The Holy Sagar Island
When I was a young student in Calcutta, I often heard about Gangasagar (also known as Sagar Island, Sagar Deep or simply Sagar).
There is a popular saying that you can visit all the places of pilgrimages again and again, but you can visit Gangasagar only once.
I fancied Gangasagar was a small mysterious place which would come out of the oceans every year on the annual ‘Makar Sankrati’ festivities held there on the 14th January.
(Don’t ask me how an island can come out of the oceans and later disappear – because no one could ever explain this to me).
I first visited Gangasagar in 1986, to watch the Hailey’s Comet zoom past in the pristine early morning sky there.
The visit was organised by the Sky Watchers Association of Calcutta.
They had selected Gangasagar for the sighting because there was no electricity there.
But there were many other small villages without electricity – nearer to Kolkata.
Probably, the mystique surrounding the island was the reason they selected Gangasagar.
A generator provided power for three hours every day.
Even today, a generator powers some areas of the island for three hours every day between 6 and 9 PM.
The second time, I visited Gangasagar on ‘Makar Sankrati’ day, the 14th January, to see the festival.
My younger brother, a senior police officer, was in charge of the police arrangements there.
He invited me to visit the island.
I watched in fascination as he and other police officials worked almost continuously for three days and nights with short spasmodic spells of sleep.
A fire broke out in the fair.
Thick black smoke filled the air.
But the fire brigade quickly moved in and quelled the fire.
This is the largest fair in India – after the Kumbh Mela which is held every 12 years in three different centres – Haridwar, Allahabad and Nasik – by rotation.
But in Gangasagar, the logistic problems are multiplied several times by the fact that the pilgrims have to be ferried to the island.
The boatmen try to overload their boats.
After all, they get this unique opportunity only once a year.
Sometimes, boats collide with one another.
Sometimes, they capsize.
In 2008, the auspicious day spilled over to the 15th January.
The number of pilgrims swelled to 5 lakhs (half a million).
Gangasagar is a little known island located on the continental shelf of the Bay of Bengal at the confluence of Hooghly river (a tributary of the Ganges River) with the Bay of Bengal – about 150 km south of Kolkata.
Gangasagar does not sink into the sea.
It is quite a large island with an area of about 300 sq km.
It has 43 villages with a population of over 160,000.
There are schools, post office and even a police station.
There are mangrove swamps.
The West Bengal government is planning to build a deep water port on the island.
According to legend, after slaying the demons on earth, King Sagar decided to perform the Ashwa Megh Yagya to proclam his supremacy to the world.
A horse would be taken around the earth accompanied by the King’s 60,000 sons from Queen Sumati and one son Asmanjas from the second queen Kesani.
Indra, the supreme ruler of the gods, was afraid that if the Yagya was successful, he might lose his throne.
So he wanted to interfere with the Yagya.
He stole the horse and tied it to the ashram of sage Kapil Muni, who was then in deep meditation.
When King Sagar’s sons could not find the horse, they searched everywhere.
Finally, they found it tied near the meditating Kapil Muni.
The sixty thousand and one angry sons of King Sagar stormed the ashram of Kapil Muni disrupting his meditation as Indra had planned.
Kapil Muni was very angry.
He opened his eyes and turned all the sons into ashes.
The only way to bring them back to life was to bring down Goddess Ganga from the Heavens and wash the ashes with the holy water.
Bhagirath, grandson of King Sagar, meditated for a long time to persuade Ganga to come down to the earth.
But the coming down of Ganga would have been too torrential and would have caused colossal damage.
Finally, Lord Shiva agreed to receive Ganga in his large tresses to break her fall.Ganga descended down to the earth through Shiva’s tresses.
King Bhagiratha then preceded the holy river in his chariot and ripped open a gorge through which Ganga could flow.
The river followed Bhagirath to Gangasagar where Kapila Muni livedand washed the ashes.
You can take the ferry either from Harwood Point (80 kms from Kolkata) or Namkhana (13 kms more from Harwood Point).
After landing at Sagar Island, you will have to cross the whole stretch of the island (32 kms) by local bus or taxi.
It is possible to travel from Kolkata right up to Gangasagar by car or taxi.
At Harwood Point, the car can cross the river on a barge.
Places to see
· Kapil Muni Temple
· Fair Grounds
· Sea Beach
· Sagar Marine Park
· Sagar Lighthouse and Port at Beguakhali
· Ramkrisna Mission Ashram
· Sushama Devichowdhurani Marine Biological Research Institute. (SDMBRI) at Bamankhali
There are sufficient boarding and accommodation facilities at Gangasagar.
· State Youth Hostel
· Bharat Sevashram Sangha and some other ashrams
· Larica Sagar Vihar (the only hotel)
Gangasagar is a remote, secluded, not much visited spot.
If you are looking for novelty and raw nature – this is the place you should head for.
The West Bengal Government is planning to construct a bridge connecting the mainland with Sagar Island.
The 3.3 kms long bridge is likely to cost around Rs 600 crores.
A feasibility study has already been completed.
Visit the place before the bridge is constructed.