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Madhurima Vidyarthi

  • Writer's pictureMadhurima Vidyarthi

The Discovery of Balagarh

Google Maps is a boon.

Even when it makes mistakes – when it sends one haring off down a detour that turns into an exhilarating voyage of discovery. The innocuous right turn that Google Maps asked us to take on State Highway 6, while driving down to Murshidabad. A turn that took us, not to Murshidabad, but straight to Balagarh, the heart of Bengal’s boat-making.

SH-6 originates from Rajnagar and winds its way through Chandrapur, Suri, Purandarpur, Ahmadpur, Labhpur, Kirnahar, Kandra, Ketugram, Katwa, Nabadwip, Kalna, Jirat, Saptagram (from here it is the old Grand Trunk Road), Chinsurah, Chandannagar, Bhadreswar, Baidyabati, Serampore, Konnagar, Uttarpara, Bally, Belur, Salkia, Shibpur, Podrah, Andul and terminates at its junction with NH 16 at Alampur. The aim was to avoid COVID on the very convenient train ride from Kolkata to Murshidabad and drive down instead. Google Maps assured us that we would be saving hours by following its well-intentioned advice. To reach Krishnanagar via Ranaghat and Phulia without any trouble whatsoever and drive straight to Murshidabad from there. For those better-travelled, the only excuse on offer is that we trusted Google blindly in the hope of reaching Murshidabad as soon as possible.

But we had forgotten the river.

The river Hooghly that encircles the village lovingly and has historically been the raison d’etre for Balagarh - the village that is the boat-making capital of Bengal, and has been so for the last five hundred years or more. Balagarh, Balaghat and Sripur make up this area of interest. Sripur has even found a mention in Abul Fazl’s writings.

This piece is not about the how and why of Balagarh. Or the history and culture and heritage – more than enough has been written on that. Some starting points for further exploration are in the reading list below. This article is an outburst of wonder at a serendipitous discovery. Of travelling through history in a mechanised vehicle on a tarmac road, surrounded by boats coming to life on all sides.

But how do we get to Ranaghat? Go through the village, said everyone we asked, to Balaghat. And from there to Ranaghat. Simple precise instructions. No fuss, no extraneous words, no lengthy expositions. The road to Ranaghat lies through Balaghat, they said. So did Google Maps – but it forgot the river too.

How do I put into the words the experience of passing through a schism in time? The thrill of navigating the looping road of the village, accompanied by the sights and sounds of boat-making. Boats of all sizes emerging from tree trunks, hewn with love and practiced labour. Over generations. Exactly as they did in the time of Akbar, Jahangir, Shah Jahan, Aurangzeb, the East India Company. Trees whispering across mud walls in the gentle breeze of poush. Bamboo groves murmuring in protest at the constant intrusion to their idyll. The thak-thak-thak of a hundred hammers and voices raised in hearty exchange. And silent boats waiting to kiss the water.

Time might well lose itself in these twists and turns.

But where is Balaghat? The river where one can cross to the other side and reach Ranaghat in no time at all, as Google Map assures us. It shows the river, now, but no way of crossing over. Balaghat Ferry Ghat is all it says. And there is no way to turn back. In front and behind there are other cars, trucks, lorries all making their way to Balaghat as if their lives depended on it. And on both sides, crowds of the resident idle who wave us on. ‘In a few minutes, ‘just around the corner, ‘Aarey, oi to – just there’ A steady reassuring stream of traffic trickles down from the opposite side, presumably from Balaghat. More cars, bikes, lorries, trucks, even a business-like tractor, bumping its broad self down the narrow road.

Can we turn back? Not a chance.

And then, quite suddenly, there is Balaghat. The road ends in a dirt track which everybody joyfully follows down to the river. And hits the river bank. A queue of people and wheels all waiting patiently to cross. Drivers, owners, traders, men, women, squalling babies in arms. All very relaxed and business-like, all obviously in the know. Waiting to cross to the other bank.

But where? And over what?

‘Bhassal’ we are told. That is the name of the contraption that will carry us over the swirling waters. But where is this magical watercraft? We look at each other in doubt. Could we turn around and go back and take the trusty highway again? Oh certainly, any time, they tell us. The village on the other bank is only eighty kilometres by road. A couple of hours? At most? The ‘bhassal’ will carry us over in fifteen minutes.

When it arrives.

But it does. Very soon. And carries an astonishing load for a contraption that defies definition, designation, any label or tag. ‘Bhassal’, a corruption, perhaps of ‘vessel’ seems wholly appropriate. Like a child’s toy, thrown together with whatever is at hand. Wooden boats, bamboo pole, ropes – and a motor. A pole to steer and painters to tug, a hotch-potch that is characteristic of life.

But it does its job. Most magnificently. We walk down and on to it. The SUV follows without a hiccup. And in the promised fifteen minutes (and maybe a little more), we are ferried over, truckloads and squalling babies and all, to resume our journey.

An unexpected gift of an adventure, I think, as the sun and the wind tickle me into happiness. A challenge to step outside well-laid plans and meticulous preparations and follow seemingly malicious stars. The river whispers, giggles and promises many more adventures to come.

Like I said, Google Maps isn’t half-bad.

Further Reading :

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