Just five months before independence I was appointed Senior Architect in the Bengal PWD. My first assignment was the prestigious and extremely challenging one of designing a memorial for Gandhiji – only a few weeks after his assassination – on the banks of the Hooghly, near Calcutta, where his ashes were immersed. The brief was very sketchy and vague. The memorial had to be elegant and modest, reflecting the personality and philosophy of the Mahatma, with a bathing ghat attached to it. There was a budgetary limit of five lakh rupees and the deadline stipulated was January 30, 1949, Gandhiji's first death anniversary.

Jawaharlal Nehru at the opening, Gandhi Ghat, January 15, 1949
Jawaharlal Nehru at the opening, Gandhi Ghat, January 15, 1949 © Habib Rahman

This was the first structure to be built as a memorial to the Father of the Nation. I had no contemporary example of such a structure to draw inspiration from, and no one available to guide me. However, Gandhiji's respect and love for all religions inspired me to conceive a structure that harmoniously and aesthetically reflected and symbolised the three main religions in India – Hinduism, Islam and Christianity. The result was a tower – a simplified profile of a temple shikhara, capped with an islamic dome. A horizontal cantilevered slab projecting from both sides appeared in silhouette somewhat like a cross.

Happily the first model was approved by the cabinet. The 40 ft cantilever was too difficult for the departmental engineers to design, but a brilliant bridge engineer came to our rescue. In spite of various foundation problems, the structure – called Gandhi Ghat – was completed well before the first anniversary and was opened by Panditji on January 15, 1949. It was one of the most memorable events of my life when Panditji shook my hand saying 'I congratulate you on your magnificent conception'. Six years later, I received the Padma Shri for this design.