Indian women have always advocated for social change, pioneered significant movements, and provided immeasurable contributions to society. They have played a crucial role in the development of a free India. Rani Rashmoni is one woman in particular who can be considered essential in India’s freedom struggle.
She stood out as a pillar of strength in a patriarchal society, loved by her people and feared by her enemies for her strong will, wit, and intellect. Her patriotism was reflected by her desire to battle against the unjust policies of British imperialism. The history books may sometimes overlook or undervalue the importance of certain women in India’s struggle for freedom but she left such an indelible mark on the history of Kolkata that she was bestowed with the title of ‘Rani’ although she had no royal affiliation. While people may remember her for founding the iconic Dakshineshwar Kali Temple, it was her resistance to British tyranny that garnered her the love and praise of the public.
Rashmoni was born on 28 September 1793 in the small village of Halisahar in Bengal into a kaivarta (fishermen community) family.She was married off at the age of 11 to Raja Chandra Das of Janbazaar, one of Kolkata's wealthy zamindars and a successful businessman, after the death of her mother when she was only 7 years old. Das’ family had accumulated their fortune by transporting bamboo down the Beliaghata Canal and constructing warehouses there to keep products like musk and muslin. Das was a progressive husband who encouraged Rashmoni to pursue her interest in his trade businesses as he had been impressed by her astute mindset. Together, they expanded the business, but along the way they always remained conscious of the importance of public welfare. From building pyaus (reservoirs of drinking water) to creating food kitchens, the essential needs of the public were always taken care off. The couple also built two of Kolkata’s oldest and busiest ghats, the Ahiritola Ghat and the beautiful Babu Rajchandra Das Ghat, or Babughat.
Tragedy would strike in 1830 with the death of Das, leaving Rashmoni alone to fight against patriarchy and the prevalent stigma towards widows at the time. She seized control of the business while looking after her four daughters, a feat which was practically unheard of in those times. Her husband’s adversaries and other business associates saw his untimely demise as an opportunity to take over his numerous profitable ventures, with Rashmoni being too weak-willed to resist. They would soon find out that Rashmoni was a force to be reckoned with. Rashmoni resisted these attempts with shrewd economic judgement, excellent pragmatism, and the assistance of Mathura Nath Biswas, a bright young man who was married to her third daughter. Mathura babu, as she came to know him, would serve as her right-hand man and trusted confidant for the rest of her life.
While successfully managing her business, she would continue to battle against the ills that plagued society. She spoke out against polygamy, child marriage, and Sati (a sacrificial practice of a Hindu widow). Her business sense had made her a very prominent and well-respected individual in administrative circles but her continued compassion for the underprivileged is why she was admired by all. This was most noticeable when she out-witted the British to help downtrodden fishermen.
In the 1840s, the East India Company shifted its profit-seeking attention to the long stretch of the Ganga river that passed through the Bengal region. The fishing villages in the area relied on these vast waterways for both their survival and their means of subsistence.
The East Indian Company imposed a levy on fishing boats, claiming that the small boats used by the fisherfolk were hampering the movement of ferries. This was a cunning technique to raise revenue through taxes while restricting the amount of fishing that took place on the river. Many fishermen were impacted by the vindictive policies undertaken by the East India Company (EIC). They pleaded their case with their wealthy landlords but received no support. As a last resort they turned to Rashmoni, with the hope that she would answer their call for help.
What happened next is truly astonishing. Rashmoni made a payment of Rs 10,000 and obtained an ijara (lease agreement) from the East India Company, for a 10-km stretch of river Hooghly (Ganga’s distributary the flows through Calcutta). She then proceeded to fence this leased area across the Hooghly with two enormous iron chains and instructed the unhappy fishermen to cast their nets in this area.
Company authorities were left shocked and bewildered by the impact of this ingenious action, which brought all riverine traffic on the Hooghly to a complete stop. When they confronted Rashmoni about it, she responded that commercial steamships were damaging the fishing activity in her ijara, thus it was important to protect her income from the property. She displayed a mighty resolve and an unrivalled tenacity when she challenged the EIC through legal recourse and even cited British legislation to support her right to do so. The East India Company was forced to reach a deal with Rashmoni as boats piled up on both sides of the restricted zone. They agreed to eliminate the fishing levy, which ensured the rights of the fishermen and they were granted unlimited access to the Ganga.
That is the fascinating tale of how Rani Rashmoni outwitted the British and it is a testament to her character and what she stood for. Rani Rashmoni would remain at loggerheads with the colonial forces throughout the remainder of her life as she would always tried to protect common labourers from harassment at the hands of the British. There are many stories of her valiant behaviour which have been immortalised through the creation of a Bengali television show in her name (Karunamoyee Rani Rashmoni).
- Pal, S. (2021) Rani Rashmoni: When a Bengali widow outwitted the East India Company, The Better India. Available at: https://www.thebetterindia.com/265787/rani-rashmoni-dakshineshwar-kali-temple-kolkata-east-india-company-women-history-india/ (Accessed: February 21, 2023).
- Rani Rashmoni (no date) Founder of dakshineswar kali temple:Rani Rashmoni:Rani Rashmoni. Available at: http://www.dakshineswarkalitemple.org/rashmoni.html (Accessed: February 21, 2023).
- Acharya, A. (2021) The shudra queen rashmoni and a sacred river, The Hindu. Available at: https://www.thehindu.com/society/the-shudra-queen-rashmoni-and-a-sacred-river/article34847554.ece (Accessed: February 21, 2023).