Evolution: Genesis Of A Metropolis Called Calcutta
Lakshmikanta Gangopadhyay was granted jaigirdari of a total of nine parganas in and around Dihi Kolikata by Raja Man Singh, the general of the Mughal Emperor in Delhi. He was also conferred the titles of "Roy" and "Choudhury.” Over the years, his descendants came to be known by their ‘gotra’ - ‘Sabarna’.
Lakshmikanta’s jaigir was mostly uninhabited jungle and uncultivable wasteland. With his indomitable energy and industry he converted this into a habitation, drawing thousands of people belonging to different caste, creed and profession to settle there.
Lakshmikanta had started the first Durga puja in the year 1610. In the midst of the concrete jungle of present Barisha near Behala in Kolkata the pillars of his aatchala still stand in simple majesty.
In 1690 Job Charnock landed at Sutanuti and decided to set up a British outpost, setting up the foundation of the second city of the empire. Following his death in 1693 his son-in -law Charles Eyre approached the then zamindar, Vidyadhar Roy Choudhury with the proposal to buy Sutanuti (formerly known as Sutaluta since cotton threads was coiled and stored there), Gobindapur and Kolikata but was turned down. Charles Eyre persisted with his efforts and fetched a ‘Firmaan’ from the Emperor Aurangzeb’s court asking Vidyadhar Roy Choudhury to rent the three villages of Sutanuti, Govindapur and Kolikata to the British. Vidyadhar transferred the three villages to the British but through an invalid deed. It was signed by two minors (thereby rendered invalid) and executed at Barisha Aatchala on November 10, 1698. The East India Company agreed to pay Rs 1300 as annual rent, which the British had continued to pay till 1757.
There is an interesting anecdote on why the agreement was signed at the Barisha Aatchala. The Roy Choudhurys being Brahmins by caste would not let a “meleccha” sahib to enter their house. At the same time he was an honoured guest, however they disliked his purpose of visit. Hence, the aatchala was chosen as a venue for the agreement.
Topographically, the growth of this city was quite a difficult proposition restricted by the mighty River Hooghly on its west and the Salt Lakes in the east. Geologically, built on an ancient channel of River Hooghly it lacks stability; construction of a heavy nature always posed difficulty since the city is almost floating on a natural raft of clay with a vast body of water underneath.
During the Battle of Plassey in 1757, the city resembled a large “undrained” swamp where malaria was the predominant killer. Epidemics raged first in 1757 and again five years later and a new cemetery was built close to Park Street, then known as ‘the road to the burial ground’. The city was the haven of jackals, vultures, mosquitoes and flies.
Town planning was too unheard of. A visitor to Kolkata, Mrs Kinderseley wrote: “People keep constantly building and every one who can procure a piece of land to build house upon, consults his own taste and convenience without any regard to beauty or regularity of the town.” Hence, the city was an unsightly and irregular mix of beautiful and shoddy houses coupled with temporary structures of bamboos.
The Zamindar, along with his black deputy had initially taken care of public order, convenience and health of the inhabitants but in 1794 the Justices of Peace were appointed and entrusted with the management of town. By the end of 18th Century, the streets began to appear on the maps for the first time although unnamed. These include Camac Street, Russell Street, Middleton Street, Harington Street and Theatre Road. During the time of Lord Wellesley the need for extensive town planning was felt and a Town Improvement Committee was formed. But he was forced to quit by the Directors of the Company who frowned upon his lavish expenditure over building an Empire City.
The Lottery Commissioners raised funds through lotteries to make municipal improvements. Between 1805 and 1817 the Town Hall was built, the Beliaghata Canal and several roads including Elliot Road were constructed with the proceeds of lotteries. They made paths and roads across the Maidan, beautifying it with decorative balustrades and excavated large number of tanks. Arterial roads like Strand Road were completed in 1828 along with Cornwallis Street, College Street, Wellington Street, Wellesley Street and Wood Street. Large squares with a tank in the middle such as Cornwallis Square, Wellington Square and College Square were also laid out. Other streets which were widened including Free School Street, Kyd Street, Creek Row, Mangoe Lane and Bentinck Street.
The Lottery Committee was killed by public opinion in England in 1836 as the method of raising funds for municipal purposes was disapproved. It was replaced by Fever Hospital Committee during Lord Auckland but the multiple agencies of administration, the committees, Justices of Peace and magistrates were causing enormous friction. In 1859, the great system of underground drainage was unveiled after 16 long years, which continues to benefit us till today.
The city got its first footpath in 1858 by filling up an open drain in Chowringhee, a long street with Europeans dwellings. The New Market was built between 1871 and 1874.The High Court was built in 1872. Treasury Buildings took its present shape between 1877 -1882. The Writers' Buildings still had the appearance of a barrack. The General Post Office opened on 1868, the Small Causes Court was in Mangoe lane in 1870 and the present building at Bankshall was built in 1874. The government departments were spread all over the city. It was only after 1880 that Bengal Secretariat started functioning in the Writers Buildings. Piped water supply became a reality instead of the foul waters of the tanks. The open drains were replaced by 38 km of pipe sewers which daily carried sewage into the Salt Lakes. Nearly 105 miles of streets were lit by gas, slaughter houses were set up and many footpaths constructed. Between 1858 and 1876 nearly Rupees two crore was spent for the improvement of the city. During the Lieutenant Governorship of Sir Richard Temple the city got its Zoological Gardens at Alipore and the floating pontoon bridge over River Hooghly connecting city with Howrah. But most importantly, the Justices handed over their administrative powers to an elected body of commissioners, laying the foundation of the modern municipal government.