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Good old colonial halls of the Raj

R.V. SMITH takes us on a fascinating tour of buildings and halls that came up during the Raj


Many buildings came into existence in Delhi during the days of the Raj. Probably the most famous among them was Metcalfe House built by Sir Thomas Metcalfe, which now houses the offices of the DRDO. His brother, Sir (later Lord) Charles Metcalfe built the Metcalfe Testimonial at Agra, which was destroyed in a fire. Metcalfe House too was destroyed during the "Mutiny" but was rebuilt. Atal Hall in Bazar Sita Ram was not a British building but the ancestral residence of Kamla Kaul, who married Pandit Nehru. In Chandni Chowk the Town Hall was built as an office complex in 1863. Hallingar Hall was an Anglo-Indian creation. And what a colourful place it was!

The dining hall of Metcalfe House (Matka Kothi) vibrated with life at the parties given by Sir Thomas. His guests included the British officers posted in Delhi to keep an eye on the Moghul court. But his predecessor, William Fraser, as chief of the East Indian Company Residency used to think the Metcalfes a stuck-up lot and liked to keep to himself or enjoy the company of Col. James Skinner, who also happened to be his best friend.

Skinner's house in Mori Gate had a big hall too, where the parties were just as colourful. Fraser preferred the Hansi estate of Sikandar Sahib (as Skinner was known to his Indian troops). Among the weekend visitors to Hansi was Martin Sahib, a young man born about the time Fraser was murdered in 1835. He was later to build Hallingar Hall at Agra. Father used to recall that his son TBC Martin (Munna Baba) inherited it and lived there in the early 1930s. It is now part of a colony behind the Civil courts. On the other side is the Martyrs' Cemetery dating back to Akbar's times and next to it the lodge built by Lady Doctor Ulrick. On the same road was the bungalow of Ball the magistrate (later occupied by the lawyer Tavakalay) and a little further off the thatched cottage atop a hill where his son stayed.

Ball was quite an institution. The old man was around at the time of the "Mutiny" and his son followed him into the magistracy. The daughter was an excellent dancer famed for her beauty. Now back to Hallinger Hall.

The elder Martin was a young man in 1858 and took part in the campaign against the Rani of Jhansi. He followed her closely into a khaliyan during her retreat, when she suddenly turned around and ordered him not to pursue her but to look for buried treasure as his reward. He found it all right in the barn and Mrs. McGuire used to tell the story by the fireside in after-years.

Hallinger Hall

Hallinger Hall was built by Martin Sr. and it was a palatial building, compared by some yarn-spinners to the hall

Heorot in Hrothgar's kingdom, in which Beowulf tackled the giant monster Grendal.

Hallinger Hall had no such visitations, but one of the first Xmas plays in North India was held here. Whatever memories there are of this hall survive only in old wives' tales. And the same may be said of the other halls. Metcalfe House hall had a goodly collection of Napoleon's busts and other memorabilia of "the Little Emperor" which were sent away to Mussoorie when the building was taken over by the Government.

Sir Thomas Metcalfe was a great admirer of Napoleon, who happened to be his contemporary. The Metcalfes were Scottish and, unlike the English, did not regard the French emperor with utter disdain.

Atal Hall (like Haksar Haveli) is in shambles as nobody was keen to preserve it, despite a much-publicised visit by Indira Gandhi. The Town Hall had a library and museum once before becoming a rabbit warren of a municipal office. There are however plans to restore it to its former grandeur. The Gospel Hall in Connaught Place is a miniature creation, but the earliest hall was the one thousand pillared one of Alauddin Khilji at his now ruined city Siri. The Siri Fort auditorium is a reminder of sorts of Siri's lost glory. Incidentally, the most fabulous hall was the one built by Yudhisthar in Indraprastha. But that was in pre-historic times.

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