Anyone who’s driven through the hills of North Bengal will definitely have seen the colonial era Coronation Bridge. The adjoining forests are teeming with monkeys, food sellers have set up little stalls in the vicinity, and there is also the Sevokeswari Kali temple nearby. Besides, the now ‘tamed’ Teesta, with its verdant backdrop of the Himalayan foothills will likely urge you to stop for a moment, appreciate the sylvan surroundings, and take a few pictures for the ‘Gram’.
This bridge, spanning the Teesta, was named to mark King George VI and Queen Elizabeth’s coronation in 1937. Construction was completed in 1941 at a reported cost of INR4,00,000. The bridge is more commonly known as bagh pool since there are tiger sculptures on either end of the bridge. Bagh, in most regional languages, means tiger.
An architectural wonder
According to CG Sexton’s 1946 article, the proposal for the bridge was initially drafted in 1913. Due to floods in the Teesta valley, it was decided in 1931 that the Dooars region needed to be guaranteed an outside connection at all times. Previously, the only way to cross the river was by boarding a ferry at Sevoke. Ferry services, however, were inoperable during the monsoons. As a result, road construction began in 1933.
His Excellency John Anderson, the former Governor of Bengal, lay the foundation stone for the bridge. It is worth noting that another bridge, with a similar appearance, was built upstream. Christened the Anderson Bridge, it was reportedly built in 1933. This landmark bridge in Teesta Bazaar, named after the then governor, was destroyed in the devastating floods of October 1968. The entire North Bengal and Sikkim region had suffered catastrophic damage that fateful year.
Vintage photographs of the Coronation Bridge show a railway track running underneath, on the river bank below. According to certain accounts, this track connected Sevoke with Tarkhola. However, it was possibly a part of the Teesta Valley Extension Railway, which began operations in 1915. At the time, it ran from Siliguri to Gaile Khola (Kalimpong Road).
Colin St Clair Oakes, the Government of Bengal’s Deputy Architect, was also engaged in the bridge’s design. He also designed the Kohima War Cemetery and the Kranji War Cemetery in Singapore. According to A. Tsakonas, author of ‘In Honour of War Heroes: Colin St Clair Oakes and the Design of Kanji War Memorial’, Chambers may have sought advice from Oakes on some of the aesthetics. A sketch of the bridge from Oakes’ personal collection also depicts an operating train beneath the bridge.
The design team comprised three Indian architects
What is interesting to note is that while the bridge itself is a colonial era relic, its design team comprised three Bengali architects — namely, AC Dutt, SK Ghosh, and KP Roy. They worked with John Chamber who designed, sketched and planned the bridge’s construction. Chamber was the last British executive Engineer of the Darjeeling Division’s Public Works Department (PWD). The contract for construction of the bridge was awarded to Bombay-based Messrs JC Gammon. There is a marble plaque, set in the bridge, to honour the key figures engaged in its construction.
For the record, JC Gammon is now called Gammon India. It remains a well-known civil engineering firm, and is still headquartered in Bombay. Aside from the Coronation Bridge, Gammon India is also credited with building the country’s first second-gen nuclear reactor at Kalpakkam in Tamil Nadu.
The bridge was built using the reinforced concrete system technique following years of extensive research. The final design was governed by the region’s topography, the swift river currents underneath, and also the region’s susceptibility to earthquakes. Since the river bed was ruled out as a means of adequate support, the bridge had to be supported by permanent arches. Its unique arch design is, therefore, a union of form and function.
The origins of the arch design in bridge building
Heritage buffs argue the bridge should be designated as a heritage site since it is one of India’s last surviving spandrel-arch bridges. This is an architectural element that traces its origins to the Roman Empire.
In more recent history, an open-spandrel arch design is also attributed to 7th century China. The story goes that in China’s Hebei Province, the Anji or Zhaozhou Bridge was designed by Li Chun, during the Sui dynasty. Anji means safe passage.
In the context of Indian bridge making history, one indigenously developed bridge is the Namdang Stone Bridge. This engineering marvel was erected during Ahom ruler Rudra Singha’s reign. Located between Sibsagar and Jorhat in Assam, it boasts the extraordinary recognition of being built out of a single solid piece of rock.
And while the Coronation Bridge continues to hold its own, there is a new construction underway that may, in the years to come, also be hailed as an architectural wonder. The Chenab rail bridge in Jammu and Kashmir will be the world’s highest rail bridge upon completion. It is India’s most ambitious arch bridge project yet.
The Coronation Bridge is well past its prime
HE John Anderson’s carriage was the first vehicle to cross the Coronation Bridge following its dedication in 1941. Besides linking the districts of North Bengal, it has also served as one of two crucial road links to northeast India, and to the kingdom of Bhutan.
Despite the bridge’s expected lifespan of a century, its condition has deteriorated over time. This is on account of heavy vehicular traffic and the effects of weathering. An alternate bridge has long been rumoured as replacement for this ageing relic but so far, there are no tell-tale signs of a new bridge being in the works.
In a report by The Telegraph, Mr Bagchi, a former additional chief engineer with the PWD, Jalpaiguri, said the bridge was expected to carry roughly 100 cars per day. Each vehicle was to weigh no more than 12 tons. However, traffic and weight tolerances have been disregarded generally. Furthermore, numerous dams and hydroelectric projects have been built upstream. These dams are, as many environmentalists suggest, potential ecological disasters.
As its centenary draws closer, the Coronation Bridge is in dire need of relief by way of a larger alternative. In its ‘senior years’, the bridge’s narrow carriageway is now more befitting of leisurely strolls than for carbon spewing monsters to be running across its length. What is certain though is the fact that the Coronation Bridge is North Bengal’s, if not India’s equivalent of the fabled Bixby Creek Bridge. It certainly deserves to be accorded heritage status.