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Turning clock towers back to past glory

Oct 23, 2023 04:54 PM IST

Clock towers, once iconic city landmarks, are being restored and revived in cities across India. Hyderabad, Secunderabad, Mumbai, Ludhiana, Karimnagar, and Srinagar are among the cities restoring their historic clock towers, while Mysuru and Chennai are planning restoration projects. Vintage clock restorers are experiencing a surge in demand, but some cities are opting for modern electronic GPS-enabled clocks. Clock towers in India were built during the mid-19th and early 20th centuries and were symbols of progress and urban development. They are now being recognized as integral parts of a city's heritage and identity.

Clock towers, commonly called ‘ghantaghar,’ once dominated cityscapes across the country. Standing as sentinels of history, they served as timekeepers during an era when wristwatches were a luxury few could afford.

As the decades passed, the vagaries of weather and time took their toll on many of these iconic city landmarks. (HT Archive)
As the decades passed, the vagaries of weather and time took their toll on many of these iconic city landmarks. (HT Archive)

As the decades passed, the vagaries of weather and time took their toll on many of these iconic city landmarks. Their magnificent structures, each built in distinct architectural styles, gradually fell into disrepair, and their clocks stopped ticking.

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And no one seemed to care.

But over the past few years, many cities have rekindled their romance with these towering heritage structures, embarking on ambitious restoration projects to breathe new life into both the towers and their timepieces. In some instances, cities are even constructing new clock towers.

The twin cities of Hyderabad and Secunderabad, for example, have restored most of their 12 historic clock towers. So have cities such as Mumbai , Ludhiana, Kapurthala, Karimnagar, and Srinagar, among others.

“We believe that clock towers are an integral part of a city’s heritage and identity. We have restored eight of the 12 clock towers, along with their clocks. The remaining four will also undergo restoration soon. We have engaged conservation architects and renowned watchmakers. The response from the public has been overwhelmingly positive,” says Arvind Kumar, special secretary of Municipal Administration and Urban Development (MAUD) in the Telangana government.

Just last month, Mysuru (previously Mysore) announced its plans to restore its clock tower, often referred to as ‘Mysore’s Big Ben,’ and the Greater Chennai Corporation has decided to restore the 60-foot-tall clock tower in the Mint area.

“A detailed project report (DPR) outlining the restoration plan for the clock tower has been prepared by the Department of Archaeology, Museums, and Heritage. The restoration work is scheduled to commence after the Dussehra festivities,” says Sindhu K J, deputy commissioner for development at the Mysuru City Corporation (MCC).

The clock tower, a remarkable 96-year-old 75-foot structure, is located in front of the northern gate of the Mysuru Palace. Over time, it had developed cracks in the dome, and the decorative features on the canopy at the top of the structure had deteriorated. While the clock continued to keep time, its French bell had fallen silent for the past 20 years. “Both the tower and the clock will be restored to their original glory soon,” adds Sindhu.

The clock tower in Srinagar too has recently undergone a significant transformation. “The facade has been redesigned and the overall height has been increased by approximately eight feet. The foundation and structure have been retrofitted, using local Marjadi brick,” says Iftikhar Ahmad Kakroo, chief engineer, Srinagar Smart City Limited (SSCL), which has undertaken the restoration work.

“The clock is a bespoke creation tailored specifically for Ghanta Ghar. Its design showcases local emblems such as Chinar leaves. With each hourly strike, the reverberations resonate throughout Lal Chowk, serving as a reminder of the passage of time,” says Kakroo.

A busy time for timekeepers

Vintage clock restorers are experiencing a surge in demand, reflecting the increasing enthusiasm of cities for the restoration of their historic clock towers. Swapan Dutta, based in Kolkata, along with his son, Satyajit, finds themselves busier than ever, restoring the magnificent clocks in many cities, carrying forward a tradition that has been handed down through generations.

“Over the past five years, more and more cities are reaching out to us for restoring the giant timepieces in clock towers. We have never been so busy,” says Satyajit Dutta.

Apart from maintaining the many tower clocks in Kolkata, the Duttas regularly travel to cities like Shimla, Haridwar, and Kapurthala, where in April they restored the clocktower’s colossus timepiece manufactured in 1862 by the New York-based Jones & Company.

“ Most of the clocks we repair are over 100 years old. They were made by companies such as Cooke and Kelvey, Hamilton, JW Benson, and James McCabe and were imported from London and New York. We make every effort to retain their original components, but given the unavailability of parts, we fabricate them, if necessary,” says Satyajit.

However, Rohit Chugani, a clock restorer based in Hyderabad, actively encourages cities to consider switching to modern electronic GPS-enabled clocks. Many cities, including Hyderabad and Secunderabad, he says, have adopted them.

“We try to retain the cosmetic components, including the clock face, dial, clock hands, and various decorative elements, but replace the clock’s internal mechanism. Increasingly, many cities are recognizing the challenges of maintaining vintage clocks and are choosing modern, dustproof GPS-enabled alternatives that ensure automatic time correction,” says Chugani, who runs Rohit Watch Co. in Hyderabad with his father. The company has successfully restored tower clocks at prominent sites in the city, such as MJ Market, James Street, and the iconic Secunderabad Clock Tower.

A chronicle of clock towers

Most clock towers in Indian cities were built during the mid -19th century and the early 20th century, a period when wristwatches and clocks were beyond the means of the common people. As a result, many kings and nawabs built grand clock towers in the major cities of their kingdoms. Notable examples include clock towers in cities like Jodhpur, Udaipur, Jaipur, and Hyderabad. Besides, in some cities rich businessmen and wealthy individuals financed the construction of these clock towers. For example, the Rajabai Tower in Mumbai and the Ram Roop Clock Tower in Delhi—better known as Sabzi Mandi Clock Tower.

“In many places, the nawabs or kings commissioned the construction of clock towers to celebrate certain occasions, like Queen Victoria’s Jubilee at Ajmer and the arrival of the first Lt. Governor of the United Provinces of Agra and Avadh, Sir George Couper, at Lucknow,” writes Yatindra Pal Singh, in his book “Clock Towers of India”, which chronicles the rich history of some of the country’s most prominent clock towers.

These towers were designed in diverse architectural styles, encompassing Indo-Gothic, Victorian Gothic, and Art Deco designs. They were typically situated at the heart of the city, often near town halls or central markets and served as a source of pride for the city.

Clock towers, according to Vikas Dilawari, a conservation architect, were predominantly constructed under the influence of western and colonial ideals in the wake of the industrial revolution. During the mid-19th and late 19th centuries, following the industrial revolution, there were significant advancements in science and technology, leading to the creation of public facilities such as zoos, botanical gardens, and museums.

“Moreover, this era witnessed a strong emphasis on enhancing urban living and cities began to undergo redesigns that prioritised hygiene, sanitation, and overall urban development, including the improvement of public amenities like drinking water facilities. These urban design interventions aimed to enhance the imageability of the city, marking a significant period of progress and transformation,” says Dilawari, who has restored several historic buildings in Mumbai, including Flora Fountain, the Bomanjee Hormarjee Wadia Clock Tower, and the Royal Bombay Yacht Club, among others.

A tall presence

Adorned with clocks on all four sides, these clock towers let everyone conveniently stay informed about the time. Often, these clock towers stood at impressive heights, accommodating bell mechanisms within, with their chimes serving as vital time indicators for the city, a western timekeeping tradition.

“Shopkeepers in Chandni Chowk synchronized their opening and closing times with the chimes of the iconic clock tower,” recalls Prof. BP Mangla, 87, a former dean of the Faculty of Arts at Delhi University. This clock tower, named the Northbrook Clock Tower after the then British Viceroy, predated other famous clock towers in India, including the Rajabai Clock Tower in Mumbai (1878), the Husainabad Clock Tower in Lucknow (1881), and the Secunderabad Clock Tower in Secunderabad (1897).

The upper portion of the tower collapsed in the 1950s, resulting in casualties and a subsequent court case. Although the tower itself was later demolished, the area is still referred to as “Ghantaghar,” a testament to the enduring memory of this 128-foot iconic clock tower, which was a marvel of Gothic architecture.

“The architectural style of these clock towers varied depending on their patron, the period of construction, and the technology used. Mumbai, for instance, boasts excellent examples of Gothic revival, while smaller towns favoured art deco styles, especially those built in the 20th century. Public buildings often incorporated clocks into their facades, as seen in the iconic Victoria Terminus (VT) station, now known as Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus (CSMT) station,” says Dilawari.

However, this trend, he points out, began to wane post-Independence, as more people started wearing wristwatches. “The concept and fashion of integrating clocks into architectural designs gradually became obsolete,” he says.

Talking about the Rajabai Tower in Mumbai, modelled on the Big Ben, Gyan Prakash, a professor of history at Princeton University, highlights two significant aspects. “First, built in the 1870s, it signified the growing importance of industrial time and discipline. Since people didn’t have watches, the clock tower informed the people about the time of the day that was important for industrial and financial routines,” says Prakash, who has several books to his credit, including “The Spaces of the Modern City: Imaginaries, Politics, and Everyday Life,” “Noir Urbanisms: Dystopic Images of the Modern City,” and “Mumbai Fables.”

“Second, the fact that Premchand Roychand, the founder of the Bombay Stock Exchange, contributed to its construction, is also worth noting. It signified the importance of time to the financial transactions in the stock market. As a leading stockbroker whose dealings required timely communications across the world, he understood the importance of the clock,” adds Prakash.

A time for new clock towers

In fact, cities are not just restoring old clock towers; many are constructing new ones. For instance, in 2019, Navi Mumbai welcomed a new clock tower at Ramdas Patil Chowk, built by the Navi Mumbai Municipal Corporation (NMMC). Similarly, in 2020, Mangalore erected a new clock tower under the Smart City Mission, near the Town Hall in the city. This new tower replaced an older one that had been demolished in 1994 to widen the road and facilitate smoother traffic flow.

“The old clock tower was a cherished city landmark, and the entire area was referred to as Clock Tower Junction. Unfortunately, the place lost its beauty and character without the structure. The new one stands significantly taller, with a height of approximately 75 feet. Its two-metre diameter quartz analogue clock was specially crafted for the tower,” says Arun Prabha, the general manager of Mangalore Smart City Limited. “People are delighted at the return of their beloved clock tower, which now graces their cityscape once again,” he says.

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR
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    Manoj Sharma is Metro Features Editor at Hindustan Times. He likes to pursue stories that otherwise fall through the cracks.

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