Confluence of religion, tradition and culture, Gangasagar is a congregation of people during Makar Sankranti
Rivers, their places of origin, estuaries and confluences with other rivers or tributaries since time have been immemorial, associated with pilgrimage and holiness in India. Prayer and worship at places along rivers and lakes is deeply ingrained and is an integral part of the social and cultural lives of people in India. And when the river happens to be the Ganges, the lifeline and goddess of millions, the religious significance of the same can hardly be overemphasised. Gangasagar, also known as Sagar Island, is an island in the massive Ganga delta and is located in the South 24 Parganas district of West Bengal. About 140 kms from the capital city of Kolkata, the island is part of the Sunderbans administration. It lacks the typical habitat and vegetation characteristic of the mangroves, but is an important pilgrimage centre for Hindus given that it is located at the mouth of the Hooghly river, which is a tributary of the Ganga. It is here that the river breaks up into a number of streamlets and finally drains into the sea.
Legend of Kapila Muni
The island is synonymous with the renowned Kapila Muni temple. Though built in 1973, the temple is steeped in legends and history that goes back centuries. Legend has it that Kapila Muni was an incarnation of Lord Vishnu and the son of a pious man, Kardam Muni. When Kapila Muni was wrongly accused of stealing king Sagar’s horse, he reduced the lives of 60,000 princes to ash. Later, on hearing the king’s plea he prayed to the Ganga river and finally with the help of King Bhagiratha, Lord Shiva agreed for Ganga to descend on the earth and help the king’s sons attain salvation. The auspicious day that Ganga descended happened to be the day of Makar Sankranti. There are several mythological tales associated with the temple and it is highly revered among devotees all over.
The occasion of Makar Sankranti that falls each year on January 14 or 15 attracts a congregation of people in Gangasagar. Second only to the mammoth Khumbh Mela, Gangasagar Mela is steeped in history and finds mention in the holy epics of Ramayana and the Mahabharata and has also been the subject of several poems, stories and novels.
During the occasion, the place is bustling with activity and teeming with tourists, devotees and sadhus alike performing a plethora of rituals. Naga Sadhus and ‘Sanyasis’ with their vermilion and turmeric smeared bodies and eclectic personalities are a common sight during the festival. The event is a kaleidoscope of colour, chaos, culture and commotion. Braving the cold weather, it is a popular tradition for the people to buy jaggery available at this time. This is used in the preparation of the signature mouth watering Bengali sweets. Do sample the indigenously prepared Dudh Puli and Nolen Gurer Shondesh if you happen to visit the island at this time.
Apart from the holy confluence, Gangasagar is popular with tourists for its stretch of white sand, cobalt sky and the placid waters, making it an ideal weekend getaway from Kolkata. The scenic environs of the island have been the inspiration of many writers and poets, including Rabindranath Tagore. It is a practice for tourists and pilgrims to take a dip in the water before proceeding to the Kapila Muni temple. There is also a light house in the island that offers some panoramic view of the beach. Apart from sightseeing, there are little make-shift shops and shacks along the beach that are perfect if you want to treat yourself to some trinket shopping.
If you are travelling from Kolkata, you can hire a cab to reach the ferry point at Kakdwip. Diamond harbour falls en route and the entire journey of about 100 kms can be covered in less than three hours. From Kakdwip, you need to board a ferry to reach the other side of the river, Kochuberia. Tickets are available at the government ferry terminal and there is a ferry available at regular intervals. Be prepared to wait here in queues during the peak period.
The half-hour ferry ride is scenic with scores of sea gulls flying close to the boat in anticipation of the grains that are fed by the local vendors on the boat. As you get off at Kochuberia, you can either use public transport, which is available as frequently as every 15 minutes or hire a private vehicle to reach Gangasagar. The journey of about 20 kms is quite insightful as you witness some typical rustic scenes and native agricultural practices of paddy cultivation on your way. From the parking lot, there are plenty of cycle rickshaws that take you to the beach and the Kapila Muni temple. There are plenty of open cafes close to the temple where you can savour some local delicacies. The meals are freshly prepared and quite sumptuous.
The Bharat Sevashram Sangha temple, the Ramakrishna Ashram and the Onkarnath temple are the prominent ones. The Ramakrishna Ashram is known for its contribution towards uplifting the poor and needy in the region. If you plan to visit the island during the Gangasagar Mela, be prepared to brave some large crowds and serpentine queues at all places including the ferry terminal. All in all, rhe multifaceted place offers the right mix of history, recreation and adventure.