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The mystique of clock towers

Though most clock towers don't show the right time, they retain a mystique, and are right twice a day. Find out more with R.V. SMITH


Clock towers have a certain mystique of their own. When all the world sleeps they stay awake to tell the time. Morning, afternoon, dusk and night are all the same to them. When their chimes come floating through to announce midnight one becomes aware of the "bewitching hour". Mutineers always shot at the clock tower as a first step to taking over a city and announcing the end of normal activity, as though proving Aldous Huxley right that "time must have a stop".

The clock tower in Chandni Chowk is no more, though it was witness to some of the historic events of the freedom movement, but in Pul Bangash, the one near the old Subzi Mandi, still clicks. So also the one in Harinagar built in 1950 in memory of Hari Ram Dewan. The Dewans were ministers of the Nawab of Jhajjar, now in Haryana. They were the ones who colonised Hari Nagar and Subhash Nagar. The Hari Nagar Ghantaghar once had clocks imported from Britain. But later these were replaced by ones from Hyderabad. Two of them are defective now and only when the watchmaker comes from Hyderabad will they be set right. There is a caretaker who lives with his family in the basement of the clock tower while the Dewans have their ancestral home in the nearby Beriwala Bagh. Now a host of buildings have come up there and hardly any ber trees survive, though vendors still stand near the bagh selling plums bought from the mandi.

Main landmark

Meanwhile Hari Nagar Ghantaghar continues to be the main landmark of the area. Ask anyone and he will direct you there just because of a 57-year-old clock tower. The same is the case in Subzi Mandi, but in Chandni Chowk people will give you a blank stare if you ask for the Clock Tower.

This tower was built by E.J. Martin, executive engineer of Delhi Municipality. It collapsed during an earthquake in the 1950s, killing six people and was never rebuilt. The clock tower marked the spot where existed a pool constructed by Jahanara Begum, Shah Jahan's elder daughter. This pool was connected to the canal that flowed through Chandni Chowk and reflected moonlight, to give the Chowk its name. A ghantaghar existed in the Agra Fort too.

John's Public library in Paliwal Park (known as Hewett Park earlier after a UP Governor) had an old clock which hardly worked. The original clock was imported from England by its builders, the John family of millowners. The clock tower on M.I. Road in Jaipur used to be a landmark in the good old days. Near Ghat Gate was Major Alexander's compound in which a 19th century Gharial existed right up to the 1990s. There was a proposal in the late 1890s to erect a clock tower in the vicinity of the Taj Mahal whose chimes could be heard up to Strand Road (skirting the Yamuna) but the proposal was shot down by Lord Curzon who thought it would be incongruous. Coming back to Delhi, an enthusiastic British engineer thought of putting up clocks in the Qutub Minar with chimes like those of Big Ben in London. But his far-fetched scheme, which would have rivalled the eccentricity of Sir Thomas Metcalfe in building a lighthouse opposite the Minar, was rejected by the ASI.

Common failing

One thing however is worth noting: clock towers no matter where they exist and how splendid they are, suffer from a common failing - clocks not showing the right time or not working at all. So not many afternoon nappers may be able to echo the poet's exclamation in Old Village Grandcaster: "Stands the church clock at ten to three/And is there honey still for tea?"

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