Rivers are commonly refereed as the bloodlines of mother Earth. Its utmost importance to the planet Earth and all living beings cannot be fully captured in a few sentences. Rivers offer vital services such as providing precious water for drinking, sanitation, agriculture, industries, transportation, communication and bringing all living beings together over the shared need for water. In a way rivers equate to Life in this planet.
Civilizations, empires and cities have risen and fallen on the margins of major rivers around the world. It was on the margins of the Hughli river, a distributary of the Ganga or Ganges river, that seven European nations: the Portuguese, Dutch, English, French, Danes, Ostenders (Swedish) and Prussians founded trade settlements and fought each other in order to establish trade empires in India and the rest of South Asia (Das and Chattopadhyay, 2014). Over time the British East India Company outwitted its competition and managed to establish a powerful colonial empire in India with its headquarters in the city of Calcutta. Calcutta (name changed to Kolkata in 2001) sprung up from small village settlements on the margins of the Hughli river to later become the administrative center of the British colonial empire in India (Chatterji, 2009).
Throughout this writing, I will attempt to provide a historical background of the Hughli river, discuss the process of naming this river, and lead into reflections on the relationships between people, language and rivers.
The Hughli river is a stretch of the Ganga (Ganges) river sourced in the Gangotri glacier in the Himalayas and it is known to be one of the four great Himalayan rivers flowing through India, along with the Yamuna, Indus and Brahmaputra rivers (Darian, 2001). It is commonly accepted that the Hooghly river is formed at the junction of the Bhagirathi and Jalangi rivers at Nabadwip in the district of Nadia in West Bengal and flows into the sea at Bay of Bengal covering an area of about 260 km (160 miles)(Britannica, 2014).
It was from the sea at Bay of Bengal that European traders arrived and sailed up the river in order establish trade settlements on both sides of its margins. The river’s strategic geographical location near Bay of Bengal allowed the entry of ocean going ships and its extensive waterways served as channels of communication and transportation connecting people, cultures, ideas, goods and services. At first European traders settled on the west side of the Hughli river because it was more developed than the east side due to the existence of local ports and settlements where traders from different parts of India came together for commerce. One of these local settlements was the town of Hughli and the Portuguese saw potential in this place to become a successful port where trade would flourish. This led to the establishing of one of the first European trade settlements on the west side of the Hughli river in the town of Hughli by the Portuguese (Das and Chattopadhyay, 2014). Later other European nations such as the Dutch, English, French, Danes, Ostenders (Swedish) and Prussians joined the ‘rush’ to establish trade settlements along the margins of the Hughli river.
On Naming the River
Before the arrival of European traders, the Hughli river was originally known as the Bhagirathi river or as the Ganga river. With the arrival of the Portuguese in the town of Hughli and followed by traders from other European countries who also sought profits from trade in Bengal, the economic, social, political and cultural landscape of the areas along the river started to change. These newly formed trade companies grew to exert powerful influence on local affairs and were able to shape the way in which people name, interact and relate to the river.
European settlers in their need for simplification started to name the river (originally known as the Bhagirathi or the Ganga) as the Hughli river. The new name derived from the town of Hughli in which the river flowed through. The term Hughli is said to be derived either from gola which means storehouse or hogla which signifies the reeds that used to grow on the margins of the river. This gradual change in the name of the river from “Bhagirathi into Hughli was symptomatic of a broader transformation that took place in this region as a result of European intervention.” (Das and Chattopadhyay, 2014). These European traders as agents of colonialism and globalization shaped how local people connected and attributed meaning to the river.
Reflections on Naming the River
In a sense local people lost their power to name the river. Their voices got silenced and the simplified name of “Hughli” river used by European traders substituted the name “Bhagirathi” river or the “Ganga” river used by the local population. It might seem that there is nothing special for people to be able to name the world around them because after all it is just a word. Let’s look at this quote by Paulo Freire, a leading Brazilian thinker, philosopher and educator on the power of naming the world:
“To exist, humanly, is to name the world, to change it. Once named, the world in its turn reappears to the namers as a problem and requires of them a new naming.” (pg. 61, Freire, 1972)
This quote brings out the importance of naming the world and how it is in ingrained in the process of existing humanly that is to live as a free human being. Freire argues that in order for people to exist as free human beings, it is necessary to regain the power to name the world around us. The power of naming the world is the power to determining reality.
Here is another excerpt of a conversation in a culture circle in Chile quoted by Freire that again expresses the power of naming:
‘Let’s say, for the sake of the argument , that all men on earth were to die, but that the earth itself remained, together with trees, birds, animals, rivers, seas, the stars…wouldn’t all this be a world?’ ‘Oh no,’ the peasant replied emphatically. ‘There would be no one to say: “This is a world”.’ (qtd. Freire, 1972)
Language is the mediator of human-world relationships (Freire, 1972). It determines how humans construct and de-construct meaning from the world which creates the so called human ‘reality’. It is from human-world relationships that reality is produced and acted upon. What is the connection between the power of naming and human-river relationships? This thought/reflection is an attempt to tackle this question:
A river only becomes a river if people name it as a river. Without naming the river as a river then people cannot know what a river is. Without language, people cannot name what it perceives to be a river to become the river. For a river only becomes a river if the people make sense of it and act upon it as being a river. Yes, a river can exist without people but it would not exist as a river per se. It would exist as something ‘else’, something beyond human conception because there would be no people to no name it as being a river. Humans can only filter the so called “the world in which we live in” through the limited perspective of a human being and people call it ‘reality’. But this is only human reality, it cannot be applied to All. Yes, humans can transcend this perspective but this transcendence cannot be captured using human words for it is beyond the human realm. Since this transcendence is beyond the human realm, you would experience the river not as a river but as something ‘else’.
This reflection is an attempt to bring out the power of naming the world which in this case the power to name rivers.
The gradual change in the name of the river from Bhagirathi or Ganga to Hughli provides major insights on how the arrival of European traders as agents of colonialism and globalization, shaped how people connected and attributed meaning to the river. Even though India is now an independent country since 1947, there are still remnants of the structures of colonialism used during British control of India. Moreover India is under the fire of constant cultural imperialism in the current ongoing wave of globalization.
Some food for thought:
Who has the power to name the world or the so called ‘reality’?
Is the name Hughli or Hooghly river still being used to name the river?
Do the common people still come together in the naming of the world?
“Dialogue is the encounter between men, mediated by the world, in order to name the world.” (Freire, 1972)
Chatterji, Aditi. Ethnicity, Migration and the Urban Landscape of Kolkata. Kolkata: K P Bagchi, 2009.
Darian, Steven G. The Ganges in Myth and History. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass , 2001.
Das, Suranjan and Basudeb Chattopadhyay. Europe and the Hughli The European Settlements on the West Bank of the River. Kolkata: K.P Bagchi, 2014.
Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Opressed. Middlesex : Penguin Books, 1972.