Updated: May 7, 2021 10:35:12 pm
In September 2019, when a tunnel-boring machine working on the East-West Metro project in Kolkata accidentally hit an aquifer, it nearly derailed one of the city’s largest and most expensive urban development initiatives in decades and resulted in subsidence in several neighbourhoods with old buildings in the center of the city. The accident also led to the rediscovery of one of the city’s less-explored histories— that of its complex network of creeks and water-bodies, some of which are nearly three centuries old, perhaps older than the city of Calcutta itself.
This aquifer had held water from one the many creeks that now lie in the subterranean depths of the Bowbazar neighbourhood, specifically the waterway that lends its name to Creek Row, a narrow bylane, approximately 1 km in length, in the heart of the city. In his book ‘A History of Calcutta’s Streets’, historian P. Thankappan Nair writes that this lane is named after the creek that originated “from the Salt Lakes and debouched into the Hooghly at Princep Ghat. It flowed through Balliaghata, Sealdah, Creek Row, Dharamatala Street, Chandney Chowk, Meredith Street, Waterloo Street, Government Place north, Hastings Street and thence to Princep Ghat.”
The writings of H.E.A Cotton in ‘Calcutta, Old and New’ (1907) indicate that by the time the book was first published in the early 19th century, the creek that gave Creek Row its name had already disappeared. “The name of Creek Row is all that is left of the Creek which ran a hundred yards from Dalhousie Square and upon whose banks an Armenian centenarian, who died a few years ago, remembered seeing boats,” Cotton writes.
Historical documentation indicates that the network of waterways that cut across what is now central Kolkata, were navigable by boat, including relatively large barges, till 1737, after which the topography of the neighbourhood began changing. These waterways were frequently used by merchants transporting goods between the nearby neighbourhood of Chandni Chowk, that remains a major commercial hub, and modern-day Dhaka.
Nair writes that in the 17th century, the creek was used by merchants travelling from Dacca to Saptagram in modern-day Hooghly district, “as the river below Tannah (Botanical Gardens), was infested with Portuguese pirates and their allies Mughs (Maghs).”
It wasn’t only merchants who used these waterways. In the absence of pucca roads in the 1700s, British East India Company employees were also found traversing this route. Before the Company established the city of Calcutta in 1698, this creek demarcated the boundary of the village of Kalikata, one of the three villages that were combined to set up the city. To the south of this creek lay the village of Gobindapur, the second of the three villages.
There are many theories regarding how the city of Calcutta got its name, but Nair dismisses some of the more well known among them to say that it was actually this creek, so necessary in pre-1700s Bengal, that gave the city its name. “The name Calcutta is derived from this khal (creek) and katta (caused to be cut). Calcutta is the English version of Khal + katta and is not derived from Kalighatta or Kalighat,” writes Nair.
The neighbourhood of Creek Row today is a mix of residential and commercial properties, but in the 1700s, when the waterways were still important navigation routes, it was largely dominated by “bushy trees (which were afterwards removed by degrees), thatched hovels and pools of fetid water which rendered anything but inviting the path that led across it past the burial-ground and the hospital to the Govindpore fields, where the modern Fort William stands,” Cotton writes.
A reading of Cotton’s extensive writings, which are among the most comprehensive documentations of the city’s pre-20th century history, indicate that this creek was more significant than has been acknowledged. The mouth of the creek, writes Cotton, was located between Chandpal Ghat and Koila Ghat on the banks of the Hooghly river, which continue to exist. The waterway then snaked past what is now Hastings Street, the earlier mentioned central Calcutta neighbourhoods, before emptying into the Salt Lakes.
It appears that Hastings Street is entirely built on the creek itself. The portion of the creek on which Creek Row now stands, was the site of a shipwreck during a severe cyclone in 1737. The area around Wellington Square, also known as Raja Subodh Mullick Square, is the approximate location where the shipwreck occurred.
The shipwreck was significant enough for local residents to give the location a new name, Dingabhanga, that bears no connection to the neighbourhood of Ultadanga in the city. The cyclone caused the creek to be clogged with silt, making it difficult for boats and ships to navigate in this waterway, perhaps why its use was discontinued and the creek was subsequently filled to make space for expansion of the city of Calcutta. The nearby Dingabhanga Lane commemorates the shipwreck of 1737.
In 1804, the Calcutta lottery was used to generate funds for the establishment of several roads in central Calcutta, of which Creek Row was one. By 1825, the creek was almost entirely filled up because a map of the city published by the Lottery Committee for 1825 shows only a small portion of the creek still visible.
This narrow lane’s history does not end here. As the creek was filled up, the bustees were cleared and replaced with large residential mansions owned by wealthy Bengali zamindars and other privileged residents. Not many of those old buildings remain in the Creek Row area, but the mansion belonging to Raja Subodh Mullick, an industrialist and philanthropist who also contributed in the fight for freedom against British rule, is an exception, existing in a state of utter dilapidation.
Like the nearby Mullick bari, the houses in Creek Row became underground centers of nationalism, among the many places in the city from where leaders in the freedom movement and revolutionaries operated in various capacities against the British. Mullick bari became the headquarters of the Banga Bhanga Andolon, the movement against the partition of Bengal, and was frequently visited by Rabindranath Tagore, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Surendranath Banerjee, Aga Khan and W.C, Bonnerjee and others. While leading the Banga Bhanga Andolon, Aurobindo Ghose lived in Raja Subodh Mullick’s house for an extended period of time.
In October 1906, Raja Subodh Mullick offered another of his properties, a house at 2/1 Creek Row, to Ghose to use as a permanent office for the publishing of nationalist newspaper ‘Bande Mataram’, edited by Ghose, one of the most prominent English-langauge newspapers calling for complete independence from British rule. The structure at this address today is in a state of complete dilapidation, with crumbling walls and overgrown trees. No signs remain indicating the significance of this address in the subcontinent’s struggle from British Rule.
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