Simla or Shimulia was an ancient village, primarily inhabited by weavers and widely acclaimed for its fine cotton dhotis. It is one of the few neighbourhoods of old Calcutta which has retained its ancient name in the roads that crisscrossed it while names of other villages have been gradually obliterated. It owed its name to the large number of simul (red silk cotton) trees that dotted the area. In those days simul used to be grown in villages for cotton. Seed cotton was also cultivated here and hence the area came to be known as Kapasdanga. It was a prosperous village, primarily due to the patronage it received for producing fine and expensive pieces of fabric.
In 1717, East India Company had obtained the right to rent 38 villages surrounding their settlement from Mughal emperor Farrukhshiyar. According to PT Nair, Shimulia was a 1000-bigha area owned by the Raja of Nadia but Calcutta’s zemindar, Holwell, had rented it for the company in 1754 for `2281 per annum. Later on, when the Company decided to rebuild its fort at a new location after the Battle of Plassey in 1757, the inhabitants of Gobindapur were offered land elsewhere as compensation. The Debs shifted to Shobhabazar, the Thakurs to Pathuriaghata and the Ghoshals to Bhuikailash in Khidirpur while many other families chose to move to Shimulia. They cleared the vegetation and settled down in this part of the Black Town. Today, Simlapara is known for its most famous inhabitant, Swami Vivekananda or Narendranath Datta. But in ‘Babu’ Calcutta, it was Ramdulal De Sarkar and his two sons – Chhatubabu and Latubabu who held sway over the society.
Simla, was located in eastern part of Kalikata and south and south eastern part of Sutanuti and stretched between Mirzapur and Maniktala. Like Bagbazaar, it was inhabited by wealthy, native ‘bhadralok’ class and surrounded by Dompara, Goalapara and Kansaripara. Swami Vivekananda’s two brothers, Mahendranath Datta and Bhupendranath Datta have provided us with detailed sketches of the locality in late 19th Century. According to Mahendranath, Hatibagan had dense thickets and wasteland with only a few families – lowest in the caste hierarchy (hari) – inhabiting the area. Simla had dense vegetation and ponds all around and robbers and dacoits had a field day. So did jackals and vultures. To its south, the cremation ground at Nimtolla struck fear in the heart of even the bravest. Dead bodies were cremated with wood and bamboos and most often left half-way through and the rest provided feast to the vultures.
Though conservative in outlook, efforts to educate girls in the city began in Simla. The Native Female School was started at the house of Dakshinaranjan Mukhopadhyay on Simla Street which later shifted to the western side of Hedua and was renamed as Bethune School after its founder, John Eliot Drinkwater Bethune. The new building was built on a plot earlier occupied by Simla Bazaar. The plot was acquired by the government for the expansion of Bethune College. Mahendranath spoke of a new bazaar which started in 1882 on the grounds belonging to Chhatubabu. There were regular fights between the two sides before the old Simla Bazaar finally gave way to Bethune School.
Mahendranath Dutta in his Kalikata-r Puratan Kahini O Pratha, spoke of Ashtabasur Para or where eight Bose families lived together in the same locality. They were not only well educated but also earned quite well. But they were practitioners of Tantric cult and on certain days after the puja would get over they would sit together and pour ‘karan’ (alcohol) in a huge clay basin and a rose floated in the middle. Everybody would sip through straws while attempting to draw the flower towards themselves. The successful one was declared as the winner. In those days Bagbazar was known as a haven for ganja smokers and Simla for its drunkards. The tipplers would often lie down on the drains on both sides of the large thoroughfares. Narendranath and his friends would be ready with sticks on Saturday evenings and the tipplers were beaten up severely.
We also get a good insight in to the factionalism that split the native Bengali society particularly the wealthy families. People of Simulia and neighbouring localities were followers of Chhatubabu or Ashutosh Dey, a prominent ‘Babu’ of the era while those in Bagbazar followed Raja Radhakanta Deb, a descendant of Raja Nabakrishna Deb Bahadur. The rivalry and hositility went back to several generations and both factions maintained records of the families belonging to their respective groups. Moreover, each group maintained songsters and bards who would compose and sing satirical songs against the rival faction while praising their own.
Another evil practice included Bhairabi Chakras, where Tantric practioners along with their female partners participated in mystical rites based on sexual practices. This was prevalent in Simla and Kansaripara but after local youths influenced by Western education started protesting, they took upon the name Sachimaa Bhaja – a Vaishanavite rite. Another evil practice was conducted on Nabami during Durga Puja. After animal sacrifice, the head of a family along with others would cover their bodies in blood and mud, carry the head of the animal sacrificed and sing abusive and vulgar songs. The songs were noted down in large ledger books to be passed on to future generations so that they do not forget the lyrics.
Caste system was rigid and even during festivals when people used to eat together, kumro-r chakka (a dish made with pumpkin) would be cooked without salt. Salt would be given separately on the banana leaf when food was served. Indeed the native society had reached a nadir and first it was Kesub Chandra Sen followed by Ramakrishna Pasramhansa who reformed the society. Taking advantage of such base practices in the Hindu society, Christian missionaries would wait near Hedua crossing or near the church of Krishnamohan Bandhopadhyay and preach Christianity while abusing Hindu gods and goddesses. This led to many confrontations between the missionaries and local youths. When Kesub Chandra started preaching his ideas, the trend among youths to convert to Christianity was arrested but actual reforms started in Simlapara with the advent of Ramakrishna. Initially, he was ridiculed as ‘great goose’ (Paramhansa) but as he started to frequent the residence of Ramchandra Dutta, a relative of Swami Vivekananda, slowly, people started coming in great numbers to listen to him. Earlier, people would never visit any one without being invited and touching the feet of elders was thought to be a practice prevalent among lower classes. Now the inhabitants readily touched the feet of Paramhansha. The people who came to listen to his preachings started eating together and the rigidity of caste system slowly fell apart. Narendranath and his friends did their bit by readily taking the dead for cremation irrespective of their castes.
Various forms of entertainment such as Meye panchali–r dal, tarja-gaan and classical based half Akhrai flourished in Simulia. Of course, swangs of Kansaripara was very popular before being stopped altogether because of lewd content. Amateur Yatra clubs also were popular among the residents. Bengal Theatre was set up at one corner of the grounds belonging to Chhatubabu. Meghnad Badh of Michael Madhusudan Dutta, dramas of Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay and Dinabandhu Mitra were performed. There was a huge waterbody called Charak Pukur beside Chhatubabu’s grounds where Charak fair used to be held every year.
Another important institution, Simla Byayam Samity was set up in 1926 by revolutionary Atindranath Bosu, a close associate of Bagha Jatin in order to train youths in body building and other activities of self defence. He also began the first sarbojonin (community) Durga Puja. This puja was frequented by most revolutionaries and nationalist leaders including Subhas Chandra Bose. Another nationalist leader and the first Congress President, WC Bonnerjee resided at Simla House in the same locality.
Again, it was due to the popularity of the sweetmeat makers, Girish Chandra De and his son-in-law Nakur Chandra Nandy, that the area between Cornwallis Street (Bidhan Sarani) and Simla Street (Dr Narayan Ray Sarani) came to be known as Sandeshpara of Simla, particularly because of the jaal bhara taalsansh sandesh and the karapak variety. Later on, a plot was bought at 56, Ramdulal Sarkar Street to build a new house and the shop.
Truly, Simlapara had welcomed the winds of change that swept away the cobwebs of vulgar and immoral practices dogging the Bengali