Neighbourhood Guides: Shyambazar, Kolkata

Neighbourhood Guides: Shyambazar, Kolkata

Till a few years back, Shyambazar’s five-point crossing was notorious for its traffic snarls. Hundreds of vehicles stood in endless files for hours. Occasionally they would crawl forward a few inches before stopping again. On a weekday, it would take hours to cross the dreaded “Shyambazar signal.” Drivers and conductors would hop off to smoke a biri or start an adda session while passengers grew agitated in the muggy heat. I guess it made for a fascinating night-time drone shoot: five unequal arms of headlights and taillights radiating from the statue of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose.

Shyambazar is one of the oldest areas of Kolkata. In the 18th century, when the salt trade was flourishing in Bengal, Shyambazar and neighbouring Shobhabazar were the bastions of Calcutta’s elite. These neighbourhoods were known for their extravagant mansions and townhouses built in the characteristic Bengali-European style. Under the patronization of Calcutta’s baboos, Shyambazar flourished as the theatre district. In 1835, Nabin Chandra Basu had the first Bengali production, Bidyasundar, staged in his Shyambazar mansion. It is said that he had to sell another of his mansions to fund the lavish night! The house of Nagendranath Basu, the compiler of the Bangla Bishwakosh, the first encyclopedia in Bengali and the Hindi Vishvakosh, the first encyclopedia in Hindi is also in Shyambazar. Shyambazar was the heart of the theatre district. Single-screen halls like Darpana, Radha, Rupbani, Minar, Mitra, and Talkie Show House did brisk business along Bidhan Sarani.

Today, the burgeoning Bengali middle-class and migrant workers constitute the majority of Shyambazar’s population. Mixed-use shops and hawker stalls line the sidewalks around the chaotic five-point crossing. It is interesting to note that unlike in other parts of the city, most of the businesses here are still owned by Bengali families. 

CDs at a shop in Shyambazar

Though urban Bengalis patronized the arts, the West Bengal Government— lead by renowned Bengalis— was never much successful in maintaining the city’s architectural heritage. Relentless urbanization has stripped Shyambazar of its grandeur to make space for the population. The apathy of the Bengal government when it comes to conservation of heritage properties coupled with its failure to adequately rehabilitate refugees post partition, Kolkata’s migrant problem, and property sharks eager to transform old houses into the ugliest of apartments overnight is rapidly turning Shyambazar into yet another spot on the map of Indian cities with uninspiring architecture. Today, Shyambazar’s grand mansions stand mostly forgotten. Some, like the Majumdar’s townhouse on Radha Kanto Jeu Street, have been restored but most are in immediate need of repair.

A few years back, Amit Chaudhari had petitioned the West Bengal government demanding conservation of the heritage houses in the city of Kolkata. He wrote, “Kolkata’s old buildings reflect diverse European architectural styles that in time became imbued with Bengali and Marwari (or classical Rajasthani) influences, creating a unique blend of Indo-European design, unique to the city.” A walk through the lanes and by-lanes of Shyambazar reveal some of the finest examples of Bengal’s golden era of architecture. The houses are charming with airy verandahs, iron latticework, louvred windows, and tall French doors. Take, for example, the Kamala Baati, a massive red and yellow mansion, or Golbari with its distinctive curved balcony from where you can see the Shyambazar five-point crossing, or Ghoribari with its defunct neo-Gothic clock tower.

A shopkeeper burns incense in his stall

Shyambazar Five-Point Crossing: History

According to Holwell, there used to be a large market named Charles Bazaar here, which was later renamed in honour of Shyam Rai by the Basak family, one of the richest trading families in 18th century Calcutta. The area surrounding the market came to be known by the same name.

Their win in the battle of Plassey fueled colonial aspirations and in 1766, the British built 6 roads to connect Dihi Kolkata to the suburbs. One of these was the Shyambazar Road. Then in 1799, the Maratha Ditch was filled up to build the Circular Road (Acharya Prafulla Chandra Road) that ran from Shyambazar to the Maidan. Following this in the 19th century, the Lottery Commission declared plans to build an arterial North-South road. Thus, was built another arm of the Shyambazar five-point: Cornwallis Road (Bidhan Sarani), along which stand many of old Calcutta’s forgotten gems. In 1882, horse-drawn trams were introduced in Shyambazar and in 1889, electrification of tram routes was started. In 1911, Central Avenue was extended to Shyambazar and the Shyambazar end was renamed Bhupen Bose Avenue. To the west is R.G. Kar Road which was built to facilitate access to the R.G. Kar Hospital in Belgacchia and later extended. Shyambazar was already the most important node in the city’s transportation map when the Shyambazar Metro Station was opened in 1994 to ease congestion and improve connectivity between North and South Kolkata.

Also Read: Eating at Siddheswari Ashram

An old house in the lanes of Shyambazar. Check out the louvred windows.

Things to Do in Shyambazar

Greengrocers weighing produce on analogue scales, shops selling glittering jewellery, bunches of fragrant jasmines, hawkers calling out in sing-song voices, stenographers firing away at typewriters on rickety tables set up on the pavement, the aroma of spices and food cooking in roadside eateries, old typography adorning signs with peeling paint, porters carrying loads on carts, the general chaos of people and buses arriving and leaving every second…at Shyambazar, one can experience the drama of human lives relentlessly, without a break.

See 19th & 20th century Calcutta’s grandeur in the by-lanes of Shyambazar. See the Clock Tower at Lalitkumar Mitra’s house, the Mullick’s Kamala Palace, and the houses of Nagendranath Bose, Bhupendranath Bose, and the Mitra family. Radha Kanto Jeu Street also has a number of old townhouses. The best time to explore the backstreets of Shyambazar is early in the morning. A list of heritage buildings can be found here.

A door with decorations on Radha Kanta Jeu Street
A holy man waits for a tram

Ride a tram from the Shyambazar Tram Terminus to Esplanade. On the way, you can see Shyambazar’s old theatres, Kolkata’s famous College Street aka Boipara, Bethune College, and elegant houses and mansions dating back to the 1800s and the early 1900s. 

Watch a show at Kolkata’s oldest theatres. Bidhan Sarani is lined with single-screen cinemas like Mitra Cinema and Darpana.

Darpana’s rusty signboard

Where to Eat in Shyambazar

Shyambazar has some of the oldest eateries in the city. We’ll admit you won’t find global cuisine here as you would in South Kolkata or posh restaurants with air-conditioning. Most of the eateries here have existed for the better part of the century and serve local dishes. 

Dal Puri at Sen Mahasay. Start your day with some crispy puris stuffed with a spicy, aromatic paste of lentils. At Sen Mahasay, they serve it with chhola’r dal. Finish off with a soft, melt-in-the-mouth sondesh.

Mutton Kosha at Rupa. Drop in for lunch at this bhaat’er hotel for a plate of fluffy white rice with Bengali style slow-cooked mutton gravy.

A neighbourhood mishti’r dokan

Mutton Pantheras at Barua & Dey. One of two places in the city to serve this Anglo-Indian classic is Barua & Dey. A pantheras is a flour crepe filled with seasoned mince, rolled in breadcrumbs, and fried.

Kosha Mangsho at Golbari. The mutton gravy here is an institution. It is slow cooked in a base of onion and garlic with spices for a long time. The dish is known for its characteristic, almost chocolatey, bitterness.

Tea at National Economic or Sital Ashram. Lemon tea, buttered toast, and a poached egg make for the perfect snack.

Also read: How to Order at a Telebhajar Dokan

Inside National Economic

At Tripti Snacks Bar, plop yourself down on a bench on the pavement and take your pick from chowmein, rolls, soups, and momos.

Lassi on Bhupen Bose Avenue. The pavement smells citrusy from the line of stalls dolling up glasses of frothy lassi and fruit juices. Pick one with mango pulp for a taste of the tropical.

Street Food

What to Buy in Shyambazar

What Gariahat is to South Kolkata, the Shyambazar-Hatibagan area is to North Kolkata. The area was Kolkata’s primary business hub in the 18th and 19th centuries and continues to be one of the city’s busiest markets. 

The Shyambazar Market is located in the corner of Acharya Prafulla Chandra Street and R.G. Kar Road. If you don’t mind muddy lanes and the gut-wobbling odour of raw meat, check out the wet market at the back. Here you can find fishmongers fleshing the day’s catch, chickens being slaughtered, skinned carcasses of goats hung from hooks, and colourful heaps of fresh produce.

A cat waits for her dinner in the wet market
Bright chunris on sale

Tantuja— West Bengal State Handloom Weavers Co-Operative Society Ltd. is one of the best places to buy Bengal’s traditional weaves. Take your pick from Jamdani, Baluchari, Tangayil, Dhakai, Dhanekhali, and local cotton weaves.

Ghosh Cousins is one of Kolkata’s oldest eye-ware shops. Drop in for a consultation.

Glassware stalls on the sidewalk outside the tram depot have on display cheap, locally made glassware and crockery.

Also read: When to Visit West Bengal

Glassware being sold on the sidewalk
A flower seller catches quick nap behind his flowers

Where to Stay in Shyambazar

Calcutta Bungalow, a restored townhouse dating back to the 1920s, is the city’s newest address. The project is a brainchild of Iftekar Ahsan, the founder of Calcutta Walks. The six bedrooms in the classical-style property have been decorated by a local scenographer, Swarup Dutta.

Calcutta Bungalow

Shyambazar might not be the epitome of India’s glitzy, skyscraper-laden dreams but in its narrow, winding lanes, one can find the true taste of cosmopolitan Calcutta. Someday, we hope, some of these lanes will be declared heritage precincts and the skeletal remains of the elegant houses will be restored to their former glory. Until then, pop a roshogolla into your mouth and brave the chaos of Shyambazar’s five-point crossing, then escape into the sleepy embrace of its by-lanes.

Address: 5, Radha Kanto Jeu St, Fariapukur, Shyam Bazar, Kolkata, West Bengal 700004

Also read: Durga Puja Pandal Hopping Best Advice 

The neighbourhood barber’s shop
Fragrant jasmine at a stall at Shyambazar Five-Point

36 thoughts on “Neighbourhood Guides: Shyambazar, Kolkata”

  • This is a really interesting article and so well written. It’s interesting how you comment that the government has done little to conserve the heritage properties in the area. It’s a shame they’ve been left to deteriorate but it also leaves the buildings to tell a history of teh place – for good or bad. Lots of great things to do as well, thanks for an interesting read.

    • Thanks, Paul! All of North Calcutta is peppered with these crumbling mansions. Coupled with the state government’s apathy, there is the apathy of owners who intend to sell off these mansions– they need a lot of money for maintenance– to realtors who ultimately raze them.

  • Love the article itself but I’m Impressed by the photos! I assure you this post looks like a National Geographic spread. Sooo beautiful and real!! 🙂

  • I loved your real life photos of Shyam Bazaar. As you have described the life of Shyambazar so beautifully that it looks like we are watching some movie or interesting story. Loved that picture of Holy man waiting for tram.

  • This is a very interesting article! I’ve never been to India before, but your narrative and pictures make me feel like I’m there right now! This area seems like a must-go-to place to submerge into the real culture. I rather visit these authentic places instead of ‘skyscraper-laden’ places!

    • Parts of North Calcutta still exude an old world charm. Beautiful houses with their characteristic Indo-Bengali designs, neighbourhood shops with bright typography, the narrow alleys…Kolkata is perfect for a leisurely walk esp. early in the morning when the city is still sleepy.

  • This is a very interesting article on shyambazar never been to Kolkarta but pictures make me curious to explore Kolkata very soon

  • I really enjoyed an authentic taste of Shyambazar through this article. The essence of a city is always hidden in its bylanes and peeks through its everyday affairs. All we need to do is have a keen eye. Lovely piece.

  • Kolkata always appears fascinating to me. Not yet get a chance to explore this region but your post definitely reflects the true colours. Loved that rustic appearance of century old buildings and the bazaar.

  • I’ve never been to this part of the world. Kolkata looks like an interesting region which I would love to explore and visit when I do visit. The markets filled with local foods and crafts are what I love the best.

    • The best way to get a feel of any Indian city is through their markets. As if whole neighbourhoods congregate at certain times of the day to stock up on fresh produce, meat, flowers, etc. They are chaotic, yes, but brimming with interesting conversations.

  • Wow, I love this piece! It’s so different from the usual travel blogs. I love background when reading about new places and this is fascinating. Also, your photos are incredible!

  • Your photos have such an artistic touch! I love how you capture the energy of the place. This is on my bucket list, I hope to visit it soon. Thanks for sharing!

  • I am intrigued everytime I hear and read about Kolkata and it’s rich heritage. Besides wandering in the market and eating Sondhesh, I’d love to stay in the Calcutta Bungalow, I’m sure it’s going to be iconic, going by its history!

  • Fascinating guide. I will be visiting Kolkata next year, I will definitely be visiting Shyambazar, these are the sort of neighbourhoods I love to explore!

  • I loved how you captured Shyambazar, Kolkata through your photography and storytelling. It would be exciting to browse through the local Shyambazar Market to see the fresh produce and also try the local foods. I’ll add this place to a future visit!

  • Sounds like those beautiful old buildings are quite endangered in Shyambazar! From a tourist perspective, it seems quite off the beaten path, which I would love! It would be fabulous to see some of the heritage of this area preserved, but I also appreciate that it remains an authentic, bustling neighborhood that is evolving with its people. You have done an amazing job capturing Shyambazar in your photos.

  • I have spent 4 years of my life in Kolkata, stumbling upon your post brought back a plethora of memories of those four years of my life. Very nostalgic. Keep up the good work!

  • The way you write is totally captivating. From the description of the intersection at the start (reminding me of Paris in rush hour) to those keenly observed vignettes of life – the woman eating a quick snack in the market with her head tilted back in appreciation, the cat eyeing up the potential for a smart bit of cat burglary and the tired flower seller, it’s all both beautiful and poignant. These are the things I travel for, and your keen observational eye and pen – ok, keyboard – have set them out for us to appreciate. I’ve truly enjoyed journeying with you.

  • As always, your photos tell a marvelous story that complement your writing so well. Love the weaving of history and current into a useful travelog. Breaks my heart though to read that the Bengal government is so ineffective at protecting the heritage and culture of the region. Any hope this will change before too much irreversible damage is done?

  • Thanks for giving me a new location to add to my bucket list!! I’ve never been to India but I’m excited to finally go.

  • I just love your photos and how you have captured this beautiful place. These sorts of neighbourhoods are the sorts of places that we absolutely love to explore, those that have so much character and authenticity, this is somewhere we would absolutely visit when we get over to India.

  • Kolkata is actually not on our bucket list, but from what we’ve learned here in your post it seems like it’s totally worth visiting! We’d love to see the old buildings and chat with the locals. By the way, it’s crazy that most of the shops in Shyambazar are still owned by the Bengali families!

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