Clock Tower Blog

Time Stands Tall

Stroll across any historic city, you will stumble upon a tall structure that stands in the middle of a plaza or at the cross-section of its important routes. This erected structure with a turret was fixed with a bell that would strike to tell the time to the residents. In ancient times, people relied on sun-direction; sun dials around the religious institutes to decipher the time during the day. From city to city, town to town, the time differed.

By 5th century, sound became a prominent way to tell time. Campaniles first appeared in Europe from the 5th century onward, and used bells to mark time to the rest of the town or city. Bell towers really took off in the 10th century onward. Famous examples of bell towers include the leaning tower of Pisa and the tower in St Mark’s Square, Venice. Minarets served a similar audible function from the 9th century onward, calling people to prayers, and providing a strong visual marker for a place of worship. Towers like these worked well enough for most people in the UK, until the huge population boom and technological leap forward of the Victorian era. Across the world, the cities that were established in 15th-16th century either had a bell tower or an arrangement of sun dial around a public square or public institute that helped its citizen with the knowledge of time. (Churcher, 2021)

With the availability of large size clocks by the 15th century, Bell Towers of mediaeval times were replaced by Clock Towers. The two hands of a clock replaced the bell clapper hanging inside the sound bow. The pendulum, discovered by Galileo in the 16th century, was used in clocks 75 years later to create bell-like sound. Whatever the weather conditions, a clock functioned by itself. The clock didn’t need a window to be opened and a cord to be pulled by a person. (Arora, 2023)

With the advent of modern clock, these bell towers were mounted with clocks on the faces and became a fascinating icon in the city. These were the striking clocks that would use both the idea of sound and sight to tell the time. Adorned in various architectural styles like Romanesque, Gothic and Victorian, these towers became a cultural landmark in the city. Not only were they utilitarian, but they acted as an icon and an identity marker for the city and its people.

The clock-towers had a great impact on the urban morphology of these medieval cities. The urban fabric around these clock-towers was diverse and because of their central presence, they attracted a large population for social, cultural, political and economic interactions within their setting. In India, Jodhpur is a classic example of the same phenomena where the clock-tower or ‘Ghantaghar’ as they are called in the local language, became a very important landmark in the city. Built in 1800s, its presence led to the formation of the city’s most prominent market space called Sardar Girdikot market named after the patron of the clock-tower; Maharaja Sardar Singh. Till date, it serves as the most important wholesale market in the city and the clock-tower itself has become the most sought after tourist destination.

According to historians, it was the first Mughal emperor Babur who employed people to tell the time to the public. In his memoir Baburnama, the following is written “…the town people here employ a timekeeper called ghariyalli, who sounds a large brass plate bell hanging at a high place in the centre of the town to mark each pahar of the day. A day and night have four pahars each. The ghariyallis used a water timepiece, a clepsydra, to measure and announce a ghari.”

However, it was only in 1870s that a clocktower was erected in heart of Shahjahanabad, much before the capital was shifted from Calcutta to Delhi by the British. It was since 18th century that clock-towers or Ghantaghar flourished across the landscape in India. The unavailability of mechanical clock was a major push to establish the clock-tower for public. The emperors, nobles, social leaders & prominent merchants became the patrons for the clock-towers and named it after them or their family or enterprise. It garnered these patrons larger visibility in the society and brought fame; fostering their identity within the city in tangible and intangible form.

Perfection in motion devices, mass production of clocks and their easy maintenance helped promote the cause of building more and more clock towers or simply installing clocks on the highest point of an existing structure. The Industrial Revolution in the 18th century made good use of these time-keeping devices in motivating the workforce to report to the factories in time.

In three decades from 1870 to 1900, majority of the Indian cities had clock-towers as an important identity marker. The presence of the public clocks asserted a larger social and cultural phenomenon in the city; reflecting the imagery of its local patrons and the European colonial power. The architecture of these clock-towers was an eclectic mix of local architectural styles and the style bought in by the colonial planners and architects, as seen in the public buildings undertaken by them. One of the earliest and architecturally remarkable clock-tower was constructed in the heart of Chandni Chowk. It was built in 1870 facing yet another iconic building, the Town Hall. The clock-tower was delicately sculpted and was reflective of the Romanesque and Renaissance style with adapted features from the Islamic and Mughal architecture. With pointed arches, spires and fluted pillars, it became one of the most revered landmarks in the ever simmering cultural pot of Shahjahanabad, adding much to the glory of old Delhi. The clock-tower however was completely demolished in 1955 after a part of it was damaged in a mild earthquake in 1950. Over the years, many such clock-towers were established. Hussainabad clocktower in Lucknow (1881), Secundrabad Clock Tower in Secundrabad (1860), Mahboob Mahal Chowk clock tower in Charminar, Hyderabad, Ghantaghar in Udaipur (1887) amongst other are some of the earliest clock-towers that surfaced and majorly commissioned by their erstwhile rulers to establish their dominance in their respective region; after the failure of the 1857 revolution of freedom. Kolkata is home to the most number of clock-towers built across the centuries, with the most recent one in 2015. These clock-towers are testament to the rich cultural & political history, serving the narratives of how Calcutta grew to become the most sought after city for the British, its large mercantile communities (who were the patrons to these clock-towers) and their sprawling trade, the shift of the administrative seat and eventually its transition from Calcutta to Kolkata.

The story of clock-towers in India will be less exciting if it were not for the clock-towers of Bombay. In the maximum city, where anyone to everyone has no time, the presence of clock-towers is juxtaposition. The clock-towers offer a glimpse into the city’s vibrant history and architectural heritage; serving as the time keepers and chroniclers of the past. With her evolution from seven islands to a burgeoning economic powerhouse, these clock-towers became the most accessible public institutions for masses. Each of the clock-tower has a story to narrate and every community in Mumbai considers them as a part of their being in the city as it is testament to their struggles, growth, decline and survival with the times.

The most remarkable of all is the Rajabai Clock Tower adorning the entrance of the University of Mumbai. Dedicated to blind mother so that she has the knowledge of time, a son commissioned this massive structure; that has survived to become one of the most valued heritages in the city. It once played God Save The King and a Handel Symphony with 16 tunes that kept changing four times a day but now it is limited to chimes every quarter of an hour. The iconic 280-feet tall structure, once visible from distance of 15 km, entered the 140th year of its existence in November. It has seen the reclamation of land beyond the present Oval Maidan, which pushed back the Arabian Sea by nearly 200 metres. Access to the top, which offered a panoramic view of Bombay, was stopped a few decades ago after it became a suicide point. (Najmi, 2017)

The other famous clock towers can be seen at Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus (CSMT), Naval Dockyard, David Sassoon at Byculla Zoo, Crawford Market, St. Thomas Cathedral, BH Wadia in Fort, David Sassoon Library, Life Insurance Building Churchgate, the Khoja Shia Imami Ismaili Jamatkhana gifted by the Moloo Brothers of Zanzibar; seemingly in good condition. Not all of the clock towers are functional; Time Ball Building clock tower in the Mumbai Port Trust, another at Sasoon Docks Gate in Colaba, Lakshmi Insurance Building in Fort, Fulchand Nivas Building at Chowpatty, Mhatre Pen Building and Vijaynagar Building, both in Dadar amongst 88 in all.

These 88 clock-towers have a story to tell. Who build them? Who commissioned their construction? What was their role in making of a metropolis? Who are the communities that associated with these clock towers? How they continue to survive in the changing historic landscape? What future holds for them in the city? Why they need to be safeguard to protect our history?

This series of blog intends to look at the clock towers as urban historic landmarks and their importance in the city of Mumbai. It will investigate how these clock towers came into existence and became extremely important landmarks for the communities in Mumbai. Through heritage-centric approach to create resilient and equitable systems that integrate both development and historic ensembles, it will look forward to bring out the narratives of the clock towers, their condition & association with the community and masses and a way forward to safeguard them as a part of our identity.


Churcher Connie, 2021, Telling time: The rise of the clock tower, Horniman Museum & Garden, 21 February 2021

Arora Rajinder, 2023, India’s Clock Towers Tell More Than the Time. They Tell a Story, The Wire, 23 April 2023

Quaid Nazmi, 2017, Mumbai’s Clock Tower – Witnesses to History, The WEEK, 14 November 2017

GIS Postcards Clock Towers: Click Here