Alipore Museum in Kolkata was earlier a central jail. I was apprehensive about visiting it as jails have a perception of being dreaded institutions. On top of it, they are known to be very dirty.
It turned out to be a memorable visit and I intend to go there again. This museum seemed to exude a sense of pride. It is actually a very well-maintained museum. People also call it the Independence museum or Alipore Jail Museum. The pictures of this museum on its website are old and give a dismal view.
It is located close to the famous Kali temple and is easily accessible by road.
The Alipore museum highlights its rich history because of its strong links to the long Indian Independence struggle against the British. There are cells named after freedom fighters like Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru and others who inhabited them. It tells the stories of revolutionaries and particularly focuses on the role of the Bengal presidency in the Indian Independence movement.
My biggest learning at Alipore Museum was the fact that sanyasis and fakirs too fought for an Independent India. It is hard to comprehend the strength of those who could have led a comfortable life but chose a life that entailed torture. They gave up their lives in the hope of creating a world free from authoritarianism in their motherland.
This facility came up as a Central Prison under British rule in 1906. The museum website tells us that it was considered a modern prison back then. The jail was operational till February 2019.
By the end of the tour, I was curious to know how independent India treated its prisoners in the same facility. I wondered why this museum could not have dedicated even one gallery to its longer post-independence history.
Come with me for a virtual tour of the museum:
There is an INA theme cafe, simply called Coffee House, on the first floor of the entrance building. Vintage old photographs of this jail adorn its one wall and the history of INA is documented on another wall.
The cafe offers a good view of many red prison buildings with green wooden windows. I fancied working from this cafe with good interiors. I must admit all the stereotypical stories about distasteful food in jails played in my head while I gobbled a yummy pizza.
In retrospect, I find it amazing how many times I managed to dramatically switch context in my head while I was there. It had been a prison after all that comes face to face with the worst face of mankind. I believe that is true of many places in the world or circumstances in life. It just struck me hard here.
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As you start walking inside, you see Martyr’s monument on your right. It commemorates the sacrifice of our freedom fighters who were either executed or perished within the premises due to torture, suicide, or after contracting an illness. The names of the martyrs are inscribed on a plaque.
A little ahead, on our left, we entered a secluded zone that had a few cells and a courtyard. This is where Nehru was imprisoned for a few months in the 1930s. It is now named after him. His daughter Indira used to meet him in this courtyard fortnightly.
In his book “The Discovery of India” Nehru wrote – “prison is not a pleasant place to live in even for a short period, much less for long years”. I couldn’t help but juxtapose that thought with the vibe of the same spot today. It is clean, green, and with a good feel to it.
Next to Nehru’s cell are the cells that were once inhabited by freedom fighters like Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, B.C Roy, C.R Das, and J.M Sengupta.
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We walked into the seminar hall and came to a big courtyard on the other side. The room at the end of the courtyard was the prisoners’ weaving room. The prisoners were, supposedly, subjected to civilized labor in this jail as opposed to the other jails.
Currently, the weaving room has handlooms and clay models of prisoners sitting with their charkhas.
A noteworthy trivia – the famous traditional Bengali saree is called the Tant saree.
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We turned back and walked up to the watchtower but did not go up due to a long queue. As you walk further inside the premises, you see a series of mass prisons and segregated prisons for Europeans. The prisoners’ privileges seemed to vary sharply depending on their class. So the privileges outside the prison extended even to the prisoners.
Further ahead, we came across a coin-themed gallery. It has large-sized exhibits of coins issued after independence.
It has exhibits with images of freedom fighters sculpted on human-sized coins and the goddess Durga’s statue in the form of coins too.
I later discovered that these exhibits were taken from one of the Durga puja pandals built in Kolkata in 2022. Durga puja is the most popular annual festival in Bengal.
In Kolkata, it is celebrated with grandeur and the scale gets bigger with every passing year. The amount of resources and creative efforts that go into building these massive temporary yet beautiful structures is enormous. You get a glimpse of it at the museum if you have not visited Kolkata during Durga Puja.
UNESCO has included Kolkata’s Durga puja in its list of Intangible Cultural Heritage. The tradition of preserving the articles from these temporary pandals in a museum like this one is very forward-looking.
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After crossing the gallery, we reached Alipore Jail hospital. The hospital rooms have been converted into several galleries that bring forth stories of revolutionaries from the Bengal presidency. These galleries have a lot of reading material and you can spend up to an hour or more here.
There is another cafe called Ekante in this building which was earlier a jail kitchen. This is different from the INA coffee house. It was full on Sunday evening when we were there.
The big lawn adjacent to the hospital is surrounded by high prison walls. This lawn has become a family picnic spot. Ironically, these same walls, possibly, reminded prisoners of their families on the other side, whom they must have longed to meet.
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As we headed back towards the entrance, we entered the section which had 3 condemnation rooms meant for death row inmates. It is here that the prisoners were sometimes given access to Gita and allowed to have a meal of their own choice in their last hours.
The condemnation rooms open into the gallows section. Many prisoners were kept in the building overlooking the gallows so that they could witness the hanging of fellow prisoners. This was meant to instill fear in them so that they reveal some secrets to the British empire.
There is an autopsy room right next to the gallows.
A light and sound show takes place every evening. There is a dedicated open space close to the hospital for the light and sound show. It has a big seating area.
There is a jail press and a souvenir shop.
This is a guest post by Khusboo Lalani.
Khusboo focuses on the long-term consequences of human pursuits and systems to learn from them. She has worked in the software industry for 13 years.