Calcutta- The Colonial City

Calcutta, once the city of palaces, so beloved of the British, has various  interesting theories regarding its name and origin. The name Kolikata first appeared in the 15th century writings of the Bengali poet, Bipradas Pipilai, and later in the 16th century, on the payroll list maintained by Akbar’s court. Some contend that it is this name Kolikata that later morphed itself into Calcutta/Kolkata. The other theories regarding how the city got its name are no less interesting. Some say the city  derived its name from the goddess Kali, and this place was once known as  Kalikshetra, or the land of Kali. While this remains the most popular theory of origin, another line of thought says this place was once known for production of shell-lime, wherein shell was colloquially known as ‘kali’ and lime was known as ‘kata.’ Another amusing theory tells us that one day Job Charnock, the architect of Calcutta, asked a farmer the name of the area around river Hoogly by gesticulating wildly with his hands, showing the area around. The farmer who didn’t understand, thought the white man was asking when he had harvested his crop, and answered ‘Kal Kata,’ or ‘I cut it yesterday.’ Charnock took the name of the place to be Calcutta. There is another remote possibility that the name Calcutta could have been derived from the term ‘kilkila,’ a word found in old Bengali literature, meaning flat land.


Hazra More in Calcutta, one of the famous chowmathar more or junctions in the city, named after the famous  freedom fighter Matangini Hazra, a woman of grit, who was shot dead by the police in 1942

Whatever the origin of the name was, one thing that is very clearly documented in history is that when Job Charnock landed here in 1690, on behalf of the East India Company with the objective of starting a trade settlement, carrying a firman (permission to settle and carry on with trade) from the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb and his Bengal deputy Ibrahim Khan, there were three villages that flourished in this place. These were: Sutanuti, Kolikata, and Gobindopur. That same year Charnock hoisted the flag of Royal Standards of England in Sutanuti, on banks of the river Hoogly, thus signalling the start of British involvement in the Bengal Province. Without going into the details of how Bengal was  won by the British from the Mughals and their Bengal subedars, it can be safely said that in 1698 the East India Company  bought the three villages from a local zamindar, the Sabarna Roy Choudhury family.


Map of Calcutta showing the three villages ~ from the time when Job Charnok  landed here in 1690 until the Battle of Plassey in 1757 


In 1699, the East India Company started developing Calcutta as its Presidency City, and in 1727, a civil court was established in the city with a Mayor of its own, under the order of King George I, and in the same year the Calcutta Municipal Corporation was also formed.

Despite the long drawn war, negotiations, and extreme hardships faced by Charnock in establishing British trading supremacy in Bengal, and his acquiring the site that later became the city Calcutta and earned him the title of the Father of the City, in 2003 the Calcutta High Court stated that Job Charnock was not the founder of this city. In one stroke the city was rendered fatherless and was left without a date of birth. The Court further stated that Calcutta goes long back into history, and had its origins in the Mauryan era, a fact which has been recently proven with many archaeological findings.


Seen here is the Calcutta High Court premises, from where recently  Job Charnock was ruled out as the father of the city. The court started functioning formally on 1st July 1862 at the new Fort Williams, with Sir Barnes Peacock as the first Chief Justice.  The court building was built in 1872, and is neo-Gothic in structure.

This article, however, doesn’t travel that long way back into the Mauryan history. It simply satisfies itself by taking a peek into two old cemeteries in the city, where sleep some of the oldest colonial/firingee residents of the erstwhile British Empire.

St. John’s Church and the adjoining cemetery ground

St. John’s Church was among first public buildings that the East India Company constructed after establishing Calcutta as its Presidency city and capital. Originally an Anglican cathedral, it was constructed between the years 1784-1787, and is the third oldest church in Calcutta. The land was donated by Raja Naba Kishen Bahadur, founder of the Sovabazar raj family, and the first stone was laid in April 1784 by Warren Hastings, the then Governor General of India. At one time this church was the nucleus of colonial activities, and many important decisions were taken from a Vestry room situated inside the church that still holds some of the antiquities from Hastings’s era.


The St John’s church, as seen here, is a large rectangular structure with tall Doric columns, designed in the Neoclassical style, and  made of bricks and stones. The widespread use of stones in this church earned it the name ‘Pathure Girja’ or a church made of stones. The tall stone spire is 174 ft tall and holds a giant clock, which still works and is wound every day


The most distinctive feature of this church is the imposing stone spire, which instantly catches one’s eye, standing out from the brick body of the church. A little research and a study of the church minutes book revealed that the stones for building this church came from the ruins of the ancient city of Gaur,  via the river Hoogli. Gaur was once the proud capital of the Sena and Pala dynasties, later completely destroyed by the Islamic rulers and rebuilt to show their dominance over their Hindu subjects, only to be later plundered again by Sher Shah. The city fell into disuse once the capital was shifted, and until today the area remains a mass of ancient and medieval ruins, with the ASI slowly plodding its way towards unravelling the layers of history hiding amidst these ruins.


Some interesting plaques with a brilliant mix of Indian and European sculptures are seen inside the church, in memory of late 18th-19th century British officers stationed in Bengal. The church floor is of a rare blue grey marble brought from Gaur.


On the left side of the main alter there is a recently restored painting of  ‘The Last Supper’ by the British- German artist  Johann Zoffany.  This painting isn’t a copy of  the Leonardo’s famous artwork, but has some interesting Indian touches. The main figures in the painting are inspired from some real life characters of those times. (photograph of the “The last Supper”courtesy: Nandini dey)


Within the church complex there are various graves and memorials. One such memorial is the tall twelve Grecian pillared structure with a circular dome, designed to look like the Temple of Aeolus. This is known as the Rohilla War Memorial. The two Rohilla wars (1772 – 74) were fought between the Rohillas (Pashtun tribes from the modern Afghanistan and Pakistan) and the Nawab of Awadh, with the British favouring the later. This memorial has a list of the British officers killed in these two wars.


Here lies Jobus Charnock, the ‘founder’ of Calcutta (1630-1692/93). The administrator of East India Company, he brought together Sutanuti, Kolikata, and Gobindopur, to form the modern city of Calcutta. Built in Moorish style, this octagonal stone structure was built by Charnock’s son-in -law, with stones brought in from Pallavaram, near Madras (now Chennai). This mausoleum houses other graves, including that of his Hindu wife.


Located near Charnock’s tomb is this  pretty looking circular mausoleum that looks almost like a Greek temple. The lady lying underneath the gravestone interestingly is known as Begum Francis Johnson (1725-1812), who married four times, and  was known as the grand old lady of her times. Her tomb epitaph makes for an interesting read, giving details of her husbands and the children.


Mausoleum of Vice Admiral Charles Watson who died in 1757, during the retaking of Calcutta from the last Nawab of Bengal, Siraj ud daulah. Charnock and Watson’s graves were the only two that were left undisturbed, during the construction of the church. All other old graves in this burial ground were dug up and the remains removed. The graves or mausoleums that we now see here are of a later period, built post 1784. The church complex has tombs of Lord Brabourne (d. 1939) and Lady Canning (d. 1861 ~ after whom the famous ladikeni sweet was named because of her fondness for it), amongst many more.

South Park Street Cemetery

This is considered as among  world’s earliest cemeteries that doesn’t have an adjoining church. It is also considered as the largest 19th century Christian cemetery outside the USA and Europe. It first started functioning in 1767 on a marshy land, and remained in use until around 1830, and is closely associated with the reconstruction of Calcutta after it was recaptured from the Nawab’s army. This area was once famously labelled as the ‘Bengal Burial Grounds,’ and the South Park Street cemetery was surrounded by the French cemetery (Tiretta’s burial grounds), North Park Street cemetery, Lower Circular Road cemetery, and the Scottish cemetery.


Cenotaphs in the South Park Cemetery. As one checks each tombstone and reads the epitaphs, one can’t help noticing the short lifespan of the Europeans residing in Calcutta in the 18th and early 19th century. Most, it seemed, died within 40 to 45 years of age, and there are so many tombs for the infants who were just few years or even few months old. Some interesting professions noted are translator, cattle breeder, jailer, surgeon, head tide-waiter, among the other regular ones.

The tombs in this burial ground are unique, in the sense that they pointedly lack signs that are typical of Christian burial structures, such as, weeping angels or profusion of crosses. Instead there  are obelisks, pyramids, pagodas, some panchayatana structures having rekha deul replicas on four sides, and a rich mixture of the Gothic with prominent Indo-Saracenic styles. During that period in history, the Age of Enlightenment was sweeping Europe, and had some of its roots in the 17th century England that defied all established religions and moved away from the Church. Thus, the medieval notions of a vengeful god disappeared, which allowed for other influences from various parts of the world to take hold. There was a sudden shift towards the ancient Greek, Roman,  and Egyptian cultures, and this is strongly visible in the tombs here. The domed chattris with their Doric columns remind one of the 18th century artist Piranesi’s imagined ‘Appian way’ in south Italy, while funerary urns on tombstones show the presence of ancient Greece, and pyramids and obelisks transport one to ancient Egypt. Though there are crosses seen on few  graves, they are most likely recent additions by descendants that have come down to visit their forefathers’ tombs and pay their respects.


The admixture of various styles seen here in the tombs, that include chattris with Doric columns, obelisks, pyramids, etc


Distinct Greek  influence in this tombstone with no signs of Christianity


The trees are a menace in this cemetery. Saw so many of these unique tombs marked in red as ‘endangered by roots,’ as is evident here in this picture. The three surrounding tombs have all been marked as endangered owing to the roots of this tree that is damaging their foundation causing cracks and chances of subsequent ruination.


One of the most famous residents of this cemetery, Henry Derozio, a much loved and revered educator, who inspired a strong sense of nationalism among the Bengal youth


A beautiful Greek influenced pillared mausoleum, and easily my favourite in the South Park Street cemetery

Calcutta with its colonial past has some of the most unique heritage structures. This article showcases some of the oldest structures of the colonial era in Calcutta, and this is just the tip of the iceberg. In the later years of the British rule, Calcutta developed a unique architectural style that mixed European and Indian style seamlessly, which is not replicated anywhere else. This is evident in some of the palatial homes of the wealthy people that still exist, and have somehow managed to save themselves from the brutal axe of the period of ‘heritage destruction’ that Bengal witnessed during the 1970s and lasted until the 90s, where old beautiful houses were broken down without any regard, to build high-rise apartments. Each of these houses were a marvel, and there are so many of them still standing. Come explore Calcutta, and slowly  lose yourself  in the sands of time, as you walk through the old gullies of this colonial era city.

(This article was published on Virasat E hind)


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