It is not until the Raj had arrived that Indian city landscapes began to be marked by these inescapable monumental architectural features which struck at regular intervals to announce the citizens the passage of time. No doubt they were also stylistic elements of the Colonial architecture and symbols of the power of the Raj. Though now we have ceased looking up the clock tower for ‘time’ in this digital and electronic era, since we have our own personal clocks strapped across our wrists, the clock towers loom significantly in the backgrounds as an artefact of a past and a birth of a concept of time. This very idea of time-the linear concept of time, has transcended much beyond its arrival in our context and has now assimilated unquestioned into our systems. And its sublime symbol- the clock towers through its physicality, its history tell us a story its time.
What is this time? And why is this need for the human to track time, from the time immemorial starting from tracking the sun at different times of the day to ancient scientists inventing the sundial to the clocks of today have been developed to keep time with accuracy? Is it to understand and tame the abstraction of our own existences, which is so intertwined with time? And aren’t these questions the birth of sciences, history and philosophy? And also religions-where each are trying to give their answers through their distinct mythologies, doctrines and philosophies.
Right from burning of incense sticks and candles which were, and are, commonly used to measure time in temples and churches; the intelligence of the inventions of various instruments used to measure time has been astounding. The hourglass, waterclocks and later, mechanical clocks used to mark the events of the abbeys and monasteries of the Middle Ages-are just to name few. It is only an urgency to document/understand time and acute observations that gave birth to inventions such the ancient zodiac astronomical calendar to Einstein’s theory of relativity. The clock tower, however, had a functional birth in the Biblical region when the passage of the hours was marked by bells in the abbeys as well as at sea. It is the etymology of the word clock also.
The English word clock probably comes from the Middle Dutch word "klocke" which is in turn derived from the mediaeval Latin word "clocca", which is ultimately derived from Celtic, and is cognate with French, Latin, and German words that mean bell.
Before the middle of the twentieth century, most people did not have watches, and prior to the 18th century even home clocks were rare. The first clocks didn't have faces, but were solely striking clocks, which sounded bells to call the surrounding community to prayer. They were therefore placed in towers so the bells would be audible for a long distance. Clock towers were placed near the centres of towns and were often the tallest structures there. As clock towers became more common, the designers realized that a dial on the outside of the tower would allow the townspeople to read the time whenever they wanted. And it is with the arrival of the Raj this new philosophy and religion of the clock tower came to India.
Colonialism brought with it the concept of linear time. And most of us now are accustomed to living life according to this linear beliefs and patterns of existence. We believe everything has a beginning, middle and an end. But Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism –the dominant religious schools of Indian sub-continent, had little to do with the linear nature of history, the linear concept of time or the linear pattern of life.
The passage of 'linear' time has brought us where we are today. But Hinduism views time from a cosmic perspective to. There exists the divine time of the Gods and the illusionary time of the mortals. Also, it believes the process of creation moves in cycles consisting of the yugas. And since this process is cyclical, it is never ending. Creation begins when God makes his energies active and ends when he withdraws all his energies into a state of inactivity. Time kal is thus a manifestation of God. God is timeless, for time is relative and ceases to exist in the Absolute -as the past, the present and the future coexist simultaneously. The cycle of time, Kalachakra, creates the divisions and movements of life and sustain the worlds in periodic time frames. God also uses time to create the 'illusions' of life and death-which is nothing but a gateway to the next cycle, birth. This is true of the universe itself and parallel to the cyclic patterns in the rhythms of nature. The Rita, Ritu, Chandramasams and the nazhikas-vinayikas are the measurements of time.
This was the philosophical context in which the mechanical clock towers were planted. These power symbols of industrialisation- also were alien to a culture where occupation and knowledge systems were more ghetto based, when the apprentice had to report at his master’s workshop at sunrise and not at ‘Aath bajje’ i.e. when the clock strikes eight. New systems of education, new occupations, etc. dictated the importance of the clock tower. The shifts in language of the clock tower from its colonial origins to being amalgamated in vernacular architecture, as a sign of modernity, are interesting to note. These shifts are not only a case of architectural study, but it is the study of history of colonialism and its assimilation and impact on ideology of the sub-continent.
The clock towers stand in new meanings and new contexts as an artefact of a past and a birth of a concept of time.