Because Calcutta’s Prinsep Ghat now stands some distance away from the river Hooghly, many make the mistake of assuming that it never was a proper “ghat”, or quay. But in his Recollections of Calcutta For Over Half a Century, Montague Massey describes a set of steep stone steps from the ghat to the water and writes, “When it was low water…you had to be carried ashore by the dingheewallahs on an antiquated kind of wooden chair or board, as the mud between the river and ghat was more than ankle-deep”. Those steps are no doubt buried under the earth and the river has retreated towards Howrah over the years. Nevertheless, Prinsep Ghat on Strand Road, between the Water Gate and the St George's Gate of the Fort William, continues to be one of Calcutta’s best known colonial monuments.
The man, who has been honoured by this Palladian porch, was born on the 20th of August, 1799. James Prinsep was the 7th son of John Prinsep, a rich Indigo planter turned East India merchant. James initially studied architecture under the gifted but eccentric Augustus Pugin. But an eye infection made it impossible for him to pursue his studies. His father then secured the job of Assistant Assay Master in Calcutta, and James arrived in the city on 15th September, 1819, to work under the distinguished Sanskrit scholar, Dr. Horace Hayman Wilson. As his eyesight improved, James undertook several important architectural and engineering tasks alongside his job. He studied and illustrated Temple architecture, built a new mint in Benares (Varanasi) and in 1822 even produced an accurate map of the city. But he is best remembered for his translation of the rock edicts of Emperor Asoka, which were in the Pali script. His long hours of work would eventually take a toll on his health, and an unwell James was forced to return to England, where he died on the 22nd of April, 1840 of “softening of the brain”. Prinsep Ghat was built in Calcutta (Kolkata), in 1843 in his memory, and the money for the monument was collected through public subscription. The architect was Captain W. Fitzgerald.
In his book Calcutta’s Edifice, Brian Paul Bach writes that nowhere in the subcontinent can such a grand monument be found for access to a river. Bombay’s Gateway of India commands access to the sea after all. Prinsep Ghat was built to replace Chandpal Ghat as the principal point of embarkation for important visitors to the city. It has witnessed the Royal visits of 1875, 1905 and 1911. On the 8th of February, 1872, the Viceroy, Lord Mayo, was fatally stabbed at Port Blair, the capital of the penal Settlement in the Andaman Islands, by a convict named Sher Ali. On the 17th the late Viceroy's remains, which had been brought up the river in H. M. S. Daphne, were landed at Garden Reach and conveyed to Government House along the Strand Road. At the grass plot opposite Prinsep's Ghat, the European residents in Calcutta joined in the funeral procession. An interesting aside; Mayo’s cook was an Italian by the name of Chevalier Federico Peliti. After the Viceroy’s death, he went on to start his own restaurant, and the building may be seen adjacent to Government House (Raj Bhavan) even today.
With its 6 sets of Ionic columns Calcutta’s Prinsep Ghat bears some resemblance to Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate, although this is on a much smaller scale. Decaying and neglected for many years, Prinsep Ghat has now been restored to its former glory; part of the government’s riverfront beautification efforts. It is now a popular spot with locals and tourists alike, and in the evening many may be seen the lawn in front of that ghat, chomping on their favourite snacks and slurping ice cream. Here’s what the place looks like in Google Maps. There is no entry fee for Prinsep Ghat, and photography is permitted, even with a tripod. When the 2nd Hooghly Bridge or Vidyasagar Setu was built, the decision was taken to put the Calcutta approach to the South of Prinsep Ghat, thus saving the monument. She may be dwarfed by the giants of modern Calcutta, but she continues to stand, and shall remain standing, I hope, for many years to come.
- by Deepanjan Ghosh
SUGGESTED FURTHER READING
Thacker’s Guide to Calcutta – Firminger, Walter Kelly
Recollection of Calcutta for Over Half a Century – Massey, Montague
Calcutta Old and New – Cotton, Sir Harry Evan Auguste
Calcutta’s Edifice – Bach, Brian Paul