Kolkata or Calcutta, city in eastern India and capital of West Bengal State, situated on the banks of the Hugli (Hooghly) River (a tributary of the Ganges River). Kolkata lies about 100 km (about 60 mi) north of the Bay of Bengal and about 70 km (about 45 miles) west of Bangladesh. It is the hub of India’s second most populous metropolitan area (after Mumbai, formerly known as Bombay) and is the chief commercial, financial, and manufacturing center of eastern India.
Kolkata was founded as a trading post of the English East India Company in the late 1600s. It was then known as Calcutta, an Anglicized form of the name of a local village, Kalikata. It served as the capital of British India from 1773 through 1911. During the British era, administrative offices and a British-style university, the University of Calcutta, were established. Jute mills and other industries along the Hugli River also contributed to the city’s growth and eventually gave rise to major urban development.
Kolkata is located only about 1° south of the Tropic of Cancer, close to sea level in a formerly swampy area. It lies in a monsoon region, with most of its average annual rainfall of 1625 mm (64 in) falling from June through September. Though winters are mild, with an average January temperature of 19° C (67° F), the temperature sometimes dips to 10° C (50° F). From March through September, Kolkata is hot and humid, with an average July temperature of 29° C (85° F); in the months of May and June the temperature may rise as high as 38° C (100° F).
Kolkata was founded in 1690 by British trader Job Charnock as a trading post of the English East India Company. It was then known by the British name of Calcutta. In the mid-17th century the Portuguese had a trading outpost in the area at Sutanuti, followed by the Dutch, who constructed a diversion canal at the bank of the Hugli River, near the present Central Business District. The old Fort William was built to protect the English post in 1696. The city became famous in 1756, in England particularly, when Siraj-ud-Dawlah, a Bengal ruler, captured the fort and, according to British historians, stifled to death 43 British residents in a small guardroom called the Black Hole of Calcutta. The city was recaptured by the British under Robert Clive in 1757. The English initially built an intricate transport network through the Hugli-Ganges water system, but it was the railroads, introduced in the 1850s, that successfully established connections with the hinterland and the rest of India. The city eventually had the largest concentration of trading establishments in India, and a Western-style business district evolved by the end of the 19th century. The colonial city maintained a strict division between the crowded and ill-planned native quarters to the east and north of the Central Business District, and the spacious and well-planned quarters where the Europeans lived in the south and southeastern parts of the old city. After independence, the former European quarters were either turned into residences of the Indian rich or, as in the Park Street area, into commercial areas.
With the dominance of leftist political parties in the Bangla state government in the late 1960s, Kolkata’s municipal government also came to be controlled by Communists. Corruption and bureaucratic inefficiencies caused city services to deteriorate under this government, and today Kolkata is one of the most ill-serviced and chaotic metropolises of the world. In January 2001 the spelling of the city’s name officially changed to Kolkata.
The city of Kolkata covers an area of 185 sq km (71 sq miles). It lies near the southern third of the metropolitan area, which is known as the Kolkata Metropolitan District (KMD). The KMD covers an area of 1246 sq km (481 sq miles) and is comprised of nearly 500 units of local government, including three municipal corporations and 29 municipalities. Roads and railways make up the main traffic arteries, and a bypass road has been built east of the city to facilitate through traffic. The Hugli River runs through the KMD. As during colonial times, industries are located on both banks of the Hugli and along railroad lines. Financial, administrative, and trade activities are concentrated in the city’s Central Business District (CBD), which lies just east of the Hugli River, and its immediate surroundings. The center of the CBD covers an area that includes Kolkata’s major landmark, the Maidan, which is a large park containing many fine drives, a golf course, a racecourse, cricket grounds, several soccer fields, and the historic new Fort William (completed in 1781) of the English East India Company. The residential settlements follow a linear pattern along highlands provided by Hugli River levees and on the intervening levees of old, dried up rivers. Between and beyond the levees to the east and west of the Hugli are the lowlands, which are prone to flooding during the rainy months; parts of the lowlands have been filled or drained for additional settlements. Low-income settlements are located in the lowlands. Such slums are found all over, but with a concentration at the fringes of the urban areas. Slum structures are characterized by flimsy materials, lack of underground sewerage, unsanitary conditions, and tenements of one-room apartments.
Architectural monuments in Kolkata date mostly from colonial times. After an attack on the old Fort William (situated east of Dalhousie Square) in 1756 by Siraj-ud-Dawlah, the Muslim ruler of Bengal, a new, sturdier Fort William was built about 1.5 km (about 1 mi) south of the old site near the Hugli River in the Maidan. At the heart of the CBD lies BBD Bagh or the former Dalhousie Square. On the north side of the square is the Writers’ Building (1880), which houses the state government ministries. To the west of the square is the General Post Office, which features a high reinforced concrete dome. Two blocks southwest of the square is the Gothic-style High Court (1872), with a 55-m (180-ft) high tower that is modeled after the Cloth Hall of Ieper, Belgium. The massive Victoria Memorial, completed in 1921, sits at the southern end of the Maidan; it is built in a Renaissance design with Indian influences. Dakshineswar Temple, built in the 19th century, is north of the city limits on the Hugli River; its design is influenced by the thatched bamboo huts of southern Bengal. A building of similar design located just north of Kolkata on the river is Belur Math, which houses a monastery and the headquarters of the Ramkrishna Mission. Parasnath Jain Temple (1867), Marble Palace (1835), and Nakhoda Mosque (1926) are other architectural landmarks in the Kolkata area.
Other places of interest in Kolkata are the fashionable Jawaharlal Nehru (formerly Chowringhee) Road, the city’s main thoroughfare; the Raj Bhavan (1802; formerly called the Government House), the state governor’s residence; the Indian Museum (1875), which contains noted displays on archaeology and natural history; and the Birla Industrial and Technological Museum. The Botanical Gardens (1786) in Haora (or Howrah), Kolkata’s twin city, features many tropical plants in addition to a famous banyan tree, the branches of which spread 381 m (1250 ft) in circumference.
As the capital of British India and home to the fertile agricultural and mineral-rich land of eastern India, Kolkata was one of the first areas of India to develop industrially. The first jute and paper mills of India were started in the Kolkata area in the 1800s. By 1921 nearly 35 percent of India’s industrial workers were located in Kolkata. However, Kolkata began to lose its industrial leadership after India gained its independence in 1947. One cause was the loss of Kolkata’s raw jute supply when Bengal was divided into West Bengal and East Bengal, with East Bengal becoming part of Pakistan. Competition in jute manufacturing from East Bengal (later East Pakistan, now Bangladesh) further hurt Kolkata’s jute industry. Competition and slow growth also hit other traditional manufacturing areas, such as heavy engineering, rubber, and paper.
Other factors that have hurt metropolitan Kolkata’s industrialization include a 1977 ban imposed by the Indian government on new licenses of large-scale industrial units in the large metropolises; labor troubles since the end of 1960s; pro-union attitude of the state government; severe power shortages; limitations on raw materials; and shortage of capital. Moreover, a slow depletion of water volume in the Hugli River limited the size of ships at Kolkata’s docks, causing Kolkata to lose its status as the premier port city of India. The water supply problem has been resolved to some extent by diverting water from the Ganges River to the Hugli, and by constructing a diversion canal and the Farakka barrage, which increased the depth of the channel, in 1976. A deep port at Haldia, about 65 km (about 40 mi) south of the Kolkata, has also been established. Ships arriving at Kolkata from the Bay of Bengal travel only when the river is in high tide, escorted by specially trained Hugli pilots; additionally, the river channel is constantly dredged. Few new major industries came into the KMD in the 1970s and 1980s, but in the mid-1990s the state attracted some large-scale capital investments both from native and foreign sources because it relaxed its anti-capitalist stance.
Although Kolkata’s poor economic factors have caused it to lose its designation as India’s largest commercial and banking center, it is the headquarters of many native business firms, banks, and international corporations. One of India’s largest companies, Birlas, is headquartered in Kolkata.
As the remaining agricultural land has been lost to urban development, the percentage of Kolkata’s workers employed in various fields has changed. As of 1991, 58 percent of workers were employed in services, 40 percent in industry (including 4 percent in construction), and 2 percent in agriculture. The agricultural and industrial sectors experienced the greatest declines. The majority of people employed in the service sector are involved in trade and commerce, in jobs that generally offer little pay or security. Most of this group works in retail or small-scale trading establishments, often without a roof, either in a family business or employed by a small investor. Kolkata still continues to attract surplus labor from surrounding areas, increasing the population over and above the city’s natural birthrate increase.
Public transportation, such as buses, trams, trains, and subways, are the principal means of transport in the Kolkata metropolitan area. Buses operate throughout the area, and trains have north-south lines with a few east-west connections. There are two major train terminals: Sealdah in the east central part of Kolkata and Haora across the river from the Central Business District. Electric trams operate in Kolkata proper. The aging buses, trains, and tram cars suffer from overloading, creating uncomfortable rides. Subway construction started in 1972 and became operational with 7 km (4.3 miles) of line in 1984. By 1995 all of the subway’s 16.4-km (10.2-miles) route from Dum Dum to Tolluguye was completed. The subway carries an estimated 25 percent of Kolkata’s 7 million commuters. Cycle rickshaws are not allowed in the city of Kolkata, but they are common in the metropolitan area. Hand-pulled carts are used for short-distance cargo hauling. Private automobiles, extensively used in Kolkata and Haora, are increasing in numbers and are owned by the wealthy. The streets of Kolkata remain congested with taxis, private automobiles, buses, slow-moving trams, and hand-pulled carts. Air pollution caused by automobiles, buses, and industrial emissions is severe. Kolkata’s international airport at Dum Dum provides service for both national and international airlines.
Kolkata is the home of the University of Calcutta (founded in 1857) and Jadavpur University (1955). Rabindra Bharati University (1962), devoted to fine arts, is housed at the former residence of Bengali poet and Nobel Prize winner Rabindranath Tagore. Part of the Tagore residence is now a museum. Another Nobel laureate, Sir Chandrasekhara Venkata Raman, who received the Nobel Prize in physics in 1930 for his discovery of the Raman effect on light, worked and researched in Kolkata for a long period. Sarat Chandra Chatterjee, a highly regarded Bengali fiction writer of the early 20th century, lived in nearby Haora. Ram Mohan Roy, sometimes called the father of modern India, began his social reform for abolition of suttee (burning to death of a wife with her deceased husband) in Kolkata. He also founded Brahmo Samaj, a modern Hindu religious sect, in the city in 1828.
More than 70 percent of Kolkata’s population were literate in 1991. The literacy rate is higher for men, who generally receive more education than women; for every three men only two women are literate.
Several languages are spoken in Kolkata, including English. Bengali speakers constitute 60 percent of the city’s population, and there are Hindi (23 percent), Urdu (11 percent), and Oriya (1.3 percent) speakers as well. After British India was partitioned into India and Muslim Pakistan in 1947, a large number of Muslim residents migrated from Kolkata to East Pakistan, while many Hindu refugees arrived in the city from East Pakistan. Today Hindus constitute 83 percent of the city’s population while Muslims make up 14 percent; the rest of the population is comprised of small groups such as Christians, Jains and Sikhs.
According to the 1991 census, Kolkata had a population of 4,309,819, with an extremely high population density of 23,720 persons per sq km (61,970 persons per sq miles). The metropolitan area had a population of 11 million and a density of 8761 persons per sq km (22,661 persons per sq miles). The growth rate of the metropolitan area population was 18.7 percent between 1981 and 1991, down from the 1971 to 1981 growth rate of 23.9 percent. The population of the city of Kolkata grew more slowly than the metropolitan district. Since India’s first census in 1872, Kolkata has generally been India’s largest city, although in 1991 it lost that status to Mumbai. Of the total population of Kolkata’s metropolitan area in 1981, more than 30 percent lived in slums; many other Kolkata residents are so-called pavement dwellers (homeless). Mother Teresa, a Roman Catholic nun who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979, founded the Missionaries of Charity in 1950 to help the poorest of the poor in Kolkata and all over the world.
The condition of the surfaced roads in the city is poor, although the traffic load is heavy. The mass-transportation system mainly depends on trams and buses. Trams are under government management. Buses are run by the government and by private companies. In 1986 the first section of a subway system—the first in India—was opened in the city.
The connection between Calcutta and its hinterland to the west depends upon only a few bridges over the Hooghly—the Howrah Bridge and, farther north, the bridges at Bally and Naih(ti. The Howrah Bridge, Calcutta’s main link with the hinterland, carries eight lanes of vehicular traffic, has two tramway tracks in the centre, and is one of the most heavily used bridges in the world. A second bridge between Howrah and Calcutta has been under construction since the 1970s.
The Grand Trunk Road (National Highway No. 2) is one of the oldest road routes in India. It runs from Howrah to Kashmir and is the main route connecting the city with northern India. Other national highways connect Calcutta with the west coast of India, the northern part of West Bengal, and the frontier with Bangladesh.
Two railway terminals—Howrah on the west bank and Sealdah on the east—serve the railway networks running northand south as well as those running east and west. Calcutta’s major air terminal, at Dum Dum, handles international and domestic flights.
The Calcutta port handles—in terms of volume—one-tenth of India’s import cargoes and about one-twelfth of its export cargoes. Some decline in traffic has occurred, however, partly because of problems encountered in dredging silt from the river and partly because of labour problems. Transport, storage, wholesaling, and retailing requirements for exports and imports are concentrated in Calcutta and Howrah. The Calcutta port lost its position as India’s preeminent cargo handler in the 1960s, but it and the port of Haldia (about 40 miles downstream) still account for a large portion of the country’s foreign exchange.