ECSAS 2023 – Turin 26-29 July

Fluvial Temporalities: Human and Non-human Time in Eighteenth-century Bengal


Acosta Eduardo - The University of Chicago, South Asian Languages and Civilizations, Chicago, United States


24 – Timely Histories: A Social History of Time in South Asia


 Narratives and debates around the colonial encounter with nature in India have been mainly read through a lens of modernization, management and extraction of revenue. However, in this paper I argue that the colonial interest in studying the meandering rivers of Bengal and their history did not stem from administrative and revenue imperatives only. Rather, the history of these rivers became another site in which the engagement with Bengal’s past was coded in a teleological narrative that was deemed ‘natural,’ which gave way to questions about the nature of human and non-human time and temporalities. This paper investigates narratives and debates around the changing course of the Bhagirathi-Hoohgly river in 18th and 19th century Bengal. Reading together maps, journal articles, hydrogeological surveys, travel diaries and poems, in English and Bengali, I show how a fact of everyday life in Bengal–that rivers change their course–created a distinct sense of temporality, which I call `fluvial temporality.’ However, I show how this fluvial temporality disappeared from records once technological improvements on river management finally allowed the taming of the shifting rivers. By looking at the early colonial engagement with rivers, I argue that a distinct and different sense of temporality emerged in Bengal, one that took into consideration the deep imbrication between human and natural history, blurring the distinction between natural and historical time.