CALCUTTA, THE CAPITAL OF INDIA
Calcutta is a modern city compared with the rest of India. It has been built around old Fort William, which was the headquarters of the East India Company 200 years ago, and is situated upon the bank of the River Hoogly, one of the many mouths of the Ganges, about ninety miles from the Bay of Bengal. The current is so swift and the channel changes so frequently that the river cannot be navigated at night, nor without a pilot. The native pilots are remarkably skillful navigators, and seem to know by instinct how the shoals shift. For several miles below the city the banks of the river are lined with factories of all kinds, which have added great wealth to the empire. Old Fort William disappeared many years ago, and a new fort was erected a mile or two farther down the river, where it could command the approaches to the city, but that also is now old-fashioned, and could not do much execution if Calcutta were attacked. The fortifications near the mouth of the river are supposed to be quite formidable, but Calcutta is not a citadel, and in case of war must be defended by battle ships and other floating fortresses. It is one of the cities of India which shows a rapid growth of population, the gain during ten years having been 187,178, making the total population, by the census of 1901, 1,026,987.
The city takes its name from a village which stood in the neighborhood at the time the East India Company located there. It was famous for a temple erected in honor of Kali, the fearful wife of the god Siva, the most cruel, vindictive and relentless of all the heathen deities. The temple still stands, being more than 400 years old, and "Kali, the Black One," still sits upon her altar, hideous in appearance, gorgon-headed, wearing a necklace of human skulls and dripping with fresh blood from the morning sacrifice of sheep and goats. She brings pestilence, famine, war and sorrows and suffering of all kinds, and can only be propitiated by the sacrifice of life. Formerly nothing but human blood would satisfy her, and thousands, some claim tens of thousands, of victims have been slain before her image in that ancient temple. Human offerings were forbidden by the English many years ago, but it is believed that they are occasionally made even now when famine and plague are afflicting the people. During the late famine it is suspected that an appeal for mercy was sealed with the sacrifice of infants. Residents of the neighborhood assert that human heads, dripping with blood and decorated with flowers, have been seen in the temple occasionally since 1870. It is the only notable temple in Calcutta, and is visited by tourists, but they are allowed to go only so far and no farther, for fear that Kali might be provoked by the intrusion. It is a ghastly, filthy, repulsive place, and was formerly the southern headquarters of that organized caste of religious assassins known as Thugs.
A little beyond the Temple of Kali is the burning ghat of Calcutta. Here the Hindus bring the bodies of their dead and burn them on funeral pyres. The cremations may be witnessed every morning by anyone who cares to take the trouble to drive out there. They take place in an open area surrounded by temples and shrines on one side, and large piles of firewood and the palm cottages of the attendants on the other. The river which flows by the burning ground is covered with all kinds of native craft, carrying on commerce between the city and the country, and the ashes of the dead are cast between them upon the sacred waters from a flight of stone steps which leads to the river's brink. There is no more objection to a stranger attending the burning ceremonies than would be offered to his presence at a funeral in the United States. Indeed, friends who frequently accompany the bodies of the dead feel flattered at the attention and often take bunches of flowers from the bier and present them to bystanders.
The Black Hole of Calcutta, of which you have read so much, no longer exists. Its former site is now partially built over, but Lord Curzon has had it marked, and that portion which is now uncovered he has had paved with marble, so that a visitor can see just how large an area was occupied by it. He has also reproduced after the original plan a monument that was erected to the dead by Governor J. Z. Howell, one of the sufferers. You will remember that the employes of the East India Company, with their families, were residing within the walls of Fort William when an uprising of the natives occurred June 20, 1756. The survivors, 156 in number, were made prisoners and pressed into an apartment eighteen feet long, eighteen feet wide and fourteen feet ten inches high, where they were kept over night. It was a sort of vault in the walls of the fortress, which had been used for storage purposes and at one time for a prison. The company consisted of men, women, children and even infants. Several of them were crushed to death and trampled during the efforts of the native soldiers to crowd them into this place, and all but thirty-three of the 156 died of suffocation. The next morning, when the leader of the mutiny ordered the living prisoners brought before him, the bodies of the dead were cast into a pit outside the walls and allowed to rot there. The monument to which I have alluded stands upon the site of the pit. To preserve history Lord Curzon has had a model of the old fort made in wood, and it will be placed in the museum.