Nestled on the eastern banks of the River Hooghly, lies Kolkata or Kalikata, a bustling metropolitan city steeped in history, arts, and culture. The local name Kalikata finds its origins in ‘Kalakshetra’ which translates to the ‘area of the goddess Kali’ – the patron deity of the city.
The river Hooghly formed the primary connection of the mainland and Bengal Delta which permitted traders from around the world to make advances into Bengal. The acquisition of the villages Kalikata, Gobindpur, and Sutanati in 1690 by the British East India Company was a pivotal moment that shaped the history of this glorious city. Subsequently, Calcutta emerged as a significant centre of commerce and bolstered the foothold of the British in Bengal. After recapturing the city at the battle of Plassey, Calcutta became the British administrative capital and the epicentre of development.
Calcutta, renamed as Kolkata in 2001, is the amalgamation of its colonial past indigenous culture and rapid urbanization. Streets are an integral part of the urban fabric and set the stage for interactions between the city and its people. Kolkata’s streets have stood witness to its rich and turbulent past, and by walking through the streets one can genuinely experience it.
Kolkata is divided into North Kolkata, South Kolkata, and the Central Business District. In northern Kolkata, the oldest part of the city, time appears to stand still. This region consists of areas such as Bagbazar, Shyambazar, Chitpur, Burrabazar, Maniktala, and Jorasanko. Narrow alleys, heritage buildings, temples, and old bazaars are the defining characteristics of the streets of northern Kolkata.
Bagbazar, an old neighbourhood in north Kolkata stands witness to the history of this city. Walking through it by lanes one enters a world where the old and new co-exist. In the olden days, Bagbazar housed the rich and elite class of zamindars. The zamindars distinguished themselves from the native population by modelling their homes after European houses, creating a unique confluence of local and colonial architecture. Hidden in the by lanes of Bagbazar lies BasuBati, a zamindar mansion with a rebellious history and a unique blend of architecture. A Massive stone façade, fluted columns adorned with ornate capitals, and scalloped arches are the features of this mansion. Bagbazar is known for the oldest community Durga Puja celebrations.
A twenty-minute walk from Bagbazar transports one to the oldest road in Kolkata, Chitpur Road, now known as Rabindra Sarani. The street is lined with crumbling houses of the elite merchant class of Kolkata. These mansions are a unique blend of Victorian and Mughal Architecture. A narrow lane branching from Chitpur Road leads to Jorasanko Thakur Bari, the home of Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore. The massive red-coloured mansion restored to its former glory provides a glimpse into the life of the ‘Bard of Bengal.
Walking along Rabindra Sarani, one arrives at Kumartuli. This neighbourhood is home to the potters and sculptors, responsible for crafting the beautiful idols of goddess Durga. The narrow alleys house numerous rectangular-shaped workshops with brick walls and inclined tin roofs braced by bamboo trusses. One can observe people sculpting delicate idols while precariously standing on a network of bamboo scaffolding before the start of the festivities.
A half-hour walk from Kumartuli takes one to the chaotic Burra Bazar, which houses India’s largest wholesale market. Historically, the Burra Bazar market attracted merchants from all over the world for trade eventually settling here. Synagogues, Chinese temples, and the oldest Armenian church demonstrate the diverse cultural character of this area.
The largest second-hand book market in Asia, on College Street is a fifteen-minute walk from Burra Bazar. ‘Boi para’, is the local moniker given to the street which translates to ‘book town’. As the name suggests, the street is lined with hundreds of shops and stalls selling books of every imaginable genre. Indian Coffee house, a historical establishment on College Street House had the patronage of legendary authors like Rabindranath Tagore and Satyajit Ray. This street is home to many prestigious educational institutes like the Presidency University, the Sanskrit college, and Calcutta medical college.
The central region of Kolkata is the bustling commercial heart of the city which houses numerous heritage buildings and government offices. Formerly known as Dalhousie Square, BBD Bagh is the central business district of Kolkata. Renamed after Binoy-Badal-Dinesh, three revolutionaries who fought for the Indian Freedom Struggle, BBD Bagh is surrounded by Architecture steeped in history. The Writers’ Building built to house the clerks of the East India Company has undergone several changes in the façade. The core skeleton of the building has remained unchanged throughout history. Presently the building is home to the secretariat of the government. Across the road lies the historical man-made water tank ‘Lal Dighi.” The sprawling twenty-five-acre water body is surrounded by lush greenery and reflects the heritage skyline of BBD Bagh.
Esplanade Street, known as Chowringhee Road lies on the eastern end of BBD Bagh, is the primary shopping area for the people of Kolkata. Esplanade Mansion located on the corner of Esplanade row is a unique example of Art Nouveau architecture in the city. The mansion’s circular balconies, arched windows, and the ornamented curved façade are elements popular to the Art Nouveau style. Located on the intersection of Chowringhee Road and S.N Banerjee Road lies the Metropolitan Building. The massive Neo-Baroque style building was a department store in the colonial era. Domes, recessed windows, clock tower, and barrel-vaulted arches are some of the significant features of this structure.
Walking southwards along the Esplanade, the streetscape changes dramatically. Crowded narrow alleys and roads are replaced by open grounds and lush greenery. The Maidan, a sprawling open park made by the British by clearing the dense jungle for a parade ground, is surrounded by landmarks. Its southern end marked by Victoria Memorial is a large marble memorial to the erstwhile queen of the British empire built in the Indo-Saracenic style of Architecture. On its western end lies Fort William. Fort William is an octagonal shaped brick fortification built in 1757. The northern end of the Maidan is marked by the Eden Garden Stadium and Shaheed Minar. The vast expanse of greenery aptly nicknamed as the lungs of the city provides much-needed respite to its residents.
Strand Road is one of the longest roads in the city of Kolkata. Stretched along the Hooghly river, the Strand road is home to diverse colonial architecture. The road is lined with dilapidated red-bricked warehouses, the former colonial-era centre of maritime trade. On the southern end of the road lies Prinsep Ghat. Prinsep ghat offers spectacular views of Vidyasagar Setu, the longest cable-stayed bridge in India. Towards the northern side of the road, 4 lanes of the Strand road branch into the iconic suspended Howrah Bridge.
South Kolkata is the prime district of the city which was developed post-independence. The neighbourhood comprises areas such as Bhawanipur, Alipore, Ballygunge, Thakurpukur, Lake Gardens, and Kalighat; open spaces, contemporary architecture, and ancient temples are the significant characteristics of this district.
Walking through the vibrant city of Kolkata is akin to reading a complex book with multiple layers, every page has something unique to offer. The delicate balance of the ancient and modern that the city effortlessly carries is what makes Kolkata a city for all.
- https://shodhganga.inflibnet.ac.in/bitstream/10603/212182/7/07_chapter 2.pdf