The impossibly over-the-top Victoria Memorial sits at the Southern End of the Maidan.
The second part of my virtual tour of European, or “White” Town, Calcutta, has the armchair traveller exploring the two most fashionable thoroughfares in Calcutta – Chowringhee Road (today’s Jawaharlal Nehru Road), which was the centre of the city’s cultural and entertainment scene; and Park Street, which, then and today, is still the most exclusive residential address in downtown Calcutta.
Our tour takes us south along the eastern flank of the Maidan – a vast open field that is home to various recreational sports such as cricket, football and hockey. The equivalent of the Esplanade (or Padang) in Singapore, but much, much larger, the Maidan is the green lung of the city, fronting the Hooghly River waterfront on its Eastern end, and providing a view of the Calcutta skyline on its Western flank. To the north sits Government House and a few other monuments; to the south, the opulent Victoria Memorial, which caps off our visit in White Town.
We start our tour at the legendary Great Eastern Hotel on Hemanta Basu Sarani, formerly Old Court House Street. Heading down Meredith Street on the right side of the Hotel, we walk past The Times of India and reach Bentinck Street. Turn right down Bentinck Street and soon it becomes Chowringhee – home to many of the city’s major cultural and hotel establishments.
The Great Eastern Hotel began operations in 1840, and is perhaps the oldest hotel establishment in Calcutta; and gave the Grand Hotel on Chowringhee a run for its money in its time. It took its present name in 1866.
The Times of India Building, completed in the early 1900s, with its distinctive twin domes.
Tipu Sultan’s Shahi Mosque signals the start of Chowringhee Road proper. It was erected by his son Prince Ghulam Muhammed in 1842 in an eclectic Indo-Saracenic style.
Around the corner sits Sacred Heart Church, serving the city’s Catholic congregation. It was completed in 1834
The Art Deco Metro Cinema (1932) was once perhaps the most fashionable spot in the city. Today, it has fallen into disuse.
The imposing Metropolitan Building (1900s) sits at a huge traffic intersection at the northwest corner of the Maidan.
Across from it, on the Maidan, is the Ochterlony Monument, known today as the Shahid Minar. It was erected in 1828 to commemorate Sir David Ochterlony. It was also designed in an eclectic Indo-Saracenic style.
The vast Maidan is the green lung of the city and is home to many of the city’s sporting and recreation clubs – cricket, hockey, equestrian and football.
The Municipal Corporation of Calcutta was built in 1905 and sits just off Chowringhee Road, around the corner from the Oberoi Grand
A stone’s throw away is the Sir Stuart Hogg Market, or New Market. This is Calcutta’s main market, built in 1874.
The Grand Hotel (today’s Oberoi Grand Hotel) is the undisputed grande dame of Calcutta, playing host to royalty, celebrities and high society then and today. It was opened in the early 1900s by Armenian, Arathoon Stephens.
Nearby sits another quaint old dame of Calcutta’s hospitality scene – the Fairlawn Hotel on Sudder Street. Housed in a 200-year old building, it was the centre of the social scene in the mid 1900s.
Back on Chowringhee, we come to the Bible Society Building, built in the early 1900s.
Beside it sits the Young Men’s Christian Association, or YMCA, built in 1902.
The venerable Indian Museum comes next. This institution, established in 1875, was one of the great encyclopaedic museums in its time – alongside the British Museum in London and the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. Somewhere in its cavernous halls and stores sit the lost fragments of the Singapore Stone.
The Geological Survey of India occupies the former premises of the United Services Club (also known as the Military Club), built in 1905.
Chowringhee Mansions (1907) is a majestic residential apartment block on Chowringhee.
Virginia House was built in 1928.
The second of the imposing residential building on Chowringhee is the Kanak Buildings, originally the Army and Navy Cooperative store, built in 1901.
The Bishop’s House (before 1844).
Chowringhee Road is also home to a couple of Modernist buildings erected in the ’70s. One of them is Chatterjee International.
…and the other is the Tata Steel Skyscraper.
Double-back on Chowringhee Road until we come back to the junction of Chowringhee and Park Street. Park Street was and still is the most fashionable and exclusive address in downtown Calcutta, home to many clubs, restaurants and cafes – amongst which the historic Flury’s cafe. Here one also finds the greatest concentration of former luxury apartments in the city.
Midway down Park Street, we find another kind of abode – the South Park Street Cemetery, a peaceful but also somewhat creepy Victorian-era Christian cemetery housing the remains of English colonials in the early days of the colony.
The Royal Asiatic Society sits at the junction of Park Street and Chowringhee.
Queen’s Mansion is the most important landmark on Park Street
Just beside it is another turn of the century luxury apartment block…
…where one finds the legendary tearoom Flurys, founded in 1927. It serves European style pastries, cakes and chocolates and is still an extremely popular joint for fashionable Calcutta-ites.
The Park Hotel is yet another luxury hotel around Chowringhee.
Park Mansions (1910).
The South Park Street Cemetery was opened in 1767. By 1790, it was full and shut down. Just goes to show how the Europeans in the city in the early years were dropping like flies.
The cemetery itself is a wonderful piece of English Gothic scenery right smack in Calcutta. It offers wonderful (albeit a little creepy) respite from the crowds on busy Park Street. Well worth a visit.
Around Victoria Memorial
At the south end of Chowringhee and the Maidan sits the stupendous, surreal Victoria Memorial, and a few other (smaller) sites of interest. We first pay a visit to these other sites before ending our tour at the expansive grounds of the Victoria Memorial.
The Victoria Memorial was a project conceived by Lord Curzon to commemorate the late Queen Victoria, Empress of India. The interior of the building tells the story of British Imperial Rule in India and the life story of Queen Victoria (the latter presented as a series of mosaics presenting the Queen as a Byzantine Empress). The building resembles a cross between a country estate and the Taj Mahal, and was the British Raj’s self-conscious way of pronouncing itself the rightful successor to the Moghuls. It was opened to the public in 1921.
Surprisingly, the Memorial has been wonderfully preserved, and houses a delightful museum of arts and artefacts from the colonial era. Its large, verdant and really rather quiet grounds deserve a half a day visit, if only to contemplate the grandeur and the folly of the entire British Imperial effort in India.
The Nizam’s Palace was formerly known as Galstaun Park, after a wealthy Armenian businessman. It gained its present name because the property was eventually sold to the Nizam of Hyderabad. It was built in the early 1900s and houses Government offices today.
Just down the road is the Calcutta Club, founded in 1907. Then and now, it is one of the most exclusive club in the city.
St Paul’s Cathedral was built in 1847 in a Gothic style.
And finally, the Victoria Memorial – this is the view towards the southside of the Memorial, along its carefully manicured lawns.
Victoria, Empress of India, on the grounds of the Memorial named in her memory.
A closer look at Victoria Imperatrix.
And finally…a view across one of the large water tanks towards the Victoria Memorial, where it becomes clear just how much the Memorial resembled the Taj Mahal, and just how full of hubris the entire British colonial effort was.
- Calcutta Built Heritage Today. Compiled and edited by Nilina Deb Lal, and published by INTACH Calcutta Regional Chapter, 2006.
- Calcutta’s Edifice – The Building of a Great City. By Brian Pal Bach, and published by Rupa & Co., 2006.