The famous globetrotter Gary Moore had once said, “A journey is not so much about changing landscapes as about seeing them with new eyes.” We pass through so many different roads and streets everyday, without even pausing for a brief moment to behold their beauty, analyse their character, to hear their tales. One afternoon, we set out to rediscover Rabindra Sarani - one of Kolkata’s most historic, versatile and perhaps, the longest stretch of road – with new eyes.
One of the very first roads to be macadamised in Kolkata, way back in 1839, Rabindra Sarani was formerly known as Chitpore Road. This road which remains materially unaltered for more than a century initially derived its name from the goddess of Chiteswari, whose temple stands at Khagendra Chatterjee Road, opposite the Gun and Shell Factory at Cossipore.
On Friday, May 3, 1963, the Corporation decided to rename a road after Kavi Guru Rabindranath Tagore. Many roads such as College Street, Gariahat Road and Southern Avenue among others were under consideration to be renamed after him. But finally, Chitpore Road, where the ancestral home of Tagore is situated was selected to be rechristened after the poet laureate. The present name came into effect from May 9, 1963.
Rabindra Sarani, perhaps the best exemplification of Kolkata’s consummate thoroughfares, is in the thick of things from start to finish. It stretches from Lalbazar in the south to Chitpore Bridge in the north. As you start walking northward from Lalbazar, the sheer hustle and bustle of the area grips you immediately. The street throbs with activity as thousands of people busily get on with their daily trade and business. Both the sidewalks are dotted with numerous stores selling a wide variety of commodities ranging from shoes, clothes, furniture, electrical appliances, food items and books to wigs, brass artifacts, ayurvedic medicines, utensils, marble statues, fruits and much more.
Moving on, around the crowded Tiretta Bazar area the street becomes very narrow and the meandering tramline adds to the congestion. There is room enough for the tram lines and little else yet other forms of traffic somehow manage to squeeze through.
A few hundred metres’ walk from here will bring you to the Rabindra Sarani and Zakaria Street crossing where stands the Nakhoda Masjid on the right – the city’s largest and grandest mosque. This truly is a sight to behold. We spoke to Rahim Ahmed, 42, who has been selling coolers and syrups on his wooden cart right outside the Nakhoda Masjid for the last 25 years. He said, “After Dalhousie Square, this place used to be the nerve-centre of trade during British India. A lot has changed over the last two decades. New shops have come up by the dozen everywhere. Tram lines have been repaired and new street lamps have also been installed.” In spite of the changes and modernisation, the area, with places like the Salehjee Musafirkhana and the Madrasa Jamalia Arabia, has the look and feel that reminded us of old Delhi streets.
A few more steps and you would be at the Royal Indian Hotel on the left. Food connoisseurs from different parts of the city, as well as visitors from outside come here to dig into Royal’s chaap and biryani among other favourites. For decades now Royal Indian Hotel has been a fitting ambassador of ‘Mughlai’ cuisine in Kolkata.
The next prominent landmark on Rabindra Sarani is the Jorashakho Thakurbari, the ancestral home of Rabindranath Tagore. A beautiful brick-red building, it is now home to Rabindra Bharati University.
Jatra Para is yet another unique location on Rabindra Sarani. This place is home to numerous drama production houses like Bhairav Opera, Tarama Opera, Agragami Jatra Company and Trinayani Opera. This is unique to this area of Kolkata.
Three red-light areas, Seth Bagan, Ram Bagan and Sonagachi, are located adjacent to Rabindra Sarani. Ironically, a walk of about 500 metres more will land you at Kumartuli. This fascinating place is where the idols of Hindu gods and goddesses are made.
Mullick bari, Lohia Matri Sewasadan, Nayan Krishna Saha’s Charitable Dispensary, Mahalaxmi Mandir, Digambar Jain Temple and Maa Sarada Ghat are some of the other interesting landmarks on Rabindra Sarani.
We were tempted to gorge on some lip smacking street food like kachoris, samosas, keema paratha, fruit juices and lassi that are available at regular intervals along the stretch of Rabindra Sarani.
Our trail finally ended at Chitpore Bridge. We realised that this street is, in the true sense, a melting pot of cultures. Apparent disparities merge to give Rabindra Sarani its secularity, history and diversity. We thoroughly enjoyed our walk down this street which was throbbing with life and yet seemed frozen in time. Explore it yourself to discover a different face of a cosmopolitan Kolkata.
(WITH INPUTS FROM RENOWNED HISTORIAN P. T.NAIR)