KOLKATA: Locals call it bhulbhulaiya and avoid it. Children are warned of ghosts and venomous snakes that guard the place. A stone’s throw away, modern life rushes on oblivious to the 181-year-old ruin.
The Salt Golah of Salkia that lent its name to Golabari police station, is a massive maze of 244 godowns built by the British around 1835 to stack salt. Today, the place is an abandoned ruin, caving-in and overrun by trees.
At the rusty gate, the cops -seven of them are on duty -warn of snakes, leeches and poisonous creepers. There is also the danger of getting lost in the maze of alleys leading to innumerable rows of godowns, all looking the same.
The cops belong to the Railway Protection Force since this is a railway property . They beat the shrubs and strike their lathis to shoo away snakes as they lead the way. “We follow a set route on duty and avoid certain cursed areas,” says cons table Ramswarup Singh. “Look out for snake eggs,” he hastily adds. Thankfully, Ramswarup and his colleagues have had company in these ruins for the past three months. A team of conservation architects from Delhi have been camping here to draw up a Rs 100-crore restoration plan commissioned by the Eastern Railway. The architects from Intach (Indian National Trust from Art and Cultural Heritage) have explored, studied and measured every bit of the ruin -from the remains of a cryptic vault to creeper-entwined thick pillars to crumbling ceilings and crevasses. They have discovered under the knee-high shrubs the remains of a rail track that was used to roll in salt from the salt works of Orissa (now Odisha), Midnapur (Midnapore) and Bhuj in Gujarat. The 21-acre property itself stands on the banks of the Hooghly -the Howrah bridge looming in the distance -with the water threatening to swamp it.
“Many years ago we tho ught of this place as an extension of the Howrah station. We can’t let such a significant ruin die and so we want to preserve it,” said divisional railway manager of Eastern Railway , R Badrinarayan.
The red brick wall of the godown lining the Hooghly leads to the massive colonial buildings that acted as the salt commissioner’s office and residence. The commissioner was then one of the most important cogs in the trading wheel of the East India Company, and later the Raj. The coercive “salt tax” that finally led to Gandhiji’s salt satyagraha was decided in this hub.
At a state tourism department and Unesco meeting over the city’s riverfront development last year, the railways presented the case of the Salt Gola ruins. “We were stunned to know about these ruins,” said G M Kapur, state convenor of Intach, who is co-ordinating the project.
“We have planned the restoration and re-cast of the ruins without affecting the existing structures, which will be innovatively used to build new facilities,” says Divay Gupta, principal director of the architectural heritage division of Intach. The new facilities include art galleries, handloom and handicraft centres, an open-air amphitheatre making use of the natural water body, a variety of eateries, and a heritage hotel facing the Hooghly.