hugli river of cultures


The Hugli River in Hooghly

The Ganga is one of the three major rivers which constitutes the Great Plain of India through depositional activities. In its lower course, near Dhuliyan in Murshidabad, the Ganga has bifurcated into two channels – one towards the south and another towards the south-east. The southern flow is named ‘Bhagirathi’ which ends at Bay-of-Bengal near Sagar Island and the other flow is named ‘Padma’ which meets the Bay-of-Bengal after passing through Bangladesh.

According to mythology, Bhagirathi is not a natural river but it was excavated by Bhagirath in the days of Mahabharata [1]. The length of Bhagirathi is 520 kms and it is the western boundary of the world’s largest delta. For some unaccountable reason, the name of the river Bhagirathi had been anglicized into ‘Hugli’ [2]. The name Hugli is derived from hogla (aquatic marshy plant) reeds [3]. Hugli River has three distinct sections, the upper section from the point of bifurcation near Dhuliyan in Murshidabad to its confluence with Jalangi river in Nadia, the central section from Nadia to the confluence with Rupnarayan and the lower one up to the sea. The central portion is nearly 193 kms, out of which approximately 80 kms of the river form the eastern boundary of the Hooghly district [4]. The Hugli River carries both the icemelt water from the Himalayas and the rain-fed streams’ water from the Chhotangpur Plateau region.

Under government regulation in 1795, the Zilla Burdwan was divided into two parts, each under a separate officer. The northern part was Burdwan and the southern part was Hooghly [5]. Again Howrah was separated from Hooghly in 1843. So the long tract of the Hugli River is accompanying the district at its eastern margin from Guptipara in the north to Bally Khal in the south. From the colonial period, the river Hugli formed a great water-street which carried the overflowing wealth and population of Calcutta to the villages along its banks [6]. It became the lifeline of the region in such a way that it was not merely a drainage system but also a way to boost the economy, transportation, and even the happiness of uncountable people. It is worth mentioning here that Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore acknowledged some unforgettable evenings at the riverbank in Chandernagore to be among the best moments of his life in a letter he wrote to Shrimati Indira Devi from Shilaidaha [7].   

  1. Sir William Willcock: “Following the……same”- Lecture on Ancient System of Irrigation in Bengal. Calcutta, 1930.p.10
  2. Amiya Kumar Banerji: West Bengal District Gazetteers: Hooghly. Calcutta, 1972.p.1
  3. Do
  4. L. S. S. O’Malley & Manmohan Chakravarti- op. Cit. pp. 6-7
  5. Sudhir Kumar Mitra: Hooghly Jelar Itihas O Bangasamaj. Vol-I. Kolkata, 2013.p.11
  6. W. W. Hunter: A Statistical Account of Bengal. Vol-III. London, 1876.p.xxv
  7. Harihar Seth (Ed.): Rabindranath O Chandannagar. Chandannagar, 2003.p.9


The rise of Hooghly coincided with the fall of the Saptagram (Satgaon) port & the progressive silting of the Saraswati river. The location of the Saptagram port coincided roughly with modern Tribeni, near Bandel. The mighty Saraswati had been the main lifeline of the region & trading vessels had plied its waters for centuries, from much before the Europeans came along. The Bhagirathi (Hugli) river was only a thin stream & was inhabited by the fisherfolk in lonely stretches. That is, until the earthquake of 1505, with its epicentre in Nepal, but which changed the slope of the Bengal basin & the fate of the two rivers. The Saraswati began to silt up, whereas the Bhagirathi was rejuvenated by a fresh flow of waters. The Portuguese had their base in Satgaon from about 1535, which they called ‘Porto Pequeno’ (small port). They were the first of the Europeans to arrive & they had carried on a flourishing trade. But gradually, the silting of the Saraswati made it very difficult for big trading vessels to arrive. They had to wait at the estuary for the high tide, to move further inland. The Portuguese began to look elsewhere to set up their base.

The Portuguese settled on a muddy stretch of land along the western bank of the Bhagirathi. The area was wooded with a small bush-like plant, called ‘hogla’, common in the Gangetic delta & the Sunderbans. Popular conceptions say that the name ‘Hooghly’ may have been derived from this plant (pronounced ‘Ugolim’ by the Portuguese). Probably the Portuguese left Saptagram & settled in Hooghly around 1580. The settlement at ‘Ugolim’ (Hooghly) was founded by Antonio Tavares, after the land had been acquired by a firman from the Mughal Emperor Akbar, around 1578-80, by a Portuguese deputation of merchants & Jesuits, which had been summoned to Fatehpur Sikri. Besides granting permission for setting up a trading settlement, the Emperor also granted them the right to practice, preach & convert people to Christianity. The Portuguese built a fort & trading factory in Hooghly. The heavily guarded square-shaped fort with canons in four corners upon turrets was surrounded by a deep moat, which was replenished by tidal water from the Hugli River. Hooghly became the most prosperous & most densely populated town among all the ports in the control of the Portuguese in Bengal. In 1588, British traveller & merchant Ralph Fich described Hooghly as the main centre of Portuguese control. It is thought that the name ‘Bandel’ may have been derived from the Bengali word ‘Bandar’ meaning port. Among other things, the Portuguese of Hooghly exported large quantities of rice. They imported textiles & silk from China, cloves, nutmeg, mace, cinnamon, pepper, camphor from South East Asia, Ceylon & Malabar Coast. The volume of their trade can be gauged from the fact that they used to pay ten thousand ‘tankas’ annually to the Mughals.  Along with trade, the Portuguese had another chief goal – the spread of Christianity. As early as 1498, a merchant of Vasco-da-Gama’s ship at Calicut is supposed to have said, “We have come here in search of Christians & spices.” The Bandel Church still bears testimony to the religious zeal of the Portuguese.

It has been a travesty of history that the Portuguese, who had been the first of the European colonisers to arrive, were also the first to depart. The rebel son of Mughal Emperor Jahangir, Prince Khurram (later Emperor Shahjahan), sought the help of the Portuguese in his struggle against his father & he was refused. He never forgot the insult & the Portuguese became his main target of attack after he ascended the throne in 1628. Meanwhile, the Portuguese were also descending rapidly to their own ruin. Their lust for money had led them to loot the merchant ships on the Hugli river, which earned it the epithet of ‘Rogue’s River’. In 1628, Shahjahan appointed Quasim Khan as the Administrator of Bengal after deposing Fidai Khan. Quasim Khan attacked Hooghly in 1632. The Portuguese were not able to hold out in the face of this attack. They faced a huge loss of sixty-four ships, two hundred fifty-seven boats & four thousand men, women & children, who were captured & sent to Agra Fort. The Mughals destroyed the Portuguese fort & trading factories & built up their own fort. Later, gradually with time, the Mughals too had to cede power to the British. Presently, due to administrative concerns, Bandel & Hooghly are two different towns. Bandel is distinct in its Christian religious practices. The Hooghly town, with its considerable number of Muslim population, bear testimony to a past which still continues to resonate in modern India.    

The Portuguese may have been forced to leave early, but their imprint is still felt not only in the Bandel-Hooghly region, but across the Bengali society as a whole. Their culture, their cuisine, their religious practices have so permeated into the society that today it is very difficult to sift the actual from the acquired. Does almari, chabi, janala, balti, saya, perek, alpin, alkatra, saban, towale ring a bell ? Well, they are Portuguese !           

Art & Architecture

Basilica of the Holy Rosary or Bandel Church

It is the oldest Christian edifice of worship in Bengal. This Portuguese Church was built in 1599. Along with trade, another chief goal of the Portuguese was the spread of Christianity. The  Portuguese ‘casado’ (married men)   of the Bay of Bengal differed from the militant Portuguese of the Malabar Coast in many respects. They carried out the process of colonisation gradually, in a much more peaceful manner. Religion was one of their main weapons to mingle & eventually control the masses.

Very often, the Portuguese used to import missionaries from Goa for the purpose of spreading Christianity. In 1599, two such Augustinian monks came down to the newly built Convent (dedicated to St. Nicholas of Tolentino) & the Church (dedicated to Our Lady of Rosary). This Church is now commonly known as Bandel Church. The Church is mainly Portuguese in style, with a fusion of other European elements. This is not surprising since Portuguese culture is marked by the advent of settlers from various other European countries & also the Arabs. The Bandel Church is small in comparison to other churches. There is a large courtyard, resembling a cave, with a fountain at the centre. People light candles or toss coins into the fountain, with prayers for wish fulfillment. The Doric style church comprises of three altars, a shrine to Mary, an organ, beautiful chandeliers, stained glass windows, beautiful paintings on the life of Jesus (remarkable is The Last Supper), a cemetery & a grand clock tower – all reminiscent of the colonial style of architecture.

There are no ends to legends surrounding the church. The most remarkable among them is about the statue of Mother Mary & a mast of a ship. The mast was there beside the cemetery until it was damaged by the Aila storm in 2009. Now it is protected inside a glass enclosure & kept in the courtyard.  People across all religions remain devoted to Mother Mary. Every year, during the Christmas week, the church remains open to all & people throng there in hordes, to light a candle in front of Mother Mary, who is said to perform miracles in curing incurable diseases. She may have originally been a Christian symbol set up by colonial rulers, but now she is a symbol of secularism in modern independent India.      

The Bandel Cheese

The Portuguese may have been the earliest to arrive & earliest to leave, but their imprint on Bengali life & culture has proved to be indelible. Especially while considering Bengali cuisine, people actually do not know that many of what they eat in daily life had originated in the Portuguese kitchen. The Portuguese brought along the New World crops of potato, tobacco, maize & chilies, along with cashew nuts, papaya, pineapple, guava & the Alfonso mango to Bengal.  

A delicacy evolved by the colonial Portuguese was the Bandel Cheese, both the smoked & unsmoked varieties. What makes this cheese so special is that almost all of the chena confections (made from splitting milk), such as sandesh, rosogolla in Bengal, owe their origins to the Portuguese & their Bandel Cheese. The  Portuguese  & the Dutch were fond of cottage cheese & were skilled in the art of preparing sweet food preservatives. The commodity laden Portuguese ships that left from local ports needed food that could be stored. Hence, the evolution of chena & the Bandel Cheese. This cheese was bundled into small rounded boxes with holes & smoked to a brown texture by fire from dried cow-dung cakes (traditionally used in Bengal as fuel for cooking in mud ovens). Since salt acted as a preservative, a heavy dose of salt was mixed into it. Not exactly palatable to modern tastes, it served the purpose of the medieval Portuguese traders rather well. These days, it is no longer available in Bandel, but in some remote areas of Tarakeswar & a few shops of New Market in Kolkata.

Hooghly Imambara             

It is a Shia Muslim congregation hall in Hooghly, built on the estate donated by Haji Md. Mohsin in 1861. Though the architecture is predominantly Persian, there remains the stamp of colonial architecture on it. The Persian influence consists of the huge Zaridalan or prayer hall, whose walls are covered with lines from the Hadish, the maxims of Prophet Mohammad, the seven starred throne of the Imam, Islamic calligraphy on the other walls of the Imambara, different sitting arrangement for the ladies, the rectangular tank in the huge courtyard with beautiful fountains for washing hands before prayers & the long corridors with numerous rooms housing the classes of the madrasah. The colonial influence is clearly visible in the huge courtyard in the middle, the black & white chequered marble floors, the lanterns & chandeliers of Belgian glass, the sundial in the backyard & the grand clock tower which houses a clock in the middle of twin towers erected upon the gateway, with the clock having been manufactured by M/s Black & Hurray Co., Big Ben, London, at the cost of rupees eleven thousand seven hundred & twenty-one (Rs 11,721/-) in 1852.