Lal Dighi was once an old tank within the premises of zemindar’s old cutcherry belonging to Sabarna Roy Choudhury family. The pool of water adjoining the temple of ‘Shyam Roy’ – the family deity of the zemindar, turned red on the day of Dol (festival of colours) after the family members played with abir and hence it was called Lal Dighi. It is also connected with the infamous horsewhipping of Antony Sahib, the agent of the zemindar, by Job Charnock after he prevented some English factors from entering the enclosure since the women of his master’s family were bathing in the pond. The Britishers had acquired the cutcherry building from the zemindar for protection of their records.
Other sources attribute the name – Lal Dighi, to the fact that its waters once reflected the red bricks of the fort and the old church. It is also said to have been excavated by Lalmohan Seth as the area was once inhabited by the Seths-Bysack family. The surrounding area was known as Lal Bagh before it acquired its anglicised nomenclatures of “The Green before the Fort” and later, Tank Square. HEA Cotton writes: “In early days when the Maidan was a mass of jungle, it (the Tank Square) was the place of recreation for the Company’s factors and in the middle of the last century it was the scene of many a saunter of young people, and elderly ones too who amused themselves on the banks of the fish pond in the park.”
Though some of the visitors like Dutch admiral Stavonirus who visited the settlement in 1770 credited the British for digging Lal Dighi, it was actually the old tank within the enclosure of zemindar’s cutcherry “which lay uncared for,” according to AK Ray who wrote A Short History of Calcutta. “A dirty tank, full of rank weeds and obnoxious matters, it was now a standing menace to the health of the inhabitants. So, in 1709 it was deepened and lengthened,” wrote Ray.
The Tank Square with the sparkling pool in the middle was the nucleus of the Settlement and the White Town with its buildings, both government and private, lanes and roads, statues and churches growing around it.
Lal Dighi and its adjoining green was spread over 25 acres of land. The eastern face of the old Fort was beautified and a good supply of sweet drinking water was thus secured. The tank was bounded on all sides and the company spent a sum of Rs 24 and planted orange and other flowering trees around it. However, by 1755, we find complaints that people were bathing horses in its sparkling clear water. Anybody held for spoiling the beauty of the garden and the pool faced stringent penalty.
For a long time, before the advent of tap water supply, the Lal Dighi was the chief source of water for the entire European community and Oriya water carriers were appointed to supply water from the tank. There were several underground springs and its water was reckoned to be the sweetest and purest in Calcutta. The British continually took endeavours to improve water quality of the tank and a Great Tanks Water Improvement Committee was set up. Mr Scott Thompson had a soda water shop and also supplied sweet water to ships undertaking voyage to London. It was examined by the committee and stated that his firm obtained its supply for the manufacture of soda water from the Lal Dighi in Tank Square and “the only purifying process it undergoes is filtration through a bed of sand.”
The site was also a witness to the clash between Nawab’s soldiers and the British when the former attacked Calcutta in 1756. On 18 June the Battle of Lal Dighi was fought and the Nawab’s soldiers overrun the white town and the English battery at the east of Tank Square.
During Curzon’s rule, the Tank Square along with the Maidan underwent another beautification drive. During the Second World War, there was a proposal to fill up Lal Dighi to construct a parking lot and a hanger to resists air attacks. Bharatbarsha reported about the move observing that since it is the central business district with many government and commercial establishments, a parking lot would be of great use. Moreover, as a city’s nerve-centre it may be vulnerable to air attacks. Thankfully, it was never implemented. After independence, the greens were destroyed and it became a terminal for bus, trams and even government vehicles. However, of late, Public Works Department has converted the area opposite to Writers’ Building into a vast expanse of greenery after building an underground car parking area. The other flank at the Telephone Bhavan end is being beautified by KMC.