Chowringhee is a neighbourhood in central Kolkata steeped in history, it is a business district, as well as a shopper’s destination and entertainment-hotel centre. Chowringhee, not quite an arterial road but one of the city’s longest thoroughfares today, connects two parts of the city — Kalighat and Dharmatolla — to each other. While flipping through some old photographs, I found some pictures of Chowringhee and so thought of blogging on it. A few years ago, I stayed at the Peerless Inn on Chowringhee and clicked some pictures from the windows of my room.
Nobody is quite sure how Chowringhee, one of Kolkata’s most iconic roads, got its name. The name ‘Chowringhee’ has defied etymologists. There is, however, the legend of a Nath yogi, Chouranginath, who discovered an image of the goddess Kali’s face and built the first Kalighat temple.
Chowringhee too underwent a name change in 1964, ostensibly to shed its colonial nomenclature, but the switch to Jawaharlal Nehru Road after the first Prime Minister of India, was applied to only one segment of the road: the portion from Esplanade to Park Street.
The first records of Chowringhee find mention in the book ‘Calcutta During Last Century’ by Henry Ferdinand Blochmann, a German scholar who studied the Indian subcontinent and taught Persian during the 1860s in Calcutta. Blochmann’s writings on Calcutta show Chowringhee during the 18th century was a rural area, with small “puddles of water”.
In the seventeenth century or prior to it, the area now occupied by the Maidan and Esplanade was a tiger-infested jungle. At the eastern end of it was an old road, which had once been built by the Sabarna Roy Choudhury family from Barisha to Halisahar. In that region were three small hamlets – Chowringhee, Birjee and Colimba.
Chowringhee is one of the best addresses in Kolkata. It still oozes of the imperial heritage. The building nearby are majestic and imposing and reminds of the British raj.
Just across is the Metropolitan Building — an iconic landmark in Chowringhee. Formerly known as the Whiteway Laidlaw department store, it was a famous department store in Calcutta during the British Rule in India. This net-baroque emporium — with domes, a clock tower, and arched recessed windows — exemplifies fashionable shopping during the British Raj in British India. The building was built in the year 1905.
Post Independence Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. assumed ownership, so people know it more commonly as Metropolitan Building. The building was restored by the Life Insurance Corporation of India.
The tall Shahid Minar can also be seen from the room window with the Eden Gardens stadium as the backdrop. Shahid Minar was erected in 1828 in memory of Major-general Sir David Ochterlony, commander of the British East India Company, to commemorate both his successful defense of Delhi against the Marathas in 1804 and the victory of the East India Company’s armed forces over the Gurkhas in the Anglo-Nepalese War.
In August 1969, it was rededicated to the memory of the martyrs of the Indian freedom movement and hence renamed the “Shahid Minar” in memory of the martyrs of the Indian independence movement.
Chowringhee’s close association with faith through the history of the city was because of its proximity to Kalighat. According to historian P. Thankappan Nair, Chowringhee was also known as ‘Pilgrim Road’ and ‘Road to Kalighat’ during the 18th century, because of the route worshippers took to the Kalighat temple, a Shaktipeeth.
An interesting version of the nomenclature can be traced to an issue of the National magazine published in December 1889 where author Sarat Chandra Mitra wrote that the name of the road comes “from the Hindustani word ‘Chowringhee’, which means many-coloured, the houses in that locality commanding views of various sorts and colours.”
Nevertheless, for most city residents, the road and the neighbourhood at large continues to be synonymous with Chowringhee.