What Once Was: Old Assembly Building of Shillong

Uma Purkayastha writes about one of the iconic buildings of Shillong.

Shillong has changed over the years. The city, once known for its ‘Assam type house’ has witnessed a rapid construction of buildings that speak of the urbanization here. The more well-known public buildings are now considered to be iconic. Uma Purkayastha, a resident of Shillong, revisits one such building. 

This article is a response to Shri CK. Nayak’s (New Delhi) report titled, ‘New building to replace historic old Assembly’, published in The Shillong Times, dated February 26, 2021. Read on to know the author’s perspective –

I would like to add that the old Assembly building of Shillong which was gutted in a devastating fire in 2001, was most probably not constructed in 1874, as mentioned by Shri Nayak. According to my observation, prior to 1874, Assam had no existence as a separate province, as it was under the Bengal Presidency, with headquarters in Calcutta. After the fall of Nawab Siraj ud-daulah in 1757, the Bengal Presidency was formed in 1765, with Sylhet, Cachar, Manipur, Goalpara etc., including Assam. It was the largest province of India. The British Government found it very difficult to govern such a big area by a single Governor, hence, separated Assam from the Bengal Presidency in 1874, and declared Shillong as its capital, under the control of a Chief Commissioner.

In February 1874, Shillong started functioning as the capital of newly built Assam province. However, it was not equipped with modern amenities. Prior to 1897, most of the public offices and private houses of Shillong were built of roughly hewn masonry. The disastrous earthquake of 1897 (June 12), reduced them in a heap of ruins in a space of few seconds. After that unfortunate event, the town was rebuilt, on the advice of a Japanese architect – the buildings were all light structures built on wooden frames and floors, popularly known as the ‘Assam type house’. Before that, there was no practice of wooden floored house in Shillong.

The old Assembly house was constructed by the expert engineers and architects, following the Assam type house with wooden frames and floors. So, it clearly proves that the Assembly building, was constructed after the disastrous earthquake of 1897, according to the new rules of construction. Before the earthquake, the old Assembly building was situated near the Police Point. It was a waiting place for the bullock and pony carts and these served as the only source of communication for the people of Shillong.

The Government of India Act, 1935, made provisions for a Legislative Assembly in each and every province of India, and accordingly, the Assembly house had to be constructed. Since Shillong was the headquarter of erstwhile undivided Assam, high level conferences of the Chief Commissioner would be held in a big Assam type house, which was then called ‘Constitution Building’ (situated on the back side of the present Accountant General Office building). There was no existence of any Assembly Building.

In the early 20th century, the first general elections under British Government were held in India; the newly established Assam Legislative Assembly, with 108 members came into action. The requirement of a permanent Assembly house was felt. Going by this, the construction of the Assembly building may have commenced by 1936-37 (approx).

It is very interesting to note that Dr. Triguna Sen, founder Professor and Vice Chancellor of Jadavpur University and two terms Mayor of Calcutta was the main architect-engineer of the construction of that historic Assembly Building of Shillong.

One may wonder about why he would join in the construction work?

He was born in 1905 in Karimganj, Sylhet. Following his graduation in Engineering, young Triguna was reluctant to join services under the British Government; instead, he joined the construction works of the Assembly House, under a Bengali contractor, known to him, and showed his skill in the project. During that time, there was no specialised architect and all designing of the building was done by Dr Sen, which was applauded by the British Administrators.

In writing this piece, I have referenced Bhupendra Kumar Bhattacharjee, Retd. Joint Secretary, Govt. of Assam, and a social and political researcher – he has penned essays which have been published in different national journals of India, and who shared a close connection with Dr. Triguna Sen. After his demise in 1998, Mr Bhattacharjee penned an obituary on him where his role in the construction of the old Assembly building was mentioned. Further, the above-mentioned information was confirmed by Sunirmal Kumar Sen, Retd. Deputy Secretary, Assam Secretariat.

The Assam Legislative Assembly came into existence on 7th April 1937, and Babu Basanta Kumar Das was the first speaker of the Assam Assembly, under the Premiership of Sir Sadullah.

I would like to conclude this article by stating that the building was constructed by late 1930’s. It was a historical centre having the Legislative Assembly of the British Government (1937-1947) Government of Assam (August 1947-1970), Twin capital of Assam and Automonous state of Meghalaya (April 1970–1973), and the sole capital of Meghalaya since 1974 onwards.

No other state Assembly House in the country has undergone such a transformation of status as the Shillong Assembly House, leaving its extraordinary memory in the minds of the people of Shillong.

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