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Sunday, June 20, 2021

In Assam, a multi-crore renovation converts a colonial bungalow into a heritage centre

Long ago, the military base for the Ahoms of Assam, and today, a heritage centre celebrating the Brahmaputra. The story of a 19th century bungalow, strategically placed atop a hillock in Guwahati’s Pan Bazaar, in its new avatar.

Written by Tora Agarwala | Guwahati |
Updated: May 2, 2018 9:19:25 pm
Brahmaputra River Heritage Centre, Guwahati, Smart City Guwahati, Heritage museum The Brahmaputra River Heritage Centre is housed in a 19th century colonial bungalow in Guwahati. (Express photo by Tora Agarwala)

Over the years, the house on the hill went by several names: the Burra Sahib Bungalow, Bentick’s Bungalow — but to the resident of Guwahati, it has always been the DC’s Bungalow. A side of it looks out on the Brahmaputra, and out at a distance, the tiny Umananda Island. In the 1600s when the Ahom-Mughal conflict was at its peak, it was from this hilltop that the first signs of oncoming trouble could be spotted. Today, on the other side of the hill, the traffic of a busy city hums on — the hill a physical barrier that demarcates the old from the new.

But come May, the old will become the new as the 19th century house on the hill resurfaces as the Bahniman Brahmaputra River Heritage Centre. It’s a project that has been in the making for almost four years now, has a multicore budget, and will eventually fit right into the Brahmaputra Riverfront Development project: at the base of the hill, there are plans to beautify a 6km stretch of the riverfront, part of the bigger move by the Assam Government to make Guwahati a “Smart City”. Initially set to open on April 29, the centre is now slated to be officially inaugurated “sometime next month” by Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal, according to sources in the Guwahati Metropolitan Development Authority (GMDA), which is handling the project.

The Bahniman Brahmaputra River Heritage project, which has an official budget of 9.86 crores, includes an exhibition space, housed in the heritage bungalow itself, an amphitheatre, a new administrative block, a cafeteria and two external jetties. “This is not a museum,” says Smita Makhija, New Delhi-based architect who specialises in heritage conservation, “This is a centre. Think of it like India International Centre or India Habitat Centre in Delhi.” Makhija whose Delhi-based firm AVESANA, was commissioned by the Assam government to carry out the restoration, says that the project aims “to use technology to bring alive the historic places of along the Brahmaputra.”

Every three months, the centre will have a new theme — whether cultural or social — that will aim at increasing general awareness about the Brahmaputra and the settlements along its banks. The two opening themes for the first few quarter include “Guwahati as a riverbank settlement” and “Majuli as a river island habitat”. “There will be seminars, workshops, state banquets and exhibitions,” she says. And in the backdrop, the old river in all its pristine beauty.

Brahmaputra River Heritage Centre, Guwahati, Smart City Guwahati, Heritage museum The Brahmaputra River Heritage Centre overlooks the Brahmaputra and the Umananda Island. (Express photo by Tora Agarwala)

The House on the Hill

“The Brahmaputra flows right through the city, yet you barely get to see it. All official bungalows conceal the river from the local resident of the city,” says J Goswami, the contractor hired by the GMDA for the project. He is not incorrect. The area around the heritage centre is dotted with administrative structures: the police commissioner’s residence and office, the deputy commissioner’s office, the judicial magistrate court, and so on. “The area has a very layered history,” says Avinibesh Sharma who runs Vintage Assam, a website dedicated to digitising facets of Assam’s history. “This area is the only part of Guwahati that has been planned. In colonial times, it was called the European Ward,” he says.

The European Ward roughly corresponds to the areas around present-day Pan Bazaar, Fancy Bazaar and Uzan Bazaar. Here, starting mid-1800s the British set up residential and administrative buildings in a style that would later become famous as the “Assam Type Bungalow”, typically known for its sloping roofs and front verandahs with columns. “The British chose this site because it was a strategically important location that served as a military base for the Ahoms during the Mughal invasion,” says Ibu Sanjeeb Garg, a history enthusiast and writer who works with the Indian Revenue Service in New Delhi.

Brahmaputra River Heritage Centre, Guwahati, Smart City Guwahati, Heritage museum The Brahmaputra River Heritage Centre will be inaugurated in May. (Express photo by Tora Agarwala)

As Guwahati started becoming important in the eyes of the East India Company, the British began looking for a suitable site for the deputy commissioner’s (the most important officer in the administration) home and office. One of the hillocks, called the Borphukunor Tilla (also known as Itakhuli Tilla), was chosen to build his bungalow. “The hillock had direct access to the river through a gradient, where a few boats were also found hidden. The locals believe that the boats were used in the Saraighat battle and kept hidden from public view,” writes Dipankar Banarjee in his book Heritage Guwahati. For long, it is believed that even the remnants of cannons from the historic Battle of Saraighat of 1761, where the Mughals were defeated by the Ahoms, could be found scattered on the hilltop.

The bungalow itself was built sometime in the mid-1850s during the administration of British officer Captain Bogle. “It was a Scottish-type bungalow built entirely of wood and had three spacious bedrooms, a dining hall, a small library and a large living room that provided sufficient space for throwing a ball dance party,” states a paragraph in Heritage Guwahati. 

Till about ten years ago, the bungalow continued to be the residence of the DC of Kamrup, who later moved to out to another area along the banks of the Brahmaputra. “The bungalow was on a sprawling property,” says Garg, who has visited on several occasions,  “One needed golf carts to move around the place.”

Restoration Drama

The house, over the years, has undergone several changes. “Wooden floors have been replaced with cemented floors and thatched roof by corrugated tin sheets,” says Banerjee in his book. Meanwhile, Makhija and her team have followed what they call a “restoration and adaptive proposal”  while re-doing the bungalow. “We tried to understand how it was used originally, then we figured out how to adapt it,” she says. The attic, for one, has been reimagined into a space exclusively dedicated to children’s’ activities. “The space has a huge volume — we realised its potential and restored the timber structure completely,” she says, “Within it, we have inserted a metal structure that sits like lego blocks inside it. The process is reversible — you can take down the steel structure down anytime you want.”

Interventions such as these, however, don’t sit well with Jayanta Sharma, who is the secretary of Heritage Conservation Society of Assam (HeCSA) — a group of 10-12 conservationists who are undertaking projects to preserve the history of the city. Sharma is skeptical of the entire Bahniman Brahmaputra River Heritage project, its tremendous budget, and the methods the architects have used to carry out the restoration. “I have mailed them asking how can such a project cost so much,” he says, “When we renovated the Cotton College principal’s bungalow, we did it in less than quarter of the amount.”  HeCSA, active since 2016, restored the 173-year-old Christ Church about six months ago. Earlier they documented the indigenous games of the region, and are now working on documenting the manuscripts of the different tribes of Assam.

Brahmaputra River Heritage Centre, Guwahati, Smart City Guwahati, Heritage museum The interiors of the Brahmaputra River Heritage Centre are built entirely in wood. (Express photo by Tora Agarwala)

“Of course, it will take 9 crores. There is a house, a new amphitheatre, and there’s landscaping, too—among so many other things” says J Goswami. Sharma, however, believes that conservation in a place like Assam has “become a business: a hub to earn money in the name of the heritage.” He also feels that not enough attention has been given to the bungalow itself and if one takes into account its historicity, it needs to be equally celebrated. “I do welcome the idea but the site doesn’t say anything about that period of Guwahati,” he says. According to Vintage Assam’s Avinibesh Sharma there are not many chroniclers in Guwahati. “Neither do we have heritage walks,” he says, “It’s unfortunate because the city has an interesting history with several stories to tell.”

In the eastern alcove of the Bahniman centre, two write ups talk briefly about the history of the bungalow and the site. “Perhaps when they open it out, there will be more information on it,” says Sharma, “Assam’s history barely features in Indian historical discourse. Everything starts from the Assam Agitation.”  Meanwhile, people like Garg are happy about such a centre. “At least, there is something happening,” he says. Next month when the centre is officially inaugurated, one can hope to find out how much actually is.

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