In Memoriam The ‘Babu’ Of Babughat

Anindita Chowdhury

The handsome Grecian Doric colonnade at Babu Ghat was constructed by Baboo Rajchunder Doss of Janbazar, the husband of Rani Rasmoni, in 1830. He was known for his philanthropy and had also constructed a shelter for the dying at Nimtolla Ghat, quite close to the erstwhile temple of Maa Anandomoyee.

There is an inscription blurred by time and an indiscriminate paint job which reads: “The Right Hon’ble Lord William Cavendish Bentinck, Governor General of India, with a view to encourage public munificence to works of public utility, has been pleased to determine that this Ghat, erected at the expense of Rajchunder Doss in 1838 shall be called Baboo Rajchunder Doss Ghat.” However, subsequently, people forgot the name of Rajchunder Doss and the bathing ghat came to be known as Babu Ghat. Rajchunder Doss died in 1836.

Radharaman Mitra, a scholar on Calcutta says since Rajchunder’s grandfather was into bamboo trade, he got the title, “Mar”. His father, Pritiram Doss worked in the custom house and was into rice trade. Pritiram had married into a rich family of Jaunbazar and acquired the property in the area through marriage. It was Rajchunder Doss who had constructed a metalled road from Chowringhee to Babu Ghat, which was initially named after him. Apparently, the same road, lying perpendicular to Babu Ghat from his ancestral house in Jaunbazar, was once sealed off by Rani Rasmoni to teach the boorish Sahibs a lesson when they tried to stop religious processions to Babu Ghat. Later it came to be known as Auckland Road. The same road is now called Rani Rasmoni Avenue.

It may be noted that ghats in old Calcutta, were built not only for commercial purposes like trade or transportation but also because the affluent class preferred to inscribe the family name on the landscape and hence we have a number of instances like Gokul Mitra Ghat or Nabakrishna Ghat. Interestingly, whole sale markets owned by these families were also set up near the ghats. In fact one notices a street bazar in front of Babu Ghat too, in one of the old photographs discovered in a shoebox at the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland.

Today, though Babughat wears a dilapidated look with encroachment, vendors, idlers and garbage all around, it is still the busiest ghat in the city. It cannot be dismissed as a mere bathing ghat or a landing berth for ferry service. To the more thoughtful, Babu Ghat is an indistinguishable part of the life cycle of most denizens, for conducting the ceremonies of life and death, by the gently flowing Hooghly. Evidently, the motley crowd involved in the myriad activities is largely dominated by the priests, mostly hailing from Odisha, and devotees and of course by masseurs who rub shoulders with the daily commuters. Inside the hall, on your way to the steps of the bathing ghat you will find huge wooden rectangular boxes which serve as the platform for the massage and double up as a storing place for their wares. Small idols of various gods and goddesses have also found a place inside. Outside, vendors sell neem twigs, and plastic jars for bathers who take a dip and also carry the sacred Gangajal back home.

Babu Ghat, undoubtedly, offers that distinct flavour that Calcutta is noted for, where an interesting milieu gather throughout the day , some for bathing, some to seek salvation and others who considers it to be the best spot for a heady massage in the mornings and afternoons. But beware; you need to have reams of fatty layers as the masseur uses his knee to dole out a bone cracking massage.

It is also the popular spot for immersion of idols and every Durga Puja sees elaborate arrangement by the civic body and Kolkata Police for the immersion process which continues for days. During Pitripaksha, the fortnight before Mahalaya, people gather in large number, offering tarpan to their forefathers. During Chhatt, Babughat comes alive as the rituals of worshipping the Sun god continue till the wee hours.

Today, the area around Babu Ghat is actually a huge terminus for long distances buses, mostly interstate ones. Amidst the hustle bustle, the garbage heaps and the swirling milieu the imposing but flaky yellow pillars stand – imposing, riparian and wistful.