An accidental city

An accidental city

Kolkata chronicles

An accidental city

Kolkata, earlier Calcutta, was the second city in the British empire during colonial times. Its history, or ‘birth’, is a fascinating account of how a cluster of nondescript villages can turn into jewels of urban living and learning. Ranjita Biswas takes us through this exciting journey

Rudyard Kipling called it “Chance-directed, chance-erected, laid and built on the silt.” Calcutta, Kolkata, Kalikata — it has been called by various names, but the fact remains that a couple of villages on the bank of Hooghly River the locals call the Ganga, later morphed into a ‘City of Palaces’ and was considered the second city of the vast British empire, next only to London.

Calcutta (renamed Kolkata in 2001) was where on August 24, 1690, Job Charnock, an agent with the East India Company, history’s most successful trading group, laid anchor at Nimtala Ghat on Hooghly River, unknowingly launching what was to become the future capital of British Indian Empire until 1911 when it was shifted to Delhi. 

Charnock was earlier in Madras (Chennai), a 50-odd years older sibling to Calcutta, having been founded by the East India Company on August 22, 1639 with the establishment of Fort St George on a ‘sliver of land’ bought from the local Nayak rulers. But it was in Bengal that the merchant with foresight saw the potential of turning it into a great centre of commerce. With a navigable river and easy access to the sea, the Bay of Bengal, Calcutta also assured an easier and shorter route to South East Asia and the Far East where other rival European sea-faring nations like the Dutch, the Portuguese etc were already setting foot in search of spices and riches of the East.

In August 1990, Calcutta celebrated 300 years of its ‘birth’ with great fanfare and many commemorative events, including publication of special books and tomes on the city. However, in 2001, objection to this date was raised by descendents of one of the illustrious zamindar families, claiming that ‘Kalikata’ was there even before the British arrived and that it was unfair to give credit to Job Charnock as the ‘father’ figure of the city of Calcutta. The matter even went to the court and eventually the annual ‘birthday’ celebration, at least officially, was discontinued.

A little bit of background to the controversy is perhaps due. Calcutta, as a settlement of the British company, was formed after Job Charnock took lease of three existing villages — Sutanuti, Gobindapur, Kalikata. The Sabarna Ray Choudhury family, which raised the objection, owned these three villages and later leased them to Charnock. The contestants said the three villages were actually leased to Charnock’s son-in-law, Charles Eyre, in 1698, by when Job Charnock was dead. And they have the deed to prove it, which is kept in the British Museum now. Even merchants from some other European countries like Portugal and Armenia are believed to have arrived earlier on the bank of Hooghly for trading after taking permission from the Mughal badshah in Delhi.

In this sense, perhaps, Calcutta does not owe its origin to the British, but there is almost no dispute on the fact that its rise as a premier city was due to the patronage of the colonial power from the British shores.

Legend has it that...

During its heyday, Calcutta was known as the most exciting city this side of Aden, in more ways than one.

About Job Charnock, there are many legends. Accounts say that he had taken to the ‘native’ customs, enjoyed a hookah, and sat under a huge banyan tree for adda and also official discourses. When he was sent to Patna earlier by the Company in 1678, he came across an incident of sati — the burning of the wife on the pyre of her husband, which was common then — rescued the young woman, and later married her and brought her to Kolkata.  

The origin of the name of Kalikata/Kolkata, anglicised by the British to Calcutta, has been hotly debated too. Some say the name comes from the holy Kali Temple at Kalighat, one of the most revered shakti worship sites in the country. Some say it is due to the aforementioned village, Kalikata.

Whatever be the pedigree, Calcutta soon started thriving under the new rulers. A garrison wall was built to protect British interests, calling it Fort William. Now the sahibs arriving from across the seas started building their houses around the maidan, the vast expanse of green in the heart of the city, which is even today called the lungs of the city. The frenzy of building saw a swampy land where mosquitoes, even tigers, were not uncommon, morph into a town, and eventually a city.

W H Carey, who chronicled the history of colonial times in The Good Old Days of Honourable John Company, quotes — A writer in 1756 thus speaks of Calcutta: “The bank of the Hooghly was lined on either side of the Fort with large and handsome houses, built and inhabited by the chief among the English factors; in the rear were several equally large and imposing habitations belonging to opulent baboos, or native merchants...”

He added, “The tract, now covered by the palaces of Chowringhee, then contained only a few miserable huts thatched with straw; a jungle, abandoned to water fowl and alligators, covered the site of the present citadel, and the course, which is now daily crowded at sunset with the gayest equipages of Calcutta.”

Captain Francis John Bellew (1843) went as far as to call the city “Petersburg of the East, this magnificent capital of our Eastern empire.” (Memoirs of a Griffin).

The transformation was amazing, but mostly due to the rise and rise of the East India Company’s fortunes. The powers that be back home were happy as their coffers were also jingling with enough contribution from the merchants (even if much of its profits also came from opium trade with the Far East; eastern India was the principal source of the drug) and there was not much interference with their affairs. Accounts of those days talk about how the sahibs indulged in a luxurious lifestyle, the mansions were full of servants, liquor flowed, parties going into early mornings were common, and stories of debauchery circulated that would have scandalised the more conservative folk back home.

The Sepoy Mutiny in 1857 changed all that. The British Parliament, which was already uncomfortable with stories of atrocities and unbridled power of the East Indian Company coming in from Indian shores, decided that it was enough, and it was too dangerous to leave its inhabitants and trade interests in the hands of the corporation, and took over the administration of the land. The sun of the British Empire was at the zenith. Calcutta was the hub of the British Indian Empire, and its prominence rose simultaneously.

Its premier position saw it gaining in many other ways too. Some of the most renowned institutions came up, established by educated and devoted Orientalists.
To this day, the buildings and institutions that dot Kolkata remain as showcases of British Raj architecture, acknowledged as some of the finest in the genre by British conservationists. These are now heritage buildings. In fact, Kolkata currently has around 800 heritage buildings as per the list of the Kolkata Municipal Corporation, signifying their importance as historical, architectural and socio-cultural symbols.

Architectural gems

Take for example the Writers’ Building, also known as Mahakaran, i.e., the administrative seat of the state government. The brick-red and white building overlooking a pond — lal dighi (red pond) — is one of the finest examples of colonial architecture. Though the Tank Square of yore, later Dalhousie Square, has changed its name to Benoy-Badal-Dinesh Bagh (BBD bagh) commemorating three freedom fighters, the building has retained its name from the days when the clerks — the ‘writers’ of the East India Company — were accommodated here. The building was completed in 1780, but it went into renovations well into the next century. The present Gothic structure came into existence in 1877. Four symbolic idols are found on top of the floor signifying science, cultivation, commerce and justice.

Across the road is the fabulous domed building of the General Post Office (GPO), its roof soaring 220 feet to the sky. Its entrance is through an imposing edifice of tall Ionic-Corinthian pillars. Originally, this site marked the outbound of the first Fort William. The GPO also has a Postal Museum, and the collection can be a philatelist’s delight indeed.

Near about is the renovated Town Hall, a white gleaming Doric building constructed in 1811 by Colonel John Garstin. This historical hall was once the hub of public meetings and social gatherings. Today, it is an archive of the city’s history and houses many priceless objects of interest for researchers.

The foundation of St Paul’s Cathedral was laid in 1839, and was consecrated in 1847 as the first Episcopal Church of the Orient. Earthquakes destroyed it twice, and finally, it was rebuilt replicating the Bell Harry Tower of Canterbury Cathedral. The main hall has beautifully carved wooden pews and chairs, stained glass windows adorn the western wall, and there are even two evocative Florentine frescoes. The Cathedral is much loved by Kolkatans, and at the midnight Mass on Christmas eve, people from all faiths spill even into the grounds.

Among the prominent British Raj institutions and architectural gems in the field are also the Asiatic Society, the Indian Museum and the National Library building.

The Indian Museum was at first located in the Asiatic Society, which was established as a centre for Oriental studies, the first of its kind in Asia. The museum’s present location on Chowringhee began in 1878 with two galleries. Today it has over 60 galleries. Among the many objets d'art, of special interest are the exhibits on Gandhara art and a 4,000-year-old mummy.

The country’s biggest library is also in Kolkata. The original building on Belvedere (1836) is now preserved as a heritage building, while a modern building has come up next door to house more than 30 lakh books and journals. The majestic building with a grand flight of stairs and a sprawling garden around was once the Viceroy’s Residence and was known as Belvedere; the vast reading room is said to have been the ballroom. There is also a whiff of scandal associated with the building; Warren Hastings, the first governor-general, fought a duel with his legal officer, Philip Francis, allegedly over a lady love, here.

The Botanical Garden with the world-famous Great Banyan Tree was founded in 1786 by Colonel Kyd, a Green activist of those days. Rare plants from all over the world were planted here, and even today it is a treasure trove for botanists and plant lovers.

As population swelled, there was need for better transport. After all, not everybody could afford a phaeton gaadi or horse-drawn buggies. The country’s first tramlines were laid, drawn by Australian horses. It was discontinued because the horses died in the heat, but people clamoured for the convenience, and the first electric tram cars started trundling down the tracks from 1902.

By then, Calcutta was regarded as the most glamorous city this side of Aden. It was where European planters from the tea gardens of Darjeeling and Assam, owners of coal mines from Bihar, rich Indian rajas and zamindars congregated for the ‘winter season’ and enjoyed ‘a slice of Christmas’ as celebrated abroad. The famous hotels and restaurants offered gourmet cuisines and attracted performers even from far-off lands.

On the other hand, coming in contact with modern ideas from the West, its literature, social philosophy, performing art etc, the educated city-dwellers with similar tastes, the bhadralok-genteel class, melded the best of the Occidental and Oriental sensibilities and ushered in what is known as Bengal Renaissance. There was a surge of intellectual activity in every field. Some of Bengal’s greatest writers, poets, educationists — some of them British themselves, were nurtured during this period. Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore was a shining example of this enlightened period while other members of the Tagore family were talented in various artistic fields. Women in the Tagore family were well-educated and encouraged to take part in literary debates and social discourses. Today, a visit to the Jorasanko Thakur Bari, north of Kolkata, now known as the Rabindra Bharati Museum, is a must on visitors’ itinerary. The brick-red structure was built in 1784 by Dwarkanath Tagore, Tagore’s grandfather, a zamindar.

The white-marbled Victoria Memorial, now a museum, is portrayed as an iconic symbol of Kolkata, as also the Howrah Bridge which was built in the 1940s. The Memorial was conceived by Viceroy Lord Curzon as a tribute to Queen Victoria who died in 1901 after a long reign. British colonialism was at its peak at that time. The design was a blend of the best of British and Mughal architectures. The foundation stone was laid in 1906, but by the time it was finished (1921), the capital was shifted from Calcutta to Delhi (1911). The decline in importance of Calcutta began.

But, it was also here, in the British-created city, that some of the most intense anti-Imperialism forces took shape to join the call for swadesh – own land.

Much water has flowed down the Hooghly since then. But even long after Independence, Calcutta remained rather anglicised in certain ways. And even today, visitors from other cities comment on its ‘club culture’, the way the whole city bursts into celebrations of Christmas, which the Bengalis call Borodin (the big day), when certain food items developed by the Anglo-Indians are made and enjoyed.
History always leaves behind its footprints, in some way or the other.

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