Hinterland of a Hinterland: Past and Future Waterscapes of the Kolkata Region

Authors: James Wescoat*, MIT
Topics: Environment, Historical Geography, Water Resources and Hydrology
Keywords: Bengal, deltaic urbanism, historical geography, Kolkata
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/12/2018
Start / End Time: 8:00 AM / 9:40 AM
Room: Iberville, Marriott, River Tower Elevators, 4th Floor
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


Kolkata has been the leading city of the Bengal region for over two centuries, much like New Orleans in the Mississippi delta. It was not always so, and may not remain so in the future. Taking inspiration from Marvin Mikesell’s research on long-term environmental and cultural change, this paper retraces the historical geography of Sultanate and Mughal urbanism in Bengal from the mid-13th to mid-18th centuries, during which time the village of Kalikata lay far to the south of the provincial capitals that shifted between Gaur, Pandua, Tanda, Rajmahal, Murshidabad, and Dhaka. These provincial capitals in turn lay on the margins of imperial capital cities in northern India Delhi, Agra, and Lahore. During the mid-18th century Calcutta gained primacy over nearby Indo-European trading settlements and smaller lower delta markets, and became the East India Company headquarters in 1793. It weathered over two centuries of geopolitical dynamics, from the disastrous partition of Bengal in 1905 to reunification in 1911, followed by the shift of the capital to New Delhi in 1911 through 1931. Independence of India and Pakistan in 1947 partitioned Bengal again, followed by the independence of Bangladesh in 1971. Kolkata displayed remarkable cultural resilience. But that too could change. Looking ahead toward the end of the 21st century raises questions about the future of deltai urbanism in Bengal that involve large-scale interactions among climate, hydrology, hazards, and human settlement that has relevance for deltaic environments worldwide.

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