Proverbially known as the “land of rivers”, Bengal once nurtured a flourishing maritime community. The heritage of Bengal is indebted to its naval power and sea-faring trade and commerce. Tucked inside the iconic Ambedkar Bhawan, the Boat Museum is a tribute to Bengal’s rivers and its indigenous craft of boat-making. The museum has a splendid collection with 46 models of boats from Bengal, Odisha and Bangladesh, and a large boat occupying the centre of the hall. Some of these boats are replicas of those that were used earlier and can no longer be seen.
Bengal being the land of rivers and rivulets, boating was an indispensable part of the lives of the ‘Bangas’. Right from the spectacular Mayurpankhis and Aswamukhis of the fables to the most ordinary Chhip-boats meant for fishing, boats have always been an integral part of the Bengali culture.
History of Boats
The history of boat-building technology in ancient Bengal dates back to the third millennium B.C., as far back as the Harappan times! The traditional boat-builders of Odisha (then part of Bengal) are called Bindhani, Barhais and Biswakarmas. In fish-loving Bengal, boats were primarily used for fishing. Since the land is full of rivers, channels, streams and swamps, boats were also an easy means of transportation and communication. Boat racing has been a very popular means of entertainment for the commoners over the ages, while the elite class preferred to set out on voyages in luxury boats. The extensive use of boats for the purpose of trade and commerce is not unknown and so is their use in inland and overseas navigation.
Boats of Bengal
The boats that are displayed in the museum are crafted by the woodcraft artists from Dakshin Dinajpur of West Bengal, called Rajbanshis. These boats can be classified into five categories, viz., Ferry Boats – to carry passengers, Cargo Boats – to carry goods, Fishing Boats, Racing Boats and Luxury Boats.
The different types of ferry boats on display are: Sampan, Kheya and Kosa (Bangladesh) and Bhedi (Hans-Khoa Ghat, Coochbehar). These boats are usually very long, have a flat bottom and are rabbeted and stapled or modified to carry passengers. Boats like Tabure (North 24 Paraganas) and Dingi (Balagarh) are hulled boats with semi-circular cabins, to partly provide shade to the passenger.
The museum has several cargo boats on display such as boats of Karnafuli river, Bhedi, Balam (Garisal, Bangladesh), Paukhia and Khorokisti (Geonkhali, Purba Medinipore), Dholai (Sunderbans), Goloiya (Sankartola Ghat, Malda) and Khorosalti (Karanjali, Purba Medinipore). While Khorokisti and Khorosalti (South 24 Paraganas) were primarily used for transportation of straw, hay and paddy, Sultani (South 24 Paraganas) on the other hand was used to carry sand, bricks, tiles, fruits, vegetables, cereals and pulses.
Malo Bachhari or Jele Bachhari (Gosaba, South 24 Paraganas), Chhot-Salti and Patiya (Purba Medinipore), Paukhia, Jele Dingi (Kolkata), Talai, Barki (Bangladesh) and Dingi are the popular fishing boats from Bangladesh and West Bengal. Paukhia is a typically flat-bottomed boat and entirely stapled. This boat is ideal for propelling in shallow creeks and streams with a high water current. Patia is a coastal fishing boat. The planks of the boat are joined together with nails and it is ideal for fishing in coastal areas. Boats such as Kosa and Chhot were used both for cargo and fishing.
The various racing boats that are on display in the museum are Kaile Bachhari (Gopalganj, Bangladesh), Khela or Loll Dinghee and Chhip Boat (Chator, Murshidabad). Interestingly, the women of these areas also take part in boat racing.
The most interesting of the different types of boats is the luxury boat. The two brilliant miniature replicas of luxury boats that are on display in the museum are the Kerala Boat and the Padma Boat owned by our great poet Rabindranath Tagore. History has it that Gurudeb in his adolescence, and even in later years, stayed in the boat during his occasional visit to Silaidaha. This was during the period 1891 to 1901, at irregular intervals. During his stay, eminent scientists, litterateurs and intelligentsia of Bengal such as Sir Jagadish Chandra Bose, Dwijendralal Roy and Pramatha Chowdhury visited him on various occasions. Sitting at the desk on his favourite Padma Boat, Rabindranath wrote many of his masterpieces such as Sonar Tari, Katha o Kahini, Chitra Chaitali, Kshanika, most of the poems of Naibedya and Kheya and the songs of Geetanjali and Geetimalya. It was here in 1912 that the poet started his translation of Geetanjali in English which earned him the Nobel Prize in 1913. Rabindranath had a deep attachment to his Padma Boat, which is evident in his work, Chhinna Patrabali. In one of his letters, the poet once wrote, “the holy place of my literary pursuits during my youth and middle age was the village of Shilaidaha kissed by the wave of the Padma.”
Sadly for us, the heritage boats of Bengal went through major upheavals with time and thus many indigenous boats have vanished. The village of Balagarh in Hooghly district, which was once the biggest hub for making boats, is shutting down their boat-making workshops. This is due to a drop in the demand for traditional boats coupled with a diminished urge to learn the skill of boat-making among the younger generations. Modern transportation also has a major role to play in the dwindling number of indigenous boats. The joint effort of the Institute of Cultural Research and Dr. U. N. Biswas to preserve the various boats by appointing craftsmen from Backward Classes to carve out their miniature replicas, not only threw light upon this aspect of the rich heritage of Bengal, but was also a major step in the upliftment of the Backward Classes by conducting workshops on woodcraft.