Rarely is the neighbourhood of Sealdah in central Kolkata not choked with traffic. People traversing this route always have somewhere to be; some in a hurry to catch trains departing from the railway station at Sealdah, and others who impatiently wait to exit the chaos of the neighbourhood, heading in the direction of their final destinations. Like most iconic streets and thoroughfares in the city that have come to identify entire neighbourhoods, Sealdah too, over the decades, has undergone a similar transition.
The name ‘South Sealdah Road’ only serves official purposes these days; for postal addresses and legal identification. The road serves to connect central Kolkata to the wetlands in the eastern part of the city, the airport and the rapidly growing suburbs and to the neighbourhoods of Bow Bazaar and Lal Bazaar that are a stone’s throw from the railway station.
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It is not entirely clear when Sealdah got its name, but historian P. Thankkapan Nair who has written extensively on the city’s history, says the origins of the name can possibly be traced to when the city was a collection of elevated islands with mostly marshy land and perhaps not extensively inhabited by people. The name Sealdah, writes Nair, was derived from the name ‘Sialdihi’, the word ‘sial’ being a term for jackals and ‘dihi’ meaning ‘village’, a variation of which became ‘Sealdah’ over the years, after the East India Company combined three villages of Sutanuti, Kalikata and Gobindapur to establish the metropolis of Calcutta in 1690.
According to H.E.A Cotton, who documented the city of Calcutta and its history during the 19th century in his book ‘Calcutta: Old and New’, sometime in 1690, when the British first occupied the village of Sutanuti, the environs inspired Job Charnock of the East India Company to such an extent that he went on to make the area a permanent settlement for the Company. Cotton writes that a well-known tale spoke of how Charnock conceived of the idea of “Calcutta” when the village was only partially occupied by foriegn merchants. “He was wont to sit and smoke a meditative hookah under the shade of a spreading peepul tree, which stood at the junction of what is now Bow Bazar Street and Lower Circular Road. The spot went by the name of Boytaconnah (boitak-khana) or resting place, and for years it continued to be a favourite rendezvous,” writes Cotton. The tree finds mention in A.Upjohn’s map of Calcutta in 1794, on grounds that now belong to the Sealdah Railway Station.
The peepal tree doesn’t exist anymore at that location. As the city expanded and grew, it appears to have been cut down during British occupation to make space for development; some reports state that the tree was cut down when Hastings was Governor-General of Bengal but this could not be independently verified. It is from this story that the name Baithakkhana finds its origin, now the name of a large local market called Baithakkhana Bazaar that opens daily.
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Cotton writes: “Sealdah,…was described in 1757 as a “narrow causeway, several feet above the level of the country, leading from the east”.” During Cotton’s time in India, the Sealdah railway station functioned as a terminus for the Eastern Bengal State Railway, which provided access to Darjeeling and to districts in East Bengal that were important jute and tobacco producing regions. The railways also served to provide necessary access to government agencies that dealt with labour and emigration services.
In the neighbourhood of Sealdah, the 146-year-old Nil Ratan Sircar Medical College and Hospital continues to function as an important educational institution and public hospital. This hospital, that was established as a result of severe social and political pressure on the British in 1873, underwent several name changes over the centuries. Historical records show that the very first name of this medical institution was ‘Pauper Hospital’ that became the ‘Campbell Hospital and Medical School’ in 1884. The neighbourhood of Sealdah was considered the outer fringes of the city of Calcutta and Cotton writes that the location of the ‘Campbell Hospital and Medical School’ was intentional, primarily because it would receive patients suffering from small-pox.
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Sealdah no longer lies on the periphery of the city. A flyover constructed in the 1970s, helps provide an elevated view of the congested neighbourhood with a smattering of old buildings, that seem to have survived the rampant demolitions in the neighbourhood to make space for modern construction. The flyover, initially built to smoothen the flow of traffic, does little to help these days. The Baithakkhana Bazaar remains to be one of the largest markets in the country for paper, paper products and letterpress printers, although the switch to digital has reduced sales over the years. Today, no visible traces remain of how the neighbourhood of Sealdah and the bazaar of Baithakkhana in Kolkata got their names.
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