Kolkata Stories and Tips

A Note on Colonial Calcutta

A street in Kolkata Photo, Kolkata, India

As the fungus sprouts chaotic from its bed
So it spread—
Chance-directed, chance-erected, laid and built
On the silt—
Palace, byre, hovel—
poverty and pride—
Side by side;
—Rudyard Kipling, A Tale of Two Cities.

This gloomy picture was supposed to be of Calcutta; Kipling obviously didn’t like the city much. Well, I don’t like Kipling much, because Kolkata—chance-directed and chance-erected and whatever else, is still a city of indescribable charm. A major part of that charm comes from its very vivid and vibrant colonial influence.

Just about every Indian history buff knows that Calcutta owes its existence to an East India man called Job Charnock. Charnock arrived in the vicinity—strictly speaking, in Kasimbazar—in 1656 or so, where he was appointed a Junior Member of the Council. By the end of the century, Charnock had worked his way up to become an important cog in the wheel that was the East India Company in Bengal; he had also become highly conversant with local customs and the language—he had even acquired a native wife. When struggles broke between the East India Company and the native rulers of the area (as well as the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb, far away in Delhi), Charnock played a significant role in the negotiations and the to-ing and fro-ing that ensued. In 1698, thanks mainly to the efforts of Charnock, the East India Company acquired three villages on the bank of the Hooghly river; this was where, the following year, the Calcutta Presidency was established.

The 1700’s were critical years for the East India Company—the Battles of Plassey and Buxar brought them significant victories, and in 1772 Calcutta became the capital of British India. The first Governor General, Warren Hastings, arrived in Calcutta, and over the following years, the city grew by leaps and bounds. Calcutta University was established in what was to be a fateful year for India (1857), 3 years after India’s first railway line (Calcutta to Hooghly) was launched. By 1873, Calcutta had horse-drawn trams; by 1896, the first motor cars. It was a spiffy capital, smart and bustling, no matter what Kipling had to say about it.

Calcutta’s status as national capital was lost to Delhi in 1911, but the city has remained the state capital of West Bengal. It’s a little less fashionable now—even the swinging night clubs my mother remembers from the 60’s are gone—but the edifices remain, and a lot of them are great sights to see if you’re keen on history.

Kolkata is what the city is officially called now; the original pronunciation in Bengali is anyway ‘Kolkata’. Old Anglicised Calcuttans often still refer to the city affectionately as Cal. Well, Cal has quaint old houses with semi-circular arches, shuttered windows, pediments and wrought iron balconies all over the place. There’s no end of colonial buildings here—but the majority, especially the homes of middle-class Calcuttans—are sadly dilapidated, with peeling plaster, patches of black mould, and (sometimes) ‘renovations’ that consist of hideous and incongruous modernisation. Walk down the streets in Ballygunge, Alipore and Chowringhee, by all means—but do take time out to see the better-known sights: St Paul’s (the Anglican cathedral), St John’s (the first Anglican church in Calcutta—it preceded St Paul’s as the cathedral), the Victoria Memorial, the Indian Museum and the Marble Palace. Sights like the Calcutta Mint, La Martiniere’s (the Boys’ School and the Girls’ School), Loreto House, the Calcutta Club and the Bengal Club (the latter very cosy and clubby in an old-world way) are among the other great colonial buildings, though not too many tourists are able to enter. We managed to see the two clubs simply because we had friends who were members and took us there for drinks. Fort William, which has a number of delightfully tantalising historic buildings, is occupied by the Indian Army and is off-limits to just about everyone, even Indian civilians.

The main district for impressive and well-maintained (at least on the outside) colonial buildings is in the area around what used to be called Dalhousie Square—it’s now officially BBD Bagh. This is the heart of governmental Kolkata, where the offices of the judiciary, the administration, and public services ranging from post offices to nationalised banks and governmental insurance companies are concentrated. Many of the buildings are awesome, but beware: do not take photographs. You could get into serious trouble if you do, because the police tend to be very suspicious and regard anyone taking photographs as a potential terrorist.

Some of the buildings around Dalhousie Square that are must-sees, though most of these can only be seen on the outside:

1. Writers’ Building: Named after the clerks and scriveners who originally worked here, doing all the paperwork for the administration. This is a massive structure, all red and white and ornate, that now houses the ministries of the Government of West Bengal. Don’t even think of loitering here, not even on the pavement opposite.

2. The Calcutta High Court: Another stunner of a building, also in red, with a tall clock tower flanked by rows of arched corridors. Very striking. The building was modelled exactly on the Stadt Haus (the Cloth House) in Ypres, so much so that when the Ypres Stadt Haus was bombed out of existence during WWII, this was used as a reference to rebuild it after the war. Again, not a building you can enter, unless you’re part of the legal profession (or, I guess, have to appear in court).

3. The General Post Office: Not very pretty on the outside, though it is a colonial building. Fortunately for visitors, this is open to the public, and the vast rotunda on the inside—recently renovated—is worth a look. The street on which the GPO stands is the one place I could get some niceish photos, by the way: the colonial buildings around are mainly occupied by private or semi-governmental organisations that couldn’t care less if you took pictures of their office blocks.

4. Raj Bhavan (Government House): The official residence of the Governor of West Bengal, though it was built in 1803 as the residence of the Governor General of India—the first man to occupy the building being Lord Wellesley. It’s modelled after Kedleston Hall in Derbyshire, the ancestral home of the Marquess of Curzon (one of whom later became Viceroy of India and ended up living at Raj Bhavan!)

5. Metcalfe Hall: Off near the Strand (the road which runs along the bank of the Hooghly River), this is all high white columns and has a very Greek feel to it all. We didn’t have the time to explore Metcalfe Hall, but I’m sure visitors are allowed in—the building houses the Archaeological Survey of India’s exhibition galleries and sales counters, besides some sections used by the Asiatic Society to store its rare manuscripts.

6. Reserve Bank of India: No, you can’t enter this one, either, and you can’t take photos. But it’s an attractive building and worth a look, in the almost-trademark pale yellow-and-red colour scheme of Kolkata’s government buildings.

6. Police Headquarters: Again, regulation red building, with tastefully done creamy-white highlights on the windows, ventilators, etc. I wouldn’t suggest biffing a policeman in an attempt to get arrested and take a peek at the inside of the building—government offices in most of India tend to be filthy.

7. Shaheed Minar: Like dozens of other monuments in India that were originally meant to commemorate those who helped the British set up their empire in India, this one started off as a memorial to Sir David Ochterlony. It’s a prominent white tower, a sort of chunky obelisk topped off with a double storey of balconies. The tower’s now been dedicated to Indian martyrs (shaheed means ‘martyr’). It stands south of Dalhousie Square, in the stretch known as the Maidan.

Been to this destination?

Share Your Story or Tip