Lal Dighi, Lal Bagh, Calcutta, 1690 –

WestSideofTankSquare

West view of Tank Square. by James Baillie Fraser. 1816

লালদিঘী, লালবাগ, কলকাতা, ১৬৯০ –

Lal Bagh
Before Plassey, British commercial interests were concentrated in and around the original Fort William at approximately the site where Job Charnock had established his East India Company trading settlement in 1690. The British generally resided in Fort William and its immediate vicinity, besides some individuals living in European garden houses at various locations within a three mile radius, including in the portions of the city subsequently known as the Black Town. [See Archer] The pivot of the settlement, as Cotton describes, was ‘Lall Bagh’ or the Park. In the centre was ‘Lall Dighi’, or the Great Tank, which had been in existence before Charnock’s arrival. Within the Park there was the enclosure of the Cutcherry house of the local Jaigirdar, Laksmikanta Roy Majumdar Choudhury (1570-1649). It was then the only conspicuous masonry building in the locality, the Portuguese Mass-house apart. Job Charnock had acquired the Cutcherry house for Company’s officials to stay and to store up Company’s records.
The local name of the Park area was supposed to be, ‘Lal Bagh’ or ‘Lall Bagh’, and the name of the Pond, Lal Dighi, or Lall Dighee’. The word ‘lal’ or ‘lall’ in vernacular stands for red colour. Interestingly, every anecdote that attempted to establish the origin of Lal Dighi went by explaining the use of the attribute ‘lal’ with some historical references. None of those, however, explained the origin of such names as Lal Bagh, Lal Bazaar, Lal Girja. There remained other possibilities to explore, like ‘imported names’. Calcutta might have imported a Lal Bagh from Murshidabad while under Muslim power, like the Londons in US were.

GOVERNMENT HOUSE AND COUNCIL HOUSE, CALCUTTA, 1794.

Government House and Council House, Calcutta. Source: M Grandpre’s book. 1794

At the very beginning, the Company men used to call the plot ‘the Green before the Fort’. It was because the greater part of the river-side edge of the Park, covering twenty-five acres of ground, was given over to the Fort, which lay between the points now demarcated by Fairlie Place and Koila Ghat. The stretch was commonly called ‘the Park’ and thereafter ‘Tank Square’ until the name ‘Dalhousie Square’ formally assigned. [See Archer]

View of the east side of Tank Square Calcutta,1894-baillie

East side of Tank Square Calcutta, Aquatint with etching. Artist/ Engraver: William Baillie. 1794

Alexander Hamilton wrote in 1702 that the Governor ” has a handsome house in the Fort;the Company has also a pretty good garden, that furnishes the Governor herbage and fruits at table, and some fish ponds to serve his kitchen with good carp (পোনা), callops (শিঙ্গি, মাগুর) and mullet (বাটা). William Carrey suggested that the Tank inside the Park was one of these fish ponds, and the garden might have been the Tank Square, which was within easy reach and much nearer than the Company Garden at Middleton Street.

‘The Green before the Fort’ was the place of recreation and shooting wild game for the Company’s factors, and in the middle of last century it was the scene of many a moonlight gambol of young people, and elderly ones, who, rigged out in stockings of different colours, yellow coat, green waistcoat, &c., &c., amused themselves on the banks of the ” fish-pond in the park.” inhaling the evening breezes, and thinking of the friends of whom they had heard nine months before ! [See Blechynden]  Mr. William Blacquiere, a Magistrate of the Town, died in 1852 at the age of 90, used to talk of having danced a minuet with Lady Jones, as a young man and of shooting wild fowl in the Tank Square. [ See Benoy Krishna Deb]

019PHO0000897S1U00059000[SVC1]

Old Tank in Calcutta; Etching, with line-engraving by Thomas Daniell. 1786

The wilderness described in early accounts of the old Fort area faded away even before the Battle of Lall Dighee took place in 1756. The battle was fought at the eastern side of the Tank Square. The enemy in multitudes took possession of each of the houses of that Square. They brought some heavy pieces of cannon through the lane twixt Minchin’s and Putham’s houses and planted them at the corner of the Tank, where two guns were already mounted on the Park by the Company’s defense force. [See Samuel Hill]

Tank Square Calcutta taken from the Scotch Church, 1847

Tank Square Calcutta taken from the Scotch Church/ Richard Fiebig. Lithograph.1847

The Battle, however, instigated a process of wide-ranging urbanization, although it had to wait over two decades to launch the projects under the leadership of Warren Hastings. Hastings did it. In 1789, when Captain de Grandpré visited Calcutta, the city impressed him greatly. Tank Square was still the centre of fashion. “As we enter the town,” he writes, “a very extensive square opens before us, with a large piece of water in the middle for the public use. The pond has a grass plot round it, and the whole is enclosed by a wall breast-high, with a railing on the top. The sides of this enclosure are each nearly five hundred yards in length. The square itself is composed of magnificent houses, which render Calcutta not only the handsomest town in Asia, but one of the finest in the world. One side of the square consists of a range of buildings occupied by persons in civil employments under the Company, such as writers in the public offices. Part of the side towards the river is taken up by the old fort, which was the first citadel built by the English after their establishment in Bengal. At sunset Calcutta became alive again: society went out for its airing; those who could not afford vehicles walked amongst the trees and shrubs round the great tank in Lall Diggee, or on the ramparts of the old Fort. [See Busteed]

LAL DIGHI, THE GREAT TANK

The Great Tank within the Park has its own story much of which remains missing. The Tank lay uncared for on the east of the fort for about 20 years since Charnock had acquired the tank as a part of the Cutcherry from the Jaigirdar family. Twenty years’ neglect had converted the waterbody into a dirty pond full of rank weeds and noxious matter, and it was now a standing menace to the health of the factors. [See AK Ray]  The tank was formerly more extensive, but was cleansed and embanked completely in Warren Hastings’ time. It has always been esteemed the sweetest water in Calcutta, and until the introduction of municipal water supply, was the chief source of supply of drinking water to the garrison at Fort and the European community at large. [See Cotton]

Tank Square and water carriers, Calcutta,1651-Fiebig-2

Tank Square and water carriers, Calcutta. Hand-colored photographic print by Frederick Fiebig. 1851

The Great Tank is fed by percolation from the river. When, in 1783-4, the tank was being deepened, a regular row of trees was found at a depth of forty feet from the surface. They were pretty fresh, and their colour revealed that the trees belonged to the evergreen soondrie family. There were similar records respecting some other tanks dug in the region of Chowringhee and the Esplanade in 1790s. All these records collectively suggested that once upon a time the city of Calcutta remained covered by the great soondrie forest, [See Blechynden]

In its early years, Calcutta had its water supply from open tanks, wells and river Hooghli. The staunch Hindus used nothing but Ganga waters. Baishnabcharan Seth of Burra Bazaar made a fortune by supplying the holy water to far off places. The river water was fit for drinking only from October to March. Some people collected rainwater, and used it when the river water became turbid during the rainy season. The privately owned tanks were foul smelling and unsanitary. The quality of the river-fed Tank at Tank Square remained good all the seasons. The great Tank was enlarged and deepened in 1709 to ensure a good supply of sweet water to the Fort and to European quarters in the neighbourhood. See Filtered water in Calcutta, Sodhganga As it appears from the contemporary reviews, the water of Lal Dighi was the sweetest and the best drinking water in the city. [See Sodhganga]

Dalhousie Square, photograph taken by A. De Hone in 1870s. New GPO appears at the west end.

As mentioned before, the major improvement of the Tank and the Park was made during the tenure of Warren Hastings. Since then many a change in the Tank Square and its ambiance have taken place by degrees under different Bengal Governors and Governor Generals. Lord Curzon, however, took a special initiative for its beautification. The end of 19th century witnessed a picturesque scenario of the Dalhousie Square surrounded by the grand old constructions and the new GPO.

 

 

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