It’s 2 AM in the morning and the bus rolls down the highway crossing Vidyasagar Setu towards Satragachi, our bus driver Sydney, as the name suggest is half Australian and yes it’s his real name drives to our next destination. A big “thud” and Sydney slams the brake to a stop. “Tyre Puncture” he exclaims creating the perfect climax to the night Kolkata Heritage Night Bus Tour.
This is not how it all started but let me wind back 12 hours exactly, returning back from office I chanced upon Anthony who asked me to accompany him for the very first Kolkata Heritage Night Bus Tour – exploring the heritage of Kolkata on a bus at night. I have been to quite a few heritage locations around the town and also been to many of the Ghost Walks but never ever been to any night bus tour. This was something I would never want to miss.
Armed with a camera, tripod and a bottle of water I reach New Market at around 11 PM. Anthony had already reached the venue and some of the participants had already gathered around him listening to some impromptu inputs about the city’s heritage.
The AC 25 seater bus had already arrived and after a quick welcome brief, the participants boarded the bus for the first ever Kolkata Heritage Night Bus Tour. The bus was packed full and I had to settle for a jump seat behind the driver which actually is always preferred by me since I get the best view of the city from here.
Our first destination was Town Hall, by now the streets were desolate and only heavy trucks were plying the roads of Kolkata. The pavements around Town Hall were now actually concrete beds for the numerous day labourers. Seeing us they were equally surprised as we were. I am sure they were not expecting any visitors.
Originally a hall built for the British for their social gathering this place has seen many transformations. Once even became the council chamber of the Bengal Legislative Council, Municipal Magistrate’s Office etc. This place was restored in 1999 and now has retained back some of its past glory.
From this location, one can cover quite a few other heritage sites of the city Bidhan Sabha Bhavan, Governors House, High Court, and McDonnel Monument. Most of you I am sure are aware of the rest by McDonnel Monument is something new to you, this is actually a drinking fountain right opposite corner of the High Court. The marble tablet bears nothings and has been erased over the ages. This was erected to honour William Fraser McDonnell who was the Vice Chancellor of Bengal Civil Service.
At night everything looks larger than life, this specifically applied to High Court, its tall structures looks more massive at night with the light of sodium vapour lamps. With dead silence at night, the stories come to life and the same can be seen on the faces of the participants also.
Our next stop was right in front of the famous Great Eastern Hotel but our first place of interest was not the hotel but a famous Italian restaurant the first in the city “Federico Peliti”. Once considered as one of the finest confectioners the city of Calcutta can offer now this is just an office building. Only the marble plaque reminds of its glorious past. During the day time when the collapsible gate remains open, you get to see the wooden spiral staircase which has its own beauty.
Right up ahead is the famous Great Eastern Hotel, this place has seen stalwarts like Mark Twain, Nikolai Bulganin etc. who had spent their nights here during a state visit and two particular incident which my father has reconfirmed was that of Nikita Khrushchev & Elizabeth II he was a young boy at that time and went along with my grandfather to see them being driven around in an open car.
Up ahead if we walk around hundred meters towards north we reach Currency Building when Reserve Bank of India was nonexistence this was the central repository for the British in undivided India. During the day you would be able to see the roofless building from inside and the enormous metal vault.
Right opposite to this is the Telegraph Post Office or the Dead Letter Office. Now with no telegraph, this place acts as a wing for the postal department. As the name suggests this place used to once manage the return letters whose recipient couldn’t be tracked.
Walking up ahead towards the west from here we get The Standard Life Assurance Building, with its beautiful architecture this place looks like a beautiful lady both at night and day. Pay special attention to the sculptors at the top of the entrance, it has a Biblical connection and to know more you must come for yourself.
Walking past the Statue of Maharaja of Darbhanga we turn right towards Lal Dighi, there are many stories as to why this artificial water body is called a Lal Dighi so let’s not get into the detail but once this was a prized fresh water source for the British in the Dalhousie locality. This place also has some of the last remaining (non-functional) India’s first gaslight street lamps.
Just bang opposite to this is the General Post Office (GPO). This is where the actual Fort William once stood, the only way to know this is to look at the Brass Lines that are embedded into the stairs of GPO and a marble plaque at the end.
The place where GPO there is a small place which was once an open garbage dump, only demarcated by two half buried cannons is where once the famous Black Hole of Kolkata once stood.
Moving up ahead toward northeast we have the corridors of powers of British India the Writers Building. This was not always the main headquarters of British and Bengal Government but has seen many different occupants. Currently, this place is undergoing restoration and someday we hope to see the insides.
We board the bus and our next stop was the Kolkata Municipal Headquarters near New Market. Things to see out here are Chaplin Park, perhaps the only memorial to the king of comedy followed by the buried cannons right outside the Municipal HQ gates.
A little to the left towards Elite Cinema we get the Futnani Chambers once housed a famous night club called Golden Slippers. Now it’s just a name in the history of the city once boasted a night out with classic jazz and rock & roll.
Taking a further left from Elite Cinema we pass the recent dead of the city the one and only Bourne and Shepherd. Once a landmark in photography not only for the city or the country this one store will forever remain in the nostalgia of all black and white film photographers.
By now it was around 1.30 PM and was perfect for some midnight Chai at Balwant Singh’s Eating House at Harish Mukherjee Road. When we reached there the plan from Chai shifted to Doodh Cola and Doodh Fanta. After this much-needed break, we head straight towards Howrah Bridge (Rabindra Setu).
The original plan was to go for a long drive towards Satragachi but then it all happened. We got a flat tyre in between. The bus managed to crawl to a corner of the highway moving away from the heavy night goods carrier traffic zooming past us.
Sydney our bus driver tried his level best to replace the flat tyre but it was just not working. The lifting jack was not getting positioned properly resulting in constant slipping. Luckily for us, a Gas Station (Petrol Pump) was right up ahead and with some help from the truckers halted at the station the tyre was replaced in no time.
The next stoppage on the list was at Hastings where Maharaja Nandakumar was hanged, it’s a small island just as you get off the bridge. There is a well in the centre which many believe is where the execution took place. However, it is to be noted that there is no solid evidence to this and it’s an assumption only by most.
The flat tyre took some valuable night time but then everything has a reason, the delay meant that when we reach our next destination that is an abandoned jetty just up ahead of Vidyasagar Setu towards Bidhan Ghat. Some call this a Helipad but it’s just an abandoned goods loading jetty.
The time that we reached this spot was perfect since dawn was just breaking and from a photographers point of view what we get is called a Blue Hour. The sky was perfect blue and the view was really breathtaking.
With almost dawn, the next two spots were the Lascar Memorial which it just next to this jetty. This memorial is dedicated to the sailors of the subcontinent who died while fighting for the British Empire.
The last but not the least our last stop was at Prinsep Ghat, built in the year 1841 in the memory of James Prinsep is now one of the most recognizable landmarks in the city’s heritage map. From this place you get a fantastic view of Vidyasagar Setu, I would recommend you come here during the evening and watch the sun set beyond the Hooghly River.
Finally, our bus tour led by Anthony was over and now it was early morning, being summer the sun was up and the city was slowly waking up, the newspaper vendors had already set up their stalls and the Chai Wala was ready with his hot cuppa. Tours end but memories lingers on forever. Hope you have enjoyed the night bus tour through my blog but the real fun is in actually going to one of these tours.
Want to go for a Kolkata Heritage Night Bus Tour? Contact LetUsGo @ 91 96749 17877 or Anthony Khatchaturian @ 91 99349 94919