Calcutta… the London that was!

This has been looooooooooooong due! Manjit took me on this walk in February 2018, and here I am with half of 2020 gone! Not that it can be an excuse but 2018 had been a mad year and then it just slipped off the radar! And yet, as I started going through some old pictures, that morning and my numerous walks around the Dalhousie Square seem as fresh in my memory as if it was only yesterday! Just wish I had taken a few more snaps when I had the chance!

I have always loved walking, especially through lanes of Old Kolkata that smell of history! Rebuke me for having a colonial hangover, but European Kolkata appeals to me like nobody’s business! The cobbled streets, each well-laid block joined with by lanes, the massive buildings with architecture styles from the Victorian and Edwardian era, the tramways (alas, they are almost gone now!) … it is like a journey back in time! Yes, my Calcutta (I still prefer to call it Calcutta) was the first capital of the British as they finally took over the governance of India. The choice was easy and convenient. After all, the final nail in the coffin marking the beginning of British rule was hammered in with the defeat of the Nawab of Bengal, and with waterways being at close convenience, it was but an obvious choice.

But this post is not about the history of India. It is about the sights and sounds of one part of my city that has forever kept me enamoured – The Dalhousie Square.

A grand view of the Royal Exchange Place from across the road
Photo Courtesy: http://double-dolphin.blogspot.com

This part of the city has always fascinated me, and unlike many, it has been my “office para” for a very, very short period, before which it had only been a few stray stopovers from Howrah Station en route home when we had to take a minibus from the Dalhousie Bus Stand. But it was during my short 7-month stint at the Bengal Chamber of Commerce and Industries that I truly came to realize the beauty of this square! My office, housed at the Royal Exchange Place, standing handsomely at the crossing of Netaji Subhas Road and India Exchange Place Road is known to have been one of the oldest buildings in Kolkata famous in history for once being the residence of Robert Clive. The next resident was the infamous Philip Francis who is recorded to have rented and lived in the “finest house in Bengal” at an annual rent of ₤ 1200 pounds. Dreamer that I am, I would often picturise the grandeur of the place in its heydays as I sometimes took the stairs instead of the lift or felt an uncanny presence of a lady dressed in heavy finery swishing past me on those one-off days when I had to stay back for an official cocktail dinner. How she must have sweat in all that finery as she spent day after dreary day of the characteristic Bengal summer!

Though my regular route in the morning would be through Fairley Place, it was the walk through the India Exchange Place Road taking a sharp left through Lyons Range, with numerous street food vendors spicing the air up with their variety of offerings that I particularly looked forward to, each evening. With the back of the Writer’s Building covering most of the right, the narrow, crowded lane would meet the Old Court House Street. Made functional in 1781, Old Court House Street, the long stretch of road starting from the intersection of India Exchange Place Road and Brabourne Road and ending roughly at the intersection of Government Place and Hemanta Basu Sarani is more of a highway with the tall and mighty St. Andrew’s Church standing proudly at the intersection. No, we did not start our walk through this route, let me talk about what stories we heard about this centuries-old structure.

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A busy Old Court House Street with the St. Andrew’s Church in the background

The church stands on the site of what was believed to be a charity school way back in history, later converted to a Mayor’s Court, which finally became the Supreme Court, lending the adjacent road its name. This court was where Maharaj Nandakumar, a sworn enemy of Lord Hastings was falsely charged, tried and sentenced to death by Elijah Impey, the first Chief Justice of India and a close friend of Hastings. Nandakumar was hanged unceremoniously in a forlorn well close to the modern-day Hastings area, on the 5th of August 1775. But that is a different story for a different time.

St. Andrew’s Church, also variously known as the “Scotch Kirk” and “Laat Sahib Ka Girja”, is the only Scottish Presbyterian Church in Kolkata and was opened to the public in March 1818, after the old court building was demolished in 1792. There is an interesting story around the weathercock atop the church. Forever at loggerheads, the Scottish and the British churches in Kolkata engaged in a funny battle of having a church spire higher than each other. When Bishop Middleton of the Anglican Church passed an unwritten word around all Anglican churches having a monopoly in the height of ‘spires’ across all British territories, it infuriated Reverend Bryce to no end. Having invested personally in building the church interiors, he could not allow the Anglicans to decide how tall his church spire would be! As a vengeance, he decided to add a steeple on top of the church and add a cock right on top “to crow over the Bishop” and the Anglican St. John’s Church, he proclaimed. After standing proudly and crowing for 202 years, the Scottish cock finally met its rather sudden and unfortunate end during the Amphan cyclone this summer.

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The proud ‘cock’ atop St. Andrew’s Church

Further down the road with the historical Laldighi on the west and right in the middle of an array of a century and a half old shops, proudly stands the Nursing Chunder Daw & Co. Gun Makers shop, and I can’t but feel a bit proud of my family who has been in the arms business since 1835. Among the few who have survived the First and the Second World War, the entire British Colonial rule, the fight for independence and economic and market changes, N. C. Daw & Co has seen 185 years go by supplying arms to the British and the Indians alike.

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Dilapidated part of the once arched roof of the Old Currency Building in 2018

A little further down the same stretch of the road stands the Old Currency Building that has since my visit been renovated by the Archaeological Survey of India and opened to the public as a museum called Ghare Baire (ঘরে বাইরে) meaning The World, The Home and Beyond’ the museum focuses on 18th – 20th century Art in Bengal.

Built in 1833, this Italian style three-storied building with a glass arched roof and marble and sandstone flooring once served as the headquarters of Agra Bank. after its liquidation, a part of it was used by the British Government for its currency department, lending it the name. With enormous iron grilles for the doors bearing the name of British manufacturers, the building also has florid wrought iron arches and pillars.

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The central courtyard of the renovated Ghare Baire Museum. Photo courtesy Rajesh Kapoor.                                 

You have to look at the world across the road through the top curtain of these arches to get a photographic shot of another multiple century-old heritage building standing right across the road. The Old Telegraph office, as it is commonly called, has another name – Dead Letter Office.

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A view of the Dead Letter Post Office from the entrance of the Old Currency Building

But more on that and the many remaining wonders around the place we ventured through that winter morning in my next set of blogs.

So, keep coming back for more on this romantic historical walk around European Kolkata.

References:

  1. https://rangandatta.wordpress.com/2020/02/05/ghare-baire-the-world-the-home-and-beyond-18th-20th-century-art-in-bengal-old-currency-building-kolkata/
  2. https://dreamofacity.com/2016/12/14/former-dalhousie-square-the-financial-district-calcutta/
  3. http://www.bengalweekend.com/
  4. http://double-dolphin.blogspot.com
  5. https://dreamofacity.com
  6. https://kapoorphotoimages.com/ami-kolkata/

6 thoughts on “Calcutta… the London that was!

  1. Wowwwww….sanchari …this is exactly my type of thing…wonderfully written. This is my office para for the last 22 years. My office is in the building which was previously SPENCES HOTEL… where Michael Madhusudan Dutta used to go. Even before that , this area was my second home as my father’s law chamber was just beside the Great Eastern Hotel. I get goosebumps talking about this place. Thanks a ton for this😍😍❤❤

    Liked by 1 person

  2. What a wonderful portrayal! Had been walking through these streets from the beginning of my career. Your explicit narrative came with a feeling of walking down the lanes again and again.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. It has been my ‘school para since nursery’ but through your narration I went down the memory lane.,and the vision of those buildings just swept past my eyes…Had goosebumps while reading it…

    Liked by 1 person

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