Photograph of Tolly's Nullah or Adi Ganga near Kalighat from 'Views of Calcutta and Barrackpore' taken by Samuel Bourne in the 1860s. Public Domain

Is there a link between the histories of the sanitation of the Hooghly and the formation of a discourse of sanitary womanhood in colonial Calcutta? The river in question, Hooghly or Ganga, was the epitome of pollution for the British while being synonymous with purity for the colonized Hindu. The historian Pratik Chakrabarti makes an incisive distinction between the secular and sacred avatars of the same river, the Hooghly, and the Ganga, as it becomes both a source of drinking water for the city and as the sewer for its waste in the 1870s:

 [T]he official name of the river became Hooghly, denoting its commercial and colonial heritage, while even today in the everyday vernacular of the city, it is called ‘Ganga’ or even ‘Bhagirathi’, signifying its origin from the great river of the north. This dual identity remained a feature in the question of purity and pollution and the opposing discourses of the secular and the sacred river. (183)

The Scottish chemist David Waldie, in his experiments with the river water, did not find an abundance of filth, only a lot of mud, especially during the monsoon, that would require adjustments in the purification process. He was quite clear that the river’s putative resistance to sanitation was simply because of climate and topography: “the real source of difficulty lay in the peculiar quality of the river water during the rains, which caused it to penetrate deep into the sand in a way which English waters similarly treated did not do” (175).  However, the Sanitary Commissioner of Bengal David Boyes Smith was adamant in his belief about the exceptionally polluted nature of the river: “…it is an indescribably unclean and revoltingly contaminated river…it is a vehicle for every variety of excrementious abominations” (224). The municipality dodged the perfect solution offered by the civil engineer William Clark to use a “combined sewerage and drainage system” to route the waste water to the Salt Lakes, located on the other side of the city, and to collect the drinking water from the river upstream, due to its fiscal priorities (Chakrabarti 187-188).

The Ganga became a convenient receptacle of filth as well as a source of pure water in colonial Calcutta, as pipelines brought her supposedly holy water into every household. Raja Kamal Krishna Deb Bahadur, the scion of Hindu conservatism in the city, was quick to resolve this conundrum of double purification by writing Jantradhrita Jal Suddhi (Treatise on the Mechanical Purification of Water) to ensure that the piped water remain ritually pure and that Brahmins be “entrusted with the maintenance of the waterworks, which would make it acceptable for others to use it” (194).As the burgeoning sanitary infrastructure upon the Hooghly was threatening to overhaul notions of purity and pollution embedded in the imaginary of the Ganga, the mythical order of the Ganga was also suffering from these historical upheavals. As we will see, the formation of the sanitary infrastructure in the city coincides with the emergence of a vocabulary of social sanitation, especially posited on women. Ganga becomes a domesticated riverine goddess in the age of sanitation, in a marked departure from her crocodile-riding formidable form.

Gunga, watercolour with pencil, Wellcome Library no. 26005i, Public Domain

There is a long tradition of panegyrics on the Ganga in various Indian literatures , especially as she alights from the heavens by the penance of the King Bhagiratha. The mythical space through which Ganga traverses do not usually include Calcutta as it comes into being only in the colonial era. In 1868 when Durgaprasad Mukhopadhyay wrote a conventional panegyric of the Ganga in Bengali called Gangabhakti Tarangini (Verses in Devotion to the Goddess Ganga), the city remains characteristically absent. However, in the famous playwright Dinabandhu Mitra’s Suradhuni Kavya (literally Verse for the River of the Gods, an epithet of Ganga) (1871-76), history invades the mythical space, as sanitary infrastructure as well as sanitized sexual mores come in vogue. The very premise of Ganga’s arrival to earth no longer remain the penance of Bhagirath, but her own growing age: “Ganga grown at home would be such a shame/ Which mother can handle her daughter and still keep her name?” (8). Her path up to Haridwar retains some of her mythical sibilant glory, stones cracking into pilgrimage sites under her aqueous force, and so on. But as soon as she goes beyond Haridwar it is science-ruled British territory, checkered with canals, that impede her divine flow: “When Cautley [Proby Cautley, chief engineer of the Ganges canal] cut the great canal/ All the holies of Haridwar, full of gall/ Screamed, “all be in vain/Ganga won’t budge in canals of men” (8). Cautley apparently retorted in matching imperial temper: “The lass would move upon my lash/The time is over for such holy sash” (8). In any case, a docile Ganga finds her way through the new waterways and the text resumes its mythical trajectory once again, although this path remains constantly studded with contemporary references to the 1857 Mutiny, among other events. The section on Calcutta is full of awe for the palatial buildings as well as the seats of learning the city has to offer, with enumeration of virtues of contemporary cultural doyens such as the scholar Iswarchandra Vidyasagar, and the poet Michael Madhusudan Dutt. Ganga is evidently pleased by the abode of the bhadralok (literally “gentle folk”), marked off from the ordinary Bengali by their embodiment of respectability (Broomfield, 4). Ganga is so taken by this grand tour of “bhadrata” (“refinement”, “civility”, as well as “sanitation”, the attributes of the bhadralok) that she becomes fearful of her subsequent course through Midnapore, beyond the pale of colonial urbanity: “Where the river Knasai unfurls in her shapely bend/And the town of Midnapore stands/Where there the danger of drowning sprawls/Who goes in that unsanitary trail?” (153).

While there is a formidable and a very important body of scholarship on the making of the bhadramahila, as a discourse of the “respectable woman”, from the work on Himani Bannerji on periodicals to that of Swati Chattopadhyay on the architecture of personal spaces, just to give two relevant examples for our discussion, we need to have further work on the interrelation between the textuality of sanitation, and its material infrastructure.


Works Cited

Bannerji, Himani. “Textile Prison: Discourse on Shame (lajja) in the Attire of the Gentlewoman
(bhadramahila) in Colonial Bengal”. The Canadian Journal of Sociology / Cahiers canadiens de sociologie , Spring, 1994, Vol. 19, No. 2, Special Issue on Moral Regulation (Spring, 1994), pp. 169-193.

Broomfield, J.H. Elite Conflict in a Plural Society: 20th Century Bengal. OUP, 1968.

Chakrabarti, Pratik. Purifying the River: Pollution and Purity of Water in Colonial Calcutta. Studies in History 31 (2), pp. 178-205.

Chattopadhyay, Swati. Representing Calcutta: Modernity Nationalism, and the Colonial Uncanny. Routledge, 2005.

Mitra, Dinabandhu. Suradhuni Kavya. Bangiya Sahitya Parishad, 1944 (1871).

Proceedings of the Asiatic Society of Bengal (Jan-Dec 1866). Baptist Mission Press, 1867.

Proceedings of the Asiatic Society of Bengal (Jan-Dec 1873). Baptist Mission Press, 1873.

Header Image: Photograph of Tolly’s Nullah or Adi Ganga near Kalighat from ‘Views of Calcutta and Barrackpore’ taken by Samuel Bourne in the 1860s. Public Domain.,_Kalighat_in_1865_(07).jpg

All translations by the author of this piece.


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