Tank Square, Black Hole and the Nursery of Calcutta

“Anyway, if Calcutta today suffers in comparison, it’s not really to other cities, but principally to itself and what it used to be. Anyone who has an idea of what Calcutta once was will find that vanished Calcutta the single most insurmountable obstacle to understanding, or sympathising with, the city today.” – Amit Chaudhuri

Let’s take a journey back in time, a few centuries from now… say around 1670’s…

So, Job Charnock has not yet become famous in history for having bought the three villages from Sabarna Roy Choudhury. The city, is a small settlement of myriad nationalities of Europeans trading and living in this little semi-fortress of a town along the borders of the River Hooghly, the location a boon for traders, hand in hand with local zamindars. Teeming with Armenians, who were the first to come, followed by Portuguese, Dutch, and the British – the White Town is fast becoming THE most important trading zone in the whole country.

With the Mughals fast losing their ferocity and power and local Zamindars and Jaigirdars becoming the masters of lives and lands, it was Lakshmikanta Roy Majumdar Choudhury who held the reigns of multiple villages around this part of the city. One such is Dihi Kolikata, which lay strategically close to the riverway and almost at the heart of the aristocratic district. And at the very heart of it lay this vast expanse of water – Lal Dighi.

Nobody, even the zamindars, can actually trace how or when the great waterbody, spanning across 25 acres of land, came to be. Some say ‘Lal Dighi’ had been named after Lalchand Basak who commissioned to dig this huge water body in the middle of the city. What remains shrouded in mystery is who gave him the orders. Some also attribute the name to Lalmohan Seth of the Seth-Bysack family, who could have also claimed to have excavated the great water body. According to some other sources, Lal Dighi owes its name to the reflection of the red-brick Fort and the Old Church that stands right beside the pond. There could be however, one more reason to the name.

The area around the “Great Tank”, as it also called, lies within the Cutcherry area of Lakshmikanta Roy Majumdar Choudhury (they will later drop ‘Majumdar’ from their names to be known in history as the family that leased Dihi Kolikata, Sunatanoti and Gobindapur to Job Charnock). The Roy Choudhury family deity “Shyam Rai” resides in a temple within the area of the Cutcherry House (Kacchari Baari). And guess who is entrusted with the responsibility of the Cutcherry House as well as the temple inside? A Portugese employee of the family by the name of John Anthony, (grandfather of the famous Anthony Kobiyal). This same Anthony Sahib would later go on to have a rather bitter altercation with Charnock and his men in a bid to be honest to his employers and his job, but that is a different story.

Mission Church with Lal Dighi (Sketch by Thomas Daniell, 1786)

So, here by the banks of this huge lake is celebrated the annual “Dol Utshab” where festivities are held with such fervour and revelry that the water turns red once the event gets over thanks to the ample sprinkling of red “Abir”. Bystanders and participants describe how the water turns a deep crimson colour once the ladies of the family finish their baths after the celebrations. The lake thus turns “red” or “laal” making it the “Lal Dighi”.

Cut to 1686… Job Charnock, the Chief Agent of the East India Company is entrusted with the responsibility of furthering trade in the region and lands in the city. In the absense of a proper firman to build a pukka structure, he acquires the Cutcherry complex from the Roy Chowdhurys for Company’s officials to stay and to store up Company’s records, thereby displacing “Shyam Rai” to some other family home of the Zamindars. With the Old Fort now as the unofficial base of the British, from here starts the era of their colonial power. In keeping with the leisurely lifestyle of the Europeans and to cater to their evening strolls, the tank area and the adjoining gardens become the central area for the population living in the White Town, now known as Lal Bagh.

Through the next half a century, Calcutta continued to develop under the watchful eyes of the Europeans, particularly the British who were slowly building up their connections and strength. And then on 18 June 1756, angered by various events including the unauthorised construction of fortifications at Fort William by the British East India Company Nawab Sirajuddaula attacked Calcutta, particularly the Fort area. The British, mostly traders with a handful of sepoys were grossly outnumbered and defeated at the Battle of Lal Bagh, fought on the eastern side of the great lake. How the British manipulated and won over local chieftains and smaller officials of the Nawab through bribes and false promises following this battle till they managed to conspire and kill the Nawab the very next year at the Battle of Plassey, is legendary. Perhaps there lay the root of our two-century long-suffering in the name of colonization.

The defeat of the last independent ruler marked the beginning of the British rule in India and with that started a fervent drive to convert Kolkata into a city liveable by Europeans, particularly the British and Irish. Warren Hastings, the first Governor-General of the Bengal Presidency took it upon himself to make Calcutta a twin city of London. He ordered to cleanse the pond and make it the chief source of sweet drinking water to the Fort and the European community at large. With more and more European style structures coming up all around the tank, beautification became evident and the erstwhile ‘Tank Square’ gradually became Dalhousie Square, the very pivot of the White Town.

View of the Lal Dighi from the east-end.
Photo Courtesy: https://kolkatatourism.travel/lal-dighi-kolkata

Post-independence, the greenery around Lal Dighi was converted into a terminal for bus and trams and parking area of Government vehicles for offices around Dalhousie Square. Recently, an underground car park has been added to the architecture, thankfully without disturbing much of the tank or the view. Now, unfortunately, the area is being further decapitated by the construction of a metro rail station that will be connecting the cities of Kolkata and Howrah!

Right across the road from Lal Dighi the proud looking building of the General Post Office, with its famous top dome and Corinthian columns, looks early 18th Century Edwardian from every angle. But in the early days of the city, at this very location stood the ‘Old Fort’ commissioned by William Hedges, the Commissary General of the English East India Company and built in 1706, largely to cater to the trading business. The Fort-city, lost in the famous battle where Nawab Siraj did not just bludgeon the 170 British soldiers stationed to defend the it but caused one the darkest tragedies in the history of the city, was later shifted to its current location and named after the Commissary General William Hedges. In that rather one-sided battle, the British forces, left under the command of John Zephaniah Holwell, an inexperienced cleric responsible for tax collection and keeping law and order, surrendered on the morning of Sunday, June, 20th 1756. But it was not until later that night that horror of a most unthinkable form was unleashed on the hapless captives.

Site of the Black Hole Tragedy on the right hand side, now rebuild to accommodate a Durwan’s family.

On the fateful night of 20th June, the 146 British prisoners left in the Fort, including two women and a few wounded men were steered into an 18ft by 14ft room created by the British to hold not more than 2-3 minor offenders. Located in an alleyway between the GPO and Electrical License Office to the north, in the northwest corner of B.B.D. Bagh, this dingy shelter room had just two small windows near the door. Extreme heat, humidity, lack of space, air and water was sufficient to result in the death of 123 of the prisoners, including Stair Dalrymple, an ancestor of the famed historian William Dalrymple. Hungry, thirsty and delirious, Holwell and 22 others survived the Black Hole doom only to relate the horror later in his accounts. Although the number of victims has been variously modified, the horror of the event has remained etched as a scar on the city of love!

The very next year, with Clive’s victory over Nawab Siraj and the rapid spread of the British Raj in India, the Old Fort was shifted further downstream the Hooghly to its current location – only now far bigger and more strongly fortified. From here on, Lord Warren Hastings took up the responsibility to rebuild a city that was to be the capital of the British Empire in India for the next 154 years.

There will be more to this walk down the history of my beloved city…so stay tuned. I will be back soon.

References:

  1. https://puronokolkata.com/2016/02/15/lal-dighi-lal-bagh-calcutta-1690/
  2. https://www.kolkataonwheels.com/post/lal-dighi-reflections-of-the-raj
  3. https://www.kolkataonwheels.com/post/festival-of-colours-in-colonial-calcutta
  4. https://puronokolkata.com/2017/04/18/old-fort-william-nursery-of-calcutta-city-1700-1757/
  5. https://www.livehistoryindia.com/cover-story/2017/11/11/the-siege-of-calcutta
  6. https://www.historytoday.com/archive/black-hole-calcutta
  7. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Hole_of_Calcutta
  8. http://noisebreak.com/heritage-buildings-colonial-calcutta-general-post-office-gpo/
  9. http://heritagestructurewb.blogspot.com/2012/06/gpo-building-gpo-general-post-office.html

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