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Wednesday, 28 March 2012


Howrah Railway Station
Kolkata is one of the four major metro cities of India and one of the most important too as every part of the city reflects modern India’s history, it being the first entry point of the British in India in the year 1690 AD. It would not be incorrect to say that history of Kolkata is synonymous with the advent of the British Raj in India.

Before the British came to India, Calcutta was a little known tiny village located on the banks of river Hooghly and called Kalikata. It was situated about 120 kms away from Murshidabad which was the capital of Bengal at that time. 

In the year 1690 AD, the representatives of East India company of Great Britain  visited India searching for a suitable place for starting a trade settlement with the country. They found this area ideal because of its location on the delta of river Hooghly where the ships could come and anchor easily. After examining the area from all angles, commercial potential, ease of access and security, Job Charnok, an agent of East India Company bought from a local Zamindar Subarna Chowdhuri, three villages on the eastern bank of Ganga in the year 1698. These were Sootanuti, Gobindapur and Kalikata which was only a small fishing village at that time.

In 1699, East India Company started making their establishments in the area and called it the Presidency City. They also built the Old Fort here in the year 1715.

In 1717, East India Company acquired trading rights for this place after agreeing to pay of Rs. 3000 per annum to the local Mughal Nawab Farukh Siyar.

In 1756, Siraj-ud-daula, the Nawab of Bengal attacked and captured this area and named it Ali Nagar. While most of the British were either killed or escaped, some were caught by the Nawab and kept as a prisoner in a small suffocating room. The British recorded this incident as “Black Hole Tragedy”.

On 23rd June 1757, the British took it back after the Battle of Plassey fought between Robert Clive and Nawab Siraj-ud-daula.

By 1765, Robert Clive took over Bengal, Bihar and Orissa with an agreement of paying excise.

In 1770, the Bank of Hindostan was established in Calcutta which was the first to issue paper currency in India. The first currency note reads, “On demand , I promise to pay to XXXXX(name) or bearer the sum of Sicca Rupees four”… and that for you was One Rupee!

By 1772, the British had established themselves quite well in this area and declared Calcutta (Kalikata) as the capital of British India under Governor General Warren Hastings. They set up a Mint here and started printing currency. A Supreme Court was also set up here at the same time.

In 1780, a printing press was set up in Calcutta by James Hickey and printing of India's first newspaper “The Bengal Gazette” commenced.

On 2nd June, 1806, the first bank of India called Bank of Calcutta was established. This was the beginning of modern retail banking in India. This was rechristened as Bank of Bengal in 1809.  Subsequently, three Presidency banks got merged and emerged Imperial Bank of India in 1921 which finally got transformed into State Bank of India on 1st July, 1955.

By 1912, as the struggle for India’s freedom started hotting up, the capital of British India was shifted from Calcutta to Delhi which was a more central place and allowed better control for the British regime.

A plaque at Victoria Memorial

The history of modern India is clearly visible in every nook and corner of Kolkata, its buildings, their architecture, the names of the roads and streets and colonies and buildings. Actually, every part of the city speaks. It was quite a realisation as to what all started as the " First" in India during the British rule. We may criticise the British for taking away India's freedom and for exploiting the country, but was their any country? In my opinion, they were all small feudal states governed by vested interests. The reality is that not only  did the British unified the country, made us a nation, started the first newspaper, put in place a uniform judicial system, 
Hotel Grand with its royal opulence is one of the oldest hotels of Kolkata

introduced a formal education system, established railway network, put in place a strong communication network by way of Post & Telegraph Department, introduced civil reforms, gave us a unifying language and above all introduced our men-folk to a formal dress system, the ubiquitous pant and shirt and suit and neck-tie. Just imagine, if they hadn't come to India, our guys would still have been going around in  dhoti-kurta, pajama-kurta, lungi-banyan, mundu and headgears of all sizes, shapes and hues. Today's India is what the British made it out to be. 

In my opinion, the following are the top ten places which are a "Must Visit" for every tourist who goes to Kolkata

Victoria Memorial

Statue of Queen Victoria on throne

 1. Victoria MemorialAn imposing magnificent building, built in the memory of Queen Victoria, it took it almost fifteen years to complete  (from 1906 to 1921).  Its marvellous architecture and intricate design complete with angels on the top and an imposing statue of Queen Victoria are a feast to the eyes of even uninitiated.  At present it houses a museum of rare manuscripts, photographs and documents. Going through the history depicted in almost life-like paintings and photographs is quite enlightening.

Howrah Bridge going strong
2Howrah Bridge: Built on river Hooghly, connecting Kolkata with Howrah, the Howrah Bridge is a true engineering marvel and has been synonymous with Kolkata since time immemorial.  Having four traffic lanes, this huge cantilever bridge is strung on two 196 feet high pillars in an amazing design and is still going strong with millions of people travelling through this every day. Who doesn’t river the famous Bollywood movie of yesteryears named after this bridge, “Howrah Bridge” with memorable songs.

3. Fort William: It was constructed by East India Company on the eastern bank of river Hooghly and named after William III of England.

4. Writers’ Building: This building erected during East India Company’s time is the seat of the West Bengal Government even today.

The residence of Subhash Chandra Bose
5. Subhash Chandra Bose’s Residence: The residence occupied by Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose before his escape from India has been converted into a museum. His car is still parked there.

Poppies blooming in the Botanical Garden
The famous banyan tree without the main trunk

6. Sir JC Bose Botanical Garden:  It is one of the or perhaps the oldest botanical garden of India. It was started in the year 1787 and has more than 30,000 varieties of trees and plants in it. The prime attraction for a non-initiated is the famous Banyan Tree stated to be more than 250 years old which has more than 600 aerial roots which have reached the ground. The main trunk however is not to be found anywhere. It is said that it had to be cut off as it was infested by white-ants. The entire tree complex spread in acres is an amazing sight.  A battery operated vehicle is available in the garden for those who cannot walk long distances. But we preferred to walk and loved it.

7. Kali Temple: This is another famous Hindu temple after Goddess Kali where goats are sacrificed and offered to the Goddess daily. The original village Kalikata was after this deity only which was called Calcutta by the British and which was renamed Kolkata in the year 2001.

8. Dakshineshwar Temple: It is an ancient temple on the banks of Ganga built sometime in the 1850s by Rani Roshmoni of Kolkata. It is quite a famous pilgrimage centre as it was here that Swami Ramkrishna Paramhans, the guru of Swami Vivekananda had worshipped the Goddess Kali.

Beloor Math
9. Beloor Math: This imposing building with amazing architecture  in a sprawling area on the banks of river Hooghly, houses the headquarters of Ramkrishna Mission  established by Swami Vivekanada, the disciple of Swami Ramkrishna Paramhans. With some celebrations going on, it had a carnival like atmosphere with hordes of people walking in and out of the area. It has a huge centre of the Ramakrishna and Vivekananda books on life, philosophy, religion etc. and we ended up buying a whole lot of them with good intentions of reading them one day.

10. SBI Archives: Located on the 11th Floor of State Bank of India’s Local Head office building, the history of State Bank of India is actually the history of modern banking in India. Though not publicised as a tourist attraction in any of the tourist guides or pamphlets, visit to Kolkata is incomplete unless one visits this awesome display depicting the evolution of Bank’s history of 200 years. It is open to public from 2pm to 5pm on working days. In their own words, “it captures the genesis, growth and fulfilment of the banking odyssey.” The Archives has three distinct wings: one, the precious holdings of the Bank for the benefit of scholarship and research; two, a rapidly growing collection of rare books and journals of the 19th and the 20th century and three, a display of the rich legacy of the Bank. Photography is prohibited.  The exterior of the Bank’s Local Head Office building itself is a master-piece and worth seeing.

I plan to write in detail about the places visited by us in my subsequent blogs. However, having mentioned some of these important historical facts about Kolkata, I must share some of my observations about the city and its residents.

# Kolkata, I think, is the only city in India where original British names of many roads and localities have been retained as such. Thus one comes across Strand Road, Park Street, Dalhousie Square, Esplanade, Bow Barracks, Eden Garden, Fort William, Diamond Harbour Road, James Long Sarani, Shakespeare Sarani …the list is unending. I wonder when West Bengal becomes Poshchim Bongo, will these also undergo any change? I hope not as these names have helped retain the historical flavour of Kolkata.

# Kolkata has very high density of population. It was always difficult to walk around on the busy pavements outside our hotel on the Park Street. But people are by and large helpful and do not give you a feeling of insecurity. They certainly do look simple and harmless and not aggressive. But one thing intrigues me, although Kolkata is called the “City of Joy”, the general expression on the faces of people is that of seriousness.

Trams still operate in Kolkata
# Trams still run in this city and it adds to its old world charm. Traffic discipline appeared to be much better in Kolkata as compared to what I have observed in other metro cities. Vehicles stopped at traffic signals well within the yellow line and there was general respect for fellow drivers.

The New Market
# Bengalis love to travel and that too in large groups making their presence felt wherever they go. Their penchant for travelling was aptly reflected in the goods on sale in the New Market which was flooded with attaché-cases, bags, suit-cases, ruck-sacks, strollleys, carry-bags, hand-bags etc. of all sizes and colours in reasonable price range. The other items in the market were goggles, sun caps, locks, watches, torches and umbrellas.

A puchka vendor
# Bengalis  love food. Gol-gappas of the North and Pani-pooris of the West are known as Puchkas in Kolkata. The food items that I loved in Kolkata were Mishti Dhoi, Bhetki Paturi, Loochi and Sandesh made with dates jaggery, not to forget the baked  rasgullas. The sugar-free Almond Rocks (chocolates) at Flury's became another of my favourites. Tender Coconut (Nariyal Paani) is available everywhere in plenty. Being very hygienic and healthy, full of minerals, it was my favourite drink during our stay in Kolkata. Loved eating the scrapings from within the coconut, after finishing the drink. 

I'll paint my city Blue & White

Kolkata beautified
# It was amusing to watch the current government’s decision to paint the town blue and white, the colours of Trinamool Congress party. The tree trunks are being painted blue and white and so are railings and grills in the city. Even the traffic regulators/road-blocks etc. which are traditionally painted black and yellow all over the world for better visibility have been converted into white and light blue…As a natural corollary, the next should be the official dress code of sarees with blue border  for women and white pants and blue shirts for men. 

Tamaso ma sadgamaya!!

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