After expertly navigating the impossibly clogged route from the airport, our taxi coasted to a halt in front of a colonnaded arcade teeming with what seemed like half the population of Calcutta. “This can’t be it” I muttered to R in dismay, while he peered out with equal skepticism.
Then a pair of wrought iron gates swung open, and liveried doormen ushered us past baggage scanners and metal detectors – those necessary reminders of 21st century malevolence – into the elegant marble lobby of the Oberoi Grand. An oasis of quiet calm, a whole world removed from the bedlam outside!
The address reads No.15 Jawahar Lal Nehru Marg, but the Grand Hotel began life at no. 13, as the replica of a Sussex home that a Col. Grand had coveted as a young boy. It changed hands in 1870 when an enterprising Irishwoman, Mrs. Annie Monk, set up a boarding house on the site – the first of its kind in this part of the world – whose commercial success, despite its tatty interiors and unsavoury reputation, led to the acquisition of no.s 14 – 17 Chowringhee.
With Mrs Monk winding up shop and returning home in 1894, titles to no 16, that was by then the crumbling Theater Royal, was picked up by an astute Armenian adventurer named Arathoon Stephen, whose humble beginnings as a penniless refugee, and later, assistant to a leading jeweler, had not stifled his dreams. At an opportune moment nearly two decades on, the theater mysteriously went up in flames, leaving Arathoon, fully insured and poised to turn his destiny from cart pusher on Chowringhee to millionaire hotelier. The name of his grand venture, an inadvertent (?) tribute to the original owner!
By 1937, ten years after Arathoon’s passing, repeated outbreaks of cholera and typhoid, forced the gates of the Grand Hotel shut, until Mohan Singh Oberoi, another ambitious fortune seeker, upon hearing of the defunct hotel from a friend in the Delhi station, hopped onto the next train to Calcutta, in the hope of adding the 500 room property to his burgeoning hotel business. The story of how this young college dropout from Punjab, lured customers fearful of dying from disease back to his spectacularly refurbished lodging, hosted transiting allied forces during the war (coming close to being knighted for his efforts) and eventually set up a hospitality empire synonymous with luxury and exemplary service, is history.
There are many grand hotels in India. But to date, you will be hard pressed to find service of the kind dispensed by the Oberoi group in any of them. We had experienced it on the Nile cruiser Oberoi Philae (sadly now defunct, along with their Mena House in Giza), and the Oberoi Grand was no exception. From housekeeping to restaurant staff, and chef to concierge, customer satisfaction is their prime objective. While the food – apart from our standout Thai meal at Ban Thai – wasn’t always exciting, they went out of their way to cater to our tastes and requests for local cuisine. The lovely poolside being out of bounds in the evenings unless one had reservations for a special (pricey) set menu, was the only annoyance in an otherwise perfect stay. I owe thanks to general manager George Kuruvilla and his team for contributing hugely to our enjoyment of Calcutta.
The Grand Dame might not be as magnificent as she was in her prime, in the fifties. But for me, no glitzy rival in a sterile neighbourhood can match her old world charm. Or her location, despite the frenzied bartering outside her gates. And I doubt there could be a better refuge, at the end of a muggy, harrowing, Calcutta day.
*Historical facts sourced from “To A Grand Design”, penned artfully by Bachi J Karkaria and filled with humorous anecdotes and old images, that makes for a fabulous take home gift for residents. Here’s an excerpt.
The Oberoi Grand doesn’t come cheap. But ASK! Not all offers show up online.
47 thoughts on “The Grand Dame Of Chowringhee”
Beautiful photo slideshow – you can really get a feel for this old world beauty.
Thank you Mary. It must have been truly grand way back then.
What an amazing success story, Madhu. The hotel really does look very grand indeed. Lucky you to have stayed there.
We were. And it really is amazing how many destinies were tied to that piece of prime real estate!!
I like hearing your daughter’s voice at the end here, Madhu. And you were right! 😉
My daughter is quite the expert ‘hotel deal hunter’ herself…….usually 🙂
You are one lucky gal! Not to say that you don’t work for it… I can see you wrinkling your forehead as you surf for that killer online deal..!
And how you bring the hotel to life. It is a beautiful place and I’m sure it will boost the tourist inflow to Kolkata. Thanks too for that excerpt by Bachi Karkaria.
Have a great summer someplace nice. 🙂
Ha ha, that I do…constantly 🙂 And I do hope tourist inflow to Cal increases. They need it bad.
Bacchi’s book is delightful. That excerpt doesn’t really do her justice. I think it might be worthwhile checking out more of her work.
Thanks for taking time off your busy schedule to read Meenakshi. Will you be able to escape Delhi this summer?
Lovely write up on this lovely hotel. I could also see many lazy afternoons in that suite!
The reason why we didn’t ‘do’ too many of the standard touristy spots this time, opting for long walks instead, interspersed with siestas. Ended up being one of our most relaxing city breaks. In Calcutta!!! Where you stay does make a difference 🙂
I think I could cope ok there Madhu 🙂
It wasn’t hard at all Gilly…..checking out was though 😀
Brava you! I’ve come to love what I call ‘destination hotels’ (that are themselves more than mere places to bathe and sleep). They add another dimension to the the excitement of travel. Speaking of travel – Venice – where are you staying? What plans? I’m too excited for you 🙂
So have I Meredith. I moved our dates back four days just to avail of summer rates at the Imperial Hotel in Delhi late last September. 50% off for a few degrees more heat was a perfectly good trade off in my opinion. Friends thought we were crazy 🙂
Splitting my stay between two hotels in Venice partly because most hotels within my budget were sold out for some of those days – so two nights in the thick of it all in Hotel Flora so I can access all the touristy spots very early (or late). And the last five at Al Ponte Mocenigo on Santa Croce for some lazy wandering. Visa still not cleared though. Should know by the end of the week.
Oh dear – the Visa palaver – I remember what my friends used to go through applying for visas from Sri Lanka – more personal and financial information than I’ve ever had to present for anything in my life. I hope it’s not as invasive for you Indians.
What a grand place – and such a thrill to spend some time there.
It certainly is a great base for a visit to Calcutta.
Beautiful place and oh – that piano! [sorry – couldn’t help it!] 🙂
Why am I not surprised?? Happy weekend Marina 🙂
🙂 [this was my dream piano when I was a small child learning to play]
A Grand Dame indeed. I’ve read of this before and great to have a lovely review 🙂
Thank you, Madhu 🙂
Excellent post both the write-up as well as the slideshow! Much educated thanks Madhu.
You can still find that old world opulence in England in some places too. The modern approach is to reach out to the “now” generation who don’t have time to really relax and appreciate beauty, but want all the electronic gadgetry to keep them occupied 24/7 and lounge arrangements where they can accumulate and communicate in large groups. New hotels in the US are beginning to construct very different hotel complexes.
Oh dear… pity I never did visit Calcutta! I have seen several other cities in India, but missed this one. It sound, as you wonderfully describe it, to be a special place to stay…
Well, I always keep in my heart the dream to take a round trip some day, from north to south. Let say, three months travelling? Oh, I guess isn’t enogh…
Have a superb weekend, hugs & kisses :-)claudine
such elegance and grace Madhu, good to see and old building doing so well, it looks to be the perfect place to stay in Calcutta … I really enjoyed all the history and your slightly humorous descriptions! PS How exciting to be going to Venice 🙂
A grand place and an equally grand presentation! Well done, Madhu, I’d like to go there one day.
Have a lovely weekend.
What a grand old lady – fantastic hotel … a bit like the Peninsula Hotel in Hong Kong (that is still the Grand Dame of Asia) – image if the walls could talk. Doesn’t come cheap neither. Wonderful post – and all the information … glad I’m not alone with information packed posts.
So, the question is… Who to ask and how?!
Email the hotel directly. Preferable the GM himself 🙂
Love the slideshow of classic elegance!
Breath taking images of Victorian genteelness….and the commentary supporting your pictorial Blog is so beautifully put together. Loved this Blog
No wonder you’re smiling in your photo, Madhu (Gravatar) 🙂 The chandelier, the piano, the pool… I may be in love! And Venice too!!!! (keeping fingers crossed for you)
A beautifully crafted piece of writing. I thought for a while you were there ‘by invitation’ 🙂 Next time!
Wonderful, beautiful. I adore the old hotels. They are stunning and elegant. Something, no matter how glitzy the new ones cannot match.
Venice is on my bucket list. I so very badly want to go back.
Wow, that looks amazing. I’m sure it is a little expensive.
This is magnificent, Madhu – everyone knows about the Taj in Mumbai, but this is the first time I’ve heard of Calcutta’s Oberoi Grand. It sure does look like an urban(e) oasis, I would find it very hard to haul myself out of bed! I guess our Hong Kong equivalent is the storied Peninsula, with its high tea and fine dining…
I would have felt like I was in a movie! How splendid it all is! Fit for a maharanee, Madhu. Actually, Mahraranee Madhu has a nice ring to it —:-)
What a fabulous place to stay.
Didn’t mean to be nit-picking! The Grand is the beautiful rose on the thornshrub! Calcuttans are as proud of it as they are of the Victoria Museum, the Tolly and Saturday Clubs, New Market, but believe it or not, hardly anyone today remembers barley-sugar!!
I have only caught glimpses of the hotel and it has always stirred my imagination. Lovely write-up.
any relation to the Shashi Kapoor old-time movie ? or was it Jennifer Kapoor?
looks so nice 🙂
Wow this place looks wonderful – but also right out of my price range I suspect! When we did Kolkata we stayed in a cheap little guest house and walked everywhere lol. What a wonderful place this looks though. One day…maybe…
Makes me want to go and stay there for a week!
I love that old Bluthner piano. Such luxury. Madhu, I don’t blame you for lingering longer in your room. 😉
What a story, Madhu!
Good accommodation is so high on my list when I travel. This hotel is exquisite with fine photos to vouch 🙂