Many British-era structures in city remain unknown, unidentified

& uncared for

The heritage hunt that we embarked on last week continues this week. The city, once the capital of undivided Assam, is dotted with heritage structures but most of them have failed to attract the government’s attention. While some buildings and structures have survived the wrath of time with pride many are on the verge of losing the battle, unknown, unidentified and uncared for.
Many of the heritage houses are private properties and some are elite structures, like the Raj Bhavan and Lyndhurst Estate, and hence their upkeep has been stupendous. They are alive to tell stories of the yore. They breathe every moment along with their dwellers. They feel the warmth of hearth as those living in them feel the comfort of a secured life. Their autobiographies will, in all probability, have a happy ending. Memories hidden behind the teakwood pillars and the old armchairs, childhood spent under the pine trees, youthful and vigourous footsteps on creaking wooden floors and reflections of every transformation — all will be part of a bigger story.
But what about those structures wallowing in neglect? Those abandoned memories which no one wants to salvage haunt the decrepit houses like ghosts of time. As their breathing grows feeble, there is no doubt that these not-so-elite structures will die a natural death even before narrating their stories. They will be bystanders of history, neglected and finally forgotten. It does not take long to bury history, to erase memories.
“There is no sense of heritage here,” Governor Tathagata Roy rued the transformation of the city of his childhood.
Indeed there is not and that can be understood from the absence of government records even on heritage buildings which now house offices of various state departments and the state machinery’s complete apathy to implement the heritage act that “exists”.
However, the INTACH is preparing a list of heritage buildings and monuments and intends to approach the government with a request to protect them. The INTACH chairperson, Madeline Tham, said the list will be ready by the end of this year.
“But we need people’s support and to make them aware of the historical value of these structures, there should be advocacy seminars. We will request the government to allow students to become constitutional members (of INTACH). A documentation and research centre should also be set up,” she added.
There is still hope for these forgotten buildings and it is never too late to save the rich heritage of the city. Sunday Shillong wanders through time and takes a look at these structures, some of which have been well-maintained and documented but many waiting for due recognition.

Lachaumiere House: This 140-year-old building in Upper Lachaumiere belonged to the Nawab of Dacca and later became the summer house of the British. It was built by the third nawab of Dacca, Khwaja Salimullah. At present, it is a private property. The Sandilyas of Assam bought it in the 1950s. Pranjit Sandilya, whose parents were the original owners, says the villa was initially given on lease to the office of the postal telegraph, the sericulture and other departments. The villa, which has a pergola-style extension on one side and a gable verandah on the other, had thatched roof that was changed in the 1960s. “The structure was dilapidated… So one of my brothers, who is an architect, took charge of restoring it. One block of the villa had already sunk by then,” he said.
Some of the wooden panels needed replacement. Sandilya recalled how painstakingly they would soak new wooden planks in water and then put them under the sun several times a day to add vintage look. Many furniture and two ceiling fans are antiques and are still in use.
The family never approached the state for heritage tag and Sandilya said he was not sure whether they want it. “We are taking care of it,” he added.

Raj Bhavan: The Raj Bhavan is the most elegant structure among the old buildings in Shillong. The present building was constructed after the great earthquake of 1897 that completely destroyed the old structure. The new residency was completed in 1903. W Arundell, who was the executive engineer of the Assam Bengal Railways, made the sketch of the new building that was approved by Henry Cotton. Some of the materials from the dismantled structures were later used in the construction of Pine Mount School. The ‘guest chamber’ was taken to a hill below Shillong Peak to build an annexe to the residency. It was called the ‘Peak Cottage’. Nothing, including the ballroom and refreshment room, has been changed inside the Raj Bhavan. Only the pagoda-like superstructure on the roof of the porch was removed as it was decaying. Some of the former governors had added some portions of the building but keeping the basic design intact. For instance, Vishnu Sahay had added a sun room. The present governor said he is not contemplating making any additions.
The polished wooden beams and high ceilings, the floor, doors and windows show that the building is much cared for. All the furniture are antique and till recently even the electric switches were from the British era.

IIM building: The six-acre property that houses the campus of Indian Institute of Management at Nongthymmai once belonged to the royal family of Mayurbhanj in Odisha. The royal family later gave the summer palace to the state government to be used as a centre for education. Before the IIM was built, the place was used as a temporary campus of NEHU. While the main building has undergone several changes some of the old structures still remain. For example, the doors made of teakwood with glass panes embossed with the royal emblem remind one of the grandeur of yesteryears. A stone arch-like structure elevated from the patio behind the building has not been dismantled either.

Pheridale: This quaint bungalow at Kynton in Upper Shillong was built in the end of World War I. Richard Duncan Lyngdoh, the dean of the Department of Chemistry at NEHU, who is currently residing in the bungalow said it was built by his great grandfather Edward W Dunn. “The 10-room bungalow gets its name from my great grandmother, who was the daughter of Richard Keatinge (the then chief commissioner of Assam province),” said Lyngdoh. Some antique pieces add to the charm of the house that has not been changed much. Earlier, the verandah and the portico had thatched roof that was changed seven years ago.
Lyngdoh, who did not spend much of his childhood in the house, said six generations had stayed here and several great leaders during the statehood movement had visited the house. “Even Phizo (Naga Nationalist leader Angami Z Phizo), King of Sikkim and many British soldiers during WWII were among the visitors and guests,” he added.

Dulcie Lodge: This house in Jaiaw was built by the Syiem of Hima Nongkhlaw, Paiem Kedro Manik Syiem, in 1929. A few years later, the raja built another bungalow near the Dulcie retreat home. He built another house a few years later that is called Kyllang Rock Villa. It is a private property now.

There are eight rooms in the villa and two kitchens which are not attached to the house. The kitchens have not been changed and still have the dpei (hearth). The villa has a history of its own. It was in this house that the Syiem signed the Instrument of Accession and Annexed Agreement in 1948. It had also served as the first campus of the North-Eastern Hill University. The first vice-chancellor of the university stayed in the villa for a brief period of time.

Evergreen Cottage: An old iron gate opens up to a mossy cobbled path that leads to the Evergreen Cottage at 4th Mile in Upper Shillong. The name is perfectly chosen as the bungalow has a generous spread of green around it. Today, the building shows signs of age in absence of proper maintenance but the greenery still provides a refreshing look to the property. Rev. William Lewis (after whom the name William pear was coined) built the house in the early 1900s rented it out to one Mrs Townsen. He had interest in apiculture and would practice bee-keeping. Later, tea planter and naturalist Edward Pritchard Gee, who is credited with the discovery of the golden langur, lived in the bungalow between 1966-67. Meghalaya’s first chief secretary Nari K Rustomji would often visit the bungalow. Now it is a private property inherited by the Phanwars of Jaiaw. This cottage, along with 12 other bungalows of the British era in this area, had a special water supply system. Piped water was, and is still, supplied directly to these houses from a source in Upper Shillong.

Mowatts’ cottage: This bungalow, though not as old as the other structures, now houses Green Eden Kindergarten and Primary School. Doreen Kharshiing bought the house from the owner, Sheila Suting Mowatt, in 2000 and made minor renovations. “The house was built in 1966 and still the wooden structures are in good shape. Mr Mowatt, who was an engineer, had bought the wood from Assam,” informed Kharshiing, adding that the teakwood staircase is still intact but is seldom used as “the polish is too good making the stairs slippery”. This bungalow is among the houses in Upper Shillong which get direct supply of water. “In fact, there is a water committee that looks after the maintenance of the pipelines,” she said. The street that takes a diversion from the main road and goes up leading to the bungalow was once cobbled as British officers would often go out on their horses, Kharshiing added.

Brahmo Samaj buildings: The two Brahmo Samaj buildings in Police Bazar and Laban are among the old structures but the latter has lost much of its sheen. The Brahmo Samaj movement had influenced the Khasi society too. Although the Samaj was established in Meghalaya in 1874, the exact year of construction of the mandir in Police Bazar is not clear, said Shillong Brahmo Samaj secretary and trustee Biswajit Dutta. “Probably the old mandir was constructed in 1894 and was destroyed in the 1897 earthquake. The mandir was reconstructed after that. The Laban Brahmo Samaj mandir was constructed sometime in 1874 on a plot of land donated by Raj Charan Chowdhury. A trust was formed in 1902 to manage the Samaj and its activities. In 1904, it was rechristened as Khasi Hills Brahmo Samaj… Over the years, Zenith Jubelieth Club, a socio-cultural organisation, was allowed to utilise a part of the premises… Now only the Samaj Mandir hall retains some of its original form,” he added. The building in Police Bazar has not been changed and is maintained regularly. There was another mandir in Mawkhar that was established in 1886 but it ceases to exist.

Muhammad Saadulla’s bungalow: The mammoth concrete structure in Cleve Colony is a beauty hidden behind green cover and high walls. It was built in 1948 by Muhammad Saadulla, who was the prime minister of Assam in the colonial era. Saadulla bought the land in 1942 and construction started in 1947, said his great granddaughter Syeda Zeenat Marshoodulla. He passed away in 1955 and now his descendants stay in the palatial house that has countered time and age successfully. However, the staircase with ornate railing that leads to the lawn below is broken and the garden remains unkempt. The patio too looks humble. All these look incongruous to the majestic structure. The house has a polygonal dome with a majestic crown on the roof. The main door is of iron and nothing much of the interiors has been changed.

Survey of India & other government offices: The sprawling Bonny Brae estate houses the Survey of India office in Malki Point that started in 1914. The cluster of Assam-type buildings has many stories to tell but none could lend voice to the muted history. Sunday Shillong could not get any document to authenticate the year of construction of the buildings which are over a century old. The estate has two entrances, one at Malki Point and the other at Barik. The buildings are not quite well-maintained but they are strong enough to retain its pride. Nothing much has been altered and some of the sections still have the old fireplaces with long chimneys fitted on the roofs. The high-ceilinged Assam-type buildings, which are in a “restricted” area, is worth exploring.

Many state government offices like those of the PWD (Roads) and Meghalaya Food Commission run from old bungalows but most of them remain unidentified. On seeking documents to authenticate ownership history, the General Administration and the PWD (Buildings) departments expressed helplessness. It is a shame that the government has little or no idea about the buildings it is using and there is an immediate need to document the history of these structures.

The five monoliths: The monoliths at the junction near All Saints’ church were put up in October 1976 on the occasion of the centenary year (1974) celebration of Shillong city. The five monoliths — maintained by CCA, DoT, NE Circle — stand for the age-old customs in Khasi Hills “of erecting monoliths to commemorate great occasions”. A globe with a shaft above it symbolises man’s striving “to aspire to yet greater heights”, says the engraving at the foot of the structure. The fenced monument is often invisible because of the flex banners hanging from the mesh.

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