We start our journey of exploration early in the morning at Esplanade Metro station. You can get here by Metro, tram, bus, taxi or by walking. You are now at the northeastern corner of the Maidan, which is to Calcutta what the Padang is to Singapore or the Bund is to Shanghai, a large green area with clubs, lawns, gardens and monuments, about 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) long and 2 kilometers (1.25 miles) wide. The area was a jungle until 1758, when Calcutta was being rebuilt after the carnage of 1756. The old Fort William was to the north, around which the city had grown up, literally from its ramparts, which had rendered the guns of the fort useless during the siege of 1756. Lord Clive, who was then the Governor of Fort William, decided that the new fort be built south of the city, and so that the guns would have free range in the event of an invasion or siege, he decreed that the area around the new fort be kept clear. This caused the jungle to be cleared and rendered into a field ("Maidan" is Bengali/Hindi for a large open space). Of course, no military threat ever came close enough to Calcutta that would ever require the guns to be fired, and slowly the Maidan became the place where people would ride or stroll or play sport, and so clubs, gardens and monuments came about. On the eastern edge of the Maidan, the road was widened, and came to be known as the Chowringhee Road, and mansions housing the rich and famous of Calcutta, as well as those housing some of the city's most enduring institutions came up. To the north was built the Government House, in the late 18th century, from where the Governor General, and later the Viceroy ruled over the Indian Empire of the British monarch.
The area immediately around the Esplanade Metro station is the transportation nerve center of Calcutta. It is busiest tram terminals in the city and most buses run radially, to and from Esplanade. Long-distance buses operate from here as well, but more and more of them are actually moving away from here to new long-distance bus stations in the outskirts of the city. There is also a statue of Lenin here, testimony to the communist coalition that has democratically ruled West Bengal since 1977, the longest serving government in any Indian state. Several roads meet at this point. Dhorumtollah Street (now officially called Lenin Sarani) goes east. Chowringhee Road (now officially called Jawaharlal Nehru Road) goes south. Esplanade Row East goes west (the reference point is the Government House, further to the west, west of which is Esplanade Row West). Bentinck Street goes north while Chittaranjan Avenue goes in the northeastern direction.
Tucked in corner of Dhorumtollah Street and Chittaranjan Avenue is a mosque, known popularly as Tipoo Sultan's Mosque. Tipoo Sultan was the Nawab of Mysore in southern India who stood up against British domination in the 18th century, going to war against them four times, fighting valiantly but losing each time, until 1799, when he lost his life in battle, too. Two of his sons had been taken hostage by the British at the end of the Third Anglo-Mysore War in 1784 and brought to Calcutta. These sons had eventually grown up in Calcutta and built several mosques in the city that go by their illustrious father's name, and this is no exception. The mosque is built in a style that is more native to southern India than to Calcutta. Behind the mosque is The Statesman House, home to the oldest newspaper in Calcutta.
The imposing art deco building wedged between Chittaranjan Avenue and Bentinck Street is Victoria House, corporate headquarters of the Calcutta Electric Supply Company, the oldest power utility company in Asia. West of Bentinck Street, facing Esplanade Row East is the massive, dark, neo-classical building of the erstwhile Military Secretariat, the equivalent of the Admiralty of London. Today, it is an office of the Indian Ministry of Defense. To the west of the Lenin statue is a park that is but a shadow of its past, the Curzon Park, named after one of the most infamous of the British viceroys, at least from the Indian perspective. This park is now in now undergoing a restoration, as part of a major urban revitalization project for the area. Walking further west along Esplanade Row East, you come to the junction of Esplanade Row East and Government Place East. On the northeastern quadrant is a building named the Esplanade Mansions, a fine specimen of Calcutta's stunning architecture. Straight ahead is Government House (now called Raj Bhawan).
Turn left at the junction to go south on Government Place East. You might see a formation of the Calcutta Mounted Police go clippety-clop past you, as you keep the grounds of the Government House to your left. Stop at the next junction, where to your left is the monument to Marx and Engels, and immediately in front, across the avenue is the statue of Calcutta's hero from the Independence struggle, Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose. If you look slightly to your left, you get a clear view of one of the more prominent of Calcutta's structures - the Ochterlony Monument or the Shahid Minar. This structure was built to commemorate Sir David Ochterlony, the hero of the Gurkha War of 1817, but for some reason the architectural style chosen is Middle Eastern - a combination of Egyptian, Syrian and Turkish styles. The structure became a rallying spot during the Independence movement from 1905 until 1947 and since then for a myriad political rallies, causing the government to rename it Shahid Minar (Martyr's Tower). Most people simply call it "The Monument". The monument is also illuminated in the evenings and is indeed a beautiful sight to behold.
Continue south along Government Place East, which now becomes Red Road, until you are at the junction of Mayo Road. To your right, across the road, is the Cenotaph, an exact replica of the one in London, built to commemorate the glorious dead of World War I. Behind the Cenotaph is the stadium of the Mohammedan Sporting Club. You might think that a wooden stadium is a rather temporary structure for a sporting organization over a 100 years old, but this is by design. The Maidan still belongs to Fort William, and very few permanent structures are allowed here, which is why most clubs on the Maidan have wooden structures that can be removed easily, if required.
Turn left on Mayo Road (the official name is Guru Nanak Sarani, but few people use the new name) and continue until you reach the junction of Dufferin Road, marked by a statue of Mahatma Gandhi. Take any south-bound tram from here, sitting in the front car and taking in the Maidan in the morning, passing by the Fort William out to the west and the imposing string of buildings along Chowringhee Road to the east, with a tank from either of the World Wars or a later conflict displayed in little enclosures every couple of hundred feet. Watch people play, jog, stroll or meditate (or even graze sheep!). The tram line goes along Dufferin Road, then turns onto Red Road. Get off at the junction of Red Road and Casuarina Avenue. Walk south along Casuarina Avenue, passing the Ladies' Golf Club to your right and the Brigade Parade Ground to your left. Looming ahead to your front would be the spectacular Victoria Memorial, in all its dazzling splendor. Turn left on Queen's Way, with the gardens of the Victoria Memorial across the street along the way. Halfway along Queen's Way is a roundabout that once had a statue of Queen Victoria but which has now been replaced by a mediocre statue of the great freedom fighter-turned-philosopher, Sri Aurobindo. The pedestal of the statue has not been replaced, and is replete with all signs of the imperialism that Sri Aurobindo opposed all his life.
Enter the Victoria Memorial through its massive gates, walk down the gravel path to the statue of the seated Queen Victoria, Empress of India, in her unamused best. The Victoria Memorial was built between 1905 and 1919 (it was inaugurated in 1921 by the Prince of Wales, later the hapless King Edward VIII and finally the Duke of Windsor, during his Royal Visit to India) and was conceptualized by the flamboyant viceroy, Lord Curzon, as something to surpass the Taj Mahal. To that effect, he ordered the marble used to construct the exterior of the building from Makrana, Rajasthan, the same mine that had produced the marble for the Taj Mahal. Besides the Makrana marble, Italian marble has also been used extensively in the Victoria Memorial. While the Taj is unsurpassed in its proportions and geometric aesthetics, the statuary at Victoria Memorial and the fine sculpture and combination of European and Indian styles, leaves Victoria Memorial, a close second, as the Taj of the Raj. The Victoria Memorial is also a wonderful museum, full of beautiful statues, pictures and Victorian bric-a-brac, trophies of British victory in India, including the sword of Tipoo Sultan and an ivory throne presented to the Governor-General by the Nawab of Oudh. A new addition is the Calcutta Gallery dedicated to the history of the city, and the gardens are home to many of the statues of British generals and viceroys, that have been removed from street corners around the country since independence in 1947. The building is also beautifully illuminated in the evenings and there is also a son et lumiere show in the night. Across Queen's Way is a musical fountain that comes alive in the evenings too. In the mornings, the gardens are very popular with morning walkers. Needless to say, with all its attractions, Victoria Memorial takes the better part of the day to explore, and is perhaps the single biggest attraction in Calcutta. A separate visit should be planned and more information can be had from their official website.
Leave Victoria Memorial from the southern gate, past the statue of Lord Curzon and the equestrian statue of King Edward VII. You will now arrive at Lower Circular Road (officially known as Acharya Jagadish Chandra Bose Road, popularly known as AJC Bose Road). Across the road (and the flyover) is Presidency General Hospital and the laboratory where Sir Ronald Ross discovered the malaria parasite and made the link between the dreaded disease and mosquitoes, winning for himself his only and for Calcutta its first Nobel Prize in 1905. Turn left on Cathedral Road and continue past the Rabindra Sadan auditorium and the Academy of Fine Arts to St. Paul's Cathedral, the seat of the Anglican archbishop of Calcutta, built in 1847. The cathedral has a beautiful stained glass window, an excellent organ, and memorial plaques that seem to come directly out of the books of Kipling and Forster, or perhaps the other way round.
Continuing north along Cathderal Road, you hit the junction of Queen's Way and eventually of Chowringhee Road. At the junction of Cathedral Road and Chowrignhee Roads, is the M P Birla Planetarium, the second oldest plantarium in the world and one of the biggest. Superlatives apart, this institution is largely a non-profit which means that entrance costs a fraction of what you would expect to pay for similar facilities elsewhere in the world.
Continue walking north along Chowringhee Road and see some of the mansions that give Calcutta its well-earned sobriquet, the city of palaces. Many others have given way to uninspiring skyscrapers, but the ambience remains. The 21-storeyed Everest House covers much of the area between Theatre Road and Harrington Street (officially Ho Chi Minh Sarani, home of the American and British consulates). Beyond that is the 17-storeyed Tata Centre, with Citibank on the street level. The next building is an old mansion, that houses the office of Delta Airlines, followed by the 17-storeyed Jeevan Sudha and the 12-storied Jeevan Deep buildings, followed by Middleton Street and the Maidan Metro Station.
Beyond Middleton Street, is the ornate neo-classical Kanak Building, the erstwhile Army & Navy Stores, now home to Standard Chartered Bank, British Airways and a host of other businesses. The next building is Ispat Bhawan, the office of India's largest steel company with most of its manufacturing facilities located within 250 miles of Calcutta. This is followed by the 9-storeyed Himalaya House, followed by the spanking glass, steel and granite structure of the American Center. The next building is the art deco Virginia House, the headquarters of the erstwhile Imperial Tobacco Company, now ITC Limited, one of India's biggest business conglomerates, and one that remains committed to keeping their Calcutta headquarters. The remaining stretch of Chowringhee Road up to Park Street is occupied by a number of buildings including the bauhaus headquarters of the erstwhile Imperial Chemical Industries (now ICI Limited) and the ugly 24-storeyed monstrosity of the Chatterjee International Center, that replaced the imposing facade of the Bengal Club in the 1980s.
After crossing the Park Street junction (which also includes Mayo Road and Outram Road), one passes the Chowringhee Mansions, another one of Calcutta's beautiful mansions, that is now home to a number of airline offices and other businesses. Chowringhee Mansions covers the entire block on Chowringhee Road up to Kyd Street (officially Dr. M Ishaque Road). The next building is the erstwhile United Services Club, now home to the Geological Survey of India, followed by the Indian Museum, which takes up the entire block up to Sudder Street. The Indian Museum, built in 1814, is one of the oldest public museums in the world, and has a collection worthy of its years. Like the Victoria Memorial, this museum, too, is a whole-day affair.
The next block of Chowringhee Road, between Sudder Street and Lindsay Street has three old buildings, namely the Samuel Fitze Building, the YMCA Building and the Bible Society. The street levels of these buildings have shops that sell carpets, sporting goods, custom tailors, opticians, upscale restaurants and offices. The next block, between Lindsay Street and Lighthouse Street (officially Humayun Place), once housed the most famous restaurant in Calcutta - Firpo's Louis XIV, but has since given way to a number of small retail establishments. The original Firpo building recently burnt down, but the neighboring Austin Distributors, continue to sell cars as it has always done, albeit not Austins. The Grand Hotel (now Oberoi Grand) takes up the entire block from Lighthouse Street to Corporation Street. The Grand, built in 1905 is to Calcutta what the Ritz is to Paris (not exactly, but with the Great Eastern having gone to seed, the Grand keeps Calcutta's hostelling traditions running). The hotel was established by an Armenian tycoon by the name of Arathoon Stephens, who is also credited with establishing the famous Raffles Hotel in Singapore, which he modeled after the Grand. You can enter the Grand from all the din of life outside, and step into a world of limpid pools and palm fronds and the most impeccable old-fashioned service, in no time.
The next block, between Corporation Street and Ochterlony Road (officially S N Banerjea Road) was once home to the Continental Hotel that burnt down and has been replaced by a modern 11-storeyed Peerless Quality Inn, known more for the famous Aaheli restaurant, than anything else and a whole assortment of small retailers. The northern-most block of Chowringhee Road, between Ochterlony Road and Dhorumtollah Street is dominated by the Metropolitan Insurance Building, once the famous Whiteway, Laidlaw & Company stores, that now houses the Central Cottage Industries Emporium. The owners of this building wanted to demolish it and build a skyscraper, but public opinion, common sense and activism on part of the New York-based World Monuments Fund, who included it in their list of the 100 most endangered monuments a few years ago, saved the building and even forced the owners to restore it. The building is perhaps ready for another stint as a shopping mall.
At this point we are back at Esplanade Metro station, having completed a tour of Maidan. Hope you enjoyed!
© Focus Calcutta Initiative, Inc. Contents may be used for non-commercial purposes without malicious intent. Last modified December 10, 2003