To me, Kolkata (Calcutta) had always been a city of Bengalis. The origin of Bengal Renessance and a continuing centre of Bengali art and culture. However, the city was founded by the world’s largest ever multinational company, and continued to be its Asia head quarter until its demise a few decades after the Indian sepoy mutiny of 1857.
I had seen Dakshnineshwar, I had shopped at Gariahat and been to practically every place in the city that mattered to Bengali consciousness. But I hadn’t seen much of those buildings and places that made up what was once the Imperial capital in the east. I recalled Busteed’s (1895) comments in his book referring to Calcutta in the early/mid nineteenth century as the most magnificent European city anywhere in the world. The British Officers resented the choice of Calcutta as the head-quarter. It was extremely warm for more than a half of the year, with humidity levels exceeding anywhere one had known. Add to it the problem that the entire landmass resembled a web of water bodies – ponds, canals, water drains, marsh lands. However, not that most Bengali officers liked it any better. The weather was quite difficult to deal with, for Bengali officers who came from landed classes of Bengal from the upper areas that were cooler and less humid. But for the locals who preceded the British, Calcutta villages were just a way life—their home. There were local landed classes (Rajas) who paid taxes to the Imperial Treasury during Mughal Power and then to Murshidabad as Delhi faded. Then I read an account of how Charnock (the East Indian Company agent, and founder of Calcutta) bought villages in the watery lands to consolidate as a single town. The constituent towns/villages of Calcutta had civilization older than the city itself.
We were heading towards North Calcutta’s eastern banks, because somewhere here lay one of the oldest temples in the city. I wasn’t sure of how Chitteswari was pronounced, but could explain to the locals that we were looking for an old temple of Goddess Kali. Satyaki accompanied me and was probably much better equipped with Calcutta’s history. This helped us to get to places with flashing speed. I knew we were venturing into areas that weren’t the safest places. Additionally, the lanes were so narrow in these suburbs that at times I felt that our car was rubbing the walls on either side. In trying to locate, we had moved from one suburb to another, further deep inside and far beyond our initial time and distance estimates. Very close to the sandy banks of the river, stood Chitteswari temple. We were informed that there was no regular worship anymore. The temple was opened once a week. The temple was built in 1615 or so, years before Charnock set foot. I tried to imagine what it would have then been. Probably thick vegetation of banana, coconut, other fruits, sundry trees and plants, lots of overgrown grass all around and heavy breeze through the sandy banks of the giant river. It must have been a temple amidst water bodies and drains criss-crossing all the lands for hundreds of kilometers around and the faithful families from nearby villages making regular pilgrimage to Goddess.
Situated in Alipore, the Hastings House isn’t known by that name anymore to most people in the city. And while we came close with the help of an older map, it was finally a policeman who directed us to go to the women’s college. The building now acts as the B.Ed college for women. As you enter through the gate, the heavy vegetation gives you a sense of timelessness. The house has a giant open space around it. So big that it would elude the imagination of most people. Many believe that Hastings’ ghost is out there looking for a large bunch of papers his managers had left behind in 1785, when he sailed back to England. I read a newspaper report of this building being one of the most haunted in the city. The building is typical of the early period and is devoid of architectural splendor that adorns later buildings of the British era. The building is more characterized by its simplicity, strength and size. I was not clear why it was called Hastings House. Did the famous governor general Warren Hastings stay here before he became governor general? And then at the time of leaving India he sold the house? Indeed this was Hastings' private house before ascended to the post of Governor General. He had a flair for building houses and selling, according to Thacker. Hastings house changed occupants before being acquired by Lord Curzon in 1901 for entertaining Indian princes.
We headed further east to reach the banks of the river, the next place was Princep Ghat. A ghat is supposed to be a stairway leading to the water. And a ghat building could be the big/glorified gate that leads to these stairways. Situated on the Bank of the river, the building is now landlocked and somewhat scarred by the new Hoogly Bridge (Vidyasagar Setu) that runs over its shoulders. Nevertheless, the monument seemed quite different from what I was made to expect from a couple of old pictures posted on the internet. It gleaned white with clean interiors and sported lush green lawns around it. The government has brought to life so many of these monuments, which would otherwise decay and crumble. I was happy to see the building but have no idea if the restoration had in any way damaged the heritage. The river, a few meters away looked splendid from there. In the old days river water came up to the Princep Ghat building? Or was the building always loandlocked and was just a recreation facility on the breezy banks of the Hooghly? James Princep was a great architect to built many bridges and even rebuilt mughal buildings. But he is best known as decipherer of Pali script. Princep ghat was built to welcome incoming Governor Generals. Its several arches are now gone. Also gone are extra rooms etc built. But the stairway that once reached from Princep to the river is also gone, buried probably deep down?
We moved along and entered the grand Strand Road. At its pinnacle, the Strand Road must have been witness to one of the grandest cities of all, with so many of the city’s landmarks decorating its length. Many of the famous buildings of the colonial period are situated on the Strand Road, or just off it. Metcalfe Hall was our next destination. It took us a bit of time to locate most of these buildings because their names had changed and the people recognized the buildings just as office of the current occupier. Metcalfe Hall could be recognized by a description in a book that said the building was at the intersection of Hare Street and Strand Road. Once we had found it, people who we had earlier queried said we should have asked for ASI office. A Governor General, Charles Metcalfe had contributed heavily to creation of the free press in India. May I add free English press? Built 165 years ago in 1844, this imposing building housed the public library and the Agricultural Society of India to begin with. But probably library consumed all the space eventually. Lord Curzon innaugrated the National Library here in 1903, which later moved to Belvedere House. Metcalfe House today is Archeological Survey of India’s (ASI) publication sales centre. Unfortunately, it was a Sunday and I could lay my hands on nothing.