Art, Literature, Culture · Ganga · W Bengal · West Bengal

Boat Races of Bengal: A River Carnival

In the Nadi-Matrik land (born to the river) of Bengal, where a blade of grass takes on layered meanings, river boats are not to be taken lightly. For boatmen who row down a vast river for days at end, a boat is more than a mode of transport. It is symbolic of the mortal body: frail, tattered and adrift, in search of a safe harbor.

For the people who have been making these boats, the mistris, the boat-makers, crafting a boat out of wood is like birthing a precious daughter. The bow of a boat (front) is her head, marked with vermillion, oars are hands to propel her forward, Haal are legs to give her direction. When such a boat is chiseled and crafted out of light, strong wood, boat makers are worshiping “Lokkhi” or Laxmi, the goddess of prosperity.

And then when a new owner comes for the boat, it is dressed in a red and white sari, decorated with flowers and betel leaves, and given away with ceremony. This is irrespective of the religions: a cultural practice, rooted in the land and the rivers of Bengal.

Boat as a Bride Photo: Swarup Bhattacharya

When Swarupda tells this story, his voice takes on a dreamy quality of storytellers from a bygone era. Swarup Bhattacharyya has been researching boats of Bengal for over 25 years now. He has been my colleague at SANDRP in the past and is now a Visiting Fellow at the Anthropological Survey of India. He was instrumental in setting up the Bengal Boats Museum in Kolkata and has spent most of his academic life researching riverine boats. This deep and abiding love adds an unmissable poignant quality to Swarupda’s work. His stories are the ones we ought to listen to. They start with the technique of boatmaking and meander into rivers, flows, boat-songs, trees, silt and fish in Bengal’s rivers.

Swarupda with his Boat models Photo: Noukoghar: http://bengalboat.blogspot.com

When I met Swarupda in Kolkata during Durga Puja in 2018, he introduced me to hundreds of kinds of boats in Bengal, their form, their function, their beautiful names (Kosha, Sultani, Mayurpankhi) and stories. He talked about silt and reduced flows affecting the last remaining wooden boats of the state, about the boat makers moving away from a way of life, about mechanized motorboats all over Bengal’s rivers. Till that time, I had travelled in river ferries thick with the smell of diesel, small rafts and dinghys which felt like they will topple any minute, only they didn’t, dug-out canoes maneuvered by long poles through the dense silt of the river.

But I had never seen a racing river boat.

A few days back, Swarupda sent a video where thousands were gathered on the banks of a copious, full-bodied river, waiting for a show to begin. And then, rapidly cutting through the dense apprehension, several long, sleek wooden boats darted through the water like arrows, propelled by dark and angular men, paddling and heaving. The men, women and children on the riverbanks burst into cheering, clapping and laughing.

It was a carnival alright.

Nauko Baich: Boat Race of Bengal Photo: Swarup Bhattacharya

This is Nauka Baich, River Boat Race of Bengal. Nauka is boat and Baich is water-sport. Nauka Baich has been taking place around the Sundarban region of Bengal (West Bengal and Bangladesh) since time immemorial. In Ritwik Ghatak’s unforgettable 1973 film Titash Ekti Nadir Naam, this race is captured in all its glory, in fact the original book cover of Titash depicts Nauka Baich.

Cover of Titash Ekti Nadir Naam by Adwaita Mallabarman depicting a Boat Race on Titash

(The boat race in Titash takes place till date, this year it happened on the 11th of Sept 2022 in Brahmanbaria, Bangladesh. [i])

Titash Boat Race from: https://www.daily-sun.com/post/643960/Boat-race-held-in-Brahmanbaria

In West Bengal, Nauka Baich takes place in the Sundarbans region, downstream of Kolkata, a land crisscrossed with hundreds of rivers, rivulets and estuaries as the distributaries of Ganga-Brahmaputra-Meghana system meet the Bay of Bengal.

This year, the 5 racing boats took part in the race: three from Kultali region and two from Ghusighata region. The races took place at different riverine stretches, at the invitation of respective village committees. Paddling race is 1.5-2 kms at a time and at each section, the race happens thrice to select best of three performances.

The places where the race was held this year are:

  • Ghusiaghata, North 24 Paragana District n Bidyadhari river
  • Malancha, North 24 Paragana District again on Bidyadhari River
  • Nazat, North 24 Pargana District on Kalindi River
  • Kanmari again on Kalindi River
  • Kachukhali, a tributary of Datta River
The region of the boat race as seen on Google Earth

Swarupda witnessed all races and travelled with the boatmen/ racers “Majhis” in a separate boat. Boats are homes in this part of the world. These “houseboats” were decked with modest groceries, cooks, village elders to tell stories, village kids (all boys) to keep the weary boatsmen entertained. The children were the cheerleaders of their home-teams. The paddlers were farmers, fisherfolk or farm laborers and were taking part in the race not for money or fame (both meagre!) but for fun and camaraderie.

Life on a boat All photos: Swarup Bhattacharya

The teak wood racing boats are 50 “haat” long: 75 feet in length and just 30 inches in width and are seasoned for lightness and strength.  Each boat has 22 paddlers. Of the 22, one takes up the bow of the boat (the front) and is called the Bodo Majhi while the one at the back is Kol Majhi. One provides direction while the other orchestrates the rhythm.

The boat race is organized at river sections where the width is at least a 100 meters so that all boats can race in parallel.  The boats travel downstream and are then are hauled upstream again for the next race.

In West Bengal, Nauka baich takes place on the day of Manasa Devi Immersion. Manasa Devi is a fierce pre-aryan deity who protects her devotees against snake bites, famines and violent natural calamities. She is seen as a protector of children and fertility. Manasa Magla Kavya circa 13 Century has been immortalized in the beautiful painting tradition of Patachitra “scroll paintings” by the Patuas in Bengal.[ii] In the story of Manasa-Behula too, river plays an integral part. These are compelling myths: A David and Goliath story of sorts, but one is never sure who is who. The myth of Manasa Devi colors Amitav Ghosh’s novel Gun Island.

 Photo by Jean-Pierre Dalbéra  made by Mayna Chitrakar: https://naya.research.wesleyan.edu/mayna/
Manasa Devi Immersion Photo: Swarup Bhattacharya

This year, the race started from Ghusiaghata on the Bidyadhari River near Kolkata on the 17th September, 2022. Both riverbanks bloomed with people who came out to see Nauka Baich after two years, when it could not held due to covid restrictions. Swarupda tells me that Bidyadhari was an important river with a prosperous riverine port, but has desiccated over the years. It has little freshwater now and Kolkata’s sewage flows in the river unchecked. The river further meets Raimangal river in the Sundarbans delta region.

More than 40,000 people gathered on the banks on the first day. The race was organized by Ghusighata Villagers’ Association. The next day, at Malancha the crowd was more than 50,000. Between 17 and 23 September, more than 1.5 lakh people enjoyed the boat races and the Mela (Fair) on the riverbanks! These are majority rural folk: farmers, farm laborers and fisherfolk. Before Jamindari system was abolished in Bengal, boats were paid for by Jamindars and the races ended up being Jamindar’s races. But now, the village associations take up the organization responsibility. It is nearly impossible to keep political parties out of a public event like this, but Swarupda tells me religious tensions are unheard of during the races.

True to its ecological nature, Sunderban region of Bengal holds some of the most complex syncretic traditions which unite not only Hindus and Muslims, but also humans and nature. Same holds for the boat-races. From the boat-makers to paddlers to the people who gather along the banks, there are Hindus, Muslims, tribals together. When I asked this question, Swarupda seemed taken aback: the cultural mix here is so organic that an outsider’s question about it must look peculiar. May this complex togetherness prosper in the lands where rivers meet.

On the Boat Photo: Swarup Bhattacharya

Expenses of organization of these races, including prizes, a huge mechanized boat to tow all the boats in travel, meals for the crew and the company etc., all came to about one lakh rupees and the amount was raised by the villagers themselves. In comparison, boat races in Kerala run into millions. Kerala Tourism promotes these races, there are wealthy sponsors and they even have a premier league boat race happening!

When Swarupda called the Department of Tourism, West Bengal and requested them to highlight or at least announce these races to the wider public, he was told that this is a rural activity and that no promotion of boat races is happening or on the cards. Hardly anyone in Kolkata knew about the races. When Swarupda shared a few videos on Facebook, more than 50 urban Kolkata residents went to the riverbanks. Hardly any media houses covered the races except the Times[iii].

Swarupda’s Boat Selfie!

Like fish, boats too tell a story about the rivers they sail in. Riverine boats, their rituals, songs and races form a long and unbroken link to the riverine culture of our land. The Tamil epic Ponniyen Selvan opens with majestic boats sailing down the Cauvery, cloth-mast boats still ply in the Narmada and West Bengal has over 50 types of indigenous wooden boats. Most of this living history is being forgotten with each passing day. In the past, boat races were accompanied by Sari Gaan (Boat Songs) but none were heard this year. Boat-makers are dwindling, rivers are desiccating and are polluted, river banks are being privatized.

And yet, throughout our history, riverbanks and boats have been the places for friends and lovers to meet. From Moha-lined banks of Godavari in Gatha Saptashati to the songs of Sohni-Mahiwal and Heer-Ranjha on the banks of Indus and Chenab, from Ponniyen Selvan being saved by Cauvery Amma herself while trying to rescue a handful of Kadamba flowers to the hundreds of wise boatmen who sing, pray and race down Bengal’s many-armed rivers: Rivers have been bringing us together in joy.

River races are one more excuse to go down the river and be a river-citizen. Let us hope that we can flock to the banks of Bengal next year, cheering the boats, boatmen and rivers of this storied land.

Parineeta Dandekar, SANDRP, parineeta.dandekar@gmail.com

END NOTES:

Riverine boat races in Asia

Ngo Boat race in Maspero river Vietnam[v]

Phicit Boat race in Nan River, Thailand

https://m.bangkokpost.com/travel/sightseeing/21350/phichit-boat-racing/

Bon Om Touk Boat Festival in Cambodia, when the Tonle Sap river reverses its flow direction and again starts flowing into Mekong. (Which even worships Goddess Ganga!)

From: Garthe Bright, Al Jazeera, https://www.aljazeera.com/gallery/2016/11/16/cambodias-water-festival-returns-with-a-bang

The best known boat races in India are the Vallamkali Boat races in Kerala which occur in different rivers, wetlands and lakes at different times. Kerala also has a Champion’s Boat League[vi]supported by Kerala State Tourism.

Kerala’s ornate boat races from: https://lifestyle.livemint.com/news/talking-point/this-onam-enjoy-kerala-s-snake-boat-race-at-aranmula-111662562364550.html

Boat Races from Titash Ekti Nadir Naam (Screengrabs from the Film. Highly recommended watch: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cTsHcW9-yD8)

References:

[i] https://www.daily-sun.com/post/643960/Boat-race-held-in-Brahmanbaria

[ii] https://sarmaya.in/spotlight/bengals-goddesses-live-in-song/

[iii] https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/kolkata/500-to-oar-in-this-years-sundarbans-boat-war/articleshow/94164557.cms

[iv] https://ich.unesco.org/en/RL/dragon-boat-festival-00225

[v] https://en.vietnamplus.vn/khmer-community-treasures-traditional-ngo-boat-race/232142.vnp

[vi] https://championsboatleague.in

Wetlands

India’s Wetlands Overview 2021: Gross Misuse of even Ramsar sites

(Feature image:- Deepor Beel wetland area has been suffering from environmental degradation due to continuous encroachment and waste dumping. The Guwahati Municipality dump yard, located at Boragaon, lies in the eastern corner of Deepor Beel. Photo: Ritu Raj Konwar/Front Line)

Wetlands are important part of hydrological cycle and play critical role in water purification, climate moderation, biodiversity conservation and flood regulation apart from offering innumerable environmental services to aquatic, wildlife and human beings for which they are also referred as ‘kidneys of the earth’. There are more than 2 lakh wetlands in India covering nearly 4.6 per cent of its geographical area. Despite their essential services and significance, the already neglected wetlands eco-system have been facing multiple existential threats.

As part of its annual overview for 2021, SANDRP in three part series attempts to highlight the state of wetlands in India during past one year. This first part compiles the 10 top critical reports representing the present day status of wetlands across the country. The second part would cover various actions and initiative taken by the state governments and central government all through 2021 impacting the wetlands. The final part would deal with the judicial interventions on wetlands.

Continue reading “India’s Wetlands Overview 2021: Gross Misuse of even Ramsar sites”
Fish, Fisheries, Fisherfolk

Inland Fish, Fisheries, Fisher-folks: 2020 Overview

Inland fisheries support millions of people and remains a major source of nutrition for a very large number of poorest people. This includes riverine fisheries, reservoir fisheries, wetland and local water body fisheries. Here we try to provide an overview of developments in this sector during the year 2020.

The overview has following sections: Policy & Governance in Centre, followed by in States, some positive developments, Covid-19 & Fishing Community, Fisher folks’ struggles, New Fish Species, Invasive fish, Fish Deaths & Pollution, Over fishing & Extinction, Studies related to inland fisheries.

Continue reading “Inland Fish, Fisheries, Fisher-folks: 2020 Overview”
Dams · DRP News Bulletin

DRP NB 1 June 2020: No escape from Dam floods as dam lobby continues to dominate

Feature image: Officials of the irrigation department visited the breached Tiware dam near Chiplun in Ratnagiri, in July 2019. (Pratham Gokhale/HT Photo)

The report of the 10 member committee headed by Shri Nandkumar Vadnere, appointed by the Govt of Maharashtra in Aug 2019 was submitted on May 28, 2020. The report titled “A report on Floods 2019 (Krishna Sub-Basin): Experts Study Committee: Analysis, Causes, Remedies” from all accounts is a major let down as is apparent from the way one of the members felt so humiliated that he had to resign: he was not provided basic information to do justice to the Terms of Reference, his chapters were unilaterally removed from the draft report by the chairman, under pressure from higher ups. The report is actually an attempt to show, by hook or by crook that dams were not responsible for the Krishna basin floods of Aug 2019. Almost exactly the same way CWC came out with a shockingly unscientific, contradictory report about Aug 2018 Kerala floods to prove that dams had no role. The report did not even ask if the any of the dams followed the rule curve, though it made recommendation that rule curves should be followed! The story keeps repeating for each of the dozens of instances in recent years. The report of the Tiware dam disaster in Maharashtra in July 2019 has been submitted in Feb 2020, but is not yet in public domain. These few recent instances show how strong a strangle hold the dam lobby has over the official water institutions and governance in India. The Dam Safety bill now before the Parliament will not help as it has no provision to remove or even loosen this stranglehold, there is no place for independent oversight in the bill. Without an accountable reservoir operation policy, legal and institutional paradigm there is no possibility of freedom from dam induced floods.

Continue reading “DRP NB 1 June 2020: No escape from Dam floods as dam lobby continues to dominate”

Dams · DRP News Bulletin

DRP News Bulletin 11 May 2020: Jindal accepts Etalin HEP is unviable!

This must be the defining (and predictable, this was the lead story in our DRP NB of April 27, 2020, see: https://sandrp.in/2020/04/27/drp-nb-27-april-2020-for-whom-is-this-unviable-etalin-project-being-pushed/) moment in the campaign to save the Dibang Valley now from the proposed 3097 MW Etalin Hydropower Project. The CEO of Jindal Power Ltd has said in so many words that project is NOT an attractive investment, they will struggle to find buyers for the costly power and only support from government can help make the project viable. The CEO seemed to suggest that they would be happy to sell the project to NHPC or form a joint venture with NHPC to get the govt funding for the project. Again completely on predictable line. The question then is why should government spend previous public money on such an unviable project?

So the question remains the same, the one we asked on April 27, 2020: For whom is this unviable Etalin Project being pushed?

Continue reading “DRP News Bulletin 11 May 2020: Jindal accepts Etalin HEP is unviable!”

Dams · Wetlands

Ramsar Wetlands in Crisis 2020: East India

In East India there are four Ramsar wetlands: two each in W Bengal and Odisha states. There are no Ramsar wetland sites in Bihar, Jharkhand or Sikkim, the other East India states. Here we provide a status of these Ramsar sites of East India, along with the kind of risks and threats these Ramsar sites face. The objective is to ensure greater awareness about these issues and hope that this will help achieve better responses from Ramsar convention as also the governments at various levels.

Continue reading “Ramsar Wetlands in Crisis 2020: East India”

Dams · DRP News Bulletin

DRP NB 24 Feb 2020: Urban Rivers Need Urgent attention: Hiding won’t help

There are large number of stories this week from all over India highlighting the crisis that Urban Rivers in India face. Urban rivers, like the Urban Water sector, exist in complete policy vacuum. There is no policy to guide the Urban water governance. Cosmetic efforts being done when President Donald Trump of USA visits India on Feb 24-25, 2020 at Yamuna (in view of his visit to Agra) or Sabarmati (visit to Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad) won’t really help. The crisis not only affects the rivers, but the health, livelihoods and lives of millions and millions of city dwellers too, in addition to the downstream river users. Our Water Resources establishment has no clue, as is evident from their calling the Dravyawati river channelization in Jaipur as an example of river rejuvenation and suggesting such rivers should be given to corporates to rejuvenate in similar ways! It’s doubtful if the new National Water Policy now being formulated will help, unless it dares to suggest radical changes.

Continue reading “DRP NB 24 Feb 2020: Urban Rivers Need Urgent attention: Hiding won’t help”

Bangladesh · Rivers

Bangladesh DRP Overview 2019

HISTORIC COURT JUDGMENT: TREAT RIVES AS LIVING ENTITY

In a historic judgment, the High Court (HC) of Bangladesh has declared Rivers as living entities and the NRPC (National River Protection Commission) as the legal guardian of all rivers. The HC said that river encroachers cannot run in any elections or get bank loans. The HC delivered the judgment in response to a petition (WP No. 13989/2016) by Human Rights and Peace for Bangladesh. The writ petition was filed on Nov. 7, 2016. Continue reading “Bangladesh DRP Overview 2019”

Inland Waterways

Decoding the Economics of Ganga Waterway (National Waterways-1)

Guest Blog by Debadityo Sinha

The Government of India has undertaken the ambitious project of plying cargo ships from Haldia to Prayagraj on the river Ganga, also known as National Waterways-1 (NW-1).

The justification for promoting waterways on such a massive scale as stated in National Waterways Bill, 2015 when introduced is as follows:

  • …inland water transport is recognised as fuel efficient, cost effective and environment friendly mode of transport, especially for bulk goods, hazardous goods and over dimensional cargos. It also reduces time, cost of transportation of goods and cargos, as well as congestion and accidents on highways.

As per the Government of India’s Press Release dated 21 July 2016, the cost of transportation of goods by rail was estimated at about Rs. 1.36 per ton kilometre, by waterways at Rs. 1.06 per ton kilometres and by road at Rs. 2.50 per ton kilometre. At first glance, the waterway appears to be far more economical.

Continue reading “Decoding the Economics of Ganga Waterway (National Waterways-1)”

Dams · DRP News Bulletin

DRP News Bulletin 20 Feb. 2017 (Bihar Govt Demands Decommissioning of Farakka Dam)

Bihar wants Farakka barrage to be decommissioned The Nitish Kumar govt has held the Farakka barrage in West Bengal responsible for heavy floods in Bihar and asked the Centre to decommission it to de-silt the heavily loaded upstream of Ganga River. The state has made the recommendation, observing that the dam is the “genesis of severe” flood consequences and responsible for “alarming” silt increase in the river’s upstream. According to sources, Nitish Kumar dispensation has made the demand before an experts’ committee formed by the Centre to work out guidelines for de-silting Ganga following last year’s devastating floods. 

As per the statement, decommissioning the barrage will help automatically de-silt the heavily loaded upstream, allowing silt to move to deltas before the sea thus helping  in restoration of deltas and its eco-system which is also getting adversely affected due to this barrage. To buttress its point, the state government has referred to Kolkata Port Trust’s data, which suggests that silt dredging at the port has increased from 6.40 million cubic metres annually from pre-Farakka days to four times, i.e. at 21.88 MCM annually, during 2003. The state government has also recommended the panel to come up with ‘National Silt Policy’ to address the problem. Bihar faced one of its worst floods as Ganga swelled in August last year, claiming lives of over 20 persons and affecting 20 lakh people.

Bihar Government has rightly asked for decommissioning of Farakka barrage and held it as the genesis of severe, destructive and prolonged floods that Bihar and other regions upstream from Farakka face year after year. Good to see that Bihar government has officially demanded decommissioning of the Farakka barrage before an expert committee of Ministry of Water Resources. Hope this starts the ball rolling to remove this unnecessary and giant dam on Ganga, which will also help the cause of fisheries (including Hilsa), downstream Bengal and also the river in general. The road cum rail line on the  barrage can continue to exist.

Continue reading “DRP News Bulletin 20 Feb. 2017 (Bihar Govt Demands Decommissioning of Farakka Dam)”