On a sultry summer day, a pocket-friendly and breezy journey from one part of the city to the other may sound like a dream in other cities, but not in Kolkata. Avoiding the noisy traffic and congestion of the roads, taking a ride on a ferry, or ‘launch’, is not an uncommon option.
The low ticket prices (as low as Rs 8 one way), the commuting time and frame-worthy views of Kolkata and Howrah are some of the benefits of the journey. The ferries might be abuzz with commuters, but there are no horns blaring, no traffic lights or speed bumps. You just have to find a seat to spend the journey, take in the views and enjoy the river breeze (Gangar hawa).
A ride into history
It would not be far-fetched to call the ferry service a lifeline for the city. Daily commuters shuttling between Howrah and Kolkata, hawkers with their wares, and regular passengers and their luggage — the ferries are always busy, especially during office hours.
The ferries are busiest during office hoursBarnini Maitra Chakraborty
Rivers have been an important mode of transportation in Kolkata since the time of the Portuguese, and their banks are full of heritage sites. In his book Kolikata Darpan, writer and revolutionary Radharaman Mitra recounts the passage of Portuguese and Dutch-made wooden galleons from Sagarmukh to Hooghly and reaching Garden Reach and Betor. He also mentions that between the mid-1500s and mid-1600, the Portuguese and English established their businesses along Saptagram and Hooghly ports.
The river has been an important mode of transportation in Kolkata since the mid-1500s and ferry services began in the early 1900sBarnini Maitra Chakraborty
The ferry services started in the city almost 300 years later. According to Mitra’s accounts, the ferry steamer service from Chandpal Ghat in Howrah began in October, 1907. The services expanded to South Ramkrishnapur, Shibpur, Garden Reach, Liluah, Bally and further, but came to a halt in 1927 after running losses. Later, the Calcutta Steam Navigation Co Ltd. took over, operating only two services. Finally, in 1992, the West Bengal Surface Transport Corporation started the ferry services as we have them now.
The journey gives you views of the city and everyday life along the banks of Kolkata and HowrahBarnini Maitra Chakraborty
On the water
A number of ferry services connect different parts of the city with nearby areas. One such service is one that runs from Kolkata’s Ahiritola Ghat to Howrah’s Bandhaghat. The services start from early morning and continue till about 9.30pm. Ticket prices for a one-way commute without luggage is Rs 8 per person.
The ferries remain a popular choice for daily commutersBarnini Maitra Chakraborty
The Ahiritola Ghat is one of the most important ferry terminals of the city — full of passengers with an array of luggage that includes cycles, gas ovens and even medium-sized idols.
A cool sea breeze greets you as you step on to the ferry from the jetty, and the ride begins with a buzzer. The daily passengers are quick to grab their preferred seats and vendors get their wares ready to sell as soon as the boat sets off. In just about 10 minutes, you’re across the river at Bandhaghat.
Another perk of an unhurried journey on the ferry is taking in the riverside sightsBarnini Maitra Chakraborty
If you are not preoccupied or in a hurry, just hang back and watch the familiar chaos of daily life unfold. People jostle to disembark, porters shout at passengers waiting to board to be patient, “Areh! Dada, aage namte deen, tarpor uthben!” The scene is reminiscent of ones on a local train.
As the ferry anchors at its destination, there is a slight jolt — reminding you that you’re on the water, but at the end of an interesting journey.