Calcutta or Kolkata as we know it today, owes its existence to a cross-cultural potpourri of history, colonialism, nationalism, trade and some magic of course! Our Beloved City of Joy is West Bengal’s Capital and is located on the River Hooghly’s East Bank. We all know that this was a colonial city created by the British East India Company and managed thereafter by the British Empire. In fact, till the year 1911, Kolkata remained the capital for the Empire until it shifted to Delhi. Kolkata also witnessed fast growth in the 19th century both in terms of economic growth and culture.
Kolkata has been home to luminaries like Rabindranath Tagore, Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Jagadish Chandra Bose, Keshub Chandra Sen, Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, Swami Vivekananda, Mother Teresa, Sister Nivedita, Kazi Nazrul Islam, Sri Aurobindo, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, Pandit Ravi Shankar, Satyajit Ray, Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, Ustad Vilayat Khan and many others. However, the inception of our beloved Kolkata has several stories intertwined with it.
Job Charnock, the Englishman we revere as possibly the founding hand behind much of Calcutta, came in 1690 to Sutanuti. In the conflict with Shaista Khan, Job Charnock felt it would not be safe to stay put in Hooghly any longer and wanted to move towards Sutanuti downstream. This was a little hamlet on the Hooghly’s banks. Shaista Khan sent his army to drive the British troops from Bengal at Hooghly and hence Charnock thought it unsafe to stay in Sutanuti and instead shifted to Hijli. However, desperate circumstances made Charnock more willing to negotiate with Shaista Khan. Emperor Aurangzeb wished to enter into an agreement with the British to ensure safe voyage for pilgrims to Mecca and wanted his governors to set peaceful terms with the British. This favored Charnock and a peace treaty got signed in 1687. Ultimately, through various means, Job Charnock could hoist the Royal Standards of England flag on the Hooghly’s banks in 1690.
Charnock died in 1692. Mughal Emperor Akbar’s rent-roll has mention of Kolikata and this is also mentioned in the work of Bipradas Pipilai, a poet from Bengal. Many perceive that the name of the city owes its origins to Goddess Kali and believe that the original name of the city was KaliKshetra or the place of Kali.
There are various other theories pertaining to the name:
- The name derives from the original settlement beside a canal or khal
- Kilkila in Bengali which means a flat area
- A combination of kata (burnt shells) and Kali (lime)
- Legend has it that Job Charnock once asked a farmer the actual name of the zone around the Hooghly River. Due to the language barrier, the farmer thought Mr. Charnock was asking about paddy harvesting. He replied Kal Kaata hoe chilo (it was cut yesterday) and Job Charnock thought of the name as Calcutta.
The original city area was once taken up by three villages, namely Gobindapur, Kalikata and Sutanuti. However, the boundaries kept blurring and prior to the Battle of Plassey, there were clear divisions, i.e. European Kolkata, residential village with sacred landmarks (Gobindapur), Indian market (Burrabazar or Bazar Kalikata) and cloth trade hub (Sutanuti). The rebuilding of the city started after the Battle of Plassey. The Calcutta High Court issued its ruling in the year 2003 that Job Charnock was not the founder of the city and it has no birthday. The Court ruled that the genesis for Kolkata lies in the Gupta and Maurya historical periods and it was a major trading port prior to the Delhi Sultanate’s Slave Dynasty and the arrival of the Mughals, British, French or Portuguese in India.
The three villages were purchased by the British East India Company in 1698 from the landlord Sabarna Roy Choudhury. The city was then developed as a Presidency City with the civil court being established here in 1727. The Calcutta Municipal Corporation was also established with the first mayor holding office in this period. Calcutta became the capital of British India in 1772 as decided by Governor General Warren Hastings. The Calcutta General Advertiser or Hickey’s Bengal Gazette was the first newspaper to be printed in all of India in 1780. This fascinating story of the inception of Kolkata should definitely captivate everyone. Stay tuned for more on Kolkata’s major landmarks and other cultural attractions soon.