Colonial echoes in old Calcutta
Traces of the Raj accompany a stroll through India's former capital
Saturday 16 March 2013
Walking through Kolkata with its dust-filled air, open sewers and cacophony of car horns, it's hard to believe that just over a century ago this was still the "second city" of the British Empire and the capital of India until 1911.
The East India Company established a colony at the heart of old Kolkata in the late 17th century. The British ruled here through perceived might rather than numbers of administrators, so it was important that their buildings be large, imposing and regal with lots of sculptured swords, shields and rampant lions.
A good place to begin a colonial heritage walk is outside the magnificent neo-Gothic red and cream Calcutta High Court (3 Esplanade Row West) built in 1872 as a replica of the Cloth Hall (Lakenhalle) in Ypres.
Cross Old Post Office Street and continue walking east. On your left you'll pass the Town Hall (4 Esplanade Row West), fronted by six white Doric columns, and then the massive bulk of the Treasury Building (2 Government Place West). Outside you'll come across street traders keen to fill your stomach, mend your umbrella, or bring you good health and fortune by strapping medicinal herbs to your forearm.
Across Council House Street are the gates to Raj Bhavan (Government Place), the former Government House, built at great expense in 1803 on the orders of Governor-General Lord Wellesley. Modelled on Kedleston Hall in Derbyshire, it is Kolkata's best example of colonial architecture, but Wellesley had his knuckles rapped by London for wasting East India Company money on it and he was called home in 1805. (The best view of the building is from the North Gate.)
Walk north along the front of the Treasury Building and you arrive at KS Ray Road. On the opposite corner is the entrance to St John's Church (2/1 Council House Street), an imitation of London's St Martin-in-the-Fields completed in 1787. The churchyard feels like a bit of old Britain with a few stray dogs added.
The room to the immediate right of the church's front door, hung with portraits of former ministers and political dignitaries, was originally the council chamber of the East India Company. The walls of the nave are studded with memorial plaques to the good and great. Even Johann Zoffany's painting of The Last Supper, restored in 2010, has disciples with faces modelled on colonial movers and shakers.
In the churchyard stands a white Moorish-style mausoleum containing the remains of Job Charnock, the British East India Company trader whose arrival in 1690 led to the foundation of Calcutta, and a memorial bearing the names of the 123 victims of the so-called Black Hole of Calcutta, a small dungeon at Fort William that held British prisoners of war.
After leaving the church, walk two blocks along Council House Street to BBD Bagh (formerly Dalhousie Square). On the far side of the square stands the redbrick Writers' Building (1 BBD Bagh), headquarters of the East India Company from 1777, named in honour of the scribes who kept the ledgers. On the opposite corner is the GPO building, built on the site of the original Fort William. An inlaid brass rail on the steps marks the outline of the south-east corner of the fort that contained the infamous Black Hole. Cross Netaji Subhash Road and walk along the front of the Writers' Building and you'll see the spire of St Andrew's Kirk (15 BBD Bagh North) built in 1818 for the Scottish community. Allegedly its weather vane was added to make the spire taller than neighbouring St John's. As my guide commented: "British rivalry carried on around the globe."
Take a right on Old Court House Street and walk two blocks to Waterloo Street. Take a left on this street and carry on to Bentinck Street where you take a right going south to the main thoroughfare of Chowringhee Road (also known as JL Nehru Road). On the left hand side of the fifth block down stands the Oberoi Grand (15 Chowringhee Road), a 19th-century hotel that's managed to maintain its premier standing. Pass through its security gates and you're immediately a world away from the bustle and noise outside. Have a lunchtime snack in La Terrasse or a cool drink in the Chowringhee Bar beneath gently beating ceiling fans.
Head back down Chowringhee. Turn left on Sudder Street to reach the city's backpacker hub. Here you'll find the Fairlawn Hotel (13a Sudder Street), a wonderfully eccentric remnant of the last days of the Raj. Still run by 92-year-old Violet Smith who opened it in 1938 with her ex-army husband, it's adorned with museum-like quantities of framed photographs, press cuttings, potted plants, brass plates, vases, flowers and pieces of pottery.
Go back to Chowringhee and carry on walking down until you reach Park Street. This is Kolkata's most fashionable thoroughfare. On the left is the well-stocked Oxford Book Store (17 Park Street), established in 1932, which has a café and frequent author events. Over the road is Flurys (18 Park Street), an Art Deco tearoom that opened in 1927 and is best known for its fine selection of cakes, pastries and confectionery.
Park Street turns into Mother Teresa Sarani and 800 yards along you arrive at Park Street Cemetery, opened in 1767. Walter Dickens, son of Charles, is here, as is Richard Thackeray, father of William Makepeace. The tombs of the British bigwigs of the 18th and 19th centuries were ludicrously large and self-important but are now somewhat diminished by moss, discolouration and erosion. It's a fitting end to a colonial walk and a sombre reminder of the final destination of all power, and all empires.
There was a lot of local excitement in August when celebrated Indian fashion designer Rohit Bal, who is based in Delhi, opened his Veda restaurant at 57A Park Mansions on Park Street (00 91 33 2229 9999; vedarestaurants.com). Specialising in North-west Frontier and Mughlai cuisine, it has an extensive vegetarian and non-vegetarian menu, but also offers a unique dining experience amid low-intensity chandeliers, backlit mirrors and red brick walls. Despite the luxury it's cheap by UK standards – R1,500 (£18.50) for two excluding wine.
Steve Turner flew to Mumbai from Heathrow with Virgin Atlantic (0844 209 7777; virgin-atlantic.com) and travelled with Greaves (020-7487 9111; greavesindia.co.uk), which offers trips from £1,650pp with flights, transfers, four nights' B&B at the Oberoi Grand Kolkata and two nights at the Oberoi New Delhi.
There are no direct flights between the UK and Kolkata. Qatar Airways (0844 846 8380; qatarairways.com) flies from Heathrow and Manchester via Doha, and Emirates (0844 800 2777; emirates.com) flies from a range of UK airports via Dubai. Jet Airways (0808 101 1199; jetairways.com) flies from Heathrow via Mumbai; BA (0844 493 0787; ba.com) flies from Heathrow, connecting to Air India in Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, or Hyderabad.
The Oberoi Grand Hotel (00 91 33 2249 2323; oberoihotels.com) is in the Old Colonial area near Park Street, with tranquil double rooms from R11,155 (£137), room only.
Vikas Mehra can be contacted at (00 91 98 3047 6872; email firstname.lastname@example.org).
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