The Old Mint A Heritage Treasure

Joydip Sur

Siraj-ud-Daulah, the Nawab of Bengal captured Fort William on June 20, 1756 and renamed Calcutta as Alinagar. But after the Battle of Plassey, they forced the Nawab to sign a treaty granting them permission to set up a mint at Alinagar to coin siccas and mohurs of Murshidabad standard.

The India Government Mint was first established in Calcutta in 1757, located in a building next to the Black Hole in the Old Fort – the site at which the General Post Office (GPO) stands at present. Before the arrival of an assay master and machinery from Europe, workmen from Murshidabad chipped in.

The second Calcutta Mint was established with modern machinery brought from England in 1790. It was located at the site of Gillet Ship Building Establishment in Church Lane, which was taken over by the Stamp and Stationary Committee in 1833. The coins, siccas and mohurs issued from this mint continued to bear mint name of Murshidabad.

In March 1824 the foundation of the third Calcutta Mint was laid on Strand Road. It was built by Major-General Forbes and the construction was completed in 1830 although the production of coins had begun on August 1, 1829. The Mint’s foundations were laid at a depth of nearly eight metres below street level, so that there was more brick work below the ground than above it. More popularly known as ‘tuksal’ among the natives, the Silver Mint (the principal structure) and the Copper Mint – built in 1865 (just to the northeast of the Silver Mint), were two independently operative concerns, spread over nearly over five hectares on land.

The whole structure cost twenty-seven lakh rupees. There was a Library, a Record Room, a Laboratory, and an Assay Office on the premises. Tours of the Mint were always at a premium with most visitors hailing from small towns. The biggest attraction was watching the pouring of molten silver between 11 AM and 1 PM every day. Nickel coins arrived in 1907 and in the year 1918 the Mint achieved a world record by producing 19,00,000 coins in one single day. Until 1835 many of the coins here were engraved with the name of the Mughal Emperor in Delhi.

After 1835, the act of uniform coinage was activated. There were engravers’ rooms, pre-melting rooms, vaults, weighing rooms, a melting room with thirty-two furnaces plus three gold-melting furnaces, crucibles, rolling mills, punching machines, filing machines, annealing vessels, sulphuric acid baths, milling and pressing machines. The coins were bagged in lots of 2,000 a piece. Then came the ringing department, where the coins were struck against stone to give out the right sound, and then were directed towards the exit. Next stop was the Currency Building on Old Court House Street, where all seals on each shipment from the mint were deemed utterly correct in their count, before being dispersed throughout the subcontinent world.

Coinage for Ceylon and Malaya were also minted here, as were medals and decorations during the British regime. During the Second World War the Mint was moved upcountry to Lahore.

The imposing frontage of the building resembled the Temple of Athena at Athens in Greece, popularly known as the Parthenon. The long façade is a grand, stripped-Doric triumph, its columns like a line of impassable soldiers, standing firm for the duration. It is a fine example of Greco-Roman architecture and is nobler than the fine frontage of the Bombay Town Hall, its soul mate in classicism. In its own way it projects the same kind of sternness and magnetism as the inner gates to the Forbidden City in Beijing.

The Mint’s Masters House across the street was connected by narrow-gauge railway tracks with the main building. This was for the transportation of specimen coins, inspection musters, special-issue coins, and perhaps the bullion itself, for the Mint’s Master’s House was obviously a working facility all its own. It along with the Mint proper, lead the observer to wonder just what goes on behind these historical and tantalizing façade. Perhaps they are just godowns now.

From the way the building currently looks, it seems as if there has been some failed restorative work done in past decades, yet the foliage which sprout from its roof is among the largest growing from a building in the city. The Ashokan lions in the central tympanum almost indicate that this is an ancient temple and not coinage.

Coins jingle at the New Mint in Alipore these days and the old mint on Strand Road currently serves as the camp of CRPF 167. Not surprising that even till this very day, the mint stands heavily guarded and no one is allowed inside the premises without prior permission. Standing alone outside the sharp iron fence, looking at that magnificent frontage, one can only wonder at the tales locked up inside.