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

Poems by the Sun Lion

1875 was an exciting year in Indian literary circles. A prominent Calcutta-based journal of arts and literature, Bharati, was to begin serial publication of a hitherto undiscovered treasure trove of poems by an unknown seventeenth century poet, Bhanusimha. Written in Brajabuli, a dead dialect of Bengali favoured by Vaishnava bhakti poets, the poems portrayed love and longing through the songs of Lord Krishna’s lover Radha and her fictional confidante Bhanu.

More poems were unearthed and published over the next few years until a compilation of twenty-one poems was published in 1884. Curiously, a short biography of Bhanusimha by Rabindranath Tagore appeared in the journal Navajivana to coincide with the launch of this anthology. In its discussion of Bhanusimha’s provenance, it stated mockingly “there is a rumor spread among several of our dear friends and relatives to the effect that Bhanusimha, that ‘Sun Lion’, illumined this world with his effulgence by taking birth in the Christian year of 1861.”

As Tagore himself was born in 1861, the tongue-in-cheek essay made it clear that the Bhanusimha poems started as an elaborate pastiche by fourteen-year-old Rabindranath. Stung by embarrassment at their gullibility, the scholarly establishment quickly turned their focus on the precociousness of the young poet, hailing him as a literary successor to Thomas Chatterton, an eighteenth century English poet who forged medieval poetry at the age of twelve.

To overlook Bhanusimha’s poems as a spoof or parody, however, would be a grave misjudgement. Not only is it pitch-perfect in its invocation of Brajabuli, but its sentiments reveal a mystical mind that was far mature for its age and foreshadowed future writings like Gitanjali and Naivedya. Almost all the poems in this short collection surround the pain of viraha, or separation, from one’s beloved—Radha’s unrequited yearning for Krishna here is an allegory for the soul’s longing for union with an equally elusive God.

The poems could also reflect Tagore’s relationship with his coeval muse, Kadambari Devi. Wife of Rabindranath’s elder brother Jyotirindranath, Kadambari had an important influence on Tagore’s life, inspiring his poetry and encouraging their publication, and partly filling the void left by his mother’s early demise. While contemporary critics belatedly recognised that Tagore’s pseudonym Bhanu was a synonym for Rabi, it was less known that Kadambari used to affectionately call him by the name Bhanu. The compilation was dedicated to Kadambari Devi, although she did not live to see its publication.

Much like Leonardo da Vinci, who refused to separate himself from Mona Lisa during his lifetime, Tagore remained fascinated with his childhood Bhanusimha poems, revising them frequently—even a few months before his death—suggesting that they had a deep personal meaning for him and, in the process, causing them to neatly bookend his bountiful literary career.


We write long books where no page perhaps has any quality to make writing a pleasure, being confident in some general design, just as we fight and make money and fill our heads with politics—all dull things in the doing—while Mr. Tagore, like the Indian civilisation itself, has been content to discover the soul and surrender himself to its spontaneity.

William Butler Yeats, Introduction to Gitanjali

Unfit for a King

An unobservant reader casually flipping through newspaper pages in the last couple of months may be excused for thinking that the fossil of a giant centipede had recently been unearthed. In reality, archaeologists from the University of Leicester had dug up a city parking lot and discovered a mutilated skeleton with multiple blows to the head and severe scoliosis of the spine. After extensive carbon dating and mitochondrial DNA testing, experts were able to conclude that the remains belonged to King Richard III of England, who ruled the country between 1483 and 1485.

So how did this medieval monarch end up in such an inglorious resting place instead of Westminster Abbey? The death of Richard III, the last English king to die in battle, ushered in the Tudor dynasty. As is often the wont with civil wars, the slain king was humiliated with a rain of blows inflicted on his dead body which was then stripped bare to reveal his deformity, before being buried hastily at Greyfriars Church in Leicester. The Church was destroyed after the Reformation and its exact location was lost to the ravages of time, until enthusiasts from the "Richard III Society" were able to determine its spot and lobbied the city to excavate the grounds.

It is said that history is written by the victors, and nowhere has this been more true than in the case of King Richard III. His successor, King Henry VIII, encouraged his court historians to besmirch the reputation of his predecessor in order to strengthen his own position. One of these writers, Thomas More, took this instruction to heart and produced a tome titled "The History of King Richard III" which compiled every unverifiable rumour into a thrilling narrative, tying his physical deformities to moral deficiencies. As this account became the official chronicle of the period, it became a rich source of material for later writers, including the most influential of them all— William Shakespeare.

Shakespeare's "Richard III", which starts with the immemorial lines "Now is the winter of our discontent", proceeds to vilify the late king as an ugly hunchback whose reign was defined by murder, intrigue and betrayal, some of which is undoubtedly true. Visitors to the Tower of London (which also houses the  Koh-i-Noor diamond) have heard the story of the "Princes in the Tower"— two young princes, who were potential claimants to the throne, were allegedly killed prior to coronation at the behest of Richard III. While such activity was not unheard of in the Middle Ages, thespians through the ages have regaled audiences with the Shakespearean interpretation of this complex character, unwittingly conspiring to immortalise the King as a ruthless crookback.

While it remains to be seen if the reputation of Richard III is restored, this archaeological discovery will remind future readers that historical plays reflect the prejudices of the time, and echoes Oscar Wilde's insightful belief that "Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life". A king who bravely led his army on horseback with the discomfort of such a pronounced spinal curvature deserves more than just a modicum of our respect.

"Leading on my fierce companions," cried he, "over storm and brine,
I have fought and I have conquered! Where was glory like to mine?"
Loudly all the courtiers echoed: "Where is glory like to thine?"
"What avail me all my kingdoms? Weary am I now and old;
Those fair sons I have begotten, long to see me dead and cold;
Would I were, and quiet buried, underneath the silent mould!
William Makepeace Thackeray, King Canute