A piece of history may be lost forever: Vizag's iconic Town Hall continues to crumble

From freedom fighters to Nobel laurates, this Vizag building has hosted them all.
A piece of history may be lost forever: Vizag's iconic Town Hall continues to crumble
A piece of history may be lost forever: Vizag's iconic Town Hall continues to crumble
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At the end of a tiny, winding lane off the Old Town main road in Visakhapatnam's Port area, stands the grand Town Hall of the city.

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

Said to be built by the 'Rajah of Bobbli' between 1901 and 1904, it stands on top of a hillock, above sea level, thus, giving it a panoramic view of the harbour. 

The structure is symmetrical and has wooden floors and stone towers on either side of the building, that are covered with a conical wooden roof.

"The ground floor of the structure is still open for everyone to come and visit, and is considered the reading section. We have been laying out newspapers and magazines for several decades now. We still try and keep them updated," says Satyavantha Rao, a board member of the 'Vizagapatnam Club', which has taken the ground floor of the building on lease.

There are also several decks of cards and a billiards table for those interested in availing the facility.

"All the furniture that you see, is also from that time. It is still so sturdy because it is made of imported teak," he says.

(A table with an inbuilt chess board)

The top floor of the Town Hall was initially used by the Greater Visakhapatnam Municipal Corporation (GVMC), but later it became a venue to hold concerts and cultural programs. "This was the only building of its kind at that time," says Rao.

He also adds that not many visitors come to the premises anymore. 

"You are the first non-local this week," he exclaims, as he points to a magazine with the picture of US President Donald Trump, suggesting that the papers on the table were updated.

While access to the first floor has been locked, reportedly by the GVMC, a board outside the building elaborates on the architecture.

"The stone towers 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 rest of time. The Town Hall structure with elegant stone work influenced the architecture of structures that subsequently came up in Vizag," it states.

Rao adds, "In fact, the architects and engineers those days didn't even need cement."

Rao goes on to scrape his fingers between two stones in the wall, to reveal sand.

"They mixed some other material with the sand to make the structure stronger, but it is still a marvel nonetheless," he says.

While the official statement is that it was inaugurated on March 8, 1904, some organisations like Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) say the building is even older. INTACH says it was built on a fisherman's village, in the year 1893 to commemorate the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria.

(Rajah of Bobbli)

The organisation also states that it was handed over to the municipality in 1904.

It is not just for its architectural value that the Town Hall is precious to people in Visakhaptnam, the building also has historical and cultural ties with the city.

During the freedom struggle, this structure is said to have hosted some of the most important civic meetings.

Duvvuri Lalithamba, daughter of the chief justice of the erstwhile Madras High Court late Sir Vepa Ramesam, had earlier told the Times of India, "The Town Hall was a major meeting point for freedom fighters and social activists. Mahatma Gandhi visited the town hall in 1929 and delivered an address..Later the Salt Satyagraha movement in Visakhapatnam was kicked off in 1931 from the beach opposite the Town Hall."

The building has also hosted the likes of C Rajagopalachari, Rabindranath Tagore, Sir CV Raman and Dr S Radhakrishnan during literary and cultural events. 

That's not all. The building has also hosted music icons from MS Subbulakshmi and Dwaram Venkataswamy Naidu to M Balamuralikrishna, who passed away in November last year.

Speaking about the Town Hall to The Hindu, Balamuralikrishna had earlier said, "I was mesmerised by its sheer beauty and ambience. The blue water of the bay was visible from the stage in the evening when I reached the venue and the wafting cool breeze kept me going."

In shambles

Despite all this, the building today is in a state of despair, and is in dire need of repairs.

Stray dogs and cats roam around the building, even as some people urinate on the walls.

From outside, the building looks structurally strong, but a look from inside shows that it is crumbling and dilapidated.  

Cyclone Hudhud that hit the city in 2014, seemed to have weakened it further.

"The local politicians have promised funds for its repair, but work is yet to begin," says Satyavantha Rao.

Even an offer by the Vizagapatnam club to repair it, was allegedly turned down by the GVMC.

Activists have also alleged that there is a ploy to let the building crumble on its own, to help corporates engaged in shipping business take over the site.

"We are not allowed to make any changes unless we have permission, since it is a registered heritage building. However, If we don't take up repairs fast, a great piece of history may be lost forever," Rao adds.

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