The neighbourhood of Ultadanga in northeast Kolkata is among the busiest and the most congested in the city any time of the day, partially due to its proximity to the Bidhannagar Road railway station, an important stop for local trains.
There are several theories on how the neighbourhood got its name. As with some of the city’s oldest neighbourhoods, there is no specific documentation about the history of its nomenclature.
Ultadanga became a part of the developing metropolis of Calcutta in 1717, when the British East India Company rented 38 villages close to the city from Mughal Emperor Farrukhsiyar.
In 1758, the Company went on to purchase 55 villages, including the 38 that it had previously rented, from Nawab Mir Jafar, the first dependent Nawab of Bengal, and incorporated them all as the outer fringes of the developing city.
These villages formed what was called ‘Dihi Panchannagram’, the literal meaning of which is “55 villages”, and lay outside the Maratha Ditch. This ditch, approximately 5 kilometers long, was excavated in 1742 in a perimeter around Calcutta, to protect the British from the Maratha invasion that never came. Built for the protection of the British, the Maratha Ditch was entirely funded by taxes paid by Indians.
The villages that formed Dihi Panchannagram fell outside the boundaries of the Maratha Ditch and only became a part of Calcutta when the ditch was partially filled in 1799 and then entirely in 1893, having served no purpose to the British. Of these 55 villages, one was that of Ultadingi, an early form of the name ‘Ultadanga’.
One theory on how ‘Ultadingi’ came to be can be traced to when the Maratha Ditch existed, according to historian P Thankappan Nair, who has written extensively on the history of Calcutta. “Ulta” is a term for “opposite”, both in Bengali and Hindi, and “dingi” means “small boats”, indicating the village’s location on the opposite bank of the ditch, where boats plying on the river were constructed and repaired.
The remnants of this river can be found in the form of a long canal that still runs on the periphery of the neighbourhood, till it slowly snakes its way to the Bay of Bengal. Over time, as the surrounding land was reclaimed and settled, the river receded, leaving behind a sliver of its former self in the form of what is now the Kestopur Canal, and the village of Ultadingi, which had once developed on its banks.
In the book ‘The Early Annal of the British in Bengal’ by C R Wilson, first published in 1911, the neighbourhood has been mentioned by its present name, indicating that sometime over the centuries, the name ‘Ultadingi’ underwent a corruption and acquired its present form while the British were still in India.
Nair writes that according to the Calcutta Municipal Gazette of September 1936, Acharya Prafulla Chandra Ray, Satyananda Siddhartharatna and others petitioned the Calcutta Municipal Corporation to rename Ultadanga Main Road after Dinanath Das, a Bengali gentleman involved in charity, but “the Corporation did not accede to their request”.
Nair adds that in August 1944, some Ultadanga residents reiterated this request to the Corporation on grounds that Das, as a proprietor of the local market Nootan Bazaar, was a person of prominence and because Das’s son, Debendranath, was a member of the Bengal Legislative Council. The request was again denied. Nair doesn’t elaborate on the reason for the petition’s rejection. This snippet provided by Nair, however, could not be independently confirmed.
The Bidhannagar railway station that skirts the neighbourhood of Ultadanga started operations in 1862 as part of the Sealdah-Kustia (now in Bangladesh) line of the Eastern Bengal Railways. It is not clear when the railway station was named ‘Bidhannagar’, but the stop gets its name from Bidhan Chandra Roy, the second Chief Minister of West Bengal, who was a doctor by profession and a philanthropist.
The Kestopur Canal, once an important water source, was for years treated as a garbage dump by locals. In November 2017, civic bodies wrote to Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s office that the dumping of garbage had clogged the canal and made its water stagnant, creating a breeding ground for mosquitoes and making residents vulnerable to dengue.
The state of affairs became so dire, with the increasing number of dengue deaths, that the state irrigation department had to intervene. Water from the Hooghly river was released at the Chitpore lock gate to flush out the stagnant water and Guppy fish introduced to tackle mosquito larvae. The solution worked only temporarily, because, in the last two years, residents have gone back to polluting the Kestopur Canal.
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