Historical gems from 1699 to 1914: A heritage walk around Vizag's Old Town area

From Town Hall to the old Light House, Vishakapatnam’s Old Town area is lined with nuggets of history.
Historical gems from 1699 to 1914: A heritage walk around Vizag's Old Town area
Historical gems from 1699 to 1914: A heritage walk around Vizag's Old Town area
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While a lot of residents in Visakhapatnam may appreciate its towering skyscrapers and posh malls towards the north of the city, many don't realise that there are priceless historical gems, towards the south.

Hidden in plain sight of the 'City of Destiny', Visakhapatnam's Old Town area has several heritage structures, each with its own interesting history.

Starting from Town Hall and ending at the old Light House, there are at least three historical structures within walking distance of the old post office.

There are also little nuggets of history, that have been forgotten over time.

For example, much before the revolt of 1857, it was in the Old Town area of Vizag that the first mutiny of Indian sepoys against the British reportedly took place in 1788. 

In fact, a board detailing a proposed heritage walk by the Greater Visakhapatnam Municipal Corporation (GVMC), stands erected at the entrance of the Town Hall but remains neglected.

Each heritage site, has a board erected outside which states the year in which it was built, followed by a short summary of the site's history. 

Town Hall (1904)

From freedom fighters to Nobel laurates, this Vizag building has hosted them all.

The building is more than a century old, and is one of the most iconic structures in the city today.

The board outside it reads:

"The Town Hall was built by the Rajah of Bobbili between 1901 and 1904 and was inaugurated by RH Campbell, Collector and Agent, Vizagapatnam on March 8, 1904. The elegant and symmetrical structure is situated on a widely-spread hillock and once had a panoramic view of the harbour. 

There are stone towers on either side of the building with spiral shaped tops. They have small semi-circular segmental arched openings that appear like watch towers. The flooring and roof framework are made of wood which has stood the test of time. The Town Hall structure with elegant stone work influenced the architecture of structures that subsequently came up in Vizag,

The structure has hosted some of the most important civic meetings during the independence struggle. It was also the venue for many literary and cultural events. This is one of Vizag's most precious and important heritage buildings."

Kurupam Market (1914)

Initially called 'King Edward VII Coronation Market', this is stated to be the very first market built in the city. 

According to historical records, the market was actually a gift to the city by the Rajah of Kurupam, on the occasion of King Edward VII's coronation, which gave the place its alternative name. 

It was opened to the public in 1914.

The market was rectangular, and had four entrances, with the centre marked by a large rectangular semi-enclosed space, which was used for selling vegetables. 

As far as the architecture of the market is concerned, the main entrance structure had a huge Tudor arch opening, with towers on either side of the structure, constructed in ashlar rubble masonry up to the first cornice and brick masonry up to the third cornice. The dome and the kalasha are finished in stone. 

However, all that remains today, is a small arch and gate, as the GVMC had bulldozed several structures in 2013, amid much criticism from historians and activists.

European Cemetery (1699)

Nestled away in a tiny lane off the Town main road, this is perhaps one of the oldest gems of history in the area.

The board outside reads:

"The grave stones bear inscriptions ranging from 1699 to 1833. Here lie the gravestones of 'Chiefs of Settlement', administrators, traders, factory managers, public figures and soldiers who served their country in colonial India and died in Vizagapatnam. Each of these gravestones tells us fascinating tales from the past and is a record of Vizag's history carved in stone.

Some of the important graves here are those of Patrick Lawson, a wealthy sailor-merchant after whom the Lawson's bay is named. Simon Holcombe, the fifth chief of the settlement, who was responsible for expanding the settlement and strengthening its defences and John Dykes, a British sailor who lost his life in the first ever naval battle off the coast of the city on September 18, 1804 between the British and the French.

Among these graves is one Cadet Kingsford Venner, who died on October 3, 1780, in what is perhaps the earliest mutiny of native sepoys against their British commanders.


Queen Victoria's Pavilion (1904)

Situated right opposite the Old Post Office, is a bronze statue of Queen Victoria which was presented to Sri Akitam Venkata Jagga Row, a zamindar, when he visited England in 1900, as a gift to the town of Visakhapatnam.

The statue was erected on May 4, 1904 and a structure was constructed around it with stone, which still stands to this day. 

St John's Church (1844)

The church was built by the East India Company in December 1844, and was designed and supervised by Sir Arthur Cotton, who also went on to build the Godavari Barrage.

This is the city's third oldest church, and was re-roofed in 1992, with an antique but functioning pipe organ that can still be found inside, near the church's altar.

The board outside reads:

"The church reflects the English ambience of the period. The typical Anglican dome; big round pillars and cobbled-stone porch give the structure a grand majesty of an era gone by. The teak wood used is from Burma, while the intricately carved Altar is from Great Britain. The glass painting is from Europe. The church is still used regularly by the local community."

Queen Mary's school (Around 1800)

While access to the school is restricted as it is still in use, the building has accommodated around 250 years of the city's history, including several important establishments of Visakhapatnam over two centuries.

The board outside reads:

"In the 1800s it housed the Waltair Orphan Asylum founded in 1817. It was remodelled in 1831 to afford shelter to destitute children, orphans and abandoned infants. It was later used as a medical store, a medical college, a hospital, a volunteer armoury and the collector's treasury. 

Though the Queen Mary's School has been in existence in another building since 1913, it has been in the present structure since the early 1950s. This school has more than 1,000 girl students studying here and is proud to have several famous women among its alumni."


Ishaq Madina dargah (Prior to 1706)

The dargah is nestled between crowded houses at the end of a narrow street, but opens up to a spectacular view atop the hill, from where a large portion of the Old Town area is visible, including the port.

The 'Syed Ali Ishaq Madina Rahmatullah Dargah', holds the tomb of a holy Muslim saint Syed Ali, who is believed to have arrived from Madina with his followers. While the exact date of the dargah's construction is unknown, there is historical evidence that a Muslim ruler granted two villages as a 'reward' to this dargah for its upkeep, around 1706.

The board outside reads: 

The dargah has been a place of veneration for both Hindus and Muslims and sailors of all faiths. It is said that every vessel entering or leaving the Harbour, used to pay respects to the saint by lowering and hoisting the flag three times. Some speculate that the town was originally known by the name of this saint as 'Ishakpattan' which over time, was changed to 'Vizagapatnam'.

A little above the dargah on the same hill, is a mosque known as 'Alagmir Mosque' also known as 'Aurangzeb Masjid'. Legend has it that when Aurangzeb's army came here, they found an old Masjid already at the spot. They renovated it and named it 'Alagmir mosque'. Interestingly, a grave stone found here and recorded by the Epigraphy Department of the Government of India, indicated that a burial took place in 1257 AD.


(The mosque atop the dargah)

St Aloysius School (1847)

This stone structure is one of the oldest schools in the city and was started by Catholic priests in the year 1847. Though it began with two small rooms facing the sea, a bigger two-storied building next to the rooms was acquired soon, as the school expanded. Over the years, several wings were added to this industrial school.

The board outside reads:

"Though renovated, the two rooms still stand in the eastern corner of the school...The building is still being used and kept in good order, making it one of the oldest buildings in existence in Visakhapatnam today. The St. Aloysius Industrial School located behind the high school is the oldest automobile garage in the town."

Lighthouse (1903)

The 59-foot 'old' Lighthouse on the Beach Road was established in 1903, to help and guide ships into the Visakhapatnam Harbour. 

According to reports, the dome and lantern of the lighthouse were from Chantilly or Chintappali, and it had a gas-fired white light with the brightness levels of 45000 candles.

In clear weather, it was said to be visible from 12 miles away. 

After the building was abandoned in 1962, it went into disrepair until 2015, when it was repaired and restored by the Visakhapatnam Port Trust (VCP) and the Visakha Container Terminal Pvt Ltd (VCTL)

The building now stands open to the public.

During World War II, there were two anti-aircraft guns set up next to the lighthouse, which were also restored, and still stand at the spot.

(All Images: Nitin B)

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