Gateway of Assam : The only British brick structure of 19th century in NE India

S Balakrishnan
As the ferry was approaching Guwahati City from Umananda Island (the smallest inhabited river-island of the world), in the midst of Brahmaputra River, a red gateway caught my attention. I wondered how it resembled the Gateway of India in Mumbai! My intuition proved right when I visited it after landing at Jalpooree Ghat of Guwahati. The archway is indeed called “The Gateway of Assam / Guwahati”. I was pleased I had discovered it during my stay in Guwahati. Though not gigantic as the Gateway of India, this small and beautiful Gateway that is 140 years old has its own important place in the history of Assam.
This Gateway is the only surviving British brick architecture of the 19th century in the whole of North-East India. All the other British brick-built architectures of this region were flattened by the massive earthquake of 1897.  Known as the Assam Quake, it occurred on 12th June 1897 with the epicenter on the Shillong plateau. With a magnitude of 8.2–8.3, it was felt over an area of 1,750,000 square miles, causing much death & destruction. Now, with bridges collapsing in Bihar one after another, it is a real wonder that this brick structure withstood such a powerful earthquake.
The Gateway of Assam was built in 1874 to welcome Lord Thomas George Baring (better known as Lord Northbrook), the Governor-General / Viceroy of India (1872-76). He came by steamer all the way from Calcutta to visit this Province of Assam under the British Empire to declare the creation of Assam as a Chief Commissioner’s Province. Lieutenant Colonel R.H. Keatinge, V.C. (Victoria Cross), CSI, was the Chief Commissioner of Assam then. Keatinge ordered construction of this ‘Gate of Honour’, as the archway was then named, to welcome and please his Big Boss! After all it was not his own money!
After the Treaty of Yandabo in 1826, when the Burmese invaders had been evicted from Assam, the British incorporated Assam into their empire in India.  Assam became a part of Bengal Presidency and a Commissioner for Assam Division was located in Guwahati. There was a growing demand for Assam being made a separate Province to preserve Assamese language and culture. It was also found that the inclusion of Assam in Bengal Presidency had made the Bengal Presidency unwieldy. Therefore, for this reason also, it was decided to make Assam a separate Province.
Lord Northbrook was the first British Viceroy to visit Assam/North-East in 1874. He came up by steamer from Calcutta (Kolkata), the then capital of British India, and landed at Sukreshwar Ghat (at this site) on 27th August 1874 with guns booming to salute him. Guwahati then had a population of about 11,000 people only.  As the Gate was constructed to commemorate his visit it was called the ‘Northbrook Gate’. He announced the creation of Assam as a Chief Commissioner’s Province with its capital at Shillong. Hence this Gateway is popularly known as the “Gateway of Assam” because it was here that Assam’s separate entity was ensured. In 1905, following the partition of Bengal by Lord Curzon, Assam ceased to be a separate province and became a part of East Bengal (the present Bangladesh). Partition of Bengal was annulled in 1911 and Assam again regained its separate Province status but now under a Lieutenant Governor. In 1921, it was upgraded to a Governor’s Province. After the separation of Meghalaya from Assam in 1972, the capital of Assam was shifted from Shillong to Guwahati.
Adjacent to this Gateway is a Victory Pillar that is much older. The inscription on the stone pillar records the historical ‘Saraighat Battle’ victory of Lachit Barphukan, the famous General of Ahom army – “In the year 1589 Saka (1667 AD), there flourished the Barphukan of Namjani (Lower Assam), the son of Barbarua (Momai-Tamuli). He became victorious in the war waged by the Yavana in the full array of various kinds of weapons and arms, elephants, horses and captains. The body of the Barphukan is adorned by all varieties of ornaments. His heart is illumined by manifold learning. He is endowed by the qualities which are not tainted by the sins of Kali Yuga. He is effulgent in prowess and enterprises. He is the Commander of elephants, horses & soldiers and he is like an ocean in regard to fortitude, self-respect, heroism, and gravity.” Thus records the Victory Pillar’s inscription. A sketch on metal plate, of recent times, installed nearby vividly brings out the famous ‘Saraighat Battle’ of Lachit Barphukan at Saraighat, on the banks of River Brahmaputra in North Guwahati.
The same Gate welcomed Lord Curzon during his visit to the city in December 1900 with Lady Curzon. The urn containing the ashes of Mahatma Gandhi was placed for public tribute near the Gate before its immersion in the Brahmaputra on 12 February, 1949, by Assam’s first Chief Minister, Gopinath Bordoloi, who boarded a ferry from this Gateway.  On November 1, 1919, during Rabindranath Tagore’s visit to Guwahati, the poet spent some moments at this Gateway, enchanted by the beauty of the Brahmaputra, the surrounding scenery and sunset,
To  befit the status of the VVIP visitor, the Viceroy of India, it was decided to design the monument after the famous King’s College Chapel arches in Cambridge, considered one of the best examples of perpendicular gothic English architecture. A site adjacent to the Sukreswar Temple where the weekly market was being held was chosen as the spot where the Governor General’s ship would anchor. And the construction of the Gateway started at the location. The rectangular structure has a total of 12 arches, five each in the two longer sides and one in each side of its breadth. The Gate was built of brick and white limestone. But as bricks were not manufactured in Assam then, it was procured from various sources. The walls were made of lime-surki mortar (‘surki’ is a granular brick powder). The structure is very simple of design and completely lacks any decorative carvings. But its unique feature is that while the arches are of gothic design, the spires on the top are inspired by Indian temple designs - so the overall impression is of an Indo-gothic architecture. The eight spires resemble the conical temple towers of Assam. The structure does not have a roof/ceiling; it is just a façade.
As years rolled by, the structure lost its importance and it tilted about 45 c.m. on its west. Restoration and beautification works by INTACH and ASI have saved this Old Beauty. Though originally painted white, now it is painted in flashy red.  An entry fee of Rs.5 is charged. People gather here in the evening to spend leisure time as it also has a play area for children.
As the Gateway lies near Sukreshwar Temple, while passing by bus several times I had mistaken it for the entrance of that temple, and was not very keen to visit the structure. Thanks to the ferry trip, I could visit this important landmark as well as the historical stone pillar inscription.  ‘Gateway of Assam’ had withstood the massive earthquake and still stands majestically on the Southern bank of the mighty Brahmaputra even after 140 years as a witness to the growth of Guwahati and Assam. The multi-storey buildings in the backdrop of this humble monument stand as proof to the so-called development.
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