Prinsep's Ghat

September 1819. A ship moored at the most popular harbour on the bank of the River Hooghly near the Water Gate of Fort William – the fortress of the East India Company. A twenty years old British gentleman's feet touched the earth of the country for the very first time that was going to be his home for the next twenty years until the day he would be sent back to his motherland due to poor health. Born and brought up in Bristol, he came from a good family but with a dwindling fortune. There was a time when he even had to share the only pair of breeches with his younger brother. His poor eyesight made him give up a career in architecture and eventually he was offered a job at the Bengal Mint. Here his interest in coinage and numismatics was born which would later lead to his decipherment of Brahmi and Kharosthi scripts of ancient India. He was James Prinsep – one of those British gentlemen whom India would be forever indebted to for his invaluable contribution to the Indian Studies.

In 1832 he became the Assay Master at the Calcutta Mint as well as the Secretary of the Asiatic Society – the beloved brainchild of Sir William Jones. He not only revived the Asiatic Society but also sent a jerk to the Orientalist movement that was going through a lull that time. He started publishing the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal that drew a lot of attention back to the field of Indian Studies. The second innings of the movement was more effective, more dramatic. Over the course of next six years James Prinsep helped in several excavations, sorted and documented innumerable number of coins that helped laid the foundations of Indian coinage up to the post-Gupta period. Finally his attention was drawn to Firoz Shah’s Lat, the golden pillar with unknown inscription on it found at the ruins Firoz Shah’s kotla, where the famous cricket stadium now stands. James Prinsep’s decipherment of the Brahmi inscription on the Ashoka Pillar made history itself as it totally changed the course of Indian Studies. He revived the name of the forgotten Mouryan king who took the message of Dharma to the world preached by another prince on the soil of our very nation hundreds of years before the Christ came to save the humanity. James Prinsep brought King Ashoka in the map of Indian history and sealed his own name alongside the King’s as the decipherer of the famous Brahmi lipi that helped fill in the ‘missing link’ of the Indian history.

The ghat where Prinsep had once been brought ashore eventually became the famous landing place for the countless British gentlemen who came to seek fortune in this country. In 1843, a Palladian style structure was erected in the memory of the unusually talented man who died young (1840, London) owing to the Indian climate and an overexerted, overworked mind. Prinsep ghat was previously known as Prinsep’s ghat, an unofficial gateway of India, welcoming the big fishes during the era of Raj.

A lot of water had flown through the river since then and the famous Prinsep’s Ghat had faded into oblivion since the independence. It was not until 2001 the memorial was restored during the beautification programme of along the bank of the River Hooghly. Now maintained by the PWD of West Bengal Government Prinsep Ghat memorial looks regal especially during the night time with all the lightings. During my short tenure in one of the famous business schools of Calcutta, Prinsep ghat was a part of my daily travel route, and not to mention, the most favourite. I would never fail to look at the massive structure while passing by and feel mesmerised by its change of appearance from day to night. What looked like a melancholy ancient figure recounting its bygone golden days to itself would appear surreal at night while the Second Hooghly Bridge standing over its head like a overprotective guardian angel.

It was primarily my idea to incorporate the Prinsep Ghat during D’s upcoming Calcutta visit. None of us had ever been to this iconic spot of the city. I have already mentioned many times that I am a weird type of Bengali. Despite my interest in the history of Buddhism, I never really felt the urge to pay a visit to this place mostly due to its cheap popularity. Even on the rainy weekday afternoon the memorial porch was swarming with the weird generation of young Bengalis who think owning a DSLR and a facebook account gives them the triumphant intellectual status. No wonder the story of the Assay Master and his wild goose chases would sound immaterial to them.

The Prinsep Ghat station that comes under the Kolkata Circular Railway looked empty spare a few lazy passengers waiting under the shade of the platform. Years ago, my father took me on the circular railway journey that circles the railway stations mostly built around the bank of the River Hooghly. Back then the circular rail coaches used to be different from the regular rail coaches with much wider seats made of wood. I was trying to recall the little girl’s sheer delight of spending an unusually special afternoon with her father who had planted the seed of the wanderer personality that would grow into her defining trait eventually. I suddenly felt old.
I have come a long way since that afternoon train journey.