The notion that a river can be a Goddess intrigued me even before my, and my son’s, trip to the Kumbh Mela in February 2013 .
Water has long been considered to be a medium of spirituality and its presence, often as a purifying agent, plays vital roles in many of the world’s religions, including Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and Judaism. There are also examples of stretches of water being considered sacred ( eg River Jordan ), and examples of deities being personified through water. In the UK Holy Wells and Spas have been used for their healing properties for centuries and, once dedicated to Celtic gods and goddesses as in Aqua Sulis at the city of Bath, were later adopted by Christianity and named after Christian saints.
That an entire river can be a living Goddess in the 21st Century, and continue to be worshipped and its waters be considered sacred and pristine by millions of people despite overwhelming scientific evidence pointing to gross pollution, is surely an anachronism.
The map above shows the Ganges as it flows through the centre of Kolkata. Marked on the map are the key locations I had chosen to visit for photographs, both in relation to the festival and their general significance to the local role of worship with the Ganges as a centre of influence. The white line running along the length of the Ganges river delineates the course of the old railway track once used industrially, taking unloaded stocks from wharfs and jetties and warehouses no longer in use. It now runs through shanty towns and slums where families live and children play within touching distance of the track providing much need transport provision through this part of the city.
It also shows the location of my hotel, a good 2 mile walk every day to the Howrah Bridge and Flower Market.
Starting from the bottom of the map, and taking each locality one by one, the following are brief descriptions of each locality.
The Adi Ganga was the original route the West Bengal Ganges took on its journey to the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean. Over hundreds of years though it declined, became silted up and communities developed upon its reclaimed banks. Eventually the river Hooghley became the primary river and continues today as the Ganges in name, issuing the waters from West Bengal into the Bay of Bengal in a delta many hundreds of miles wide and together with many other tributaries of the Ganges.
Some reminders of Adi Ganga’s former grandeur remain, most notably Kalighat, a spectacularly dark temple dedicated to the Goddess Kali in which goats continue to be ritually slaughtered in order to satiate Kali’s desire for death and blood. The temple is one of the Shakti Pith ( centres of power ) and regarded as a particularly fierce manifestation of the Goddess. Huge queues of devotees wait their turn to enter the temple, where non-Hindus are not permitted, to witness the slaughter. Against the outside walls of the temple the bodies of the goat sacrifices are gruesomely dismembered, dead carcasses suspended by one leg onto a notch on the temple wall as the butchers do their work.
All around small piles of smouldering ash still issue smoke into the fetid air, pungent incense sticks purify some of the odours and lurid, phantasmagorical depictions of Kali watch over the scene. Queues stretch through the carnage and others come and go, like wraiths in a scene from another century. About 50 metres from the Temple the Adi Ganga slowly flows past, where a modern day Asian version of Charon ferries people across the black waters for the price of 1 rupee, whilst on the ghats there are 2 red effigies of Savitri reclaiming the life of her dead husband Satyavan from Yama, the God of Death.
A stall holder with a large sun umbrella sells offerings, incense sticks and bright red vermilion powder wrapped in little newspaper sachets. The powder is emptied onto Savitri and rubbed down the length of her forehead, as if re-inforcing her tikka symbol of marriage in her efforts to rejuvenate her husband. Red bangles are left on her wrists and Satyavan’s abdomen as the devotees retire.
At the same time young boys search the riverbed for coins, using magnets attached to string, guarding their found treasure under their toes or in oversized trouser pockets which bulge as they swing their magnets time and again. Around them dogs gnaw at the bones of goats and fiercely squabble with large raven like birds as decomposing carcasses float downstream. Kalighat is a bubble from another dimension, a tirtha where realities clash and the division between the world of order we occupy intersects with another darker reality.
I spent time on the river bank amidst some of the small dwellings which house entire families. A boy pointed out movement in the water and I saw a snake swimming across the fetid water, its body writhing and wriggling as it made progress. It vanished once it reached the far bank.
My interest in the Princep ghat was fuelled entirely by its incongruous position as being some distance away from the Ganges and positioned virtually beneath the new suspension bridge across the Ganges. Its history is semi-interesting and was built to the memory of James Princep, an English scholar who translated the inscriptions of Ashoka The Great, ancient Emperor of India, in 1841. Restored in 2001, along with a section of the Ganges river banks into something of a recreational area in 2012, it held no significant interest for me and visiting once I did not return.
Babughat is one of the largest ghats on the Hooghly/Ganges in Kolkata. Built in the time of the British Raj it is a memorial to a ‘zaminder’, or Indian aristocrat, called Babu Raj Chandra Das by his wife. Married at the age of 11 Rani Rashmoni succeeded him and continued to manage his business affairs extremely successfully. She often opposed the Raj, especially in matters of tax collection, and defended the interests of the poorest both financially and philanthropically, funding the building of many ghats, temples and contributing to major libraries and colleges. Interestingly she held Durga Puji celebrations at her home each Autumn, hosting all night jatras, (folk theatre). Rather than proceed with charges against her for her defiance, the Raj acceded to her many requests for fear of public opposition and rioting in her support.
Today, as with many ghats, Babughat is in a state of great disrepair. It is a popular ghat and busy 24 hours each day, partly due to the proximity of the train station and the bus depot behind it. Many devotees come for puja there and it is very popular in the Durga Puja festivities. Because of its size and ease of access many of the larger Durga idols are brought for immersion here. The crowd is subsequently enormous and although personally attracted to the idea of photographing the immersions there, the crowds and the distance from Kumartuli put me off.
I regret not spending more time at Babughat; it clearly is a major point of worship along the Ganges/Hooghly river and worthy of greater consideration.
I was looking forward to visiting Millenium Park but in the end saw little there to interest me. It is a long narrow parcel of land between the railway line and the riverbank which has been developed into recreational park with seats, a small fun fair, other rides for children and kiosks where snacks and refreshments can be purchased. There is a small fee for entering the Park which effectively keeps out the poorest members of the community.
There are views over the river but few ghats; it is place for time out in the hurly burly of a frenetic city, with little room for the passion of faith or devotion. I was so disappointed I took no photographs.
The flower marker at Mullick Ghat was one of the prime draws to Kolkata for me, equal in emotional intensity and attraction to the actual Puja celebrations and the region of Kumartuli. The combination of the three visually rich subjects, each individually powerful in its own right, proved finally irresistible. In considering how to approach the market photographically I was conflicted between trying to represent the natural colours of the flowers themselves or to concentrate on the portraits and personality portrayal of the people working there. Before I made my fist visit I did not know which approach I would adopt.
After my fist visit there I knew that the stronger images, by far, would be the creation of portraits. My earliest interest in photography arises from a social conscience that I struggle to find in any defined way any more. Early interest in and love of the photography of the American Farm Security Administration who documented the incredible hardships of families living in the Great Depression in the southern and central plains of the USA has long defined my passion for photography. The idea of documenting such lifestyles with large format cameras has remained with me and I continue to own 5 large format cameras I no longer use. Photographers such as Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Marion Post Wolcott and Arthur Rothstein filled my imagination and together with a potentially conflicting interest in fine art photography, a dichotomy still existing and represented by the decision I had to make at the Flower Market, my first 2 serious photographic book purchases were by Walker Evans and Brett Weston.
My interests developed along a conventional photographic trajectory into mostly American photographers but also developed a political edge with admiration for photographers such as Tina Modotti and the whole Mexican post-revolution left wing art movement of Rivera, Kahlo and Siqueros, a political interest and affinity still maintained by photographing Spanish Civil War sites with an anti-fascist slant. Years of overwork and controversy have perhaps blunted these ideals but something powerful still motivates me.
The portrayal of workers at the market would fit in with these ideals, as well as paying homage to more contemporary human interest photographers such as Sebastiao Salgado.
The link with the flower market with this project is that the flowers sold there ( and some say it is the largest flower market in India if not Asia ) are predominantly for spiritual use.
The Howrah Bridge, built in 1943 replacing a pontoon bridge, is a cantilever bridge originally linking the two cities of Howrah and Kolkata (Calcutta). On 14 June 1965 it was renamed Rabindra Setu, after the great Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore, who was the first Indian and Asian Nobel laureate. It is still popularly known as the Howrah Bridge.
The bridge is a famous symbol of Kolkata and West Bengal and carries a daily traffic of approximately 100,000 vehicles and possibly more than 150,000 pedestrian. It has no spiritual significance that I am aware of ( though I guess providing access across the body of a Goddess for so much humanity warrants some merit ) but my interest is that it features in the background of so many photographs of Kolkata that it has become almost iconic and mandatory for inclusion in any visual project of the waterfront of the city.
I only ever crossed it by foot but it was always an experience, with streams of Bengalis crossing in both directions. The signs at either side of the bridge give explicit instructions for appropriate pedestrian conduct in large letters. The bridge also provides very good elevated views across the flower market.
Nimtala Burning Ghat
The themes of death, re-incarnation and attainment of moksha are fundamental to the Hindu faith. Rituals around death ( Antyesti ) are equally important and complex and a description of them can be found here. Hindu tradition has always been to burn a body on a funeral pyre close to a river; electric crematoria are becoming more popular and at Nimtala a choice of either is available.
Nimtala burning ghat was founded in 1827. Electric crematoria were added late in the 20th century and in April 2010 a major redevelopment provided eight electric furnaces and 8 external pyres for conventional cremation. An air-conditioned waiting room was also constructed on the first floor.
The burning ghat is situated approximately midway between Kumartuli and Howrah Bridge and it is a convenient place to sit, drink some water and take breath. A row of colourful stalls selling flowers, incense and other objects for rituals lined the entrance to the Ghat and a line of people sat on the ground, some with deformities, plaintively asking for offerings. Behind the stalls ran the railway line and beyond that was Bhootnath Shiv temple, established in 1850. A queue of people were waiting outside for a plate of free food; a banana, rice, a small cake and a vegetable mix.
Having seen burning ghats a number of times I am no longer shocked by public, external cremation. There is something entirely natural about public cremation given the religious and cultural context of India and it would be disrespectful to be negative about it. Sitting on the seats watching the pyres, with the Ganges/Hooghley at my back, sometimes smarting from the smoke blown up by sudden gusts of wind and being entirely accepted by relatives of the deceased remains though a surreal experience. Most if not all of the body is obscured by stacks of wood but sometimes there are glimpses of a stranger’s skin being licked and consumed by the stoked flames. I am perhaps more disturbed by the animals which wander freely around these facilities; goats, dogs and water buffalo, all of which find food from the remains of the pyres.
I was told that the body’s remains are emptied into the Ganges/Hooghley as is conventional at Varanasi, though I have also read that the holy ash can also be collected by the family a day or so after cremation.
A particularly surreal experience occurred when one of the pyre attendees ( who oversee the cremation and add further combustibles as required, including occasionally what looked to be ghee causing the flames to whoosh up into the air ) came over and asked my name. I told him and he instantly stood to attention, saluted me and asked me to take his photograph. It seemed like an instant throwback into some historical relationship of master and servant; I took his photograph as he requested but explained that he didn’t have to salute me. His colleague, tending the fire in the first photograph, subsequently remembered me on future visits and went out of his way to come over and welcome me back to the ghat on each occasion. This was a really nice gesture I thought.
This region of potters and sculptors occupies an area in north Kolkata and was the furthest along the river I had planned to travel. Rising from obscurity to international fame over a relatively small number of years, thousands of idols depicting Indian deities are produced annually for festivals both within India and also abroad. Traditionally using clay obtained from the adjacent river Ganges, sculptures are now available in stone, bronze, fibre glass and other materials. Deities available to order include those of Durga, Kali, Jagadharti, Lakshmi, Saraswati, Kartikeya, Viswakarma, Shiva as well as other religious and non-religious models such as freedom fighters, famous personalities and renowned writers.
I visited Kumartuli most days for 2 weeks during my stay in Kolkata and witnessed effigies of Durga be transformed from straw and wooden frames into beautifully painted and dressed representations of Durga, her children and the defeated demon Mahishasura. Not only were idols being created in workshops but semi-completed sculptures could be seen along streets, beside the railway line near the slums and in small courtyards dotted around Kumartuli. Most were covered in plastic to prevent the midday sun from drying out the clay too much or to protect the almost completed forms from being damaged by rain.
The creation of the sculptures followed strict traditions and abides by dates on the Hindu religious calendar. Examples of this include collecting the clay on the Hindu date of Akshaya Tritiya from a river ( preferably the Ganges ) and mixing the gangetic clay with a handful of soil (punya mati) from the nishiddho pallis ( sex worker region ) of Kolkata. An important event is ‘Chakkhu Daan’, literally donation of the eyes. Starting with Devi Durga, the eyes of the idols are painted on Mahalaya or the first day of the pujas. Before painting on the eyes, the artisans fast for a day and eat only vegetarian food.
The sculptures ranged from miniature porcelain like representations to colossal 15 foot high creations, requiring up to 10 men to drag the larger idols from workshops onto lorries for conveying to Pandals or family homes. Once in lorries the sculptures would be securely fastened by rope, covered in plastic sheeting to protect them from rain and, accompanied by the blaring of toy horns and trumpets by small children thronging the clay idols, slowly driven off towards their destinations.
Eschewing roads, many idols were transported from Kumartali by river, using the Ganges/Hooghley itself to mostly cross to the far bank, where lorries would be waiting there, thus saving much time avoiding a drive through grid-locked Kolkata. The skill required to load the larger statues without damage was considerable. Again to much arm waving, joyousness and the blaring of horns Durga and her family, together with the slain demon, made their way across the sacred river to their temporary abodes.
I had hope to constrain my visits to only this stretch of the river side, but there was a ghat just a hundred yards north of Kurmartuli which held some important pujas and hosted more immersions of Durga than at Kurmartuli so I found myself extending my original plans slightly to incorporate these events.