Ditched by the Ditchers

Few remember a sobriquet that had been designated on East India Company officers in the eighteenth century— “Ditchers”. Despite the negative connotations of the word, its origin had honourable intentions, namely a plan to surround early Calcutta by the Maratha Ditch, a seven-mile long dry moat to protect the city from being plundered by the marauding Marathas or bargis from western India.

While only three miles of the ditch had ever been excavated, its plan formed the backbone for the Circular Road that was constructed to fill up the ditch in 1799. This grand boulevard however broke away from the ditch in the city’s north-east, avoiding a peculiar detour around Halsibagan where the Pareshnath Jain Temples stand today.

Named after the 23rd Tirthankara of the Jain religion, this four-temple complex was built by Seth Badridas as an oasis of peace and tranquillity amidst the surrounding squalor and bustling hubbub of North Calcutta. The grandeur of the temple’s layout and landscaping is eclipsed by its lavish interior, decorated with Italian marble and Belgian glass. Pilgrims at the temple awe at an oil lamp in its sanctum sanctorum, burning continuously since 1867, unaware of the remarkable events that the hallowed grounds witnessed more than a century before the temple’s inception.

The entire Halsibagan locality was formerly the site of an extravagant garden-house belonging to Umichand (variously spelt as Omichand, Amin Chand and Amir Chand), a Sikh merchant from northern India who emerged as an important power-broker in the politics of eighteenth century Bengal. Although Umichand has been reduced to an obscure and tragic character in history’s retelling, his portly figure and luxuriant beard are remembered by children to this day in a common Bengali doggerel. Such was his relationship with the twin seats of power in the Nawab’s capital of Murshidabad and the East India Company in Calcutta, that the Maratha Ditch was rerouted around his property to protect his interests.

Umichand’s rise to power, prestige and immense wealth was occasioned by his lack of moral scruples, and an astute ability to sense in which direction the winds of fortune were blowing at any time. He had the dubious distinction of owning a second house in the “white” neighbourhood—the only Indian to do so at the time, and had a generous nature that is immortalised by a road in Calcutta named after one of the beneficiaries of his largesse: Free School Street.

After the 1756 Siege of Calcutta ended in favour of Nawab Siraj-ud-Daulah, Robert Clive was appointed by the Company to lead the campaign to recapture the city. As he embarked on a six-week sea voyage up from Madras, the Nawab’s 40,000-strong army made their way down from Murshidabad and pitched their tents in Umichand’s garden at Halsibagan. Unaware of the extent of protection provided by the Maratha Ditch, the ensuing battle ended with the Nawab’s retreat as Clive’s men wound around the incomplete moat and ambushed the Nawab’s army from behind.

This set the stage for the Battle of Plassey, where Umichand played a key role in the conspiracy to oust the Nawab by turning his general, Latif Khan, against him. The Company, meanwhile, persuaded Mir Jafar, the Nawab’s army chief, to defect and drew up a written treaty that ensured Jafar would be appointed the Nawab of Bengal, and that the spoils of war would be shared by the co-conspirators, including Umichand.

As four-fifths of the Nawab’s army (including wings led by Latif Khan and Mir Jafar) stood idle at Plassey, the Nawab was handed an ignominious defeat and Mir Jafar was crowned his successor. In its wake however, Clive flatly refused Umichand his legitimate share of the profits by admitting that he himself had forged the signature of Vice-Admiral Charles Watson on the agreement and that it was not worth the paper on which it was written.

Accounts differ about the effect of this injustice on Umichand, with some claiming that he went delirious at the betrayal and others pointing out that he re-insinuated himself with the new Nawab. What is known for a fact is that Umichand, the “Rothschild of his day”, believed in the Englishman’s code of honour (to his own detriment) and had left endowments in his will for both the Magdalen and Foundling Hospitals in London.

On the other hand, Clive went on to be awarded a peerage, and despite parliamentary inquiries into the Company’s practices, never had to pay a price for his treachery. The defeat of the Nawab at Plassey solidified the power of the East India Company in Bengal, forming the bedrock of Britain’s rule in India. So let it be reminded to chroniclers evoking the nostalgia of “Rule, Britannia!” and extolling the virtues of English fair-play, that the entire edifice of the British Raj was built on a lie.


It is not altogether fashionable now for the guide to dwell on the events that took place in this remote corner of Calcutta. . . . But he will certainly extoll the beauties of the Jain temples, and deservedly so, for they are magnificent. And if, as you wander round this enchanting place, you imagine how once the Maratha Ditch cut right through the gardens, that it was here the Nabob walked alone and made his plans which were to result in the fall of the impregnable city of Calcutta, your daydreams will no doubt be gently interrupted by the melodious voice of the guide, determined to perform his function correctly. Like all good guides, he will tell you in the words of the latest guide-book that Omichand’s gardens remain without doubt ‘one of the prettiest spots in the whole of Calcutta’.

He will be absolutely right, for nature has a habit of outlasting history.

Noel Barber, The Black Hole of Calcutta

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