If the river Hooghly has played a vital role in turning Kolkata into the metropolis it is today, the city has hardly returned the favour, having remained largely indifferent to the river and to the symbols of Indo-European cultural and social ferment along its northern banks.
But the river banks continue to fascinate veteran guide and researcher Sumit Bhattacharyya, who has charted his way through the riverine route on close to 40 occasions. We returned to some of the largely ignored upstream sites along the Hooghly with him.
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Hangsheswari temple Bypassing the unremarkable village of Bansberia would be easy if it weren’t for the looming Hangsheswari temple. From 1799, when Narasimha Deb started work on it—which his wife completed in 1814 after spending a princely sum of Rs5 lakh—the temple has been as much about faith as about an amalgam of architectural styles. Spiritually, the temple derives inspiration from Tantric kundalini cosmology theory; each of its 13 spires host Shiva lingams (including a white lingam inside the tallest spire), while the garbha griha houses a neem-wood idol of a cross-legged Hangsheswari. Within the precincts, the much-older Vasudev terracotta temple, made in 1679, seems dwarfed in size though certainly not in aesthetics.
Hooghly Imambara Since 1836, the Hooghly Imambara has stood at a sharp river bend, welcoming or bidding farewell to trading ships and European colonial interests. A hundred and fifty-two steps lead up to the windy clock tower lording over a region which first fell to the Portuguese in 1537, and later to Shah Jahan’s army. The Jubilee Bridge, built to commemorate the 15th year of Queen Victoria’s rule, and the original Imambara built by Haji Mohammad Mohsin stand to the right. The gravelly gong of the Victorian-era clock, the winding key of which reportedly weighs 20kg, breaks the reverie. Eighty-five large chandeliers, including Persian ones, and 165 smaller lamps light up the Imambara’s gorgeous halls and passages every Muharram, when pilgrims descend on the famous Shia pilgrimage site.
Shivshakti Annapurna temple The similarities between this temple in Talpukur and its more renowned downstream counterpart at Dakshineswar are apparent—both lie on the same side of the riverbank, have a similar colour scheme and design and belong to the same era. Taller though it may be, the Shivshakti Annapurna temple, built in 1875, is “ordained” to be a paler, second edition of Dakshineswar. As the story goes, founder Jagadamba Devi, daughter of Rani Rashmoni, who built the Dakshineswar temple, was directed by Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, the 19th century sage, not to surpass her mother’s creation. So instead of the usual dozen, there are only six surrounding Shiv temples here.
Serampore College It seems apt that the cool river breeze should refresh the campus life of a college that dates back to William Carey—“missionary philanthropist and Oriental scholar” (as described at his residence here), who is often remembered for his fresh approach to academic and social awakening in Bengal. The missionary and colonial interests of Denmark, led by King Frederick VI, are writ large on the sturdy iron gate—reportedly gifted by the king—and the large Ionic pillars of the college, which once granted degrees from the University of Copenhagen. The Serampore Mission, founded by Carey, Joshua Marshman and William Ward, led the modern Indian Library Movement and by the mid-19th century, both college and library were among India’s top-rated. These days, the Carey Library, housing titles in 40 Oriental and European languages, Bengali and Sanskrit manuscripts and Carey’s translation of the Bible in major Indian languages, continues to welcome people eager to know about the region and the institute’s past.
Mangal Pandey Ghat That Mangal Pandey was hanged in close proximity for “mutinous conduct” by the British after the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857 is one reason why this site is significant. Lovebirds find the park-like, river-facing setting in the cantonment town of Barrackpore important for altogether different reasons. The path to the ghat runs along the regal Flagstaff House, one-time residence of senior British officials, now the preserve of the governor, whose office occasionally grants permission to visit. Statues of the Earls of Ronaldshay and Northbrook can be seen here. They are among the dozen-odd statues of British officials that were sent here in 1969 from Kolkata’s Maidan area. There’s also the Semaphore Tower, one of the four signalling towers that relayed SOSs to Fort William in Kolkata in the mid-19th century. A formidable collection of birds, and their chirping, completes the picture.
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