The 140 year old tower stands tall in SoBo as a beacon of architectural heritage
Circa 1860s, Premchand Roychand, a prosperous broker and founder of the Bombay Stock Exchange, found a unique way to ensure his blind mother would dine on time. When Sir George Gilbert Scott, an English architect, designed a library-cum-clock tower modelled on London’s Big Ben, Roychand agreed to finance the entire project (that ran into lakhs of rupees back then). The tycoon’s intention was that the tower’s evening bell would help his mother know the time; and his condition was that the tower be named after her, Rajabai.
Today, almost 140 years since its completion in 1878, the clock tower stands tall as an architectural icon in Mumbai’s Fort precinct. Rising approximately 85m high with seven storeys with a 3.8m width, it was the tallest structure in the city for many decades. Conservation architect Vikas Dilawari adds, “Its design combined the use of locally sourced stones from the suburbs of the city, a winding staircase lit by large east facing stained-glass windows and Porbandar stone sculptures (including those of Homer and Shakespeare) that decorated its sides with niches and canopies.” The sculptures on the surface of the clock as well as in the interiors of the adjoining library were made by Indian artisans and students of JJ School of Art, under the guidance of Sir Lockwood Kipling, their art teacher and illustrator. The arches at the entrance and in the stairway are Victorian Gothic with Islamic influences.
Operated since 1880, the tower’s four-sided clock, designed by watchmaking company Lund & Blockley, features a dial originally illuminated by gas jets placed behind it. It was programmed to play 16 (created by an equal number of bells) typical British-empire tunes such as Rule Britannia, the national anthem, Home! Sweet Home!, God Save The Queen and A Handel Symphony. Today, only two bells toll ever hour.
In the mid ’90s, Vikas was entrusted with resurrecting the tower’s stained-glass windows. He says, “The tower, which is as tall as the Qutub Minar, features brilliant stained-glass windows, with an area of approximately 2,000 sq ft, with secular themes adorning the interiors. The use of rose wood for its tall slender windows makes this Gothic Revival-style tower, which may be the only building with this feature, unique.”