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Gangasagar Island : Impact of Cultural Heritage and Pilgrim Tourism at

West Bengal
- Dr.Pranam Dhar*

Tourism plays a great role towards socio-economic changes. According
to Indian sentiment the pilgrim centers or tirthasthan are used to visit
by number of tourists to earn virtue. Gangasagar is one of such
centres where taking holy dip during makar sankranti, is thought as, in
life of a person earns that much of virtue which one can earn by
visiting all the pilgrim centers throughout the life. The present paper
aims to highlight the impact of pilgrim tourists at Gangasagar Island of
Sundarban Biosphere and also projects the role of myth centering
around Kapil Muni temple at Gangasagar which attracts not only
tourists but also disseminate over the generation its cultural tenets
which is valuable, being one of the repository of the great Indian
cultural heritage.
Socio-Economic Changes. Pilgrim Centers. Biosphere. Cultural
Heritage, Pilgrim Tourism.

1. Introduction
From the Himalayas in the north, to the Bay of Bengal in the south, the state
of West Bengal abounds in a staggering variety of tourist destinations including
alpine mountains and tropical forests, wildlife sanctuaries and national parks,
historical and pilgrimage spots, open beaches and mangrove forests. The state thus
offers a variety of opportunities for leisure and pilgrim tourism as well as adventure
and eco-tourism.

Tourism as an industry in West Bengal is, however, a recent phenomenon.

Between 1991 and 1995, the progress of tourism industry in the public sector has
been steady but not phenomenal, as would be evident from the following table :

Table-1 : Some Indicators of Progress of Tourism in West Bengal

(in absolute numbers)
Variables Years
2001 2002 2003 2004 2005
Vehicles 33 33 33 19 19
Trips 663 747 1086 1248 1314
Tourists called 21671 25054 35909 35982 33922
Tourist Lodges 45 45 33 27 27
Tourists served in Lodges
Indian 99082 81539 82117 82309 70752
Foreigner 1825 2062 1937 2005 2195
International Tourists 114064 133240 120674 163208 181488
Earning from Vehicle (in Lakh 25.75 29.00 34.26 36.92 32.16
Source : Tourism Dept. Govt. of West Bengal

Between 1995 and 2005, the number of vehicles owned by the State Tourist

*Head, Department of Commerce, Vivekananda College, Kolkata & Secretary, Lions Club of
Kolkata Balaka.

Department has decreased, but the number of trips conducted has increased. The
number of tourists carried on these trips (excepting those carried in chartered buses)
has also increased. The State Tourism Department had owned 45 working lodges in
1991, out of which 12 were handed over to the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council (DGHC)
in 1993 and 6 were privatised in 1994, the number of working lodges owned by the
department in 1995 thus dwindling to 27. But the total number of tourists staying in
these 27 lodges shows a decrease. The number of domestic tourists staying in Tourist
Department Lodges has decreased, but the number of foreign tourists staying at
these lodges has gone up. The total number of international tourists arriving in West
Bengal per year has also increased. Thus the total earning of the Department. of
Tourism, Government of West Bengal has increased. This is a profile of tourism
development under the control of the public sector. Although there is no data
available on private sector tourism in West Bengal, the steady growth of hotel
industry and private tourism agencies over the past decade suggest that tourism in
the private sector is growing at a much faster pace than the public sector.

2. Pilgrim Tourism - Overview

It is stated that according to Indian Cultural heritage one has to visit various
tirtha or pilgrim center to earn virtue. Gangasagar is one of such famous pilgrim
center where people criss-cross of the country being attracted and come to earn
virtue. There is a proverb “Sab tirtha bar bar Gangasagar ek bar”-which means by
taking holy dip only once in life a person earns that muich of virtue which one can
earn by visiting all the pilgrim centers throughout the life. This proverb signifies the
importance of Gangasagar as a place of religious importance and ultimately it has
got a position in the tourist map of India and thought as a place of religious tourism.

3. Gangasagar Island – A Snapshot

Gangasagar is a place situated in the Sagar Island which is again located in
the extreme south of Sundarban of the South 24 Parganas in the Diamond Harbour
Sub-division. It is located between 21036’ to 21056’ north latitude and 8802’ to
88011’ east latitude The island is surrounded by the Bartola or Muriganga river in the
north and east, Hooghly river is flowing in the west and in the south by Bay of
Bengal. Its area is approximately 224.3 sq.miles In Purana, Sagar Island is called as
Patal. In Bengal it is known as Sagar dwip and it is the largest dwip (island)in the Bay
of Bengal which encircles the island at its southern side. In the Sagar Island there are
at least 44 villages of which Gangasagar is the largest one (Majumdar, 1971; Saha,

4. Objective of the Study

The present paper intends to highlight about the tourism or pilgrim tourists’
impact at Gangasagar (of Sagar island) of Sundarban Biosphere and how the
mythology of Gangasagar attracts the people form distant places and disseminate
through the generation its cultural tenets which in valuable, being one of the
respository of the great Indian cultural heritage.

5. Coastal Zone of West Bengal – A Brief Profile

The coastal zone of West Bengal constitutes the lower part of the Bengal basin
and geographically encompasses three southern districts of the State, viz. Purba
Medinipur , on the western part, (covering about 27% of the coast line) and the
districts South 24 Parganas and North 24 Parganas on the central and eastern parts

(covering about 73% of the coast line). This zone, spreads over 10,158.22 sq. km.
and is situated within the latitude, 210 30/ N - 220 30/ N and longitude 870 25/ E - 890 10/
E. The zone may be subdivided into three (3) principal sections from east to west as
follows :

1. From the mouth of Harinbhanga river delineating the India-Bangladesh border

to the mouth of river Hugli being essentially the Sunderbans delta area along
the sea (Eastern sector).
2. Sea water tidal traverse along river Hugli up to south of Diamond Harbour
Municipality and on the west up to Haldia port (Central Sector)
3. Digha -Junput coastal plain along the sea (Western Sector).

Geographically, the zone comprises rural CD Blocks (full as well as in part) and
some urban concentrations/municipal areas covering the districts of North 24
Parganas, South 24 Parganas and Purba Medinipur. Based on the Environment
(Protection) Act, 1986 and the subsequent notification of the Ministry of Environment
and Forests (MoEF), Government of India on Coastal Zone Regulation in February,
1991, the entire coastal region of the State has been divided into three (3) zones as
CRZ-I, CRZ-II and CRZ-III. The principal notification of MoEF(1991) on Coastal
Regulation Zone (CRZ) with its subsequent amendments and the Coastal Zone
Management Plan (CZMP) of West Bengal provide a regulatory regime and
underscore the use of the resources of this zone in a sustainable manner.


i. Areas that are ecologically sensitive and important like national parks (e.g.
proposed Sagar Marine Park) sanctuaries (Sajnekhali, Lothian, Halliday island),
reserve forests, wildlife habitats, mangroves (Sunderbans, Nijkasba, Khejuri in
Medinipur), areas close to breeding and spawning grounds of fish and other
marine life (Sagar, Newmoore, Sandhead islands) areas of outstanding natural
beauty, historical/heritage areas (e.g. Kapil Muni temple at Ganga Sagar, etc.)
entire Sagar island and the sand dunes. Most of these areas lying to the East
of river Hugli, are now under the Sunderban Biosphere Reserve. Sunderban
Biosphere Reserve being one of the most important ecological systems in the
world, deserves more attention in addition to the general discussion made in
the present chapter. To serve the purpose, the State of Art Report on
Sunderban Biosphere Reserve, recently published by the BSI on behalf of
MoEF has been annexed at the end of this compilation
ii. Areas between low tide line (LTL) and high tide line (HTL). The total area of
the CRZ I is 8184.91 sq.km.

Areas have already been developed upto or close to the shoreline. ‘Developed
area’ for this purpose would refer to areas within the municipal limits (e.g. Haldia
Dock Complex) or in other legally designated urban areas which are substantially
developed and provided with drainage, approach roads, water supply, sewerage
mains, etc. Haldia town and the eastern part of Digha have been included within this
zone. The total area under CRZ-II is 3.41 sq. km.

Areas, which are not particularly developed, and do not fall under CRZ-I and
CRZ-II. These will include coastal zone in rural areas (developed and undeveloped)

and areas within the municipal limits or in other legally designated urban areas
which are not substantially built-up. The total area under CRZ III is 1969.90 sq. km.

5. Demographic Profile of Sagar Deep

The demographic profile and economic status of Sagar Island is presented
below through the following table :
Table 2 : Demographic and Economic Status of Sagar Island
Sl.N Particulars Figures
A. Population Status of Sagar Island*
(i) Total Population (all community) 154202
(ii) Scheduled Caste : Male 22127
Female 21123
Population concentration 28.05%
Sex – Ratio 955
(iii) Scheduled Tribe : Male 272
Female 274
Population concentration 0.35%
Sex – Ratio 1007
(iv) a. Inhabited Village/Mouza 44
b. Total Family 24638
c. Average Mouza size in terms of family 560
B. Occupational Status of Sagar Islanders*
(i) Cultivator 20161(62.97
(ii) Agri. Lab. %)
(iii) Others 9783
(iv) Construction work as secondary economic pursuit (30.55%)
Source : A.K.Mandal (2003).

6. Mythological Importance of Sagar Deep

The place is primarily important for its temple of the great saint Kapil Muni
who according to myth was Vishnu, had taken birth as per the wish of Kardam muni
as his son. It is told that Kardam had to go through a marital life as per the direction
of Vishnu but he agreed in a condition that Vishnu has to take birth as his son and as
per this condition Vishnu had taken birth as his son and he was Kapil Muni-one of the
great saint of Hindu religious mythology. Kapil Muni’s hermitage was present at the
place of the present day Gangasagar. His mythological story is related with the
bringing of Ganga – the sacred river, in this place. In the myth it is told that once
during his religious austerity King Sagar’s (the King of Ikshashu Vansh of Ayodhya)
60000 sons came down to the place of his hermitage in search of their father’s
sacrificial horse and found it there at that place. In fact the horse was stolen by
Devraj Indra and it was hidden by him at Patal beside Kapil’s hermitage. Sagar’s sons
blamed him for the stealing of that and interrupted in his religious meditation. Then
the saint became very angry and his blaze of anger came out of his eyes which burnt
all the 60000 sons of the King Sagar into ashes and consigned their souls to hell until
Sagar’s grandson whose name was Bhagirath brought down the Ganga- Vishnu’s wife
as per the direction of the Saint-Kapil from heaven. With the touch of holy water of
Ganga all 60000 sons were released from the curse and liberated their souls.
Cognitive view of the local people is that Ganga in this place is known as Sagar and
the point of junction of the river and the sea at the Sagar island is the celebrated seat
of Hindu pilgrims (Maity, 2001). It is told that Sagar King’s sons were liberated from
curse on the day of Makar Sankranti (Saha, 1999).Due to this the day became a very
auspicious day to the Hindu pilgrims. On that day pilgrims from all over India come to

take bath in the Gangasagar to get rid of all the sins and simultaneously to earn
virtue. They also offer puja to the great saint-Kapil in his temple which is run by the
Ramanandi saints of the Hanuman garhi of Ayodhya. Initially one of the zamindars of
the then Sagardwip—Jaduram migrated from Midnapur appointed a priest from that
group of saint of Ayodhya and ultimately after some times they demanded and
established their claim over the temple. According to them as the myth is related
with Ayodhya and with the forefathers of Ram, it is their claim that they are the
actual owner of the temple. During the time of holy bathing ceremony a large fair is
held which is known as Gangasagar Mela. Except this great festival it is observed that
throughout the year people come to visit the place primarily during different festive
and ritual occasions and sometimes even when there is no such occasion.

7. Places of Interest at Sagar Island

Though the primary interest of the tourists is to take holy bath in Gangasagar
and to offer puja to the saint – Kapil, but there are several other spots of attraction
such as Sagar Light house, Solar plant , Wind mill, Deer park etc. and also
Gangasagar’s scenic beauty which attracts the tourists. Sometimes tourists even go
to Jambu Dwip—the last land of Sundarban by hired mechanized boat crossing the
turbulent river to get pleasure of the scenic beauty and to enjoy the adventure of
crossing the turbulent river. It is found that Gangasagar is such a place where there
are several temples, ashrams and maths and other religious centers of the Hindu
pantheon. The tourists and the pilgrims specially who halt for two to three days there,
from early morning to late evening visit those temples, offer puja, take prasad, listen
to various religious congregation, songs recitations and even take part in meditation
etc. along with taking bath in the Gangasagar, offering puja to Kapilmuni temple and
to see the other places of tourist interest.

8. The Infrastructure Facility Available During Mass Pilgrimage Tourism

and Its Impact
In Gangasagar the whole population is controlled by various beliefs and faiths
of Hindu mythology. The place is unique due to its religious atmosphere, which is its
cultural uniqueness and is disseminated among the tourist pilgrims and visitors
through all those religious acts. Whenever a tourist takes part as listener he/she also
gets some knowledge of Hindu religion and heritage. In Sagar island the villagers are
largely of Mahishya caste migrated from Midnapur along with Kaibarta, Paundra,
Brahman, Baidhya, Kayastha and a very few Muslims. They are of opinion that
tourism industry as an economic 13 DISSEMINATION OF CULTURAL HERITAGE source
is very lucrative. The local people during the Gangasagar Mela earn a lot. To help the
crowd during this festival, the West Bengal Government takes initiative every year.
They arrange for the accommodation, sanitation, fooding, etc. all the infrastructure
facilities for the tourists and pilgrims. The local people are appointed as skilled,
unskilled, and semi-skilled workers in construction of road, yatrinibas, Hoghla
cottage, latrine, bathroom etc. and hence they get opportunity to earn cash. There
are several tea stalls, hotels. The owners of those have informed that the tourist and
pilgrims have got the demand for hotels and tea stalls especially just after offering
puja to the temple. To meet the demand gradually some hotels and tea stalls are
opened by the local villagers and the people of the hinterland villages which is
ultimately helpful for them as a lucrative source of cash earning. In Gangasagar Mela
Prangan, there are several small shops of temporaty construction known a dala mala
dokan. All these shops are owned by the villagers of the Gangasagar village and its
neighbouring villages. The dala mala dokans are actually the shops of the materials
essential as offering in the puja of Kapil Muni and to offer puja to Ganga Devi. Those
are cocoanut, incense, lamp, nakuldana (a kind of sweet), flowers especially the
garland of china rose flowers, iron bangles, conchshell, kamandul, pitcher, red thread,
pancha pradip etc. Some fancy articles are also available in those shops. According to

the shop owners this dala mala business is very profitable. Some of the items such as
cocoanut, flowers etc. are collected from the locality. But most of the items are
bought from the market of Kolkata and even Midnapur. It is found from the empirical
data that their earned profit is largely invested in their agricultural field. In their
cultivation process some changes have taken place. Now-a-days they are intended
for cash crop cultivation like betel leaf, chilly etc. As an impact of tourism it is
observed that they have got channels for cash earning. There are tea stall, hotel
owner, van rickshaw puller, auto drivers, STD shop owners. All of them are benefited
due to tourist in flow and as a result they are also able to earn a lot from the tourists.
There are some photographers who earn a lot by taking snaps of the tourists as per
their demand specially during festive occasion. Here at Gangasagar photography as
an economic pursuit specially during Gangasagar mela is very much profitable. Case
histories suggest that average per day income is Rs.1000 to1400 where average
profit is Rs.550 to 625. Again some of the local people have opened STD telephone
booths to help the tourists and as a result it is also a profitable income source to
them specially during festivals. The tourists always have an interest to purchase
some items as a memento of the spot .As per the demand of the tourists some fancy
items are sold. In those shops very interestingly noted that there are shell and pearl
items which are not at all the local items. These are brought from Midnapur
.Genealogical data speaks that a large number of cultivating caste in Gangasagar
village has migrated from Midnapur. There are several Zamindars who came here
from Midnapur and brought several persons including subaltern with them for the
development of the land for settlement of the people. Till date a matrimonial
connection has been observed between Gangasagar and Midnapur. So it is easy for
them to go and collect those stationary items from the place. Again pearl is brought
from Hyderabad through middle man who have regular business network with the
people at Midnapur and from whom they procure the required items. Therefore, it can
be said that tourism has opened several sources of cash earning and as a result
several new occupations have emerged and got their position as inseparable
elements for their subsistence.

9. Impact of Pilgrim Tourism on Socio-economic Life of Local People at

Sagar Island
As an impact of tourism the local people are fortunate to enjoy some infra-
structural facilities. As for example, as per the demand of tourists and to give
importance to the place, communication with Kolkata and other places are improving
day by day. The transport service is developing, communication through water is
developed. Several vessels and mechanized boats are there. The ferry ghat at
Gangasagar is adequately developed. There is communication through water with
Midnapur also. Communication within Sagardwip is also developed. There are several
buses, mini buses, van rickshaws, auto etc. in this island. The telephone booths are
also helpful for the local people. Due to continuous flow of tourists at this island
round the year changes are also observed in some other aspects of socio-cultural life.
The young boys and girls in general have a tendency 14 SAMIRA DASGUPTA, KRISHNA
MONDAL AND KRISHNA BASU to imitate the fashion, dress, style of conversion etc. of
the tourists. The sartorial changes among the young generation of local population
are often marked which is obviously an impact of tourism. During the festival it is
very interestingly noted that local people in general are not so interested for the holy
dip and offer puja in that particular Makar Sankranti festival. They want to avoid the
crowd. But at the same time due to the attraction of mela (fair) they cannot resist
themselves to visit and purchase items from the shops at mela prangan. Shops of
various types of items are found (along with their local shops) which are brought from
Kolkata and even from outside West Bengal, which all attract the people of Ganga-
sagar. Among these items fashionable dress materials, shoes, sunglass, cosmetics,
artificial ornaments, household goods are very important. It is observed that the

villagers who are not used to photography they also like to get their own
photographs. During festival some fast food centers are opened which are liked by
the locals especially of younger generation. In this way tourism has extended some
impact on the material life of the local people, i.e., they have adopted cultural
baggages of tourists. Again the villagers argued that tourism has some negative
influence on the village and its people. It is told that tourism has brought pollution in
their both physical and social life. They say that young generation imitates the
behaviors pattern of city life which sometimes even hurts the sentiment of the rural,
traditional people. Often the tourist shameless behavior like, defecation openly in the
road side and attend nature’s call irritates the villagers. They think it has a very bad
impact on the people of young generation. Many times tourists come with hired
women to enjoy the holiday and this type of cases is increasing day by day. A few
case studies also suggest that sometimes even they want the village girls to spend
with them at the cost of money. Many of the village girls get attracted to the money
and are getting involved and due to this the villagers say that the village girls are
becoming demoralized. The village boys are becoming alcoholic day by day which is
also regarded by the villagers as a bad effect of tourism. Gangasagar is actually a
place of saints, temples, ashrams and maths. Religious thoughts and dictums are
dominantly controlling the society and people of Gangasagar. But due to the
outsiders influence the truthness, the honesty, the morality-all these are gradually
going to be lessened. They are now becoming business minded. The older generation
people opined that Gangasagar village’s own identity is to run a simple life guided by
religious beliefs and practices are lessened day by day in their society. They are
becoming cunning. They have learnt to cheat the people. In this place along with
gentlemen, thieves, pick pocketers and other antisocial elements come who spoil the
social atmosphere of the place. In the Gangasagar especially during the Makar
Sankranti there is a huge crowd. Though the government assistance is there even
then it is not sufficient .Due to the insufficiency of the latrine etc. the tourists
sometimes use the village path as their toilet and the village path becomes very
dirty. Again the beach of the Sagar is similarly used by the tourists. The villagers
opined that after the Makar Sankranti festival local Government takes initiative to
clear all the garbage even then the dirt is not totally clean. Bad smell is there in the
air after the festival. Again, the path is full of rubbish, plastic packets, half eaten food
etc .In this way the physical environment of the area also gets polluted specially
during the festivals there is a gathering of school going children when they instead of
going to school go to the Gangasagar to collect coins from the water which are
thrown in the Sagar (sea) as an offering to Ganga Mata. They collect those and
specially purchase cigarette. In this way small school going boys are in the trap of
evil company which may ruin their future.

10. Conclusion
A nation’s heritage is its cultural identity without which it would be an
inanimate matter. Tourism can be considered of restoring the glorious past with all its
patrimonies. The interest of tourism and heritage conservation is complementary and
thus tourism and culture become partners in the developmental process (Singh,
1994). It is also reported by Singh (1994) through her study at Awadh that having a
rich age-old tradition of religious tourism (or tirthyatras), India can prove to be a
promising land for modern tourism. Pilgrim who travel to this region usually practice
the traditional Hindu scheme of tirthyatras which is essentially simple and austere in
nature as they utilize only the basic and 15 DISSEMINATION OF CULTURAL HERITAGE
minimum travel facilities on little or no cost (Singh,1994). This observation is equally
applicable in the present situation at Gangasagar. According to Modi (2001) wish
fulfillment was an important catalyst that had historically influenced travel. The
human community, despite its highly developed capabilities, was always faced with
problems that defied human solutions. The pilgrimage (tirthyatra) was therefore a

journey undertaken for betterment both on the spiritual and the material plane.
Gangasagar is an orthogenetic village from where the great cultural heritage of our
country is disseminated not only through the mythological account of the Great
Saint-Kapil Muni but also from the local ashrams of various religious saints. Often the
pilgrims come here and listen the narration of texts of Veda, Vedanta etc. It appears
that economic development of this orthogenetic village is not only from the pilgrim
visit but the pilgrim visit has accelerated or boosted the local agrarian economy
among the villagers of Sagar Island. It has been found that again due to penetration
of cash economy in the local agricultural economy, the agrarian caste groups are now
becoming inclined for cash crop cultivation like betel leaf cultivation in the island. In
spite of having certain negative sides as mentioned earlier, tourism industry as a
whole is appreciated by these people and it has widened their knowledge of the
outside world improving their economic life and exchange of cultural behaviour
between the tourists and local people are obvious. Thus, due to continuous flow of
pilgrims and tourists at this land of Sundarban Biosphere the impact on the socio-
economic life of the islanders are evident. The subsistence sector are becoming
commercialized due to practice of cash crop cultivation. The tourist inflow at this
island has also helped their transport and communication facility which also helped
them in marketing their agricultural produce even to Midnapur and Kolkata. The
material world of the villagers has considerably changed. The villagers also have
developed a positive outlook towards various types of immunization and vaccination,
which is obviously a boon of tourism industry at this island. The key elements of a
pilgrimage are religious belief and knowledge within a particular socio-cultural
context. In a country like India, where for the masses, tourism may not be
economically feasible; the pilgrimage is a vital and living experience. Pilgrimage sites
have also become important tourist destinations, because they are closely linked with
the cultural identity and heritage of a destination like Gangasagar where also
pleasure components are being added to the familiar pilgrim routes and itineraries.

11. Epilogue
Sunderbans as well as Sagar Island is mystic. Its natural beauty with unique
flora and diverse fauna, hydrodynamic uncertainties, geomorphology still under
formation and devastating climate, has got its spellbound charm providing beauty in
the ruggedness of danger in this region. Such a unique natural biosphere, which is
indeed a World Natural Heritage Site, is under threat of physical disaster. Hence, an
appropriate policy of sustainable intervention guided by a thorough research and
followed by proper implementation, control and critical monitoring for necessary
modification in action, is required to safeguard the biosphere drawing proper and
sincere concerns of local people, regional and national governments and the world

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