Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Kolkata and its Colonial Heritage

On a nippy morning we set out to explore the Colonial Heritage of Kolkata ( or should it be Calcutta)  armed with a map* . We got off a cab ( believe me, a cab ride, even in the early hours is not sans the horn) and began our walk at the Lalit Grand Eastern Hotel.   Interestingly, it was built by a baker, Wilson, who was so successful that he acquired the adjacent property and set up the hotel and named it after the then Governor General of India,  Lord Auckland. Smart move !  Mark Twain is said to have referred to it as the best hotel on the East of the Suez. 
The Lalit Great Eastern

Walking down the road we got to the Currency Building where a lot of construction activity was going on.  Even in that dilapidated state it still looked imposing.  A three storied building in Italian style built in 1883.  Originally the Agra Bank, it later housed the Reserve Bank for a while.  The building was in such a bad shape that the Public Works Department planned to have it demolished and put up a high rise building, fortunately the ASI intervened and it is still standing today.  There are evidences that indicate a tunnel existed to bring in water from River Hoogly to cool the freshly minted coins.  There are also rooms within the building that served as vaults, with thick metal sheets covering the walls, floor and roof.  
The Storehouse/Vault

Restoration in the Currency Building

Just across the road is the Dalhousie Square Central Telegraph Office known as the Dead Letter Office since letters that could not be delivered for various reasons during the War ended up here. The site where the building stands used to be a pond until 1757. The ornate building was constructed in 1876.  It has a 120 feet bell tower.

Dead Letter Office
The last telegram in the world was sent out from here in 2013

As you reach the end of the road there stands the St. Andrew's Church.  The kirk ( Scottish church ) was built between 1815 and 1818.  The British authorities did not permit the church to have a steeple, however the Scottish Bishop ensured that not only was there a steeple but to make sure it was higher than the Anglican church he added a cock on top – ‘ to crow over the British Bishop’ .  The church stands on the plot of the Old Court House.  This was the court where Maharaja Nand Kumar was tried and sentenced to death. 

St Andrew's Church / Scottish Kirk

Across the Church stands the Writers' Building that was designed by Thomas Lyon and built in 1777 to house the junior servants/clerks or Writers as they were known as.  It now houses the offices of the  State Government.  The skeleton of the old building remains the same though the external structures have been changed.  It has Greco-Roman statues on top with the Roman Goddess, Minerva at the centre. It later received a French makeover.  In 1883 there were four clusters of statues added to represent - Justice, Science, Agriculture and Commerce.  

In December 1930, three men, Benoy, Badal and Dinesh headed to the Writers' Building in European outfits and gunned down the Inspector General of Police, Colonel Simpson who was known for oppression of prisoners.  Dalhousie Square acquired the name BBD Marg to honour these three men. 

The Writers' Building from Lal Dighi
Across the Writers' Building is the Lal Dighi, meaning Red Water, that was named because of the colour it acquired during the festival of Holi.  The Battle of Lal Dighi was fought between Siraj ud Daulah and forces of British East India Company till they withdrew from Kolkata.  A year later the British were victorious in the Battle of Plassey .  
The General Post Office
As you turn left from the Writers' Building one sees the imposing dome of the General Post Office.  The building stands on the site of the original Fort William that was destroyed by Siraj-ud-Daula.  A narrow passageway by the northern site of the building was the site of the guardhouse, which in 1756 was the infamous Black Hole of Calcutta.  The 220 feet dome is supported by the Corinthian columns. It has a multi-dialled illuminated clock installed in 1896,  by the company that made the Big Ben in London.

Royal Insurance Building

On the opposite side of the road is the Royal Insurance Building.  Under the British Rule, Indians were not permitted to buy Insurance!  
What was once the Alliance Bank of Shimla

Further down the road is the building that used to be the Alliance Bank of Shimla and later housed the Reserve Bank of India, which then moved to a bigger building. 

St John's Church

Interior of the Church

Walking away past the buildings that once used to house the Banks and Insurance companies we moved on to the St John's Church, the third oldest church in Calcutta and one of the first public buildings built by the East India Company once it became the capital of British India. The stones  used here were brought from the ruins of Gaur. The church was constructed in 1787 on an old graveyard. It was originally the property of Maharaja Nabakrishna Bahadur, who was persuaded to sell it by Warren Hastings.
Job Charnok's Mausoleum

Black Hole of Calcutta monument

The compound contains a number of tombs and memorials - Job Charnok's mausoleum ( the founder of Calcutta), replica of the Black Hole Monument, Lady Canning's memorial among others. It is interesting that Lady Canning lent her name to a sweet that was created in her honour and is now sold in the sweet shops as Ladykeni. 

Inside the church hangs a painting of the Last Supper that was painted by Johann Zoffany, a British painter of German origin.   It is not the copy of the masterpiece by Leonardo Da Vinci, and has been given an Indian touch with faces of well known personalities of the time.  The spitoon replacing the pitcher among other Indian elements.  An auctioneer, Mr Tulloh took the matter to the court when he found that he was portrayed as Judas in the painting. 

At the end of the lane we turned right to head towards the Kolkata High Court. The oldest High Court in India constructed in Neo-Gothic style in 1872.  During its early days, it had a tank in front of it, which was later filled up and a road was constructed.  
The Kolkata High Court

By now, we were out for about 2 hours and it was time for a bit of food.  Turning into the lane towards the Town Hall, we found this guy rolling out dough and making fresh rotis on the coals.  We had a delicious plate of rotis with piping hot potato curry and a tasty dal and we resumed our walk once again.

The Town Hall was constructed with the money that was collected through a lottery, where the people of Calcutta donated generously.  The foundation stone was laid by Lord Minto, who was then the Governor General of India. It is built in the Doric style of architecture with steps leading to a grand portico.  The Hall was thrown open to the public in 1814. The Town Hall is presently under renovation manned by a grouchy guard who insisted that all photographs were to be taken outside of the fence.

The Town Hall
We walked past the Treasury Building, and right ahead of us was the Raj Bhavan, the residence of the West Bengal Governor.  The British Governor General of India lived in rented houses till 1799, when the then Governor General, Wellesley decided that India should be ruled from a palace and not a country house.  A building for that purpose was completed in 1802.  It was known as the Government House.  After transfer of power from the East India Company to the British Empire it became the official residence of the Viceroy of India.  After the capital shifted from Calcutta to Delhi it became the residence of the Lieutenant Governor of Bengal.  Later, after independence it was renamed the Raj Bhavan.   

The Raj Bhavan, taken from the gate with the permission of the security guard 

By now, it was no longer nippy and had become very warm, and it seemed Kolkata had suddenly come alive. There were people and more people and honking cars and buses.

We then decided to end the walk and instead  find our way to another landmark, K C Das. No visit to Kolkata would be complete without taking home a tin of syrupy Rosagollas.  It was a long walk and we succumbed to temptation and gorged on a plate of delicious Peas Kochuri.  Armed with tins of their famous Rosagollas we made our way back by the Metro which was quicker and definitely better than the morning cab ride.  

* We were unsure of our schedule and decided to do the walk on our own, with a little bit of help from Indian Vagabond.  The map was so useful.  

Other sites that had vast information - Double Dolphin, Noisebreak.comheritage structure

(December 2017)

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