Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Calcutta (Kolkata)

a mixture of the old British Raj and modern India

Calcutta has given four Nobel laureates to the world - Ronald Ross, Rabindranath Tagore, Mother Teresa and Amartya Sen.

I had my entire schooling and college education in this city.
I also spent the first 15 years of my service life here.
I have been visiting Calcutta at least twice every year.

Change of Name

I deeply hate the change of names – of cities, of roads and even individuals.
I had a colleague from Sultanpur, U.P. whose name was Jokhu Ram.
A simple, traditional, Indian village name.
One fine morning, he became Eklavya Saroj.
Another colleague, Bhullan Singh from Meerut, suddenly became Sisir Kumar.

Theatre Road in Calcutta suddenly became Shakespeare Sarani.
One day, I found myself standing on Shakespeare Sarani asking everyone where Shakespear Sarani was.
Surprisingly, no one seemed to know.
It took a lot of time and effort to find out that I was standing on Shakespeare Sarani!

Then Calcutta became Kolkata, and another city Bombay became Mumbai.
One day, in Bombay, I wanted to travel from Bandra to VT (Victoria Terminus) by a local train. I purchased a ticket and went to the designated platform.
I looked up at the indicators, and to my surprise found that the train was not going to VT, but to CST.
I asked a fellow passenger if I was standing on the wrong platform.
It took some time before both of us found out that VT had become CST (Chatrapati Shivaji Terminus).

The change of name can create far more serious complications.
A friend in New York went to an airlines office to book a ticket to Mumbai.
The lady there told him that there were no flights to Mumbai.
He returned home, called up India, and only after that could he book his tickets.
The reason was that the airlines office records still mentioned Bombay.
Therefore, according to their records, there was no airport called Mumbai.

I detest change of names for more reasons.
For one, the new names are always a wee bit more complicated and difficult to pronounce. Secondly, the change of name always involves huge expenditure.
The old letter pads, envelopes and stationary all have to be thrown away.
All the sign boards have to be changed.

It is a colossal waste of money - lots of money - which could be far better utilized in providing food, medicine and education - basic amenities which our people badly need.

All said and done, decisions to change names are taken by politicians in their political interest. Who said politicians work for the national interest?
They work for their political interest.
When one state or government changes the name of its city or road, other states follow the foot prints in the sand of time.

Good Old Calcutta

Back to the good old Calcutta.
Even now I remember the good old school and college days.

Just to recall one episode…….Half a century back, I was a small student.
I was in Class 5 in a co-educational school.
It was basically a girls school, but probably due to shortage of girl students in those days, boys were allowed to study up to Class 5.
In Class 5, we were three boys amidst a bunch of girls.
The students had to sit in wooden desks – 3 to a desk.
We three boys shared one bench.
If the teacher found any of us talking, or if we had not done our homework, or did anything punishable, the errant boy was made to sit between two girls.

I wonder which teacher today would even dream of giving such a wonderful punishment.
And some of the girls were carbon copies of Hema Malini and Madhubala.

There were, and still are, so many wonderful places to see in Calcutta.
I used to spend my Sundays and holidays exploring them.


Kolkata (or Calcutta) does not have a glorious old history like Delhi.
It is a relatively new city - merely a little more than three hundred years old.

Who founded Calcutta?
Until recently, the credit was given to Job Charnock.
August 24, 1690, the day Charnock landed in India, was observed as Calcutta’s foundation day.

Believe it or not, Calcutta High Court caught history by its horns, shook it wildly and re wrote it.
In a writ petiton, a Division Bench of the Calcutta High Court found that the Sabarno Roy Chowdhury family got zamindari (land ownership rights) of Sutani, Govindapur and Kalikata (three villages) in 1608; that Job Charnock landed in Sutani village on August 24, 1690 and died in 1693.
But the British received the tenancy rights of Kalikata, Sutani and Govindapur only on November 10, 1698 - after Job Charnock’s death.
Therefore, Job Charnock was not the founder of Kolkata.

The Calcutta High Court directed the Government to change all government records and history books accordingly.

Prior to Charnock’s arrival in 1690, Calcutta was only a village.
The capital of Bengal was Murshidabad, 100 kms north of Calcutta.

In 1686, the Mughals permitted the East India Company to set up a base at Sutanati, Govindpur and Kalikata.
The British abandoned their trading post in Hooghly and shifted here.

They built the Old Fort William in Calcutta in 1696.
Calcutta slowly and steadily grew up till 1756 when Siraj-ud-daulah, the Nawab of Murshidabad, attacked and captured Fort William.
Most of the Britishers fled.
The unfortunate ones fell victim to what is known as the Black Hole of Calcutta.

The British retaliated and defeated Siraj-ud-daullah in the decisive Battle of Plassy in 1757 and recaptured Calcutta.

In 1772, Warren Hastings, the first Governor General, made Calcutta the capital of British India and moved government offices from Murshidabad to Calcutta.
From 1864, the capital moved to the picturesque hilly town of Shimla during the summer months.

During this period, the marshes surrounding Calcutta were drained and the government area laid out along the banks of the Hooghly River.
Richard Wellesley, the Governor General during 1797-1805, is largely responsible for the growth of the city and its style of architecture, which has earned Calcutta the reputation - The City of Palaces.

By early 19th century, Calcutta was divided into two distinct areas - the White Town where the British lived, and the Black Town where the Indians lived.
The poverty and the living conditions in the Black Town shanties were appalling.

From the 1850s, there was rapid industrial growth in the textile and jute sectors.
And Calcutta developed.

The intermixing of British and Indian cultures created a new class of educated, urbane Indians - Babus - the bureaucrats, professionals, etc.

Lord Curzon’s division of Bengal in 1905 created a lot of unrest due to which the British shifted the capital to Delhi in 1911.

Calcutta was British Empire’s second city, after London,

What to see

The Hooghly river separates Calcutta from Howrah (which is a part of Greater Calcutta).

The Howrah Bridge connects the two.

A modern, second Howrah bridge, also connects the two cities.

You can take a boat ride on the river and watch the sun set.

You can start your journey from the Maidan.
It is a huge expanse of lawns bordered by the Hooghly river at one end and the elegant Chowringhee area on the other.
The Maidan is also called Calcutta’s lungs.
This place is the venue of large political meetings.

On the north end of the Maidan is the Shahid Minar, a unique 48 metres column, built in a rare combination of Turkish, Egyptian and Syrian architectural styles.
The Shahid Minar was erected in 1828.

Around the Maidan are a few of Calcutta’s historical landmarks - the magnificent Fort William which is not open to the general public; St. John’s Church; the Royal Calcutta Turf Club and Eden Gardens, which has a cricket stadium with a sitting capacity of 100,000 persons; and the enormous Netaji Indoor Stadium.

At the southern end of the Maidan is the imposing white marble Victoria Memorial, built by the British in 1921.

Lord Curzon modelled Victoria Memorial on the Taj Mahal. Victoria Memorial contains a huge collection of relics of the Britishers - statues, paintings, manuscripts, firearms, lithographs and furniture.
The sprawling lawns around, lined with trees, offers splendid morning or evening walks.

To the east of the Memorial is St Paul’s Cathedral,
one of the most important churches of India, with impressive stained glass windows.

Close by is the National Library which has over a million books - the largest collection in India. The National Library building used to be residence of the Lieutanant Governor of Bengal.

Built in 1875, the Indian Museum building is a fine example of Italian architecture.
This is the largest museum in the country and has six sections - Art, Archaelogy, Anthropology, Geology, Zoology and Industry.
The museum even has an Egyptian Mummy and a large collection of fossils of prehistoric animals, a huge tortoise, a roomful of meteorites and art from temples.

The Calcutta Zoo has a huge collection of animals and plants.
Its full name is Calcutta Zoological Gardens.

Near the Race Course is the second, imposing and ultra-modern cabled bridge on the Hooghly called Vidya Sagar Setu,

Kali Temple at Kalighat is another famous temple.
It is almost next to Mother Teresa’s Home for the Destitute.

Hathibagan is a Sunday market where you can buy small animals, fishes and plants.
Earlier, you could even buy elephants and deer.

Howrah Bridge, which is actually a canti-lever bridge, is an engineering marvel of its day.
Around 2 million people cross it daily.

The Botanical Gardens, laid out in 1786, is actually in Howrah just across Hooghly river.
It has a fabulous collection of plants and trees.
It has a unique 200 year old Banyan tree with a circumference of over 400 metres.

Lying to the North in Howrah is Belur Math.
It is so built that it looks like a temple, a mosque and a church when viewed from different angles.
This is the head quarter of the world famous Ramakrishna Mission.
Swami Vivekananda started his religious journey from here.

Reaching there

By Air

Kolkata has an International Airport.
The Airport is 17 kms away from the city centre.

By Train

There are two stations.
The more important one is Howrah Station on the other side of Hooghly River.
The other one is Sealdah.

By Sea

Kolkata has a port with regular sailings to Port Blair in the Andaman and Nicobar islands, Vishakhapatnam and Chennai.

My views

Calcutta is a different kind of city.
A strange mix of the old British Raj and modern India.

The local people are traditionally fond of dance, drama, music, arts, football and cricket.
They value life and enjoy every single moment.

In the 1970s, the leftist government was too much pro worker oriented leading to a lot of labour unrest.
Several industries closed down.
Many shifted to other states.

But things have since changed.
The present government is encouraging new entrepreneurship and is actively inviting investors.
All this is reflected in the developments clearly discernible throughout the city.
Calcutta is also the gateway to north east India.
You can also visit the enchanting Sunderbans.

1 comment:

soni said...

The article is very well written, informative and very interesting (spl the punishment). Got to know both the past and present of Kolkata which made me conclude that Kolkata indeed is a "unique city".