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A JOURNEY TO CALCUTTA
- Two Indian cities seen through the eyes of a German nobleman

On the morning of February 5, 1843, Lord Ellenborough buttoned his white jacket, adjusted his plumed hat, and stepped out of his tent. Outside, an elephant knelt, but it was too tall to climb on to by stepping on its bent leg. A ladder was brought, and Ellenborough climbed into the howdah. He rode to the head of the waiting columns, and they followed him on the way to Delhi. They proceeded past waving fields of wheat and arches, domes and ruins peeping through the trees.

Some miles outside Delhi, they approached a long row of richly painted and adorned elephants on which in silver howdahs sat the noblemen of Mogul empire, each bedecked with jewellery and covered with a Cashmere shawl thrown over his right shoulder. Each of them touched his forehead with the right hand as he bowed low to the Lord.

On the way to Delhi was the ridge, which today stands between the ISBT terminal and Delhi University campus. On its peak stood a flagstaff flying the Union Jack. On both sides of the kankar-made road descending from there to Cashmere Gate were beautiful villas in large parks.

Delhi was protected by a seven-mile wall of red sandstone, 30 feet high and 3-5 feet thick, surrounded by a moat 20 feet broad, and pierced by seven arched gates. It had two million inhabitants in Aurangzeb’s time. By the 1750s, the population had fallen to half a million; by the time Ellenborough arrived, there were barely a quarter million — some 60,000 Muslims, the rest Hindoos.

Beyond Cashmere Gate were more walled gardens of gentry and, standing out amongst them, the spire of a Protestant church. Finally one came to Chandni Chowk, a street forty paces broad, running westwards from the palace of the Great Mogul; in its middle ran a walled canal which cooled the air in hot weather.

Next day, Lord Ellenborough received various princes. They had all pitched their camps in the surrounding wilderness — 5,000 men from Bhurtpoor, 4,000 from Alwar, 10,000 from Dhoolpur, 600 men from Shapurah etc. The Rajah of Jeypoor did not come because he considered the Mogul Badshah his inferior. Rajah Kour Rattan Singh, the Rajah of Bickaneer, came on February 8. He was preceded by his camel corps, and himself rode in a richly gilt takt-i-rawan, otherwise known as palanquin. He was accompanied by his son and heir, his brother, nephew, 22 barons, 22 ministers and several hundred lancers and swordsmen. The courtiers were dressed in long white robes and wore red conical turbans; they had sabers in their hands and shields on their backs. The Rajah, well versed in ancient Indian etiquette, entered the tent treading slowly and heavily like an elephant, and shook Ellenborough’s hand. He told Ellenborough that he was from a younger branch of the house of Joudpoor, which was the oldest in India. Their tribe used to rule in the valley of the Jumna, but was driven out by the Moguls. He stayed for half an hour, and then left sprinkled with ottar and loaded with rich presents.

The Rajah of Alwar was proud of his country, which he said teemed with tigers, boars and antelopes. He had trained dogs to attack and kill tigers. He had brought along a tiger and a dog to exhibit a combat. Ellenborough refused to see it, but watched the dance of a very pretty and richly dressed bayadère. Her petticoat was full and wide, and she wore ample silk pantaloons. She was covered with jewels, and her ankles were adorned with silver rings and bells.

Captain Leopold von Orlich, who chronicled the above, was a young German nobleman who went to England, enlisted in the British army, sailed via Egypt to Karachi and joined Ellenborough’s cavalcade. From Delhi he travelled to Calcutta, which “has the appearance of a city of palaces. A row of large superb buildings extend from the princely residence of the Governor General, along the Esplanade, and produce a remarkably striking effect, by their handsome verandas, supported by lofty columns.”

The city extended six miles from Fort William. It consisted of two parts, divided by a line drawn from Bebee-Ross-Ghaut eastward to upper circular road, and from Hastings Bridge to Tolly’s Nallah northeastwards to lower circular road. This part of the city was occupied by Christians; natives occupied the northern areas to Chitpoor Bridge and the Maharatta Ditch. In 1837, Captain Birch, the superintendent of police, counted the population of Calcutta to be 229,705 inhabitants — 3,138 British, 3,180 Portuguese, 536 Americans, 160 French, 203 Jews, 40 Parsees, 35 Arabs, 362 Moguls, 683 Mughs and Burmese, 4,748 Eurasians, 58,744 Mussulmans, 137,651 Hindoos and 19,804 of low castes.

Von Orlich stayed in Bengal Club, where he watched the Mussulman servants get together for prayer every morning and evening, kneeling on a glass plot, led by Mr Maddock’s hoockaburdar. He called on Dwarkanath Tagore, who was having differences with his family and was thinking of returning to England for his son’s education. His wife, however, lived in strict seclusion; and his eldest son did not share his father’s Eurocentric views. Dwarkanath had become one of India’s wealthiest merchants by his ability and enterprise. He invited von Orlich to a dinner at his villa, five miles outside Calcutta. It was surrounded by a lawn in a small park with a mosaic of flower beds around a pond and groves of mangoes, bananas and tamarinds; on the edges were coconut and fan palms. Dwarkanath often invited young married couples to the villa, which had two floors. He pointed out a portrait of a beautiful Indian lady, to whom he was evidently much attached. At the dinner, roast beef was served with the finest wines. After the dinner, six bayadères came in and danced. They had pretty, delicate hands and feet, and fine contours. In the end, their dance became so daring that the European guests asked that it be stopped.

Von Orlich also went to the mint on Strand, built on a plan of Major Forbes in 1824 and completed in 1830. It was the largest in the world, going down 26½ feet below the ground and rising 60 feet above it. It was built in the Doric style; its centre portico was a copy of the temple of Minerva in Athens. It employed 3,000 men, and had six steam engines. It minted 200,000 coins in seven hours; since 1831, it had turned out 200 million rupees.

In those days, a typical Calcutta European family would bathe and meet at 9 o’clock for breakfast. Then the ladies went off for visits or shopping, while the gentlemen worked in their official residences. At 2 o’clock they met for a hot tiffin, after which they went back to work. At sunset, they got on horseback or into carriages, and went to the Strand, Garden Reach or Allipoor. Dinner was served at 8 o’clock. If one was invited out to dinner, one took with one one’s own kidmatgar to serve one. These are some of the things Captain von Orlich wrote in his letters to the German savants, Alexander von Humboldt and Carl Ritter.

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