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The all-giving Ganges

In Ganga: An Endless Journey, Chanchal Kumar Ghosh writes about the life of the holy river and how she has helped civilisations survive throughout her journey from north to south; Excerpts:

Kolkata (formerly Calcutta), the City of Joy, is nearly 300 years old. Originally it was an innocuous and uninhabitable marshy land, on the bank of the Ganga. It comprised only three villages running north to south – Sutanati, Gobindapur and Kalikata. The socio-political scenario of India was not a very happy one at that point of time. There were many foreign traders visiting the country and settling at random. One amongst them was Job Charnock, the chief administrator of the English East India Company at Cossimbazar, a place situated on the bank of the river Hooghly. Unfortunately soon after his arrival Charnock got into trouble with the Nawab of Bengal, Shaista Khan, over the imposition of customs duty. According to Job Charnock the ruling was in violation of the deal between them and the Nawab.

Consequently, on 24 August 1690, Charnock fled from Cossimbazar and reached Sutanati, to settle there permanently. Prior to his escape he managed to gather all the goods of the East India Company, and also convinced thirty army men to accompany him. Soon, after his arrival, Charnock personally became involved in developing Sutanati and making it habitable. Gradually a small civilisation started sprouting in and around Kolkata.

On 10 November 1698, Charnock bought three villages from the zamindar Saborno Choudhury for a sum of 1300 rupees and slowly started developing it. With time residential areas, marketplaces, Saheb Para (residential areas for the English) and Desi Para (residential areas for the Indians) started emerging. Soon Kalikata or Calcutta became the most important trading port for the Company. An army was deployed since it was the most important requirement to carry on trade. Forts too were built within the now fast-emerging city to provide shelter to the army men. However, the then Nawab of Murshidabad destroyed these forts. Yet the English remained undeterred.

At this point of time Lord Clive assumed power and started planning the defeat of the Nawab. Accordingly on 22 June 1757, Lord Clive crossed the Ganga with his army to reach the battleground of Plassey, to fight the Nawab. And on 23 June 1757 began the famous Battle of Plassey where the Nawab (betrayed by Mir Jafar) was defeated. Soon thereafter the entire domain of India came under the purview of British rule.

The victory at Plassey encouraged the English and helped them to concentrate on their developmental works in Calcutta, their headquarters. In 1773, the British Parliament permitted Warren Hastings, the Governor, to declare Calcutta the capital of British India and develop it as the largest and most important city of India. Interestingly the English were paying attention to this once small village only because of the river Ganga. They needed the river for carrying on their trade.

A trade route from Calcutta to Allahabad was established immediately followed by sporadic construction of different factories on the riverside. The river proved to be an ideal pathway for exchanging goods. Raw materials were brought to these newly developed factories dotting the cityscape of Calcutta, while finished products were carried away to distant lands – and it was the river Ganga that bore the brunt of it all.

Indian history is replete with instances of British imperialist excesses. And significantly, just a hundred years after the historic defeat at Plassey, it was here at Barrackpore, situated on the bank of the river Ganga, that the first sparks of rebellion were ignited. The Sepoy Mutiny of 1857 was triggered by this spark and it spread across the country, especially in northern India. It was not only a war cry against the imperialists, but also a clarion call for the Bengal Renaissance.

Spiritual leaders and social reformers like Raja Rammohan Roy, Vidyasagar, Bankimchandra, Ramakrishna, Vivekananda and Rabindranath rose in unison and spoke against the corrupting and degenerating medieval social practices. The Bengal Renaissance was not restricted to Calcutta alone; it spread far and wide, spearheading a new social awareness in our country. Thus it was on the bank of river Ganga that Indians were first initiated into the world of modernity, social consciousness and free-thinking.

Gangasagar

Originating from Gaumukh, the Ganga travels a distance of 2,525 kilometres before finally flowing into the Bay of Bengal. The confluence of Ganga and Bay of Bengal is known as the Sagar Island. This is a sacred place for the Hindus. It is said that Sage Kapil was at his hermitage here when the sixty thousand sons of King Sagar unknowingly insulted him. Their disrespectful words had so infuriated the sage that he cursed them and burnt them alive. Finally the cursed souls were liberated at this very place by the river Ganga. And it is at this point Ganga finishes her journey and unites with the sea.

In the ancient times this place was uninhabited. During the British Raj a few rebellious hilly tribes from Arkan district decided to come and settle here. Gradually people started coming in and the place became habitable. However before independence the approach road to the Sagar Island was entirely neglected. It was only during Makar Sankranti, when a fair used to be held, people came here by country-made boats. But the journey was very hazardous. Frequently the boats would capsize drowning hundreds of pilgrims. Hence there was a popular saying about Sagar Island – 'Visit other pilgrimages a number of times / But visit Gangasagar only once in your lifetime.' But things have improved now. Arrangements have been made to accommodate at least three million people on this little island. Schools, proper roads, a hospital and conveyance to commute to and from the mainland have been arranged for these three million residents. During Makar Sankranti a large fair is held on the bank of the confluence. Temporary thatched rooms are built to accommodate millions of visitors. Even the temple of Sage Kapil is illuminated beautifully.

It is said that the original hermitage along with the temple has long been devoured by the sea. The present buildings are their replicas. The new structures came up in 1947, the year of our independence. The presiding idol of the temple is Sage Kapil, holding a small pitcher in his left hand and a rosary in his right hand. On his right side are the idols of four-handed Makarvahini Ganga and Lord Hanuman. On the left side of the temple statues of King Sagar, God Indra and Goddess Vishalakshi are to be found. The priests worshipping the deities are all from Ayodhya. This has been their ancestral profession down the ages.

Monks and sannyasis from the remotest parts of the country keep visiting Sagar Island during Makar Sankranti. They even set up temporary shades for a week's stay. Other than them there are pilgrims from West Bengal, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan who come every year and stay in the thatched rooms, set up by the government. The entire place appears like a cauldron of human beings. They all come to bathe in the confluence on the auspicious day of Makar Sankranti. After Makar Sankranti however the bank becomes desolate once again. The island becomes quiet with only the sound of waves thrashing on the sandy banks audible.

(Excerpted with permission, from Ganga: An Endless Journey by Chanchal Kumar Ghosh; published by Niyogi Books. The excerpt here is a part of the chapter titled 'Journey's End')

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