Fondly termed as the ‘lungs of Calcutta’ Maidan, standing on no less than 1283 acres of vast open space, can lay claim to be in the same league as London’s Hyde Park, New York’s Central Park, Paris’ Bois de Boulogne and Madrid’s El Retiro.
Interestingly, Maidan was not conceived as a park but came into being due to the shame and defeat that the English settlement of Calcutta suffered in the hands of Nawab Siraj-ud-Daulah in 1756 when his canons, fired from close range destroyed the old fort near the river. When the new Fort William rose near the Hooghly, this time at Govindapur, the British ordered that all ground immediately surrounding it within the radius of a kilometer from the walls of the parapets should be kept clear including vegetation.
The Maidan (an Urdu term) is, in fact the glacis of Fort William governed by the Fort William Act of 1881. On September 12, 1884, it was notified the “limit of Fort William is the line of the rest of the glacis” and its boundaries were further marked by stones and pillars. The entire area bounded by Lower Circular Road, Chowringhee Road, Esplanade East and West, River Hooghly from High Court to Khidderpore, is included as a property of Fort William. The Fort is exclusively used by the Army for garrisoning troops and as the headquarters of Eastern Command after independence.
The Maidan comprise an area of 1283 acres (170 acres for the fort and 1113 acres for the glacis) which was divided into three zones for administrative purpose since 1920s. The Victoria Memorial falls under the Red Zone. The triangular built-up area beginning with Birla Planetarium to the south bounded by Chowringhee, Lower Circular and Cathedral Roads falls under the Yellow Zone and the area south of Ochterlony Avenue bounded by the Hooghly on the west and Chowringhee on the east comes under the Blue Zone. The area under Hastings or Cooley Bazar is administered by the Calcutta Municipal Corporation since 1868. The Curzon Park, following the filling up of the Dharmatala tank was handed over to the State Government.
Apart from Govindapur the Maidan spread over a part of another village, Birjee. Tagores, Debs, Ghosals and other families who rose into prominence in the first half of the 18th century due to their association with the British Government were residents of Govindapur, which was originally cleared and colonised by Setts and Bysacks in the early part of the 15th century. Govindaram Mitter, the black zeminder was originally occupying the site of the present Fort William when the British authorities decided to erect their new Fort in 1757. No less than 655 persons were resettled in 15 dihis when Govindapur was cleared of natives. Setts, Bysacks, Tagores, Debs and Mitra were resettled in Sutanati whereas Ghosals shifted to Khidderpore.
The part of Birjee where the St. Paul’s Cathedral, Rabindra Sadan and other buildings are situated was acquired from Lalghar Gossain in 1787 for making the glacis of the fort into a square mile. The site of Victoria Memorial was acquired in 1772 for the Presidency Jail. Fort William was completed by 1781. Apart from the Governor’s House, two churches, Dalhousie, Granary and other barracks, the fort has seven gates on a deep moat which can be flooded by opening the sluice gates from the Hooghly.
The Maidan was beautified by digging tanks (1791), leveling the ground (1794) and planting trees (1848) after the British secured their foothold in India. The Dharamtala and Elliot tanks dug in 1791-92 have been filled up in 1884 and 1902 respectively with the introduction of piped water supply, both for drinking and washing. The filled up Dhobapukur or Havildar’s tank is now Brigade Parade Ground. The Manohar Das Tarag and Birjee Talao tanks dug up by philanthropists for Calcutta still exist though. The General’s tank dating from 1791 is still there at the Outram Road – Park Street crossing, though reduced in size. The Elliot Park tank is a recent addition to the Maidan.
In 1909, H.E.A. Cotton wrote, “The great Maidan presents a most refreshing appearance to the eye, the heavy night dew, even in the hot season, keeping the grass green. Many of the fine trees with which it was once studded were blown down in the cyclone of 1864. But they have not been allowed to remain without successors, and the handsome avenues across the Maidan still constitute the chief glory of Calcutta. Dotting the wide expanse are a number of fine tanks, from which the inhabitants were content in former days to obtain their water-supply.”
There are a dozen or more roads in the vicinity of the Maidan, the most important of which being Red Road, Casuarina Avenue, Mayo Road, Dufferin Road and Queen’s Way. The Love Lane is in the Hastings. The Respondetia Walk, King’s Bench Walk, and Secretary’s Walk are lost promenades of Calcutta as they are now merged in the Maidan. HEA Cotton, in his book, Calcutta Old and New remarked: “The oldest road on the Maidan is the Course, extending from the ‘Cocked hat’ in the north to the Khidirpur bridge. The ‘broad gravelled walk’ on the west side of that portion is the Red Road, constructed in 1820. To the south of the fort is the Ellenborough Course, meant for horse exercises, and towards the east is the Race Course, started in 1819. That was the scenario a century back.”
Maidan was once home to a number of brilliantly crafted statues of Raj era though later uprooted to give way to those of nationalists leaders with little or no artistic value. The equestrian statues of Outram, Hardinge, Lansdowne, Lawrence, Napier of Magdala and Canning and those of Curzon, King George V, Lansdowne, Lawrence, Mayo, Minto, Montague, Napier, Northbrook and Peel can now be found at the Flagstaff House in Barrackpore.
Like the Speaker’s Corner at Hyde Park the Maidan is also the venue for major political meetings and rallies of all political parties. Geoffrey Moorhouse, the British author and journalist presented a vivid picture of a Communist Party of India (Marxist) rally at the Maidan in 1978, “They generally start about tea time, they rarely finish before nine o’clock… they are masterly exhibitions of organisation… The platform is high so that everyone on it will be visible at a great distance, and it is large enough to accommodate twenty or thirty… it is illuminated with spotlights, it flutters with red flags, and it has huge red backcloth upon which Lenin is straining resolutely forward from a thicket of banners. Everything is perfectly under control… as they sit there upon the ground, row after attentive row of them, a brigade of young women to the fore… distantly across the Maidan people have climbed trees and others are packed standing on top of the Esplanade tram shelters… there must be a hundred thousand here altogether… the leaders come through the guard of honour to the platform…it is only when Promode Dasgupta and Hare Krishna Konar are having their say… theirs is the oratory that sends men delirious with dreams, that can set a rabble to a march of destruction… when the speeches are done, the leaders begin to sing the Internationale… all over the crowd torches are swiftly lit and held high in flaring salute…”
Maidan was also a venue for balloon flights, circus, bicycle races, swimming competitions and many other sporting activities. It hosted the first Balloon flight on July, 1785 and witnessed the first aircraft flight of French aviators Mark Pourpe and George Verminck in December 1912 at the Race Course. Professor Bose’s great Bengal Circus exhibited its shows at the Maidan in January 1900 in which Bir Badal Chand wrestled with a Royal Bengal Tiger.
A large stretch of the Maidan is dotted with small greenish club houses (tents) belonging to various sports clubs. The Race Course, which originated as the Course or promenade of Calcutta is one of the finest in the country. Racing which was started at the Akra farm at the foot of Garden Reach began to be held from 1780, if not earlier, from the present site. Morning races gave way in 1818 to the evening events. Breakfasts in the morning was provided by Creighton, the proprietor of the Harmonic Tavern at Lal Bazar. The old stand, erected in 1820, in the Victoria Memorial grounds was demolished in 1905-06 for the present Grand and Second stand.
Polo has been played in the Maidan since 1861 and during the earthquake of 1934 the ground creaked opened when a polo match was under way. The first formal cricket mach played between the Etonians and the rest of the Civil Servants of the Company was played on the green before the Government House in January 1804 for two consecutive days.
The Maidan is deeply embedded in the Bengali psyche as well. It was fashionable for the Babus of old Calcutta to go for fresh air at the garer math as Maidan was referred to in those days. Tagore wrote in his reminiscences how the horse drawn carriages would return late at night after an evening at the Maidan. His elder brother, Jyotirindranath Tagore taught his wife, Kadambari, horse-riding on the Maidan defying the conservative society of the time and Mohun Bagan won the shield in 1911 defeating the gora sahibs for the first time. Truly, Maidan has stood a mute witness to the unfolding history of the city.