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IGCP- 490

‘Holocene Catastrophes’
Field workshop
17-19 August 2005, Chennai



Sujit Dasgupta

Geological Survey of India

27 J.N. Road
Kolkata- 700 016

Catalogue of pre-instrumental, historic and pre-historic earthquakes for any area is one of
the vital inputs for seismic hazard assessment for the region. Recorded documents
indicate that though Kolkata has not suffered major damages from earthquakes during the
last 300 years, there are many records of felt earthquakes, and some have also triggered
moderate level of damages. As per the Earthquake Catalogue of India (T. Oldham, 1883)
at least 30 earthquakes were felt at Kolkata during the period from 1803 to 1869. During
the following years of the nineteenth century there are further records of felt earthquakes
from Calcutta and earthquakes for the subsequent instrumental era are relatively better
located for Calcutta. While many of these earthquakes are of ‘far source’, some of them
are definitely of ‘near source’ origin. Based primarily on the seismic history, Seismic
Zoning Map of India prepared by the Bureau of Indian Standards (2002) indicate that
Kolkata is located at the border of seismic Zone III and IV; hence for all practical
purpose Kolkata comes under seismic zone IV.

To start this reevaluation and reconciliation we would like to look back the two recorded
events of the 18th Century, of 11th October, 1737 and 2nd April, 1762. For the former
event Bilham (1994) and Nandy (1994) have already argued that evidence available do
not favor a major earthquake but the catastrophe though briefly described cannot be
overlooked and underestimated, particularly after witnessing the series of events
following the 26th December 2004 Sumatra earthquake. Even today Press reports
overstate damage and casualty figures in the aftermath of a major disaster. The original
report says ‘300,000 souls are said to have perished!’ Though population of Kolkata in
the year 1752 was of the order of 117,742 and in 1737 it must have been far less, this
mismatch cannot be the sole criteria to underestimate the disaster. Let us consider the
other descriptions (Oldham, 1883). There happened a furious hurricane at the mouth of
Ganges which reached 60 leagues (285 km) up the river; the water rose 40 feet (12m)
higher than usual in the Ganges; barques (vessels) of 60 tons were blown 2 leagues (9.5
Km) up the river; two hundred houses were thrown down along the river Ganges; 20,000
ships including boats, canoes etc have been cast (throw off, lose) away; eight of nine
ships lost etc. These descriptions do not indicate a simple hurricane; rather suggest a
tsunami due to a strong distant earthquake that may have originated in the Bay of Bengal,
could be from the region between coastal Burma and the Andaman Island. Further
research is warranted on this event as this is related to the seismic and tsunami hazard of

Let us look into the next recorded major earthquake of 2nd April 1762. A very destructive
and violent earthquake felt all over Bengal and Arakan (Burma); Chittagong suffered
very severely; great explosions heard and opening in the earth formed with water spouted
like fountain; earth continued to sink day by day; 60 sq miles permanently submerged;
two volcanoes (mud volcano) said to have opened on the Sita Kunda hills; in Calcutta
water tank rose by 6 feet (1.8 m; seiches); at Ghirotty (Gorhatty), 18 miles (28 km) above
Calcutta river rose more than 6 feet (1.8m); at Dacca water rose so suddenly as to carry
up hundreds of boats, and many lives were lost. Captain Halsted visited coastal Arakan
for survey work in 1841. He documented several uplifted coastal area (13 feet at
Terribles; 22 feet at northwest of Cheduba; 9 feet at Foul island etc.) that have been
related to the earthquake. This earthquake and the sequence of events described also calls
for further research.

Comparing the effects of the 26 December 2004 earthquake, I suggest both these events
of 1737 and 1762 were major earthquakes originating at the Indian plate margin from the
Coastal Burma region that generated tsunami and had impact in the up-streams of the
Ganges at least up to Kolkata and Dacca.

Among the 30 odd felt earthquakes of the nineteenth century between 1803 and 1869,
some of the strong far source earthquakes that caused damage to Kolkata are those from
1st September, 1803 (Mathura/ Nepal), 26th August, 1833 (Nepal), 23rd March, 1839
(Burma), 11th November, 1842 (Bengal- Assam) and 10th January, 1869 (Cachar, Assam).
The 31st December 1881 Nicobar earthquake that generated tsunami in the Andaman
Islands was also strongly felt at Kolkata. Another major far source 19th century
earthquake that was widely felt at Kolkata is the great earthquake of 12th June 1897. The
epicenter of this earthquake was 470 km towards N35E from Calcutta. Considerable
damage including partial collapse of a number of buildings was reported from Calcutta.
Calcutta Town hall, High Court, St Thomas Church, Loreto Convent etc was damaged.
Oldham (1899) assigned intensity 3 (Oldham Scale) to Calcutta which is equivalent
intensity VII in EMS/MSK scale.

During the 20th Century with the advent of instrumental seismology earthquake source
regions are relatively better located. The Srimangal earthquake of 8th July 1918 was
located some 350 km N55E from Calcutta. It was felt by nearly everyone indoors in
Calcutta. Ominous cracks appeared in many new and old buildings of Calcutta due to this
earthquake. Stuart (1926) following Oldham scale assigned isoseist 5 (later changed to 6)
at Calcutta, which is equivalent to intensity IV-V as per EMS/MSK scale. Similar grade
damage (isoseist 5 of Oldham Scale ≈ intensity IV-V of EMS/MSK Scale) was reported
(Gee, 1934) from Calcutta due to Dubhri earthquake 3rd July, 1930 which was located
some 360 km towards N20E from Calcutta. The Bihar-Nepal earthquake of 15th January,
1934 which was located 480 km N20W of Kolkata, also caused substantial damage to
buildings. At 2:40 PM Calcutta time the earthquake was felt for about 5 minutes.

Considerable movement in lake water, damage to St Paul’s Cathedral reported. Dunn et
al (1939) assigned intensity of VI in Mercalli Scale (≈ VI-VII of EMS/MSK) for

Near source earthquakes located within 100 km of Calcutta being mostly of moderate to
low size do not give well constrained locations particularly for events prior to 1964.
Considering documented records of many felt earthquakes of the nineteenth century that
indicate high frequency response at Calcutta accompanied by sounds, point towards its
near source. Nevertheless except two 20th century earthquakes, documented records of
earthquake damage for Calcutta are not available. In the earthquake of 29th September,
1906, a number of buildings at Calcutta suffered damage in the form of development of
serious cracks. The isoseismal map based on Rossi-Forel scale (Middlemiss, 1908)
indicates maximum intensity of VI-VII in and around Calcutta which is equivalent to
intensity V-VI of EMS- 98/MSK- 64 Scale. The earthquake of 15th April, 1964 whose
epicenter was 100 km south of Calcutta, was more damaging with the development of
serious gapping cracks and fall of plaster in many old and new buildings. Jhingran et al
(1969) assigned intensity VI in Mercalli scale at Kolkata which is equivalent to intensity
VI-VII in EMS/MSK scale.

From these accounts it is noticed that different intensity scales were used to draw
isoseismal maps for different earthquakes and there is an urgent need to re-evaluate
original damage data of each events and prepare fresh maps based on EMS-98 or MSK-
64 scale for comparison and using it for inputs for seismic hazard assessment of Calcutta.
Nevertheless, till it is attempted, from visual comparison of different intensity scales (Fig
1), it is observed that maximum intensity documented at Calcutta is VII on EMS/MSK
scale which was recorded from both the near source earthquake of 1964 and distant
earthquakes of 1897 and 1934. From this evaluation of intensity an average peak velocity
of 8-12 cm/sec and acceleration of 0.10g- 0.15g (100-150 cm/sec2) can be expected at
Calcutta due to distant and near source earthquakes. A recent estimate (GSHAP, 1999),
also indicate that Calcutta could expect earthquake inflicted PGA values in the range of
0.08g to 0.13g, in next 50 years with 10% probability. Another issue that need be
considered for seismic design of structures is the predominant frequency of seismic
waves that will excite Calcutta due different earthquakes. Though it is subject of research
including considering scenario earthquake with different source- path- site situation, in
general high frequency content of seismic waves will be predominant for near source
events while long period waves will travel through Calcutta from distant earthquakes.

Except for the Bihar- Nepal earthquake of 1934 all other far source events of the 20th
century (also the Shillong earthquake of 1897) that affected Calcutta are of magnitude
less than 8.0. These source regions in the Himalaya and northeastern India are capable of
generating earthquakes of magnitude above 8.5. In such scenario damage intensity at
Calcutta would likely be VIII + in EMS/MSK scale. And an event of the size of the 26
December, 2004 within 500 km from Calcutta either from the north/ northeast (Himalaya/
Shillong Plateau)) or from the southeast (coastal Bangladesh/Burma) could be something
for which no one in Calcutta is perhaps prepared.


RF - 1883 OLDHAM - MERCALLI - 1902 MM - 1931 MSK - 1964 EMS - 1998

Isoseist Isoseist Isoseismal Isoseismal Isoseismal Isoseismal
I 7 I I I I


4 VI

X 1

Fig. 1 Comparison of different Intensity Scales used for the macroseismic survey of Indian earthquakes