views updated May 17 2018


Situated on the east bank of the River Hugli about 129 kilometers (80 miles) from the Bay of Bengal, Calcutta lies close to the mouth of the two great river systems of the Ganga (Ganges) and the Brahmaputra. Consequently, the port possesses the advantage of excellent inland navigation for transporting foreign imports upstream and sending down the products of the fertile interior by the same channel.

Already prior to the arrival of the English merchant Job Charnock (d. 1693) in 1690, the settlements on the east bank of the river had attracted a number of high-caste Hindu families with literary traditions. The foundation of a British settlement raised the potential of the site, but the political events in the eighteenth century that changed the course of history were not to be predicted in the 1690s.

The right of fortification, obtained by the British in 1696, allowed the construction of Fort William. In 1698 the English East India Company purchased the right of revenue and tax collection for the three villages of Kalikata, Sutanuti, and Govindapur. In 1700 the settlement received the status of a presidency. This put the English technically on an equal footing with the Mughal nawabs (local rulers) of Bengal, who were now confronted with the unrestrained extracommercial ambitions of East India Company officials.

Bengal subah (province) in the early eighteenth century had obtained autonomy and economic stability under the nawab Murshid Quli Khan, and Bengal was known as the granary of India. Muslin, silk, saltpeter, indigo, and opium attracted the European trading companies, and the arrival of private merchants from different parts of the world made Calcutta the home of Abyssinians, Afghans, Armenians, Burmese, Chinese, and Persians, as well as English, Dutch, French, and other Europeans.

The grant of a firman (imperial permit) by the Mughal emperor to the English in 1717 led to the growth of Calcutta as a center of English private trade. Extensive fortifications and the ambition of East India Company officials, however, led to a rupture with the nawab Alivardi Khan. Alivardi's successor, Siraj ud daula, attacked and overran Calcutta and renamed it Alinagar (1756). Robert Clive (1725–1774) and Admiral Charles Watson (1714–1757) recaptured Calcutta in February 1757. In June 1757 Clive won the Battle of Plassey, a triumph more of intrigue than of military action, and laid the foundation for British paramountcy in India. From 1773 to 1911, Calcutta was the capital of British India and the second city in the British Empire.

There was a cleavage in the pattern of Calcutta's urban growth. The European Town around the Tank Square and Chowringhee areas witnessed a high level of real-estate development, especially under the governors-general Warren Hastings (1774–1785) and Marquis Wellesley (1798–1805). The massive buildings of New Fort William, the Supreme Court, the Writers' Building, and Saint John's Church established marks of colonial rule. The British-built Town Hall, Metcalf Hall, and the Senate House were a few of the public buildings that lent Calcutta the epithet "city of palaces." The Indian Town in the north, and the intermediate zone were, however, overcrowded and lacked adequate municipal amenities.

These deficiencies did not stand in the way of the growth of the city. Between 1742 and 1901 the area of the settlement grew from about 1,307 to 5,357 hectares (3,229 to 13,237 acres), while the population rose from 179,917 to 542,686 during the same period. Calcutta was the most important port in India for shipping cotton, coal, jute, opium, and indigo. The large concentration of jute mills within a radius of 64 kilometers (40 miles) from Calcutta by 1911 resulted in a large-scale migration of laborers from up-country provinces to the city. Another important migrant group was the Marwaris, who came to dominate trade and industry in the region.

The phenomenal growth of the metropolis led to a demand for municipal services. Statutory civic services began in 1794. Calcutta received a municipal government in 1852, which became the Calcutta Corporation in 1899. The city's public sewerage system was completed in 1859, and filtered water became available from 1860. Railway services began in the city in 1854. Telegraph lines were installed in 1851, and the telephone exchange was opened in 1883. Horse-drawn trams were introduced in 1873, and following the introduction of electricity in 1899, electric trams started running in the city in 1902. Regular bus service began in 1924.

Warren Hastings's interest in the revival of Oriental learning and arts led to the foundation of the Calcutta Madrasa (1781) and the Asiatic Society (1784). The establishment of the printing press (1777) stimulated the growth of public opinion. Fort William College, founded in 1800, was designed to impart the knowledge of Indian languages and culture among East India Company civilians. The spread of English education was facilitated through the foundation of Hindu College in 1817 and Bethune School, the first public school for girls, in 1850. Calcutta Medical College and Calcutta University were established in 1835 and 1857 respectively.

The interaction of the Bengali intelligentsia with Western education, British Orientalism, and Christianity brought about an awakening commonly known as the Bengal Renaissance. Its earliest spokesman was Raja Rammohun Roy (1772–1833), the founder of the Brahmo Samaj, a monotheistic Hindu reform movement based on the Upanishads, ancient Hindu texts of wisdom. The British Indian Association, established in 1851, reflected a growing political consciousness in the region. Calcutta's Muslim community had the Mohammedan Literary Society (1863) and the Central National Mohammedan Association (1877) as their platform. Surendranath Banerjea (1848–1925), the founder of the Indian Association (1876), was the main force behind the National Conference held in Calcutta in 1883. Between 1885 and 1905, Calcutta was the nerve center of Indian politics and of the Indian National Congress, the forum of Indian public opinion on political issues.

During the Swadeshi movement (a movement pledging the use of indigenous products) that followed the partition of Bengal (1905), the demand for complete swaraj (self-rule) became a pan-Indian issue. A widespread boycott and the rise of extremist revolutionary groups in Bengal seriously threatened British rule. Consequently, the British moved the capital to Delhi. In August 1946 the city was shaken by the HinduMuslim riots, which resulted in the killing of large numbers of people on both sides, known as the "great Calcutta killings," following the direct action demanding a separate electorate for the Muslims. Riots broke out again in August 1947, just before and after India gained independence. Due to the partition of India, Calcutta lost much of its hinterland, which became part of East Pakistan.

see also Colonial Port Cities and Towns, South and Southeast Asia; Indian National Movement.


Bhattacharya, Sukumar. The East India Company and the Economy of Bengal from 1704 to 1740, 2nd ed. Calcutta, India: Firma KLM, 1969.

Broomfield, J. H. Elite Conflict in a Plural Society: Twentieth-Century Bengal. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968.

Chaudhuri, Sukanta, ed. Calcutta: The Living City, Vol. 1: The Past. Calcutta, India: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Chaudhuri, Sushil. Trade and Commercial Organization in Bengal, 1650–1720, with Special Reference to the English East India Company. Calcutta, India: Firma KLM, 1975.

Chaudhuri, Sushil. The Prelude to Empire: Plassey Revolution of 1757. New Delhi, India: Manohar, 2000.

Gordon, Leonard. Bengal: The Nationalist Movement, 1876–1940. New Delhi, India: Manohar; New York: Columbia University Press, 1974.

Gupta, Brijen K. Sirajuddaullah and the East India Company, 1756–1757: Background to the Foundation of British Power in India. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 1966.

Kopf, David. British Orientalism and the Bengal Renaissance: The Dynamics of Indian Modernization, 1773–1835. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969.

Kopf, David. The Brahmo Samaj and the Shaping of the Indian Mind. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1979.

Marshall, Peter James. East Indian Fortunes: The British in Bengal in the Eighteenth Century. Oxford: Clarendon: 1976.

Marshall, Peter James. Bengal—the British Bridgehead: Eastern India, 1740–1828. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

Moorhouse, Geoffrey. Calcutta. London: Weidenfeld, 1971.

Prakash, Om. The Dutch East India Company and the Economy of Bengal, 1630–1720. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1985.

Sarkar, Sumit. The Swadeshi Movement in Bengal, 1903–1908. New Delhi, India: People's Publishing House, 1973.

Sinha, Narendra Krishna. The Economic History of Bengal, 3 vols. Calcutta, India: Firma KLM, 1956–1970.

Tripathi, Amales. Trade and Finance in the Bengal Presidency, 1793–1833, rev. ed. Calcutta, India: Oxford University Press, 1979.


views updated May 23 2018


CALCUTTA Once the capital of British India and the second-largest city of the empire after London, Calcutta is completely a British creation. Calcutta is a city that defies description, overwhelming each visitor with kaleidoscopic images and scenes from its checkered history, its extremes of wealth and poverty, and its punishingly hot and humid climate. In fact, the British found Calcutta's climate so oppressive that for the better part of each year they shifted the official work of the Raj to Simla (Shimla), north of Delhi, the queen of India's hill stations. After ruling India from Calcutta for 150 years, the British permanently shifted their capital to New Delhi in 1912.

Rudyard Kipling called Calcutta the "City of Dreadful Night"; the Frenchman Dominiqie Lapierre named it the "City of Joy"; and the Indian novelist Anita Desai described it as the "graveyard of the British Empire." The early British administrators called it the "City of Palaces" because they believed that India could only be ruled from palaces and thus constructed monumental buildings. More recently, V. S. Naipaul declared, "All of [Calcutta's] suffering are sufferings of death. I know not of any other city whose plight is more hopeless."

Calcutta emerged from the union of three villages—Kalikata, Govindapur, and Sutanuti—the first of which housed the shrine of the Indian goddess Kali, hence the name Calcutta. In 1680 Job Charnock, a British agent and head of the English factory in Cassim Bazaar, received permission from the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb to establish an English factory at Sutanuti. In 1698 the British East India Company bought the zamindari (rights for land revenue) of Kalikata, Govindpur, and Sutanuti from Subarana Chowdhury. Fort William (named after King William I) was completed in 1699, thus founding Calcutta as the bridgehead of the company's commercial and administrative operations in Bengal. As the Mughal empire started its decline after the death of Aurangzeb in 1707, the East India Company acquired duty-free trading rights in Bengal from the financially strapped Mughal Faruksiyar for the paltry sum of 3,000 rupees in 1717, much to the chagrin of the nawābs (Muslim governors) of the region. By 1735 Calcutta had become an important port and a trading center, and its population burgeoned to over 100,000. Calcutta now rivaled Dhaka (traditional Dacca) and Murshidabad, the two historical capitals of Bengal.

Other Europeans had vied for a foothold in Bengal as well. As early as 1517, the Portuguese had set up a trading post in Chittagong (modern Bangladesh's principal port) and Saptagram. In 1580 the Portuguese secured permission from Emperor Akbar to set up Bandel de Hoogly on the Hoogly River, which was later demolished by Emperor Shah Jahan in 1632. The Dutch set up a factory at Chuncura in 1653, but in 1825 ceded it to the British in exchange for Bencoleen in Sumatra (Indonesia). In the early 1670s, the French established Chandannagar (old Chandernagore).

In an effort to bolster their position, the British intervened in wars of succession in Bengal, inviting the wrath of Siraj-ud-Dawla, who marched south to capture Fort William in June 1756, placing 145 Englishmen (and one woman) in the fort's lockup, called the "Black Hole," an airless room measuring 14 by 18 feet (4 × 5 m). By the next morning many of the prisoners had died from asphyxiation, an event that not only served to perpetually prejudice the British against the Indians but that also cast a lingering dark shadow over Calcutta.

Colonel Robert Clive and Admiral Charles Watson recaptured Fort William in January 1757. In June of the same year, Siraj-ud-Dawla was defeated in the Battle of Plassey, and Clive installed Mir Jaffar as the nawāb of Bengal in return for £234,000 and an annual salary of £30,000. In 1765 the British defeated an alliance of Shah Alam II and Mir Kasim, then nawāb of Bengal, at Buxur. The East India Company was then given the diwani (land revenue collection rights) of Bengal, Orissa, and Bihar. To better fortify Calcutta, a new fort was completed in 1773; in the same year, Calcutta became the capital of the British Raj in India. Clive returned to England a rich man in 1767, but committed suicide in 1774.

British buildings in Calcutta, as in other presidency towns and later in New Delhi, celebrated the British triumph in India through monumentality. The British designs, however, appropriated several architectural languages, from Classicism to Baroque to Gothic to Indo-Saracenic. Calcutta's landmark buildings include the National Library of India, the Indian Museum (the oldest in Asia), Victoria Memorial, High Court, Writer's Building, Marble Palace, Ochterlony Monument (modern Shahid Minar), Kalighat, Government House (the residence of the governor of Bengal, inspired by Curzon's Kedleston Hall), Esplanade Mansion, Howrah Station, and the buildings around Calcutta's Maidan. Under the neonationalist movement, many of these buildings have acquired Indian names, just as Calcutta itself was renamed Kolkata in 2001. Nouveau riche Bengalis imitated Western architecture, even as they cultivated British customs and mastered the English language.

The Asiatic Society of Bengal, founded in 1784 by Sir William Jones, the introduction of the printing press in 1799 by missionary William Carey, and English-language education produced a class of Bengali intellectuals (bhadralok) in Calcutta. The city itself became the center of the Bengal Renaissance that embodied English liberalism and indigenous revivalism, both of which contributed to social reform and political activism in the nineteenth century. The Bengali Brahman Ram Mohan Roy (1772–1833) was a pioneer of that Renaissance, promoting new ideas and syncretic cultural concepts that blossomed in the warrens of Calcutta. Roy's Brahmo Samaj, founded in 1828, and in combination with English education, influenced generations of young Bengali intellectuals, from Rabindranath Tagore to Satyajit Ray to Arundhati Roy. Calcutta thus became an important center of both Hindu reform and the Indian nationalist movement.

Calcutta's dark side has always been in full view—its slums and overcrowded tenements, grinding poverty, and decaying infrastructure—producing popular political support for leftist political parties and the unionization of labor. It has also attracted humanitarians such as Mother Teresa, who founded the Missionaries of Charity in 1950 to help abandoned children and the dying. For her care of the poorest of the poor, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979.

Those who despair over modern Calcutta's misery forget that British interests from the beginning in Bengal were primarily pecuniary. The plunder of Bengal and its complete mismanagement of the province led to a major famine in the early 1770s in which a third of the population died. Famine and drought became a running theme of Calcutta's history, producing widespread disaffection among the peasantry. As everywhere else in agricultural British India, the fundamental source of official finance was land revenue. The British were not prepared to surrender this vital source of income, and the peasants had to borrow at such exorbitant rates to fulfill their tax obligations that many became bankrupt. As a result, many were forced to flee to the city to eke out a living. These rural-urban migrations started early in the British period, and Calcutta's population soared to 200,000 by the late 1770s. Calcutta also became a principal port for the opium trade, from which the British East India Company reaped huge profits, exporting Indian opium to China.

Many of Calcutta's modern problems result from the fact that the city was originally planned by the British for a population of no more than 1 million, whereas by 2004 it supported a population of over 14 million, with over 30,000 people per .4 sq. mi. (square kilometer). Two-thirds of Calcutta's population live in unofficial slums, called bustees. A reported 2,000 people migrate daily to Calcutta in the hope of making a living there. The city's overburdened infrastructure dates back to the mid-nineteenth century, its sewerage system was established in 1859, filtered water was introduced in 1860, its telephone exchange was created in 1882, and the electricity supply was started in 1899.

Calcutta, with all its ills, remains one of the most intellectually vibrant cities in India. Bengalis, through their endless heated discussions and political activism, keep hope alive. This eternal optimism helped the city to survive its staggering refugee crisis, produced by the partition of India in 1947, and again when Bangladesh was created from East Pakistan in 1971. In its three-hundred-year history, Calcutta, or Kolkata, has offered endless possibilities to its millions, along with sorrow and disappointment for others. The dance of hope and despair, of possibilities and misery, continues. Calcutta has always recovered from its worst disasters, moving forward in the footsteps of Roy, Tagore, and Ray. The residents of Calcutta of the past and the present—from all classes—have never failed to take the full measure of their city.

Ravi Kalia

See alsoBengal ; British Crown Raj ; Clive, Robert ; Urbanism


Lapierre, Dominique. The City of Joy. Translated by Kathryn Spink. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1985.

Singh, Kushwant. Kalighat to Calcutta, 1690–1990. Calcutta: Manjushree Foundation; New Delhi: Lustre Press, 1990.

Sinha, Pradip, ed. The Urban Experience: Calcutta. Calcutta: Riddhi-India, 1987.


views updated May 29 2018


CALCUTTA (today Kolkata ), capital of West Bengal State, N.E. India. The earliest association of Jews with Calcutta goes back to transient Jewish merchants, especially from Fort St. George (*Madras) who toward the end of the 17th century established commercial contacts with Bengal. One of the most prominent was Alvaro de *Fonseca. In the second half of the 18th century, Abraham Jacobs distinguished himself by providing food for the survivors of the "Black Hole" tragedy (1756). He is also mentioned as a confidential agent of the East India Company there. A permanent Jewish settlement came into existence only at the beginning of the 19th century when Arabic-speaking Jews from Syria and Iraq who had previously resided in *Surat settled in Calcutta. The first Jewish merchant to settle there was Shalom b. Obadiah ha-Cohen (d. 1836), originally from Aleppo, who, after a successful stay in Surat, arrived in Calcutta in 1798 and developed a profitable trade there in jewels and precious stones. In 1816 he became the court jeweler of the Muslim ruler Ghāzī al-Dīn Ḥayḍar and his son at Lucknow. Shalom ha-Cohen was soon joined in Calcutta by members of his family and business associates from Surat and *Bombay, among whom Jacob Ẓemaḥ Nissim figured prominently. With the arrival of Moses b. Simon Duwayk ha-Cohen and his family from Aleppo, Calcutta began to develop into one of the most prosperous and flourishing cultural and economic centers of Jewish life in India. Jews from Cochin and Yemen flocked there and took an active part in its development. There was a small *Bene Israel community in Calcutta as well.

The first synagogue built in 1831 in Calcutta was called Neveh Shalom in honor of its founder, Shalom ha-Cohen. It was followed by the Beth El in 1856 and then by Magen David, built in 1884 in memory of David Joseph *Ezra (d. 1882). Probably the largest synagogue in the East, it was an imposing landmark distinguished by its beautiful architecture, and had a fine collection of Torah scrolls. Elijah b. Moses Duwayk ha-Cohen served as spiritual leader of the Magen David congregation for over 50 years. Glimpses into the internal communal life are offered by the Judeo-Arabic diaries (Naurooz) of Shalom ha-Cohen, of Moses b. Simon Duwayk ha-Cohen (d. 1861), and of Eleazar b. Aaron Saadiah ʿIrāqī ha-Cohen (d. 1864), all preserved in the Sassoon Library, as well as by the accounts of Western visitors such as *Benjamin ii (1850), Jacob *Saphir (1859ff.), Solomon Reinman (1884), and later emissaries and travelers. A central role in the development of Jewish life was played for many decades by Sir David and Lady Ezra and communal leaders such as Elias Meyer, the families Jehuda, Masliah, Jacob, *Gabbai, Elias, Kurlander, and others. Hospitals, synagogues, boys' and girls' schools, and other educational and charitable institutions were established. Calcutta Jewry included prominent lawyers, physicians, industrialists, and artists. The events on the world scene after World War ii, and the political and economic changes in the Middle East had a profound impact on the Jewish community in Calcutta and led to its economic decline. Through emigration to England, Australia, America, and Israel, the once large and prosperous community dwindled to a small group of about 70 Jews (1998).

[Walter Joseph Fischel]

Hebrew Printing

The first Hebrew printing press in Calcutta was founded in 1840 by Eleazar b. Aaron Saadiah ʿIrāqī ha-Cohen and continued until 1856. A scholar and poet, ʿIrāqī was an expert printer who probably cast his own type. The products of his press, some of them his own writings, are comparable with the best European productions of the time. Another press, operated by Ezekiel b. Saliman Hanin from 1871 to 1893, printed the Judeo-Arabic weekly Mevasser in Hebrew type from 1873 to 1878. This paper was followed by Peraḥ (1878–88), printed from 1871 by Elijah b. Moses Duwayk ha-Cohen. Two further weeklies, Maggid Meisharim (1889–1900) and Shoshannah (1901), were edited and printed by R. Solomon Twena, author of almost 70 works published by his own press.

[Avraham Yaari]


I.A. Isaac, Short Account of the Calcutta Jews (1917); Ezra, in: South African Jewish Chronicle (Oct. 1929), 13–15; D.S. Sassoon, Ohel David, 2 (1932), 113 (Hebrew section); idem, in: jqr, 21 (1930/31), 89–150; idem, History of the Jews in Baghdad (1949), 209–16; A. Yaari, Ha-Defus ha-Ivri be-Arẓot ha-Mizraḥ, 2 (1940), 9–51; Fischel, in: rej, 123 (1964), 433–98 (Eng.); idem, in: paajr, 33 (1965), 1–20. add. bibliography: F. Elias and J.E. Cooper The Jews of Calcutta, An Autobiography of a Community, 1798–1972 (1974); E.N. Musleah, On the Banks of the Gangathe Sojourn of Jews in Calcutta (1975); M. Hyman, Jews of the Raj (1995).


views updated May 17 2018

Calcutta was founded on 24 August 1690 by Job Charnock of the English East India Company at the village of Kalikata on the banks of the Hooghly river in Bengal. It grew quickly as Bengal displaced Madras as the company's leading commercial region. Following Robert Clive's victory at the battle of Plassey in 1757, a new Fort William was built and came to constitute the centre from which the company's political expansion in India took place. The town attracted a large British community and in 1834 became recognized as the official capital of British India. From the 1870s, a jute industry also developed to complement Calcutta's already advanced commercial and administrative functions. In 1901 the city had a population of 1 million and was the second largest in the British empire after London. However, in 1912 the capital was removed to New Delhi and Calcutta began what has been a long decline.

David Anthony Washbrook


views updated May 29 2018

Calcutta City on the River Hooghly, e India; capital of West Bengal state. Founded c.1690 by the East India Company, it was the capital of India under British rule (1772–1912). The major port and industrial centre of e India, Calcutta has several important temples. Industries: jute milling, electrical equipment, chemicals, paper, cotton textiles. Pop. (2001) 4,580,544.


views updated May 18 2018

Calcutta. Kālīghāt, the place in India where the major temple to Kālī was built in the 16th cent. CE.