Tuesday, 20 May 2014


Traditionally, we are accustomed to think of Kolkata and Job Charnock together. The city-scape of Kolkata is today predominantly colonial per excellence to nothing extent to boast of relics older than Charnock. True enough, Charnock laid the foundation of British Kolkata in the early days of East India Company’s mercantile adventures in eastern India.  Kolkata, as we see, and know it today, is a British-made city unlike any other city in India. But while one should give Charnock his due, one cannot remain obvious of the fact that it is possible to ante-date the origin and existence of the site on which the city was built. While Charnock halt at sutanuti was the undreamed of beginning of the future British headquarters of the Indian mainland, the site over which it arose was enough, much older.

Let us then turn to medieval literary works. The first distinct mention of Calcutta and Kalighat along with such ancient sites as Tribeni, Rishera, Konnagar and Betore on the western bank of the Hooghly and Kumarhatta, Sukchar, Kamarhati and Chitpur on the eastern side of the River, occurs in Manasa-Vijaya written by Bipradas Pipalai, about 1495-96 A.D. Scholars have, however, cast doubt on the date of composition of the several versions of manuscripts which have survived to this day. These, they say, could not have been written earlier than the mid-17th century, if not later. One thing that appears rather striking is that “Kalighat” and “Kalikata” are separately mentioned. This suggests that the name of the latter derived from the former and that Kalighat or goddess Kali did not enjoy that the reputation such as Chitpur ( Chitrapur at that time) with its presiding deity Sarvamangala commended.

Another well-known literary work in which a reference to Kalighat occurs is Chandimangala by Mukundaram Chakraborty, composed between 1574 and 1604 A.D. It recalls among others, the voyage of Dhanapati down the sea for worshipping the goddess Kali. It would appear from Mukundaram’s description that both kali and Kalighat had gained in importance, to judge by the increase in the number of worshippers and visitors to the site, since the days of Bipradas.

The third important literary source is the poem entitled “Kalikamangal” by Krishnaram Das. The work was composed in 1676-77 A.D. i.e. 14 years before Charnock’s final landing at the Ghat at Sutanuti. It describes “Kalikata” as a ‘holy peerless’ Pargana located in a Sarkar of Saptagram, thus attesting to the fact of the growing importance of the site from the last decade of the 15th to the concluding quarter of the 17th century.

Some sources are corroborated in some respects by other evidences of pronounced value. For instance, the prosperity of kalikata is attested by Abul Fazal in his Ain-i-Akbari. It embodies a copy of Raja Todar Mull’s Asil-i-Jumma Tummr or rent roll compiled in 1582. In the rent roll, occur the names of 19 Sarkars in Bengal, sib-divided into 689 Mahals or revenue divisions. One of these Sarkars, named as Satgaon, extending from Plassey in the north to Sagor Islands in the south is said to have contained 53 Mahals. One of this Mahals, 35th in number, was Kalikata which together with the 36th and 37th Mahals paid a revenue of Rs. 23405. This shows that Kalikata had already assumed importance enough to be elevated to the status of a fiscal unit in the 80s of the 16th century. Krishnaram’s account thus corroborated.

The mention of Calcutta in pre-Abul Fazal period occurs in Van Den Broucke’s map of Bengal Dated 1660 A.D. It is not a very accurate map, drawn without reference to scale. But it is significant that it mentions both ‘Collecatta’ and ‘Calcutta’ respectively standing for “Kalighat” and “Calcutta”

What then was the picture of Calcutta in the days prior to the advent of Charnock on the scene? The generally accepted idea that the inhabitants were then composed of primitive and aboriginal peoples like the Jeliya, Duliayas, Nikaries and Bagdis-fishermen, falconers and hunters by profession seems to be a little misleading. Evidence distinctly points to the fact that for about a century before the arrival of Charnock, in the site on which the foundations of the British power in India were destined to be laid, certain forces were at work to bring about it steady transformation. Three factors, in particular, made their influence strongly felt in promotion this change.

First, the establishment of the Mughal authority in Lower Bengal under Emperor Akbar (1556-1605) in a more effective manner than before accounted for the emergence of several fairly powerful Zamindaries in areas including parts of lower Bengal. In Sarkar Satgaon at least three such Zamidaries may be traced, viz.,those founded by Bhabananda in Nadia ( ancestor of Raja Krishnachandra), Jayananda In Bansberia (ancestor of  Bansberia Raj family) and Lakshmikanta at Behala ; the last named was the ancestor of famous Savarana Chaudhuries who played a very important role in the Pargana Kalikata in the days much earlier than those of Job Charnock, and indeed retained their status as powerful Zamidars even long after Charnock’s death. Apart from this, The Mughal imperial authority was responsible for setting up several administrative units and military out posts in different parts of lower regions of Bengal, including pargana Kalikata and its neighborhood. “These measures acted as incentives to peace and stability and thus paved the way for the progress of a group of riparian villages (Sutanuti, Kolkata, Gobindapur) towards gain in status enabled them to attract new elements of population, distinct from those of the aboriginal and primitive folk.”

The second factor which paved the way for the transformation of the villages was the growing popularity of Kali worship. At the beginning kali was a goddess with the largest number of votaries recruited from the rank of the primitive aboriginal elements. With the growth of the Tantrick form of rituals in Eastern India, the temple of Kali become a famous centre of the new form, at any rate, rejuvenated cult of worship. A large number of Brahmans and hire caste people were added to the population thus imparting to it a new character.

The third factor was of a different character altogether. It was neither administrative nor religious. It was markedly economic. Satgaon, the once busy emporium, gradually began to show signs of decline following the silting of the Saraswati on which it stood. A large number of merchants, indigenous and foreign, who profited by trade through Satgaon complex, left it for Hugli. But while the general tendency was to shift the centre of mercantile activities to Hugli, there were new notable exceptions. To this category belong to Seths headed by Mukundaram and the Basaks led by Kalidas, Sivdas, Barpati &  Basudeva. They were the earliest among the new comers on the Kolkata-site. They cleared the jungles, reclaimed portions of the waste lands and settled in Govindapur. To them also belongs the credit of inviting a fairly large number of weavers to the new sphere of their activities. Thus besides Govindapur, till then sparsely populated, where they made their new settlement, Sutanuti too acquired importance as a centre of trade in cotton bales.

Nature too promoted influx of new population. With the shrinkage of the Saraswati and Jamuna, the Hugli received a large volume of water, gradually widening and deepening its lower reaches. The adi-Ganga and the Creeks and the canals on the eastern bank of the Hugli connected with the Jamuna and Saraswati, gradually suffered shrinkage. These changes in the river course led to the formation of a large amount of alluvial land, opening out new avenues for residence and cultivation. The navigability of the Hugli on the one hand, and the emergence of the alluvial lands fit for cultivation and settlement, on the other, thus combined to hasten the raise in the population in the newly emerging site.

 The importance of this change is not to be sought merely in the number of new arrivals but also in the pattern of composition; to the primitive dwellers who earned their living hood as fishermen, falconers and hunters were added, as we have seen, groups connected with the functioning of the Mughal administrative machinery-specially the Zamidars on the one hand and the enlarging complex of Kalikshettra on the other. To these were further added elements attracted by the prospect of better living as small traders, cultivators, middlemen and big merchant. Within a short time the older elements, composed of primitive and aboriginal people, who submerged by the new arrivals of higher caste people, composed of bureaucratic staff, priestly classes and worshippers of Tantric rites, deriving their power and influence from their active association with the holy site rapidly developing as a place of worship and pilgrimage, and the middle-classes attracted by the lure of better living as weavers, artisans and merchants.

Of the factors, referred to the above, the economic factor seems to have been the most compelling. The new people who made it their home and sphere of activities were not necessarily confined to the rank of the Bengalees or even Indians. A sizeable numbers of non-Indians too were attracted to the scene. Among them were the Armenians. If the date “21st day of Nakha in the year 15 of the new era of the Julpha” which corresponds with 11 July, 1630 A.D. as recorded on an old Armenian Tombstone in Kolkata is correct, the Armenian were admittedly settled in Kolkata at least six decades before the arrival of Job Charnock. The Portuguese of Hugli and the Dutch of Chinsura were not strangers in Kolkata in the first half of the 17th century. While the former have known to have set up an algodam or a sort of cotton factory in the site, later known as Clive Street, and a Mass House near the office of the zamidars, the later levied tolls upon boats that plied on the river near the site which later acquired the name of Bankshall.

It would thus be a mistake to suppose that Charnock was the first to have realized the potentialities of the site, or that the site was at the time of Charnock’s landing a mere conglomeration of three obscure and straggling villages, inhabited by a few impoverished families of aboriginals. On the other hand, evidence alluded to above, makes out a different picture. The correct picture of pre-Charnock times points to a site which had already attracted to it a number of higher class of people, distinct of from the primitive dwellers, who had fully comprehended the potentialities’ of the site on the eastern bank of the Hugli as a centre of communication in trade. Charnock was not then the first man to have seen its potentialities for development, What Charnock did was to raise the site whose potentialities had been understood earlier, to the status of a settlement that grew to be the centre of the future British Empire, unthought-of  in the days of Charnock and for many years after. 

1      “ A Portrait of Black Town : Balthazard Solvyns in Calcutta, 1791-1804.” In Changing Visions, Lasting Images: Calcutta Through 300 Years, edited by Pratapaditya Pal. Bombay : Marg, 1990.
2       “Kolkater Purakatha” edited by Debasish Basu
3        “Kolkata: ekaler- shekaler” by Harisadhan Dasgupta.
4         “Calcutta in urban History”  – Pradip Sinha.
5         “Calcutta – Profile of the city” by Nitish Ranjan Sarkar.
6      “Shekaler Kolkata”  – Amritalal Basu.
7   )        “Prachin Kolkata”- edited by Nitish Ranjan Sarkar.
8       “Caltutta” By Jemes Baillie Fraser-1826.

                Research  -Santanu Roy.

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