Did you know that the neighborhood of Tollygunge in the south of Kolkata, famed as the one-time epicenter of Bengali moviedom, actually has a deep connection with Tipu Sultan and the origins of modern Kolkata as we know it today?
The story starts in the early 18th century.
Tollygunge, then called Russapugla, was a jungle with a few garden houses belonging to the Europeans who used it as a retreat. The name was said to be derived from a tree, under which a little-known local Sufi mystic Pir Pagla meditated. He had lived there around the late 17th century.
Russapugla was renamed Tollygunge after Colonel William Tolly, the man who turned the area from a marshy outpost to a busy waterway connecting the eastern districts of undivided Bengal with mainland Kolkata. Tolly also built a market there, a ganj, giving the area its name.
Tollygunge is named after Colonel William Tolly who changed the face of the area and Calcutta
While Tipu Sultan never himself came to Calcutta, his descendants did. Tipu Sultan died in 1799 in the 4th Anglo-Mysore war, after having proven to be a formidable opponent to the British East India Company.
Owing to a treaty Tipu Sultan had signed with the British to end hostilities after the 3rd Anglo-Mysore War though, a sizeable chunk of his kingdom was ceded to the British along with a mandatory princely sum. Two of his sons were initially deported to Kolkata as a guarantee of the treaty’s terms, and later ‘bought back’ at considerable expense.
After the Vellore Mutiny of 1806, the first instance of a large-scale mutiny by Indian sepoys against the East India Company, the entire family was accused of being ringleaders and punished. They ended up dispatched to the marshy tracts on the southern fringes of Calcutta-Tollygunge.
In their book, 'Exiles in Calcutta: The Descendants of Tipu Sultan,' authors Bunny Gupta and Jaya Chaliha mention that 'the dispossessed families numbering 300 were bundled into mud huts initially.’
Tipu Sultan’s entire family were exiled to Tollygunge where the lived in near-penury initially
They faced challenges at the start, given their obvious change in lifestyle, but over time, they settled down in a growing Calcutta and prospered, owing to stipends they received from the British.
Tipu Sultan's son, Ghulam Mohammed Shah constructed landmarks such as the Tipu Sultan Shahi Mosque at the junction of Dharmatala Street and Chowringhee in 1832. He also built a large estate that includes the present-day Tollygunge Club and the Royal Calcutta Golf Club.
Established in 1895, the Tollygunge Club has an interesting history of its own, intertwined with the history of colonial Calcutta. The extensive grounds of the club were said to be an indigo plantation set up in 1781 by the family of Richard Johnson, a senior merchant of the East India Company, whose family was believed amongst the earliest plantation owners in India. This is however yet to be proven as fact.
The extensive grounds of the club were believed to be an indigo plantation set up in 1781, yet to be proven
By the 1880s, the grounds had become the Burrah Bag, turned by Tipu Sultan’s family into a Royal Park, and the Johnsons' house became the new garden house of the Mysore Estate. After the death of Ghulam Mohammad Shah in 1878, the royal family scattered and the area fell into disrepair.
The main building along with 130 acres was purchased in 1895 by Sir William Cruickshank, then head of the Bank of Bengal (that later became the State Bank of India), who found the property in a dilapidated state. It was he who founded Tollygunge Club, largely as an equestrian facility.
The famed Tollygunge Club was founded as an equestrian facility and it came to be known as the ‘garden of white men’
The British readily became patrons of the Tollygunge Club, extending their influence over it through the 19th century. So much so, that the grounds came to be called the ‘Sahibanbagicha’ or the ‘garden of white men.' The Johnson estate house still stands as the clubhouse today.
The 1947 Partition of Bengal saw significant displacement, with millions of refugees coming in from the areas in East Bengal. With ‘refugee colonies’ springing up all across the city, particularly in the fringe areas such as Tollygunge, the socio-cultural face of the area changed. It continued to, through the decades after.
With all this flux, as Tollygunge flourished, this history of Tolly and the Mysore royals remained a forgotten tale, stuck between the walls of the structures they built.
But, if you were to look beyond vibrant Tollygunge’s manicured greens and imposing mansions, you will find more than a whiff of Mysore, in the air.
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