Nobody is quite sure how Chowringhee, one of Kolkata’s most iconic roads, got its name. 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. 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. Nevertheless, for most city residents, the road and the neighbourhood at larger continues to be synonymous with ‘Chowringhee’.
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 1717, the area that is now called the Maidan and surrounding areas including Chowringhee was mostly a dense “forest”, in the midst of which the structure of Fort William existed. A creek ran from Chandpal Ghat all the way up to Wellington Square, passing the Government House and Dharmatolla. Over the decades, the forest was gradually cleared to enable the establishment of the villages that occupied Chowringhee.
Reginald Herber, an English bishop who arrived in Bengal in October 1823, and entered the city on October 11 to start his appointment as the Bishop of Calcutta, extensively documented the city and its surroundings. According to Herber’s writings in his journal, edited by M. A. Laird, Chowringhee was a “mere scattered suburb” of Calcutta. By the time of Herber’s arrival in the city, the villages that previously occupied the area seem to have been cleared away and replaced by large buildings for British administrative operations — “the Town Hall, the Government House, and many handsome private dwellings.” The city of Calcutta fascinated Herber who had taken on the appointment of Bishop of Calcutta because of the opportunities that it would provide him to travel to new places. Standing in Chowringhee, Herber writes: “No native dwellings are visible from this quarter, except one ruinous bazaar, which occupies the angle where Calcutta and Chowringhee join.”
Chowringhee’s close association with faith through the history of the city was because of its proximity to Kalighat and because it functioned to connect the city of Calcutta with the temple at 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.
There are a few uncorroborated versions of how the name Chowringhee actually came to be. One version, according to Nair, says Chowringhee gets its name from the village of Cherangi, that means ‘chera anga’ or ‘cut-up body’, in reference to the Hindu belief that the temple at Kalighat is a Shaktipeeth, one of the places where dismembered parts of the body of the deity Sati fell.
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.”
While the etymology of Chowringhee may have differing versions and may be challenging to trace, records and writings of 18th century travelers in the city show that Chowringhee is even older than the city of Calcutta. Today, despite the name change of one section of the stretch of the road, the name ‘Chowringhee’ has come to represent not just the thoroughfare, but also the neighbourhood at large.
Today, a flyover above cleaves the wide road into two, blocking the view of colonial structures on one side of the street. The pavements are choked with hawkers selling wares throughout the day and pedestrians have to jostle for space, narrowly avoiding broken chunks of the pavement that seems to be in a constant state of disrepair.
Crossing the thoroughfare is only possible at specific locations down the wide road and only the most daring would contemplate entering from random points on the pavement into the swarm of taxis, buses, cars and rickshaws going in both directions. An always busy Chowringhee becomes impossible to navigate for vehicles and humans alike during the festivals of Durga Puja, Christmas and New Year.
But Chowringhee too is changing. To find glimpses of the majesty of the thoroughfare that urban planners in British India had in mind for Chowringhee, one must search through local and international photo archives and private drawing and photo collections, for little of it is visible in person today. The facade of colonial buildings on that stretch of the road are now covered by jarring plastic and neon sign boards and the iconic Metro Cinema has closed down. The heritage cinema theatre’s art deco facade remains, a shadow of its former self, thanks to a half-hearted restoration attempt to pacify the city’s heritage warriors and to toe heritage laws, but the interiors have been torn down to accommodate yet another shopping mall. The forest land that once occupied the area is no more but its traces can perhaps be found in pockets of the Maidan, the largest expanse of trees and greenery that the city has left.