THE SHUDRA QUEEN RASHMONI : A HEARTED REBEL WHO FOUGHT AGAINST SOCIAL EVILS
The life of Rani Rashmoni, a social activist, who opposed the British and undertook many development-works in Kolkata is ideal for many. Rani Rashmoni was born on 28th September 1793 in a poor family at Halisahar of West Bengal. As a child, Rani Rashmoni was married to a man from Kolkata. She became the third wife of Raj Chandra Das, a businessman from a Zamindar family of Janbazar. While Rani Rashmoni became a mother of four daughters, she was lucky enough to have found Raj Chandra Das, a progressive husband who did not believe in confining women within the four walls of the house. Raj Chandra Das was educated and idealistic. He was unconventional and liberal in outlook in an era when it was considered that the women from upper class Hindu Bengali family should not cross purdah or do things which are considered manly by the society. Babu Raj Chandra Das gave freedom to his wife Rashmoni Devi, with which she fought against the superstitions that people followed in the name of customs and tradition. Along with her idealistic husband, Rashmoni Devi ran different welfare programs in Kolkata. Rashmoni Devi was also encouraged by her husband to participate in the day to day administrative affairs of the vast Zamindari estate. Rani Rashmoni picked up the business-matters quickly and proved her efficiency in the management of the estate. With time, Rani Rashmoni also took up many other roles. One of her husband’s close associates was the renowned social reformer Raja Rammohan Roy and inspired by his beliefs. Rani Rashmoni also raised her voice against prevalent social malaises like child marriage and sati. She also submitted a draft-bill against polygamy to the East India Company. What our beloved city Kolkata is today – Rani Rashmoni was a silent warrior during the contemporary period on the heart of Calcutta (then). Rani Rashmoni donated the land and money for the Beleghata Canal, the Madhumati Connecting Canal etc. She also made substantial financial contributions to Imperial Library (now National Libraray), Hindu College (now Presidency University), Bengal famine Relief Fund and numerous other known and unknown charitable trusts and institutions. Rashmoni devi also patronized Vidyasagar’s widow remarriage movement with substantial financial help.
How a Bengali Shudra widow outwitted the East India Company with her sharp business acumen and a penchant for litigation? – In 1840’s, 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 river Ganga. In the months between February and October, small fishing boats would dot to the iridescent surface, netting in bounteous harvests of the silvery Hilsha fish, a prime delicacy in Bengali cuisine. Arguing that the fishing impeded the movement of ferries, a tax was imposed on fishing boats (Panitari tax), a clever sleight of hand that reduced river-traffic while raking in extra revenue for the East India Company. Hundreds of anxious fisher-folk travelled to Calcutta, to plead their case with the upper-caste Hindu landlords, hoping that 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. Being disheartened, the fisher-folk, mostly from the Jele-Kaibartya and Malo communities, trudged to Janbazar, in Central Calcutta, to the house of the wealthy entrepreneur, the late Raj Chandra Das. His wife, widow Rashmoni Das, who was then the queen of Janbazar was the last hope of the fishermen. What followed next was a remarkable event in India’s colonial History - Queen Rashmoni offered Rs 10,000 to the East India Company to take an ‘ijara’ or lease of a 10km long stretch on the Hooghly river, whose banks were nestled to 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 river Ganga – one at Metiaburuz and the other at Ghushuri; where the river arched like a bow and she invited the beleaguered fisher-folk to cast their nets in the barricaded zone.
Once, news reached to Rani Rashmoni that some English soldiers from indigo-plantations were disturbing the local Hindu Bengali women of the villages. Rani Rashmoni immediately sent her guards and arrested those soldiers. As a result, the Janbazar-palalce of Rani Rashmoni was attacked and seized by East India Company. When English officials wanted to enter the sanctum-sanctorum of Raghubir’s temple at the prayer-room of Rani Rashmoni, she took the sword and guarded the room with vengeance, just like Maa Kali. This punishment was so severe upon the British indigo-planters, that they never dared to venture into any clash again with her.
Ganga for all : As dinghies flocked to the catch-zone, all large commercial and passenger-traffics on the Hooghly river came to a grinding halt. Bewildered at the turn of events, East India Company officials sent out dispatches seeking an explanation. Rani Rashmoni said that the incessant riverine traffic made it difficult for fisher-folk to cast their nets inside her ‘ijara’, lowering its profitability. As a lease-holder, 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, budergows 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 fisher-folk unfettered access to the Ganga river. A Bengali Shudra widow had outwitted the most cunning colonial corporation in history and protected river Ganga as a common for fishing- rights, using Anglo-Saxon capitalism’s potent weapon (private property).
A Ferry Ghat known as Rani Rashmoni Ghat has been built for ferry services in Barrackpore and in Hooghly (just after the Hooghly District Correctional Home). Again, one of the five Fast Patrol Vessels of Indian Coast Guard has been named after Rani Rashmoni, who fought against the inhuman policies of British rulers. It was connected in June 2018 and will be based in Vishakapatnam (indigenously built by Hindustan Shipyard).
Subaltern folklore : 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 lonely remnant of that historical moment, now used sometimes by tea-sellers to break the charcoal for their chulas. Rani Rashmoni’s resistance, however had become the part of subaltern folklore.
Acclaimed Bengali author Samaresh Basu, in his seminal river novel ‘Ganga’ (1974), wrote that for the fisher-folk, the river forever remained ‘Rani Rashmonir Jal’ – the waters of Rani Rashmoni. “My childhood memories of Sunday mornings coalesce around Rani Rashmoni Bazaar at Beleghata. Set up by Rani Rashmoni in 1850’s, it was my weekend kaleidoscope of sounds, aromas and sights – a half kilometre walk that ended on the Beleghata Canal. Once a navigable creek, connected to the Ganga, which ferried cargo and people, the canal now carries away the sewage of the city. It was in the waters of Beleghata Canal that the Das-family of Janbazar (Family of Babu Raj Chandra Das – Ranima’s husband), first made their money, transporting bamboo downstream. Rashmoni’s husband bought most of the land in Beleghata on both sides of the canal to store the exported 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 remarking 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 land-owning aristocrats, whose fortunes were declining. This new aristocracy gave birth to Calcutta’s ‘abhijata bhadralok’, the exclusive domain of the upper caste families. In ‘Calcutta : Essays in Urban History’ (1993), the late historian S.N. Mukherjee narrates how the Brahmin, Kyasthya and Baidya castes were unwilling to accommodate Shudras, such as the Das family, into their echelons.
Prince Dwarkanath Tagore had mortgaged a part of his Zamindari in now South24 Parganas (part of the present-day Santoshpur and adjoining areas) to Rani Rashmoni for his passage to England – this part of land which was then the part of Sunderbans was marshy and almost uninhabitable except for some families of thugs who found the area convenient to stay and venture out for plunders in far away places mounted on stilts. Rashmoni persuaded these families and helped them to build up fisheries in the surrounding water-bodies that later turned into large, rich bheris. They gradually gave up their profession of plundering and transformed into a community of fishermen.
Water and Power : It is believed that it was Rashmoni’s advice that made Raj Chandra Das look towards 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 landing stages of the ghats for bathing, cremation and commerce were located at the intersection of water and power. It was the perfect site to establish the influence of Das family. The result was the elegant Babu Raj Chandra Das Ghat or Babughat, adorned with Doric coloumns, timber louvers and an expensive set of steps leading to the river. Soon after in 1831, the Das family of Janbazar went to build the Ahiritola Ghat. Of the 42 historical ghats that still adorn the river-front in Kolkata, these two remain among the oldest and busiest.
The ultimate death of Rajchandra Das, six years after the completion of Babughat, left the young widow, Rashmoni, in charge of one of the wealthiest family estates in Bengal. After the death of Raj Chandra Das, Rani Rashmoni stepped into the family-business. 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 Dwarkanath Tagore, the grand-father of Rabindranath Tagore, to part with two of his profitable estates to repay the loans, he took from her late husband; a daring feet at a time given Tagore’s prestige and power. She never hesitated 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 East India Company, using their White Men’s lawa 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, acquiring immense profits after the revolt.
Through her life-time, Rashmoni continued donating money for the construction of ghats on the Hooghly river. Rashmoni constructed and renovated nine ghats after the passing of her husband, which added significantly to her popular appeal. She funded the construction of ghats such as Babughat (in memory of her husband), Ahiritola ghat and Neemtala ghat for the daily bathers in Ganges. Later Rani Rashmoni built a bridge over river Ganges in Howrah. Rashmoni also oversaw the construction of a road from Subarnorekha river to Puri for the pilgrims.
Caste-barrier in religious activities : The British did not even allow Durga Puja to be done by a woman of Kaibartya caste but it was Rani Rashmoni, the brave woman who fought with them. She defied the orders when puja processions were stopped by the British on the charge that they disturbed the peace, Rani maa defied the orders, finally the British Government was compelled to withdraw the penalty imposed on her. For a widow from the Kaibartya caste to wield such power in a male-dominated orthodox Hindu society was unusual. Inspite of having such a great spiritual nature, the society then had discriminated Rani Rashmoni only because she was born in a Chasi-Kaibarttya family and being a middle-caste Shudra origin, no Brahmin was ready to be the priest in Ranimaa’s temple. Rani Rashmoni’s house at Janbazar was the venue of the traditional Durga puja celebration in every Autumn. This included traditional pomp, including all-night jatras (folk-theatre), rather than by entertainment for the Englishmen with whom she carried on a running feud. After Rani Rashmoni’s death in 1861, her sons-in-law took to celebrate Durga puja in their respective premises.
Rani Rashmoni’s tryst with Brahminical orthodoxy would take place at the site of her last and greatest undertaking – the Dakshineshwari Kali temple on the banks of the holy river. The establishment of Dakshineswar Kali temple in 1840 was one of the most prominent work by Rani Rashmoni in the contemporary period, among her all other charitable works. 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 Varanasi on a pilgrimage, when Devi Kali appeared to Rani maa in a dream asking for a temple dedicated to her to be built on the banks of river Hooghly. The dream had moved Rani Rashmoni intensely and she instructed her trusted people, specially her youngest son-in-law Mathuramohan (Mathur babu) to look for plots to construct the Kali temple. After a massive hunt for suitable plots, a 20-acre plot in the village of Dakshineswar was selected. The land resembled a hump of tortoise. One part of this land belonged to a European Christian while the other part was a Muslim burial ground. Rani Rashmoni began to construct this Hindu temple in 1847 on this very ground, integrating different faiths. Rashmoni decided to give material shape to her theophany and sought to buy land on the western bank of the Hooghly river. Finally Ranimaa’s dreamed fulfilled but after a long nuisance by the Brahmin society.
Montage of religions : As news spread off, a Shudra widow planning to build a temple on the banks of a sacred river, the upper caste landlords on the Western bank decided to remind Rani Rashmoni about her caste and position. They admonished anyone selling land to her, forcing her to turn to the Eastern bank. 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 Mr. John Hesty. The rest was bought from the Muslims, which included a large pond, a grave-yard 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. The Deed of Endowment states, “In order to fulfil the wish of my husband, on 6th September 1847, I purchased 54.4 bighas of land at the cost of Rs. 42 thousand and 500 from James Hasty. I made to build a puca Navaratna temple, twelve Shiva temples (twelve jyotirlingam), a Vishnu temple and a Natmandir on the land. On 31st May 1855, I placed Lakshminarayan Shila at the Navaratna temple as per the wish of my late husband and also for the welfare of his soul”. The deed was executed on 31st May 1855. Land of the Kali temple complex at Dakshineswar is 60 bighas. Dakshineswar temple was not only dynamic in nature but also proved to be the dynamism of Rani Rashmoni. The Kali temple is a symbol of national unity, being standing on the land, once owned both by the Muslim and Christian community.
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 Dakshineswar Kali temple as a place of worship for the Hindus. A Shudra woman offering Prasad to the divine was forbidden by the Shastras. The rejection shook Rani Rashmoni deeply. But a solution appeared in the shape of 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 the land of temple as well as the property to Ramkumar Chattopadhyay. The priest installed the deities and the temple was inaugurated in 1855. As Ramkumar Chattopadhyay moved into the temple-complex, as the residential priest, he bought his brother Gadadhar Chattopadhyay with him. This young Brahmin boy later shared the spiritual bond with Rani Rashmoni and finally metamorphosed into one of India’s greatest Hindu philosophers and mystics Sree Ramakrishna Paramhansadeva. Rani Rashmoni later became the chief patron of the revered Hindu saint Ramakrishna Paramhansadeva, who was the spiritual-guru of Swami Vivekananda. Seeing the ecstatic trance-like devotion of Ramakrishnadeva, Rani Rashmoni gave him a free-hand to worship Goddess Kali and made him the head-priest of Dakshineswar temple. Because of the considerate and spiritual nature of Rani Rashmoni, it is said that Ramakrishna Paramhansadeva considered Rani Rashmoni as one of the ‘Ashtasakhis’ (eight spiritual companions) of Radha and Krishna.
Today the temple-ghats of Dakshineshwar, teems with people on weekends. The surface of river Ganga glitters with sunlight leaping into it from the edges of slate-grey clouds. Some pilgrims arrive for an immersion in river 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 to their 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 saree with a golden fish print, holds him firmly by his arm. The colossal Vivekananda Setu that bridges the distance between the city and its suburb-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. Except for Dakshineshwar temple, the rest of Rani 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 Rani Rashmoni and in which she breathed her last in 1861. As upper-caste male protagonists Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, Ramakrishna Paramhansa, Swami Vivekananda and others gained intellectual prominence. Rani 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 with huge number of episodes in the Bengali biographical series ‘Karunamoyee Rani Rashmoni on TV since 2017). Her mass-appeal is unsurprising. The honorific of ‘Rani’ was not afterall bestowed on her by any official decree. The prefix ‘Rani’ for Rashmonidevi resonates with that of ‘Ma’ for Ganga – both emerge from the love of the people and meet at the point where the water of river Ganga become ‘Rani Rashmonir Jal’, finally dissolving the caste-barrier between the Shudra queen and the sacred river.
Like Maharani Ahalyabai Holkar of Indore, who was legendary with her philanthropic activities in India, Rani Rashmoni etched out her name in Indian History as one of the most benevolent figures of 19th century in Bengal. The great personality Rani Rashmoni left her body on 19th February 1861 at the age of 68. Rani Rashmoni will be recalled forever as one of the greatest philanthropists of Bengal and a woman every one of us, must remember.