It Happens

Secret of the Raj

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A mysterious chamber has been found in what was once Warren Hastings’ house in Kolkata.

A mysterious chamber has been found in what was once Warren Hastings’ house in Kolkata.

The imposing residence of India’s first Governor General, Warren Hastings, in Kolkata may hold hitherto unknown secrets. Belvedere House in the Alipore locality, built by Mir Jafar in the mid-18th century and later gifted to Hastings, used to house the National Library post Independence, and is undergoing extensive restoration now by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). Last week, ASI’s conservation engineers stumbled on a ‘blind enclosure’, about 1,000 sq ft in size, on the ground floor of the building.

Historians speculate that the chamber may hold treasures and important documents or skeletons. “It was a common practice of the British to ‘execute’ people by putting them in rooms and then walling up those rooms. Or maybe this was a torture chamber,” says an ASI officer. Guards have been posted around the mansion to prevent any break-ins by treasure hunters.

“This chamber has no entrances, no trap doors, nothing. We searched every inch of the walls and the first floor area directly above this chamber, but didn’t find any entrance,” said an ASI engineer involved in the restoration work. There is, however, an arch on one side of the enclosure that appears to have been walled up. The discovery of this secret chamber has, naturally, triggered speculation about what it may hold. ASI engineers quizzed old and even retired employees of the National Library, which was housed in this mansion after 1947 before shifting to new premises on the campus, to find out if they knew anything of this chamber. “We’ve drawn a blank so far. But it is strange that such a big chamber could have gone unnoticed all these years,” says an ASI engineer who does not want to be named.

Not much is known about the mansion between 1780 and 1854, when it became the official residence of the Lieutenant Governors of Bengal. After Independence, the National Library was shifted to this building.

The ASI has been advised to seek permission to explore the chamber. “But we cannot break down a wall to get inside the chamber since this is a heritage structure of historical significance. So we’ve sought permission to drill holes in a wall and see what’s inside the chamber after that,” says ASI regional director DV Sharma.