The Many Facets of Chowringhee
“Nostalgic Londoners,” the famous author David William Martin once remarked, “like to regard Piccadilly as the centre of the universe”. Well, London might have its Piccadilly; Paris its Champs Elyse and Rue de Rivoli; New York its Fifth Avenue; Chicago its Michigan Avenue; and our very own New Delhi its Chandni Chowk and Janpath, but our good old Chowringhee Road -- we Kolkatans feel -- is no less illustrious than its foreign counterparts. In fact, it’s our humble but sincere perception that Chowringhee is of a lot more epic value than those streets.
King Edward Court: Fit for a Maharaja
Close to the crossing of Chowringhee and Acharya Jagadish Bose Road, opposite to the Nehru Children’s Museum stands King Edward Court, a grand edifice and fine example of British architecture in pre-Independent India.Well overa century old, this sprawling building stands over approximately 5132.88 square meters of land. With its 74 rooms, King Edward Court currently houses the Chowdhury’s Guest House and the Maharaja Multi-cuisine Restaurant, Bar & Banquets situated at the property’s front.
As you enter its hallowed portals and walk up the vintage wooden staircase, you are transported back to the pomp and grandeur of early 20th century Calcutta. It is reported that the property originally belonged to a Muslim owner from whom it was croaked by the Eastern Bank Ltd sometime in the Forties. The bank later sold the property to the Chowdhurys, a well known and old family of Kolkata for a princely Rs 93,000/- in 1954.
The guest house’s 74 rooms comprise: 7 Quality Suites; 25 Residential Rooms; 24 Executive Deluxe Rooms and 18 Deluxe AC rooms. Each room is large, airy and provides you with unparalleled comfort and excellent in-house services. And at very reasonable rates, too. Close to Kolkata’s business district, Chowdhury’s Guest House has become synonymous with business travel since its inception.
The two banquet halls can seat 200 and 45 guests, respectively. Moreover, the Maharaja restaurant has come to be recognized as one of the city’s most preferred fine dining spots and caters to a multitude of clients daily with its choicest Indian, Continental and Chinese cuisine, prepared by its internationally trained chefs. Its Indian and Continental recipes particularly, have been taken from their original sources – the kitchens of the Nawabs of Oudh and the Stroganoff family of Russia, to name a few. It’s only when you taste the food that the foodie in you gets a feel of the grand difference that only Maharaja makes!
Wrapped in Mystery: The Chowringhee Identity
Steeped in history, Chowringhee is Kolkata’s most famous north-south thoroughfare, a noted business area and shopper’s destination. It’s also the city’s entertainment, dining and hotel centre. The name, Chowringhee has, however, remained an enigma to most etymologists and historians. Some opine that the word “ringhee” derives from Persian, meaning corner. Maps kept in the Indian Museum and the Victoria Memorial show that the original area was a square piece of land, more like a rectangular courtyard, with four corners. Hence, the name Chowringhee.
Others feel that the name owes its origin to an erstwhile village called Cherangi. A third school of thought is of the opinion that it was named after a mystic and yogi, Chourangi Giri, who is said to have founded the original Kali temple at Kalighat and the road was a passage for pilgrims from the north to visit the shrine, which today is located in south Kolkata. The debate continues till date and the exact origin of the name remains unexplained.
Down the Ages: The Evolution of Chowringhee
As one of the city’s main thoroughfares, Chowringhee is well over 300 years old. And with its vintage, it has always carried an aura of great prestige, grandeur and the rich heritage of colonial India. In fact, it’s often said that if you haven’t visited or strolled down Chowringhee as a visitor to Kolkata, you haven’t been in the city at all!
Present day Chowringhee skirts the city’s lungs – The Maidan, which during the 17th century, was a tiger-infested jungle extending to what is the Esplanade area today. Warren Hasting, the Governor General of Bengal is said to have hunted there. On Chowringhee’s eastern end was an old road, once constructed by the famous Roy Choudhury family of Sabarna, stretching from Barisha to Halisahar. And beyond it were pools, swamps and rice-fields, dotted here and there with the straggling huts of fishermen, falconers, wood cutters, weavers and cultivators.
It was in that region where 3 tiny hamlets –Birjee, Chowringhee and Colimba-- were located. Birjee occupied the south-eastern end of the present day Maidan, Victoria Memorial and Rabindra Sadan areas while Colimba took its name from the Bengali word for a musk melon. As early as 1717, the Chowringhee area comprised a few isolated hovels, surrounded by waterlogged paddy-fields and bamboo groves separated from Gobindapur by the jungle.
The ‘road to Chowringhee’ ran from Lower Circular Road in the south to Dharmatala in the north. According to old maps in the Fort William archives, Chowringhee is actually a locality, not a road. In Colonel Mark Wood’s map of 1784, while the road is marked ‘Road to Chowringhee’, the name Chowringhee is given to the locality immediately south of Park Street. However, in Upjohn’s map of 1794, this district is marked Dihee Birjee and boundaries of Chowringhee appear as Circular Road on the east, Park Street on the south, Colinga on the north and a portion of ‘Road to Chowringhee’ on the west.
At the first south to north crossing of the Road to Chowringhee was Theatre Road which housed the Calcutta Theatre or Chowringhee Theatre from 1813 to 1839 and was later destroyed in a fire. The audience at first, was exclusively European. Even the ushers and door keepers at the Calcutta Theatre were Englishmen. Indians, however, were allowed entry from the early nineteenth century onward and the theatre became a haunt, and sometimes a source of serious interest, of the emerging English-educated Bengali.
The next crossing is Harrington Street, named after John Herbert Harrington, a judge of the Sadar Adalat. The crossing after Harrington Street -- Middleton Street -- was named after Dr. Thomas Fanshaw Middleton, the first Bishop of Kolkata (1814–1822). Further down the road was the Bengal Club where Thomas Babington Macaulay resided. Behind the Bengal Club ran Russel Street, named after Sir Henry Russel, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court from 1806-1813.
At the next crossing lies Park Street and its famous landmark, the Asiatic Society. Park Street does not appear in any map prior to 1760. In Upjohn’s map of 1794, it’s referred to as Burial-Ground Road, which perhaps implies that it led to the burial ground on Circular Road. The site of the Chief Justice, Sir Elijah Impey’s residence on Middleton Row now houses Loreto House School and Loreto College – a premier educational institution for women. More towards the burial ground was the famous Sans Souci Chinese Theatre, which burnt down in a fire and later became the internationally famous Jesuit educational institution, St. Xavier’s College in 1860.
Another crossing is with Kyd Street, named after Lt. Col. Robert Kyd, Military Secretary to the Government of Bengal, who lived on that road. The road was earlier named Chowringhee Tank Street, after the tank that still exists opposite to the crossing with Park Street. Sudder Street, north of the Indian Museum once housed the Sudder Court. The area beyond it is Colinga (derived from Colimba) and the Maidan tank was called Colinga Tank. Lindsay Street leading to the municipal market (Sir John Hogg or Hogg Market), was named after Robert Lindsay, who had a colorful career with the East India Company and once owned a house on the street. The Opera House, a wooden building, was also located on Lindsay Street.
Dawn Of A New Era
Shortly after the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857, on the evening of 6th July, Chowringhee was lit up with gas lights provided by the Oriental Gas Company. In fact, Chowringhee was also the first road in Kolkata where pavements were built in 1858 to facilitate the erection of gas lamps. This heralded the strengthening of British supremacy in Kolkata when the city’s European inhabitants gradually started settling around the Maidan area. In the mid-18th century, Englishmen began to build magnificent houses on Chowringhee that earned Kolkata the title of City of Palaces.
Slowly and gradually, Chowringhee became the commercial epicenter of the city. It was a fashionable address too, and came to be known as the “Sahib Para” or the Locality of Foreigners. The landmarks on the road were the Bristol Hotel, Great Eastern Stores, Auddy & Company, Whiteway, Laidlaw & Co and Army & Navy Stores, which were considered to be sellers of premium imported goods and also strictly the preserves of the wealthy.
One of the finest buildings in Kolkata in size and looks is the Metropolitan Building which stands at the Chowringhee Road and Surendra Nath Banerjee Road crossing. It was here that the lifestyle retail rendezvous of Whiteway, Laidlaw & Co -- Asia’s largest departmental store was housed then. Today it houses the Central Cottage Industries Emporium.
Tucked away next to the Metropolitan Building at 5 Chowringhee Road is the Metro Cinema Hall which showed all MGM productions during the War. Metro Cinema was considered the classiest house of entertainment with its own dance floor and bar with perfume being sprayed through the auditorium’s air ducts for the pleasure of filmgoers.
Chowringhee’s legendary eatery was Firpo’s Restaurant, set up by an Italian, Angelo Firpo around 1917. He opened several famous restaurants and a tea room that were the favorites of high society, a renowned patisserie, and a fabulous catering service that delighted even Lord Irwin, the Viceroy of India, several Maharajas and some very important foreign dignitaries.
Its live entertainment comprised cabaret acts by famous Turkish and European dancers who swayed and gyrated to the pulsating music of a large band every evening. The full dance floor was the only sprung floor in India that gave dancers an extra bounce. Between 1917 and 1960, A. Firpo Ltd in Calcutta employed more than 500 people. It had a turnover of one billion liras at that time and produced bread for the entire Bengal region. It was also said that fine dining in the city began – and ended – with Firpo’s!
Oberoi Grand Hotel located at 15 Chowringhee Road was and still is one of the most prominent landmarks on Chowringhee. The site where the hotel now stands was first developed at No. 13 Chowringhee Road as the private residence of a certain Colonel Grand in the early nineteenth century. The house was converted into a boarding house by a certain Mrs. Annie Monk for young British clerks working for the Calcutta-based British companies and trainee Parsi priests of the Parsi Fire Temple on Metcalfe Street. The boarding house was later expanded to include Numbers 14, 15 and 17.
No 16 Chowringhee was occupied by a theatre owned and managed by Arathoon Stephen, an Armenian from Isfahan. When in 1911, the theatre burned down, Stephen bought out Mrs. Monk and, over time, redeveloped the site into what now makes up the modern hotel. Built in an extravagant neoclassical style, the hotel soon became a popular spot amongst the English population of Calcutta.
The Winds of Change
Chowringhee’s entire look has changed radically over the last five decades. Post-Independence, it was renamed Jawaharlal Nehru Road after India’s first Prime Minister. The thoroughfare, given its massive length and breadth, seems to have steadily lost its class and royalty. Even during the sixties, a lot of local landlords or zamindars would frequently visit Chowringhee Road to dine or indulge in other forms of entertainment. Today, Chowringhee has Janbazar on its north; Taltala and certain areas under the Park Street Police Station on its east; Bhowanipore to its south; and the Maidan on its western side. The neighborhood is covered by the New Market, Park Street and Shakespeare Sarani police stations.
Over time, the Elliot Park, Chatterjee International Building, Kanak Building, Jeevan Deep building, Nehru Children’s Museum, Birla Planetarium, Tata Centre, the Bible Society, YMCA, Bishop’s House and lately, the Sahara Sadan, Virginia House and the American Center have become some of the other prominent landmarks on Chowringhee Road. Kanak Building, at the intersection of Chowringhee Road and Middleton Street, is an architectural beauty you just can't miss and, to this day, remains very well maintained. At a key intersection of Chowringhee Road, Park Street and Kyd Street stands Chowringhee Mansions, a sight to behold with its grand Edwardian designs.
Another must see on Chowringhee is the Indian Museum, which recently celebrated its bicentenary. The 90-meter long frontage of the building, built in 1814, is not only a grand example of colonial architecture in India but houses some of the most valuable pieces of ancient, medieval and modern Indian history. It also houses the Government College of Art and Craft. The Geological Survey of India that is adjacent to the Museum is yet another notable example of British architecture.
New shops have come up on Chowringhee and its footpaths are always crowded with hawkers selling anything from food, clothes and curios to magazines, old books & rare coins. It pulsates with a life found nowhere else in the city. Even though it may have lost a bit of its old grandeur and charm, it continues to be the life and soul of Kolkata. And will remain so. Always and forever…..