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The Maidan is one of the largest open spaces in any city in the world. But at 6. 66 lakh square metres, it is much more than a statistic. It actually defines Kolkata.
The Maidan was a vast tiger-infested jungle till the British started building Fort William in 1758, a year after the decisive Battle of Plassey, in what was then the village of Gobindapur. After the Fort was completed in 1773, the British started clearing the jungle around it, thus was born the vast expanse of green. The Maidan was developed as a five-square-kilometre parade ground for troops and later expanded.
The first 'invasion' of the Maidan came when the construction of the Governor General's mansion (now the Raj Bhavan) started in 1799. The laying of the many roads slicing through the greens started in 1820. Around the same time, the other buildings along the fringes of the greens, including the iconic Victoria Memorial, started coming up.
Conservationist Monica Bhargava says that the Maidan facilitates the incubation of fresh ideas and thoughts. "I cannot imagine Kolkata without the Maidan. It has always played a central role in the city's social, political and cultural life. I grew up in Chowringhee and saw the Maidan change over the years. The fairs used to kick up a lot of dust and it's good they've been forced to shift. It's beautiful to see so many children playing on the Maidan, so many people jogging or walking there, " she says.
The Maidan is intrinsically linked to sports - Indian cricket started its journey from here with a two-day match between officers of the British East India Company in January 1804;the world's oldest hockey tournament (the Beighton Cup) was instituted here in 1895 and it remained the nerve centre of Indian football till a few decades ago.
Today, it houses many sports clubs, the Eden Gardens stadium and the stadiums of a few clubs like Mohun Bagan, East Bengal and Mohammaden Sporting. The Maidan was the venue of an important event of the Bengal Renaissance - Jyotindranath Tagore (Rabindranath's elder brother) taught his wife Kadambari horse-riding here in the 1880s, thus changing Bengali society forever.
Many a revolutionary idea took shape on these grounds. But in recent decades, the Maidan has hosted, and been mauled by, huge political rallies that have made Kolkata infamous.
The Maidan is, to the washerman who washes laundry at one of the few ponds there and to the shepherd who tends his flock, a convenient workplace;it is a favourite spot for morning walkers and joggers, a prime haunt for young lovers, a haven for sports enthusiasts, a must-visit for tourists and, during the winters, a retreat for picnickers.
But more than all this is the fact that the Maidan, which makes for 50 per cent of Kolkata's total open space, acts as the city's vital lungs. Green activist Subhas Dutta, who fought to shift out all fairs from the ground, believes that the Maidan is still plagued by many problems.
Of late, however, Kolkatans have been bypassing the Maidan. "With the city limits spreading, people really don't need to come to BBD Bagh, Dharamtala or New Market to shop or do business. They also don't need to come to the Maidan to play or picnic. This is sad. The Maidan, in order to survive, needs to stay relevant to Kolkatans," says architect and conservationist Debajyoti Chakraborty.
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