Vestiges of Calcutta and Alinagar

When the city itself was renamed 2 times

Kolkata was the center of British rule and trade in India till 1911 when Bengal was still divided into the East and West. Wherever a trading route opens up, roads are built, buildings and warehouses are established, and people start scaling up the infrastructure to make growth smoother with time. Kolkata, formerly known by its British name “Calcutta”, grew up on the banks of the Hoogly river (fondly also called Ganga by the citizens) when trade boomed between UK and India, moderated by East India Company.

The Old Court House Street of Calcutta during the British era, now known as Binay Badal Dinesh Sarani
River Hoogly

Even “Calcutta” has been derived from an Indian name, but different opinions are there. One such is, “Calcutta” is the anglicized version of কলিকাতা (Kalikata), which in turn is derived from কালিক্ষেত্র (Kalikshetra), meaning the ground of Goddess Kali. Since Bengal is the hotspot for Shakti worshippers in the image of Kali, it makes sense. Another theory is, কলিকাতা (Kalikata) is the amalgamation of the words, “কলি” or lime (calcium oxide), and “কাটা” or burnt shell, since the area was noted for the manufacture of shell lime.

Kalighat temple

We have been taught in childhood that Job Charnock founded Calcutta in 1686. Reality is a bit more complicated than that (translation: not so white-washed). As why would a Britisher come so far from the comfort of his home and found a city in a different country without any purpose? On August 24, 1686, Job Charnock is said to have come to the village of Sutanuti (neighboring villages Kalikat and Gobindapur) as a representative of the East India Company to establish a factory. Establishing roads between these three villages and connecting to newly built ports on the Hoogly were essential steps. With enough networking around a trading hub, it is of little surprise that a city was built around these spots. Deals were made between the reigning Nawabs, with tax payments and trading agreements flourishing the city’s economy, benefitting both the monarchy and the Company settlers.

Writer’s Building, Kolkata
The first rupee coin minted by the British East India Company in Kolkata

But then Siraj-ud-Daulah, the Nawab of Bengal (living at then capital Murshidabad), captured Fort William (the military barracks of the Company) at Calcutta in 1756, and for a brief period named the city “Alinagar” after his grandfather Alivardi Khan. After the Battle of Plassey in 1757, Robert Clive retook Fort William from Siraj-ud-Daulah, and Calcutta came under the reign of the Company once again. In 1772, Calcutta was announced as the capital of British India. Warren Hastings, the first and most famous British governor-general of India, moved all important offices from Murshidabad to Calcutta, their most important source of revenue generation.

Fort William, where 123 of 146 prisoners of war imprisoned there, died due to suffocation, marking the Black Hole Tragedy of Calcutta in 1756
General Robert Clive meets General Mir Jafar during the Battle of Plassey

Time passed. India saw waves of Nationalism. Gained freedom from British Empire in 1947. But Calcutta stuck to its name, its heritage past. However, Bengalis have always said “Kolkata” (কলিকাতা or কলকাতা) in their native language and have only used “Calcutta” in writing. It was a dualism existing unsaid in our minds, unknown to the rest of India. But I am proud to say that much before India started it, Calcutta had begun to shed its colonial past. Homeland of revolution and nationalism, the West Bengal government in 1957 ordered the removal of the bronze statue of Gen. James Outram, a landmark in Calcutta. He was commander of the British forces during the 1857 Indian mutiny.

The Zebra drawn carriage alongside motor cars in Kolkata
The statue of Gen. James Outram being removed

The British had left behind quite a burden — antiquated jacket-and-tie dress codes completely unsuitable for Indian weather, a passion for football and cricket, and English and Anglicized names. Every city, Calcutta included, had streets and squares named after English viceroys and governors-general: Clive, Hastings, Dalhousie. It was mockery straight in the face. In 2001, the government of West Bengal decided to officially change its capital city’s name to Kolkata to reflect its original Bengali pronunciation. For many residents, it remained both, just as it had always been. Compared to the rest of India which changed, from Bombay to Mumbai, Madras to Chennai, or Allahabad to Prayagraj, we didn’t feel much of a difference in the name change of the City of Joy. We already had a sense of pride in being a Kolkatan and a Bengali, and the change didn’t really matter to the general public, except that the written language was finally in tandem with the spoken.

Even though Harrison Road became Mahatma Gandhi Sarani, our city was always “Kolkata” to us!

PS. There was a bill forwarded to rename West Bengal as just “Bengal”. The “West” was an emotional reminder that this state had once been partitioned by the British, that thousands had lost everything as they fled from one side to the other, as the “Eastern Bengal” eventually became East Pakistan, and then Bangladesh in 1971. The name change has gone through the State government, although the National Parliament in New Delhi has yet to ratify it. It would be the biggest change in Bengali identity since the Independence. But as long as it doesn’t appear at the bottom of the dropdown list, it’s all fine!


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