Uttara Gangopadhyay: ‘We sailed to and fro beneath the gigantic Howrah Bridge (Rabindra Setu) looming above us like a giant eagle spreading its wings.’
To the west of Kolkata flows the Ganga. And the river has so seamlessly integrated itself into the existence of the city that was born, nurtured and now ageing along its banks, that people pay little attention to it. But that morning, as our boat set sail from the Man of War jetty, we were reminded of the river that has been a silent witness to the unfolding of centuries of human journeys along its course, witness to business ventures that would influence global trade, witness to the rise and fall of an empire. As our boat glided up and down the river, we looked upon the cityscape on both banks and realised how the river has played a key role in shaping what lay before us.
We were on a ‘voyage through tide and time’, sailing on a special trip organised by the Kolkata Port Trust (KoPT).
About an hour before boarding the boat, we had assembled at the little known Kolkata Port Trust Maritime Archives and Heritage Centre housed within the renovated Fairlie Warehouse on Kolkata’s historic Strand Road. While the main displays included models of various ships, replicas of lighthouses and other shipping memorabilia, wall-mounted glass cases containing informative panels talked about the river Hooghly (as the Ganga is called along its final stretch to the sea), various aspects of Calcutta (known as Kolkata since 2001) and its people, landmark events, history of the city port, about the indentured labourers who set sail from here, etc.
From the museum, a bus dropped us at the jetty from where we boarded the boat that first sailed north. As we made ourselves comfortable in the cool confines of the luxury cabin, Gautam Chakraborti, security adviser to the Port Trust and instrumental in making this boat trip possible, and his colleagues, narrated the history of the ghat-s (the wide staircases leading down to the river) that dotted the river bank. In between lay old warehouses, decrepit factory buildings, homesteads, etc. We just about caught a glimpse of the Putul Bari (Doll House), a statuette or two visible beyond a clump of trees.
We sailed to and fro beneath the gigantic Howrah Bridge (Rabindra Setu) looming above us like a giant eagle spreading its wings. We could see the traffic rushing along the bridge that was the third longest cantilever bridge in the world when it was opened to the public in 1943.
As we turned around and sailed south, we sailed beneath the second Hooghly Bridge (Vidyasagar Setu), said to be the longest cable-stayed bridge in India. On our right, on the opposite bank, extended the Shibpur Botanical Garden. To our left, on the near side, were rows of warehouses that would stock jute and tea, two of the key profitable produces that left the Calcutta Port during the colonial period.
Soon appearing before us were the docks, once the soul of the Calcutta Port, one of the premier ports of the erstwhile British Empire. It was the opportunity to see the docks, otherwise out of bounds for the public, was one of the main reasons that I joined this trip. If you are lucky, you may catch the sight of a ship being guided into the docks.
It was from the Kolkata port that the British would send large groups of indentured labourers to places such as Fiji, Mauritius, Trinidad, Guyana, Suriname, Jamaica, etc. We caught a glimpse of the Suriname Memorial — a replica of the Mai Baap Memorial in Paramaribo (capital of Suriname in South America) — a tribute to the Indian contract workers who went to Suriname between 1873 and 1916.
Our final stop was at the Kolkata Memorial, built under the aegis of Global Organization of People of Indian Origin (GOPIO), and inaugurated on January 11, 2011—at the Khidderpore Depot located on Garden Reach Road along the Hooghly River—“in recognition and remembrance of Indian Indentured Labourers of 19th – 20th centuries”.
We disembarked here and walked up to the base of a Clock Tower, which was erected in 1899 by the Commissioners of the Port of Calcutta—at the site of its first Dock office—to help ships in transit set their time. The tower was designed by W. Banks Gwyther and constructed by Martin & Company. The four-faced turret clock was set up by Cooke and Kelvey. The clock, which had stopped working for nearly 30 years, was thoroughly repaired by Kolkata’s veteran horologist, TR Clock Co, and recommissioned on March 4, 2013.
As we trooped down to the bus that was waiting to whisk us back to the city centre, walking past an abandoned area of the dock office, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s words came to my mind, ‘Time flies over us but leaves its shadows behind.’
Information: ‘The Voyage through Tide and Time’ is a special tour organised by the Kolkata Port Trust to acquaint travellers with the legacy surrounding the organisation and the city. Since some of the attractions are in restricted areas, such as the Kolkata Memorial, the trip is a hassle-free opportunity to see them. Kolkata Port Trust is holding special tours (subject to a minimum number of people) on select days.
For tour dates and other details, contact: Reception Counter (Ground Floor), Kolkata Port Trust Headquarters , 15 Strand Road, Kolkata 700001 or Office of The Security Adviser , Kolkata Port Trust , Port Security Organisation, P-65 Circular Garden Reach Road, Kolkata 700043. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Words and Photos: Uttara Gangopadhyay
About the author: Uttara Gangopadhyay is a Travel Writer by profession and a Traveller by choice. Uttara also writes on wildlife and nature conservation, folk art and craft, food, and heritage of India.