Calcutta: The Road To Hope And Glory

Calcutta's greatest days went the way of the Raj. But could urban renewal on a large scale lure a new generation of tourists, asks Mark Rowe
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The Independent Travel

Once upon a time Calcutta was the second city of the British Empire. Today, this perspiring, vibrant and cacophonous conurbation is the capital of West Bengal and one of India's four great urban centres. But the city has an image problem. Kipling didn't help, dismissing the place as the "city of the dreadful night". And its slums have been the embodiment of the words Third World poverty.

But all this may be finally changing. Calcutta is undergoing a facelift. Regeneration is gathering pace, and the key tool is the restoration of the city's extraordinary legacy of Raj-era buildings, and the increase in business and tourism that this should stimulate.

Tourists have generally viewed Calcutta as somewhere to pass through en route to Darjeeling and the Himalayas; now they are beginning to linger longer here and view the city's attractions as destinations in their own right.

The greatest structures include the Victoria Memorial, located at the southern end of the great expanse of parkland known as the Maidan. Described by Philip Davies, planning and development director of English Heritage, as "the British Taj", this building had the fifth largest dome in the world when it was completed in 1921. Elsewhere, you will find the octagonal Fort William, near the river beside the Eden Gardens cricket stadium. Now the headquarters of India's Eastern Command, the fort was built in 1781 and named for William III. It remains one of the biggest fortifications in Asia. Or take a stroll past the Government House on the north edge of the Maidan. Built in the style of Kedleston Hall in Derbyshire, this was the residence of the governor-general until 1911.

These and other buildings have had facelifts to a greater or lesser degree, but they remain under pressure from a combination of a lack of hard cash and an unforgiving climate. Benign neglect has compounded the problem, while Calcutta's dramatic growth also means that some 18th- and 19th-century villas have simply become embedded in the city's bazaars.

A long-term project to regenerate colonial monuments is the consequence of what initially would seem to be a slightly improbable collaboration between the city's Marxist government, the Archaeological Survey of India, English Heritage and other British bodies.

"What happened to these buildings in India in the 1970s and 1980s was no different to what happened in the UK," said Philip. "People didn't particularly value their heritage."

The project has already had a dramatic impact. The London Rivers Association helped to guide the restoration of the waterfront Millennium Park project around the Hooghly River. The park runs from just south of the Howrah Bridge and has transformed dilapidated warehouses into tree-lined walkways, an open-air theatre, fountains and a lotus pool.

As evidence of the distance that India has put between itself and British subjugation, Calcutta's municipal commissioner is considering bringing back those Raj-era statues from the outskirts of the city - to which, post-independence, they were consigned - to be the focal point of a heritage park.

Other plans remain on the drawing board. One scheme would link the river to the heart of the city around Dalhousie Square (now called BBD Bagh) and rejuvenate a quartet of magnificent old riverside warehouses. Another would see the restoration of the Old Silver Mint on Strand Road, thought to be Calcutta's oldest street, just north of the Howrah bridge. The mint is a Greek revival temple, a rendition of the temple of Minerva of Athens and opened in 1829, producing coins with coining presses supplied from Birmingham. Today, its temple-like façade is hidden behind the rows of artisan workshops.

Other Raj-era sights abound. The neo-Gothic High Court in Old Post Office Street is one of the oldest buildings in India, constructed in 1872 by Walter Granville, the then architect to the government of India.

Some of the strongest remnants and overtones of the East India Company can be found at BBD Bagh, including the GPO - the site of the Black Hole of Calcutta incident - and the Writers' Building. The latter dates to 1780 - the writers were the clerks of the East India Company, sent east to make the empire's fortune, and has a magnificent Corinthian façade. St John's church, close to the GPO, 1787, includes a painting of the Last Supper in which Calcuttans are depicted as the apostles.

At New Market, formally Sir Stuart Hogg Market, just off the Esplanade at Chowringhee Road, look out for a delightful Gothic redbrick clock tower, while nearby stands the Shahid Minar Martyr's Memorial, built in 1828 as the Ochterlony Monument in memory of David Ochterlony, who led the British victory over the Nepalese in 1816.

Calcutta's politicians are considering plans to apply for Unesco listing for the city as a World Heritage Site. If and when that time comes, the phrase "urban renaissance" may well become attached to Calcutta - and bring with it an overdue tourism boom.

THE COMPACT GUIDE

HOW TO GET THERE:

British Airways (0870 850 9850; ba.com) and Air India (020-8495 7950; airindia.com)offer return flights to Calcutta from £420 return. . Stay at the Fairlawn Hotel. (See 24 Hours for details.)

FURTHER INFORMATION:

India Tourism (020-7437 3677; incredibleindia.org).

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