As soon as I realized that I will be soon writing an essay about a visit to a historical place, the first thing that clicked my mind was, I should consider someplace within the boundaries of Kolkata itself. I have been to places with a grander historical importance like Varanasi, Murshidabad and Ujjaini and many more but none could beat the attachment and sentiment that I have with my birthplace, Kolkata, so if I am to review a historical place, it should be from Kolkata.
Kolkata is indeed the city of joy. Growing up in South Kolkata, I have experienced the dynamism and modernity of the city blossoming with respect to time. On the other hand, North Kolkata has a fragrance of heritage sites. Though it is also changing, still it carries century-old buildings, plenty of narrow lanes and the smell of books. The Central Kolkata bonds the two extremes. For someone who has never been to this city, it is difficult to understand the diversity and the bond that follows here.
I have been to many places in Kolkata which carries some historical significance. Starting from amateur’s favorite spots like Victoria Memorial, Indian Museum, St. Paul’s Cathedral, Park Street cemetery to professional’s favorite spots like St. John’s Church, Beth el Synagogue, Nakhoda Masjid, Armenian Church, I have roamed quite a lot. Most of the visits were a result of college escapades, i.e. class bunks. In this essay, I will write about neither an amateur’s nor a professional’s favorite, but my favorite spot. I will write about Prinsep Ghat. Why Prinsep Ghat? Because I have a story to tell and besides that, I know sometimes nonfiction travelogues gets boring to read. You will soon know why I have good reasons to consider Prinsep Ghat for my write-up.
It was the second year of college. I got myself my first girlfriend. It was our first meeting after she accepted my feelings and confirmed hers. She is a year and a half senior to me. She was in her final year of the college. She was studying museology. It was an unplanned meeting. My class ended earlier so I told her to meet and Prinsep Ghat was chosen in default. I knew that I will be the first one to reach so in order to burn some extra time, I caught the circular train from DumDum Junction. The train took a whole hour to reach Prinsep Ghat Station! I crossed the platform and reached the road only to find her waiting for me. Slowly, we walked a little more towards the entrance. There was a large hoarding with a Welcome to Ganga message from the Chief Minister. As we entered the so-called hoarding gate, I located another small hoarding conveying us, the visitors, to keep the Ganga clean and treat it as our Mother. We walked through the riverside garden passages, crossed Prinsep Ghat I and Prinsep Ghat II.
There was a small park and in it was a big white monument. It is the Prinsep Monument. There were chairs in the boundaries of the park. We saw a few couples here and there scattered around the park. Some children were playing, rather running here and there while their caretakers were busy in a gossip session. Two beauties dressed in gowns were posing in the weirdest yet sophisticated ways possible and their respective photographers were busy capturing shots. A bunch of boys were playing badminton. A father was throwing a plastic football for his son to catch but the son was pretty absorbed in watching other kids run so his father has to come and collect the thrown ball all the time. I was too shy to take the initiative to talk to ‘her’ so all I did was sit and watch these.
After quite a time, she broke the silence and asked me whether I know, what this monument is all about and why this place is named Prinsep Ghat? I knew nothing; rather I never intended to know as well. I was ignorant. Previously, I have come to this place two or three times but never had I tried to know these or dig the history beneath. I felt I should have done a Wikipedia research before suggesting the place and took a mental note of it. To evaporate my discomfort of the ignorance of history, she told me the history. Back then, I was happy that at least in some way or other a conversation started.
I came to know that back in 1819, James Prinsep came to India as the Assistant Metal Examiner of Kolkata Mint. Academically, James Prinsep was a chemical scientist and an orientalist. He was also known to be an architect and weather specialist. Overall, he was multi-talented. He died at an early age of just 40 in 1840. In 1843, this monument was built in memory of James Prinsep and named as the Prinsep Monument.
I gave a serious look at the white monument for the first time and queried that the monument looks awesome but unlike the Victoria Memorial and other British architects, this one does not seem to have an Indian touch. I noticed the museology student glow because unintentionally I raised a question from her domain.
Then, I came to know that the monument was designed by a reputed architecture of that time, W. Fitzgerald. In terms of architecture, it falls under the category of Palladian architecture, a Palladian porch. Palladian architecture is a typical European architecture which is derived from the designs of Andrea Palladio, a Venetian architect. I was also told that though the outlay of the Prinsep Monument was that of a Palladian architecture, Greek and Gothic inlays were also prominent. Neither I have any architectural knowledge nor do I understand any of the differences. I listened enthusiastically and took mental note of keywords like Palladian, Greek and Gothic for future use.
It was the ending of the evening and the sun was setting slowly. On its way, it distributed different layers of color throughout the sky. It was a magnificent view. I showed it to her. In turn, she advised me to walk a few steps back and capture the view of the Monument, the Vidyasagar Setu and the sun altogether. I did. It was one of the best sunsets I have ever enjoyed. Soon after, we decided to go to the ghat itself.
The ghat was crowded enough but we still managed to get a space in the stairs. Boatmen were making their boats ready. They were busy lighting lamps inside the boat couch and putting curtains to the couch. A hawker was screaming “Ghati-garam” in the most perverted tone possible. We took two. While giving the balance, the hawker told us politely to throw the papers in the dustbin and signaled the direction of it. For about half an hour the sky changed into different colors from time to time and the sun finally set. It was dusk. There are only three sources of light now: the moon, the bridge lights and the ghat lights.
I was comfortable so I took the initiative to break the silence between us and told her that I have heard these boatmen sing Bhatiali songs while they row. She smiled at me and did not answer. Eventually, a few minutes later, we took a boat ride. After a while, I asked why the ghat is named after James Prinsep because there were so many extra-ordinary Indians and Orientalist worth mention during that period.
I came to know that James carried a tenacious research on chemistry, meteorology, Indian scriptures, archaeology, mineral resources, and numismatics and left his marks in every field. In 1832, James became the Secretary of the Asiatic Society of Bengal. He started the Asiatic Society’s journal ‘Journal of the Asiatic Society’ and became its sole editor. He himself contributed research articles on mineralogy, chemistry, numismatic, and Indian antiquities. He is known to interpret a series of coins from India, especially from the Kushan and Gupta era. He is also known to decipher a series of Brahmi and Pali scriptures of Emperor Ashoka. Along with other notable works, I was told that the restoration of Emperor Aurangzeb’s minarets from a state of collapse and completing the works of Thomas canal were worth mention.
The constant light breeze was wonderful and soothing. I watched the magnificent reflection of the lights from the Vidyasagar Bridge in the water with utter enthusiasm. I felt like I have been coming for boat rides regularly but it was indeed my first boat ride from Prinsep ghat. I complained the boatman that out of the 1 hour ride, over 30 minutes were over, but neither had he sang any Bhatiali nor had he taken the boat far from the ghats. To my surprise, the boatman returned the disturbed feeling towards me. In a sarcastic tone, he replied that at this time of the day no one has ever requested him to take the boat far; everyone just comes with their friends and silently creeps into the couch room. Moreover, he cannot sing and has never ever heard of such a sing request in his boatmanship career till date.
‘Bhatiali’ genre emerged from the boatmen of Bengal but the boatmen today do not sing those anymore because no one asks for it. When there is no demand, supply shrinks and this is the case of the famous folk genre. Today, one can only find those in music or movie albums. The artists who sing also have no connection with boatmanship. This is the era of specialization. Singers sing, boatmen boat. I understood.
More than three years have passed since the occurrence of this day; still, I remember every minute detail of every second of the day. In the meanwhile, I have come to Prinsep ghat several times but no day’s memories were comparable with that of this day. I don’t like history, I don’t understand architecture, I have almost no extra knowledge of the British rule than our class ten history text-books used to portray, but I can still tell the history of Prinsep ghat and a few lines on James Prinsep. I believe that no matter to what extent I hate history as a subject, just like Ganga is eternal, this visit to the Prinsep ghat and the story that I got to know about this place and about the person were eternally inscribed on me. Everything else is transitory. And since then, I started considering Prinsep ghat as a ‘historical’ place.
——Writer, Adhiraj Sengupta, Rabindra Bharati University , a Participant of the International Essay Competition held in July-2018.