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Was the police headquarters of Kolkata really red?

30 December, 2021 17:02:12
Was the police headquarters of Kolkata really red?

Around two and a half centuries ago, one of the most picturesque streets of ‘Calcutta’ ran from the north-east corner of B. B. D. Bag to Bowbazar. Termed by the British as the ‘Best Street in Kolkata,’ it was styled like the streets of London. This road had a colonial name: ‘Avenue to the Eastward.’ Natives called it Great Bungalo Road. The road’s fame was also linked to the imposing residence of John Palmer, one of the richest merchant princes of Kolkata. Today, the same road is still well-known, for here stands Kolkata’s famous police headquarters, Lalbazar. Often compared to the Scotland Yard of England, Kolkata Police, always had the legacy of being one of the best police forces of India. Needless to say, the imposing building that houses their headquarters also has a rich historical past.

Interestingly, the origin of the name Lalbazar has different tales to it. Some believe, the reflection of the red bastions of the old Fort William on the water of the Great Tank or Laldighi gave the name ‘Lal or Red’ to Lalbazar. The colour ‘red’ comes up in another theory,that of the ‘Red Turban’ worn by police constables. However, this theory might not be true as constables started wearing such turbans much after the building was named Lalbazar. Natives called the area Lalbazar, as it was occupied and controlled by only Europeans.

We all know how Kolkata was born and how Job Charnock bought the villages of Sutanati, Kolikata and Govindapur from the Sabarna Roy Chowdhurys of Barisha. It is believed they had a Kachhari Bari or administrative house around present Lalbazar. During the annual festival of Holi, the Laldighi and its adjoining areas turned red due to extensive sprinkling of Kumkum and red abir(colours) by local Hindus. However, the Roychowdhurys were devotees of Goddess Kali and it is impossible they adopted the Vaishnava ritual of playing Holi.

Reverend James Long, gives a hint of the association of the name with Mission Church (Lal Girja),made of red bricks, built in 1768 by John Zachariah Kiernander, the first Protestant missionary of Bengal. But long before this church came into existence, Lalbazarhas been mentioned in the plans and proceedings of the East India Company in 1745. John Zephaniah Holwell (Collector of Calcutta, 1751-1756) computed the areas under him. According to Holwell, Lalbazar, which was not a bazaar but a locality, covered an area of ten bighas and nine cottahs of land and hadaround 81 houses. Even in 1736, Holwell mentions Lalbazar as a ‘famous bazaar.’Just like in mid nineteenth century Bholanath Chunder mentioned Lalbazar as a bazaar set up by Lalmohan Bysack. 

In the last quarter of 18th-century the English crowd spent a lot of time in this locality.The famous Harmonic Tavern, one of the most imposing resort, was located right next to Lalbazar. The farewell party of Warren Hastings was arranged here. To soldiers and sailors this street was known as Flag Street because each grog-shop and boarding house was known by the flag that flew on them.

One must admit it is difficult to trace the etymology of Lalbazar, because ‘Lal’ definitely does not mean red. In old records it is written as ‘Loll,’ possibly a slang of ‘Loll Shrob’ (claret). But as Shakespeare said, ‘What’s in a Name?’ Lalbazar has remained and will remain as a witness to several historical events and tales of justice. Today it is synonymous to a grand red four storied structure facing south with thirteen arches, brick pointed with Porebunder columns, and will forever be remembered as the headquarters of Kolkata Police, located on 18, Lalbazar Street.

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