Kolkata Mystery কলকাতার ইতিকথা
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How old is our Kolkata ? Mystery remains.....

The Kolkata High Court in its landmark Judgement delivered on May 16th 2003 has erased the name of Job Charnock as the founder of Kolkata. The Judgement came  after the five member Expert Committee headed by noted historian Late Sri Nemai Sadhan Bose submitted their findings to the Hon’ble Court.  The Report clearly stated that Kolkata was an important place both commercially and religiously much before the Europeans arrived here. Therefore the British agent Job Charnock who arrived here in 1690 couldn’t be regarded as the founder of the city, nor could the date 24th august be accepted as the city’s birthday. Thus Kolkata was very much present here. But the million dollar question- How old is our Kolkata still remains to be answered and it’s a mystery.


Historical evidence shows that southwest Bengal was a populated region from very ancient times. In his book Geographia, Claudius Ptolemy mentions a river port called Gange in the region. Although Ptolemy never came to India, he was aware of the existence of settlements in this region. However, an anonymous Greek sailor, mentions in his book Periplus of the Erythraean Sea (first century A.D.), a port at the mouth of the Ganga from which Roman ships sailed out with exotic goods. According to the historian Paresh Chandra Dasgupta, Gange could be identified with Chandraketugarh, which was probably a river port. A large number of ship seals have also been found in the region, which substantiates this inference.


In 1956-57, Calcutta University undertook an excavation project in Chandraketugarh, near Barasat, situated 25 km from present-day North Kolkata. The materials found there dated back to an even earlier time than those found recently at excavations at Clive House near Dum Dum in North Kolkata and were remarkably similar in nature. Also in 1997-98, a large number of artefacts, ranging from the post-Gupta period to the late medieval age, were found on the Bethune College campus in North Kolkata when work began for the construction of an auditorium.

Excavations conducted at the site of Clive House during three field seasons ( 2000-01, 2001-02, and 2002-03) has yielded materials of two cultural periods viz. Period-I from 2nd Century B.C. to 11th-12th Century A.D. and Period-II from 15th-16th century A.D. and continued till modern time. Structural remains in the form of successive floors have been found. The antiquities include terracotta objects mainly human and animal figurines of Sunga-Kushan and Gupta period, cast copper and punch marked coins, plaques , beads, ear studs, seals and sealings , medallion, hopscotch, sling balls, terracotta beads , decorated medallion of Kushan-Gupta assemblages. The pottery assemblage include red ware, dull red ware, grey ware, black and red ware and porcelain ware, etc.


Bimal Bandhopadhyay, Superintending Archaeologist, ASI, Kolkata Circle commented that it is fascinating to know that where Kolkata now stands such an ancient civilization existed. He has put forward his well researched views on the excavations.


The initial excavations, which were done on a 10x10 metres single trench in a horizontal method yielded fascinating results. The ASI team found shards of ancient pottery and brick. They discovered terracotta figurines, semi-precious stones, and coins belonging to the eighth century A.D. and even earlier. Subsequently, a floor made of lime and brick jelly, covering the length of almost an entire trench, a hearth, and around it a lot of tortoise shells and fish scales, were found which led to believe that the people of the region were probably non-vegetarians in their diet. Also, judging from the materials found, including art objects, punch-marked coins, and seals, Bandhopadhyay observed that it was obviously a very advanced, prosperous civilization, and the people were skilled craftsmen. And this may very well have been a busy trading centre. One of the most interesting finds was a seal on which, in Nagari script, was written `Samapasasya'. This language was prevalent in eastern India in the 8th century A.D. The inscription, as deciphered by the scholar and historian B.N. Mukherjee, means `belonging to Samapasa'. A Mithuno terracotta plaque was also found.

Among the finds was a terracotta plaque with the image of a one-horned rhino on it. Although rhinoceros are not present in the Sunderbans now, it is known that they, especially the one-horned variety, were found in large numbers there. Bandhopadhyay observed that stylistically, the rhino carving dates back to the Kusana period, around the first century A.D Although the Kusanas never ruled Bengal, their influence in the region, especially in the field of art, is obvious.

Pottery and carvings belonging to the Gupta period, from the fourth to the seventh century A.D., and to the post-Gupta period were also found. The most common motifs of terracotta art are those of mother and child, and figurines of semi-divine Yakshinis. Another interesting find is a solitary miniature stone carving of Mahishasuramardini, dating back to around the 10th century A.D. Apart from artefacts, three human skeletons were found at the lowest level of excavation. These have been sent to the Anthropological Survey of India. If the skeletons, as conjectured, belong to the first and second century B.C., they could throw light on the burial rites of the people of the region.

Dilip Kumar Chakraborti, who teaches archaeology in Cambridge University, in his book Archaeology of Eastern India says that the port might have been in the Medinipur coast. However, he says, "There was an arterial route in West Bengal which linked the entire area from the Barind tract in the north or modern Malda and West Dinajpur to the Rupnarayan Delta, the coastal Midnapore in the south... We feel that the major early historic towns and cities of West Bengal were linked in various ways with these arterial lines of communication.''

Deltaic Bengal has been important in history and finds frequent mention in ancient literature, including in the Mahabharata and the Buddhist text, Samyukta Nikaya. Reference to the port can also be found in Kalidasa's Raghuvansam, in the )11th century court poet, Laxman Sen Dhoyi's Pavanadutam, and Dandin's Dasakumar Charitam. In all these texts there is reference to Sumbhadesa - a prosperous and well-populated country. Dhoyi gives a vivid account of the palaces, markets and people of Sumbhadesa. Sumbhadesa has later been identified with Tribeni, Saptagram and Pandua in Hooghly district. The whole of Bengal was a part of the Gupta empire and the code of Gupta coins was found in Kalighat, South Kolkata in 1783 during the time of Governor-General Warren Hastings, proving that the area was inhabited. The coins are now in London's British Museum.

In the Medieval period, from the 12th to the 14th century, southwest Bengal was a part of the Bengal Sultanate, ruled by the Illyas Sahi dynasty and later by Hussain Sahi. According to historians, after Gange, Tamluk and Saptagram were the important ports. The Moroccan traveller Ibn Batuta, mentions in his accounts a chain of villages along the Hooghly. In Abul Faizal's Ain-i-Akbari (AD 1596), Saptagram is mentioned as one of the 19 Sirkars of the Bengal Subah. Kolkata has been mentioned as Kalkatte, a pargana of Saptagram. By the end of the 16th century, Saptagram was declining as a port. This prompted a large number of traders to leave the place and go to Govindapur. According to East India Company records, these cotton merchants were prosperous. They decided to shift to Govindapur probably because they wished to remain on the main line of the river and benefit from the Portuguese trade there. Adjacent to Govindapur were Sutaluti (Sutanuti) and Kalkatah (Kolkata). Later on in 1608 when Laksmikanta Roy Choudhury became the Jaigirdar of the place he and his descendants contributed much for the growth and development of the land and society.

Uttara Chakraborti, Professor of History, Bethune College commented that, Nineteenth century English historians, including C.R. Wilson, H.E. Cotton and Walter Hamilton, felt that Calcutta could not have grown overnight.'' According to C.R. Wilson, "the capital of British India, did not, as some seem to think, spring up as Jonah's Gourd in a single night. Calcutta, or at any rate, that position of the Hooghly where Calcutta now stands, has a history, and the city is the growth of many centuries.'' He said that Charnock chose the site of modern-day Kolkata not upon a whim, but after careful consideration. For not only was it strategically safe, but it was also an excellent commercial centre.

So from the above discussions and comments made by scholars it is evident that Kolkata had existed for centuries and more facts are yet to be unearthed. The Mystery remains…..


Acknowledgements: Archaeological Survey of India, Suhrid Sankar Chattopadhyay, Sushanta Patronobish and Frontline magazine for providing article source and pictures.