Maratha Ditch (archaic spelling: Mahratta Ditch) was a three-mile long moat excavated around Calcutta (now known as Kolkata) in the present Indian state of West Bengal, in 1742, as a protection against possible attacks by marauding Bargis, as the Marathas were known locally. The Marathas, however, never came to the city. Later, the ditch proved to be useless when the Nawab of Bengal, Siraj ud-Daulah, came and ransacked the British settlement in 1756. The ditch was never completely built. It was mostly filled up in 1799 to build the Circular Road and the balance was filled up in 1892–93. It earned Calcuttans the sobriquet "Ditchers". The area bound by the ditch was considered to be the original town of Calcutta.
For about ten years (1741–1751) the spectre of Maratha invasion and large scale plundering of the countryside dominated the western part of Bengal. Maratha invasions took place almost as an annual event. Bargi is corruption of a Marathi word which meant horsemen who were provided with horses and arms by the Maratha Empire in contrast to the siladars, who had their own horses and arms.
The Maratha invasions played on the creative impulse of the people. Even to this day, mothers in Bengal sing the cradle song to put their children to sleep -
- chhele ghumalo, pada judalo bargi elo deshe
bulbulite dhan kheyechhe, khajna debo kise?
- When the children fall asleep, silence sets in, the Bargis come to our lands
Bulbulis (birds) have eaten the grains, how shall I pay the tax?
Alivardi Khan became Nawab of Bengal in April 1740, after defeating and killing Sarfraz Khan. His rule was challenged by Sarfraj Khan’s brother-in-law Rustam Jung, who was naib nazim (deputy governor) of Orissa. Alivardi defeated him in a battle at Falwaei, near Balasore, placed his own nephew as naib nazim of Orissa and left for his capital, Murshidabad. Rustam Jung sought the assistance of the Maratha governor of Nagpur, Raghoji I Bhonsle. He regained control of Orissa with the assistance of Marathas, who in the process discovered how easy it was to plunder the rich countryside in Bengal. Alivardi returned to Orissa and again defeated Rustam Jung, but before he returned to Murshidabad, a Maratha cavalry under Bhaskar Padit was sent to Bengal by Bhonsle. They entered through Panchet and started looting the countryside.
For about ten years, the Marathas raided and plundered Bengal every year. Contemporary chroniclers have left behind vivid descriptions of Maratha terror, their hit-and-run tactics and the helplesness of the Nawab’s army in checking them. Alivardi showed exemplary courage and military skill in every frontal battle that took place, but the objective of the Marathas was not occupation of territory but plundering. The Nawab’s soldiers could not match the Maratha horsemen in speed and manoevureability. Only the Ganges -Bhagirathi river line proved a barrier to their movement. They crossed it only on a few occasions.
The Maratha invasions came to an end in May 1751 after the Nawab and the Marathas reached an agreement, including the secession of Orissa.
When the Marathas started plundering the Bengal countryside, the Nawab was still powerful, and the British were in the process of developing their trading outpost at Calcutta. It was fear of the Maratha attack that made them dig the Maratha Ditch, cutting across the only pathway, north of Calcutta, through which invasions by land were possible.
According to H. E. A. Cotton, the country was laid waste from Balasore to Rajmahal. The Mukwah Tannah Fort, which stood near the later day Indian Botanical Gardens in Shibpur, was captured and crowds of inhabitants of the country on the western side of the river came and implored the protection of the English, who in consequence of the general alarm, obtained permission from the Nawab Alivardi to build an entrenchment round their territory.
The original plan of the ditch extended for seven miles but in six months three miles of it were finished. When it was found that the Marathas did not approach Calcutta, further excavation stopped. Except for a detour on the north-east at Halsibagan, to enclose the garden houses of Gobindram Mitter and Umichand, it followed the later day Circular Road (Upper Circular Road has been renamed Acharya Prafulla Chandra Road, and Lower Circular Road has been renamed Acharya Jagadish Chandra Bose Road) from Perin’s Point at the north-west extremity of Sutanuti (in present day Bagbazar), where the Chitpur Creek met the river, down to a spot near the present Entally corner. It was planned to excavate it to the south of Gobindapur, but that was stalled.
Although the Maratha Ditch was thought of as a protection against the possible plunder of the Calcutta by the Marathas, the "natives" had to pay for the construction of the Maratha Ditch to protect the British seat of power, Fort William.
Siraj ud-Daulah succeeded Alivadi Khan as the Nawab of Bengal. Till 1756, the legal status of the English was that of zamindar. In 1756, Siraj decided to attack Calcutta. On 16 June 1756, the Nawab reached the outskirts of Calcutta with some 30,000 troops and heavy artillery. The major part of Siraj’s troops crossed the Maratha Ditch near Sealdah on 18 June and the Battle of Lal Dighi was fought.
Subsequent to the Battle of Plassey, the British settled down as rulers. For about forty years, the Maratha Ditch was the receptacle of all the filth and garbage in Calcutta. The Marquess of Wellesley, as Governor-General of India, ordered that it be filled up.
The Maratha Ditch was filled up in 1799 to create the Circular Road. Whatever was left of it was filled up in 1892–93 with the earth and rubble from the construction of Harrison Road (renamed Mahatma Gandhi Road).
While the Maratha Ditch has become part of history, in the north Calcutta neighbourhood of Bagbazar, there still is a Maratha Ditch Lane, connecting Nandalal Bose Lane and Akhoy Bose Lane. It runs parallel to Bagbazar Street and Galiff Street/ Mahatma Sisir Kumar Sarani.
- Lahiri Choudhury, Dhriti Kanta, Trends in Calcutta Architecture, in Calcutta, the Living City, Vol I, edited by Sukanta Chaudhuri, p. 157, Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-0-19-563696-3
- Nair, P. Thankappan in The Growth and Development of Old Calcutta, in Calcutta, the Living City, Vol. I, p. 12.
- Sengupta, Nitish, History of the Bengali-speaking People, 2001/2002, pp.132-137, UBS Publishers’ Distributors Pvt. Ltd., ISBN 81-7476-355-4
- Cotton, H.E.A., Calcutta Old and New, 1909/1980, pp. 30-33, General Printers and Publishers Pvt. Ltd.
- Chakraborty, Satyesh C., The Growth of Calcutta in the Twentieth Century, in Calcutta:The Living City, Vol II, Edited by Chaudhuri, Sukanta, 1990/2005, Page 14, ISBN 0-19-563697-X
- Sinha, Pradip, Siraj’s Calcutta, in Calcutta, the Living City, Vol I, pp. 8-9
- Map No. 5, Detail Maps of 141 Wards of Calcutta, D.R.Publication and Sales Concern, 66 College Street, Calcutta– 700073