The famous author David William Martin once remarked, “Nostalgic Londoners like to regard Piccadilly as the centre of the universe”. We Kolkatans are undoubtedly much more reserved in our acclaim, although the zest and fervour that we display for our city is perhaps unmatched anywhere in the world. London might have its Piccadilly, Paris its Rue de Rivoli, Chicago its Michigan Avenue, New York its Fifth Avenue, Delhi its Chadni Chowk, but our good old Chowringhee Road can match is as illustrious and perhaps is a lot more epic than the rest.
Fame and fortune have been bestowed upon Chowringhee Road for nearly three centuries. It still remains one of Kolkata’s grandest north south thoroughfares. Throughout the length of its history, Chowringhee Road has carried an aura of prestige and heritage. Grandeur, colourfulness and importance have always been its handmaidens. To countless Kolkatans, and for most people all around the globe who are even remotely familiar with the city of joy, the singularly unique name Chowringhee is synonymous with Kolkata.
Chowringhee Road not only shoulders the responsibility of skirting the Maidan and routing the hordes north or south from misty mornings to the setting of the sun, it also acts as the central longitudinal axis upon which almost all of the city’s denizens has traversed more than once in their lifetime.
The etymology of Chowringhee Road has baffled many historians. Some say that the name owes its origin to a village called Cherangi, while others are inclined to believe that the name originated from the legend of a yogi, Chourangi Giri, who discovered an image of the goddess Kali’s face and founded the original Kalighat temple. Since those days, Chowringhee Road was also referred to by some as the ‘Road to Kalighat’.
During the seventeenth century, the area now occupied by the Maidan and Esplanade was a tiger-infested jungle. At the eastern end of it was an old road, which had once been built by the Sabarna Roy Choudhury’s family from Barisha to Halisahar. Beyond it there were pools, swamps and rice-fields, dotted here and there with the straggling huts of fishermen, falconers, wood cutters, weavers and cultivators. In that region were three small hamlets – Chowringhee, Birjee and Colimba.
In 1717, Chowringhee was a hamlet of isolated hovels, surrounded by waterlogged paddy-fields and bamboo groves separated from Gobindapur by the jungle. Tradition has it that Warren Hastings hunted tigers in this jungle.
In the evening of 6 July 1857 Chowringhee was lit up with gas lights provided by the Oriental Gas Company. The strengthening of British supremacy, subsequent to their victory in the Battle of Plassey was followed by the construction of the new Fort William in 1758. It was then that the European inhabitants of Kolkata gradually started to settle around the Maidan. In the mid eighteenth century Englishmen began to build magnificent houses on the Chowringhee that earned Kolkata the title of ‘City of Palaces’.
Chowringhee was the first road in Kolkata where pavements were built in 1858 to facilitate the erection of gas lamps. The traders who had stores on Chowringhee Road objected as their customers were forced to park their carriages at some distance from the shops.
There aren’t many old establishments along the road now, as most of them are either gone or renamed. There was a time when the Bristol Hotel, Auddy & Company, Great Eastern Stores, Whiteaway & Laidlaw, Army & Navy Stores were all situated on Chowringhee Road. Now, they no longer exist.
Honestly, a lot has changed on Chowringhee Road since the ‘Road to Kalighat’ days. New stores have come up throughout the stretch of the road selling various knick-knacks ranging from food, clothes, and curios to magazines, old books and old coins. New street lamp posts have been erected on both the side-walks of Chowringhee Road illuminating and beautifying the entire stretch of the road.
There are plenty of modern, high-rise buildings along the Chowringhee Road, but none quite like the Chatterjee International Centre, which was for years one of the tallest building in Kolkata.
Kanak Building, at the intersection of Chowringhee Road and Jeevan Deep, is an architectural beauty you just can’t miss and to this day is very well maintained. At a key intersection of Chowringhee Road, Park Street and Kyd Street stand Chowringhee Mansions, a sight to behold with its grand Edwardian design.
Another must see on Chowringhee is the Indian Museum. The ninety metres long frontage of the building boldly displays a strong attitude appropriate for the treasure trove that lies within. Juxtaposed are the Government College of Art and Crafts and the Geological Survey of India.
During our visit to Chowringhee Road, we spoke to Dhiraj Singh, 65, who has been selling hot gram mixture right in front of the Indian Museum for the last five decades. “My father expired when I was just 15 years old. He used to sell hot gram mixture here. But after his death, I had to step in. The entire look of the road has changed radically over the last five decades. The city seems to be steadily losing its royalty. During the sixties, a lot of zamindars used to frequently visit Chowringhee Road. Today it is a rather rare sight to witness. Although a large number of foreign tourists are often spotted around this area. Many of them buy hot grams from me”, he told us with a certain air of pride.
Oberoi Grand Hotel located at 15 Chowringhee Road is one of the most prominent landmarks on this road. It started as Royal Hotel and was rechristened Oberoi Grand in January 1911, when a wild fire claimed the old Royal Hotel.
One of the finest buildings in Kolkata, not just in size and looks, but in the saga of its survival is the Metropolitan Building which stands at the Chowringhee Road and Surendra Nath Banerjee Road crossing. It was here, where British army officers stationed in Singapore on short furlough would shop for a “decent lifestyle”. You could power-dress in tropical linen suits, sip lemon tea and dig into cucumber sandwiches for breakfast at the lifestyle retail rendezvous. Metropolitan this colonial edifice once housed Whiteway, Laidlaw & Co, then Asia’s largest departmental store. Today it houses the Central Cottage Industries Emporium and a Big Bazaar store.
Tucked away next to the Metropolitan Building at 5 Chowringhee Road is the Metro Cinema Hall. Before the advent of the multiplexes, this used to be a classy house of entertainment that commanded a great deal of respect from one and all.
The Elliot Park, Jeevan Deep building, Nehru Children Museum, Birla Planetarium, Tata Centre, Bible Society, YMCA, Bishop’s House, Sahara Sadan are some of the other prominent landmarks on Chowringhee Road.
The ‘Road to Kalighat’ stands witness to a great deal of Kolkata’s history since the days of Clive and Hastings. But somewhere in our hearts it seems that Chowringhee’s best days are over. Whether we, as the present inhabitants of the city of joy share a collective responsibility to restore the reputation it once enjoyed, is a question we need to ask ourselves.
Indian independence saw a rush to rename streets. Chowringhee Road was renamed after Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India.
The Bengali novelist Sankar wrote Chowringhee in 1962 (three years before Arthur Hailey’s Hotel). It became an instant hit. Set in Kolkata of 1950s, it is the saga of the intimate lives of the staff and the guests at the Shahjahan, one of the largest city hotels located in Chowringhee. Some of its larger-than-life characters, like the enigmatic manager Marco Polo, the debonair receptionist Sata Bose and the tragic hostess Karabi Guha, attained cult status.
In 1981, Aparna Sen wrote and directed a film, 36 Chowringhee Lane, about an aged Anglo-Indian school teacher who lives a lonely life in a flat in the neighbourhood.