Kolkata, India’s Restored Heritage Buildings

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Exploring The World of Colonial British Heritage Buildings of Kolkata

By Susmita Sengupta

Kolkata, previously called Calcutta, the state capital of West Bengal in India, has a storied history and was also the20240224 111404 scaled erstwhile capital of the British Raj until 1911.

Kolkata needs to be visited if you want to experience the true Indian cultural capital. A treasure trove of fantastic British-era heritage buildings, some of them lovingly restored and some still dilapidated will have you toggling between Victorian and modern times. 

These are the places not to be missed on your visit to this magnificent “City of Joy”, as Kolkata was nicknamed since 1985 based on the eponymous novel by the French author Dominique Lapierre.

Tribute to an Empress

Queen Victoria sat on her throne, a vision in black marble, staring at what surely would be unfamiliar territory to her. I looked at the remarkable white marble edifice behind her and wondered what she would have thought of had she ever had the chance to see it.

I was at the Victoria Memorial, built in honor of the Empress of India during the heydays of the British Raj. 

Built between 1906 and 1921, after Victoria’s death in 1901, it is the largest monument dedicated to a monarch anywhere in the world. The architecture is eye-catching regal, built in the Indo-Saracenic style, with Mughal, British, Italian, and Deccan influences. The memorial was initiated by Lord Curzon, the Viceroy of British India who envisioned it as a towering white marble hall with a dome, evoking the Taj Mahal, that would also serve as a museum dedicated to the glory of British India. 

IMG 3012 scaledExploring The Victoria Memorial 

After purchasing tickets, we followed scores of other visitors into the marble rotunda where again the central attraction was a standing marble statue of a young Victoria, placed under the soaring dome. We walked upstairs to the mezzanine level to admire the paintings decorating the upper parts of the rotunda. Each canvas depicts moments from Victoria’s life.

Then we walked through the elaborate museum with 25 galleries which houses manuscripts, sculptures, arms and armor and paintings that highlight the stories of Indian independence as well as India seen through British eyes.

We completed our visit to Victoria Memorial exploring the gardens that were dotted with statues of various British officers, all of whom belonged to the East India Company. And incredibly there was also a magnificent gateway reminiscent of the Arc de Triomphe topped by an equestrian statue of King Edward VII.

IMG 2927 scaledAn Awe-inspiring Cathedral

Across the street from Victoria Memorial is St. Paul’s Cathedral, the official church of the British and an architectural landmark in Kolkata. The cathedral is still in use as the seat of the Diocese of Calcutta.

Built between 1839 and 1847 in the Indo-Gothic style, adapting Gothic rules to the tropical Indian climate, the majestic St. Paul’s Cathedral is one of the largest and oldest in India with its design heavily influenced by the Norwich Cathedral of London. After earthquake damages in 1897 and 1934, its pointed spire was redesigned with the look of the bell tower of Canterbury Cathedral. 

We walked into the expansive prayer hall of this aisleless church with its rows of pews that can seat more than 1,000 people and admired the intricate woodwork decorations and the gorgeous stained glass windows. But it was also a sobering experience going through the innumerable marble and metal memorial tablets, statues and artifacts that dotted the walls and floors of the cathedral. Together they paint the history of the rule of the East India Company and British colonialism in India. 

IMG 3239 scaledAn Early City Church

Before there was St. Paul’s Cathedral, the British built for themselves the St. John’s Church on Council House Street, at about a 10-minute taxi ride distance from St. Paul’s. Built between 1784 – 1787, the church is once again a timeless repository of history encapsulating the growth of British rule in India. 

IMG 6942 scaledWalking into the sprawling compound, as we got our first glimpse of this gargantuan stone church built in neo-Classical style, and quite similar to St.Martin-in-the-Fields.

I noticed the marble plaque at the entrance that detailed how the land was donated by Maharaja Naba Krishna Deb of Shovabazar and the foundation stone was laid by Warren Hastings, the first and arguably the most famous Governor-General of colonial India. 

The complex grounds of St. John’s Church has many monuments and memorials of many British names familiar to most colonial history buffs including Job Charnock, well known as the founder of Calcutta, the city.

The walls inside the church were once again a treasure mine of British colonial history in India.

Dipping into the British Era 

For an immersion into an exploration of a variety of British heritage buildings, we decided on a taxi ride through Park Street and its neighboring areas with stopovers at a handful of places. The street itself has an illustrious backdrop as it was often known as “Shaheb para” translating into “the neighborhood of the Englishmen”.

IMG 3234 scaledThe street originates from 1760 and has seen many iterations but has never lost its importance as the most famous Kolkata street. Chock a block with food joints and restaurants, stores, luxury hotels and extravagant buildings, most existing since colonial times, this is an unmissable street on a Kolkata visit. 

Our first stop – Indian Museum, established in 1814, is the first museum in India and one of the oldest in the world. Covering a gamut of exhibits ranging from artifacts, paintings and sculptures to the natural sciences, the museum spreads out in 35 galleries. 

For me the star attraction here was the Bharhut Gallery, where you can walk through the splendorous architectural remains of the Bharhut stupa from the 1st century B.C., built during the Shunga period. The exquisite gateway, with resplendent carvings and the railings that showed detailed reliefs of animals, nature and human devotees along with inscriptions are all a superb representation of early Buddhist art.

IMG 2890 scaledI found it heartening that this spectacular piece had somehow remained in India after having been excavated in 1873 by Alexander Cunningham, a British Army engineer. 

After the museum visit, we took a drive along Maidan, meaning “open field” in Bengali, a sprawling green urban oasis of around 400 acres, used for picnics, walks, and even political gatherings.

First developed as a parade ground space for British forces in the 18th century, it has proximity to four major Kolkata landmarks – Victoria Memorial, the iconic cricket stadium Eden Gardens, the Hooghly River, and Fort William, originating as an 18th-century British fort that since independence has been the Eastern command headquarters of the Indian Army. 

The Drive Continued

Soon we drove past the imposing gates of Raj Bhavan, the official residence of the Governor of the state of West Bengal. I admired the massive arched gateways, the primary one topped by a lion while sphinxes adorned the two smaller gates.

Designed like Kedleston Hall, the family home of Lord Curzon in Derbyshire, the palace-like building completed in 1804 became the seat of East India Company’s Governor-General of India. It remained the home of the Viceroy once India came under British crown rule until India’s independence in 1947.

IMG 4178 scaledOur next stop was a shopping trip to New Market, formerly called Sir Stuart Hogg Market. But since it was a Sunday (market closed) we could not step inside the red-colored Victorian Gothic indoor market that came into being in 1874 as the British increasingly were averse to mixing with Indians.

The market flourished through centuries and has become a must-visit destination in Kolkata. No matter that the market was closed; we were engulfed in the crowd of shoppers mingling about at the variety of stores and stalls that dotted the plaza outside. It was truly an unforgettable moment. 

To A Bridge and A Jail

The next day we ventured out to a different part of the city. Our destination – the British-era Alipore Jail Museum that had started as a central jail in 1906 and continued to be so until 2019. It was closely linked to the Indian independence struggle as many freedom fighters including Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of India were jailed here by the British. 

It was truly enlightening to go through the many cell blocks at the Alipore Museum which exhibited the history of the jail and its revolutionary inmates through artifacts, photographs and statues. But it was also disturbing to walk through the courtyard with the gallows and the death row block where the British hung prisoners who went against the British Empire.20240225 112809 scaled

Then for a change of scenery, we headed towards the Hooghly River, a tributary of the mighty River Ganges, on the banks of which lies Kolkata. We went to Prinsep Ghat on Strand Road, named after James Prinsep of the East India Company. a scholar who studied and designed buildings and maps of Kolkata and Benares but who is truly famous for deciphering the ancient Indian Brahmi scripts and translating the 3rd century B. C. rock edicts of Ashoka, the Mauryan Emperor.

Behind the British era Palladian style porch memorial of Prinsep built in 1843, the modern 1992 built Vidyasagar Setu or the 2nd Hooghly Bridge, made for an impressive background. We walked to the steps to be close to the River Ganges, a silent spectator to the tumultuous life of this fascinating city.

IMG 71982 scaledThe Mansions of Yore

You must complete your Kolkata trip with visits to old mansions of the British era. Interestingly enough, these palatial homes were built by aristocratic Indians of that time.

We began at Jorasanko Thakurbari, the ancestral home and birthplace of Rabindranath Tagore, a polymath and the first non-European and only Indian to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1913.

The home, a red mansion with dark green slatted windows and long balconies, surrounded by verdant gardens was emblematic of 18th-century British colonial mansions in Kolkata. There was just one drawback to this museum visit – no indoor photography is allowed. 

IMG 7118 scaledThe house museum is treated as a shrine which meant we had to take our shoes off before starting the tour. Inside, we walked through galleries and rooms that showcased the life and achievements of not just Rabindranath Tagore but also his wife Mrinalini Devi, and his many noted family members.

They were all renowned as painters, philosophers, and writers playing parts in the Bengal Renaissance of the late 19th century and his equally illustrious nephew, Abanindranath Tagore, an eminent painter and founder of the famous Bengal School of Art.

We followed up this visit with a stopover at Raja Rammohun Roy Memorial  Museum, about a 10-minute taxi ride away from Jorasanko. Roy, known as the “Father of Indian Renaissance” was born into a wealthy family in 1772.

He was an educator, and social and religious reformer who in 1829 successfully made the British government abolish the inhuman sati practice where wives immolated themselves on their husband’s funeral pyres. 

His palatial three-floor house built in the 19th century in colonial Georgian style was converted into a museum. This museum too highlighted the life and many achievements of Roy, who I had known about but was not very familiar with.  

Susmita Sengupta

 

 

Susmita Sengupta, an architect by background, is a freelance writer based in New York who loves traveling with her family. She has written frequently for GoNOMAD, Go World Travel Magazine and other travel web magazines.

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