Amidst the mundane humdrum of our every day city life, how often have we come across such fleeting conversations like: “He had gone to Panbazar to buy some books” or “We are going to Uzanbazar to procure some fresh rohu fish for tonight’s dinner party” or “I am going to Fancy Bazar for puja shopping” or “He checked into a hotel at Paltan Bazar” or “He had to go to Chandmari for an official errand at the All India Radio” or “We had all gone to the Nehru Stadium, Ulubari to watch the India-England cricket match”. At first glance, any layman, or even for that matter, a specialist would be in an utter quandary, as to what exactly these truncated, ephemeral conversations do really imply. But, here’s the catch! Has anyone ever paused to ponder the hallowed names of a handful of places of old Guwahati that lay firmly etched amongst these so-called fleetingly ephemeral conversations?
But do names of certain places, especially those laced with a pinch of quaint history behind it, really machinate today’s insensate metrosexual and mentally anesthetized denizens at all? What’s in a name, after all? It may sound plain simple. True! But, names of most of the places of the world hold a very special credence and give some insight into their hallowed past. In fact, there’s always a saga of venerated history or an interesting past behind the name of a certain place.
Coming back to those hallowed names of a handful of places that really formed the crux of old Guwahati, it is interesting to note that almost all the places are situated in and around the periphery or vicinity of the river Brahmaputra. The most plausible reason, though, is quite simple. It is usually perceived that civilization generally flourishes on the banks of a river. In other words, water is an indispensable element required for the very existence and development of any living society or civilization.
The focal crux of old Guwahati was basically an amalgam of certain places, which in turn, went on to become the nerve-centres of the modern-day metropolis of Guwahati. The core areas of the old city consisted mainly of Pan Bazar, Uzan Bazar, Phansi (Fansi) Bazar and Paltan Bazaar. Ulubari and Chandmari with Zoo (RG Baruah) Road could be considered as added part of the core. Let us now embark on an interesting journey to unravel the quaint history behind a handful of places of old Guwahati and in the process, test our rusted indices of inquisitiveness.
A major nerve-centre of old Guwahati, Panbazar is a well developed part of the city-centre located on the southern bank of the Brahmaputra. In fact, it wouldn’t tantamount to a mere exaggeration to say that the Panbazar area has left an indelible imprint on the entire fabric of old Guwahati. The modern-day Panbazar is although a place bustling with cacophonic activity. A plethora of well-known bookshops, old sweet-shops like Mahamaya, Gauhati Dairy, Kalpana, the renowned bakery Shaikh Bothers, set up in 1885, Chitralaya, the first photo-framing shop in the entire Northeast set up in 1918, educational institutions like Cotton College, Cotton Collegiate School, Don Bosco School and the Ahom-era Nagkata pond are among a few hallowed landmarks that hitherto proudly grace today’s Panbazar. There are a few interesting anecdotes regarding the actual genesis of the name Panbazar. It must however be noted here that the English word ‘pan’, implying ‘the whole of’ or ‘broad’ isn’t in anyway whatsoever related to the prefix ‘pan’ of the word ‘Panbazar’.
According to eminent columnist Kumudeswar Hazarika, whose write-ups mostly specialize on old Guwahati: “Once upon a time, there was a small suburb at this very present-day Panbazar area. Its inhabitants mostly engaged themselves in supplying pan (betel leaf) to the Barpukhan, the administrator-cum-general for the Ahom kingdom’s western region. These inhabitants were eventually known as ‘Pan-Jugoniar Khel’, the community who supplied pan or were engaged in the business of pan. Even today, there exists a ‘Bar Namghar’ named as ‘Pan-Jugoniar Khel’ at Sarat Chandra Goswami Path, Panbazar. This ‘Bar Namghar’ of ‘Pan-Jugoniar Khel’ belongs to the present-day pan selling community.” Hazarika goes on to add another interesting anecdote regarding the origin of the name Panbazar: “Once a portion of the present-day Panbazar, i.e. from BN Dey & Co to Sadar Thana, (Panbazar Police Station), used to house a plethora of pan shops, owned by the people of erstwhile Dacca, (now Dhaka). These pan shops mostly used to sell tobacco-related products, areca nut, (tamul) and Bangla-patti pan. So, in essence, this entire area came to be gradually christened as Panbazar, pan implying betel leaf and bazar implying market.”
Uzan Bazar is another place of prominence of old Guwahati. A residential-cum-commercial centre, Uzan Bazar is located in the northern part of the city with the river Brahmaputra flowing alongside it. It happens to be one of the oldest settlements in the city. Etymologically, the origin of the name Uzan Bazar is steeped in a plethora of anecdotes. According to Kumudeswar Hazarika: “During the early British period, there used to be a bazar, known as ‘Chowk Bazar’, located in and around the present-day Latasil Field. This fact apart, it must however be remembered that Latasil Field was originally a pond. It was only at the initiative of Manik Chandra Baruah that the entire pond was filled up with river sand in the end 19th century and converted to a playground. With the expansion of ‘Chowk Bazar’ it had to be ultimately shifted to the present day site, which in fact was the upper stream of the Brahmaputra. Consequently, it came to be known as Uzan Bazar; the word ‘upper’ implying ujani or uzan in Assamese. The term Uzan Bazar also owes its origin to the famous Naojan canal of the Brahmaputra. First, as the very market was located near the periphery of the canal, it so happened that the word ‘Naojan’ got changed to ‘Uzan’ and subsequently to ‘Uzan Bazar’ by mere slip of tongue with vigorous repetition of the word ‘Naojan’ itself. Second, the ‘Naojan’ used to witness an unprecendented increase in the number of fishes, implying masor uzan in Assamese. So, as a consequence, Uzan Bazar got its present name. Third, it is also believed that after the Burmese invasion of Assam (1817-1826), the modern-day Uzan Bazar was profusely inhabited by people, mostly from the areas of upper Assam. So, owing to its geographical demography, it came to be known as Uzan Bazar, where the word ‘upper’ implied ujani or uzan in Assamese.”
Fansi (Fancy) Bazar
Phansi or Fansi Bazaar of Guwahati is the hub for retail and wholesale-commercial market for the entire Northeast. Regarding its etymological history, Kumudeswar Hazarika opens his heart out: “During the British period, there used to be a very big tree where the present day Guwahati Central Jail is located. The British used to openly hang hardcore criminals in that tree, so that it would serve as a much needed deterrent for other antisocial elements.” Interestingly, Hazarika had the privilege of meeting in person (during his childhood days) renowned personalities like ‘Bihagi Kavi’ Raghunath Choudhury, who in turn, had met those who had seen these open hangings. This fact apart, there used to be a yet another market, known as ‘Sadar Bazar’, located in front of Fansi Bazar ferry ghat, during the early British times. When the Sadar Bazar was shifted to the present-day site, near the jail, where these open hangings used to take place, it came to be known as ‘Phansi’ or ‘Fansi’ Bazar, where phansi or fansi implies ‘hanging’. “The present-day name ‘Fancy Bazar’ is actually a grossly misspelt version of the original ‘Phansi’ or ‘Fansi’ Bazar, and is most likely a creation of the non-Assamese business community,” he added.
Polton (Paltan) Bazar
Polton or Paltan Bazar is located in the central part of the city-centre, and is the hub for transportation and hotels in Guwahati as the Guwahati railway station is located here. Kumudeswar Hazarika opines: “During the British period, the first official army (sepoy) camp was set up just in and around the present-day Paltan Bazar, where it used to accommodate an entire ‘platoon of sepoys’. Moreover, a bazar was also located just adjacent to this camp, which used to cater to the basic needs of the sepoys, like rice, dal, oil, vegetables and other miscellaneous items. This very bazar and its adjoining areas gradually came to be known as ‘Polton Bazar’ or ‘Paltan Bazar’, where the Indian word ‘Paltan’ seems to have been derived from the English word, ‘platoon’, in essence, implying the ‘platoon of sepoys’ who were housed in this camp.”
Chandmari could be considered as an added or extended part of the original old city-centre’s core area which has a mix of retail-commercial and residential activities. Regarding its history, Kumudeswar Hazarika brings to light a very fascinating anecdote: “During the British times, the area stretching right from the present-day oil refinery at Noonmati up to Silpukhuri was known as the ‘Joy Duar Choki’ or Victory Gate. The sepoys used to assemble at the present-day All India Radio (AIR) site, which was more of a hillock at that point of time, and engage themselves in the act of taking aim or practicing their shooting skills. Gradually, it is believed that this very act of the sepoys of ‘taking aim’, which implies nishan in Hindi, got changed to ‘chan’ and subsequently to ‘Chanmari’ or ‘Chandmari’ by mere slip of tongue with vigorous repetition of the word nishan itself.”
Ulubari, just like Chandmari, could also be considered as an added or extended part of the original old city-centre’s core area having a mix of retail-commercial and residential activities. The Mishti Mukh, which entered its 63rd year in 2009, is the oldest sweet-shop in Ulubari, owned by the famous Bhaduri family. Kumudeswar Hazarika digs deep to reach into its etymological history: “Originally the-present day Ulubari was an area which consisted mainly of small canals, drains, arid wastelands and most importantly had a profuse growth of thatched grass, which implies ooluban or ulubon in Assamese. In fact, so profuse was the growth of thatched grass in this very area that it gradually came to known as ‘Ulubonor Habi’ and subsequently got its modern-day connotation Ulubari.”
It must be noted here that apart from these pristine well-known places, a few other places were also an integral part and parcel of old Guwahati. Prominent among them were Rehabari, Kharghuli, Lakhtokia, Kamarpatty, Chatribari, Kumarpara, Athgaon, Machkhowa, Bharalumukh, Santipur, Maligaon and Pandu. Thus, in essence, a name of a particular place plays a very pivotal role in its very introduction. It’s just like an ‘identity card’, which in a way introduces that particular place. Without a name, a place is as good as a headless torso.
Saikh Md Sabah Al-Ahmed