Topi Bangla Stands tall as heritage building

Col JP Singh
Topi Bangla is a sprawling castle like building situated in the Jammu Military Cantonment which is the official residence of General Officer Commanding (GOC) Tiger Division and is called the Flag Staff House. It indeed is more like a castle than a house. There is lot more in this castle than what meets the eye at first sight. Tucked serenely amidst green environs of Satwari military cantonment and hidden bashfully behind a very thick foliage, Topi Bangla is seen only when one enters its premises. When seen first, it mesmerises the on-looker. Its beauty, charm and splendor seduces one and all. It was built as residence of the British army officer, called military advisor to the Maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir. It is neither a house, nor a Bungalow but a great monument which stands as a mute testimony to a lot of important historic events of the sub-continent. Topi Bangla thus conjures up an image of ‘something out of the world’ in Jammu Tawi township (lesser Known than Kashmir despite being the winter capital of the state). The name Topi Bangla was derived from the Welsh Hat that its first occupant wore and the similar Topi like canopy of the so called castle. The first British military officer who lived in Topi Banglow used to wear Welsh Hat during his outings. He being the boss of the state forces troops, the men called him Topi Sahib and his residence as Topi Bangla. Seeing the British Officer in civil streets in the town with or without hat, locals would also call him Topi Sahib, meaning the resident of the Topi Bangla, to distinguish him from other British visitors to Jammu.
Topi Bangla is a four bed room colonial Bungalow. This imposing building, depicting great dignity in design and splendor was built in the Scottish architectural style. Initially it was built as residence of the Inspecting Officer of Kashmir Imperial Service Troops, called military advisor. Story behind its construction is that Prince of Wales was to visit the state in 1905. There was a Satwari House, present Army School, where Major ET Gastrell, the Inspecting Officer of the Kashmir Imperial State Forces lived. Maharaja Partap Singh wanted to keep the Prince of Wales in Satwari House during the imperial visit to Jammu on 9 and 10 December 1905. But Maj Gastrell refused to shift to a lower standard house. To satisfy him, Maharaja Partap Singh had identical Bungalow (Topi Bangla) constructed as residence of Inspecting Officer. The Bungalow was ready by mid 1905 but Maj Gastrell got transferred before he could shift to this house. The boundaries of the Bungalow extended far and wide upto River Tawi bank on its right and the main road near Jhurmuth to its rear. The Presentation Convent, the Div Headquarters, the Officers Mess, the Women College Gandhinagar and Jai Durge officers colony, behind the Convent School, was all part of Topi Bangla. (Jammu-Sialkot Rail Line passed over the Highway infront of the Convent School which was the rear boundary). Various GOC’s donated the army land to various institutions like Presentation Convent so that Fauji Children could get good education, the state govt for warehouse and Women College etc for similar reasons. Maj Gen Yadunath Singh, MVC gave away Topi Bangla land for the married officers Complex. Being a devotee of Goddess Durge, he named the married officers complex as ‘Jai Durge Complex’ popularly known as JD Complex. He also changed the name of Topi Bangla to ‘Jai Durge House’ during his stay in the building from 1950 to 1953. But the name didn’t carry on further. It continued to be Topi Bangla after the General Officer left. As a result the area of the Bungalow shrunk considerably over the period. As per the MES records, area of the Topi Bangla presently is 3.883 hectares.
The first occupant of the Bungalow was Capt J W Hugge, who had replaced Maj Gastrell as Inspecting Officer. The only officer from Jammu and Kashmir State Forces to have occupied Topi Bangla was Brig Khuda Baksh for a shortwhile after which Maharaja’s Revenue Minister stayed in it till 1947. From 1947 to 1949, Brig D Billimoria of the Indian Army is believed to have stayed in the Topi Bangla, after which it became the official residence of GOC Tiger Division. As per the old MES records, Topi Bangla was called Valley House and the Usman Officers Institute, was called Fair View House. Topi Bangla was called Valley House because this traditionally designed building is based on the typical architecture layout of various houses built in the Kashmir Valley those days, largely of wood with slopping roofs, with a distinct Scottish influence and style. These two Bungalows, infront of each other had an aura of great dignity attached to them and were envy of state forces officers then and the army officers now.
As India broke from the clutches of colonial rule, Topi Bangla also underwent stupendous changes. Everything in the house speaks about the personality of its past and present occupants. Every incumbent has left his and her mark on this house. Among those who had been the occupants of this monumental building include, Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw, Gen P Kumarmanglam and Gen K V Krishna Rao (Governor of J&K during nineties). Every plant and tree of the house has a story of its own. (A pair of sprawling Palm trees in the lawn are called Raja and Rani and have a story of their own. They are said to be planted by the Prince and the Princess of Wales during their stay in Topi Bangla, the story which regrettably I can’t authenticate). Topi Bangla was subjected to large modifications in 1977-78. It didn’t have a porch without which it looked too squat. The porch was constructed in 1978 and its kitchen was also modified.
The ‘Weather Cock’ at the roof top is also the addition of that period. ADC’s Hut, near the Bungalow was constructed during Field Marshal Manekshaw’s time as GOC of the Division, initially as a Basha. Capt Majumdar, the ADC of the Maj Gen Sam Manekshaw, was its first occupant. In Nov 81, it was demolished to make room for the construction of Tiger Lodge, the present VIP guest house. The present ADC’s Hut, much closer to the Bungalow is now a beautiful and spacious hut with two bed rooms, a sitting room and a kitchenette. It was constructed by 111 Engineer Regiment in March 1982. The first occupant of this hut was Capt DK Bansal, ADC to Maj Gen Karam Singh. It is a perfect heaven for the honeymooning couples. During my tenure in the Div HQs in nineties, Capt Kannan Santharaman and his pretty wife Malini added charm to the lovely ADC Cottage. They were blessed with a son in this hut. During Gen Karam Singh’s time a ‘Gaon Burah Hut’ was constructed in the Flag Staff House as separate guest room to cater for personal guests. (Tiger Lodge is the most prestigious guest house of the formation. Its Green Room and Red Room are the prestigious guest rooms of the Tiger Division. Prime Minister Narsimha Rao’s daughter & son-in-law and MoS Defence Mr Malik Arjun stayed in these rooms overnight during their visit to Mata Vaishno in August 1992). In 1993, I escorted Maj Gen Rustom Nanavatty, later Army Commander Northern Command, to Topi Bangla for meeting the GOC. While returning Gen Nanavatty said, “If my wife sees this Flag Staff House, she may desert me because I commanded the Brigade in Siachen and now commanding the Div in militancy ridden Baramula and she is staying in a separated accommodation”). I told him that when Ma’am lives in 4 Rajaji Marg, she will have no regrets. (4 Rajaji Marg is Army Chief’s House). Such is the enchanting impact of Topi Bangla on the visitors which qualifies my mention that it was an envy of state forces officers and now the Indian Army Officers. I mentioned it to Mrs Nanavatty when she came to Udhampur as first lady and told her that Tara Mount Flag Staff House, Maharani Tara Devi’s Palace, was as historical as Topi Bangla.
Army holds annual garden and flower show in the Topi Bangla which has been offering a visual treat of nature’s bounty to the occupants, the organisers and the visitors. Topi Bangla holds the prestigious distinction of winning the state flower show competition whenever organized by state Horticulture Department. From exotic flowers to humble balsam blossom in the sprawling lawns of Topi Bangla. They vie attention of visitors. Later the prizes are distributed among the winners and the event ends with military band concert and high tea. Having borne testimony to over a century history, Topi Bangla today stands tall in Jammu as a heritage building.