‘Kolkata te sab kothate dekhchi bharibhul/ kiba kori ghuremori, naiki narakul/ Naiko hati naiko bagan,hatibagan bole/ r badur bagan ete dekhiba durnahi jhole” (Every name in Kolkata seems to be wrong, There is neither elephants nor garden yet the area is called Hatibagan) goes Dadathakur’s acclaimed song on the city.
Kolkata as a city is much younger when compared to the likes of Delhi, Agra or Lucknow, but even the 300 odd years of existence have made the city as parochial as it is modern — a city living in the past as much as it lets its past decay.
On a humid monsoon afternoon in 1690, a young enterprising trader of the East India Company, Job Charnock had pitched a tent on its swampy banks of the Hooghly and the company bought three riverside villages. Soon they would turn into a riverine port — flowing with muslin, indigo and jute — and then convert this as the capital of British India attracting dreamers from across the globe. Regarded as India’s first modern city, Kolkata itself has acquired many names along its journey — City of Palaces, Black Hole, City of Joy.
Its myriad lanes, bylanes and neighbourhoods, steeped in history and heritage still bear testimony in their names to their glorious past. In today’s feature, we will take you in a journey through the grimy layers of time to understand the etymology of its various neighbourhoods. History is inscribed on every lane, like tattoos on an aging diva. Kolkata was indeed a diva, well, once upon a time.
The Siege of Calcutta was a battle between the British East India Company, and Sirajud-Daulah, the Nawab of Bengal in 1756. The Nawab aimed to recapture the city of Calcutta from European control. The British were unprepared for the attack and on 20 June Fort William — containing the entire European population of the city — fell almost immediately, leaving the city in Indian hands.
The city was renamed Alinagar by Siraj-ud-Daulah. In preparation for this attack, Siraj and his trusted advisor Mir Zafar started to assemble elephants in an open area of the then Sutanuti. The area thus got its name Hatibagan (Hati is elephant, bagan is garden).
Captain Charles Perin , a very rich trader, bought a large garden house (baganbari in Bengali) in the eastern banks of the Hooghly in early 18th century. After Perin’s death in 1752, East India company bought the plot and constructed a gunpowder factory and an observatory (lighthouse) at that location and named it Perin’s Readout.
The main purpose of that was to track and see any attackers coming down from the north (read Siraj-ud-Daulla from Murshidabad) to attack the British settlement. Once the Nawab was decimated in the
Battle of Plassey, the lighthouse gradually faded into oblivion but by that time, a bazar had grown up surrounding the baganbari. The area became to be known as Bagbazar.
Manohar dakat was one of the most feared dacoits in the early 18th century, south of Gobindapur. On a rainy day, Manohar,a bachelor, found an abandoned infant near Kalighat whom he brought home and raised as his own son. The infant gradually brought a change in mindset in Manohar’s mind and he eventually stopped being a dacoit.
On his deathbed, Manohar requested his adopted son, Haradhan, to dig up a pond (pukur) for the villagers and construct a Kali temple to wash off his sins. The son executed Manohar’s final orders. The pond (pukur) doesn’t exist now and is commonly believed to be present day Deshapriya Park. The Kali temple still stands at Purna Das Road and is known as Dakat Kalibari.
Popular due to the presence of Thakurbari, the area got its name because once upon a time there used to be canal here and at this point, two sankos (bamboo bridges) spanned the canal.
Maniktala was originally Manik Lake belonging to the Manik family of Kolkata during the rule of the British East India Company in the 1760s. However, some believe that Maniktala gets its name from Manikpir whose mazaar is still located in the vicinity.
Tollygunge is named after Major William Tolly, who in 1775-76, started a project to excavate and dredge the Adi Ganga as a passage for the people of East Bengal and Assam to Calcutta. Tolly was also granted a licence to collect tolls from the passing boats and permitted by the British East India Company to open a gunj or market on the eastern bank of the canal (nullah in Bengali), which acquired the name Tolly’s Nullah.
The waterway was opened to navigation in 1777 and the area came to be known as Tollygunge. Prior to this, the area was known as Russapugla, a densely forested area abounding in Sundari trees which even today make up the bulk of the Sunderbans. The name Russapugla stems from a unique tree which gave shade to Pugla Pir (the Sufi saint with remarkable powers) who meditated and died in the neighbourhood.
Sovabazar and Shyambazar
The Basak family, rich traders based out of Saptagram, were among the first to settle in Sutanuti clearing much of the jungles in that area in early 18th century. Neighbouring Shyambazar was named after the family deity of the Basaks, Shyam Rai (or Gobinda). Sovabazar derived it name from the name of Sovaram Basak, one of the richest natives during that time.
He owned a garden (bagan in Bengali) in place of the present Sovabazaar Rajbari location. The farmers used to sell vegetables in and around this garden, which finally shaped into a market known as Sova bazar.
The glorious days of Sova bazar started with the decision of the British to build, after their decisive win in Battle of Plassey, the new Fort William in the heart of Gobindapur. The inhabitants of the village were compensated and provided with land in Taltala, Kumortuli and Shobhabazar and one of them was Nabakrishna Deb who rose to immense fame and power.
This is a corrupted term of Ulta Dingi, the site where a boat (dingi) overturned in the adjoining creek. The accident must have been a remarkable one although there are no written records.
According to Sir Cotton, in the 16th century, there used to be an old temple of Goddess Kali a mile north east of the present Kalighat temple. Kali was workshipped there as Bhabani and in her honour, the area came to be known as Bhowanipore.
The busy area of Bow Bazar is commonly said to be a corrupted version of Bahu Bazar or “Bride’s Bazar”. It is believed that that a bazar was part of the share of a daughter-in-law of Biswanath Matilal, but some historians have failed to trace or identify that person. Another school of historians opine that there were several (bahu in Bengali) markets along its course like Baithakkhana Bazar where many (also bahu in Bengali) items were sold.
Dharamtala translates to holy area. It is commonly believed to have taken its name from a large mosque, which stood at the site of Cook and Company’s livery stables. Tipu Sultan Mosque was built in the area in 1842 by the son of Tipu Sultan. Nearby, in Janbazar, stood a Buddhist temple and dharma is one of the units of Buddhist trinity.
Another school of thought believes that the area took its name from the popular god Dharma Thakur who has been eulogised in Dharma Mangal Kabya in the 17th Century. Haris and Doms, who were the main worshippers of Dharma Thakur, were the original inhabitants of the area.
The area got its name as the soil in this locality had rich deposits of sand (bali) making it low lying and unsuited to solve the residential requirements of the fast expanding metropolis. In 1924, a decision was taken by Calcutta Improvement Trust to dig up a lake south of the locality (now Rabindra Sarobar) and use the mud to strengthen the soil.
Every little street and by-lane speaks of rich history and the city lives on in the midst of an ever-changing kaleidoscope.
The current entertainment hub of the city was initially named Burial Ground Road due to the presence of two cemeteries (North Park Street — now Assembly of God Church — and South Park Street cemetery) opened in 1767.
Gradually as the British started to settle in areas south of Park Street, the road was renamed to Park Street, deriving its name from a deer park of Sir Impeh, Chief Justice of Supreme Court of India, which was located there.