Calcutta started its journey as a city over 300 years ago when East India Company administrator Job Charnock established the Company’s trade on the bank of the Hooghly. The business post was selected as the place was skirted by the Hooghly on the west and a creek to the north, waterways being the primary route for trade.

The East India Company’s land acquisition was followed by establishment of factories and colonial developments, all along the river. Huge warehouses came up and the central business district was established, too. Much water has flowed under the Howrah bridge, but the architectural grandeur of the buildings established around the Hooghly and the ghats remain Kolkata’s icons, despite the co-existing ncroachments, squalor, and grime.

The city is dotted with hundreds of ghats—Babughat, Prinsep Ghat, Zanana Ghat, Babughat, Outram Ghat, Jagannath Ghat— which are not merely a series of steps leading to the river but also a space that houses motley activities, starting from bathing, washing, religious rituals, funeral rites, various trades to massage by masseuses from Odisha, and of course, the “night shelter” for the homeless. The prettier promenades are popular hangoutplaces. While the Hooghly itself is used to cross over from Kolkata to Howrah or towards north by ferry, the riverfront is skirted by the circular railway, used by many for daily commute.

“The riverfront has a great potential to be developed as a major tourist attraction through informed and sensitive regeneration,” said G M Kapur of Intach (Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage).
According to KMC’s blog Kaleidoscope, most ghats were built by local businessmen during the British Raj either as an act of philanthropy or as a status symbol.

In 1823, when Rani Rashmani’s father passed away, she visited a ghat to perform his postcremation rites. Shocked by its poor state, she asked her husband, Babu Raj Chunder, to renovate the ghat. Thus, the new-look Babughat was built in 1830, complete with 36 pillars and an Ionic style parapet.

Chhotey Lal Durga Prasad, a successful law practitioner at the Calcutta High Court, built a ghat and refurbished a small temple there he would often visit, after his son was born. This later came to be known as Chhotey Lal Ka Ghat.
The Ram Chandra Goenka Family established the Zanana Ghat for women to take a bath in the Hooghly.

One of the highlights of the riverfront is the idol-makers’ enclave of Kumartuli. The ghat has 12 pillars and is open on three sides. “It has one of the most beautiful and ornate ghats, which is now used for religious rituals during the day and by the homeless at night,” said Meghna Banerjee, a freelance photographer.

In the last few years, social media has propelled the riverfront, the ghats and their history into public consciousness. According to photographers, pre-wedding shoots have become almost incomplete without a few frames with either the Howrah bridge or the Vidyasagar Setu in the backdrop or one of a boat ride or beside the pillars at Prinsep Ghat. “Along with yellow cabs and trams, the riverfront is the most sought-after location for pre-wedding shoots. Some want to be photographed on the steps, some with the Howrah bridge as the backdrop and some on boats,” said Arshad Hussain, a wedding photographer.
The riverfront is such a repository of the city’s history that it has spawned several curated walks and trails along it.
“Foreigners as well as locals join our walks. This indicates the heightened interest about the river and the history around it among Kolkatans,” said Partha Banerjee of River Tales, whichconducts river trails on weekend mornings between December and March.

But the old quarters along the riverfront are also plagued by encroachment, squalor and defacement. Given the proximity of the CBD, goods vehicles are parked on long stretches. Vagrants have made several of the ghats their homes. Open defecation is regular. Shops, eateries, and warehouses dump waste in the river. “I have been conducting walking tours along the Hooghly for a decade and I have seen several aspects disappear over time. Many of the ghats have fallen into disrepair, while illegal parking is eating into space,” said a walking tour organiser.

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