A buzzing port town turned silent hamlet

Traces of Hooghly’s commercial heritage remain in the old port town of Janai, lying on Howrah-Hooghly border. A once prolific trade and commercial hub, today is a cluster of ruins of once palatial homes and temples, says Amrita Ghosh

The well maintained entrance to Rajaram Chowdhury's thakurdalan

The name Janai leaves a sweet flavour in the mouth for its famous ‘monohara’, the sweet with a tough sugar exterior and soft cottage cheese interior. But the quiet hamlets of Janai and Baksa, on the border of Howrah and Hooghly district, were once a port called Janai on the bank of Saraswati river, that boasted of power, prosperity and influence.

A trade centre of Hooghly district, most of the illustrious families of Janai had settled as early traders. They were financially and academically strong and influential and were instrumental in introducing social changes and dominating the literary world during the British Raj. Nourished by the Saraswati River that Janai-Baksa grew to be known as a prosperous port town that flourished as a centre of commerce and trade.  

The early character of this small town is defined by the beautiful temples standing side by side the dilapidated edifices of the once influential families of Janai-Baksa. Some of these are today, still maintained by the descendants while others are skeletons of a glorious past.  Janai-Baksa’s influential families who ruled the roost of social, cultural and commercial sectors were the Mukherjee family, Singha family, Choudhury family, Mitra family among others.

The Chowdhury thakurdalan
The swing in the Chowdhury thakurdalan where Radha-Gobindo is placed on Dol Jatra

Rajaram Chowdhury: The powerful and influential Rajaram Chowdhury was the dewan of the Maharaja of Burdwan. The family shifted from Haripal in Hooghly to Baksa after the Maharaja set him up 75 bighas in Baksa where he established a settlement with houses, temples and schools, which came to be known as Chowdhurypara. He established the Radha-Gobindo Temple. The family’s thakurdalan was the place where popular Hindu festivals like Dol Jatra, Rash, Charak and Durga Puja were held every year following traditions. Since the Chowdhury’s were Vaishnavas, the Durga idol they worship is chaturbhuja or has four arms. Images of Radha and Krishna are kept on either side of Durga. On Dol Jatra, Radha-Gobindo idols are carried to the thakurdalan where they are kept on a swing and people cutting across castes, creed and religion offer abir to the feet of the idols. “Even today a large number of people belonging to Hindu and  Muslim communities gather at the temple and offer abir at Radha-Gobindo’s feet. This is a tradition followed by our ancestors and we are still following it. Our ancestors respected other religions and believed in the freedom of belief,” said Arindam Chowdhury, a member of Chowdhury family. The thakurdalan, Radha-Gobindo temple and adjoining areas are well maintained by the family members. The income from three big ponds are used for the maintenance of the temples. Besides, members of the Chowdhury family living in different parts of the country and the world also donate generously for the maintenance of these ancestral treasures. The Chowdhury’s never relied on the zamindari taxes for their survival. Instead they earned a name for their command over education and trade in the area. Sachin Chowdhury, the Finance Minister in Jawaharlal Nehru’s cabinet in 1962 belonged to this family. His brother Satyendra Kumar Chowdhury was one of the directors of Shaw Wallace Company. United Flour Mills is one of the few flour mills in Bengal established by the family.

The remnants of Kaliprasad Mukherjee’s mansion

Bholanath Mukherjee: This family’s fortunes flourished in Bholanath Mukherjee’s time. He was a senior manager of the East India Company and had considerable influence on the Brahmin and Kayastha societies. He got the zamindari in Janai-Baksa from the Maharaja of Burdwan where his siblings, Jagmohan Mukherjee, Kaliprasad Mukhopadhyay and Hari Mohan Mukhopadhyay and he built a series of palatial buildings. Each mansion had 80 to 120 rooms. Kaliprasad Mukhopadhyay was a benevolent man who donated generously and was always ready to help any person in distress. He built a strikingly beautiful palace on the bank of the Saraswati and lined the garden with palm trees. There was a kachari bari (a tax collector’s office) and a stable for horses as well. Today the building stands in ruin with no one to look after it. The family members have shifted to the city for better opportunities.

Chandrakanta Mukhopadhyay: Chandrakanta Mukhopadhyay was an influential person in Hooghly district. His house was also no less than a palace and was known as Baksa Bari locally. Two huge ponds and a sprawling mango orchard added to the beauty of the palace. The reflection of the palace on the clear water of the ponds gave a fairy tale aura to the place. Educationist and linguist, Suniti Kumar Chattopadhyay, once visited Chandrakanta’s palace and was so amazed by its architectural beauty that he dubbed it as the ‘Taj Mahal of Bengal’. Chandrakanta died in 1897. On the day of his Shradh ceremony, 10,000 brahmins and 3,700 pandits were invited from across Bengal and north India. A special train was arranged from Howrah’s Telkol Ghat to Janai station to commute the brahmins and pandits. A whopping Rs 1, 13,000 was spent for the entire Shradh ceremony. Nothing remains of this spectacular structure except for the two ponds.

Purna Chandra Mukhopadhyay:  Purna Chandra Mukhopadhyay’s mansion in Janai-Baksa was a local attraction for its indoor auditorium. It was here that Kalidas’s Sakuntala was staged. The auditorium, a rare feature in aristocratic homes of Bengal at that time, has reference in Hemendra Dasgupta’s book Indian Stage and Rajendra Bandopadhyay’s Bangiya Natyasalar Itihas. Today, Purna Chandra Mukhopadhyay’s house is a ruin and the famed auditorium has disappeared.

Shantiram Singha: Dewan Shantiram Singha was the first settler in from this family in Janai-Baksa. The family had later shifted to Jorasanko in Calcutta. Legendary literary figure of Bengal’s Renaissance, Kaliprasanna Singha belonged to this family. His legendary works Hutom Panchar Naksha, Alaler Gharer Dulal and even the seven-volume Mahabharata edited and published by Kaliprasanna Singha, are prized collections in every Bengali home. However, Kaliprasanna had spent only a few years of his childhood at the ancestral home in Janai-Baksa, before shifting to the Jorasanko residence. Gobindo Chandra Singha and Gurudas Singha, who continued to live in Baksa were known for their philanthropic work. Today, a major part of the palatial Baksa house, has disappeared. Modern concrete structures have come up in their place. But the 450-year old Durga Puja is still organised by the descendants of Shantiram Singha. The thakurdalan is in dilapidated condition, cracks have developed all over the structure. The sheer lack of maintenance is evident.

Bhabani Charan Mitra: Baksa’s Mitra family is famous for its 12 Shiva temples. The height of each temple is 60 feet. Every year in the Bengali month of Chaitra, a village fair is held around these temples to celebrate Gajan and Charak festivals, pertaining to Shiva and thousands visit the fair.  Bhabani Charan Mitra had established the temples in 1780.

Raghunath Jew temple established by Bhrukut Mitra

Bhrukut Mitra: Baksa’s Raghunath Jew temple was built by Bhrukut Mitra in 1792. It is a beautiful structure and one of the rare temples of Bengal. Renowned historian William Wilson Hunter in his book, A Statistical Account of Bengal mentioned the Raghunath Jew temple. Besides there is also a thakurdalan for Durga puja and a Radha-Krishna temple established by Bhrukut Mitra’s descendants. “All these structures built by our forefathers are maintained by the family members. There is also some debuttar property from where we run the daily expenses of the temples,” said Swapan Mitra, a member of the family.