Kolkata (Calcutta), India

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Kolkata (known as Calcutta until 2001) is India’s second largest city and lies on the eastern bank of the Hooghly river, a subsidiary of the Ganges.


Kolkata was founded in 1690 by the East India Company after a peace treaty was signed between the company and the Mughal dynasty. The treaty paved the way for a factory to be built in the village of Sutanuti. Two other nearby villages, Kalikata and Govindapur, were then unified with Sutanuti, marking the beginning of modern Kolkata. A free trade agreement between the Mughal emperor, Farrukh-siyar, and the company in 1717 stimulated Kolkata’s growth. In 1772 Kolkata became the capital of India.

In 1756 the town was captured by Siraj-ud-Dawlah, leader of the Nawab’s of Murshidabad from Bengal. This led to the incident known as ‘the Black Hole of Calcutta’ in which 146 British soldiers were reportedly imprisoned for one night in a cell measuring 5.5 m. by 4.5 m. Only 23 soldiers survived the night. The British recaptured the town in 1757 and later defeated Siraj-ud-Dawlah, ensuring British control of the region.

Known as the ‘city of palaces’, Kolkata was divided into British and Indian districts. Although measures were taken to improve living conditions in the city between 1814–36, the low lying districts were devastated by cyclones towards the end of the century. The city is still divided between areas of great wealth and fine architecture, and areas of poverty with inadequate sewer systems, water supplies, and a huge homeless population.

Kolkata’s position as a major financial trading post was damaged by the political and social upheavals brought about by the partition of Bengal in 1905. Although the split was later reversed, the troubles it created led the government to make Delhi the temporary capital of British India in 1912. Bengal was again partitioned in 1947 and Kolkata became the capital of West Bengal. But its reputation fell again as social tensions spilled over into rioting. The influx of refugees from East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) increased tensions further and the city continued its descent into turmoil as business began to leave the region in search of a more stable climate. The society neared breaking point in the 1960s and in the 1980s the government was forced to take action to improve conditions.

Modern City

Today the city is the world’s largest producer of jute. It also supports textile, chemical, metal and paper industries. It has major transport links to the rest of India and beyond by road, rail and air, and is the most important trading port on the east coast of India. The integration of various communities and religions in Kolkata has left it culturally rich with Bengali, Hindi, Urdu and English spoken. There are several museums including the Indian Museum which is the oldest in India. There is a National Library and three universities. The University of Calcutta was founded by the British in 1857 and is now one of the largest teaching institutions in the world.

Places of Interest

Major tourist destinations are the Kali temple, the botanical garden (the largest of its kind in India) and the Victoria memorial. The city boasts some 30 museums and galleries including the Asiatic society (founded 1784), the Indian Museum (1814) and an academy of fine arts.

Among Kolkata’s famous citizens are Mother Teresa (1910–97) and Rabindranath Tagore (1861–1941). Tagore became the first Asian Nobel laureate for literature in 1913 and was the composer of independent India’s national anthem. Kolkata’s most famous citizen, Mother Teresa, came to Bengal as a missionary. In 1948 she opened her order after the municipal authorities granted her the use of a hostel just outside the city. The hostel was devoted to giving the poor, sick, blind and dying of Kolkata a dignified place to live and die. She was beatified by the Roman Catholic Church in Oct. 2003.

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