Kolkata’s Rani Rashmoni

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    Few women shine through the history of Bengal, like she does. Rani Rashmoni left an indelible mark on Calcutta way back in the early 19th century. It was she who built the famous Dakshineswar Temple dedicated to Goddess Kali, she took on the British, was unmatchable on matters of business, she was an inspiration for social reformers and also one of the greatest philanthropists Calcutta has ever seen. A lot to achieve for a young girl, born into poverty, to parents from a low caste, way back in 1793.

    Even before she entered her teens, her poor father married her to a much older widower

    The story of how Rani Rashmoni broke through patriarchy, orthodoxy and every other ill, to rise up in 19th century India is truly breathtaking.

    Rani Rashmoni was born on 28th September 1793 into a Kaivarta (fishermen) family in the present-day city of Halisahar in West Bengal. Even before she entered her teens, her poor father who was a petty labourer, married her to a much older widower, Rajchandra Das. He was a scion of a wealthy zamindar or landowning family that ran successful businesses in Calcutta’s Janbazar. While Rashmoni soon became a mother of four daughters, she was lucky to have found in Rajchandra, a progressive husband who didn’t believe in confining women within the four walls of the house. Instead, he involved her in his business. To everyone’s surprise, so good was Rashmoni in matters of business that within a short span of time the duo amassed a huge fortune as moneylenders, lending money to various zamindars who were forever in debt.

    Sadly, Rajchandra died in 1830 and Rani Rashmoni was widowed while just in her 40s. Soon the burden of the business and managing the zamindari fell on her and she handled it with great efficiency. Her humble origins also meant that she had great compassion for the poor and she donated huge sums to charity.

    The burden of the business and managing the zamindari fell on her.

    Several ghats for public bathing including the Babu Ghat, excavation of the Beliaghata canal, pucca or permanent roads which linked various parts of the city like Babu Road (today known as the Rani Rashmoni Road), several pyaus or drinking reservoirs, old age homes and soup kitchens were setup by her and some still bear her name.

    With time, she also took up many other roles. One of her husband’s close associates was the renowned social reformer Raja Ram Mohan Roy and inspired by his beliefs, Rashmoni raised her voice against prevalent social malaises like child marriage and sati. She also submitted a draft bill against polygamy to the East India Company.

    Some stories around Rani Rashmoni are legendary.

    She was also a great patroness of the fishermen on the Hoogly river.

    One of the first Indian industrialists, Dwarkanath Tagore, had mortaged a part of his zamindari to Rashmoni for his passage to London in 1847. This part of the land which was then a part of the Sunderbans was marshy and almost uninhabitable except for some families of thugs who found the area convenient to stay and hide in. Rashmoni persuaded these families and helped them to build up fisheries in the surrounding water bodies that later turned into large rich bheris (fish ponds). They gradually gave up their plundering and transformed themselves into a community of fishermen.

    She was also a great patroness of the fishermen on the Hoogly river. There is a well-known story of how the livelihood of the poor fishermen was hampered by British steamships running up and down the Hoogly river. The Rani promptly took a large part of the Hoogly riverbank on lease, stretching from Ghusuri to Metiaburj, and granted the rights to fish, to local fishermen. Even today, a number of ghats on the Hoogly are owned by her estate.

    She also offered considerable charity to the Imperial Library (now the National Library of India) and the Hindu College (now Presidency University).

    The most magnificent contribution of Rashmoni was the construction of the famous Dakshineswar Temple

    The most magnificent contribution of Rashmoni was the construction of the famous Dakshineswar Temple dedicated to Goddess Kali. She purchased 20 acres of land in 1847 for building the shrine, the gates of which opened to the public in 1855. But its acceptance was not easy. Since she was a lower caste by birth, no local Brahmin agreed to serve as a priest at the temple. Eventually, after suggestions by her well-wishers, she bequeathed the temple to a Brahmin, Ramkumar Chattopadhyay, along with a large sum for its annual maintenance. After his death, his younger brother Gadadhar Chattopadhyay (soon to be known as Ramakrishna Paramahansa) became the temple’s chief priest. Due to Rashmoni considerate and spiritual nature, it is said that Ramakrishna considered her as one of the Ashtasakhis (eight spiritual companions) of Radha and Krishna.

    Rani Rashmoni died on 19th February 1861, but she will be forever recalled as one of the greatest philanthropists of Bengal and a woman every one of us, must remember.

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