The Victoria Memorial is one of the grandest buildings in Calcutta. // © 2013 Thinkstock
The Great Eastern Hotel was once described as “the finest hotel east of Suez.” Opened in 1840, India’s first luxury hotel was frequented by numerous dignitaries and celebrities, including Mahatma Gandhi, Nikita Kruschev and Mark Twain. After falling into disrepair for several years, the Great Eastern has been carefully restored and will reopen as a 244-room luxury hotel — replete with a modern incarnation of its legendary Maxim bar — in November. The rebirth of this Kolkata icon underscores the positive current sweeping through India’s second-largest city.
A new airport terminal has opened, Kolkata’s first skyscraper is under construction, and recently a handful of glitzy malls have sprung up. Yet Kolkata’s fascination for clients resides in its intriguing backstory rather than its increasing modernity.
On my walking tour with Calcutta Photo Tours, Manjit Singh Hoonjan, the company’s founder, explained the history behind the city’s rich and varied architecture.
“The history of Kolkata is local, but its finest buildings are European,” said Hoonjan, as we stood in the watery early morning light beside the Great Eastern Hotel.
British colonial intervention in the 1700s saw Kolkata (its name was changed from Calcutta to Kolkata to match its native Bengali pronunciation in 2001) transformed by grandiose municipal buildings, offices, churches, hotels and gardens. Yet despite becoming the capital of British-ruled India, Kolkata retained its proud cultural pre-eminence.
“There was a popular saying: ‘What Kolkata thinks today, the rest of India will think tomorrow,’” Hoonjan said.
The city’s ambitious 18th-century development saw a huge influx of immigrants from across India, China and Europe, who would construct and maintain a grand city dedicated to global trade and commerce. The diverse cultural and architectural legacy is highlighted by British, Armenian and Portuguese churches, synagogues, mosques and Buddhist and Jain temples. Unsurprisingly, Joonjan’s most popular walking tour is titled “Cultural Kaleidoscope.”
Even at the start of our early morning walk, the city heat began to rise as Kolkata woke to another broiling hot day. From the Great Eastern Hotel, we ambled to B. B. D. Bagh, previously known as Dalhousie Square, the administrative center of British colonial Kolkata. Picturesque European constructs around the square included the redbrick Writers Building, dating from 1780, the whitewashed General Post Office and the magnificent High Court.
As we stood admiring the time-worn Standard Assurance office, featuring carved stone symbols of life and death over the arched entrance, an aged tram from the 18th century chugged past. In 1905, Kolkata became one of the first Asian cities to have an electrified tram system. Now the city is phasing out its iconic old tramcars and replacing them with new, air-conditioned models.
We concluded our tour in the peaceful grounds near the old city center, beneath the soaring steeple of St. John’s Church. The church was built to resemble St. Martin in the Fields in London’s Trafalgar Square and houses German painter Johan Zoffany’s 1787 masterpiece, “Last Supper.” The painting reinterprets the biblical scene with members of Kolkata’s British aristocracy seated at the table. In the cemetery, Joonjan showed me the mausoleum of Job Charnock, Kolkata’s founder, who died in the city in 1692.
Inspired by Joonjan’s historical insight, I decided to investigate Kolkata further after the tour. My first stop was Eden Gardens. Cricket is an abiding passion in India, and Eden Gardens is the country’s most famous cricket stadium. Even for clients unfamiliar with the game, the raucous atmosphere on match day is infectious.
Next, I walked through Chowringhee, once the center of high society in Kolkata, past a statue of Indira Gandhi, and on to Victoria Memorial. This extravagant marble palace is set amid beautiful gardens and was built by the British to replicate the Taj Mahal and glorify the reign of Queen Victoria, Empress of India. In fact, it was nicknamed the “Taj of the Raj.”
After seeing such lavish ostentation, I navigated Kolkata’s less salubrious backstreets to reach my final destination. Mother Teresa’s Mother House is a missionary training center established by the Nobel Peace Prize-winner in the late 1940s. Over the next 50 years, Mother Teresa set up scores of hospitals, schools and hostels for Kolkata’s poorest and sickest slum dwellers. A small museum documents her remarkable life story, and visitors can see the dorm room where she lived until her death in 1997.
The most humbling moment of my visit came at the end, standing beside the tomb of one of the 20th century’s most remarkable public servants. Of all the magnificent sites that represent Kolkata’s history, this one should not be missed.