This Calcutta Heritage Walk takes you through the megapolis history strongly rooted in the British Raj days of India. It was the British who were responsible for creating the city of Calcutta along with Mumbai on the western coast and to an extent Madras on the Eastern coast. So, this time in the city, I decided to explore the history of the city when it was born as Calcutta. I was guided through the colonial Calcutta by the Kolkata expert, my friend, and fellow blogger Rangan Datta. To avoid the summer heat, we began our tour at around 6:30 AM. I would highly recommend you do this walk early morning before the sun starts shining bright and before the traffic builds-up, on the city’s roads. Explore these heritage places to visit in the megapolis.
Calcutta Heritage Walk – Places to visit in Kolkata
You can do this Calcutta Heritage Walk by yourself too, as West Bengal Tourism has put signboards at all the key buildings in the heritage part of the city. These boards give a brief history of the building and also point out features that you should not miss observing. Of course, there is nothing like listening to the stories from someone who has been exploring the city for more than two decades. Let me give you a glimpse of what I saw on this Heritage Walk:
We were supposed to begin our walk from the Raj Bhavan, but then this handsome building in white made us stop and admire it. The small board at the entrance said ‘Esplanade Mansion’. Originally built as a residential complex, it was in the hands of Americans during the second world war when it was home to The American Library.
Esplanade Mansion was built by the Jewish businessman Elias David Joseph Ezra in 1910.
Raj Bhavan & Around
It was 1799, and Lord Wellesley was Governor-General of India. He lived in a country house on the land that belonged to Nawab of Chitpur. He suddenly realized that India being the land of palaces has to be ruled from a palace and the idea of Government House was born. Yes, what we know as Raj Bhavan now was initially called Government House. Architect Charles Wyatt built it in a neoclassical style inspired by the Curzon family’s mansion in Derbyshire. As luck would have it 100 years later Lord Curzon came to be the Viceroy of India and lived here.
Raj Bhavan has 6 gates, one each in North & South, and 2 each in East and West. It is only through these gates that you can get a glimpse of this building. East & West gates have a Lion capital – not sure if it was inspired by the lion capitals of Ashoka pillars. Raj Bhavan spreads across 27 acres covering an area of 84,000 sq. foot. Various occupants added features to Raj Bhavan like domes, lifts, etc.
You can’t see much inside the Raj Bhavan. I found the most interesting part of Raj Bhavan just outside it – two old horse stables bang opposite each other. I was told these are now residences of senior IAS officers attached to the Raj Bhavan. The facades with external staircases leading to the first floor were very camera-friendly, unlike most other buildings.
There was even relief of a manhandling two horses on top of the gates.
Standard Life Assurance Company Building
This is the first of many red buildings I would meet on this Calcutta heritage walk. Insurance companies, it seems we’re doing very well in Colonial Calcutta. They built these giant buildings and one can safely assume that they had the funds and the staff to build and occupy these buildings. In fact, it is the finest building that I saw around Lal Dighi – the tank that is surrounded by red buildings on all sides. A Panch Ratna style dome cluster towers over the North-East corner of the building almost like the signature of this building. If you observe closely, you would be able to see some nice stucco work on top of the arches, though you need to know the Christian stories and iconography to decipher them.
Architect of Standard Life Assurance Building in Calcutta Frederick W Stevens also designed the Victoria Terminus at Bombay.
Standard Life Assurance was an Edinburgh based company. They were the pioneers in offering insurance to people in British colonies. This office was their headquarter and they also had an office in Bombay.
Dead Letter Office
This handsome building in red and white with a tall tower on its North-East corner was the erstwhile Telegraph office. All incoming posts, to Bengal, were sorted here. This meant all the letters that could not find their destination remained in this building, giving it the name – Dead Letter Building. The building is still being used by the Indian postal department, though the GPO is at a stone’s throw away distance from Dead Letter Building. I wonder what they are doing with all the old undelivered letters – I am sure there must be a lot of history buried in those letters.
Located at the southeast corner of Dalhousie Square, this building was built between 1873-76.
Lal Dighi – Heart of Calcutta Heritage Walk
This small rectangular water tank is at the heart of Colonial Kolkata and hence part of our heritage Walk. It was originally named Lal Dighi. It was called so for the color of water used to turn red during the festival Dol. Co-incidence is that most buildings surrounding it today are Red in color. It was then named Dalhousie Square after Lord Dalhousie who ruled India from 1848-56. Post Independence, it was named BBD Bagh after the three Indian Nationalists who lost their lives around this area.
If you do not have enough time, just take a round of Dal Dighi and you would see the best colonial buildings of the megapolis.
St Andrew’s Church
This simple looking white church with a tall spire is Kolkata’s first and only Scottish church. It was built way back in 1818. I read somewhere that although it was the British who established their footprints here, it was the Scottish who established a lot of business houses in Calcutta.
Writers Building on the Calcutta Heritage Walk
The Writers Building is probably the most popular building in the BBD Bagh area of the city. This deep red building stretches across the whole of the northern edge of Lal Dighi. With a garden on the side, it is the pleasant part of my Heritage Walk of the megapolis.
Writers building once was the office of the clerical and administrative staff of East India Company. It is now the West Bengal State Secretariat. The building dates back to 1777 although it stands today it has many additions that were made by occupants over the years.
Indian emblem of 4 lions can be seen on the central building facade in golden. Above it on top is a statue of Minerva. I believe there are many other statues, but unless someone points to you they are difficult to locate.
The writer’s building was attacked by the nationalist trio of Benoy Basu, Badal Gupta & Dinesh Gupta in December 1930. They managed to kill Col Simpson, the Inspector General of Police but all three of them lost their lives in the process. A huge statue of three stands in the garden opposite the writer’s building in the city.
The security guards around the writer’s building would tell you not to take pictures of the building. So, I could take only a few pictures that too from a distance before I met the security guys. In an act that is totally beyond my understanding, they said NO to a picture of West Bengal tourism’s information board as well.
For a detailed history of Writers building, check this article in Telegraph.
The Collectorate building is yet another lovely and well-maintained building that is red. Built-in 1890 it is probably the younger of the many buildings in this area. An old customs building was demolished to build the Collectorate office. This is now the office of the commissioner of the Presidency division of the megapolis. Most of the building is hidden behind a giant green tree, so you may miss the famed ornamentation of this building.
I had heard of most other buildings, but this one was a surprise for me on this city Heritage Walk.
General Post Office stands out in the Lal Dighi area with its sparkling white color and its big dome that is impossible to miss.
GPO stands at the place where original Fort William once stood in the early 18th CE. It fell to Siraj-Ul-Daula in 1756 and the GPO came up sometime in 1868. A brass strip on the stairs of the building still marks the boundaries of the erstwhile fort.
Calcutta Black Hole
Calcutta Black Hole is both a place and a historical event. Black Hole refers to a military prison, where after the attack by Siraj-Ul-Daula, on Jun 20th, 1756, 146 people were stuffed into a small room. 123 of them died by the morning of suffocation. A memorial to these dead people was built right outside the prison – which according to some historians is a small gap between the GPO building and the city’s Collectorate building. It seems too small to fit 146 people but then the number of people is debatable. Lord Curzon built another memorial in 1901 and that too had to be shifted to the premises of St John’s Church, not too far from this spot. There is an equal number of people who believe it happened or not happened.
The event gave rise to the phrase ‘Kolkata Black Hole’ that means any crowded place that is too stuffy to breathe.
This was a new travel phrase that I learned on this Heritage walk.
For more details on the Black Hole, refer to this detailed blog post by Deepanjan.
Royal Insurance Building
Next to the GPO is this lovely Royal Insurance building dating back to 1905. The size and facade of the building tell you about the fortunes of the Insurance companies before Independence. This is when Indians were not even allowed to buy insurance.
The office of Scottish company – Shaw Wallace was recently acquired by the UB group.
This is a building that draws its inspiration from the ‘Tower of the Winds’ in Athens. Tall Greek pillars an easy giveaway. Built between 1840-42, this was home to The Imperial Library of Calcutta, which later became the National Library of India. Currently, it houses the library of the Asiatic Society.
This tall but contained building in white with green windows has a character of its own, very different from all other buildings around Lal Dighi.
From here we took a small break at the Floatel hotel – a floating hotel on Hooghly River. Its viewing deck is perfectly positioned between the two iconic bridges of the megapolis – The Howrah Bridge on right and Vidyasagar Setu on the left. We stood at its deck admiring the bridges and the boats that passed by. Behind us was the State Bank building – another heritage building.
Calcutta High Court
The high court has been working since 1862, making it the oldest court in the country. It was also the supreme court of India before the capital of India moved to Delhi in 1911.
Neo-Gothic-style building has shades of Oxford colleges as per the West Bengal Tourism board. The building came up in 1872.
Bang opposite the High Court building is an interesting Lion Mouthed fountain with two dates written on it 1850 and 1886 – this is a memorial to Wiliam Fraser McDonnell. This was the hidden gem that I discovered on this Heritage Walk. The best place to know about this is Rangan Datta’s Blog.
Town Hall is a public building built in 1814 for public functions. It is now managed by the city corporation and houses painting exhibitions.
Was there a template for town hall buildings that the British followed? All of them looked similar – we could easily pick the town hall building if all the buildings mentioned above were put in front of us.
St John’s Church
Built-in 1787, St John’s Church is the third oldest church in megapolis. Locals call it ‘Pathure Girja’ or the Stone Church since it was one of the few buildings built in stone in those days. Notable things at St Jonh’s church include a painting of Last Supper that resembles that of Leonard’s but has Indian touch.
You must see the Black Hole Memorial here that I mentioned earlier.
That was a lot of history for a day. We were supposed to finish this walk in 2 hours but we took good 4-5 hours to finish this.
My Kolkata Heritage Walk is an experience curated by the concierge at ITC Sonar, who were my hosts in the city. They have many such city experiences that they organize for their guests through the Golden Key holder managed concierge.
Recommend you read the following related Travel Blogs.
Jorasanko Thakurbari – Tagore’s house
Rabindranath Tagore Poetry at Shanti Niketan