Calcutta—Vibrant City of Contrasts
By Awake! correspondent in India
TO British author Rudyard Kipling, it was the “city of dreadful night,” “the packed and pestilential town.” But to the famed Urdu poet Mīrzā Ghālib, it was “a city so refreshing,” “that heavenly city.” Author Dominique Lapierre found each visit to the city “a new magical experience,” whereas Peter T. White, writing in National Geographic, quoted others as calling it “dreadful, gruesome, frightening. The world’s largest slum.” Without a doubt, Calcutta (Bengali, Kalikata) is a city of contrasts.
The Founding of the City
Calcutta, which lies on India’s northeast coast in the state of West Bengal, was not a part of India’s ancient past. Compared with cities like Delhi and Thanjavur, it is a young city. As is so often the case with cities, Calcutta was born because of a river, the mighty Ganges. Nearing the Bay of Bengal, the Ganges divides into two tributaries and then into many more, to form the largest delta in the world. The western edge of the delta is the river earlier known as Bhagirathi-Ganga, later the Hooghly, which flows south into the sea.
In the 15th and 16th centuries, Portuguese, Dutch, and British traders sailed up the Hooghly and, with the permission of local rulers, set up trading posts. Job Charnock, an officer of the British East India Company, chose the village of Sutanuti as a center for trade. After some setbacks, he sailed into Sutanuti and, drawing in the villages of Govindpur and Kalikata, laid the foundation for the establishment of a British settlement rather than just a trading post. It was August 24, 1690. Calcutta was born!
Right of tenancy was legally acquired in 1698, and until 1757 the British paid rent to the Mogul rulers. The British built Fort William to give military protection to the developing city. Merchants, feeling the security of Fort William, began to build large villas. By then the population of the town and surrounding villages had reached 400,000, and trade brought nearly 50 ships a year up the Hooghly.
The Black Hole of Calcutta
In 1756 a rash, young local ruler, Sirāj-ud-Dawlah of Bengal, attacked Calcutta. Most of the residents fled, but some Europeans, who had taken refuge in Fort William, surrendered and were imprisoned in a small lockup in the stifling heat of June. The next day, it was found that many had suffocated. The lockup became known as the Black Hole of Calcutta.
This incident aroused the wrath of the East India Company, and in 1757, Robert Clive led a force of British soldiers to retake the town. It is said that the ensuing Battle of Plassey marked the start of British rule in India. And the result to Calcutta? In 1773 it became the capital of British India, remaining so until 1911.
Calcutta Gets a Face-Lift
As great wealth poured into the city, magnificent buildings were constructed, giving Calcutta the name City of Palaces. Wide roads were built, and museums and libraries were established. Many of the impressive buildings still standing today are evidence of this.
After 190 years of British rule, India, under the leadership of Mohandas Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, gained its independence in 1947, and with it came partition. Under Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the Muslim state of Pakistan (East and West Pakistan) was formed. Then, in 1971, East Pakistan became Bangladesh. These events caused a flood of refugees to pour into Calcutta; today the metropolitan area has a population estimated at over 12,000,000.
The sudden influx of so many without means of support led to enormous problems. Lack of housing meant that literally millions were living in the poorest of slums, in dwellings made of cardboard and jute, with little or no sanitation, electricity, or water. Other thousands lived on the streets. In 1967, nine international town planners reporting on the state of affairs in Calcutta said that it was “rapidly approaching the point of breakdown in its economy, housing, sanitation, transport and the essential humanities of life.” The future looked grim.
In an effort to increase available housing, especially for low-income groups, a vast area of salt marsh was reclaimed. Also, by dredging up silt from the river to create a landfill, navigation was improved.
The early 1990’s saw much international investment in India, and Calcutta did not want to be left out. So a massive cleanup began. Slum dwellers were relocated outside the city, garbage was used to produce electricity and fertilizer, and polluting vehicles were banned as were smoke-producing open-air ovens. Roads were widened, and shopping malls were built. Citizen groups cleared and scrubbed and painted. Calcutta was pulled back from the brink of disaster and given a new lease on life—so much so that the once ‘dying,’ ‘disaster’ city became vibrant again. In a 1997 report on advantages and civic amenities, it was ranked way above India’s other major cities.
Metropolis of Trade
With refugees from neighboring countries, immigrants from other states of India, the local Bengalis, and the longtime resident Chinese and Armenians, the metropolis has become a melting pot of languages, cultures, religions, and cuisine. What drew all these millions of people to Calcutta? Trade! Ships from around the world came to this port where East met West. Exports included saltpeter, jute, tea, sugar, indigo, cotton, and silk. By road, rail, and sea, vast quantities of goods entered and left Calcutta. After independence, huge iron and steel foundries were developed, and valuable minerals for home use and export were mined.
Basic to the increase in trade was the port. Originally the British anchored their ships in the deeper part of the Hooghly and sent small boats upriver to transfer goods. In 1758 the nucleus for what would in time be India’s major port was set up at Calcutta. Ongoing modernization and increased water flow from a dam on the Ganges have served to expand Calcutta’s international, coastal, and inland waterway traffic.
Transport—Ancient and Modern
In a city of more than 12 million people, transportation is a major problem. Calcutta has all the means of transport usually found in a modern city—and more! To visitors, the hand-pulled ricksha is a source of wonderment as they see agile men wend their way through heavy traffic—often getting passengers to their destination faster than the impeded bus or taxi. Introduced in 1900 to move goods, the ricksha was soon used to carry people; there are, it is believed, about 25,000 rickshas on the city streets! Although they slow down the traffic, they provide employment for perhaps 50,000 men and transport for many more.
Daily, small ferryboats carry thousands of commuters between Calcutta’s main railway station and the central business district. River transport is being increased to ease road traffic problems, as over 50,000 cars and thousands of trucks fight their way each day over the world’s most heavily used bridge, Howrah Bridge.
Perhaps best loved in the city are the electric trams. An excellent system of nonpolluting, high-capacity, energy-efficient vehicles moves hundreds of thousands of people around the city each day, though not always in comfort. Hanging off the side of a tram requires special skills! Great improvement came with the recent completion of the Metro Rail System, which conveys more than 60,000 passengers an hour through the center of the city in cool comfort.
Calcutta’s Varied Culture
Educational opportunities in Calcutta have led many into the fields of science and law, and the arts flourish in what has become a cultural center of the subcontinent. More than a quarter of a million students attend the 140-year-old University of Calcutta, one of the largest in the world.
If Mumbai is India’s center for commercial cinema, Calcutta is certainly the home of high-quality art cinema. Such names as Satyajit Ray and Mrinal Sen are known worldwide for their contribution to the arts. Calcutta boasts more poets than Rome and Paris combined, more literary magazines than New York and London and, on College Street, one of the world’s largest secondhand book markets.
Unusual Things to See
Outstanding landmarks include the Victoria Memorial, built of marble in Italian Renaissance style. Opened in 1921, it is a vast museum of memorabilia of the British raj in India. Calcutta’s museums include the huge Indian Museum and more than 30 others. The Indian Botanical Gardens with their 240-year-old banyan tree, which has a circumference of 1,400 feet, are worth a visit, as are the Zoological Gardens. The Maidan—a sprawling 1,280-acre open space—is known as Calcutta’s lungs and as the largest village square in all India. Calcutta also boasts the Birla Planetarium, one of the largest in the world. For people interested in the sport of cricket, the Eden Gardens’ cricket ground has packed in upwards of 100,000 noisy and enthusiastic spectators for international matches.
A really beautiful building is Science City, Asia’s largest interactive science center, which allows visitors to experience an earthquake, see an island submerged, witness the forming of a tornado, and learn fascinating facts about the environment and the habits of many creatures. But for Hindus the biggest draw of all in Calcutta is the Durga Puja festival, when the city bursts into five days of frenzied religious gaiety, which brings most normal activity to a standstill.
What can you find if you go shopping in Calcutta? Just about anything! But be ready to jostle with noisy crowds, and be sure to notice the women in their beautiful multicolored saris. You can buy leather goods at reasonable prices, including fine leather shoes in Chinese shops. Stainless steel items, textiles, exquisite crockery, and beautifully crafted jewelry are only a few of the items a patient shopper can find in the huge markets of this “shopper’s paradise.”
Calcutta has also been described as a gourmet’s paradise, so we cannot leave it without tasting some of its delicious food. It has been said that Bengalis venerate food and grade people on the excellence of their culinary skills! Fish is a must in Calcutta fare, and huge markets provide a variety of fish, meats, and vegetables. Fresh spices, carefully blended, add subtlety to the taste of the simplest vegetables. Chinese food is plentiful. And at the pinnacle of Calcutta’s culinary delights are its famous sweets. Rasagollas, balls of drained curd, flavored and soaked in sugar syrup, are a symbol of Bengal. And don’t miss mishti doi, a delightful sweetened yogurt that is a popular ending to a meal. Does your mouth water? Can you catch some of the good aromas of those restaurants? Yes, Calcutta is, indeed, a vibrant, fascinating city of contrasts!
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Indian Botanical Gardens
Salt Water Lake
Dum Dum International Airport
Mountain High Maps® Copyright © 1997 Digital Wisdom, Inc.
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A bustling market scene
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A sidewalk barber shop