Calcutta High Court India’s Oldest Seat of Justice

Joydip Sur

As the mercury slowly began to soar, I continued my last days of long walks along the strand taking me across an assortment of shops and milieu of people that made me wonder.

It was during one of those early morning walks that I was attracted to the red building behind the Assembly House. Yes, the Calcutta High Court and I was immediately transported back into a moment back in time.

The importance and the power of the judiciary was very apparent in Calcutta’s past, particularly in the latter 1700s, in the days of Chief Justice Sir Elijah Impey and his company and well into the 1800s. There was a great prestige that even the puisne judges enjoyed.

In theory, the administration of the town was vested for a time in the body of the justices or magistrates, but as a result of obscure legalities, among which was the fact that these administrative bodies met so rarely, the authority basically rested with the chief magistrate. His power was considerable in an unpublicized way.

Fortunately, Calcutta seems to have had a significant number of sensible men in that position who generally used their power wisely. By the time the Calcutta High Court was erected, that early sense of discretionary law had given way to committees and commissions, so the High Court as it was built was never the centre of power that the old judicial system was. It merely served as the highest court in the city and the Presidency of which it was capital.

The name of Walter Granville will be etched in gold in the architectural history of Calcutta. Highly revered in the city of joy and in other parts of the Indian subcontinent, Granville will always be remembered for his numerous praiseworthy Neoclassical and Gothic designs during the days of the Raj. Yet again, he enthralls everyone with his design of the Calcutta High Court.

The Calcutta High Court, formerly known as the High Court of Judicature at Fort William, was brought into existence by the Letters Patent dated May 14, 1862, issued under the High Court’s Act, 1861. It was formally opened on July 1, 1862, with Sir Barnes Peacock as its first Chief Justice. On February 2, 1863, Justice Sambhu Nath Pandit became the first Indian to assume office as a Judge of the Calcutta High Court. He was followed by legal luminaries of the likes of Justice Dwarka Nath Mitter, Sir Chunder Madhab Ghosh, Sir Gooroodas Banerji, Justice Ramesh Chandra Mitra and Sir Ashutosh Mookerjee to name a few.

Many eminent architects and critics have speculated that the design of the Calcutta High Court has been inspired by the Cloth Hall in Ypres, Belgium. But speculations aside, those of you who have had an opportunity to see the Cloth Hall in Ypres will agree that besides the basic concept of a long, multi-storey arcaded frontage surmounted by a centrally positioned tower, the Calcutta High Court is a dramatically original composition which today serves as one of Calcutta’s most imposing pieces of architecture.

The Calcutta High Court has the distinction of being the first High Court in India and one of the three Chartered High Courts to be set up in the country, along with the High Courts of Bombay and Madras.

I was awestruck from the very moment I set my vision on this historical edifice. The sheer beauty of the structure and the brilliant detailing of design on the exterior swept me off my feet. I was simply mesmerised. I still am.

Occupying a choice site where once stood the old Supreme Court, the summit of Calcuttan jurisprudence, the High Court stands. The cornerstone was laid in March, 1864 and a full eight years later the main block was completed.

The tower adds to the beauty of the mammoth southern frontage of the Calcutta High Court, adorning it right at the centre. Although not many records of the incident has been maintained, but it is often rumoured that the original tower was much higher than the one we presently see. It is said to have incurred structural damage and later the height of the tower was shortened in the due course of its reconstruction. If you observe minutely, you would notice that the present tower is not proportionate to the width of the southern frontage. The tower is adorned with the dharma chakras (wheel of law) on all four sides.

Approaching the main entrance, I entered a brief academic hallway and thereafter maneuvering around portable ‘Silence’ and ‘Less Noise Please’ signs, I was led to the central courtyard which has a well maintained garden at the centre and is surrounded by galleries all around. The ground floor occupies a number of offices, the most interesting amongst which is the record room which contains legal records dating back to several decades.

And as you take the flight of stairs and reach the first floor, the real drama begins to unfold. This floor is always buzzing with activity and the busyness of the place is startling. Seven of the original eight courts are lined along the southern side of the building on this floor. Panes of deep green glass occupy positions high up in the windows that light the courts themselves. The rooms of the courts are very lofty and are divided longitudinally by the shafts of electric fans.

One can spot numerous advocates, counsels and sometimes even judges walking hurriedly up and down the hallowed corridors. Not to forget, the eager clients whose fate is to be decided are often seen occupying the wooden benches, leaning against the giant pillars or simply exchanging a conversation with their lawyers with faces that are marked with the shadow of anxiety and uncertainty.

The Calcutta Bar Library, a lively institution, was founded in 1825 by Longueville Clarke, who once lived in one of the houses removed to make way for Granville’s new structure. The Bar Library room is one of the prestigious rooms in the premises where most of the leading counsels are often found discussing law or simply reading.

The Bar Association’s Rooms have very high ceilings, where the legal hot air is batted under lazy electric fans. Forgotten books in correspondingly high almirahs adorn the yellow walls, along with naively airbrushed studio portraits of legal stalwarts.

There is also the Jurisprudence Hall, Library, the Chief Justice’s office and countless other important chambers in the court premises which command respect and attracts curiosity.

There were several historical cases that were heard in the Calcutta High Court. Amongst them was that of Khudiram Bose vs Emperor on July 13, 1908. The appellant Khudiram Bose was placed on this trial charged with having committed murder by causing the deaths of Mrs. Kennedy and Miss Kennedy by means of an explosive bomb on the April 30, 1908 or in the alternative with having abetted the commission of the murders by Dinesh Chunder Roy and other unknown person. Khudiram Bose was found guilty and sentenced to death.

Another was that of Subhas Chandra Bose vs R. Knight & Sons on January 30, 1928. The plaintiff Subhas Chandra Bose sued the defendants who were the proprietors and editor of the Statesman newspaper for damages for libel contained in their issue of November 26, 1924. The words complained of are part of a leading article of which the main subject matter is a speech made by the Earl of Lytton when Governor of Bengal at Maldah on the 24th of that month. The judgment was delivered in favour of the plaintiff.

Architecturally, the Calcutta High Court is one of Walter Granville’s masterpieces. The red and cream colour with green doors and windows has always proved to be a delightful combination. The innumerable arches which are spread all over the building are one of the most striking features of the Calcutta High Court. The wood carvings on the doors and windows are beautiful and worth a second glance. The overall detail and intricacy in the design are impeccable and inspires awe among its beholder.

On days when the court is not in session, the entire complex, with its gazing statues, shy nooks and powerful aspects, take on a surreal air, which is at once is both comforting and intriguing.

Wonder how things rolled here a century back!! Do you?