Babughat is one of nearly 80 ghats that stand on either side of the Hooghly river, between Calcutta (Kolkata) and Dakshineswar. While the name Babughat is well known, not many people in Calcutta are aware who exactly this “Babu” is. So who is Babughat named after?
WHO IS THE BABU OF BABUGHAT?
The answer to this question lies in a plaque above the main entrance of the ghat. The plaque contains the following text…
“THE RIGHT HON’BLE LORD WILLIAM CAVENDISH BENTINCK, GOVERNOR GENERAL & c., WITH A VIEW TO ENCOURAGE THE DIRECTION OF PRIVATE MUNIFICENCE TO WORKS OF PUBLIC UTILITY, HAS BEEN PLEASED TO DETERMINE THAT THIS GHAUT, CONSTRUCTED IN THE YEAR 1830, AT THE EXPENSE OF BABOO RAJCHUNDER DOSS, SHALL HERINAFTER BE CALLED BABOO RAJCHUNDER DOSS’S GHAUT”
Ghaut is the antiquated spelling of ghat, which roughly translates to wharf of quay, the place where people get off a boat. Rajchunder Doss would today be spelt Raj Chandra Das. Who was Raj Chandra Das? He was the zamindar of Janbazar, but his wife was much more famous than him. Her name was Rashmoni, an extraordinarily beautiful girl who was married to him at the age of 11. She came to be known as Rani Rashmoni, and was famous for both her fabulous wealth, her immense contribution to charitable causes and her famous confrontations with British authorities in the imperial capital. Legend says that the British authorities in Calcutta once attempted to ban fishing in the Hooghly by imposing a punitive tax, because the small fishing boats were causing trouble for their mercantile vessels. The poor fishermen approached Rani Rashmoni, who paid off all the taxes and then, hung a thick rope right across the river! All traffic ground to a halt! When an explanation was asked for, she said simply, that since she had paid the tax, she now had every right to recover the money by fishing, and the large ships were preventing her from doing do. The British were stumped; the tax had to be abolished, and the fishermen went back to business as usual.
Rani Rashmoni’s massive estate still manages properties all over Calcutta, but she is most remembered for building the Dakshineswar Kali Temple. That too was not without its share of controversy. Brahmins objected on the grounds of caste, saying that since Rashmoni was of a lower caste, her building a temple to the Goddess Kali was not permissible, and while they were happy to take her money, in the form of alms, they would not worship in her temple. In typical style, Rashmoni found a way out by asking a young priest named Ramkumar Chattopadhyay to take over as head priest. On paper, the temple would be constructed by him, a high caste Brahmin, and Rashmoni would remain in the background as a donor. Eventually of course, Ramkumar was surpassed in fame by his younger brother, Gadadhar, who we know today as Ramakrishna Paramahamsa.
ARCHITECTURE AND PRESENT CONDITION OF BABUGHAT
“Babus are very sophisticated people. Babughat is not very sophisticated”, writes Brian Paul Bach in his book Calcutta’s Edifice. The word in Bengali that I would use to describe the atmosphere of Babughat is “aadim”. The English translation, primitive, does not convey the same meaning or have the same flavour. When you enter Babughat, it feels like the new, emerging Calcutta of flyovers and shopping malls is some distant fantasy. Here, nothing has changed in a century or more. With its Doric columns and shuttered windows, Babughat is a colonial bungalow in miniature. Every inch of the interiors are occupied by Brahmin priests. “Recreational use of the river is primarily a Western concept”, says Gaur Mohan Kapoor of INTACH. “Indians used the river mostly for religious purposes such as bathing”. Bathing in the holy Ganges, here known as the Hooghly, remains the primary use of Babughat to this day. Priests offer Pujas for the devoted, services are conducted for the dead, flowers are on sale as offerings to the Gods as are neem branches, although their purpose is somewhat less holy. Neem branches are the traditional version of the toothbrush! It is also possible to find the odd man getting a massage by the riverside.
One passes through a set of Victorian brick arches behind the ghat structure, which holds up the Circular Railway line in this part of town. Beyond the arches are steps leading to the water. Since the Hooghly’s water rises considerably at high tide, the whole area is somewhat slippery underfoot. But what is overwhelming is the sheer amount of garbage that the area is filled with. A considerable part of that garbage is flowers from various pujas which have happened on the premises. There are also remains of idols which have been immersed in the river after worship as well are just regular filth generated when a large mass gathers in one area every day. What was once the women’s section, with changing rooms, is now inaccessible due to piles of garbage blocking the way. Only in India does one find the sacred and profane in coexisting peacefully!
In Colonel Mark Wood's Map of 1784, Babughat marks the Southern boundary of Dhee (from the Bengali Dihi, meaning village) Calcutta. From here began Dihi Govindpore, which extended as far as the Adi Ganga, known variously as Surman’s Nullah and the Tolly Canal. With every inch teeming with humanity, Babughat is a great place for street photographers. In a city that is rapidly changing, where magnificent old buildings are sacrificed for ugly glass and steel skyscrapers, Babughat continues to hold out, for good or bad. The only visible change is the ubiquitous mobile phone hiding in the folds of the priest’s dhotis.
- by Deepanjan Ghosh
Many thanks to my friends Projjwal Das and Ranajit Chatterjee for accompanying me to Babughat.
Calcutta’s Edifice – Bach, Brian PaulCalcutta Old & New – Cotton, Henry Evan Auguste