Bengali Sarees – A Brief History

Modernity and urbanization has led to the decline of traditional form of clothing, however the saree continues to remain an eternal favourite. While means of production, style of draping, and designs, may have changed markedly over times, one factor remains unchanged: the love for sarees among Indian women.

From a fragment of cotton found on a metal tool in Mohenjo-daro, and silk found in ornaments excavated from Harappa and Chanhu-daro, to the modern synthetic fabrics, mankind’s journey in the arena of textile has been long and colourful. In ancient India, both stitched and unstitched lengths of fabrics, such as cotton and silk, were draped around the body and formed the main garments. While the men wore a turban on their heads, tied a piece of cloth around their waists (similar to a dhoti), and placed a shawl like cloth around their shoulders, the women too draped a cloth around their waists, and sometimes covered their upper torso with a blouse, a tunic, or an odhni / dupatta like cloth. These garments draped perfectly, were made keeping the climate in mind, and catered to the trends and tastes of the time. One look at a woman’s garments and style, and you could guess her caste, marital status, area of origin , and her social standing.

Ajanta frescoes showing women in drapes covering the upper torso and the lower antariya. Picture source  – Wikipedia. 

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A donor couple – The man is wearing a turban and the antiriya. The woman is wearing a garment that drapes around the waist and below, leaving her upper torso uncovered. Shunga period, 2nd c. BCE, Haryana. National Museum, New Delhi

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Left – A saree like garment with perfect drapes framing a woman, Mathura, 2nd c. CE (Picture source Wikipedia). Right –  Devi Yamuna ( Gupta period, 5th  c. CE, UP)  in a saree like garment that drapes from waist down below, and covers her upper torso, and the aanchal is wound around her arm, National Museum, New Delhi. Notice how both the women are seen wearing a waist band.

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A Matrika figure from Gupta period, 6th c. CE, seen wearing a blouse, while a pleat on her waist shows a garment that would drape below. National Museum, New Delhi.

The word sari/saree is a derivative of the Prakrit word śāḍī, with the original term being the Sanskrit word śāṭī meaning “a piece of cloth”. It is likely that the petticoat and blouse, two necessary accompaniments of a saree in modern India, were later additions during the colonial era.

Draping a saree – Bengali Style

Draping a saree to accentuate one’s figure is an art by itself. There are innumerable references to it in ancient Indian literature like satavallika or pleats with many fine folds, or hastisaundaka or pleats that resemble an elephant, abound in Buddhist literature. It is evident that in the ancient times it was customary to tie a piece of cloth around the waist, and sometimes a cloth would also be draped over the head and upper torso. The uttariya that was used like a shawl over the shoulders can be drawn parallel with the modern odhni, while the stanapatta or kanchuli likely formed the choli or blouse. It is conjectured that the lower garment, which was known as antariya, and the upper uttariya fused sometime between 2nd c. BCE and 1st c. CE to form a long strip of cloth or śāḍī. The long aanchal or pallu of the saree, which hangs free after draping over the shoulder, was used for covering the head.

The intermediary form of draping a saree, which was  shorter in length and worn without a blouse or a petticoat, was prevalent in Bengal until some years ago. It was known as the aatpoure form of draping, and many of us have seen our grandmothers wear saree that way. While aatpoure still remains in fashion during festivities and is a favourite of Bollywood movies when portraying  a Bengali woman, it is now worn with a blouse and petticoat.

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A picture postcard of a Kalighat painting from the 1900s depicting a woman with her saree draped in the aatpoure way, without a blouse or a petticoat. The saree goes anticlockwise first around the waist, followed by a second drape in the clockwise direction. The loosely hanging pallu is then placed over the shoulder, and can be easily draped over the head when in front of strangers or when required as per customs. At the end of the pallu, tied in a knot, from one corner of it would hang the various keys of the household. During those times when women remained within  the four walls of the andarmahal, the keys hanging from the aanchal (pallu) were the symbols of power, denoting supreme control of the woman over her house and household matters as the Grihini. The keys of the larder (bha(n)rar gharer chabi) and almirah keys were deemed the most powerful ones. 

 

During the mid 19th c. CE when women empowerment slowly started taking shape,

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Picture Courtesy – Wikipedia

Jnanadanandini devi, sister in law of Rabindranath Tagore, was the first among Bengali women to move out of her in-laws’ home, defy the purdah system, and travel to Bombay to live with her husband who was posted there as the first Indian member of the Civil Services. It was she who first developed the new style of combining the saree with a blouse and petticoat, to enable women move out of their seclusion in the andarmahal and take part in outdoor activities. She achieved this by fusing the Parsi and Bengali style.  While adopting the Parsi jacket and petticoat, she kept the Bengali style of wearing the pallu on her left shoulder. This style, which lacked the pleats from the waist downward, became popular among the Brahmo Ladies. Jnanadanandini devi, a social reformer and an advocate of woman empowerment, gave classes to women willing to learn the new way of draping the saree.

 

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Three generation of women from the same family in their distinct style of sarees. Top left – Maharani Suniti Devi of Coochbehar. She was the daughter of Keshab Chandra Sen, one of the founding members of Brahmo Samaj in Bengal. The Brahmo Samaj ushered in a new era in women’s freedom and allowed them to appear in public. Suniti devi, here, is seen wearing the attire often chosen by Brahmo women when  they appeared in public, with the pallu in front, a full sleeved jacket worn as blouse, and a laced cloth to cover the head. On her right is her daughter-in-law Maharani Indira Devi. Indira devi was widowed at a young age, and she followed the Bengali custom of wearing only white sarees after the husband’s death. However, she moved away from the tradition of wearing only white “thaan” sarees (cotton or mulmul), to wearing customised chiffon sarees in white with zari/silk borders. This soon caught the fancy of the entire nation, and chiffon sarees became the order of the day, both among royalty and commoners. Bottom – Suniti Devi’s grand daughter Maharani Gayatri devi, is wearing the saree in the modern form with pleats from waist below, and without the customary head cover, unlike her grandmother and mother. 

The modern style of wearing a saree was derived from mixing the style pioneered by Jnandanandini devi with the Nivi style of Andhra Pradesh. In this style, the saree is draped by first tucking one end into the waistband of the petticoat and then wrapping the cloth around the lower part of the body once, followed by hand-made even pleats that are tucked into the waistband, around the navel. After one more turn the loose end is then draped over the left shoulder. Seen on right is Maharani Ourmilla Devi of Jubbal wearing saree in the modern style.

Bengali Sarees

 Jamdani: The word Jamdani is a Persian derivative and denotes the floral designs that adorn these sarees. There are four types of jamdaani: Dhakai, Tangail, Shantipuri, and Dhaniakhali. Jaamdani was woven on fine muslin, a material also known as abrawn (running water) because when it was placed under running water, the fine muslin would turn almost invisible. Alternatively it was also known as shabnam (evening dew) and bafta bana (like a cloud). Muslin finds mention in various travel accounts of the Chinese, Arabic, and Italian traders, along with Arthashastra, as a fine cloth from Pundra and Bangla.

Making a Jamdani saree is extremely time consuming, and requires intense concentration and hard-work.  It is hand woven on a loom by weavers that “place the patterns, drawn upon paper, below the warp, and range along the track of the woof a number of cut threads equal to the design intended to be made; and then, with two small fine-pointed bamboo sticks, try to draw each of these threads between as many threads of the warp as many may be formed. the shuttle is then passed through the shed” (Taylor James, Descriptive and Historical account of the Cotton Manufacturers in Dacca, 1851. cited in Geroge Watt, p. 281).

In Jamdani, the cotton fabric is woven with cotton or zari threads and the sarees have two to four large motifs (mango motifs, known as kolkaa) at the junction of pallu and the border. The body of the saree has butis or small flowers. Often a butidar saree with close set butis would be known has Hazarbuti (thousands of butis), or in case of floral motifs which are connected together as in a jewel like setting it would be known as Pannahazar (thousand emeralds). Floral motifs arranged in straight lines are known as Fulwar, but when arranged in a diagonal line it becomes Tersa. Sarees that were dyed a deep indigo with designs in a lighter shade are termed as Neelambari (blue sky).

Hazarbuti and Pannahazar Dhakai Jamdaani sarees. These sarees are woven on an unbleached cotton base while the design is woven with bleached cotton threads, so that there is a light-and-shade effect. 

Dhakai Jamdani sarees in modern designs for the highly competitive market of today (Picture courtesy: Gency Chaudhury)

Baluchari:

Murshidabad in Bengal is well-known for its fine silk, which is light and easy to drape. Silk weaving in this region started during the early 18th c. CE and flourished under the British patronage. During the Mughal period, Nawab Murshid Quli Khan moved his capital from Dhaka to a place known as Baluchar, on the eastern bank of the Ganga river. Along with the Nawab came many weavers, and the famous Baluchari weave was born when silk was used instead of the gold and silver threads for weaving patterns. Baluchari sarees came with a long pallu that had distinct kolkaas (mango motifs)  surrounded by themes that varied from showcasing the lives of nawabs, to railway carriages, Europeans and Indians sitting and smoking hookahs or reading books, amorous couples, dancers, animals, and also scenes from the Ramayana and Mahabharata. Baluchari sarees focused on reflecting the sociopolitical images of the time, and we see them in the earlier colonial motifs, and later in the nationalist ones where Vande Mataram is woven repeatedly all around in pallus and borders. The basic colour of the sarees were either maroon or purple and the saree bodies had butis all over. In 19th c. CE, flooding of the region by the river Ganga resulted in Baluchari weavers shifting and setting up shop in Bishnupur (Bankura district of Bengal).

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Baluchari sarees on Murshidabad silk with their butis and human motifs (here there are two dancing figures)

Baluchari on Murshidabad silk showing an amorous couple and a traditional motif

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Baluchari on Mushidabad silk – the weave depicts episodes from Ramayana (Picture courtesy – Gency Chaudhury)

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A typical Baluchari pallu with silk weaves showing the kolkaa (mango) motifs

Left: woven theme of a Baluchari saree showing an European riding his horse and his dog going with him. Right: Baluchari saree from the nationalism era, where the word Vande Mataram has been woven on the saree border 

Kantha: 

Kanthas started as small pieces, usually in square or rectangles, that were made from old torn pieces of clothes, such as dhotis or sarees. The salvaged parts were quilted together and threads dyed in indigo and madder were used for sewing fine embroidery, known as Kantha.  Every piece of a Kantha cloth, used either for domestic needs or given as a gift especially for  a newborn baby to lie on,  would show  thousands of running, darning, herringbone and chain-stitch patterns. The patterns on kantha vary from human and animal figures to floral motifs, cars and trains, to fine ornamental patterns. Kantha work in Bengal has always been women oriented work, and it would involve women of the household sitting with their needles, in their long free afternoons, and weaving patterns that often told tales of their yearnings, dreams, aspirations, love, sadness, and heartbreaks. Once the weave of the women from poor households, the same kantha stitch is now patterned on silk sarees and is held  dear by those that wear them.

Traditional Kantha patterns woven on silk

Modern patterns of Kantha work on silk (Picture courtesy: Gency Choudhary) 

Besides these famous weaves, Bengal specialises in both silk and cotton sarees with prints and simple weaves. These are light and comfortable sarees for those sultry summers of Bengal.

Colourful prints on the light Murshidabad silk

Butidaar taant sarees (cotton weave and base with golden zari on the grey one) Pictures courtesy: Gency Chaudhury

Traditional motifs on plain taant cotton sarees. Lightweight and easy to drape these sarees are a comfort wear during the humid summer months. 

 

Author – Monidipa Bose

She can be contacted at monidipadey@rocketmail.com

                                                                                                              or at Moni Gatha

Traversing the Ganges, from Old Times to New – Part II

Once upon a time, when man did not bind waters for his own selfish needs, rivers moved freely. They traversed borders, crossed countries, beginning from one and ending in another; sometimes merging with rushing brooks, and sometimes branching away into runnels. They formed a network of  waterways, which seamlessly interwove varying cultural, religious, and social patterns in its flow. These patterns blended into each other, creating a vibrant cultural heritage. One of its most eloquent expressions is found in the Bhatiyali songs of Bengal. These are folk songs of the Majhis (boatmen) and Jeles (fishermen) that speak of love, longing, desire, pain, and a calm acceptance of death. Songs that play on the shimmering strings of tranquil waters.

Rivers were always an intrinsic part of life in Bengal and Bangladesh. The irrigating streams that meandered through the fertile land helped to yield ‘sonar fosol’ or golden harvest year after year. These rivers were so integral to those who lived on their banks that their waters came to symbolise the meaning of life itself. As one rowed through life, the river banks became allegorical to various stages in life, starting with birth, moving on through love, pain, happiness, and this journey ended in death: O Majhi Re, Apna Kinara Nadiya Ki Dhara Hai… 

Fishermen, whose very existence revolved around the waters, would go on long trips and were separated from their families for days, weeks, and sometimes months. During this time their only companion would be the endless river, its waters merging with the deep blue sky in the distant horizon. In such moments of absolute solitude, the fishermen would search for the meaning of their existence. The Bhatiyali songs reflect these dilemmas woven into the backdrop of music of the lilting waters.

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Majhis in Bengal.  Picture credit: Jay Shankar

In this concluding part, as we continue our journey from Kashi, we will travel across the calm waters of the Ganga in Bihar and Bengal that softly murmur the haunting notes of the Bhatiyali songs, sung over centuries by the fishermen.

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The Adi Keshava and Sangamesvara temples at Rajghat, at extreme east end of Varanasi, where Ganga leaves Kashi behind and moves eastwards towards Bihar. Here the rivulet Barna or Varuna meets the Ganga. Painting by Sitaram in 1814.

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Ruins of the 18th century river side palace of the Nawab of Bengal, Qasim Ali Khan, at Ghazipur in Uttar Pradesh. The building was well planned with magnificent airy verandas (Heber, 1825).  According to Vishnu Purana King Gadhi, maternal grandfather of Maharishi Jamdagni, one of the Saptarishis, originated from this area. At that time Ghazipur had thick forests with several ashrams. This was also an important centre of Buddhist teachings, as evident from the various remnant stupas and pillars from that period. Painting by Sitaram 1814.

Bihar and Jharkhand

After Varanasi, the next important city on the banks of Ganga is Patna (ancient Pataliputra) in Bihar. This city is considered one among the oldest continually inhabited places, and mentions of this city start around 2500 years back in various Buddhist and Jain scriptures. Recorded history mentions the city alongside Raja Ajatshatru in 490 BCE. Patna has seen the coming and going of Mauyras, Guptas, Delhi Sultanate, Mughals, Bengal Nawabs, and the British.

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Bird’s eye view of Patna city and the Ganga. On the opposite bank is the city of Hazipur where river Gandak joins the Ganges. Painting by Sitaram 1814

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The famous Gola ghar or granary in Bankipore, Patna, near the Ganga river bank, painted by Sitaram in 1814. This structure was constructed in 1786 but was almost immediately abandoned because of a faulty design. The doors at the bottom were designed to open inwards with the result that as soon as grains were poured in, the doors would not move, and it was not practical to remove the grains from the top. The structure was therefore abandoned, its doors and the hole at the top were sealed, and it was termed as “Garstin’s Folly” (the architect was Captain John Garstin). With passage of time it fell into decay but was later renovated and is now a tourist spot, which provides a beautiful panoramic view of Patna and the river Ganges flowing nearby.

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Inside the Opium godown in Patna, on the Ganges river bank.  Interestingly this was originally a Dutch factory and the building could be from the Dutch era. Painting by Sitaram 1814.

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Ruins of a beautiful domed chatri in the once lavish palace-garden complex built by Mir Jaffar in Patna, as seen from the Ganga. Mir Jaffer betrayed the last Bengal Nawab Siraj ud Daulah, and helped the East India Company take over the Bengal province in 1757. Jaffar was rewarded by the Company with the rule of the province, where he remained their puppet king until his death in 1765. Painting by Sitaram in 1814.

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After Patna, the Ganga gently moves on and this is the riverside view of Munger or Monghyr (identified currently with Mod-giri, a name mentioned in the Mahabharata), painted by Sitaram in 1814. The riverside shows embankments with pillars, probably to prevent floods.  The bangla chala or Bengal roof, so favourite of the Mughals and the Rajputs, are a common sight on buildings here. All buildings (mostly large garden houses and palaces) in Bihar and Bengal that were built by the riverside had large doors and windows for the obvious reason, to let in the cool river breeze.

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Sculptures at Patharghat, by the banks of Ganga. Patharghat in Bhagalpur district of Bihar, is near the ruins of Vikramshila monastery. It has several cave temples and Vaishanava carvings dating back to the Gupta period, 5th c. CE. Painting by Sitaram in 1814.

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Pal tola nauka or boats with sails, on the Ganga. Seen here are the Rajmahal hills in Jharkhand that date back to the Jurassic era, when they were created due to volcanic activities. The Rajmahal traps cover parts of Jharkhand, Bengal, and Meghalaya. In the upper parts of these hills in Jharkhand live the Sauria Paharia tribes, while the Santhal tribes have settled in and cultivate the valleys. Painting by Sitaram in 1814.

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This picture by Sitaram (1814) shows vividly how tracking was done on the Ganges (it is still done the same way), especially when travelling upstream, against the prevailing water current and wind. Tracking (gun tana, in Bengali) is done when the Majhis get down from the boat and pull from the river bank using ropes. A laborious process, it is also extremely difficult for the Majhis to pull such heavy boats against the water and wind current.

Bengal

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The interior of Jami masjid or Akbari mosque at Rajmahal  (Bengal) overlooking the Ganges. Painting by Sitaram 1820 Source: British library. 

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Ruins of the palace of Shah Shuja by the river Ganga in Rajmahal (Bengal), engraved by James Moffat in 1800. Shah Shuja was the second son of Shah Jahan, and the governor of Bengal, Orissa, and Bangladesh, during his father’s reign. Source: British Library.

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Gauda (Gaur), the once proud capital of the Sena and Pala dynasties, was completely destroyed and plundered by invaders time and again . The city fell into disuse once the capital was shifted, and until today the area remains a mass of ancient and medieval ruins. Seen here, in Sitaram’s painting is the ruinous five storeyed Feroz Shah Minar, built by Saifuddin Feroz Shah, the Sultan of Bengal (1488-90). The Minar has been recently renovated.

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Silk farming in Murshidabad district near the Ganga bank, as painted by Sitaram in 1820. Seen here are two men extracting silkworms from a frame, preparing silk cocoons, and winding silk on spindles.  Murshidabad in Bengal is well-known for its fine silk, which is light and easy to drape. Silk weaving in this region started during the early 18th c. CE under Mughal patronage, when the erstwhile Nawab Murshid Quli Khan, moved his capital from Dhaka to a place on the eastern bank of the Ganga river, and named it Murshidabad. Along with the Nawab came the art of depicting themes that showcased the lives of Nawabs on silk, which was known as Baluchari, and this trend continued in the region until early 19th c. CE under the Company rule. In 19th c. CE, flooding of the region by Ganga resulted in Baluchari weavers shifting and setting up shop in Bishnupur (Bankura district of Bengal). Murshidabad is still famous for a variety of silk fabric that is adorned with old and modern motifs, while Baluchuri weave which is equally well known, survives separately.

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Sitaram here shows the palace at Murshidabad, the Aaina Mahal, at left; at the centre is the Diwan Khana, which was the banquet hall for entertaining the British; and at the right is the Imamabara built by Nawab Siraj-ud-Daulah.

After the town of Murshidabad, Ganga branches off into two main streams, Hooghly that flows towards Calcutta, and the other stream that enters Bangladesh meets the Brahmaputra river and is known as Padma. The famous Farakhha Barrage, which has been the bone of contention between India and Bangladesh for many decades stands at this juncture, controlling the waters of this mighty river.

The Ganges delta showing how the river fans out near the bay, and the various tributaries that meet the Ganga on her way to the sea. Source

Our travels will now follow the Hooghly river and move on to the next big city, Calcutta or Kolkata.

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Char chala temples on the banks of Hooghly river at Santipur in Nadia. Nadia also known as Nabadwip had once been one of the most well known sites for pilgrimage and universities in eastern India. However, when the river changed its course, it swept away the the old town, and the Raja was forced to move his capital to Krishnagar. Painting by Sitaram 1820-21.

The tranquil Hooghly river in Nadia source

Belur Math near Kolkata, on the western bank of the Hooghly river. It is the headquarters of the Ramakrishna Mission and was founded by Swami Vivekananda in 1897. The temple architecture infuses Hindu, Christian, and Islamic motifs, signifying unity amidst diversity.  Picture credit : Jay Shankar

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Dakshineshwar

Dakshineshwar Mandir near Kolkata, on the eastern bank of the Hooghly river. It is a Nava-ratna or nine-spired temple, showing the typical chala (roof) form of Bengal architecture. It was built in 1855 by Rani Rashmoni and houses Bhavatarini, a form of Devi Kali. Surrounding  the main mandir are twelve identical Shiva temples in a row, a Radha-Krishna Mandir, a bathing ghat on the river, and a Naubat Khana where Ramkrishna Paramhansa once lived. Pictures credit: Jay Shankar

Calcutta or Kolkata, once the capital of British India, archaeologically dating back to the Mauryan era, is located on the banks of the river Hooghly.  source

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The famous Howrah bridge over the Hooghly river, a name almost synonymous with Calcutta. It was commissioned in 1943 and is the sixth longest cantilever bridge in the world.  Photo credit: Nandini Dey

Just before reaching Calcutta, the Hooghly turns south west and enters an old channel of the Ganges at Nurpur, from where it glides down further south to form an estuary and meet the sea at Bay of Bengal. The streams here fan out to form a large delta and there are many points of the mohona (meeting point of sea and river). One such point is the Sagar Island, through which the Ganga supposedly enters the Patal (netherworld).

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Mohona at TaalsariPhoto credit: Nandini Dey

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Mohona at Mandarmoni. Photo credit: Nandini Dey

Mohona at Ganga Sagar where Devi Ganga enters the netherworld. It is the end point of a long journey that started amidst the wild terrain of the Gangotri glacier, and finally comes to rest amidst the tranquil waters of the sea, where the river and sea merge into each other and become one Source

Defiling the Ganges

“What we do not consume we poison. Sometimes we do both. Perhaps that is how we shall end, by consuming the poisons we have created.” ― James Rozoff

Ganga is an integral part of India’s culture; a part of both life and death for most Indians, yet this very lifeline is being slowly poisoned. Right from its source until its end point the river is dying a slow death owing to the daily pouring in of sewer water carrying human wastes, industrial toxic wastes, and human activities like washing of clothes, bathing, and bathing of animals. Various age old religious customs lead to throwing in of food, flowers, or leaves, often packed in plastic packets into the river, which are also responsible for its pollution. It is also a part of traditional belief that cremating on the banks of the Ganga, and immersing ashes in it will give moksha. In Varanasi alone, almost forty thousand cremations take place annually, many of those remain half-burnt. Some communities in India also practice water burial, especially of young unwed girls, while some do not have money for a proper cremation, and the dead bodies are simply made to float away, causing serious water pollution.

Macabre: Bodies are seen floating in Ganges river near Pariyar. Officials do not suspect a crime, but instead believe the dead were given water burials

Unclaimed bodies in a tributary of the Ganga: our “unholy” beliefs source

Garbage beside the Ganga: A mother’s agony source

Bathing in the “holy waters” filled with plastic that is choking the river. We revere with so much irreverence Source

Gangajal- impure but holy. Drinking the very poison that we have created Source

Reports say that daily an estimated 3000 million litres of untreated sewage enter the Ganges. By the time the river reaches Kashi, where some more sewage and toxic wastes are disposed into its waters, Ganga turns into a churning mass of sewer water. Is it a wonder then that Ganga is the sixth most polluted river in the world. According to a recent report, “In the Ganga basin approximately 12,000 million litres per day (mld) sewage is generated, for which presently there is a treatment capacity of only around 4,000 mld. Approximately 3000 mld of sewage is discharged into the main stem of the river Ganga from the Class I & II towns located along the banks, against which treatment capacity of about 1000 mld has been created till date. The contribution of industrial pollution, volume-wise, is about 20 per cent but due to its toxic and non- biodegradable nature, this has much greater significance.” reference

State wise division that shows the amount of sewage pumped into the Ganga source

The industrial units that are adding to the unholy mess source

Besides pollution, dams and associated irrigation projects on the Ganga have also raised concerns by endangering the habitat of aqua fauna. The pollution is not only killing the river, but also taking away the life that pulsates within its waters, and this is evident in the near extinction of the many species of aquatic animals, including the famous Gangetic dolphin. According to a report by the CAG in 2009:

Ganga is in grave danger from 600 dams (operational, under construction, or proposed). They will obstruct the natural flow, diverting water into tunnels to power turbines, but will also have cascading effect on the livelihood of communities and the biodiversity and stability of the surrounding natural ecosystems. Downstream communities also face the danger of flash floods when water is released from the dams. Not only that, if all the ongoing and proposed hydroelectric projects in Uttarkashi are completed as proposed by the Centre and State governments, the Ganga will get diverted into tunnels just 14 km from its origin in Gangotri. The river will remain tunnelled continuously for 130 km up to Dharasu near Uttarkashi. Environmentalists say tunnelling of the river for such long stretches would result in loss of flora, fauna, fertile soil and minerals.  59% of Bhagirathi and 61 percent of Alaknanda will dry up if all the dams are built. The 330 MW hydroelectric project on the Alaknanda lies in the buffer zone of Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve, which houses the Nanda Devi National Park and the Valley of Flowers. Both are inscribed as UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites. At least 34 dams on Bhagirathi and Alaknanda should be scrapped in order to protect Uttarakhand’s biodiversity, says the Wildlife Institute of India .” Source

The damning dams on the river Source

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The impact of pollution on the various lives from a case study (the flora, fauna and humans) ~slide 25  Source . Another case study on the Ganga pollution can be read at this link

A closer look at the unholy mess Source

Plans for cleaning the Ganga (the deadline 2018 already has been declared as void, and the project will need more time for completion) source

Swami Nigamananda had to die to stop illegal sand mining in Uttarakhand Source

Recently in 2014, the central government launched the namami Gange project with an aim of cleaning the river, and 20.4 billion rupees have been allocated for the clean-up. Few days back the Uttarakhand HC has declared Ganga as “a living entity,” giving it rights equivalent to a human being. The project and the court ruling are certainly praiseworthy and need all kinds of support (Indians certainly need to look beyond their religious and ideological differences in such instances, and it is truly disheartening to read some of the comments on various newslinks about the Uttarakhand ruling). Besides the various projects, it is also the duty of common citizens to wake up from their long slumber and their callous “chalta hain” attitude, raise awareness on the grave issue of Ganga pollution, and take part in the movement wherein defiling of the Ganges is completely stopped. Floating diyas on Ganga to get wishes fulfilled, or taking a bath to cleanse our sins in the polluted waters isn’t taking us anywhere, nor will it save the river that we revere as our mother. We need to be seriously committed towards freeing the river from the immense burden of pollution that has been killing it. For it is a very simple equation: if Ganga lives, India lives; and, if it dies, so does India.

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(Sita Ram’s paintings and pictorial details are from the book J.P. Losty’s Picturesque Views of India: Sita Ram)

Author – Monidipa Bose

                                She can be contacted at monidipadey@rocketmail.com or at MoniGatha

Traversing the Ganges, from Old Times to New – Part I

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A lifeline that has defined human civilisation. A river that holds a cosmos in itself,  a fascinating  world of flora and fauna, unseen from above, yet pulsating below, under tranquil waters.

(Pic – Yamuna in Agra. Yamuna is the largest tributary of the river Ganges)

In a land where infrequent monsoons are held as the main season, water is as priceless as a flawless jewel, and rivers are considered sacred. From ancient times when man learned to settle down in what is termed as “civilisation,” water has reigned supreme over man’s life, living, thoughts, writings, paintings, culture, religion, and even wars. Rivers are ancient, and their waters have been flowing persistently even before human beings came into existence. Theirs is a separate universe, a little world of their own, which has sired many tales (mythological and folk), history, religion, philosophy, politics, and also in the modern era, technological incursions. The flowing waters of these mighty rivers have witnessed the creation of some of the earliest cities in the world and have seen their destruction too; they have seen the shaping of some the world’s earliest literature and religious texts and the brilliant minds that shaped those; and now the same waters are witnessing their relentless defiling by the very people that had once started their journey of civilisation on those muddy river plains.

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Map of the Ganges valley Source

What’s in a name?

In North India flows a river with many names. Its name is Ganga, rechristened the Ganges by the British, this river is a sacred entity, a focal point of constant reference that entwines life and death for billions of Hindus living in this country since the ancient times.

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The blue pristine waters of the Ganga at Haridwar)

Defying what Shakespeare said about a name not being significant, there are some names that certainly spell magic. They create a reverberation in the mind, leaving an impact like an echo. One such name is Ganga.

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The name Ganga evokes a vision of evening lamps, temple bells, smell of burning camphor, and the chants of Ganga stotram. 

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The Bhagirathi peaks from  Gangotri. Photo courtesy: Jay Shankar

One may wonder how the name that is so intermingled with the lives of billions, came to be known to the world? Let’s take a quick look back. Studies show that it was during the late Harappan period (2000 to 1000 BCE) that the node of Indian civilisation shifted from the River Indus to the areas adjacent to the upper Ganges basin, a land termed as ‘Cemetery H’ (reference).

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The map here shows the names of the rivers, including the Ganges, around which the new settlements grew up, the names of which are found in the Rigveda. Source

The early Rigveda, composed roughly between 1500 to 900 BCE, mentions Jhanavi (Jhanavi is another name for Ganga). However, Ganga gains greater prominence in the later three Vedas. As historian Romila Thapar aptly sums it, “In the Ṛig Veda the geographical focus was the sapta-sindhu (the Indus valley and the Punjab) with Sarasvatī as the sacred river, but within a few centuries ārya-varta is located in the Gaṅgā-Yamūnā Doāb with the Ganges becoming the sacred river.” (reference P. 415).

The first foreign traveller to mention Ganga was Megasthenes (350 – 290 c BCE), in his book Indika, where he spoke of the mighty river and its tributaries, the canal system that helped in irrigation of the Gangetic pain, and its extensive run that ended at Gangaridai (the ancient name for area near the Ganges delta), which he refers to as the land of large elephants (reference).

Ganga also finds mention in Mahabharata, Ramayana, and several Puranas. In Mahabharata she is the consort of  King Shantanu and the mother of Bhisma; in Skandapurana she is the consort of Shiva and the mother of Skanda or Kartikeya, also known as Kumara, the son of Ganga. In Bhagavad Purana, Ganga is shown to have emanated from the lotus feet of Vishnu, following which she acquired a beautiful pink shade. With Brahma, she is always seen accompanying him in his kamandalu, as the sacred water. According to a passage in the Ramayana, Ganga is also the daughter of Himavat and Mena, chief of the mountains and his wife, which makes her the sister of Uma/Parvati (reference).

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How ancient settlements were centred around the river Ganges and its chief tributary Yamuna  Source

The Legend, Mythological representations, and Iconography

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The descent of Ganga Source 

In Hinduism, Ganga is personified as Devi Ganga, and is in her own self a teertha, a link between heaven and earth. Such is her importance that it is believed that by bathing or taking a dip in her holy waters one is absolved of sins, while immersing the ashes in her waters brings the soul of the dead person closer to moksha. Hence she is often referred to as: Patita Pavani or the liberator of all sins.

In the Indian subcontinent, sometimes other rivers are also referred to as Ganga. This gives the rivers a sacred sanctity that shines through the name Ganga. Its name is also invoked in any ritual where water is used, therefore sanctifying all holy waters used for religious purposes.

Referring to other sacred rivers as Ganga has its own disadvantages too, as is seen in the misconception about the geographical origin of the river. For a long time it was thought Ganga originated in Manas Sarovar near Kailash. While there are no clear theories on how Ganga came to be related to mount Kailash, but one line of thought says that it might have started from an ancient Tibetan text Kailash Purana. A small flowing stream which connects the two lakes, Manas Sarovar and Rakshas tal, is mentioned in the Kailash Purana as Ganga chu (in Tibetan the word chu means river). Could this name have led to the notion that Ganga came from Manas Sarovar? One can only wonder and speculate. However, in 1808 while mapping and tracing the route and origin of the Ganges by Webb and Hearsay, it was specifically proven the river did not originate from Manas Sarovar near Kailash .

The birth of Ganga is beautifully depicted in the Bhagavad Purana, which says that Vishnu in his Vaman avtaar pierced a hole with his left foot at the end of the universe. It was through this hole, the pure Brahm Water came into the universe, in the form of the Ganga River. Since it washed the feet of Vishnu while flowing in, it is also known as Vishnupadi, or the one that emanates from the lotus feet of God. Ganga originally remained in Brahmaloka, until Bhagirath brought her down to the earth in order to release his forefathers from a curse, in what is termed as Ganga avtaran. With Ganga threatening to wash away the earth with her force as she descended, it was Shiva who broke her fall by holding her in his locks and taming her raging waters. There are other legends that give varying versions but this one remains the most popular. Since Bhagirath brought her down, Ganga in the Himalayas is also known as Bhagirathi. From the heaven (swarg or Brahma lok) she descends to the earth or prithvi (via Gaumukh glacier), and finally enters the patal (netherworld) in Ganga Sagar.

As Ganga came down to earth from heaven, she is also seen as the means of moving from earth to heaven.  The  Triloka-patha-gamini, or the one who traverses the three worlds (swarg , prithvi , and patal), she is herself a teertha, or the crossing point of existence (that includes all living and dead).

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Ganga avtaran by Raja Ravi Verma. Shiva readies himself to meet the raging waters of Ganga, while Parvati comfortably leans on Nandi watching the avtaran, and Bhagirath looks on with folded palms.  

Ardhanarishwar. Ganga flowing out of Lord Shiva’s matted locks Painting circa 1800 Source

Bhagirath leading Ganga down to Ganga Sagar to release his forefathers who were suffering in patal, Kalighat Patachitra (in print), 19th c. CE. It is believed that Bhagirath led the devi on until Bihar, and when he reached Bengal he wasn’t sure which route to follow that would take him to his forefathers in patal (the netherworld). It was then he requested the devi to take her own route, after which Ganga  decided to branch out in streams (in Bengal there are indeed two major streams, Hooghly and Padma, besides other smaller ones). That created the delta formation in Bengal and Bangladesh.  Finally one such stream led to a point, now known as Ganga Sagar, which took Ganga to patal, and she released Bhagirath’s forefathers from their sufferings.  

In ancient India, Ganga was seen as symbol of fertility, as it provided the daily bread for those that lived on its banks. She is first seen in the Cave V, on a relief in the Udaygiri caves (400 CE), carrying  a pot that symbolises fertility ( a womb), as well as the Brahma’s pot from where both she and Saraswati were born. Ganga is accompanied by a gana who symbolises development and attainment. Her vahana is a makara, a mythical figure with the head of a terrestrial animal (such as an elephant) and the lower body of an aquatic animal (generally a fish, sometimes with floral tail like a peacock). Makara symbolises both the underwater life, and the fear of the unknown, the fear of destruction caused by her uncontrolled waters.

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By the end of the 5th c. CE, Ganga was seen as a devi in her own right, symbolising all rivers in India, and her iconography turned more complex. All Hindu temples had the goddess carved at the door, symbolising ablution in the sacred waters of the river, as one enters the garbhagriha (the inner sanctum). Ganga on the temple door frame with her vahana, attendants, and the dwarpala ~ at Teli ka mandir, Gwalior fort, 850 c. CE

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Ganga in terracotta, 5th century CE. (Gupta Period), Ahichchhatra, Uttar Pradesh. Source

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A red sandstone relief, Madhya Pradesh, 8th/9th century. Very finely carved Ganga in a graceful tribhanga at right, adorned with an elaborate knotted belt, standing on a lotus blossom over a rearing makara, along with a retinue of attendants. Source

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Makarvahini Ganga, Kalighat Patachitra (in print), 19th c. CE

How the course runs:

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Some of the important cities beside the river Ganges as it travels through the northern plains of India and empties itself in the Bay of Bengal near Kolkata (formerly known as Calcutta). It provides water to an area of 8,61,452 Sq.km that is equivalent to almost 26% of the total geographical area in India.  Source

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Geographically speaking, the Ganga basin is spread over four countries that include India, Tibet, Nepal, and Bangladesh, covering an area of 10,86,000 sq.km. The extensive area of the Ganga basin Source

Casting aside the nitty-gritty of geographical data, let’s peek into towns and cities that line the course of this mighty river.

Gomukh:

At a height f 13,200 ft amidst the snow clad mountains of Uttaranchal, lies of the snout of a glacier from which the waters of the Bhagirathi rush out with great force. Gomukh literally means the mouth of a cow, and finds mention in the Puranas. It is said that the snout of the glacier from which Bhagirathi emerges looked exactly like the mouth of a cow. However, owing to environmental changes, and the glacier changing its position, the shape of Gomukh opening now remains largely left to one’s imagination. Gomukh, which is a two day’s hard trek from Gangotri, is a Hindu pilgrimage site, and it is not surprising to see sadhus and other devotees bathing or taking a dip in the icy cold waters of the Bhagirathi at its point of emergence.

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 Gomukh, the point of emergence of Bhagirathi at the base of Mt. Shivling. The Gangotri glacier is a receding one, and is moving back at an alarming rate, much to the concern of climate experts. The topography here is rather wild, with hard ice, patches of snow, and large and small boulders scattered everywhere. Picture credit: Saket Kumar

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The glacier spout from which Bhagirathi rushes outPicture credit: Jay Shankar

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Base of Mt. ShivlingPicture credit: Jay Shankar

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Tapovan at the base of Mt. Shivling, the beautiful meadow through which the Bhagirathi flows after emerging from the Gomukh. Picture credit: Saket Kumar.

Gangotri:

It is a small town at 10, 200 ft, popular among the pilgrims that has a temple dedicated to Ganga devi, which was originally built in the early 19th c. CE by  the Gurkha general Amar Singh Thapa. Many sadhus have small kutis here where they stay for most part of the year, pray, and meditate by the riverside. The beautiful, calm surroundings and the sound of the gushing waters of Bhagirathi make it a perfect place for mediation and prayers.

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The evening light on Bhagirathi peaks. Picture credit: Jay Shankar

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The Ganga temple at Gangotri. The evening arti performed under the open skies beside the river in front of this temple creates an ethreal aura that one has to experience to believe. Picture credit: Jay Shankar

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Forceful waters of the Bhagirathi gushing down at Gangotri. Photo credit: Jay Shankar

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The Suryakund waterfall in Gangotri located very near to the temple. Here the Bhagirathi falls from a cliff with immense force, making it an unforgettable sight. Photo credit: Jay Shankar

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The tranquil waters of Bhagirathi by the side of the Ganga Mandir at Mukhba village (near Harshil), which is the winter residence of the Devi when the temple at Gangotri is shut down on Bhai Ditiya, owing to the heavy snowfall that cuts off the place from the lower reaches during winter. Photo credit: Jay Shankar

Rishikesh and Haridwar:

Bhagirathi from Gangotri flows down the valley passing many picturesque locations such as Gangnani, Harshil, to reach Uttarkashi, which as the name suggests, is another important pilgrimage centre with a Vishwanath temple. Harshil is a Maha Prayag, a confluence of nine rivers, with a Vishnu temple located at the confluence of Jalandhari, Vishnu Ganga, and Bhagirathi. Dharali is another place on the banks of Bhagirathi, where the rivers Bhim Ganga and Hatya Harini meet her. It is believed that by bathing at the confluence of these rivers one is absolved of the sins of even Brahm Hatya (killing of human).

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Bhagirathi at Uttarkashi. Photo credit: Jay Shankar

The next important point is Devprayag where Bhagirathi meets Alaknanda, and here the river Ganges is formed. The Ganga which is formed at this confluence contains waters of six rivers, brought in mainly by the Alaknanda that flows in from base of Satopanth and Bhagirath Kharak glaciers, near Badrinath. The waters of Alaknanada contain the rivers Nandakini, Dhauliganga, Mandakini, and Pindar. There are five important Prayags or confluence points on the side of Alaknanda. The five prayags are Vishnuprayag, Nandprayag, Karnaprayag, Rudraprayag, and Devprayag.

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The beautiful green waters of Alaknanda (left) merge with the dark waters of Mandakini (right) at Rudraprayag.  Mandakini that comes from Chorabari glacier near Kedarnath is an important tributary of the Ganga. Photo credit: Jay Shankar

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Devprayag, the birth place of Ganga. On the left is the tranquil Alaknanda, and on the right is the turbulent Bhagirathi . It is here where the  Vedic rituals for Shraddh ceremonies and pinda pradaan take place. Source

From Devprayag, the river now known as Ganga, moves down to reach Rishikesh. Here the river leaves the mountains behind and enters the north Indian plains. There are many temples (both old and new), and learning centres for religious education in this town.

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This place finds mention in Skandapurana (Kedarkhand), while it is also believed that Rama did penance here in Rishikesh for killing Ravana

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The RamJhula in Rishikesh, is a newly built suspension bridge over the Ganges. A little ahead is the more famous Lakshman jhula, where it is said Lakshman had crossed the river using a bridge made of jute ropes. A jute bridge was supposed to have existed in this spot until the late 19th c. CE, as mentioned in his travel records by a famous Bengali travel writer Jaladhar Sen. In 1889, a Marwari businessman from Calcutta sponsored the building of an iron suspension bridge to prevent any further deaths, which was later renovated in 1924 after a major flood.

The next important town beside the Ganga is Haridwar. Here a dam diverts some of the water from the main river to a canal, the waters of which are used for irrigation in the Doab area. The river changes its course from south-west to south east in Haridwar.

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Haridwar is one of the seven holiest places in Hindu pilgrimage. The evening aarti at Haridwar by the banks of the Ganga is a site worth seeing despite the crowd that gathers there everyday

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Har ki Pauri. It is believed that during samudra manthan,  one drop of amrit (elixir) fell on Haridwar in the Brahma Kund, located at Har ki pauri. It is for this reason Haridwar celebrates the Kumbha mela every 12 years, kumbha signifying the pot carried by Garuda, which contained the amrit.

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The murti of Devi Ganga  at Haridwar. This is the original murti, which has been shifted and kept in a side temple beside the ghat, while the main Ganga mata mandir now holds a murti of the Devi with Bhagirath.

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Haridwar as seen and painted by  Sitaram in 1814, while travelling with Hastings (then Lord Moira) from Calcutta to Punjab. From a recent record, it has been said that most of the buildings seen here in the picture still exist, however they are covered by ugly advertisement boards and so cannot be seen from the river anymore. The main river seen here has thinned down now owing to the dam built to divert water for irrigation. 

Prayag or Allahabad:

From Haridwar the Ganga passes the cities of Kanauj and Kanpur to reach Allahabad, where it meets its chief tributary the Yamuna at Triveni Sangam. Here it is said the Saraswati river was also a part of the confluence. The city was known as Prayag in the ancient times and finds a mention in the Vedas, the Puranas and in Ramayana. Later known as Kausambi, the city according to archaeological finds dates back to 700 BCE. It has seen the coming and going of many empires that include Mauryans, Kushanas, Guptas, Delhi Sultanate, Mughals, Marathas, and lastly the British. During Mughal rule, Akbar renamed the city as Illahabad, and built a fort on the banks of the Sangam. The British later changed the name to Allahabad.

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A bridge of boats on the Ganges in Kanpur (then Cawnpore), with two elephants crossing it. A bungalow, few temples, and Sarsaiya ghat are seen on the right side of the bridge on the banks of Ganga. The picture was painted by Sitaram in 1814, while travelling upstream on the Ganga in a bajra with Hastings (then Lord Moira) from Calcutta.

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The Ganga at Prayag. Photo credit: Gency Chowdhury

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The Yamuna at Prayag. Photo credit: Gency Chowdhury

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Prayag during Kumbh mela. Photo credit: Gency Chowdhury

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Prayag during Kumbh.  Photo credit: Gency Chowdhury

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The Allahabad fort built by Akbar at the Sangam. On the left is Yamuna and on the right is Ganga. Far left in the picture, partly seen is a white building which is most likely the Akbari masjid. The magnificent white octagonal structure in the fort seen here from the river, was known as Chalees Satun, and it was destroyed by the East India Company who took over in  1798.  The picture was painted by Sitaram.

Chunar Fort:

After Allahabad the next important city beside the Ganga is Varanasi or Kashi. Between Prayag and Kashi lies the important fort of Chunar on the banks of the Ganga. The fort has been linked to king Bali, Vikramaditya of Ujjain, and Prithviraj Chauhan. While archaeological finds place the fort settlement date at around 56 BC, recorded history starts from the time of Babar. It was taken over from the Mughal subedars by Sher Shah, who married into the subedar family. The fort was won over from him by Humayun, only to be again taken back by Sher Shah. Akbar won it back in 1574, and it remained with the Mughals until the East India company conquered it in 1722.

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Chunar fort. After East India Company took over the fort in 1722, they faced stiff resistance from Raja Chait Singh of Benaras in 1781. In 1791 the fort was made into a sanatorium for the sick and dying European soldiers. The picture was painted by Sitaram

Varanasi/Benaras or Kashi:

The name Varanasi rises from the two tributaries of the Ganga that bind the old city, rivers Varuna and Assi. Rigveda mentions the city as Kasi, which in Sanskrit means the city of light. Regarded as one of the holiest cities, Kashi or Varanasi was supposedly built by Shiva, and it is here that the Pandavas came to search for Shiva in order to atone for their killings during the Kurukshetra war. Buddha also started his preaching from Sarnath, a place very near to Varanasi, which was the capital of the Kashi kingdom during his time. Archaeological findings place the start of settlement in this city at around 2000 BCE (reference). The city is also well known from the ancient times for its religious learning centres, textiles (Benarasi weave on silk is famous), sculptures, ivory, and perfumes.

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Such is the religious significance of this city that it is believed that if one is fortunate enough to die in Kashi, that person will attain moksha. Photo credit: Gency Chowdury

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Ganga aarti on a ghat in Benaras. Photo credit: Gency Chowdury

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The riverfront at Benaras with Panchganga ghat at the centre, and Aurangzeb’s mosque rising above it. The mosque minarets were later removed because of of their instability. Painting by Sitaram in 1814.

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Dasasvamedha ghat in Benaras. The building seen here is the  rest house built by Rani Ahalya Bai. Painting by Sitaram in 1814.

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The palace of the Raja of Benaras that was constructed in 1750 by Raja Balwant Singh. He was the governor of Benaras under the Nawab of Oudh. The Nawab transferred the sovereignty of the city to the East India Company in 1755. Seen above is the State Boat of the Raja of Benaras. Painting by Sitaram. 

From Varanasi, Ganga travels further on, crossing the states of Bihar and Bengal. This part of the journey however, will be told another day. Kumbh13-26 (1)For now, I will leave you at Kashidham with Ganga, where the Devi makes a lovely arc and turns uttarvahini.

 

 

Author – Monidipa Bose

She can be contacted at monidipadey@rocketmail.com or at Moni Gatha

(All pictures used in the post are clicked by the author unless mentioned otherwise. Sita Rams’s paintings and pictorial details are from J.P. Losty’s Picturesque views of India: SitaRam)

Glimpses of Calcutta (Kolkata) heritage

Calcutta, once the city of palaces, so beloved of the British, has various  interesting theories regarding its name and origin. The name Kolikata first appeared in the 15th century writings of the Bengali poet, Bipradas Pipilai, and later in the 16th century, on the payroll list maintained by Akbar’s court. Some contend that it is this name Kolikata that later morphed itself into Calcutta/Kolkata. The other theories regarding how the city got its name are no less interesting. Some say the city  derived its name from the goddess Kali, and this place was once known as  Kalikshetra, or the land of Kali. While this remains the most popular theory of origin, another line of thought says this place was once known for production of shell-lime, wherein shell was colloquially known as ‘kali’ and lime was known as ‘kata.’ Another amusing theory tells us that one day Job Charnock, the architect of Calcutta, asked a farmer the name of the area around river Hoogly by gesticulating wildly with his hands, showing the area around. The farmer who didn’t understand, thought the white man was asking when he had harvested his crop, and answered ‘Kal Kata,’ or ‘I cut it yesterday.’ Charnock took the name of the place to be Calcutta. There is another remote possibility that the name Calcutta could have been derived from the term ‘kilkila,’ a word found in old Bengali literature, meaning flat land.

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Hazra More in Calcutta, one of the famous chowmathar more or junctions in the city, named after the famous  freedom fighter Matangini Hazra, a woman of grit, who was shot dead by the police in 1942

Whatever the origin of the name was, one thing that is very clearly documented in history is that when Job Charnock landed here in 1690, on behalf of the East India Company with the objective of starting a trade settlement, carrying a firman (permission to settle and carry on with trade) from the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb and his Bengal deputy Ibrahim Khan, there were three villages that flourished in this place. These were: Sutanuti, Kolikata, and Gobindopur. That same year Charnock hoisted the flag of Royal Standards of England in Sutanuti, on banks of the river Hoogly, thus signalling the start of British involvement in the Bengal Province. Without going into the details of how Bengal was  won by the British from the Mughals and their Bengal subedars, it can be safely said that in 1698 the East India Company  bought the three villages from a local zamindar, the Sabarna Roy Choudhury family.

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Map of Calcutta showing the three villages ~ from the time when Job Charnok  landed here in 1690 until the Battle of Plassey in 1757 

(Ref: http://sankalpa.tripod.com/roots/oldcalmap02.html)

In 1699, the East India Company started developing Calcutta as its Presidency City, and in 1727, a civil court was established in the city with a Mayor of its own, under the order of King George I, and in the same year the Calcutta Municipal Corporation was also formed.

Despite the long drawn war, negotiations, and extreme hardships faced by Charnock in establishing British trading supremacy in Bengal, and his acquiring the site that later became the city Calcutta and earned him the title of the Father of the City, in 2003 the Calcutta High Court stated that Job Charnock was not the founder of this city. In one stroke the city was rendered fatherless and was left without a date of birth. The Court further stated that Calcutta goes long back into history, and had its origins in the Mauryan era, a fact which has been recently proven with many archaeological findings.

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Seen here is the Calcutta High Court premises, from where recently  Job Charnock was ruled out as the father of the city. The court started functioning formally on 1st July 1862 at the new Fort Williams, with Sir Barnes Peacock as the first Chief Justice.  The court building was built in 1872, and is neo-Gothic in structure.

This article, however, doesn’t travel that long way back into the Mauryan history. It simply satisfies itself by taking a peek into two old cemeteries in the city, where sleep some of the oldest colonial/firingee residents of the erstwhile British Empire.

St. John’s Church and the adjoining cemetery ground

St. John’s Church was among first public buildings that the East India Company constructed after establishing Calcutta as its Presidency city and capital. Originally an Anglican cathedral, it was constructed between the years 1784-1787, and is the third oldest church in Calcutta. The land was donated by Raja Naba Kishen Bahadur, founder of the Sovabazar raj family, and the first stone was laid in April 1784 by Warren Hastings, the then Governor General of India. At one time this church was the nucleus of colonial activities, and many important decisions were taken from a Vestry room situated inside the church that still holds some of the antiquities from Hastings’s era.

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The St John’s church, as seen here, is a large rectangular structure with tall Doric columns, designed in the Neoclassical style, and  made of bricks and stones. The widespread use of stones in this church earned it the name ‘Pathure Girja’ or a church made of stones. The tall stone spire is 174 ft tall and holds a giant clock, which still works and is wound every day

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The most distinctive feature of this church is the imposing stone spire, which instantly catches one’s eye, standing out from the brick body of the church. A little research and a study of the church minutes book revealed that the stones for building this church came from the ruins of the ancient city of Gaur,  via the river Hoogli. Gaur was once the proud capital of the Sena and Pala dynasties, later completely destroyed by the Islamic rulers and rebuilt to show their dominance over their Hindu subjects, only to be later plundered again by Sher Shah. The city fell into disuse once the capital was shifted, and until today the area remains a mass of ancient and medieval ruins, with the ASI slowly plodding its way towards unravelling the layers of history hiding amidst these ruins.

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Some interesting plaques with a brilliant mix of Indian and European sculptures are seen inside the church, in memory of late 18th-19th century British officers stationed in Bengal. The church floor is of a rare blue grey marble brought from Gaur.

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On the left side of the main alter there is a recently restored painting of  ‘The Last Supper’ by the British- German artist  Johann Zoffany.  This painting isn’t a copy of  the Leonardo’s famous artwork, but has some interesting Indian touches. The main figures in the painting are inspired from some real life characters of those times. (photograph of the “The last Supper”courtesy: Nandini dey)

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Within the church complex there are various graves and memorials. One such memorial is the tall twelve Grecian pillared structure with a circular dome, designed to look like the Temple of Aeolus. This is known as the Rohilla War Memorial. The two Rohilla wars (1772 – 74) were fought between the Rohillas (Pashtun tribes from the modern Afghanistan and Pakistan) and the Nawab of Awadh, with the British favouring the later. This memorial has a list of the British officers killed in these two wars.

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Here lies Jobus Charnock, the ‘founder’ of Calcutta (1630-1692/93). The administrator of East India Company, he brought together Sutanuti, Kolikata, and Gobindopur, to form the modern city of Calcutta. Built in Moorish style, this octagonal stone structure was built by Charnock’s son-in -law, with stones brought in from Pallavaram, near Madras (now Chennai). This mausoleum houses other graves, including that of his Hindu wife.

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Located near Charnock’s tomb is this  pretty looking circular mausoleum that looks almost like a Greek temple. The lady lying underneath the gravestone interestingly is known as Begum Francis Johnson (1725-1812), who married four times, and  was known as the grand old lady of her times. Her tomb epitaph makes for an interesting read, giving details of her husbands and the children.

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Mausoleum of Vice Admiral Charles Watson who died in 1757, during the retaking of Calcutta from the last Nawab of Bengal, Siraj ud daulah. Charnock and Watson’s graves were the only two that were left undisturbed, during the construction of the church. All other old graves in this burial ground were dug up and the remains removed. The graves or mausoleums that we now see here are of a later period, built post 1784. The church complex has tombs of Lord Brabourne (d. 1939) and Lady Canning (d. 1861 ~ after whom the famous ladikeni sweet was named because of her fondness for it), amongst many more.

South Park Street Cemetery

This is considered as among  world’s earliest cemeteries that doesn’t have an adjoining church. It is also considered as the largest 19th century Christian cemetery outside the USA and Europe. It first started functioning in 1767 on a marshy land, and remained in use until around 1830, and is closely associated with the reconstruction of Calcutta after it was recaptured from the Nawab’s army. This area was once famously labelled as the ‘Bengal Burial Grounds,’ and the South Park Street cemetery was surrounded by the French cemetery (Tiretta’s burial grounds), North Park Street cemetery, Lower Circular Road cemetery, and the Scottish cemetery.

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Cenotaphs in the South Park Cemetery. As one checks each tombstone and reads the epitaphs, one can’t help noticing the short lifespan of the Europeans residing in Calcutta in the 18th and early 19th century. Most, it seemed, died within 40 to 45 years of age, and there are so many tombs for the infants who were just few years or even few months old. Some interesting professions noted are translator, cattle breeder, jailer, surgeon, head tide-waiter, among the other regular ones.

The tombs in this burial ground are unique, in the sense that they pointedly lack signs that are typical of Christian burial structures, such as, weeping angels or profusion of crosses. Instead there  are obelisks, pyramids, pagodas, some panchayatana structures having rekha deul replicas on four sides, and a rich mixture of the Gothic with prominent Indo-Saracenic styles. During that period in history, the Age of Enlightenment was sweeping Europe, and had some of its roots in the 17th century England that defied all established religions and moved away from the Church. Thus, the medieval notions of a vengeful god disappeared, which allowed for other influences from various parts of the world to take hold. There was a sudden shift towards the ancient Greek, Roman,  and Egyptian cultures, and this is strongly visible in the tombs here. The domed chattris with their Doric columns remind one of the 18th century artist Piranesi’s imagined ‘Appian way’ in south Italy, while funerary urns on tombstones show the presence of ancient Greece, and pyramids and obelisks transport one to ancient Egypt. Though there are crosses seen on few  graves, they are most likely recent additions by descendants that have come down to visit their forefathers’ tombs and pay their respects.

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The admixture of various styles seen here in the tombs, that include chattris with Doric columns, obelisks, pyramids, etc

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Distinct Greek  influence in this tombstone with no signs of Christianity

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The trees are a menace in this cemetery. Saw so many of these unique tombs marked in red as ‘endangered by roots,’ as is evident here in this picture. The three surrounding tombs have all been marked as endangered owing to the roots of this tree that is damaging their foundation causing cracks and chances of subsequent ruination.

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One of the most famous residents of this cemetery, Henry Derozio, a much loved and revered educator, who inspired a strong sense of nationalism among the Bengal youth

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A beautiful Greek influenced pillared mausoleum, and easily my favourite in the South Park Street cemetery

Calcutta with its colonial past has some of the most unique heritage structures. This article showcases some of the oldest structures of the colonial era in Calcutta, and this is just the tip of the iceberg. In the later years of the British rule, Calcutta developed a unique architectural style that mixed European and Indian style seamlessly, which is not replicated anywhere else. This is evident in some of the palatial homes of the wealthy people that still exist, and have somehow managed to save themselves from the brutal axe of the period of ‘heritage destruction’ that Bengal witnessed during the 1970s and lasted until the 90s, where old beautiful houses were broken down without any regard, to build high-rise apartments. Each of these houses were a marvel, and there are so many of them still standing. Come explore Calcutta, and slowly  lose yourself  in the sands of time, as you walk through the old gullies of this colonial era city.

Author – Monidipa Bose

The author can be contacted at monidipadey@rocketmail.com or at MoniGatha