Holy Street Dhurrumtollah

 

Dhurrumtollah ka Rustah

উদারপন্থী ধর্মতলা জনপথ

Catholic Church of the Sacred Heart in Calcutta on Dhurrumtollah Street: Col Lithograph. Artist: Charles D’Oyly. c1833. Courtesy: BL

Preliminaries

This is a sequel of the story ‘Finding Dhurrumtollah’ I posted last June 4. It was an attempt to trace back the situation of Dhurrumtollah within the province of huge marshy land of Colimba-Talpukur, populated with very different varieties of flora and fauna, and people of different cultural orientation and faith.

The aboriginal Dhurrumtollah continued to exist till the old city of Calcutta stretched across Govindpore and Chowringhee villages amidst forest of sundari trees. Around 1764 the beaten jungle path toward the east was made over by the East India Company as ‘Dhurrumtollah ki Rustah’. But the place ‘Dhurrumtollah’ where to the muddy dusty street supposed to lead remains curiously unspecified in historical records since Mark Wood’s map of 1784-85 sited its name and location.

Should this ‘Dhurrumtollah’ necessarily be an outstanding devotional edifice like temple, mosque or a church? If so, how far realistically we can think of such construction in a forlorn marshland? An answer to this should conceivably help to resolve at least one of the two old theories. The one advocated in 1859 by James Long, that the name ‘Dhurrumtollah’ was originated from an ancient Mosque; the other initiated by Augustus Frederic Rudolf Hoernlé in 1888, that it was originated from a Buddhist adda in the neighborhood of Jaunbazar.

Before we come closer to look into these theories, often restated by later writers, we must get prepared to free our mind of all sorts of ethnic bias that prevented native communities to accept some other’s faith likewise divine. Calcutta has had a relatively short history of communal living but a long torturous memory of bloody relationship between Hindus and Muslims because of sheer religious predisposition politically instigated time and again. In spite of its many ugly episodes, Calcutta has been regarded a glorious seat of divine cultural heritage of Hindu-Muslim creative alliance in the form of Hindustani music, for instance.

Dhurrumtollah Street has too many religious institutions of diverse faiths standing peacefully side by side. We will see in course of our ongoing discussions that this street was a playground for experimenting with liberal principles in social, economic, educational, and spiritual orders as well.

 

Ghulam Muhammad’s Mosque on the left and the spire of the Roman Catholic Church of the Sacred Heart on the right taken by Frederick Fiebig in 1851. Courtesy: BL

View along Dhurrumtollah Street with Ghulam Muhammad’s Mosque on the left and the spire of the Roman Catholic Church of the Sacred Heart on the right taken by Frederick Fiebig in 1851. Courtesy: BL

At the very beginning of the Street stand an elegant mosque and a Catholic Church. The view set a blessed disposition, which quickly disappears journeying further into the crowded thoroughfare passing by bazars and commercial houses, public and private institutions and residences of European, Eurasian and native families. There have been also a number of religious houses in close proximity of each other attended by Islamic, Christian and Hindu devotees.

In this ‘street are the Union Chapel, the American Mission Home – the small old and the new large Methodist Churches, the Church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and besides the good looking Tipu Sultan Masjid at least 5 more mosques, and 2 minor temples. We can add few more to Rev Cesary’s list, and make the aggregate more impressive, but that would hardly improve our understanding of the historicity of holy Dhurrumtollah, which this article aims to establish.  [Cesary]

 

Ancient Mosque in Dhurrumtollah

Rev. James Long says there had been an ancient mosque, since demolished, on the very site of Cook’s stables, where tens of thousands Musalman devotees assembled to observe the Kerbaladay. The ground of mosque and its neighboring land were owned by a zealous Musalman, Zaffir, who happened to be a Zamadar employed under Warren Hastings. Though Long specifies no direct source, he subscribes to the idea that the ‘local sanctity’ due to the mosque’s presence lent it the name ‘Street of Dharamtolah’, or the holy street.[Long].

Before 1888, when Frederic Hoernlé talked about his theory about the presence of Buddhism in Bengal, there had been no other theory available except what Rev. Long had proposed and many accepted him unquestioningly. Rangalal Bandyopadhyay was one of them.

“ধর্ম্মতলার পূর্ব নাম এভেন্যু অর্থাৎ বারাসৎ, কারণ তাহার উভয় পার্শ্বে বৃক্ষ শ্রেণী ছিল। ধর্ম্মতলা নাম হইবার কারন এই যে হেষ্টিংশ সাহেবের জমাদার জাফের নামক এক মুসলমান, যেখানে এখন কুকের আড়গোড়া রহিয়াছে সেখানে এক মসজিদ নির্ম্মাণ করে। পরে সে স্থানে বর্ষে বর্ষে কার্বালার সময় সহস্র সহস্র মুসলমান একত্র হইতে থাকিলে ধর্ম্মতলা নাম হয়।“[Bandyapadhyay]

 After Rangalal, writers like William Carey, A K Ray, Evan Cotton, Harisadhan Mukhopadhyay, keep both the ideas alive by repeating Rev. Long and Dr. Frederic Hoernlé without making attempt to check their veracity.

Dhurrumtollah Street Scene. Calcutta Ladder, Cook &. Calcutta. (Old Picture Postcard) Courtesy: Ebay

The alleged Mosque was told to be built on Zamadar Zaffir’s land and that should have happened during the tenure of Warren Hastings who employed Zaffir. The Mosque was worn out before Cook’s livery stables occupy the plots at nos. 182 and 183 Dhurrumtollah Street. It was originally an enterprise of Chevalier Antoine de L’Etang who came to Calcutta in 1796 and opened a riding school on Park Street and a horse repository on Dhurrumtollah Street to conduct weekly auction sales of horses. [Roberdeau] Most likely, the alleged mosque was built after Plassey and disappeared at the end of 18th century. During its existence the Musalman population in Calcutta had never been so high to let us imagine tens of thousands Musalman devotees at Karbala, as Long says. The Census reports that the Musalman population In Calcutta grew from 37848 in 1752 to 48162 in 1821. It is also interesting to note that the ancient mosque, as Long indicated, was situated close to the entry point of the Street and needed no approach-road or a ‘Dhurrumtollah ka Rastah‘.

Lastly, the scope of general acceptance of an Islamic shrine by other religious sects, Hindus in particular, sounds unrealistic in the historical context of socio-cultural relationships primarily based on religious practices, rites and ceremonies. What Alexander Hamilton writes in early 18th century remains still relevant that “In Calcutta all religions are freely tolerated”, but there have been polemics, as always, to shatter the harmony in living together instigated by vested interest in gaining power and glory. The extract from East India Chronicle published in 1801 shows a short and sharp picture of the conflicting situation, and the social and political attitude to buy quick solution rather than any permanent gain.

“The Mussulman Mohurrum, and Hindu festival in honour of Doorga, happened to occur at the same time from the former being regulated by Lunal Calculate, disputes between the two sects took place in many parts of India, and their contests were attended with bloodshed. During the Government of Ally Verdi Khan, the Hidoos were publicly prohibited from celebrating their festival, whenever it happened to interfere with that of the Mahomedans. – An event proof of the bigotry and intolerant spirit of them and their arbitrary government of the Hindoos.” [Hawksworth] The kind of 1801 reportage discourages us to admit Rev. Long’s view as plausible theses that presupposes acceptance of non-idyllic Musalmans are equally virtuous and Masjid a holy (ধর্মীয়) institution. Thus the presence of the Ancient Mosque and its association with the naming of Dhurrumtollah Street may remain a mere myth until researchers bring to light sufficient supportive evidence.

 

Jaunbazar Buddhist Adda and Dharmaraj Temple

We have come to know from Evan Cotton that Dr Hoernlé discerns in the name ‘Dharamtala’ a reference to Dharma, one of the units in the Buddhist Trinity, and he also points to the ‘Buddhist Temple in Jaun Bazar hard by’, in confirmation of his theory. Cotton, however, left no citation for the readers to reach Hoernlé’s exact version in context. [Cotton]

Augustus Frederic Rudolf Hoernlé (1841-1918), the India born British Indologist of German origin, is better known as philologist. He spent nearly his entire working life studying Indo-Aryan languages, editing and translating manuscripts. His work, ‘Manuscript remains of Buddhist Literature from Eastern Turkestan’, was brought out in 1916. [Grieson] . Those interested may find a complete list of his works in OCLC WorldCat Identities. http://worldcat.org/identities/lccn-n83172870/

Jataka. Turkish version. Courtesy: Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities

Hoernlé was associated with the Asiatic Society of Bengal since long and presumably had occasions to share views with MM Haraprasad Shashtri (1851-1931) working then as the Director of Operations in Search of Sanskrit Manuscripts. Haraprasad became famous for discovering the Charyapada, the earliest known examples of Bengali literature. One of his most important scholarly contributions is ‘Living Buddhism in Bangal’ where he elaborates his theses of Dharma Cult and its relationship with Bengal Buddhist trends in plain language. In an attempt to substantiate his ideas Haraprasad introduces us to a Dharma-Thakoorbari in Jaunbazar, which seems most likely  the one Hoernlé had in mind.

Charyapada. 12th Cetury. Pre-modern Bengali

Haraprasad suggested that the imagery, symbolism and worship of Dharmaraj bore very close resemblance to Buddhist notions of the sacred. He dedicated his entire career to pursue his ideas that resulted in numerous publications. His basic tenet that the worship of Dharmaraj was nothing more than a remnant of decaying Buddhism in Bengal stayed vir­tually unchallenged for almost half a century. It was Khitish Prasad Chattopadhyay who, based on his anthropological field studies, first questioned his hypothesis in 1942. Khitish Prasad noticed “a preponderance of tortoise-shaped stones” and inferred a tortoise cult that was later absorbed into Buddhism.  He thus intro­duced the novel idea of pushing the origin of Dharmaraj back even farther into the past by equating Dharmaraj with the Vedic deity Varuna. [Korom] Soon after Sukumar Sen suggested in an article that it was Dharma worship that influenced Buddhism and not otherwise. The antiquity of Dharmaraj, he believed, predated the Vedas, and the cult in its most primitive form was brought in by the Austric immigrants. This view got a support from grammarian Suniti Kumar Chatterji who independently proposed the Austric origin of Dharmaraj based on philological evidence.

The most cautious review of Haraprasad was brought out in 1946 by Shashibhusan Dasgupta in his book, Obscure Religious Cults. Having critically examined archival resources he comes to a conclusion that proves to be most significant for our discussion. As he perceives, Dharma cult can be said to be a crypto-Buddhist only so far as it bears faint relation to that form of later Buddhism, more than 90% of which belong to religious systems other than Buddhism – including the beliefs and practices of the Hindus, Muslims, and even of the non-Aryan aborigines. This might be the kind of reasons why Nihar Ranjan Ray in his book, বাঙ্গালীর ইতিহাস (Bangalir Itihas), pronounces ধর্মঠাকুর বৌদ্ধধর্ম থেকে উৎপন্ন নয়’ (Bouddhism not the origin of Dharma cult) [Ray]

As we have already noticed, the researchers involved in the discovery, identification and interpretation of Dharmaraj are generally coming either with literary or anthropological background. Asutosh Bhattachayya belongs to both the camps. Like every other scholars in this field he acknowledged the pioneering works of Haraprasad and other veterans but at the same time felt that the various opinions put forth by them might apply to a specific location without producing a gen­erative model for the whole area in which Dharmaraj is worshipped. [Korom] I fear, our story of Jaunbazar temple, to be told in a moment, might contribute some more issues to clear up before looking for such a generative model.

 

Dharma Cult and Jaunbazar Dharmalay

Old Jaunbazar Native Shops. Chromolithograph  By William Simpson. 1867. Courtesy: BL

We learnt from Haraprasad that the Calcutta temple of Dharma, situated at the premises no. 45 Jaun Bazar Street contains six prominent images namely Dharma on a simhaśana, with his conspicuous eyes and his tapering head representing the light of the Adi Buddha. This is a miniature of the chaitya. Below the simhaśana are big images of Ganeça and Pancánand as a form of Mahádeva. Below these is a stone with eruptions representing small-pox. This is çitalá. There are Sasthi, the goddess of procreation, and Jvarásura, the demon of fever, also to be found in the room. According to him,“çitalá or Háriti is a constant companion of Dharma in Nepal. Ganeça and Mahákála are regarded as Dváradevas, the gods at the door of Dharma.”

Haraprasad then draws our attention to ‘something very curious in the Calcutta temple’. He found there three regular shaped stones forming one object, the middle one being smaller than the other two. They are decked with brass or silver nail-heads fastened on the stones with wax. One is led to suspect that ‘this is the ancient representation of Dharma, Samgha and Buddha in one piece of stone. This representation is very ancient, – much older than the present form of Budhism in Nepal’ (my emphasis). To his estimate, ‘the Calcutta temple is a very old one and represents a very ancient state of religion in this part of the country”. [Shastri]  This is an extraordinary view in the context of the findings of Shashibhusan that the Dharma cult originated and spread only in some parts of Western Bengal, which is proved beyond doubt by the local references found in the ritualistic works and the semi-epical Dharmamangal works. The stone-images of Dharmathakur, as exists in Jaunbazar Temple, are still being worshipped in West Bengal. He believes, “Dharma cult, developed in Bengal out of the admixture of some relics of decaying Buddhism, popular Hindu ideas and practices, a large number of indigenous beliefs and ceremonies, and ingredients derived also from Islam” as well.

Shashibhusan endorses fully the insightful statement of Haraprasad that “no religious movement of long-standing cultural influence can be eradicated all at once from a land by any other religious movement or political or religious causes. Buddhism, even in its Tantric from, was pushed aside and was gradually assimilated into the cognate religious systems among Hindus and the Muslims, and the Dharma cult is the outcome of such a popular assimilation.” It may not be difficult for us to appreciate that the followers of Dharma cult with their monotheistic belief in the formless God could easily have responsive terms with the Muslims who had the same monotheistic belief in the formless God and who were particularly antagonistic to the polytheistic belief of popular Hinduism. Hindus, like Dharmites themselves, regard Dharmathakur either as a form of Vishnu or of Shiva. They do not have anything to oppose until Dharmathakur is claimed to be the supreme deity – the creator of Hindu Trinity.

  Dharmaraj in Differnet Forms

Dharmathakur is also called Dharma Thakur, Dharma Raja or Dharma Ráya. Dharmathakur is known in different places by different names, such as, Chand Rai, Kalu Rai, Dolu Rai, Bankurha Rai, Banka Rai. Dharma cult is a far more popular among common folks – unsophisticated and the less advantaged populations forming a huge body of devotees to frequent Dharamtala – to worship Dharmathakur presumably at the foot of a tree, as the suffix ‘tala’ (তলা) indicates [Beverley. Census, 1876], A temple has been built there only toward the end of the 19th century, in 1300 BS at premise no. 45 Jaunbazar Street, [Shastri]

Of late, we come to know from the locals, including a sevayet and a purohit, that immediately before, it was only a small shrine next to the pond, talpukur, within the same Taltala area, where Dharma Raja had his home under the patronage of Rani Rashmani. As before Gajan is being held every year two days before Chaitra Sankranti – an occasion of great festivity for the locals – no matter Hindus and Muslims.

Dharmatala

Dharmatala. In a unique celebration of Buddha Purnima. Courtesy: Anandabazar

The findings of Haraprasad should have been well-known in the academic world of his time and thereafter. Yet the existence of Jaunbazar Thakurbari is sadly overlooked by all but a few. Pranotosh Ghatak, a 20th century journalist, is one of them. He narrates the story of Dhurrumtollah Street justly pointing to the hallowed seat of Dharmathakur on Jaunbazar Street as the origin of the name of Dhurrumtollah Street.  Pranotosh provides whereabouts of the few other Dharma Thakurbaris around Dhurrumtollah. A Banka Rai Street, goes behind the Wellington Square connecting Dhurrumtollah Street, and a temple of Banka Rai remains there. In Bengal & Agra Annual Gazetteer for 1841 he also finds citations of places of Dharma worship in the localities of Dinga-Bhanga Lane and Doomtala Street.

Until very lately, we were unsure about the exact address of the Jaunbazar Street Thakurbari that Haraprasad had visited and referred to as premise no. 45 and not no. 51 as found in the Bengal & Agra Alamanacfor1841.

Temple Foundation Stone

Another directory, namely, the Bengal Directory for 1876 shows it at premise no. 48, instead. As one may find today, the ‘Thakoorbari’ now known as Sitalamandir, though inscribed ‘Dharmalay’ on a stone-slab dated 1300 BS when the temple was built by Harish Chandra De (referred to by Haraprasad as ‘Hari Mohan De’ whom he met personally), stands on number 45 Surendranath Banerjee Road (formerly Jaunbazar Street).

During the last hundred years the temple ‘Dharmalay’ and its ambience have considerably been changed and more so the situation inside the holy chamber of gods and goddesses. While many of the idols Haraprasad described still show up, some seemingly go missing or misplaced. Unfortunately, the single-piece stone with three regular shaped figures, which Haraprasad belived to be ‘an ancient representation of Dharma, Samgha and Buddha’ was not found by recent visitors.

 

Dharmaraj Sila wth metallic Eyes. Taltala Dharmalay Temple. 2018. Photo.: Author

The most important among the available ones is the Dharmaraj sila – with two metallic eyes set on the uncut primeval stone placed above three separate stone tablets bearing symbols of Kurmo avatar, matsya aavatar and a pada-padma of exqusite minimalistic style of ancient Indian art. Besides the idol of Dharmaraj with two metallic eyes fitted on black granite in primeval form, there are idols of kurmo avatar and matsya(?) avatar and a padma-pada made of stone..

 

More uncertainties like this may remain for the future researchers to settle, but it is, I believe, the facts discussed here should be convincing enough to accept that ‘Dharmatala’ or Dhurrumtollah, where ‘Dhurrumtollah Ki Rasta’ originally destined for, was actually the seat of Dharmathakur discovered on Jaunbazar Street in recent past. The entire region remained for few centuries predominantly under the spell of the pre-Aryan religious sect of Dharma cult, supposed to be ‘much older than the present form of Buddhism in Nepal’. This is not a hasty conclusion but actually conceived long back by Haraprasad, Shashibhushan redefined it, and since then generally accepted and retained by informed people. [See:  অগমকুয়া http://sisirbiswas.blogspot.in/2016/01/blog-post.html%5D

 

 Origin of the Dharmaraj Shalgram and the Missing Chaurangiswar

 A question, which never been asked ever before, is being put forward here for understanding how and where from the ancient cult of Dharma worshipping came and settled at Jaunbazar  Dharamtala, in the neighborhood of Dinga-Bhanga, Talpukur. How and when this non-Aryan religious sect, outwardly Buddhistic, propagated? Who inspired this faith in this part of the country? The subject sure enough goes far beyond the colonial Calcutta but not unrelated to the topics we discuss in puronokolkata. The issues need handling with sophistication and perhaps a different platform. However, I intend to address the questions summarily to share with you my perceptions and also to encourage researchers to undertake intensive studies to reveal an obscure ethnic cultural link with ancient Calcutta.

In Paschimbanger Sangskriti, Benoy Ghosh suggests that it was the migrated fishmongers from Ghatal/Arambagh settled in the locality of Jeleparha who initially started worshipping Dharma-Thakur. Sadhus from the riverside go to Dharmatala to pay homage, take part in Gajan and Mela organized by the fishermen under the patronage of Rani Rashmoni. The Dom-pandits played the role of ministers in performing rites and ceremonies of Dharma-Thakur. Those apart there has been a well-established  community of Nath-Pandits, who also act as ministers to Dharma-Thakur. [Ghosh] There are some Dharmamangal narratives that contain regular mixture of the legends of the Nath literature and the Dharma literature, where prominent Nath siddhas along with gods, goddesses and demigods are worshipped in line with some Dharma-puja-vidhana. [Shashibhushan] Most significant poets of Dharmamangal are Rupram Chakrabarty (17th century) and Ghanaram Chakrabarty (17th-18th century). Manikram completes his work in circa 1725 (4th Jayistha 1703 Saka era). The recency of Dharmamangal kavyas and the era of Rani Rashmoni dispute the theory that Dharma-cult was introduced in Calcutta by the Jelepara fishing community.  Moreover, the primeval shalgram of Dharma-Thakur found in Jaunbazar-Dhurrumtollah Sitala-temple differs radically from the depictions of Dharmamangal kavya, being more akin to the pseudo-Buddhist notion of Nath-cult. The most prominent among the Nath-siddhas are Minanath (or Matsyendranath), Goraksanath, Jalandhari and Chauranginath – all included in the list of the Buddhist Siddhacaryas. Since the last mentioned Nath-siddha ‘Chauranginath’ happens to be our focal point, I may be allowed to dwell upon the legend of Chauranginath without delving into the history of Nath-cult which appears to Shashibhushan as a ‘hotchpotch of esoteric Buddhism and yogic Saivism’ representing a particular phase of the Siddha cult of India.

Chauranginath, or Chaurangi Swami, is regarded as one of the apostles of Bengal. Dinesh Sen writes “The Aryans who came to Bengal and settled here had distinctly a high religious object in view. From Silabhadra, Dipahkara and Mahavira to Minanath, Gorakjanath. Hadipa. Kalupa, Chaurangi and even Ramai Pandit — the apostles of Bengal all proclaimed to the people the transitori­ness of this world and the glory of a religious life. [Sen]

Nath_Siddha Lineage

Vajradhara surrounded by smaller figures of Telopa, Naropa, Marpa and Milarapa Hanging scroll (mounted on panel). Courtesy of the Freer Sackler Gallery.

Chauranginath (c1400), a contemporary of Kabir(1398-1518), lived few generations behind Śīlabhadra (529AD-645AD), Atīśa-Dīpaṃkara Śrījñāna(980AD_1054AD), and Gorakshanath (11th- to 12th-century). He is one of the nine nathgurus and according to some traditions a direct disciple of Minanath. We know little of Chauringhi but some unverified stories like the ones retold by Harisadhan in his book.

  1. Legend has it that the sacred granite bearing the face of Kali the Goddess was discovered by Chauringi swami or his disciple Jangalgiri, and thereafter the jungle covering the area between Lal Dighi and Southern end of Govindpore was named Chowringhee after his name. Though we get this from flimsy source, it may be worth exploring since, other than hearsay, there is no clue as yet how and where from the vigraha of Kali was brought into the Kalighat temple. We learnt from Kalikshetradipika that it was found in the wilds by a wandering sanyasi: “যাহা হউক ইহা অবশ্য স্বীকার করিতে হইবে যে কালীঘাটে কালীমূর্ত্তীর প্রথম প্রকাশ অবশ্য অরণ্যবাসী বা গৃহত্যাগী ভ্রমণ তৎপর কোন না কোন সন্ন্যাসী বা ব্রহ্মচারী দ্বারা হইয়া থাকিবে। কোন সময়ে এবং কাহা দ্বারা কি প্রকারে প্রকাশিত হয় তাহা স্থির করা বড় দুরূহ।“
  2. Harisadhan gathered from an octogenarian that long back there were four Shivalingas being worshipped by sanyasis within the jungle of Chouringhee and its neibourhood. Nakuleswar discovered and reestablished in Kalighat by one Tarachand Sikh; Jangaleswar Mahadeva, said to be relocated somewhere in Bhowanipore Kansaripara by Jangalgiri – a disciple of Chauringinath; Nangareswar Mahadev exists near Burrabazar Pan-posta; Chouringiswara Mahadeva is said to have been unearthed while the Asiatic Society building was being constructed and removed afterwards to some unknown destination. We may recall that the land upon which the Society’s building constructed had been occupied previously by Antoine de L’Etang’s riding school.

A K  Ray, however, rejects Chauringinath as there is “no tangible evidence that Chauranga Swami ever came to Calcutta and lived in its jungle”. The original name of “Chowringhee”, he believes, is “Cherangi”, and suggests that the goddess Kali herself, called Cherangi from the legend of her origin that they trace back the name of ‘Chowringhee’”.

AK Ray is right so far as there is no hard evidence that Chauranga Swami ever came here. But there is no evidence either that he never did, especially being an acknowledged apostle of Bengal. The interpretation that the jungle was called after the Goddess Kali who herself called ‘Cherangi’ may not be readily acceptable.

Map of Calcutta Before the English. 1680

As we experience, a place name evolves from what it is being frequently called by. The name ‘Cherangi’ is little known and does not appear in the 1001 names of Kali. It is therefore very unlikely to be a valid ground for accepting the name ‘Cherangi’ as an alias of Kali the Goddess.

We know from Dinesh Sen that one of the Bengal apostles is Chaurangi swami. He and his disciples are known as Chaurangis in the sense that their religious life was to stand the fourfold test of ascetics, viz., parama-tapssita(great privation), parama-lukhata (great austerity), paramajegucchita (great loathness to wrong-doing), and parama-pavivittata ( great aloofness from the world). No wonder Chauringi swami and his disciples find the jungle adjacent to river Ganges an ideal retreat for them, and the jungle becomes then known by the name of Chaurangis.  The jungle Chaurangi had been in existence long before the English occupation. The earliest map of Calcutta made in the 16th Century shows its topography covering the entire region between the Creek and Kalighat opposite Govindpore. It was for the first time, the map Mark Wood prepared in 1784-85 charted the chunk of land separated from Chowringhee as Colinga. Colinga includes two subareas: Talpooker and Jala Colinga where Jaunbazar-Dhurrumtollah belongs to. It is the site of Dharma-Thakur Temple very much within the domain of Chaurangi. Here the Nath devotees of Dharma put their obscure religion into practice and made it adored by people of all sects. In course of time Dharmatala turns into a holy place for all, and a landmark of Calcutta then and now.

 

 

CITATIONS

Bandyopadhyay, Rangalal. 1850. Kalikata Kalpalata (কলিকাতা কল্পলতা). Calcutta: n.p. Retrieved (https://archive.org/details/KolikataKolpalata/page/n0)

Carey, William. 1882. Good Old Days of Honorable John Company; Vol.1. Calcutta: Quins Book. Retrieved (https://archive.org/details/goodolddaysofhon00careuoft)

Cesry, Rev. C. 1881. Indian Gods Sages And Cities. Calcutta: Catholic Orphan Press. Retrieved (https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.128152).

Chattopadhyay, Suryakumar. 1891. The Antiquities of Kalighat; or, কালীক্ষেত্র দীপিকা. Calcutta: Bhowanipore Parthib Yantra. Retrieved (https://ia801904.us.archive.org/23/items/in.ernet.dli.2015.354023/2015.354023.Kalikhetra-Dipika.pdf)

Cones. 1874. Calcutta Directory, 1874. Calcutta: Cones. Retrieved (https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.94126).

Cotton, Evan. 1907. Calcutta, Old and New: A Historical and Descriptive Handbook to the City. Calcutta: Newman. Retrieved (https://archive.org/details/calcuttaoldandn00cottgoog)

Dasgupta, Shashibhusan. Obscure Religious Cults as Background of Bengali Literature. Calcutta: C.U., 1946. Retrieved (https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.31035/page/n3)

Ghatak, Pranotosh. n.d. Kolikatar Pathghat (কলিকাতার পথ ঘাট). Calcutta: Indian Associated Publishing. Retrieved (https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.355340/page/n7).

Ghosh, Benoy. Paschim Banger Sanskriti (পশ্চিম বঙ্গের সংস্কৃতি). Kalikata: Pustak Prakash, 1950. https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.354330/page/n7

Grierson, G A. Augustus Frederic Rudolf Hoernlé. In: The Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland.(Jan., 1919), pp. 114-124. https://www.jstor.org/stable/25209477

Hawksworth. East indian Chronologist. Calcutta: Hircurrah Press, 1801. https://archive.org/stream/eastindianchrono00hawkuoft#page/70

Korom, Frank J.” Editing Dharmaraj: Academic Genealogies of a Bengali Folk Deity. In: Western Folklore Vol. 56. No. 1 (Winter. 1997). pp. 51-77. https://www.jstor.org/stable/1500386?read-now=1&loggedin=true&seq=27#page_scan_tab_contents

Long, James. 1852. “Calcutta in the Olden Time – Its Localities.” The Calcutta Review 18:275-. Retrieved (https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/002715346)

Mukhopadhyay, Harisadhan. 1915. “Kalikata: Sekaler O Ekaler (কলিকাতা একালের ও সেকালের).” Retrieved (https://archive.org/stream/Kalikata-Sekaler-O-Ekaler-Harisadhan-Mukhopadhyay/Kalikata%20Sekaler%20O%20Ekaler%20-%20Harisadhan%20Mukhopadhyay#mode/2up)

Ray, A. K. 1902. Calcutta: Town and Suburbs; Pt.1 A Short History of Calcutta. Calcutta: Bengal Secretariat. Retrieved (https://books.google.co.in/books?id=-Lo5AQAAMAAJ&q=calcutta+town+and+suburbs+ak+Ray&dq=calcutta+town+and+suburbs+ak+Ray&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjDnrz11MnXAhUCN48KHdgEDQUQ6AEIJzAA).

Ray, Niharranjan. Bangalir itihas (বাঙ্গালীর ইতিহাস); Adi Parba. Calcutta: Dey’s, 1356 BS. https://archive.org/details/BangalirItihasAdiparbaByNiharranjanRoy/page/n3

Roberdeau, Henry.’Accounts of life in Calcutta in 1805. (Editorial Notes)” In: Bengal Past And Present Vol.29, 1825. https://archive.org/stream/in.ernet.dli.2015.32669/2015.32669.Bengal-Past-And-Present–Vol29#page/n139/mode/2up.

Sen, Dinesh. History of Bengali language and literature. Calcutta: C.U., 1911

https://archive.org/stream/in.ernet.dli.2015.47773/2015.47773.History-Of-Bengali-Language-And-Literature#page/n439/mode/2up/search/chaur

Shastri, Haraprasad. 1897. Discovery of Living Buddhism in Bengal. Calcutta: Sanskrit Press. Retrieved (https://archive.org/stream/in.ernet.dli.2015.47680/2015.47680.Discovery-Of-Living-Buddhism-In-Bengal#page/n3/mode/2up).

Shastri, Haraprasad. Remnants of Buddhism in Bengal. Proceedings of the Asiatic Society of Bengal December. Calcutta: The Society, 1894. https://archive.org/details/proceedingsofasi94asia/page/134

Thacker Spink. 1876. Bengal Directory, 1876. Calcutta: Thacker, Spink. Retrieved (https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.68578)

Wilson, Horace Hayman. 1846. Sketch of the Religious Sects of the Hindus. Calcutta: Bishop’s College. Retrieved (https://archive.org/details/sketchofreligiou00wils/page/n5)

 

 

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CALCUTTA MAIDAN in 18th and 19th Centuries

Pavilion at edge of Monohur Doss’s Tank, Maidan. Photographer: Unknown. Dated c1900-1914. Courtesey: RCAHMS

 

কলকাতা ময়দানঃ অষ্টাদশ/ ঊনবিংশ শতাব্দী

 

The Beginning

After winning back Calcutta, finally defeating Siraj at Plassey, the English East India Company decided upon two things: (1) Replacement of the their old fort with a new one – mightier and better-planned, and (2) Expansion of Calcutta southward.

The onslaught of Nabob’s army wrecked the already overcrowded settlement. The situation called for immediate renovation and expansion of the town toward pastoral Govindpore where the new Fort William was to be erected. ‘Govindpore village, surrounded as it was by waste lands formed a natural esplanade.’ [4] The old Fort had no esplanade for guns, which happened to be one of the reasons for its fall. [10] About a mile away from the old Fort the construction of the second Fort William set off in 1758. The new Fort, essentially a military establishment, and not a fortified factory of English traders as the old Fort was styled, costed the EEIC some two million sterling [5]. The chosen site of the Fort was on the river-bank of village Govindpore, considerably south of the old Mint.

 

Calcutta from the Old Course. Artist : Chartles D’Oyly. c1838

Formerly, the village was the primary seat of the Sheths and the Bysaks. In early 16th century, four families of Bysaks and one of Sheths founded the village of Govindpore, after the name of their tutelary deity, Govindaji. They built a shrine of the Vaisnav deity on the site where the New Fort William now stands, not far from the old Kalighat temple. [17].   Govindpore had only 57 bighas of inhabited land out of 1,178 bighas. The entire population of the flourishing village was removed to make room for the new Fort with its unobstructed field of gun fire that completed in 1773. The inhabitants were  compensated by providing lands elsewhere, expending restitution-money – the fund Siraj-ud-Dowlah recompensed for the damage he did. The Sheths moved to Cotton Bale Market, (Bengali: সুতানটি হাট ), in Burrabazar. The jungle that cut off the village of Chowringhee from the river was cleared giving way to the wide grassy stretch of ‘Maidan of which Calcutta is so proud’.

Expansion of Town Calcutta

The denizens of town Calcutta never before felt like going further than  Respondentia Walk, lying beyond Chandpal Ghat, or the fish-pond near Lal Dighi as ‘there was too wholesome a dread of thieves and tigers, to induce them to wander into the grounds of the neighboring zemindars who were the Robin Hoods of those days.’[13] In 1756, when Seraj-o-dowlah took the place, only seventy houses were inhabited by Englishmen.  The sudden development activities at Govindpore encouraged them to look forward for a change in lifestyle. The prospect of living lavishly in countryside bungalows in the neighborhood of the New Fort site attracted the white population. Gradually they moved out to settle in village Chowringhee adjacent to Govindpore separated only by the ancient pathway from Chitreswari temple at extreme North to Kalighat at South. As already we noticed, Esplanade and Maidan both are being used indiscriminately for the sprawling green square around the New Fort William.

Maidan looking beyond Esplanade Row. Dhurrumtollah Tank at right corner, criss-cross pathways, and tents are visible. No details available. Courtesy: Alamy

Maria Graham in her, Journal of a residence in India, penned a picturesque description of Maidan as she found in 1810.  The road which leads past Fort William, con­necting Garden Reach with Calcutta, is called the Esplanade. It is shaded, by umbrageous trees, and forms a very pleasant drive in the evening. The light air coming off the water is cool and grateful to the multitudes in search of air, change, or exercise. This esplanade is terminated by a very handsome colonnade ghat, which forms a most classical and pleasing object to the eye, as well as a most con­venient and useful accommodation to the natives for the performance of ablutions in the river, to which the bathers descend by a flight of steps. It was built solely for this object by a pious and opulent Hindoo. [9]

The snow-white paddy bird, with elegant and outstretched neck and stork-like dignity, walks care­lessly, unheeded, undisturbed, unscared he pursues his watchful employment of fishing in the shallows, with an almost domestic familiarity and fearlessness of the presence of man. [12]

Topography

Maidan, the chief open space in Calcutta between Government House and Garden Reach, is also called the Esplanade (Bengali: গড়ের মাঠ), that is, plain ground in front of a fort, in which attackers are exposed to the defenders’ fire. Calcutta Maidan, or the Esplanade of the New Fort, never had an occasion to partake defense task but acts as a fulfilling centre of entertainment and refreshment ever since its formation.

Maidan virtually covers, besides small portions of Birjee and of Chowringhee, the entire area of Govindpore, which began at the Northern boundary of Dhee Calcutta and ended at Baboo Ghat, and then went up to the Govindpore Creek, or Tolly’s Nullah at the extreme end of the English zamindari. It was ‘immediately to the South of Surman’s Gardens, next to the General Hospital building.  At West, Maidan includes King’s Bench Walk with a row of trees separating it from the riverbank between Chandpaul Ghaut  and  Colvin’s Ghaut, or Cucha-goody Ghaut, as it was called then.  At North, Esplanade Row, from Chandpaul Ghaut, runs into Dhurumtollah in a straight line past the Council House and the old Government House standing side by side.

The borings made in the Fort, in 1836-40, under the superintendence of Dr. Strong and James Prinsep, have shown that the ocean rolled its waves 500 feet beneath the surface of the present fort, and in 1682 an ancient forest existed in that locality. [1] Early 1789, Government resolved on filling up the excavations and leveling its ground. The plan was prepared for the benefit of Calcutta in general, and of the houses fronting the Esplanade in particular. The plan extended to drain the marsh land, in expectation that the digging a few tanks will furnish sufficient earth and thus save the project cost and time. A new tank was made in 1791 at the corner of Chowringhee and Esplanade, which existed till the dawn of the twentieth century.

Calcutta: David Rumsey Historical Map (cropped). London: Chapman & Hall. 1842 Courtesy: Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge (GB)

 

Talaos or Tanks

The City of Calcutta is supplied with good drinking water, from a considerable number of large ponds mostly situated towards the Chowringhee quarter. Those facing Chowringhee Road were construct­ed by Monohur Dass, the chief member of the Shah Nowputee Muhajun of Benares in Lord Cornwallis’s time. [2]

A series of artificial lakes (tanks) stretched down the length of Chowringhee Road: the Dhurrumtolah Tank at the northern limit; the Manohardoss or Colinga Tank with its corner pavilions opposite Lindsay Street; the General’s tank opposite Park Street; Elliott’s Tank facing Harington Street previously ‘Graham Street’; and at south-end the Birjee Tank.

Dhurrumtollah Tank

 

Photograph of Dhurrumtollah Tank on Maidan from Chowringhee Road. Creator: Samuel Bourne. 1865. Courtesy: British Library

This is a view from the north end of Chowringhee Road, beside the carriage stand, looking north-west across the Dhurrumtollah Tank, towards the façades of the houses along Esplanade Row, with Government House at the extreme left. The flat-fronted, verandahed building behind the premises of William Coish & Co is the Adjutant-General’s offices. Among the commercial premises on Esplanade Row are Mountain’s Hotel, Madame Nielly (French milliner), Payne & Co’s Belatee Bungalow and Thomson & Company.

The view looks south along Chowringhee Road with impressive array of private and public buildings on the far side of Maidan.

Monohurdass’ Tank

Monohur Dass Tank. Creator: Samuel Bourne. 1868 Courtesy: British LibraryThe view looks south along Chowringhee Road, with the Monohurdass Tank in the foreground and General’s Tank beyond. The spire of St Paul’s Cathedral can by seen on the skyline at the extreme right.

 

General’s Tank on Maidan. Creator William Wood. 1833. Courtesy: British Library

 

The General’s Tank

 The General’s Tank was one of the three large artificial reservoirs in the Chowringhee district of Calcutta. It was just south of the junction with Park Street. This print also shows the house of Thomas Babington Macauley, who was a Law Member of the Supreme Council of India, and worked on the reorganisation of the Indian legal system necessitated by the New India Act of 1834. He lived at number 33, Chowringhee Road, from 1834 to 1838. Thereafter the building became the headquarters of the Bengal Club.This lithograph is taken from plate 21 from ‘Views of Calcutta’ an album of paintings by William Wood.

Elliott’s Tank

 

Elliott’s Tank. Creator: William Wood. 1833. Courtesy: British Library

 Elliott’s Tank facing Harington Street, previously ‘Graham Street’, situated between the General Tank and Birjee Talao. The tank was named after Sir Charles Elliott, Lieutenant-Governor, 1890-1893.

 

FORT-GATES and ROADS

The Fort occupied a large chunk of Maidan around the centre with as many as seven gates, each having its own approach road across Maidan, namely, the Calcutta Gate leading out to the Eden Gardens, the Plassey Gate facing south of Government House; the Chowringhee Entrance Gate leading out of the road entering Park Street; the Chowringhee Exit Gate leading out of the road entering Park Street; The Hospital Gate leading out of the Race Course; the St. George’s Gate facing north of Hastings; and the Water Gate facing the river near the Gwalior Monument. It is only in recent years we have had any road outside the fort. Pathways thread their way across the Maidan which has been cleared of the jungle. The oldest among them is the ‘Course’ made to take the air in’. The road was, however, full of dust, yet considered one of the airiest and pleasantest drives in Calcutta, extending from the Cocked Hat on the north to the Kidderpore Bridge. The Course, so called as being a coss or two miles in length, is described in 1768, as being ‘out of town’ in a sort of angle. [13]

 

The broad gravelled walk on the west side of that portion, known as the Red Road, then called Secretary’s Walk, constructed in 1820. To the south of the Fort ran the Ellenborough Course. The Vice-Roy Lord Northbrook led the grand procession this way taking the Prince of Wales from the Prinsep’s Ghaut to the Government House. It was a fine raised and turfed ride for horse exercise; and towards the cast, the Race Course, commenced in 1819.[6]

Strand Road with Indians with bullock carts and horse-drawn carriages and sailing ships and other boats on river in Calcutta. Creator: Samuel Bourne. c1860s Photograph by Bourne and Shephard

 

RIVER GHAUTS

Another avenue of trees was planted, about the time of the Lottery Committee, on the river-bank from Chandpal Ghaut to the New Fort. Its position was indicated by the row of fine trees which stood south of Baboo Ghat.  This was known as Respondentia Walk – the resort of those fond of moonlight rambles, and of children, with their train of servants. ‘Calcutta society, alighting from carriages and palanquins, promenaded in the cool of the evening’. Dogs and horses were not allowed to disturb the harmony of polite conversation, by an order of the Governor-General in Council forbidding persons accompanied by dogs to enter Respondentia Walk.  [4] The Esplanade on the banks of the Hooghly, thus provided the fashionable promenade of Calcutta a Hygeian Walk, as William Jones called. [1] Where the Bank of Bengal stands on the bank of the old Creek, at Cutcha- goody Ghaut, an avenue of trees ran along the river-bank to the Supreme Court, as King’s Bench Walk. The Walk was exclusively reserved for the English inhabitants from 5 to 8 o’clock every evening, sentries being posted **near the sluice-bridge” to prevent the entrance of natives.

 

 

[6] In 1823 the Strand road was formed, which led to a great sanitary improvement. This road has been widened at the expense of the river, so that where the western railing of the Metcalfe Hall stands, there were, in 1820s, nine fathoms of water. [13]

 

EDEN GARDENS

 

View of Eden Gardens Calcutta. Creator: Samuel Bourne. 1865. Courtesy: British Library

 

The site was initially named Auckland Circus Gardens, which stands at the northern-end of Maidan toward Calcutta Gate. The Gardens came into being when the Governor General, Lord Auckland, desired to create a circus and a garden. A pleasure ground with an oblong tank in center was laid out on this site generally resorted to for riding and recreation. The in­habitants are indebted to the liberality and taste of the Misses Eden, sisters of Lord Auckland. There was a Band-stand, where the Town Band or the Band of the European Regiment stationed in the Port, discourses sweet music every evening. Of late years the Gardens have been greatly enlarged, and laid out with winding paths and artificial water, interspersed with a profusion of beautiful flowering trees, and shrubs —a pleasant place for a morning or evening stroll. In the Gardens is a Burmese Pagoda, removed after the last war in 1851. and re-erected there in 1856.

 

STATUES OF RAJ PERSONAGES

In the green of Maidan there had been several installations of statues of Governor-Generals, and Heroes of the British Raj. While each statue was a perfect specimen of Western art, not all the personalities were found equally adorable; few were hated by the native subjects. The statues remained scattered all over Maidan till the end of colonial era, and thereafter replaced by figures of Indian national leaders. The old ones are now archived at the Flagstaff House in Barrackpore. Some nice photographs of the statues curated by DBH Ker in recent time can be seen in Flickr.[12] The details of the statues are available in Raj Bhavan(WB) Occasional Paper-4.[15]

Unveiling of Statue of Outram on Horseback, modelled by John Foley. Bourne and Shephard. 1874

 

The statue of Outram on horseback set in Calcutta Maidan was one the finest sculptural specimens modeled by John Foley in 1874. The statue inspired Barbara Groseclose, the art historian, to remark that ‘doubts and anxieties, as well as assumptions about their own place in Indian life, bear strongly on the roles and achievements for which the British sought or received commemoration ..’ See Outram Institute Puronokolkata

 

EDIFICES IN MAIDAN

The Maidan has come into existence when the Company built the second Fort William in Govindpore in 1773. The General Hospital was already constructed at the outskirt in 1770 near the old Jail, which was demolished to make room for construction of the Cathedral in 1839. The Race Corse Stadium and Ochterlony Monument followed in 1809 and 1863 respectively. Victoria Memorial and the Curzon Park – the two integral constituents of Maidan created in 20th century – are outside the scope of the present discussion.

 

FORT WILLIAM, GOVINDPORE

The works of the Fort were planned by an engineer named Boyer. Undoubtedly it is the 2nd Fort William, the regular architecture and commanding position of which are equally conspicuous.  This fortress completely commands the town. Evidently, it was designed to hold the inhabitants of Calcutta, in case of another siege, as permission was originally given to every inhabitant of the settlement to build a house within the fort. But entertaining views of the comfort of living in garden houses discouraged the people to accept this privilege. They preferred living in developing Chowringhee neighbourhood. In 1756 the plain were occupied by native huts, and by salt marshes, which afforded fine sport to buffalo hunters. [1]

 

Fort William, Govindpore. Chowringhee Gate. Creator: Unidentified. 1880’s Source: eBay,

HOSPITAL

The first hospital was erected in 1707 for soldiers and sailors, was located in the present Gerstein’s Place, near St. John’s Church, and lasted for nearly half a
century until the sack of Calcutta in 1756. The Company’s second hospital was a make-shift structure in the Old Fort, and was used for about thirteen or fourteen years till 1770. The project was mooted at a Consultation of the Board over which he presided on the 29th September, 1766. The hospital that stood in 1707 beside the old graveyard in a most insanitary site at Gerstein Place was removed ‘into the country’ at the far end of Maidan. The house was initially purchased in 1768 from a native gentleman for the purpose.

 

 

The East India Company (Calcutta Council) purchased the plot of land with a garden house from Rev. John Zacharias Kiernander at a cost of Rs. 98900.00 along with an adjoining plot belonging to a Bengali Gentleman. Gourchurn Tarsor (Tagore?) was the only Bengali among those who offered their property on sale, the others being James Dollas and Domingo de Rosario. After various alterations and additions including two other buildings erected in 1770 on the-then Lower Circular Road. The hospital renamed as the Presidency General Hospital was open for admission of general public. In 1795 two new wings and some other additions and alterations were made to equip the hospital with latest medical technology. [14]

 

ST PAUL’S CATHEDRAL

 

View of Eden Gardens Calcutta. Creator: Samuel Bourne. Sig.date:1902.

 

The St Paul’s Cathedral was designed in the Indo-Gothic style by William F Forbes. Forbes, a military engineer who was later promoted to Major General, was also responsible for the design of the old Calcutta Mint where he held the post of Mint Master for a time. It was through a long course of discussions the site for its construction was decided. In favor of the site finally selected, a plebiscite of the most representative bodies and organizations in Calcutta voted overwhelmingly. The Cathedral has been erected on the site of the hideous and obsolete structure of the old Jail that was demolished by the Government at its own cost. [7] Construction of the cathedral began in 1839, when the foundation stone was laid by Daniel Wilson, Bishop of Calcutta, and completed in 1847. The tall central spire and square tower beneath were inspired by a similar feature at the twelfth century cathedral in Canterbury, England. The upper portion of the tower, which originally reached a height of sixty-one meters, was destroyed in an earthquake in 1934.
Source: ‘Photographs of India and Overland Route’ by Oscar Mallitte in 1865.

 

RACE COURSE

The Race Course, which originated as the Course or promenade of Calcutta is one of the finest in the country. Racing was started at the Akra farm at the foot of Garden Reach from 1780, if not earlier. There at that time, the Nabob of Oudh, deposed by the British, and his descendents lived in their palatial garden houses. In 1812, the new course was laid out in Calcutta roughly where it is located today.

 

Racecourse Calcutta. Viceroy’s Cup Day. Creator: Johnston & Hoffmann in 1845

Lord Wellesley, during his administration, set his face decidedly against horse-racing and every other species of gambling. His influence threw a damp on it for many years, though last century a high value was attached to English jockeys, and the races were favorite subjects of expectation with the ladies. With the amusement of the turf came the spirit of betting. [13] One of the most significant events in the history of Calcutta racing took place in 1847 when the Calcutta Turf Club was officially born. [See: Royal Calcutta Turf Club  https://puronokolkata.com/2014/01/06/royal-calcutta-turf-club-calcutta-1845/%5D

 

OCHTERLONY MONUMENT

 

The Ochterlony Monument is an iconic landmark of Calcutta. It was designed by J. P. Parker and erected by Burn & Company in 1828, on the north-eastern side of Calcutta Maidan. The Monument was dedicated to the memory of Major-general Sir David Ochterlony, a commander of the British East India Company. He was commemorated for his successful defense of Delhi against the attack of the Maratha Yaswantrao Holkar in 1804, and also for the victory of the East India Company in the Anglo- Nepalese War of 1814 to 1816. The expenditure regarding the construction and the foundation of the monument was paid from the public fund. The ‘Cloud kissing Monument’ as Mark Twain called it, is 48 metres (157 ft) high.

It has a foundation based on the Egyptian style.  The column is a combination of styles with a classical fluted column, a Syrian upper portion, and a Turkish dome. It has two balconies at the top. The top floor is accessible by a serpentine staircase of 223 steps.

 

 

LIFE IN MAIDAN

Maidan is so many things to so many people. Apart from army parades, and drills of mounting police, there are washermen who wash clothes and themselves in its ponds (see Dhopa Pukur in Mark Wood’s map), shepherds who tend their flocks, citizens taking their morning walks, and the last vestiges of the horse-drawn hackney carriages plying its fringes entertaining merrymakers and businessmen to make money. When Jamshedji Framji Madan entered the ‘bioscope’ scene in 1902, he began to screen films in tents, one of which was set up on the Maidan.

 Chowringhee, the new township next to Maidan, is a place of modern creation. In 1768 there were a few European families enjoyed ‘out of town’ living. They always looked for opportunities of entertainment and recreation – including the out-door varieties held at Maidan, like Ballooning, Circus, Bicycle Race, Horse Race, Polo, Cricket and such exciting sports of the day. A large stretch of the Maidan is dotted with small greenish tents belonging to sports clubs.

 

Charak Puja procession in Maidan – coloured lithograph. Creator: Charles D’Oyly. 1848.

 

BALLOONING

Balloon ascent was indeed a novelty in India. On 30th July, 1785, a balloon, measuring six feet in diameter, and filled with rarefied air was let off from the Maidan. Mr. M’intle. the young gentleman who constructed the balloon, favoured the settlement with another exhibition next evening. The first ascent of a large balloon from the plains of Bengal took place on the 21st March, 1836.

CIRCUS

“Every now and then some adventurous ‘entertainer’ makes a tour of the country; but seldom, I fancy, with satisfactory results; and travelling circuses appear to meet with no better success”. An Opera Company which has been lately enlivening Calcutta, seems to be an exception to the general rule, being the best thing of the kind that has ever been seen in India. [3]. Chiarini’s Italian Circus performed in Calcutta in August 1880.

Around 1880, the cited playbill advertised Wilson’s Circus in Calcutta, featuring Edwin Moxon, who appeared with his Magic Tom-Tom act, and with the Moxon Brothers in their ‘wonderful balancing act’ with a pyramid of chairs. Around that time Royal Italian Circus where Chiarini, an Italian director performed in Calcutta. Professor Bose’s great Bengal Circus exhibited its shows at the Maidan in January 1900 in which Bir Badal Chand wrestled with a Royal Bengal Tiger.

POLO & GOLF

Polo has been played in the Maidan since 1861. The modern game of polo, though formalised and popularised by the British, is derived from Manipur where the game is known as  ‘Pulu’. In 1862 the Calcutta Polo Club was established by two British soldiers, Captain Robert Stewart and (later Major General) Joe Sherer. They were inspired by the game in Manipur and later they spread the game to their peers in England. The club runs the oldest and first ever Polo Trophy, the Ezra Cup (1880).

 

Cricket & Football

 

 

Ground of the Calcutta Cricket Club, 15th July 1861. Creator: Percy Carpentier. 1861. Courtesy: MCC Museum at Lords

 

Calcutta Cricket & Football Club, founded in 1792, is one of the oldest sports clubs in the world. The first formal cricket match played between the Etonians and the rest of the Civil Servants of the Company was played for two consecutive days on the green before the Government House in January 1804.

In the absence of a permanent venue, the Calcutta Cricket Club played its games on the esplanade between Fort William and Government House. By the 1820s, the members felt the need for a permanent ground. In 1825, the Calcutta Cricket Club managed to obtain the use of a plot of land on the Maidan. In 1841 the Club was relocated to the eastern boundary of the Auckland Circus Gardens. [See: Calcutta Cricket https://puronokolkata.com/2014/06/18/calcutta-cricket-maidan-calcutta-1792/%5D

 

Endnotes

 

The Maidan is deeply embedded in the Bengali psyche as well. It was fashionable for the Babus of old Calcutta to go for fresh air in the esplanade, or গড়ের মাঠ. Carey described the great show of fashionables in evenings at the Eaden Gardens out for the purpose of enjoying a drive—“eating the air (howa-khana) as the Indians express it.” [5] Rabindranath , in his reminiscences  mentioned about the sports-loving public rushing to playground in Maidan riding on crowded tramcar footboards; how his elder brother, Jyotirindranath took his wife, Kadambari, on horse-back to Maidan for a promenade defying social taboos. Maidan has stood a mute witness to the unfolding history of the city until the beginning of the 20th century, when the Maidan spread out its huge stage to voice against British rule, supporting national agenda for freedom movements. In connection with the founding of Victoria Memorial Hall upon the Maidan, some anxiously felt that “…it needs but the smallest acquaintance with that great city to know that its inhabitants regard the Maidan as a virtuous woman regards her honour, any assault upon which must be repelled as the deadliest form of insult.” [7]

 

REFERENCES

    1. Anonymous. 1816. “Sketches of India ; Or,observations Descriptive of the Scenery, &c. in Bengal; Chapter 13.” London: Black, Purbury and Allen. Retrieved (https://books.google.co.in/books?id=tEcVAAAAQAAJ&pg=PA197&lpg=PA197&dq=“+Setting+aside+the+pleasure+one+natu-+“+rally+feels+at+the+termination+of+a+long+“+voyage,+and&source=bl&ots=RMNhJRJxhm&sig=woJs5KFQwm85BUFHXzP199w35-k&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwi3gfnAqtv).
    2. The Bengal and Agra annual guide and gazetteer. 1841. Calcutta: Rushton. (https://archive.org/stream/bengalandagraan00unkngoog#page/n10/mode/2up)
    3. Blanchard, Sidney Laman. 1867. Yesterday and Today in India. London: Allen. Retrieved (https://archive.org/stream/yesterdaytodayin00blan#page/n3/mode/2up).
    4. Blechynden, Kathleen. 1905. Calcutta Past and Present. London: Thacker. Retrieved (https://archive.org/details/calcuttapastand02blecgoog).
    5. Carey, William H. 1907. The Good Old Days of Honorable John Company, Being Curious Reminiscences … during the Rules of the East India Company, from 1800 to 1858; vol.2. Calcutta: Cambray. Retrieved (https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.116087).
    6. Cotton, Evan. 1907. Calcutta Old and New: A Historical and Descriptive Handbook of the City. Calcutta: Newman. Retrieved (https://archive.org/details/calcuttaoldandn00cottgoog).
    7. Curzon, Murquis of Keddleston. 1905. British Government in India: The Story of the Viceroys and Government Houses; Vol. 1. Retrieved (https://dl.wdl.org/16800/service/16800_1.pdf).
    8. Kerr, D B. n.d. Forgotten Statuary of the British Raj; A gallery curated by DBHKer (https://www.flickr.com/photos/23268776@N03/galleries/72157631880613097/?rb=1#photo_169640291
    9. Firminger, W. K. 1906. Thacker’s Guide to Calcutta. Calcutta: Thacker, Spink. Retrieved (https://archive.org/stream/thackersguidetoc00firm#page/n7/mode/2up/search/’socially+but+not+geographically).
    10. Graham, Maria. 1813. Journal of a Resdence in India. 2nd ed. Edinburgh: Costable. Retrieved (https://archive.org/stream/journalaresiden00callgoog#page/n6/mode/2up).
    11. Hill, S.Charles. 1902. List of Europeans and Others in the English Factories in Bengal at the Time of the Siege of Calcutta in the Year 1756 .pdf. Calcutta: GOI, Printing Press. Retrieved (https://www.google.co.in/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=13&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=0ahUKEwiuieCx3qbXAhVCLI8KHUvTBGcQFghbMAw&url=http%3A%2F%2Fasi.nic.in%2Fasi_books%2F9381.pdf&usg=AOvVaw2tZ5JJ8tHBx8o1QTmBzYWI%0A%0A).
    12. Hutchison, W. H. Florio. 1883. Pen and pencil sketches: reminiscences during 18 years’ residence in Bengal, ed. by J. Wilson. London: Marston. (https://archive.org/stream/penandpencilske00hutcgoog#page/n4/mode/2up)
    13. Long, Rev.James. n.d. “Calcutta in the Olden Time – Its Localities. Art.2 – Map of Calcutta.” (https://archive.org/stream/in.ernet.dli.2015.98350/2015.98350.Calcutta-And-Its-Neighbourhood_djvu.txt)
    14. Moir, D M. 1903. “Notes on the origin of the Presidency General Hospital, Calcutta” In: The Indian Medical Gazette; Feb, 1903)
    15. Raj Bhavan. Kolkata. 2007 [Barrackpore Flagstaff House] (Occasional Paper – 4)(https://www.google.co.in/search?q=Occasional+Paper+%E2%80%93+4%3A+Barrackpore&ie=utf-8&oe=utf-8&client=firefox-b&gfe_rd=cr&dcr=0&ei=hluIWpXuDrCcX-T_lsAD)
    16. Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge (Great Britain). 1842. Calcutta: David Rumsey Historical Map Collection. London: Chapman & Hall. (https://www.davidrumsey.com/luna/servlet/detail/RUMSEY~8~1~21006~530098:Calcutta-)
    17. Wilson, Charles R. 1895. The Early Annals of the English in Bangal, Being the Bengal Public Consultations for the First Half of the Eighteenth Century … Vol. 1. London: Thacker. Retrieved (https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.63176).

 

 

Chowringhee: Against the Backdrop of Fort William II

Chowringhee Road. 1787. Artist and engraver: Daniell, Thomas

চৌরঙ্গীঃ কোলকাতার দক্ষিন দ্বার

Genesis of Chowringhee

After Plassey, the necessity of keeping the English factory at Calcutta within the Fort was at end.[6] There was no felt need any more for reviving the ravaged Fort that proved its inadequacy in defending the old town and its own bulwark. The Fort was encumbered with houses close by, and had no proper esplanade for guns. Their triumph might not have been spirited enough to free the minds of English commanders from the dread of another war. That was why the East India Company favoured Clive’s decision of erecting a second Fort William expending two millions sterling.[8] The new Fort essentially differs from the old one being exclusively a military establishment and not a fortified factory of English traders as the old Fort was styled. Its construction set off in 1758 on the riverside ground of Govindpur village about a mile away from the old Fort. Before the Battle of Laldighi, the English were cooped up in the neighbourhood of the old Fort.[17] The prospect of an aerial, liveable habitation in the neighbourhood of the New Fort, attracted the European population to gradually move from the already crowded old township around the Tank Square and the old Minta, to settle in commodious Chowringhee.[6]

New Fort in Backdrop

Equipped with huge defense machinery and a formidable military architecture, the new Fort William was ready by 1773, but had no occasion ever since to exchange fires with enemies. Instead its resounding  tope of canon ball routinely announced mid-day hours to regulate working life of the Calcuttans. The presence of the imposing Fort on Maidan silently reminds us of the significant role it had played in transforming the town Calcutta into a city – famously called ‘City of Palace’, the centre of British India. Following inauguration of the Fort, the Supreme Court of Judicature at Fort William was founded. The Governors of Bengal became the Governor Generals of India. Calcutta was reborn ushering a modern society to stay connected with rest of the world.

Fort William, Govindpore. Chowringhee Gate. Photographer: unidentified. 1880’s Source: eBay,

Beyond the European buildings lying around the Old Fort were four villages of mud and bamboo, all of which were included in the zamindary limits of the first settlement. These villages were the original three with the addition of Chowringhee. Chowringhee in 1717 was a hamlet of isolated hovels, surrounded by water-logged paddy-fields and bamboo-groves, interspersed with a few huts and small plots of grazing and arable lands. The chosen site of the Fort was on the river-bank of village Govindpore, considerably south of the old Mint. As Colonel Mark Wood’s Map of 1784 inscribes.[19] Govindpore began where the Northern boundary of Dhee Calcutta ended at Baboo Ghat, and then went up to the Govindpore Creek, or Tolly’s Nullah and that was the extreme end of the English zamindary. As Rev. Long indicated, it was ‘immediately to the South of Surman’s gardens, marked by a pyramid in Upjohn’s map.’ [17] At West, the area includes King’s Bench Walk  with a row of trees separating it from the riverbank between  Chandpaul Ghaut  and  Colvin’s Ghaut , then called  Cucha-goody Ghaut  At North, Esplanade Row, from Chandpaul Ghaut, hard by the New Court House on the riverside, runs into Dhurumtollah in a straight line past the Council House and the old Government House standing side by side.

Govindpore was a populous flourishing village when its entire population was removed to make room for the new Fort and its infrastructure. The inhabitants were compensated by providing lands in places like Toltollah, Kumartooly, Sobhabazar expending restitution-money. In Govindpore itself great improvements took place. The jungle that cut off the village of Chowringhee from the river, was cleared and. gave way to the wide grassy stretch of ‘Maidan of which Calcutta is so proud’.

Pallanquin on jungle road. Illustration in book ’India’ by Richard Mayde 1876

The jungle, presumably, had been once a part of the Great Soonderband (সুন্দর বন).  Many traces of trees were found at a considerable depth below the surface of the ground. These remains are thought to be those of the soondrie forest that covered the site of Calcutta when newly emerged from the waters of the Gangetic Delta. [6] Early 1789, Government resolved on filling up the excavations in the Esplanade and levelling its ground. The plan was prepared for the benefit of Calcutta in general, and of the houses fronting the Esplanade in particular. The plan extended to drain the marsh land, in expectation that the digging a few tanks will furnish sufficient earth and thus save the project cost and time. A new tank was made at the corner of Chowringhee and Esplanade, which existed till the dawn of the twentieth century. [20]

Road to Chowringhee

The road dividing the Maidan and Chowringhee was named, Road to Chowringhy [sic] by Colonel Mark Wood in his 1784 Plan of Calcutta, which in fact was a midsection of the oldest and longest thoroughfare of Calcutta, known as Pilgrim Way  starting from Chitpore, Chitreswari temple at extreme North and ending at Kalighat temple in South. As late as in 1843, the proclamation included in the  Special Reports of the Indian Law Commissioners has no mention of ‘Chowringhee locality’, but of a ‘Chowringhi[sic] High Road’.

The Road to Chowringhy[sic] was initially a short stretch between Dhurumtollah and Park Street that subsequently developed into an 80 feet broad and nearly two miles long roadway commencing from the  Creek  where it crossed Cossitollah (later Bentinck Street) between Waterloo Street and British India Street, and ended at Theatre Road where from Rossapagla Road took the queue. Before the modern Chowringhee came into being, Cossitollah, was thronged with a large proportion of European shops and often called ‘the Indian Elysium of plebeians’. [6]. The eastern side of the Chowringhee Road is lined by handsome houses, facing the fine grassy Maidan which lies between them and the river. Houses are generally ornamented with spacious verandahs to the south, that being the quarter from which the cool evening breeze blows in the hot weather. [12] The Bishp’s Palace was the most imposing among those.

Changing Landscape

When Josua Conder visited Chowringhee, this city was ‘the quick growth of a century’, and ‘still half jungle’. He wrote, “at Chowringhee, where you now stand in a spacious verandah supported by Grecian pillars, only sixty short years ago, the defenseless villagers could scarcely bar out the prowling tiger.” His presumptions about the future of Chowringhee however were all wrong. Contrary to his beliefs, in sixty more years the city never depopulated but its strength intensified; and all these perishable palaces of timber, brick, and chunam did not disappear but multiplied more time than it should have. [7]

Calcutta. A French map. 1839. credited to Dufour and Benard. [Read ‘Rue’ for ‘Road’]

So far back as 1714 ‘Cherangy’[sic] is named among the township neighbourhood within the Pergunnah of Calcutta either possessed or desired by the Company.[23] Originally, Chowringhee was an ancient village named after one  Jungal Giri Cherangi, a pious worshipper of Kali. Between 1726 and 1737, Cherangi (sic) came to be treated as a part of the English settlement. It was still separated on the West from Govindapur by jungle, where now the grassy level of the Maidan extends. The creek wandering inland past the southern wall of the burying ground divided Chowringhee-Govindapur from the Old Town – the township around the Old Fort. Until then Chowringhee had been a native portion of Dhee Calcutta and Bazar Calcutta.[23] There were “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”. [8]

The above 9 lithographs of William Wood’s paintings included in his album, Views of Calcutta.published in 1833. The elegant forms of the buildings of European Calcutta heralded an important stage in the history of architecture of the subcontinent: the evolution of Western styles into forms which would become commonplace in the Indian context. This building depicted shows what became the conventional pattern, a two or three storeyed block, well-proportioned and set in a garden, and with columned verandahs protecting its rooms from the heat. Courtesy British Library

Colonel Mark Wood in 1784 marked Chowringhee on the South of Park Street away from the original locale of the village Cherangi. A decade later, Upjohn put back the district of Chowringhee as Dhee Birje, on the North of Park Street. The boundaries were shown with Circular Road on the East, Park Street on the South, Colingah on the North and a part of Chowringhee Road on the West. [17] After half a century, Dufour and Benard in 1839 put Chowringhee on both the sides of Park Street spreading over Dhurumtollah to Theatre Road. [3] Bit by bit its boundaries extended from the village at North of Park Street, then called the Burying Ground Road, to cover the whole South-East part of Calcutta. In 1802 Lord Valentia writes : “Chowringhee, an entire village, runs for a considerable length at right angles with it (the Esplanade) and altogether forms the finest view I ever beheld in any city.” In 1810, Miss Graham found Calcutta ‘like London a small town of itself ‘, but its suburbs swell it to a prodigious city. [14] Chowringhee in 1824, is no more a mere scattered suburb, but almost as closely built as, and a very little less extensive than Calcutta. [23] , “separated from Calcutta by an ancient John bazaar [Jaun Bazaar]”.[16] Chowringhee, to Rev W K Firminger, was the  West End  of Calcutta, socially but not geographically,  a district bounded by Park Street on the North, Lower Circular Road on the East and South, and the Maidan on the West. [13]

The modern view ignores the historicity of Chowringhee. The row of buildings on Esplanade Row at the edge of Maidan becomes its Northern skirt. Its territory is nowadays more or less compatible with old Govindpore – a place no more exists.

Chowringhee Road View from No 11 Esplanade Row , across Dhurrumtollah Tank. Col. Lithograph. Artist: Sir Charles D’Oyly

Growing Chowringhee

A year before the construction of Govindpore Fort stared, there had been only a couple of European houses in Chowringhee. One at the corner of Dhurumtollah with entrance from that street, the other was at a little distance from it, with an entrance facing the Maidan. Most likely the first house was the General Stibbert’s House in the west end of the Dhurumtollah and in the vicinity of the Esplanade, where Mr. Farrell’ New Calcutta Academy moved in from Cossitolla Street as gazetted on 31st May 1804, much before the foundation of St Paul’s School, which was sometimes referred to as one of the two first houses in Chowringhee. The second one was indisputably the manor of Lord Vansittart at number 7 Middleton Row. It was better known as Sir Elijah Impey’s house where Impey happily stayed surrounded by an expansive deer park. In those days Maidan was ‘strangely treeless’, and Impey’s manor happened to be the foremost erection stood across it’s stretch. The site is now occupied by the Loreto Convent.

The number of houses continued to grow in isolation till 1770s. Between Jaun Bazar Road (or Corporation Street as called later), and Park Street, forty European residences, mostly with large compounds, are depicted in Upjohn’s Map. An equal number may be counted in Dhee Birjee – the quarter immediately south of Park Street. Even so late as 1824, Chowringhee was regarded as a suburb. Miss Eden calls it the Regent’s Park of Calcutta. Miss Emma Roberts spoke about suburb Chowringhee of 1831-33 – the favourite residence of the European community. From the roofs of their houses, they viewed “a strange, rich, and varied scene discloses itself: the river covered with innumerable vessels,— Fort William, and Government House, standing majestically at opposite angles of the plain,— the city of Calcutta, with its innumerable towers, spires, and pinnacles in the distance,— and nearer at hand, swamps and patches of unreclaimed jungle, showing how very lately the ground in the immediate neighbourhood of the capital of Bengal was an uncultivated waste, left to the wild beasts of the forest.” [25]

“In this part of the town,” notes Mr. Beverley in his census report for 1876, “ the streets are laid out with perfect regularity, very different from the rest of the town” – the town rising about the old Fort. [9] The report was contrary to what Miss Emma viewed over half a century ago and said, “No particular plan appears to have been followed in their erection, and the whole, excepting the range facing the great plain, Park-street, Free-School street, and one or two others, present a sort of confused labyrinth,”. and then she added ,”however, it is very far from displeasing to the eye; the number of trees, grass- plants, and flowering shrubs, occasioning a most agreeable diversity of objects.” [25] The difference between the observations of Miss Emma of Beverley evidenced the good works done in between by the Lottery Committee. “To them Calcutta is indebted for a long catalogue of improvements: and they may justly claim to be held in grateful remembrance as her second founders. Roads and paths were run across the Maidan and the familiar balustrades set up. Numerous tanks were excavated The New Market, which was built between 1871 and 1874, is another monument to the energy of the Justices which the ordinary citizen of Calcutta probably feels better able to appreciate. The grand success of the Lottery Committee encouraged the government to undertake further developmental programs under the management of the Fever Committee [9]

Chowringhee Redefined

An illustration is from a picture drawn by Captain F. J. Bellew, illustrating his book entitled, A Griffen, on Landing at Calcutta, 1818

Chauringi [sic]) is a place of quite modern erection, originated from the rage for country houses.”, At the beginning of 19th century the people of Calcutta, as of Bombay and Madras, loved to live in garden-houses midst trees and flowers. They preferred living away from the hot, unhealthy and already crowded Town of Calcutta, to a place ‘where they could enjoy some privacy’.[17] They admired the landscape of Chowringhee. Chowringhee premises themselves were often very extensive, the principal apartments looking out upon pretty gardens, decorated with that profusion of flowers which renders every part of Calcutta so blooming. [25] The surroundings were mostly open fields among which were scattered villages, with here and there a garden house, standing in wide grounds where roamed plenty of deer, water birds, particularly the adjutant birds, or the Indian stork with a pinkish-brown neck and bill, and a military gait seen walking around. Camels and mules were not uncommon sight on Chowringhee Road. Jackals roamed at night mischievously to undermine foundations of old houses, as they did so to the Free School’s old house that fell in 1854. In spite of such small inconveniences the ‘lordly Chowringhee stood ‘equal to the finest thoroughfare anywhere; and the blessed Maidan – that enormous lung responsible for all the health and happiness of the people of Calcutta’. [20]

The name ‘Chowringhee’ denotes a new found ‘comfort zone’ in the South of Town Calcutta for the Europeans who loved a trendy hassle-free life to lead in airy environs. Whenever their comfort-zone shifted its focus the habitat moved along revising its boundaries but keeping the name unchanged. The historical maps may well justify redefining ‘Chowringhee’ in terms of habitation socially and not geographically in terms of territorial location. Chowringhee like two other old localities, John Bazaar and Taltallah, ‘came adrift from their moorings and carried away by the surging tide of population beyond Dhurumtollah toward Bhowanipore.[18] Somewhat like a Gypsy camp, the community moved on southward leaving some cohabitants behind in lesser locations.

Chowringhee Stratified

Plan of Calcutta. 1784 & 1785. Credited to Colonel Mark Wood

Chowringhee, we may notice, is a cluster of residential blocks of distinctive characters, categorized by racial, religious, economic differences. Blanchard in his memoir mentions: “A house in the “City of Palaces” is very apt to look like a palace. But the comparison applies only to that portion of the town where dwell the Europeans of the higher ranks, the Civil and Military officers, and principal merchants of the place. These congregate for the most part in the Chowringhee road and the streets running there from, which make up the only neighbourhood where it is conventionally possible for a gentleman to reside.” [5] This description of Blanchart found inapplicable to the whole of Chowringhee, but to some exclusive neighbourhood like. Hastings Place, at the southern end of Chowringhee. The group of streets which commemorate the various titles of Lord Hastings and his wife, who was Countess of Loudoun in her own right, are also the work of the Lottery Committee, and were designed to afford access to the Panchkotee (92 Elliot Rd ?), or five mansions, which will be found surrounding Rawdon Street, Moira Street, Hungerford Street and Loudoun Street (as it should be properly spelt). [9] We are informed by different authors that while barristers had their houses in the neighbourhood of Supreme Court, the officials, medical men, and merchants, have their residences in Garden Reach, and the numerous streets contained in the district rejoicing in the general name of Chowringee [sic]. [16] All these points out to the practice of social ranking among the European residents in Chowringhee. Chowringhee was built by Europeans for residing there in European way life, surpassing the standard of living prevailed in their homeland. Montgomery Massey penned an intimate and lively picture of Chowringhee of relatively recent time covering half a century from 1870s. [20]

Social & Religious Reservations

Procession of the Churruckpooja in Chowringee. Coloured lithograph by Charles D’Oyly. 1848

For a long time Indians had no place in Chowringhee, excepting very few. We find in a late 18th century map three Rustomjees on Chowringhee Lane, Jamsedjee Ruttunjee on Lindsay Street. Chowringhee allowed these rich business men of Parsee community to stay with the sahibs rightfully. It took a hundred year for the native gentlemen to share the privilege liberally with the Europeans to settle in Chowringhee. Some of those privileged ones were: Kumar Arun Chundra Singha at house 1(?) Harrington Street, Sir Rajendranath Mookherji’s house on 7 Harrington Street, Sir B. C. Mitter’s 19 Camac Street, Raja Promotho Roy Chowdhury’s 9 Hungerford Street. The presence of native houses in Chowringhee before coming of Europeans may not be improbable. Rev. Long spoke of a ‘large house’ identical to Sir Elijah Impey’s, stood on the very spot, nearly half a century before Impey. That house as referred to in the ‘Plan of Calcutta’ of 1742 ‘cannot have been an English residence’ he continued, ‘and was possibly the property of a native official’. [17]

Chowringhee in its first two centuries had been exclusively a Christian colony. The two early Bengali converts, Rev. K. M. Banerjee, and Gunendra Mohun Tagore had houses in European quarter on Bullygunge Circular Road at premises numbers 1 and 2. We are never sure if Chowringhee would have welcomed these two native Christians as residents, if so they desired. It is interesting to note, however, that there was a Hindu, of European origin, living in posh Wood Street area. Hindu Stuart was more a conservative Hindu than many native Hindus were. The European residents had tolerated Stuart’s conformity to idolatrous customs. It shows that the Europeans had no problems with native faith as such, but to them the native way of living was utterly disgraceful and unhygienic. Besides their own experience, the reactions of the overseas visitors gathered from their memoirs and letters, reinforced European antipathy toward the way of living of the Calcutta people in general, and of the lower-class in particular. One of the serious objections they had against native citizens was ‘lack of sensitivity’ and indifference toward their own surroundings. They called the native town, a black town, as it was a ‘wretched-looking place – dirty, crowded, ill-built, and abounding with beggars and bad smells’ [30]. Beyond Black Towns, even the best neighbourhoods were not completely free of such menace. “The whole appearance of Chowringhee is spoiled by the filthy huts that exist everywhere, almost touching the ‘palaces’.” These eyesores are to be seen even in the ultra-fashionable Park Street and Middleton Street, and on the Maidan in front of Chowringhee. [12] It is a repulsive scene for civilized members of any society. The problems are often thought of economy oriented and related to lower-class of the society, overlooking their cultural significance.

Living Conditions and Style

The Black Towns also includes the upper-class genteel who lived in ‘handsome houses enclosed in court-yards between the mud huts, the small dingy brick tenements, and the mean dilapidated bazaars of the middling and lower classes of natives. These Armenian merchants, Parsees, and Bengallee gentlemen of great wealth and respectability’ did never mind their environment. [25] Interestingly, the lowly tribal folks of Bengal, like the santals, keep their homes and villages clean and beautiful. The underlined social malady is an issue of critical importance for investigating the root cause of stagnation of the vernacular society. The matter is beyond the scope of present discussion. Elsewhere we discussed related issues in historical context. See: Rajendra Dutta 1818-1889

 

Chowringhee Today & Tomorrow

Since 1754 Chowringhee revealed itself variantly in maps, paintings, and texts. It is almost impossible to separate Chowringhee from boundary areas, or to imagine a Chowringhee excluding North of Park Street, a Chowringhee without the old Hogg Market, the Museum, Bible House, The Grand, and Firpo’s, and the like – attractions of old and recent past. For Chowringhee goers, riding an Esplanade-bound tram across the green of Maidan was a special pleasure. Alighted at Esplanade they felt already in Chowringhee, and perceived the two as inseparable. To them and some modern scholars, Chowringhee and Esplanade denote the same place and are generally called by any of the two names irrespectively. The comprehensive view of modern Calcutta embraces the grand view of Maidan and on its opposite, shiny lines of shops, hotels, restaurants, cinema halls and range of magnificent edifices built mostly by the Armenian architects who were responsible more than others for upgrading Calcutta to the City of Palace. Minney in his time wondered “if all these mighty edifices will be abandoned some day by those for whom they were built. Will the Britons say to the Indians, “We built all this for ourselves, and for you; but we can no longer live together?” [20] And so it happened. Calcutta has been losing her Oriental identity for good. The little collective will the society had earned to resist the lure of westernization is being siphoned off in the process of misconceived globalization.

 

NOTES
The name of the rural Cherangi (চেরাঙ্গী) changed during its transformation into urbane Chowringhee (চৌরঙ্গী). The original vernacular name [26] acquired variant renditions with some twists to suit English tongues, and spelt out fancifully by writers of last three centuries. Among the good alternatives, ‘Chowringhee’ is found most popular in the works consulted. That is the only reason why I used ‘Chowringhee’ and some other place names in certain anglicized forms as standard.

REFERENCES
1. Anonymous. 1859. The East India Sketch-Book; Comprising an Account of the Present State of Society in Calcutta, Bombay, Etc. London: Bentley.
2. Bellew. 1880. Memoirs of a Griffin; Or, a Cadet’s First Year in India, by Captain Bellew. London: Allen. Retrieved (https://books.googleusercontent.com/books/content?req=AKW5QaeFDZ31SuKS9kDHiV6UQ99iWso9Gpe7upyHKD7uJymaDFKZOeWiERI3n2I2aX4TozdjSzDJP8KSMGKwxIp2QyYMijIkC9LDrZ5rrD8ee7utuIuTAt4mkqAM9uu-jq3vjAx2M3xYMFMxXW8OHNamEuOXWPDkU0yA-yq9EUwZPN8_ifFCoA2tHKD61OGFj9SPebPjy).
3. Benard, Dufour and. 1839. “Calcutta 1839: A French Map 1839_DufordandBernard.” Retrieved (http://www.columbia.edu/itc/mealac/pritchett/00maplinks/colonial/calcuttamaps/rouard1839/rouard1839.html).
4. Bengal Almanac. 1851. BENGAL ALMANAC , With A Companion a N D Appendix. 1851st ed. Calcutta: Samuel Smith. Retrieved (https://books.google.co.in/books/about/The_Bengal_Almanac_for_1851.html?id=4UNBAAAAYAAJ&redir_esc=y).
5. Blanchard, Sidney Laman. 1867. Yesterday and Today in India. London: Allen. Retrieved (https://archive.org/stream/yesterdaytodayin00blan#page/n3/mode/2up).
6. Blechynden, Kathleen. 1905. Calcutta Past and Present. London: Thacker. Retrieved (https://archive.org/details/calcuttapastand02blecgoog).
7. Candor, Josua. 1828. Modern Traveller: Popular Description, Geographical, Historical, and Topographical ; Vol.3 India. London: Duncan. Retrieved (https://archive.org/details/moderntraveller05condgoog).
8. Carey, William. n.d. Good Old Days of Honorable John Company; vol.1.
9. Cotton, Evan. 1907. Calcutta Old and New: A Historical and Descriptive Handbook of the City. Calcutta: Newman. Retrieved (https://archive.org/details/calcuttaoldandn00cottgoog).
10. Curzon,George Nathaniel, Marquis of Kedlesta. 1925. “British Government in India; vol.1.” Retrieved (https://books.google.co.in/books?id=t_qdnQAACAAJ&dq=british+government+of+India+curzon&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjtgteC2MnXAhVEqI8KHe-DBeoQ6wEILTAB).
11. Deb, Binaya Krishna. 1905. The Early History and Growth of Calcutta. Calcutta: RC Ghose. Retrieved (https://archive.org/details/earlyhistoryand00debgoog).
12. Dewar, Douglas. 1922. Bygone Days in India; with 18 Illustrations. London: John Lane. Retrieved (https://archive.org/stream/bygonedaysinindi00dewauoft#page/n15/mode/2up).
13. Firminger, W. K. 1906. Thacker’s Guide to Calcutta. Calcutta: Thacker, Spink. Retrieved (https://archive.org/stream/thackersguidetoc00firm#page/n7/mode/2up/search/’socially+but+not+geographically).
14. Graham, Maria. 1813. Journal of a Resdence in India. 2nd ed. Edinburgh: Costable. Retrieved (https://archive.org/stream/journalaresiden00callgoog#p age/n6/mode/2up).
15. Hamilton, Alexander. 1727. A New Account of the East Indies; Being the Observations and Remarks of Capt. Alexander Hamilton from 1688-1723. Vol.1. Edinburgh: John Mosman [print]. Retrieved (https://books.googleusercontent.com/books/content?req=AKW5QacjxhiAm8rzif8UIk9TDXspCahRSpGTJAm4B4cNBUSur1ofIcI-zAg5Za6SGU0KEoBJJ0rawcvPDm3vIiVfY_AZMXqlsbCB7DFd_Q2mmMeTe-lppWWArhBGhJyND193wpzwke4Pr80-cyeInTGT6QK0EtQ5684QSuXLM8N5EGEHC5kHd6fucZw-MT5827LyRLvNA).
16. James, Edward. 1830. Brief Memoirs of John Thomas James, D.D: Lord Bishop of Calcutta. London: Hatchhard. Retrieved (https://archive.org/stream/briefmemoirsofla00jamerich#page/n5/mode/2up/search/ancient).
17. Johnson, George W. 1843. The Stranger in India; Or, Three Years in Calcutta. Vol. 1(2). London: Henry Colburn. Retrieved (https://archive.org/stream/strangerinindia00johngoog#page/n46/mode/2up).
18. Long, Rev.James. 1852. Calcutta in the Olden Time – Its Localities. Art.2 – Map of Calcutta. Retrieved (https://books.google.co.in/books?id=cQc2AAAAMAAJ&pg=PA275&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q&f=false).
19. Mark Wood. 1792. “Plan of Calcutta: 1874-1875.” Retrieved (https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/8/82/Kolkata_Old_Map.jpg).
20. Massey, Montague. 1918. Recollections of Calcutta for Over Halh a Century. Calcutta: Thacker, Spink. Retrieved (https://www.google.co.in/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=3&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=0ahUKEwjRr_WylsPXAhUDV7wKHTWJAXcQFggxMAI&url=https%3A%2F%2Farchive.org%2Fdetails%2Frecollectionsofc00massiala&usg=AOvVaw3uvydXqyjqB3xbkOOZe4jp).
21. Minney, R. J. 1922. Round about Calcutta. London: Oxford U P. Retrieved (https://archive.org/stream/roundaboutcalcut00minnrich#page/n5/mode/2up).
22. Monkland. 1828. Life in India, or the English at Calcutta; vol.2.
23. Montefiore, Arthur. 1894. Reginald Heber: Bishop of Calcutta, Scholar and Evangelist. New York: Revell. Retrieved (https://archive.org/details/reginaldheberbis00bric).
24. Ray, A. K. 1902. Calcutta: Town and Suburbs; Pt.1 A Short History of Calcutta. Calcutta: Bengal Secretariat. Retrieved (https://books.google.co.in/books?id=-Lo5AQAAMAAJ&q=calcutta+town+and+suburbs+ak+Ray&dq=calcutta+town+and+suburbs+ak+Ray&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjDnrz11MnXAhUCN48KHdgEDQUQ6AEIJzAA).
25. Roberts, Emma. 1843. “Memoirs of Emma Roberts. In Memoirs of Literary Ladies of England; Ed. by Mrs Elwood; vol.2.” in Oxford University, vol. 2. London: Colburn. Retrieved (https://books.google.co.in/books?id=ROsQAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA333&lpg=PA333&dq=memoirs+of+emma+robert&source=bl&ots=c_ubDSyGKS&sig=PW6CgPPZ3uZuZq0Ev71kl_Ll7vU&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiI5PPQ0cjXAhXHto8KHTQ7DFQ4ChDoAQgmMAA#v=onepage&q=memoirs of emma robert&f=false).
26. Thacker, Spink. 1776. “Alphabetical List of the Streets in Calcutta, Howrah, and the Suburbs.” Calcutta: Thacker, Spink.
27. Wilson, Charles R. 1895. The Early Annals of the English in Bengal; Summarised, Extracted, and Edited with Introductions and Illustrative Addenda; Vol.1. London, Calcutta: Thacker. Retrieved (https://archive.org/details/earlyannalsofeng01wilsuoft).

Old Fort William: Nursery of Calcutta City, 1700-1757

Fort William of the Kingdom of Bengal of EIC Col. – Engraving by Jan Van Ryne. 1754. Courtesy: British Library

পুরনো কেল্লা ফোর্ট উইলিয়মঃ দুর্গেশনন্দিনী নগর কোলকাতা

The Old Fort William of Calcutta was a fort of different kind. It was a fort without having initially a defined territory of its own to protect against possible intrusion, but to protect its commercial resources housed within. The city of Calcutta evolved round the Fort and called a fort-city, and often compared with other fort-cities in India and abroad. The fort-cities are occasionally called ‘walled-cities’ since those are encircled by one or more shielding walls, while Calcutta had none. Calcutta may yet be called a fort-city in a special sense. The Calcutta metropolis, once the foothold of the British Raj, had been originally a small township grown around the English ‘factory’, designated ‘Fort William’. ‘Modern Calcutta is its child and heir’[1] .  Interestingly, the oxforddictionaries.com  provides a second meaning of the word, ‘fort’, which is ‘trade station’. It suits well to understand what the old Fort William was, and why it may not be meaningfully called a ‘Fort of the Kingdom of Bengal’ as the above featured painting was captioned.

 

BACKGROUND

The Fort William came into existence because of the prosperity of English trade in Bengal during mid 17th century. East India Company desperately needed fortification to safeguard their commercial interest, more than anything else. The English in Bengal did well after obtaining the firman of Badshah Shah Jehan in 1640, that allowed the English Company trading in Bengal without payment of duty. Backed by the firman, the English made large profits in Bengal. They built factories in other places be­sides Hugli, and sent home cargoes of silks, cottons, and other commodities, including the one they built amongst the saltpetre grounds near Patna. Their progress, however, halted for a long while when Nabob Shaistah Khan decried the Badshahi firman and insisted on payment of duties by torturous means. Not even Job Charnock, the most noted of the English Governors of Hugli, was spared from the brutal treatment of Shaista Khan. Charnock refused to submit to the pressure and by shutting down their Bengal chapter went to Madras with his resources. Shortly after, Ibrahim Khan, the next Nabob of Bengal, welcomed the English to come back for trading in Bengal on agreeable terms. Charnock returned, but not to Hugli again. He thought decidedly that the English settlement should be in Sutanuti/ Calcutta, not really ‘for the sake of a large shady tree’, as Hamilton said jokingly, but because of its being the best strategic location for the base of the English traders to operate. With the approval of the Company Board1, Charnock with his companions settled ultimately in Sutanuti on 24th August 1690. No fortification, however, was brought about in his lifetime, and he happily ended his life in a thatched-roofed mud-house on 10 January 1693.  [8]

 

The settlers in Bengal had a rough time from the beginning under the reign of Nabob Shaista Khan, a notorious Mughal Governor. A short-lived upsurge, in 1697, lead by Rajah Shobha Singh created an atmosphere of fear and anxiety in the region.  All districts to the east of the river from Midnapore to Rajmahal lay isolated and unprotected against aggression of defiant Shobha Singh. The French, Dutch and English Chiefs solicited permission to throw up fortifications.  The Nabob was pleased to grant them a tacit permission, in his own interest.   All the foreign settlers seized the occasion to reinforce the structures they had already erected clandestinely.  This was how the Fort Gustavus at  Chinsurah, the  Fort  William  in Calcutta, and the French fort at Chandernagore came into existence. Shobha Singh was defeated in December same year. The Company, with the intention to  carry  on  all  their  trade  at Calcutta,  withdrew Patna,  Rajmahal and  Balasore  factories.  The  idea  of  establishing a  fortified  post  to  protect  English  trade  from  the  oppressive exactions  of  the  Nabob  of  Bengal  and  his  myrmidons,  was possibly suggested first by  William  Hedges, the Commissary General of the English East India Company sometime in 1682-83. [5] [6]

East India Company Hall – An aquatint By Thomas Rowlandson and Augustus Charles Pugin, (after) John Bluck (aquatint engravers). – Source: Microcosm of London (1809)

The very first attempt to accomplish the Company’s desire happened to be the fortified Government House of Sir Goldsborough – that comprised the most critical part of a factory, that is ‘Governor’s House’, but not a factory by itself. There were, in fact, too many houses in Calcutta from where governors and governor-generals preferred to govern.  Charnock’s seat was a mud house near the riverbank. When he died his estate was in chaos. Sir  John Goldsborough, arrived Calcutta to set things in order.  He led the way to build English factory in Calcutta. He  purchased a brick-and-mud house  for  the  Company,  renovated its structure, erected wall all around and thus make it a suitably fortified Governor’s House, ready to get converted into  a  fort  as  soon  as  permission  obtained.  Charles  Eyre, newly  appointed  agent in  place of Ellis, moved into  this  first  Government  House  of  Calcutta.  Its  site  is  said  to  have  been the  strip  of land  north  of the  present  Custom  House,  where  the  ‘ Long Row’  stood  in  the  old Fort William.  This fortified government building, which never was upgraded to a formally recognized fort, survived only for about a decade without having been associated ever with any historical events to remind of its presence, except the infamous storm of 1706 that pulled it down. On the wall of Customs House a marble plaque indicating its site was affixed for public awareness during Curzon’s government.[4]

Old Fort, Playhouse and Holwell’s Monument. – Aquatint with etching (col.) by Daniell, Thomas. 1786

By that time, in 1698, Prince  Azim-ush-shan  granted a nishan, or a sanction of the English Company’s rights. The Company thus gained a definite status and became the Collector of the three towns, Sutanuti, Calcutta, and Govindpur.  Bengal was from this period considered a Presidency; the Court sent from England orders to increase fortifications, to render this seat of trade at Calcutta well secured, not only against native powers, but against European rivals; and in compliment to His Ma­jesty, the fort was to be named Fort William. In 1700 Calcutta became a separate presidency (administrative unit) accountable to London. Its governors, and its governors-general, were given the added title “of Fort William in Bengal.” [Brit. Ency] Mr Charles Eyre was the first appointed President and Governor of Fort William in Bengal. In 1702 the English had the following factories in Bengal dependent on the Presidency at Fort William; viz. Fort William, Sutanuti, Balasore, Cossimbuzar, Dacca,Hugli, Malda, Rajahmahl, and Patna.[2]

 

LOCATION

Fort location in Calcutta 1757 map

About five leagues farther up, on the west side, the river Hugli  was broader but much shallower, and more encumbered with sand banks. Along the river Hugli there are many small villages and farms, intermingled in those large plains, but the first of any note on the river’s side, was Sutanuti, a Market-Town for corn, coarse cloth, butter, and oil, with other productions of the country; above it was the Dutch Bankshall. Calcutta has a large deep river that runs eastward, and five leagues farther up on the other side was Tanna Fort, built to protect the trade of the river.  The place was very suitable for ship maneuvering being not above half a mile from shore to shore. The fort remained unused since 1686, when the English scared the Mughal away from their post with their 60-gun battleship. About a league farther up on the other side of the river, was Govindapore (Governapore), and about a league farther up, was the designated location of the Fort William. [7]

The  actual  site  of  the  fort  was  the ground,  now  occupied  by  the  General  Post  Office,  the  New
Government  Offices,  the  Custom  House,  and  the  East  Indian Railway  House.  The  warehouses  built  along  the  south  side  of the fort skirted Koila Ghat Street. The north side was in Fairlie Place.  The  east  front  looked  out  on  Clive  Street  and  Dalhousie Square,  which  in  those  days  was  known  as  the  Lai  Bagh,  or  the Park.[4]
PLAN

A graphic plan and a neat description of the interior of the Fort is provided by Curzon.

“The Factory building itself was two storeys in height, all the main apartments being upon the upper floor. On entering by the main doorway on the riverside, you turned to the left and ascended by the great staircase to the central hall, from which the principal buildings, lit by very long windows, branched out on either side. On the Eastern face a raised verandah or arcade ran round the three sides of the interior quadrangle. The Governor’s apartments were situated in the South-east wing, but were of no great size, and in the later years, before 1756, were rarely occupied by him, being in all probability used as offices alone. “ [4]

 

CONSTRUCTION

Sir  Charles  Eyre proceeded with  caution  to  build  the  embryo  of the  Fort but no further, as he had to go back to Europe leaving the work to his successor,  John  Beard, Junior.  Governor Beard raised the walls and bastions in stages.  He himself stayed at the site occupying rooms with river view, where the North-west bastion was to be erected afterwards. It was not before 1702, he could build up a reasonably good Factory, or Government House. It was in  the  Southern  part  of  the  extended  Fort,  South  of  the ‘Government  House  No. 1’.  The actual position  of  the  Fort, as determined by Curzon,  was  the  space  between  Fairlie  Place  and  Koila  Ghat  Street  in  modem  Calcutta.  On its  Eastern  side  was  Dalhousie  Square.  The  north­west  and  south-west  bastions  were  put  together  hastily  at  the death  of  Aurangzeb  in  1707.  The  fort  was  completed in 1716-17 under  the  three  succeeding  Governors,  Anthony  Weltden,  John Russell,  and  Robert  Hedges. [2] [4]

The old Fort William was built sporadically depending on available resources and motivation of those at the wheel. Among other reasons, the work suffered because of the ‘difficulty of finding trustworthy officers’  as men of little characters and abilities like Francis Ellis, or Sir  Edward  Littleton, were around. Moreover, not everyone took their task with all seriousness and heeded to the policy guidelines of the Court of Directors in respect to making of the Factory. The Company wished that the Business in Bengal to be concentrated at one single Factory,  but  feared  “it would be rash to attempt fortifications on a large scale, lest their appearance might excite jealousy in the Government”.  On the other side, the intervention of the short-lived English East India Company, the style of Rotational Government, and occasional differences between the Company Directors at London and Council at Calcutta must have contributed to the staggered progress of Fort William. For instance, the  Directors  recommended  that  “the  fort  should be in the form of a pentagon for military  reasons; but the Council in Calcutta thought it  safer  to  adhere  to  a  rectangular  shape”. [2] The shape of the Fort was actually an irregular tetragon, made of bricks and mortar, called ‘Puckah’ a composition of brick-dust, lime, and molasses and cut hemp that turns into a hard material tougher than firm stone or brick.

Custom House Wharf – Coloured lithograph by Charles D’Oyly. Probable Date: c1818-21

The Fort took about seven years to complete its central pieces surrounded by curtain walls and bastions.  The earliest part of the Fort was the south-east bastion and the adjacent walls, followed by the north-east  bastion – both completed in 1701 by Governor Beard Jr.  Next year, in 1702, Beard  began  erecting the  Factory,  or  Government House, in the middle of the Fort, but completed it in 1706 under  the Rotational Government.  At last, in 1706, the  structure  was  completed,  and  was henceforward  generally  known  as  the  Factory  or  the  Governor’s House.   The  north-­west  and  south-west  bastions  were  put  together  hastily  at  the death  of  Aurangzeb  in  1707.   As we see, three more years passed by before Governor Weltden could start the western curtain that took another two years for him to complete in 1712. By December  10,  1712  ‘the  wharf  is  finished  but not  the  breast-work  on  it’.  The  strong  landing-stage  and  the crane  at  the  end  of  it,  which  should  work  at  all  times  of  the  tide, were nearly done. Little work was left to be done inside Fort. A broad walk  round  the  walls  to be constructed on one of the curtains.  The other thing to be reconstructed was the decaying Long  Row,  or  central range of lodgings, running along the east to the west curtain.  When all the works over in early 1716, the building of the Fort William was considered complete for all practical purposes.

 

APRAISAL

The subsequent additions to the fort were made for improving in-house logistics to serve the commercial interest of English traders, and not for strengthening their defense mechanisms. The warehouse was widened, but no efforts were made ever to dig a ditch around to keep enemies at bay.

Old Fort Ghaut – Coloured etching with aquatint by Thomas Daniell. 1787

The artillery was left utterly neglected. There were only 200 firelocks fit for service. In  1753  the  Court  sent  out  fifty-five  pieces  of  cannon, eighteen  and  twenty-four  pounders,  which  were  never mounted, and were lying uselessly near the walls of the fort  when  the  siege  began.  The  bastions  of  the  fort  were  small, the  curtains  only  three  feet  thick,  and  served  as  the  out ward  wall  of  a  range  of  chambers,  which  with  their  terraces,  were  on  all  sides  visible from  outside  within  hundred  yards;  and  there  was  neither  ditch  nor  even a  palisade  to  interrupt  the  approach  of  an  enemy.  None of  the  cannon  mounted  were  above  9  pounders,  most  were honeycombed,  their  carriages  decayed  and  the  ammunition did not exceed 600 charges.

Fort William with St Anne’s Church by Gerge Lambert. c.1730.

The most unwelcome thing among all wrongs is that the Fort disowned the responsibility of safeguarding the buildings, including the Church, that lay outside the Fort arena totally unguarded. It was not unjustifiable for the  Court  of  Directors  to criticize  the Fort in  1713  for  making  ‘a  very  pompous  show to  the  waterside  by  high  turrets  of  lofty  buildings,  but  having  no real strength or power of defence.’  The history proved the truth of it pretty soon. But even the staunch critics had to admire its august architectural beauty, particularly of the main façade at the west on river side.    Captain Alexander Hamilton, the 18th-century Sinbad, made some caustic comments while in Calcutta around 1709, but was of all praise for the Fort William.  He said, The  Governor’s  House  in  the  Fort is  the  best and  most  regular  piece  of architecture  that  I  ever  saw  in  India[7] Hamilton’s admiration was reflected on some brilliant canvases of contemporary European masters.  [See Curzon] We may also judge its veracity from the architectural plan of the Fort and the ruins of the foundations, unearthed  in  1891 at Curzon’s initiative. [4]

CONCLUSION

The old fort was erected by the East India Company in 1706 to keep their traders and goods safe. It stood for half a century as the hub of civil as well as military administration until Siraj gunned down the stronghold during the Battle of Lal Bagh. The Fort vanished in thin air leaving nothing behind to remind its imposing presence. The birth story of the city remains hidden under deceptive appearance of its new buildings, roads and parks all those reconstructed after the Company’s recapturing the city in 1757. Since then Calcutta underwent changes time and again to keep it relevant to the concurrent societies.  Today, we are at a loss to visualize how Calcutta looked in those pre-Plassey days, where the Fort situated, where were the government houses, the Court House, the Council House, the Rope Way, the Avenue, etc., etc. There are many more questions but few sure answers; it would have been fewer had we not the benefit of the research findings of Lord Curzon, who meticulously investigated the whereabouts of city resources in and around the fort prior to 1756.

 

REFERENCE

  1. Historical and ecclesiastical sketches of Bengal, from the earliest settlement, until the virtual conquest of that country by the English, written in 1711-1714/  Anon.    1816.
  2. Old Fort William in Bengal a selection of official documents dealing with its history. v.1 / By C. R. Wilson. 1906
  3. Original letters from India. 1780-82 / By Eliza Fay
  4. British government in India: The story of the Viceroys and government houses / By Marquess George Nathaniel Curzon of Kedleston [1925]
  5. The Early annals of the English in Bengal / By C. R. Wilson. [1963]
  6. The Good old days of Honorable John Company : being curious reminiscences illustrating manners and customs of the British in India during the rule of the East India Company from 1600 to 1883 / W. H. Carey. 1980-
  7. A New account of the East Indies, 17th-18th century / By Alexander Hamilton
  8. Early records of British India: a history of the English settlements in India, as told in the government records, the works of old travellers and other contemporary documents, from the earliest period down to the rise of British power in India / By Wheeler, James Talboys,. 1879

 

 

 

Ramdulal Dey: The Millionaire Bengal Merchant, 1752-1825

east-indiaman-calcutta-harbor-1974_frans-balthazar-solvyns

Frans Balthazar Solvyns captured this American East Indiaman at anchor in Calcutta harbour in 1794. His painting offers a tantalizing glimpse of America’s forgotten India trade in its prime.  Courtesy: Peabody Essex Museum.

 

রামদুলাল দে, ১৭৫২-১৮২৫

Backdrop

Ramdulal Dey, the millionaire Bengal merchant of late 18th and early 19th centuries, was the foremost name in the chronicle of Indo-American maritime trade. Trading in Calcutta was one of the very important mercantile experiences of America during her early phase of modern globalization. They reached Calcutta in 1775, on the ship Hydra, jointly owned by the Americans and the English. It was a critical time for the newly independent Americans. Being cut off from the West Indies and deprived of their traditional market, they were on the look for a new opportunity for trading. In the context of Napoleonic wars, the opportunity came their way to replace Europe’s East India trade. The wars kept all British ships busy in territorial defense. The European colonial powers were in constant conflict around Indian and Atlantic oceans. America, being a neutral nation, held a strategic position to exploit seaborne trading across troubled seas.
American’s trade with British India began to grow extensively from 1790. In an average America sent 30 to 50 ships annually to Calcutta only. As it was estimated in 1806, within some years America had imported goods from Calcutta worth of at least three millions of dollars. ‘Calcutta was the most active Indian port for their commerce. Americans in India never established a commercial house as they did in China. Nor did they use the European agency houses. Instead they made use of the services of the banians, or the Indian brokers. With East India Company background, the banians at Calcutta were already reputed professionals. A small number of banians took advantages of the situation and became specialists in the American trade. Ramdulal Dey, Asutosh Dey and Promathanath Dey, Rajindra Datta, Kalidas Datta, Rajkrishna and Radhakrishana Mitra, Ramchandra Banarjee, Kalisankar and Durgaprasad Ghose were some of the early banians who carried on big business in Calcutta with the Americans. Among them Ramdulal Dey was the first and most famous banian connected with the American trade.

Early Life

Ramdulal Dey was also known as ‘Ramdulal Sarkar’, ‘Sarkar’ being a honorific title used in  his family. Ramdulal also wore a compound surname ‘DeSarkar’ combining his hereditary title and the surname, comparable with the  DeSarkars – common in some parts of eastern India. In intimate circles Ramdulal was better known by his sobriquet ‘Dulal’, ‘Doolal’ or ‘Dolloll’. In later years when he married his grandson off to a girl of higher caste, Ramdulal changed his family surname ‘Dey’ or its variant ‘De” into Brahmin sounding honorific ‘Deb’. (See Huttum /Kaliprasanna Singha)

ramdoolaldesarkar

Ramdulal De

Ramdulal Dey, alias Dulal Sarkar was the eldest son of Balaram Sarkar, a poor villager of Rekjani, a hamlet near Dumdum. His only occupation was to impart Bengali writing skill to the children of the peasants backed by his rudimentary knowledge of Bengali and the gifted skill in calligraphic art he had. During the Mahratta invasion of 1751-52, Balaram with his expectant wife fled from his ancestral home for good. On their way, Ramdulal was born and began his journey of life with empty hands. Balaram, before he died, could give him nothing, not even rudiments of his own vernacular to his child. Ramdulal had already lost his mother. It was his maternal grandfather, Ramsundar Biswas who took the orphan boy to Calcutta where he lived ‘upon the fruits of beggary’, and his wife used to husk rice for the market until she could secure a stable job of a cook in the house of a wealthy merchant at Hatkhola. She brought in her grandson, Dulal, to stay with her. The master of the house, Madanmohan Dutta, Dewan of Export Warehouses, ‘the rival in wealth of Rajah Navokrishna’, did not mind adding Ramdulal to the long list of his dependents. Here Ramdulal managed to receive his first lessons from the pundit engaged for the sons of his master. He had only to buy erasable palm leaves for mastering alphabets, and plantain leaves for copying texts. His will and energy made him soon an excellent penman and a fast accountant. He also picked up by then some broken English.
Madanmohan must have found in Ramdulal his qualities before offering him the job of Bill Sarkar on a salary of Rs 5/- a month. ‘Even out from this contemptible amount he contrived by rigid parsimony to save as much as a hundred rupees’, which he invested in a timber depot at Bagbazar with the purpose of helping his grandpa. Being much impressed with these admirable traits in the character of his young protégé, Madanmohan promoted Ramdulal to  Ship Sarkar  on pay of 10 rupees a month, ‘with lots of buxies, alternated of course by blows from ship captains, mates and crew.’ In all weathers, he was to go out into the mouth of the river at Diamond Harbour to superintendent the loading and unloading and discharge of cargo. After Khejuri   Diamond Harbour was the place of anchorage for foreign vessels. In one of his trips he chanced to see a foundering vessel with full cargo close to the mouth of the Hooghly. Out of habit Ramdulal assess the nature of the wreck, cost of recovery and its worth.
After a short while, Ramdulal was sent to attend an auction at Tulloh and Company for certain items to buy. Sadly, all those items were sold out before Ramdulal stepped in. Right that moment, the auctioneer was lustily crying up a wreck – an item out of their next lot. The wreck was no other than the one Ramdulal had recently witnessed. He was tempted to bid with his master’s money. His bid, perhaps the only bid, was accepted. Ramdulal bought the wreck paying fourteen thousand rupees out of his master’s money. Before he left the place, an English gentleman rushed to him insisting on reselling the ship to him. After a long-drawn haggling the Englishman stumped out handsomely and got the sale transferred in his favour.

diamondharbour_cargoships

Diamond Harbour Cargo Ships      Courtesy: Alamy

Back to his master, Ramdulal narrated the whole sequence before he humbly handed over to him the entire resale amount of nearly a lakh of rupees. His master, one of the progenitors of the Nimtala Duttas, had a princely soul. He blessed the boy – so unlike the world, so Roman in his honesty, and said, “Ramdoolal, the money is yours … you sowed the seed and you shall reap the harvest.” It was a treasure to a sarkar of 10 rupees a month. The windfall gift made up the working capital for his business venture that made him exceedingly rich and one of the richest in Calcutta during the lifetime of Madan Dutta. Ramdulal, however, never missed the occasion of receiving from his master his ten-rupee stipend and his blessings on pay days.

Banian of American Merchants

india-calcutta-launching-of-merchant-ship-circa-1798-by-frans-balthazar

Launching of Merchant Ship at Old Fort ghat Calcutta. c.1798. Artist Francis Balthazar. Courtesy: PEM

In no time Ramdulal made a fortune by careful investment and good luck. During growth of consignment trade and agency houses, he was attached to Fairly Fergusson & Company as their banian agent. At the same time he worked independently for other traders, equipped with his outstanding negotiation skills, market intelligence, and his all-round support service, including, establishing local market connections, organizing dadny merchants, market promotion, and financial assistance as well. He was on great demand. His cooperation was also sought by all British agency houses. Ramdulal partnered with the American traders rather than the European companies or English private merchants. Apart maritime trade, Ramdulal had active interest in stocks and shares, and real estates. The genius of Ramdulal, according to his biographer, could transform dross into gold. However, he owed his earthly prosperity mostly to the American merchants whom he served as their local agent, and also invested his own capital with them. American merchants used his credit in their coasting trade in the Bay of Bengal region and shared profit with Ramdulal.

 

From 1790 American trade with British India grew fast. Mostly the merchant houses of Boston, Salem, Beverly, Philadelphia, Providence, Marblehead, Yankee and New York sent their ships regularly to buy Bengal goods. Every house had its own banians stationed in Calcutta.

Salem_shipping_waterfront -colonial_color

Scene along the Salem waterfront c.1770-80 Courtesy: PEM

Annually 30 to 50 ships sailed to Calcutta, carrying cargo of dollars, iron, lead, brandy, Madeira and other wines, fish, spermaceti candles, mackerel, beef, beer, ice, variety of Europeans articles, tar, large and small spars. On their return the ships took varied types of Bengal goods, including tea, sugar, indigo, linseed, saltpeter, gunny bags, and most importantly, textiles. Many advertisements included lists of Indian textiles, such as bafta, gurrah, mamoody, and bandanna as well as names of the towns, like Alliabad, Dacca, Gaurypore, etc. where the cloths were made. ‘Every housewife in Salem knew the difference between gurrahs and mamoodies’. Of all the textiles exported to America, white cotton goods were by far the most common, although printed and dyed cottons, silk goods, especially handkerchiefs, mixed silk, cotton goods, and woollen shawls were also important. [See Bean] As recorded, the total American trade for the ten-year period beginning from 1795/6 exceeded by about one-fourth that carried on under the flags of all overseas partners including European nations. [See: Islam, ‘Yankee Maritime’]

The Americans carried on the bulk of their trade through the Indian brokers. It was not simply because of economic reasons they did it, but for the strategic advantage of having the highly competent and experienced Calcutta banians by their side.

RajenDutt_andOthrs_Claymodel

Calcutta Banians (clay models) Courtesy: Peabody Museum

The early Americans had treated the Indians with informality, humour and respect. Ramdulal Dey was the most prominent among them, and became a household name among the contemporary American business houses. He exhibited the greatest activity and fascination in alluring the trade of the America to the horbours of Bengal. The bulk of American business passed through Ramdulal’s hands. He came to be quoted as an authority in American commercial circles. So great was the confidence which his constituents in the new hemisphere reposed on his ability and his integrity, that for the first time in the history of Indian commerce, the merchants of America dispensed with European Agents in Bengal altogether. [See: Grish]

The extent of Ramdual Dey’s American connection may be guessed from the array of merchants of whom he was the sole agent in Bengal. The list found from the books of the period immediately following his death.

BOSTON
G.R. Minot, G. Warren, J.Young, J.S. Amory, T. Wigglesworth, J.I. Coleridge,
H. Irving, J.J. Bowditch, B.Rich and Son, E. Rhodes, F.W. Everitt, W. Godard,
Mackie and coleridge, H.Lee, O. Godwin, Theuring and Perkins.
NEW YORK
Messrs. Lennox & sons, G.S. Higginson, Messrs. C & D. Skinner, Messrs.
Singleton & Mezick, S. Austin Junior, W.C. Appleton, E.B. Crocker, E.
Davies, J.J. Dixwell, W.A. Brown, A. Baker junior, G. Brown. T.C. Bacon, M.
Curtis, Baring Brothers

PHILADELPHIA
Messrs. Grant & Stone.

SALEM
Pickering Dodge, W. London

NEWBERRY
The Hon’ble E.S. Rant, J.H. Telcombe.

MARVELHEAD.
J. Hooper

One of the American merchants fondly dedicated a vessel to ‘Ram Dolloll’ and named after him. The vessel sailed carrying Ramdulal’s consignment to Calcutta thrice during his lifetime. Among the ships he owned, Kamala, and Vimala were named after his two daughters, and the ship ‘David Clerk’ was named after one his American business partners and a personal friend.

eastindiamarinehall

Salem Harbor. Originally served as a sign over the door of the first East India Marine Hall. Oil. 1803. Courtesy: PEM

American trade brought about ‘a new dimension to the cultural and commercial milieu of the city’. The American way of conducting the business helped in fostering some sort of cultural intercourse between Bengal and America. The Peabody Museum, Salem and the Essex institute in Massachusetts still hold nine portraits of banians in their collections are the potent survivors of such relationships. The portraits were commissioned by the banians for presentation to the Americans and business associates. The practice of commissioning and exchanging portraits is a tantalizing indication of cordial relationships as between equals. ‘In 1801 twenty-two American merchants in gratitude presented a life-sized oil on canvas, the first portrait of George Washington by William Winstanley . . . to their banian Ramdoolal Dey under whose guidance they had all prospered in the Bengal trade.’ [See: Bean]

Rags to Riches

The illustrious shipping magnet may serve as a striking example of ‘vertical mobility’ from poverty to wealth. Like two contemporaries, Akrur Dutta, and Krishnakanta Nandy (1720-95), Ramdulal rose to eminence from humble and obscure origins. Ramdulal Dey, the millionaire of the early 19th century, left estates worth of Rs 33,01,424 of which the Calcutta and suburban properties accounted for Rs 6,17,750, yielding an annual rent of Rs 25,314 (1825-26). By contrast the rural properties, all close to Calcutta, were worth only Rs 58,5000. He also left behind sundry promissory notes of the Hon’ble Company, shares in various insurance companies, sundry bonds mainly from Europeans, sundry bills including China supercargoes bill, notes from Rustomji Turner & Company, Davidson & Company, Palmer & Company, etc; ship David Clerk, shares in Sauger Island Society; and balances due from different companies. When one of the two sons of Ramdulal Dey died in 1854 his estates in Calcutta were worth Rs Rs 3,62,862 and the value of his zamindari properties was more than Rs 2,00,000. The proportion of zamindari properties to urban real estate demonstrated a substantial increase in one generation.

Ramdulal had a noble heart and a humanitarian mindset. His charity was proverbial. He liberally donated for the cause of education and social welfare unquestioningly. He was a benefactor to the greatest educational institution of early colonial Calcutta, the Hindu College. Ramdulal was ready to extend help to suffering humanity anywhere; He had sent donations to the flood and famine victims in Bakhargunge, Madras, and as far as in Ireland. Ramdulal established ‘Atithisala’ an asylum for the destitute in Belgachia. At Beneras, he erected 13 Shiva temples. For sanctification of the temples alone Ramdulal spent around Rs 2,22,000. Besides, public charity, Ramdulal in private helped the poor and needy in many ways. He kept aside Rs 70 a day for the relief of distressed persons. He employed three physicians for visiting the poor patients to administer medicines and provide medical comforts at his expense.

End of Journey

Ramdulal was a pious man. In spite of being fabulously wealthy he lived a simple life. The only regret he had, that his ambition for ‘Gostopati’ or the community leader of the Kayastha samaj remained unfulfilled. Ramdulal and his adversary, Raja Nabakrishna, were engaged in constant wrangling, backed up by their respective bands of supporters, বাবুর দল (Babur Dawl) and রাজার দল (Rajaar Dawl), where bards, jesters, and common citizens took part. The power struggle between the leaders also encouraged local talents to compose street music, street plays, cartoons etc. contributing to urban folk art and literature of lasting entertainment value and historical significance.
Ramdulal breathed his last on April 1, 1825. His two sons, Asutosh, and Pramathanath, famously known as ‘Chhatu Babu‘, and ‘Latu Babu‘, respectively, performed the ‘Sradh’ ceremony of their father with unprecedented grandeur spending nearly five lakhs of Rupees. Asutosh alias Chhatu Babu, himself a musician, was one of the leading connoisseurs and patrons of classical music. His nach ghar was famed for the performance of the celebrated musicians and dancers of the country. The family maintains the cultural tradition till now. Because of their social graces, Asutosh and Pramathanath, noted for their largesse, were called as the ‘Babus of Bengal’. The epithet highlights their refined taste, affluence and extravagance. The two brothers kept up the social and cultural status to a large extent, but not the level of prosperity Ramdulal had passed on to them. The vast wealth of Ramdulal Dey was rapidly dwindled down due to many a reason. With the failure of Union Bank in 1848, the condition of Banians declined in all respect, and Deys were no exception. Their unfortunate commercial speculations and land investments were among the other reasons, besides the extravagance of his successors who frenziedly pursued their fads and hobbies as well as their noble craze for the performing arts. The house of Ramdulal Dey and his sons, delinked with its eventful past, remains a glorious centre of patronage of classical music and stage art in Bengal.

 

SELECT REFERENCE LIST
Bean, Susan S,’Calcutta Banians for the American Trade: Portraits of Early
Nineteenth-Century Bengali Merchants in the Collections of the
Peabody Museum, Salem and Essex Institute’, Bombay 1990.
– ‘The American Market for Indian Textiles, 1785-1820: In the
Twilight of Traditional Cloth Manufacture’, Peabody Museum of
Salem, 1990.
Chakrabarti,Ranjan, ‘The Brown ships in the Indian Ocean: The American
Merchants and the Bengali Banians 1790-1880’, in Business history of
India, Kalpaz, Delhi, 2006.
Chakrabarti, Shubhra, ‘Collaboration and Resistance: Bengal Merchants and the
English East India Company, 1757-1833,’ Studies in History, 1994, vol. 10, No. 1.
Chaudhuri,Sushil, ‘European Companies and Pre-modern South Asian
Commercial System- A study of Bengal in the Eighteenth
Century’, Calcutta Historical Journal, XI: 1-2 (1986-87).
Ghose, Benoy, ‘Some Old Family Founders in 18th Century Calcutta’, Bengal
Past and Present, Vol. 79, No. 147, 1960
+Ghosh, Grish. C., Ramdulal Dey: The Bengali Millionaire, Calcutta, 1868.
Islam, Sirajul, ‘Americans in Calcutta Bazaars in the Early Nineteenth Century:
Images and Interpretations’, Journal of the Asiatic Society of
Bangladesh, Golden Jubilee Volume (1956-2005), 2005.
*Rahman, Murshida Bintey, Banians in the Bengal economy, 18th and 18th century. Dacca
University. 2013
Roy, Tirthankar. What is modern and Indian about the business history [ Book review]
LSEPS, 2015
Verny, Michael A, ‘An Eye for Prices, an Eye for Souls: Americans in the Indian Subcontinent, 1784-1838.’ Journal of the Early Republic 33: 3 (2013)
* Used extensively in this write up.
+ Courtesy : Dr Alok Ray for providing access and help

 

 

The First English Settlers: Sutanuti Sahibs, 1690 – 1706

View of Calcutta from Hooghly River by William Hodges. c1789

View of Calcutta from Hooghly River by William Hodges. c1789

সুতানুটির সাহেব; ইংরেজ পত্তনির প্রথম ষোল বছর, ১৬৯০- ১৭০৬

Charnock was the main instrument that worked behind the foundation of the British Empire in the East. He felt that Sutanuti was a strategic position and had many advantages for the English that the other places lacked. Provisions were plentiful at its bazaars and hats, Communication by land routs with interior was easier, yet the village was an island that could be cheaply defended. It was a secure position for a naval power. A suitable landing Ghat was already there. Just below the place, the river Hooghly had become deep enough for large ship to ride in. There existed a pucca building which might be used for factors, in case of need. The place, being marshy and unhealthy, had no much value in the eyes of the Moghul. Articles of export could also be had, as a trading community, such as the Setts and Byasacks, had already actively engaged in business there.

bazar india

Cloth merchant measuring cloth. Artist Unknown. 1820

Before acquisition of Calcutta the Savarnas were traditionally the proprietors of Calcutta and its adjacent areas. The Byasaks and Setts came there to settle as the earliest dwellers. After the name of their idol Chitreswari, they called their locality on the north of Calcutta as ‘Chitpur’. After their family deity Govida, the Bysaks named their village Govindapur. Among the Hindu residents of the time in Calcutta and its neighbouring village we find mentions in the traditions of Monohar Ghose, an ancestor of Dewan Shrihari Ghose, at Chitpur; of a predecessor of Govinda Mitter, who acted as a Black Zamindar under Holwell at Sutanuti; of Govina Saran Dutt and Panchanan Tagore, ancestors of Dutts and the Tagores of Hatkhola and Pathuriaghata, respectively settled at Chttanuttee and Govindapur”

Black (Gentoo) Pagoda, Chitpore-Daniel

Gentoo Pagoda and House – Thomas Daniel. c 1787

Due to the diversion of the trade of Satgaon, cities and villages rapidly grew up along its banks. The situation helped the villages Sutanuti, Govindapur and Kolikata to grow into prominence together with some newly come up villages, namely Chitrapur (Chitpur) on their north, and Bhowanipur and Kalighat on their South. Govindapur and Kalighat were separated by a creek marking the northern edge of the old Adi-Ganga that connected the Hooghly and the Balurghata and the Salt-water Lakes. Shortly after, a place for the sale of cloth was set up further north that became famous as Sutnati Hat, the Cotton Bale Market, In the 17th century, Betor gradually washed out and its foreign trading were shifted to Sutanuti where new connections with European traders, particularly the English, are being fostered.
“On 24th August 1690 for the third and last time Charnock found himself at Chuttanutte (sic), where ‘the restored merchants were received with respact.’ This was the foundation day of the City of Palaces.” – Hyde Parochial annals of Bangal. Charnock’s Sutanuti was considered the best choice for business prospect, but worst for the settlers. Three miles to the north-eastward was a salt-water lake that overflows in September -October, then prodigious numbers of fish resort thither, but in November –December, when the floods are dissipated, those fishes left dry, and with their putrefaction affect the air with stinking vapors, and cause a yearly mortality.

View of Circular Road, Calcutta- Prinsep, Edward Augustus 1848

Circular Road Calcutta, by Edward Prinsep. 1848

Procession of the Goddess Kali - Calcutta October 1841

Procession of the Goddess, L.H. de Rudder 1848

Charnock died in 1693 leaving the new settlement in chaos. During last days Charnock lived like a spent-force landlord, allowing everyone the liberty to enclose lands, dig tanks, and build houses where and how they pleased. The settlement remained unfortified and vulnerable even ten years after his death. In 1696 during insurgence of Subah Singh, the English obtained the much delayed permission to defend themselves.

North view of the Water Gate and Royal Barracks at Fort William in Calcutta by William Baillie . 1794

A bastion and a walled enclosure were completed by January 1697. The Company has by the year 1699 sufficiently secured their position in Bengal and elevated to the rank of independent Presidency. Supposedly, by this time the supply of the ten guns ordered for did arrive from Madras. Next year their rising fort was granted the name ‘Fort William’ a tribute to the reigning King. The construction of the Fort took some 16 years more to complete. It was, as the Court of Directors observed in 1713 , of very little real use as fortification. See CR Wilson/ Old Fort William

The first English settlement at Sutanuti ‘seems to have consisted of mud and straw hovels’. Its chief defence was the flotilla of boats lying in the river, The renewed settlement established by Charnock in 1690 was of the same nature. Except a small area round the Park and the Factory, there had been no township grown in the settlement during early days of British occupancy. The only noticeable masonry building Charnock acquired was the Catchari of Sutanuti jaigirdars. With the construction of the Fort at its site and reclamation of the great tank, the Portuguese and Armenian together with few Dutch and Danes flocked around the Fort.

Chitpore Road Calcutta, by Simpson William. 1867

The huge area of its neighboring marketplace, Burrah Bazaar, had every available space within its boundaries taken up by houses and shops of the native traders. The Bazaar was accessible by a road east of the Fort and west of the Park that ran northwards, and one of its branches passed through Algodam (potato godown). There was also the old zamindari avenue leading eastwards that crossed the junction of Broad Street and Chitpur Road – Calcutta’s earliest thoroughfare. Along these waysides, the affluent Company merchants and opulent native traders happily started settling in garden houses. Omichand, the Sikh millionaire had his mansion on the north of the Tank Square. Rasbehari Sett and Ramkissen Sett had theirs on the west of the Burying Ground. Near Middle Street the Company had its own vegetable garden and fish ponds. The Company’s factors and writers still resided in ‘convenient lodgings inside Fort.

In 1706, only 2248 bighas of land occupied with dwellings in Town Calcutta, and 364 bighas were shortly to utilized for houses, although the Burrahbazar to its immediate north was already most populous, having 400 bighas built over out of its entire area of 488 bighas. The land actually held by the English at Calcutta at this time was about three miles in length and about a mile in breath, its inland boundary being the Chitpore road, which afforded access to the famous Kalighat temple.  This immemorial pilgrim path disguised today under such various names as Chitpore Road, Cossaitollah Gully (or Bentink Street) and Chowringhee Road.

EsplanadeRow-River-CouncilHouse-x

Esplanade Row from the river to the Council House, Etching by William Baillie. 1794

 

In spite of the increasing effort being made for suburbanization the settlement stll reeking with malaria. Mortality was extraordinarily high. Out of the twelve hundred Englishmen no less than 460 died within five months as Hamilton reported in 1710. Till August 1705 there was only one doctor to attend and until the autumn of 1707 there was no hospital in town Calcutta. It was ‘a pretty good hospital in Calcutta’ where many go in to undergo the grievance of physic, but few come out to give accounts of its operation. Braving such a challenging situations the Englishmen built their home away from home and did their best to live in their own style.

As Calcutta became settled with its fort, quarters, parks, roads, bazaar and other amenities, Sutanuti became abandoned by the English as a place of abode. They left behind their favourite Perrin’s pleasure garden, ‘where once it was the height of gentility for the Company’s covenanted servants to take their wives for an evening stroll or moonlight féte. Bellamy lived to see a gunpowder factory in the grounds. As he rode out to Perrin’s besides his wife’s palanquin, along what is now Clive Street, he would have marked how between the new stockaded Christian town and citadel and the old defenseless village of the cotton market lay the gardens, orchards, and houses of the thriving native middlemen to whom English methods of trade then, and revenue administration later, gave so ample scope of fortune-making.’

The English Company boys, who landed at Sutanuti accompanying Charnock, were evidently differently motivated people than the factors and writers arrived decade after. The first generation settlers were a band of adventurist traders, with little or no education and no high ambition in life. Who knows, they might have preferred to continue in Sutanuti rather than to live in town Calcutta alienated from the rest.

Job_Charnock_founding_Calcutta,_1690-2

Job Charnock Founding Calcutta. Illustrator unknown. Source: Hutchinson’s story of the nations

In that wee hours, none of them, neither their Company nor the Royal authority, had an inkling of the future role of the English in India. It was, however, not unlikely that the idea of a permanent English settlement first came to Charnock’s mind when Sutanuti was the ‘halfway house of the European merchants’. He had a speculative flair. As the time-honoured legend goes, he used to sit and smoke a meditative hookah under the shade of the famous peepul tree where Bow Bazaar Street meets Lower Circular Road. The tree is no more there. It was uprooted unceremoniously during Marquees Hastings’ regime, in 1820, leaving behind a memory of the tree hidden in the new street name, Baithakkhana Road. Charnock nevertheless, could not have taken his ideas further because of his growing indifference and lack of initiative, as discussed before. History took its own course. Calcutta suburbanization eventually made Calcutta the second-best city of the British Empire. The first English settlers, the Sutanuti sahibs, were lost by this time in oblivion.

 

SOURCEBOOKS

The book ‘Calcutta, town and suburb’ has been extensively used besides few other sources.

 

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.

 

 

Writers’ Buildings, Tank Square, Calcutta, 1780

Writers'-Buildings1885

রাইটার্স বিল্ডিং, ট্যাঙ্ক স্কোয়ার, কলকাতা, ১৭৮০
The most imposing colonial public building in the city of Calcutta, the Writers’ Buildings, has a telling history of over three century long of its makeover. The initial plan was designed by Thomas Lyon, a self-styled builder, in 1777 for a brick-made edifice on the northern side of the Tank Square, facing the Avenue to the Eastward, also called the Great Bunglow Road’ [See Wilson]. It was then one of the most fashionable of streets in the settlement – ‘the Chowringhee of the day’ [See Minney].

WritersBuildings_Danniel_1786

Writers’ Buildings, 1786 Daniell, Thomas (1749-1840). Aquatint with etching.

Before the present building came up, the ‘writers’, or the freshly recruited civilians, of the East India Company had their shelters in mud shanties within the old Fort William campus until the disastrous storm of June 25, 1695 razed the hutment to the ground. Subsequently, a block of buildings, known as the Long Row, consisting damp unhealthy lodgings of the young gentlemen in the Company’s service, was erected within old fort. These were the Writers’ Buildings of the first half of the eighteenth century that stood where the G.P.O / Fairly Place located now, and grounded by Siraj-ud-Daula’s guns during the Battle of Lal Dighi in 1756. [See Wilson]

Lord Wellesley, when Governor-General, required all the young civilians or writers freshly arrived to undergo a one year study of oriental languages at the College of Fort William under moonshees and pundits. Wellesley found the buildings Burwell had constructed in 1780 good enough to ensure the comfort of the young civilians at Calcutta. The Fort William College was located in its establishment in 1800 in these houses, which were occupied later by ‘The Exchange’ and the ‘Hurkuru office’. The two buildings were connected by a gallery that ran across the street. [See Carey].

-daniell

Writers’ Buildings, 1798 Daniell, Thomas (1749-1840) Aquatint, coloured

This new Writers’ Buildings also had gone through several extensions over the years. It was initially two-storied. When one more floor added, the building became the first three-storied building in Calcutta. It was a need-based, utilitarian structure with fifty-seven sets of identical windows, a flat roof, and a central projection of ionic columns. The 150 meter long Writers’ Building covers the entire northern stretch of the water body of Tank Square, or Dalhousie Square as called later. It was the site of the demolished St Anne’s Church and the adjoining plot were granted to Thomas Lyon for construction of the Writers’ Buildings. Lyon was acting on behalf of the landowner, Richard Barwell, a member of the Council, and a friend of Warren Hastings. Barwell’s children handed the building over to a trustee board, which in turn was again leased to the East India Company.

writers'Buildings_Frase1826

Writers’ Buildings, 1826 Fraser, James Baillie (1783 – 1856) Medium: Aquatint, coloured

The building, being originally constructed as ‘a monument of commercial prosperity’, used to be occupied by shops and all sorts of people, merchants, private residents, etc. etc. Some of the rooms on the ground floor were let out as godowns. The Britons started to utilize Writers’ Building for private affairs and for merry-making and enjoyment. Hence the Company started out to enforce several limitations upon them, which as a consequent outcome, made the house vacant. Writers’ Buildings apart there were other houses in the vicinity leased out to the Company by Lyon.

The Writers’ Buildings, before Government took it over, was ‘a plain white stuccoed building utterly devoid of any pretensions to architectural beauty’ Massey continued, “I lived there myself for some months on my first arrival in Calcutta, and very pleasant and airy quarters I found them. I recollect in the early morning quite a number of small green paroquets used to fly all about the place, and their incessant chatter and calls to each other made it very bright and cheery.”

When the Bengal Government acquired the property they erected an entirely new facade of a totally different design from the original, built the present long range of verandahs and Council chamber which they completed in 1881-1882. [See Massey]

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Writer’ Buildings, 1851. Fiebig, Frederick Photographic print

Carey told the same story in his memoir. The Writers’ Buildings, which had up to the year 1821 been remarkable by its nakedness of their appearance, were now ornamented with three pediments in front, supported on colonnades, which formed handsome veranda s, The centre one adorned the front of four suits of apartments appropriated to the use of the college. The lower floor contained the lecture rooms. And the second was fitted up for the reception of the college library, which occupied four rooms, each 30 by 20 feet. On the upper floor there was a large Hall, 68 feet by 30 feet intended for the examination room. Each of the pediments at the extremities of the building fronted two suits of apartments for the accommodation of the secretary and one of the professors. The intermediate buildings, eleven in number, were for the accommodation of twenty-two students.

writersBuildings1978

Writers’ Buildings, 1878 Photographer: Unknown Photographic print

The Bengal Chronicle of 4th November, 1826 states, that the College of Fort William was to be done away with, and that the Writers Buildings were to be converted into public offices. The College was abolished in 1828, and a saving of Rs. 1,70,000 per annum was thus effected. The young civilians were henceforth sent at once to their appointed stations, where moonshees were provided for instructing them in the native languages. [See Carey]

In 1836, Lord William Bentinck banned the haphazard use of the building for classified issues. It took, however, about half a century more to define the character of the Writers’ Buildings in terms of power and politics. Within the period of 1877 to 1882, Lt. Governor Ashley Eden installed the keystone of the Government Department at this place.

The Bengal Secretariat led a nomadic existence for years together. Evan traces the movement of the Secretariat from 1854 when it was set up 1, Council House Street. Two years later it had been transferred to Somerset Buildings, at the cornerer of Hastings Street and Strand Road. During the seventies it occupied two houses, one in Chowringhee on the site of the present School of Art, and the other in Sudder Street. It was not until 1880 that a permanent home was found in Writers’ Buildings. [See Cotton]

Writers_Buildings-unknown
View of Writers’ Buildings on busy road captured by photographer Theodore Julius Hoffmann (c.1855-1921) in late 19th century and surely not after 1892 when horse-driven tram car service discontinued.

Great Western of Bengal Railway Company, Calcutta, 1845-1847

Railway-BurdwanStn1855
বৃহৎ পশ্চিমাঞ্চলিক বঙ্গ রেল কম্পানি, কলকাতা, ১৮৪৫-৪৭

The story began with Dwarkanath Tagore’s first exposure to railway in Naples on his way to England in January 1842. He wrote home, ‘Think what my sensation when it passed near my carriage’. Soon after he had several occasions to enjoy ‘the greatest wonders of England’ – the train ride. He could well imagine the enormous commercial potential of railway transport in a resource-rich country like Bengal for movement of goods, and passengers as well. Dwarkanath came back loaded with freshly gained experiences and ideas for exploring new industrial ventures. The railway was surely one of those. Dwarkanath landed in December 1842. He had a plan to go back to England next October, but was destined to postpone it until March 1845. See: Partner in Empire

Dwarkanath-Frederick RSay-x

Dwarkanath Tagore by F.R. Say. 1842

Dwarkanath revisited England in March 1845 with intention to secure permission of the Court of Directors of the East India Company to start construction of railroad from Calcutta to the coalfields above Burdwan. On April 14 he arranged to register a company, named ‘Calcutta and Ganges Grand Junction Railway Company’, with the objectives of making and maintaining a line from Calcutta to Rajmahal. Afterwards, on the suggestions of several parties familiar with the location in India, it was considered advisable to extend the line to some point on the Ganges further up towards the north-west, and decided on extending the line to Patna. Incorporating this addition to the former project Dwarkanath registered his company on the 23d of April, 1845 with a new name ‘Great Western of Bengal Railway Company.’ Dwarkanath “consented to act as trustee to the company in India, and his firm,Carr Tagore and Co., created in 1834, was appointed as the agents of the new company in Calcutta.

Dwarkanath tried his best to make a deal with the East India Railway Company, lately incorporated in England under the leadership of Rowland McDonald Stephenson, but never succeeded. Interestingly, ‘Tagore was the man Stephenson came into contact with’ on his arrival in Calcutta in 1843. They had common interests and ‘both dreamed big.’ Stephenson in 1844 wrote a smart persuasive article on the prospect of railways in The Englishman, a paper that Tagore owned that time.

by Camille Silvy, albumen print, 6 March 1861

Rowland Stephenson by Camille Silvy, 1861

“He spoke in terms of trade as well as social uplift, and often quoted views of native merchants such as Tagore, Mutty Lal Seal and others who welcomed railways.” He simultaneously published reports of other railway companies that brought the subject alive and familiarized it to the local and British readers.” See: Two men and a railway line

Dwarkanath’s primary motive was to secure permission to initiate construction of the line by proposing to raise one-third of the capital required for a railway from Calcutta northwest to the coalfields above Burdwan. He faced there greatest opposition from Stephenson, the Chief of the East Indian Railway Company. Stephenson wanted the line to begin from a point 20 miles above Calcutta, where the line would cross the river Hughli. This line would go straight onto Benares, and subsequent later lines would develop towards Delhi and Agra. The Court of Directors of East India Company preferred to guard the interest of the British company, and had reservations ‘to permit a company under native management – to construct such an important railway line’. The Court sanctioned the circuitous route along the Ganga as Stephenson proposed.

Within few months, Dwarkanath Tagore died ‘at the peak of his fortune’ luckless, on the evening of Saturday August 1, 1846. With him died the prospect of his railway enterprise. The Great Western of Bengal Railway Company met for the last time on March 20, 1847 and approved dissolution of the company.

Subsequently on the 15th of April 1847, a proposal was initiated for amalgamation between ‘East Indian Railway Company’ and Dwarkanth’s ‘Great Western of Bengal Railway Company’. Toward the end of that year the two companies merged into a new company under the banner of ‘East Indian Railway’ (EIR) with Rowland Stephenson as its founder MD.

Small locomotive used to draw cane cars 2 ft. gauge, India

Small locomotive 2 ft. gauge

Two years after Dwarkanath died, the Court of Directors of East India Company on recommendation of Lord Dalhousie the then Governor General of India, finally signed an agreement on 17th August,1849 with EIR for construction of a short experimental line from Calcutta to Burdwan. See: History of Indian Railway

This sanction may be reckoned as a belated tribute to the departed soul who breathed his last with dream unfulfilled.

Bengal National College, Calcutta, 1906

SubodhmullickHouse12WellingtonSq

PLACE OF ORIGIN

বঙ্গীয় জাতীয় মহাবিদ্বালয়, কলকাতা, ১৯০৬

The urge for setting up an institution that would impart education along nationalist lines was strongly felt by the early 20th century intelligentsia when Bengal was torn apart by the Curzon administration to reinforce British dominance politically and culturally. Backed by the Universities Act of 1904 the Calcutta University Senate and Syndicate were reshuffled co-opting more white members to ensure sufficient government control in policy making. The government also decided to disaffiliate certain new private colleges, which were looked upon by them as hotbeds of nationalist agitation. These offensive measures of the then Government frustrated the sentiment of educated middle class and incited a move for alternative systems of education.

A protest meeting was organized on November 5, 1905 under the auspices of the Dawn Society of Satish Chandra Mukherjee. The meeting was addressed by Rabindranath, Satish Chandra Mukherjee and Hirendranath Datta urging the students to severe all connections with the Government controlled university.
On November 9, a mass meeting was held at the Field and Academy Club. In that meeting it was decided that if it is the aim of the British government to destroy the freedom movement and if they exert such tyranny and oppression on young students, the people of the country would establish a national university. Subodh Chandra Mullick pledged a donation of one lakh Rupees.

Raja Subodh Chandra Mullick

Many others came forward to donate generously for the cause, including some native kings and princes and other like-minded dignitaries like Brojendra Kishore Roy Choudhury, Maharaja Suryya Kanto Acharya Choudhury. Leaders like Chitta Ranjan Das, Bipin Pal, Ramendrasundar Trivedi began to address Subodh Chandra as the ‘Raja’. Rabindranath congratulated the endeavour saying that after a long time, the Bengalis received a gift. Subodh Chandra’s contribution to the nationalist education movement seems however far greater than the sum he donated. He committed to establishing nationalist university even before its idea mooted, played a critical role in designing the institution incognito, and remained a part of its history ever since.

To challenge the British rule over education a huge meeting was sponsored by the Landholders’ Society at Park Street on November 16, 1905, attended by around 1500 delegates together with Rabindranath Tagore, Aurobindo Ghosh, Raja Subodh Chandra Mullick and Brajendra Kishore Roychowdhury.

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191/1 Bowbazar Street where BNC held its classes

Minutes. Exec Committee Meeting July 21, 1906

On 11th March, 1906, the National Council of Education, Bengal, or Jatiyo Siksha Parishad was founded to provide a platform for ‘a system of education – literary, scientific & technical – on national lines & under national control’ following a declaration made in a meeting held in Bengal Landholders’ Association. With Dr. Rashbehari Ghosh as the president, plans were afoot to establish a national college & school in Calcutta. In a public meeting, held on the 14th August, 1906 at the Town Hall, the Bengal National College & School was inaugurated.
The institution started to work from 15th August, 1906 in a rented house on 191/1, Bowbazar Street with Sri Aurobindo Ghosh as Principal and Sri Satish Chandra Mukherjee as an Hony. Superintendent. The institution had four departments – Literary, Scientific, Technical & Commercial. Scholars like Sakhram Ganesh Deuskar, Radhakumud Mukhopadhyay, Binay Sarkar, Khirode Prasad Vidyabinode voluntarily agreed to serve this new university. Rabindranath agreed to lecture on literature, Ananda Coomaraswamy on Oriental Art, Sir Gurudas Bandyopadhyay on Mathematics, Hirendranath Dutta on Upanishads.

The same time, another nationalist body, the Society for Promotion of Technical Education in Bengal, was set up with contending ideas by Taroknath Palit under patronage of Maharaja Manindra Chandra Nandy, Bhupendra Nath Bose, Nilratan Sircar and others who laid stress on the technical education alone. Under its management the Bengal Technical Institute was establish on July 25, 1906 with the objectives of spreading technical education among the masses.
In 1910 the two societies merged. The two colleges were virtually the faculties of “Humanities and Science” and of “Technology” of the National Council of Education. Several national schools also were founded in this period at different places in Bengal. Even after the merger, it was painfully observed that ‘not a student cared to come for a literary and scientific instructions along national lines’ See S. N. Sen

Sri Aurobindo Ghosh 1908

Sri Aurobindo clinically analyzed the conditions that failed the nationalist education movement originated in 1905. Some of the major causes of its collapse he pointed out were given here in a nutshell. To the majority of Council members, he thought, Nationalist Education was merely an interesting academic experiment, and regarded it merely as the ladder by which they climb and busy trying to kick it down. To others the only valuable part of it was the technical instruction given in its workshops. They really were shutting off the steam, yet expect the locomotive to go on. He also stressed on the unrealistic approach of its planning and designing. Curriculum of the Council is extraordinarily elaborate and expensive, as it was on the vicious Western system of driving many subjects at a time, serving as ‘a brain-killing and life-shortening machine’. See Sri Aurobindo –

The institution had many ups and downs in its struggling history before being reincarnated in the form of the present-day Jadavpur University.

The photograph featured at the top shows the house of Raja Subodh Chandra Mullick, at 12 Wellington Square. This was where the idea of national university in nationalist line was seeded and grown into Bengal National College with the initiative and care of Subodh Chandra and Aurobindo who stayed with him as his honourable guest. When he served as the Principal, Aurobindo would go from the Bengal National College to the evening gathering at this house to exchange views and plans in nationalist line.