City’s largest dome bears indelible stamp of Bombay’s long history

The 100-year-old GPO building, constructed by John Begg, was designed to impress.

Mumbai | Published: January 7, 2014 3:38 pm
Construction of the GPO building started in 1904 and the structure was completed in  April 1913. IE: Vasant Prabhu Construction of the GPO building started in 1904 and the structure was completed in
April 1913. IE: Vasant Prabhu

Many might think that General Post Office’s location cannot be more strategic. The modest stone structure is located close to both — the Victoria Terminus (Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus) and the docks. However, this building with the city’s largest dome was utilised as quarters by the staff of St George hospital in the late 19th century.
While the post office was earlier located at Flora Fountain, it was later decided to shift the services near VT. For that, a part of St George hospital’s massive land was earmarked, on which the present day GPO came up.
With a distinctive resemblance to the dome of Bijapur’s Gol Gumbaz and an enormous central hall rising to a height of three floors, this Indo-Saracenic style of architecture is a marvel to behold.
The GPO’s dome, measuring 65 feet in diameter, is among the few structures in the city that are made of black Kurla basalt with a dressing of Malad yellow and white Dhrangadhra stones. Taking from the Gol Gumbaz style, it also marks superior acoustic infrastructure, till date.
The stone-fronted edifice was taken up for construction on September 1, 1904, and completed by April 1913, at a cost of Rs 18 lakh. In 2013, the dome and its Grade I heritage building completed 100 years.
“The dome has a touch of Mughal architecture and John Begg designed it in a way to impress everyone,” said Fleur D’Souza, head of history department at St Xavier’s College.
The main dome coupled with smaller ones, sweeping staircase, Mughal style turrets and minarets together create an imposing landmark in Fort area.
In a century, the structure has weathered and the central dome has been subjected to joint fillings. “Major restoration was undertaken four years ago. The entire building, including the dome, had undergone restoration,” Dr Vinay Kumar, director at the GPO. The dome unfortunately is now coated with cement and has lost its original look.
“Interestingly, the GPO building was constructed right opposite one of the three gateways present during the British rule,” said D’Souza. Bombay island of old times had three gateways — the first called ‘Churchgate’ was located where Flora Fountain is placed today, the second gate was Gateway of India, which was called ‘Apollo Gate’, and the third, called ‘Bazaar Gate’, was located exactly opposite to where the present day GPO stands.
The central hall, falling directly beneath the dome, houses the main counters for postal service. “A few years ago, slabs from inside the dome would fall on staffers in the central hall. That is when we put a net for safety,” said Santosh Kulkarni, assistant superintendent at the GPO.
Even today, the flutter of pigeons taking off the enormous dome bears testimony to its age-old grandeur.

tabassum.barnagarwala@expressindia.com

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