The history of the hotel traces back to 1830. David Wilson started the Great Eastern Bakery to serve the gastronomic needs of the English people working for the East India Company in Calcutta.
By Tania Banerjee
Three polished black iron cages hang in the air. Threads of iron running from the crests of these cages are wrapped around mammoth historical iron beams—beams which were here long before the Howrah Bridge was built. I am standing in the corridor of the Edwardian block of The Lalit Great Eastern hotel located in the heart of Kolkata. With three blocks—Edwardian, Victorian and Contemporary, the five-star heritage property, whose open-to-all bakery has attained a cult-status among the city-dwellers, is a destination in itself.
The history of the hotel traces back to 1830. David Wilson started the Great Eastern Bakery to serve the gastronomic needs of the English people working for the East India Company in Calcutta. The eatery attracted all the foreigners in the city. In 1840 David was allocated land to build a hotel of international standards. With its opening, the hotel etched its name in the pages of history as Asia’s first luxury hotel. He named it Auckland Hotel after the name of the then Governor-General of India. The moniker underwent a change in 1860 and finally, in 1915 it was named the Great Eastern Hotel.
During the World Wars, the Great Eastern Hotel was targeted. In independent India in the 1970s, when Naxal strikes were rampant in the city, the hotel had crumbled down. The government took over the property but failed to restore it to its glorious past. In 2005, The Lalit Hotels, Palaces and Resorts took over the property and pioneered a massive renovation project. In 2014 the hotel was re-opened.
The cages that caught my curious gaze are believed to have been used by the cabaret dancers at the discotheque of the erstwhile hotel. The cages hovered over gazebos in the Atrium Lobby under a meshwork of iron beams—those which had been used when it was still the Auckland Hotel. Every room in the EDWARDIAN Block of the hotel has an exposed iron pillar. An iron staircase spirals along the corner of the atrium—another remnant of the old hotel. The staircase took me down to the thriving bakery, the place from where it all started.
A giant rust-coloured metal oven, a relic from the bakery of the 1800s, has been transformed into a dining space. To make the changes minimal, even the brick wall on one side of it has been left naked without a veil of plaster or colour. Framed sepia-tinted gazettes several decades-old adorn the walls, announcing the name change of the hotel.
As I was passing by the main lobby the rhythm of a piano distracted me. I followed the tune. Placed in the main lobby, the piano manufactured in Hamburg, Germany by MF Rachals & Co. is a legacy from the old hotel. It is played every evening by a pianist from the Kolkata.
Artefacts have been cleverly used by the hotel. Charcoal irons and silver pots monogrammed GEH has been turned into flower pots. Teapots, decanters and urns have been extensively re-purposed and used as decorative items. Metal, terracotta and porcelain statues and vases are scattered strategically throughout the hotel and its restaurants to make sure the modern never forget the old.
(The author is a well-known travel writer. All images provided by the author. Views expressed are personal.)