During the peak of the Left Front rule in the state of West Bengal in the late 1970s, the English-educated Communist leaders went on a street name changing spree, in an attempt to divest Calcutta of its colonial identities and replace them with names of bastions of Communist ideology. The result was a string of road names like Karl Marx Sarani, Ho Chi Minh Sarani, Marx Engels Bithi Road and the like.
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Of these names, Karl Marx Sarani is one of the longest stretches of roads in the city, associated with the city’s Communist legacy, running from the neighbourhood of Garden Reach, all the way up to the edge of Hastings, ending at the foot of the Calcutta Race Course. A substantial section of this road cuts through the heart of the neighbourhood of Khiddirpur, also spelled ‘Kidderpore’ or ‘Khidderpore’.
In 1884, after Khidderpore was selected as the site for the wet docks of the Port of Calcutta, the neighbourhood developed significantly, most of it falling under the control of the Calcutta Port Trust. There are two theories on how the neighbourhood got its name. According to one, long before the port at Khidderpore came into existence, the neighbourhood was home to a fishing village. The local communities living in the fishing village had a guardian saint by the name ‘khidr’ or ‘khizr’, after whom the neighbourhood was so named.
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Another story says that the origins of the name can be traced to British East India Company employee James Kyd, an engineer, with the ship-building firm Kyd’s and Co.’s, who was instrumental in the establishment of the Port of Calcutta. An entry in ‘The Asiatic Journal and Monthly Register for British India and its Dependencies’, Vol. XXIV of 1827, indicates that Kyd’s and Co.’s also owned the dockyards at Khidderpore.
Khidderpore is one of Kolkata’s oldest neighbourhoods and its story starts even before the city of Calcutta was formally established by British East India Company employee Job Charnock in 1690, by combining the villages of Sutanuti, Kalikata and Gobindapur. To establish the massive Fort William, wealthy landowners, zamindars, especially in what was then the village of Gobindapur, were made to leave their ancestral lands and relocated elsewhere by the British in return for financial compensation.
One such zamindari family, the Ghoshals, were set up in the neighbourhood of Khidderpore. The patriarch of the family, Joynarayan Ghoshal built his rajbari in this neighbourhood along with twin Shiva temples nearby. Ghoshal was a dewan of the then Bengal Governor, Harry Verelst, and named the zamindari ‘Bhukailash’. The approximately 300-year-old zamindari is one of the oldest existing in the city, and the Bhukailash rajbari, the seat of the family, remains in existence.
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Finding the Bhukailash rajbari took some time and effort. A few minutes from the docks at Khidderpore, the rajbari had to be accessed by foot, passing by a street called Bhukailash Road, named after the zamindari, located in the center of a maze of chaotic, narrow bylanes, lined with densely-packed housing mostly occupied by daily-wage labourers. This land now occupied by low one-storey houses, it’s occupants spending most of the day out in the bylane or on their jobs, away from its cramped quarters, seems to have developed largely over land that once belonged to the zamindari. Small stores selling gold and silver jewellery line the pavements of Bhukailash Road, interspersed with convenience stores, biryani restaurants and beauty parlours.
The Bhukailash rajbari remains a private residence and residents in the house were unwilling to discuss its history. The property of the rajbari itself was once spread over 150 bighas but over the years, that has severely diminished to a fraction of its former size. Painted in orange and white, the rajbari has been targeted by a poor attempt at restoration that has stripped the three centuries-old structure of characteristics that would have indicated its heritage. After suffering from years of neglect, the Bhukailash temples were restored and declared a heritage site by the Kolkata Municipal Corporation in 1996.In the neighbourhood, two old bridges help connect Khidderpore with the neighbourhood of Garden Reach over the Port of Kolkata, both managed by the Port Trust. The double-leaf bascule bridge, constructed in 1966, is slightly larger and the leaves of the bridge move vertically once a day, between 2 am to 3 am to allow ships to pass, five days a week, with the exception of Wednesday and Saturday. Nearby is a swing bridge that moves horizontally, over the surface of the water, to allow the passage of ships. The Swing Bridge of Khidderpore was built in 1892 and remains operational today. A heavy flow of commuter and cargo traffic use the two bridges on a daily basis.
The neighbourhood close to the docks is dominated by large warehouses for storage of cargo and shipment and old red brick buildings that once housed port, customs, police and other British-Indian government officials working in the area. The South Port police station had retained use of its original quarters in the neighbourhood. In this part of town, little has changed but modern construction in the form of cheap apartments is slowly making inroads.
The wide roads in the Khidderpore neighbourhood constructed to ease transportation of heavy goods is still serving its original purpose as large, heavy cargo trucks continue to ply the streets, throwing dense clouds of dust behind them, choking the flow of traffic during the daytime. Photography in many zones in the area is prohibited because of the presence of the Kolkata Port and its operations. The neighbourhood and its old buildings, some restored, while others in a state of disrepair, serve as a time capsule, of a part of the city that has remained Calcutta.
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