The story of Jamshedpur
Jamshedpur, or Tatanagar, is a stunning example of founder Jamsetji Tata's vision, even a hundred years later. This is the story of how it came to be.
A large bust of a turbaned septuagenarian overlooks the sprawling expanse of green. Dotted with gardens, walkways, ponds, and flowerbeds, the space echoes with the calls of the koel and the quacking of ducks. A group of women practice complex yoga asanas in one corner, elderly men practice laughter in another; young men sprint on the track and children giggle around the merry-go-round.
When Jamsetji Tata commissioned the construction of a township for India’s first steel factory, his brief to the planners was clear. He wanted a town that was on par with the best in the world. Large tree-lined avenues, expansive lawns, and gardens, football and hockey fields; temples, churches, mosques, marketplaces —all were to be provisioned for. “Be sure to lay wide streets planted with shady trees, every other of a quick growing variety. Be sure that there is plenty of space for lawns and gardens. Reserve large areas for football, hockey and parks. Earmark areas for Hindu temples, Mohammedan mosques and Christian churches.” A hundred years later, it is evident that the town was made right to his brief.
Tatanagar or Jamshedpur, India’s first planned township, stands inconspicuously among thick vegetation in the East Singhbhum district of Jharkhand. Corralled by deep forests, adorned by two rivers, dotted with hills and paddy fields, the town is straight out of a storybook—the kind they do not write anymore. Art modelled from steel scraps adorn the streets, wide shady avenues invite you for a stroll; shops with terracotta tiles take you back in time, and large mid-century bungalows make you want to retire in them.
Photo by Anubhuti Krishna
The first time I had heard of the city I was in school. To a seven-year-old, the name, Tatanagar, had sounded funny. A little later I started to notice how every quiz on TV had at least one finalist from the town. It was, however, not until I was much older, at 23, that I first set foot in Jamshedpur. Some things happened in between too. I met a man who had grown up there and through him heard many tales of the place. Funny, heartwarming, and intriguing, these stories brought the faraway town to life for me; the man, meanwhile, decided to make me his wife. So, when I first set foot in the city, on a cold December night as a new bride, it wasn’t exactly new to me. Quiet, calm, clean, quaint – the place was just as I had imagined it to be. Jamshedpur became home from day one.
Photo by Anubhuti Krishna
The first thing you notice about Jamshedpur is the vast complex that stands in the centre of the town. It is hard to imagine that a factory so large can be in the centre of a living and functioning town; here, however, it fits perfectly. The factory, after all, is the reason why the town exists.
When Jamsetji Tata decided to set up India’s first steel factory in the present-day Jharkhand, the site, called Sakchi, was a tiny tribal settlement surrounded by untouched jungles. An abundance of iron, coal, and limestone, and water from two rivers, Subarnarekha and Kharkai, made it the perfect place to set up the plant. While setting up the steel plant itself was a colossal task, and needed much planning, funding, and execution, making the dense jungle habitable was even harder: how would you convince people to come and work in a tribal area? Having travelled extensively, Jamsetji was clear that he wanted a self-sufficient township. No stone was left unturned to ensure his vision turned into reality. Soon a world-class town emerged from the wilderness.
Photo by Anubhuti Krishna
The first inhabitants came into Jamshedpur through a mud track, but within a few years, the place not only had roads and rails but also boasted of a pump house, rows of brick houses, wide streets, and parks. Schools, hospitals, and markets followed, and by 1919 the place was fully functional with housing societies—something unheard of in the rest of the country a hundred years ago. In the same year, as a tribute to Jamsetji’s vision, Lord Chelmsford, the then viceroy of India, dedicated the town to its founder. Unfortunately, Jamsetji was not around to see his dream fructify.
Photo by Anubhuti Krishna
The city, however, hasn’t forgotten its founder. Even a hundred years later he is everywhere in Tatanagar. Large busts of the visionary adorn beautiful circles; offices have his pictures on the walls, and a large statue of the man overlooks the most popular site in the city, Jubilee Park. The park, incidentally, was made to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the town and can compete with the likes of Central Park, Hyde Park, and even the Luxembourg Gardens of Paris.
To say that the town is a lesson in design will not be an exaggeration. A hundred years after its founding, the place still impresses with its brilliant planning, functional architecture, futuristic design, and aesthetics. Roads haven’t needed widening, parks haven’t had to be covered up, markets still operate from 80-year-old shops and open spaces are ample. Interestingly, some buildings were designed by Ratan Tata when he was a fresh engineer out of college.
“Jamshedpur is the perfect town,” says Subhashis Kar, a resident. “While it is not a big deal for a township like this to be developed now, conceiving it over a century ago was a feat in itself.” “That is why,” he adds, “people of Jamshedpur have very high standards — their town can beat any metropolis hands down even today.” As someone who grew up in larger cities, I know what he means. No city stands a chance against the character of Jamshedpur. From the neat rows of quarters in the Farm Area to canopied boulevards of the Circuit House Area to perhaps the first high street of the east, Bishtupur, the city has a charm that makes you fall in love with it. Walking tracks created thoughtfully along with residential areas, clubs, and recreational centres in every neighbourhood, modern stadiums, vintage cafés, large bungalows, colonial buildings—to say Jamshedpur has it all will not be an exaggeration.
Design is not, however, the only thing that sets the town apart. It is also the people. At a time when India was struggling with war, colonialism, unemployment, and poverty, the town became a ray of hope. Trains, full of people in search of a livelihood from all over the country, arrived daily, and Jamshedpur did not disappoint anyone. “Tatanagar was a blessing for the youth of that time,” recalls Gayatri Iyer, a third-generation restaurateur, whose grandfather travelled to the town from Palakkad back in the 1940s. Here, says she, they not only found work, but also an environment that helped them thrive. There was opportunity, equality, financial empowerment, and social respect. Education, sports, medicine, and recreation: everything was taken care of. People were happy and content.
People in Jamshedpur are still happy and content. Sports thrive, medical facilities are world-class, and education institutes produce some of the best students in the country. While the place gives you everything a large city would, it remains a quintessential small town. Its old-world charm soothes you; its simplicity touches you, and its pace calms you down.
Time passes slowly in Jamshedpur. No one is in a rush; everyone has time for each other. People go for morning walks in Jubilee Park; children cycle to school without fear. Evenings are spent buying fresh vegetables, weekends are spent in the nearby hills or waterfalls, and holidays mean lazing under the trees. “It did not occur to me until I was well into my twenties, what a huge influence Jamshedpur had on me,” Maxwel Chhetry, an actor, writer, and a friend, who grew up in Jamshedpur tells me. “My childhood was spent growing vegetables, cycling to school, buying kulfi from the cart, napping under trees.” Things, he says, that help him stay grounded in the busy life of the metro today. Given that I come back to the city every time I need grounding, I think I know what he means.