How a Bengali Shudra widow outwitted the East India Company with her sharp business acumen and a penchant for litigation
In the 1840s, fishing communities in the Bengal Presidency were facing a crisis of survival. The trading corporation, East India Company, had turned its profiteering gaze towards the placid waters of the Ganga. In the months between February and October, small fishing boats would dot her iridescent surface, netting in bounteous harvests of the silvery hilsa, a prime delicacy in Bengali cuisine. Arguing that the fishing impeded the movement of ferries, a tax was imposed on fishing boats, a clever sleight of hand that reduced river traffic while raking in extra revenue for the Company.
Hundreds of anxious fisherfolk travelled to Calcutta to plead their case with their upper-caste Hindu landlords, hoping they would support their cause. Unwilling to sour relations with their patrons in the Company, the Hindu elites were quick to turn their backs on the Shudra fishing community. Disheartened, the fisherfolk, mostly from the Jele Kaibaryta and Malo communities, trudged to Janbazaar, in central Calcutta, to the house of the wealthy entrepreneur, the late Raj Chandra Das. His widow, Rashmoni Das, also a Shudra, was their last hope.
What followed was a remarkable event in India’s colonial history. Rashmoni offered ₹10,000 to the East India Company to take an ijara, or lease, of a 10-km-long stretch of the Hooghly River (the famous distributary of the Ganga), on whose banks was nestled the bustling metropolis of Calcutta, the then capital of colonial India. After Rashmoni procured the lease-holding documents, she proceeded to place two massive iron chains across the Ganga — in Metiabruz and Ghusuri — where the river arched like a bow, and she invited the beleaguered fisherfolk to cast their nets in the barricaded zone.
Ganga for all
As dinghies flocked to the catch zone, all large commercial and passenger traffic on the Hooghly came to a grinding halt. Bewildered at the turn of events, Company officials sent out dispatches seeking an explanation. Rashmoni said that incessant riverine traffic made it difficult for fisherfolk to cast their nets inside her ijara, lowering its profitability. As a leaseholder, she was entitled, under British law, to protect the income from her property. If the Company thought otherwise, she was happy to litigate, and till a judicial verdict was reached, she would not unshackle her stretch of the river.
With skiffs, budgerows, and steamships piling up on the riverfront, the Company officials had little recourse but to come to an agreement. The tax on fishing was repealed, allowing the fisherfolk unfettered access to the Ganga. A Bengali Shudra widow had outwitted the most cunning colonial corporation in history, and protected the Ganga as a commons for fishing rights, using Anglo-Saxon capitalism’s potent weapon — private property.
Almost 120 years later, in 1960, Rashmoni’s first biographer, Gauranga Prasad Ghosh, photographed one remaining iron peg — the size of a baby elephant’s foot —that had been used to fasten the chain across the river. Uncelebrated and forgotten, the peg was a lonely remnant of that historical moment, now used sometimes by tea-sellers to break the charcoal for their chulas. Rashmoni’s resistance, however, had become part of subaltern folklore. Acclaimed Bengali author Samaresh Basu, in his seminal river novel, Ganga (1974), wrote that for the fisherfolk, the river forever remained ‘Rani Rashmonir Jal’ — ‘the waters of Rani Rashmoni’.
The bustling metropolis of Kolkata that came up on the banks of the Hooghly | Photo Credit: Getty Images
My childhood memories of Sunday mornings coalesce around Rani Rashmoni Bazaar in Beliaghata. Set up by Rashmoni in the 1850s, it was my weekend kaleidoscope of sounds, aromas and sights, a half-kilometre walk that ended on the Beliaghata Canal. Once a navigable creek, connected to the Ganga, which ferried cargo and people, the canal now carries away the city’s sewage. It was in the waters of the Beliaghata Canal that the Das family of Jan Bazaaar — Rashmoni’s husband’s family — first made their money, transporting bamboo downstream. Rashmoni’s husband bought most of the land in Beliaghata on both sides of the canal to store export goods ranging from musk to muslin. Using canals — the highways of the 19th century — for commerce, the Das family soon acquired substantial land and property, transforming the family from banik (entrepreneurs) to zamindar (landlords).
In the 19th century, Calcutta was witnessing a remaking of the local aristocracy. Unlike in the previous century, when power was wielded by landed gentry from rural areas, the new elites were urban traders who made their fortunes as trading partners to the East India Company. With their newly accumulated wealth, many bought out the estates of landowning aristocrats whose fortunes were declining. This new aristocracy birthed Calcutta’s abhijata bhadralok — high society — the exclusive domain of upper-caste families. In Calcutta: Essays in Urban History (1993), the late historian S.N. Mukherjee narrates how the Brahmin, Kayastha and Baidya castes were unwilling to accommodate Shudras, such as the Das family, into their echelons.
Water and power
It is believed that it was Rashmoni’s advice that made Raj Chandra Das look towards the Hooghly. The banks of the sacred river, central to the everyday lives of the people of Calcutta, were emerging as a site for upper-caste Hindu philanthropy. The ghats — landing stages for bathing, cremation, and commerce — were located at the intersection of water and power. It was the perfect site to establish the Dases’ influence. The result was the elegant Babu Rajchandra Das Ghat or Babughat, adorned with Doric columns, timber louvres, and an expansive set of steps leading to the river. Soon after, in 1831, the Das family went on to build the Ahiritola Ghat. Of the 42 historical ghats that still adorn the riverfront in Kolkata, these two remain among the oldest and busiest.
The untimely death of Raj Chandra Das, six years after the completion of Babughat, left the young widow, Rashmoni, in charge of one of Bengal’s wealthiest family estates. She wielded her power for the next 30 years, guided by her keen business acumen, solidarity with the underprivileged, a penchant for litigation, and a remarkable ability to take patriarchy to task.
Rashmoni persuaded Prince Dwarakanath Tagore, the grandfather of Rabindranath Tagore, to part with two of his profitable estates to repay the loans he took from her late husband: a daring feat at the time, given Tagore’s prestige and power. Neither did she hesitate to take on armed conflicts with oppressive landlords and British indigo planters, who were at the receiving end of her lethels, trained private army.
She repeatedly took on the East India Company — using their white men’s laws against them — but also did not shy away from profiting from the Company. Gauri Mitra, in her biography of Rashmoni, notes that during the Revolt of 1857 many Indian and European traders started selling off their shares in the East India Company. Rashmoni bought these at dirt cheap prices, accruing immense profits after the revolt.
Through her lifetime, Rashmoni continued donating money for the construction of ghats on the Hooghly. Mitra suggests that Rashmoni constructed and renovated nine ghats after the passing of her husband, which added significantly to her popular appeal.
For a widow from the Kaibartya caste to wield such power in a male-dominated orthodox Hindu society was unusual. It was thus fated perhaps that her tryst with Brahminical orthodoxy would take place at the site of her last and greatest undertaking — the Dakshineshwar Kali Temple on the banks of the holy river.
The Dakshineshwar Kali Temple built by Rani Rashmoni on the eastern bank of the Hooghly | Photo Credit: AMITANGSHU ACHARYA
At 100 feet, the ornate beige and vermilion temple with nine spires is considered one of the holiest sites for Hindu pilgrimage and prayer. It emerged out of a dream. Rashmoni was on a budgerow on her way to Benaras on a pilgrimage, when Kali appeared to her in a dream, asking for a temple dedicated to her to be built on the banks of the Hooghly. Rashmoni decided to give material shape to her theophany, and sought to buy land on the auspicious western bank of the river. As news spread of a Shudra widow wanting to build a temple on the banks of the sacred river, the upper-caste landlords on the west bank decided to remind Rashmoni of her place. They admonished anyone selling land to her, forcing her to turn to the eastern bank.
Montage of religions
The 33 acres of land that Rashmoni finally acquired for Dakshineshwar Kali Temple on the eastern bank came from a montage of religions. A major part of the land, including an abandoned factory office, was acquired from the family of a deceased Protestant English businessman, John Hesty.
The rest was bought from Muslims, which included a large pond, a graveyard, and a mazhaar or shrine for Gazi baba, a local saint. The last plot belonged to Hindu villagers and included a mango orchard. Rashmoni did not erase the history of the land she purchased. Instead, she repaired the factory office and the water tank.
Today, the magnificent temple carries the syncretic history of its origins in its reflection on the waters of the Gazipukur tank on one side and the sacred Ganga on the other.
As the temple neared completion, the priests of Calcutta refused to endorse the Dakshineshwar Kali Temple as a Hindu place of worship. A Shudra woman offering prasad to the divine was forbidden by the shastras, they said. The rejection shook Rashmoni deeply.
But a solution appeared in the shape of a poor Brahmin scholar, Ramkumar Chattopadhyay, who had recently moved to Calcutta. Hindu texts said that if temple land was donated to a Brahmin priest and he installed the deity, it would be deemed fit for worship. Rashmoni handed over all the temple land and property to Chattopadhyay. The priest installed the deities, and the temple was inaugurated in 1855. As Chattopadhyay moved into the temple complex as the resident priest, he brought his teenage brother, Gadadhar. Scholars Supriya Banik Pal and Rup Kumar Barman quote historical archives to show that young Gadadhar not only had initial reservations about working for a Shudra woman, he also refused to eat the prasad at her temple. This obstinate and orthodox young Brahmin boy, later to share a spiritual bond with Rashmoni, would metamorphose into one of India’s greatest Hindu philosophers and mystics, Ramakrishna Paramahamsa.
Today, the Dakshineshwar temple ghat teems with people on weekends. The surface of the Ganga glitters with sunlight leaping into it from the edges of slate-grey clouds. Some pilgrims arrive for an immersion in the Ganga, their bodies emerging from the silt-laden waters, their hands folded in prayer. Some fill up old plastic bottles to carry the sacred water home. In one corner, a middle-aged man carefully takes off his shoes and socks and dips his feet gently into the water, as his wife, in a black sari with a golden fish print, holds him firmly by his arm. The colossal Vivekananda Setu that bridges the distance between the city and its suburbs looms large above it all, juxtaposing the 20th century with a 19th-century centre of Hindu revivalism that owes its existence to a Shudra widow.
The Dakshineshwar Temple ghat teeming with people on weekends | Photo Credit: Getty Images
Except for the Dakshineshwar Temple, the rest of Rashmoni’s legacy, strewn across Kolkata, is in different stages of dilapidation. According to biographer Sisutosh Samanta, this includes two houses, 30A and 30B, on Harish Chatterjee Street in Kalighat, purchased in 1837 by Rashmoni, and in which she breathed her last in 1861. The resident of this ramshackle heritage building is the current Chief Minister of West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee.
As upper-caste male protagonists — Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, Swami Vivekananda, and others — gained intellectual prominence, Rashmoni, one of the most influential icons of the 19th century, was relegated to the margins of history. But she stayed uneffaced in folklore, recent evidence being a chart-topping 1,300-episode Bengali biographical series on TV since 2017. Her mass appeal is unsurprising. The honorific of ‘rani’ was not, after all, bestowed on her by any official decree.
The ‘rani’ prefix for Rashmoni resonates with that of ‘Ma’ for Ganga — both emerge from the love of the people and meet at the point where the Ganga’s waters become Rani Rashmonir Jal, finally dissolving the caste barrier between the Shudra queen and the sacred river.
The writer is a Leverhulme Trust Ph.D Candidate at the School of GeoSciences, University of Edinburgh, U.K.
Source: Read Full Article