The Truth Revealed: August 24th is not Kolkata’s Birthday

Devarshi Roy Choudhury

Once it was a popular belief that an agent of the British East India Company, Job Charnock, had founded the city of Calcutta, now called Kolkata, on August 24, 1690, when he landed at Sutaluti (Sutalootah). Believing it to be true, the West Bengal Government and the people of Kolkata celebrated the Tri-Centenary of the city in 1990 with much pomp and glory. Celebrating the birthday of Kolkata on August 24 every year became a habit to the ever enthusiastic Kolkatans. However, later it was proved that it was simply a myth, miles away from facts in history. 

History of any ancient place is needed to be studied from three sources, namely, Archaeological, Literary and Oral. Archaeological excavations and discovery of different objects like seals and figurines, coins and skeletons help us to find out the origin and development of civilizations of that place. Literary evidences also form an important part. Stories and folk culture that have come down from generations to generations also put forward several unknown facts which are also to be seriously dealt while recreating or finding out the history of a place. 

Archaeological Survey of India in its excavations done at Chandraketugarh near Kolkata; Clive House at Dumdum; and Bethune College in the heart of Kolkata had found several seals and other evidences proving the fact that a highly urbanized society had prevailed here during the time of Shunga period (Second Century BCE). 

Now, coming to the literary source materials, it is found that from the great epic Mahabharata, Buddhist scripture Samyukta Nikayi, Kalidasa’s Raghuvamsam, Dandini’s Dasakumar Charitram, Lakshan Sen Dhayi’s Pabanadutam to Ptolemy’s Geographia, every text had given description of a highly urbanized civilization in the geographical land of today’s Kolkata. The second set of literary sources dates back to 15th and 16th Century CE. Manasa Mangal by Bipradas Piplai (1495); Ainee Akbari by Abul Fazl (1596) along with several other texts, gives details about socio-economic character of the place and its inhabitants. From a famous biography on Guru Nanak Dev, it is found that the Saint had come and stayed in Kolkata in 1510 for a few days when he visited Ma Kali at Kalighat.

A Dutch traveler Van Dan Brouke created the first systematic map of Kolkata in 1660 which is now certified by the Surveyor General of India. Now all these hard evidences clearly prove the fact that the geographical land where Kolkata stands today had been civilized for centuries. Descriptions from the first set of literary sources say that there were majestic buildings, wide roads, good markets, international trading hubs and a flourishing socio-economic life existed at the place. The civilization was highly urbanized. 

Lakshmikanta Gangopadhyay (Sabarna clan; 1570-1649) became the first Jaigirdir of eight parganas in and around present day Kolkata, when he was granted Rent-free Jaigir of the place as Gurudakshina from Emperor Jehangir through Raja Man Singh (1608 CE). He was also given the royal titles of ‘Ray’ and Chaudhary’. The family of Lakshmikanta, henceforth, came to be known as Sabarna Roy Choudhury family. This family was at the helm of all affairs as administrators of the place for almost 150 years (1608-1757). From the very first day, Lakshmikanta had tried to create an organized society based on values and principles. His indomitable enthusiasm and hard labour transformed the socio-economic character of the land altogether. From the family records it can be said that more than a thousand Europeans- the Armenians, the Portuguese  and the Dutch were settled there in and around the geographical land of Kolkata during the period 1608-1757. They used to carry voluminous trade in cotton yarn with the two biggest merchant families of that time namely the Seths and Basaks.  There was a pan Jaigir pucca highway from Halisahar to Barisha via Kalishetra (Kalighat) through which the major trading and travelling was done. This highway had been termed as Puratan Rasta in old books and Pilgrim’s Road during the British period. During that time there were two storey buildings, international trading hub at Sutalootah and Govindopur ports; markets for all commodities; and cash crops like cotton and jute cultivation along with food crops. There were Durgapujo dating back to 1610 and Saptom Dol Utsav at Lal Dighi dating back to 1660. These clearly proves the fact that a well organized and well maintained society had prevailed in the pre- British era in Kolkata and that was not certainly rural in character. 

The British East India Company was nowhere on the scene till then.

Jobus Charnock (Job Charnock; 1631/32- 1693) came to Madras in 1655/56 without having his name listed on the Master rolls of the ship. Later he joined the service of British East India Company and served to their interests. He sailed through the River Hooghly in 1686 and 1688 and saw flourishing trade and society in Kolkata, but he was sad at heart that British East India Company had no holding there. While he was the factor at Hooghly in 1690, being found guilty of several crimes he was chased on afternoon of 24 August by the Mughal navy. He fled on a small boat and landed at 3.20 PM at Sutalootah and requested the then Jaigirdar of the Sarbarna Roy Choudhury family, Vidhyadhar to grant political asylum. The Mughal army retreated founding their friendly family had given shelter to Charnock. This date of the arrival of Charnock was propagated to be the birthday of the city. Job Charnock became the first ever British to stay overnight in Kolkata. He died out of a deadly sexual disease on 10 January 1693. It was in 1698 that his son in law Captain Charles Eyre managed to get Right to Rent of the three Janapadas, namely Sutalootah, Govindopur and Kolikatah against and annual rent of 1300 coins of the time. Though, the Sabarna family claims that the Deed was made illegal as no Jaigirdirs had signed. Even two minors members had signed. All was done to fool the British upon an order from Emperor Aurangzeb. 

The Expert Committee of five eminent historians namely Dr. Nemai Sadhan Basu, Barun De, Sushil Chaudhary, Pradip Sinha and Arun Dasgupta, formed by the Hon’ble Calcutta High Court in the famous Kolkata Birthday Public Interest Litigation Case WP 1484/2001 Sabarna Roy Chowdhury Paribar Parishad and Others Vs State of West Bengal and Others, in its findings stated- that neither Job Charnock can be regarded as the founder of Kolkata nor 24 August is the city’s birthday. The Calcutta High Court delivered this landmark judgement on 16 May 2003. 

History changes and we come to know the truth. Kolkata. An enigmatic city of the world, Kolkata, thus, was not just a British creation. It was a flourishing and wealthy Janapada which attracted the Europeans to come and settle here.


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