Currency building of Kolkata - a colonial legacy steeped in history

Currency Building 1885

Kolkata (Calcutta), was a major seat of power during the early and late colonial period and, obviously, most of the British buildings exhibit Gothic style of architecture, the exception being the Currency building which has a strong Italian influence. Overlooking the  Dalhousie Square in Kolkata, it is is one of the amazing colonial buildings built in Italian architecture. Until last decade, it became a dilapidated structure which   served as one the oldest banks of India and housed the Reserve Bank of India till 1937.

The land on which the Currency building stands  now was once owned by the Calcutta Auction Company, but it was not doing financially well and finally closed around the middle of the 1860’s. Agra and Masterman’s Bank Ltd., a well-known British bank,  took over the site and erected a beautiful building in 1867 in the Italian style. The London-based bank dropped out and they  assumed the title of Agra Bank Ltd. At that point of time, the bank was plagued by many problems, including financial crunch. So, with no alternative available to get out of the mess, the bank sold the larger part of the premises facing Tank Square, to the Government. The Government was actually in search of a suitable building for the Currency Department, which was formed for issuing Government Currency notes for the first time, after the passing of the Paper Currency Act in 1861.  The Government bought  the building during 1868-1869 for Rs.1,073, 109. When Agra bank collapsed in 1900, the government purchased the adjacent properties owned by them and it became part of Currency building.

Currency Building and renovations work,

currency store rooms.wall with Iron-sheets

Built in 1833, the Currency building housed the Agra Bank and subsequently, the Government of India took control over a big chunk of this building mainly for the purpose of running and  issuing paper currency, according to the   ASI (east), Archaeological Survey of India. The  very first office, the Reserve Bank of India began functioning here till 1937. When the ASI surveyed this building they came up with a new discovery not made before. They found  evidence of an underground canal from the river Hooghly through which water was channelized to cool the freshly minted coins. Several  security-proof storerooms were built to hold currency safely. The presence of  thick iron sheets covering not just the walls, but also the floors and even the roof of such rooms proves they were more or less strong rooms and not just ordinary rooms. What makes the building attractive are the features like  the heavy cast iron gates, large brick arches and Venetian windows with intricate designs.  The roof is arched with iron joists and the floor is covered with marble and chunar sandstone.

Atop the domes above the central hall  there are "skylights“. The central  courtyard  could get enough sunlight through the skylights  above; an ingenious way to keep the main area well-lit.  The spacious second floor  has similar configuration and the rooms, etc., have Italian marble flooring.

As it has happened to countless monuments of rich archaeological  and historical significance across India from Kanyakumari to Kashmir, the  currency building  was in a poor state with damaged arches and domes. The entire structure was clothed in thick vegetation.  In 1998 itself,  the entire structure was declared as a heritage building and a monument of national importance, thus a protected place. Thanks to the efforts made by the ASI who intervened in 2002  at the right time.  The Nethas had a plan to demolish this unique structure and fortunately, it was saved from total demolition. 

The renovation is on, but it is going slow due to paucity of funds. In 2015 roughly 30% of the restoration work  was completed. Plans were afoot to restore the building soon and convert it into a museum for rare archaeological sculptures. The restoration was undertaken using the old photos of the building - both interior and exterior and the aim was to retain the heritage value as much as thy can.