Forgotten chapel rediscovered in India's oldest general hospital
A forgotten chapel has been ‘rediscovered’ at the SSKM Hospital. Believed to be more than a century old, the chapel on the ground floor of the hospital’s main building has been looked after by the caretaker and his family for ages.
The portion where the chapel is located has been under renovation for years now. The hospital authority stumbled upon it recently during an inspection.
Housed in a dingy room, the chapel has a statue of Mother Mary, prayer tables and a confession room. Under the statue, the following words are scribbled on a marble plaque: ‘Presented by Lt Col F O’Kinealy CIE IMS’. Though no record of when the chapel was built could be found, O’Kinealy incidentally was the officiating surgeon general with the government of Bengal in the 1910s. Documents in Asiatic Society also mention his name.
“SSKM is the oldest general hospital in the country built by the East India Company. Many of the structures in the hospital carry the heritage tag. Therefore, the chapel could be more than a century old. No one knew about this chapel,” said a PWD official at SSKM.
The first hospital in Calcutta was built in the premises of the Old Fort at Gerstein Place in 1707. The Council of Fort William constructed this hospital. Initially built for the Europeans till 1770, this hospital was then known as the Presidency Hospital, after the Presidency of Calcutta and due to its proximity to the Presidency Jail of Calcutta. Later it came to be known as the "Presidency General Hospital" or "P.G. Hospital" for short - the name which is still commonly used. In independent India, the hospital was renamed as "Seth Sukhlal Karnani Memorial Hospital" in 1954 after great philanthropist of Calcutta, Seth Sukhlal Karnani. This hospital is the oldest general hospital in India, for the practice of modern medicine and for meaningful research.
Built in 1770 by East India Company for the Europeans, the hospital was then known as Presidency General Hospital (PG Hospital). It threw its gates open to Indians later. The first Indian to get admitted to this hospital was Michael Madhusudan Dutta on June 22, 1873. He died here seven days later. The hospitalwas renamed Seth Sukhlal Karnani Memorial Hospital (SSKM) in 1954.
This hospital has a glorious record of research in medicine. It was in a tiny room of this hospital that Sir Ronald Ross created history by discovering the ‘cycle of malarial parasite’ for which he was honoured with the Nobel Prize for medicine in 1902. Though Sir Ross retired from service in 1899, he visited the hospital in 1927 when a statue of his was unveiled by Lord Lytton.
Though the chapel was hidden away from the public eye, Panilal Mallick, a Group D staffer, and his family ensures that it’s kept clean. He even lights candles and offers flowers to the statue whenever he performs puja in front of the Hindu idols placed right opposite the chapel door.
“My grandfather Mohan Lal used to work under the British. Since then, three generations have been looking after the chapel as we reside next to it. We are attached to it irrespective of the faith we belong to,” said Mallick.
He recollects people from localities like Bhawanipore coming down there to pray even about two decades back during Christmas. “A Father used to come regularly. But he has not come down for around 15 years,” added Mallick. He and his family, however, ensure that the chapel is decorated every Christmas.
“We are trying to trace the church under which this chapel falls. We will talk to them so that it can be shifted during the renovation at least as the roof above it is crumbling,” said Dr Pradip Mitra, director IPGMER.