan to visit Fort William, which is now, open for public only on Sundays. It is free for students, but must carry school identity card. Those interested can email in advance at fortwilliamheritagewalk@gmail.com and pay Rupees 200 for the heritage walk at the time of the visit with valid id proofs.