Sunday, 19 March 2017

Garden Reach: The Forgotten Kingdom of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah

My research into Wajid Ali Shah, the last Nawab of the Kingdom of Oudh (Awadh) started as a simple question – where was he buried? I knew that he had come to Calcutta once the East India Company had dethroned him. But if he had come to Calcutta, would he have died in Calcutta and if he had died in Calcutta, wouldn’t he have been buried in Calcutta? Google threw up a name – Sibtainabad Imambara. But where was this? Further curiosity would lead me to this post on the Astounding Bengal blog. There were scattered newspaper articles on the Nawab as well, but there seemed to be no one place where I could get the complete information. That is when I knew that I would have to do this myself, and as a friend and collaborator, I found Shaikh Sohail, who has the twin advantages of being a resident of the area where the Nawab once stayed and being on good terms with his descendants. More than 100 years after he died, are there any vestiges of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah that still remain?

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

A Lovers' Temple in West Bengal

Akash-er Kaachhe in Baruipur is perhaps the only example in West Bengal or even India, of a lovers’ temple. Located 26 km to the south of Calcutta, on the Baruipur Bypass Road, on the Western bank of the Adi Ganga Akash-er Kaachhe is especially popular among young couples who pray for their love to be true and everlasting. While it isn’t especially old, the circumstances that led to the temple being built, are both tragic and mysterious.


Thursday, 2 February 2017

Stone Temples of Barakar

I can think of four reasons that would make the stone temples of Begunia in Barakar, unique. First, the fact that they are made of stone makes them something of a rarity. Stone is difficult to find in Bengal and the vast majority of temples in the state are made of brick and decorated with terracotta tiles. Second, the great age of at least one of the temples. While it has not been possible to verify the exact age of all the temples, one of them is thought to be as old as 800 years. Not much has survived so intact from that long ago. The only other site I can think of is the Dargah and Mosque of Zafar Khan Ghazi. Third, the architectural style of the temples closely resembles that of the temples of Orissa (now Odisha) and is very different from the “ratna” style that Bengalis are familiar with. Fourth and last, would be the sheer ridiculousness of their location – in the middle of an industrial town, in a congested residential neighbourhood, in the middle of a park! Granted, most of that must have happened after the temples were built, but still, one does not walk into a narrow suburban lane expecting to find giant old temples at the end of it.

Monday, 9 January 2017

The Invisible Cemeteries of Calcutta

If you look at old maps of Calcutta, you will find much that has changed. Many roads aren’t how they used to be, buildings have vanished, ponds have been filled up, what used to be open fields have become apartment blocks. But one thing, in particular, makes me very curious – cemeteries that seem to have vanished. Either they are there in old maps, and not there in new ones, or I find graves and tombs in all kinds of odd places in the city. Either people don’t know, or they don’t notice the tombs. These are the invisible cemeteries of Calcutta, hiding in plain sight. How many such cemeteries are there? You’d be surprised to know.

Sunday, 1 January 2017

Terracotta Temples of Bali-Dewangunj

The finest examples of Bengal terracotta and most unique example of Bengal temple architecture are to be found in a non-descript village by the name of Bali-Dewangunj near Arambagh, in the Hooghly district of West Bengal. In a precarious state now, due many years of neglect, the temples of Bali-Dewangunj present a fascinating opportunity to those who are interested in this unique aspect of Bengal’s history. Bengal has always lacked stone for temple construction, and thus terracotta (literally meaning cooked earth) was born out of pure necessity. But the heights to which Bengal’s artists took this humble medium can be seen only in Bali-Dewangunj. But why does a little village in the middle of nowhere have so many stunning temples?

Durga Temple of Bali-Dewangunj

Saturday, 17 December 2016

Ladakh Travelogue Part 6: Pangong Tso

In our first 6 days in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, my friends Sreyashi, Ananya, Harsha, Prasenjit and I, had been to Srinagar, Drass, Alchi, Diskit, Nubra Valley, Leh and Hemis (follow the Ladakh travelogue here). The 7th and 8th days were set aside for a visit to Pangong Tso, the lake that was seen in the closing scene of Aamir Kahn’s film 3 Idiots. On screen it looked incredible – blue-green water enclosed by mountains on all sides, but would reality match silver screen fantasy?


Monday, 28 November 2016

Ladakh Travelogue Part 5: Mask of the Buddha - The Hemis Festival

Our trip to Ladakh had been planned and timed in such as way so that we wouldn’t miss the Hemis Festival which we had read so much about on the internet. We had started with Srinagar, then moved on to Kargil, then Leh and Nubra valley. Hemis was home to Ladakh’s richest monastery, and once a year, they had a gigantic festival where a masked dance called “Cham” was performed. Websites gushed about the festival – great photo op, unforgettable experience – you know how it is. But before I tell you about what the festival is really like, let me give you a bit of a backgrounder on the Hemis Monastery itself.

Masks of the Cham Dance

Monday, 24 October 2016

21 Stunning Durga Pujas of Calcutta

Durga Puja, or Pujo, as Bengalis say, is Calcutta’s biggest festival. The Hindu worship of the Goddess Durga, marks the beginning of autumn and commemorates Lord Rama’s summoning of the Goddess at this unusual time (the normal time being spring) to seek blessings for his battle against Ravana, the demon king of Lanka. Here in Calcutta (Kolkata), Pujo has morphed into something quite different and much larger than a mere religious festival. Calcutta’s Durga Puja has turned into both an explosion of installation art, as well as what is now being acknowledged as the world’s largest street festival.

Ballygunge Cultural


Monday, 3 October 2016

Ladakh Travelogue Part 4: Nubra Valley

“Of all the valleys in Ladakh, Nubra is the most luxuriant and fertile”, writes Nirmala Bora in her book “Ladakh: Society & Economy”. I had heard both of the beauty of Nubra and the fact that the dark, clear skies at night made it possible to see the Milky Way. But our start for Nubra would be somewhat slow, thanks to the overgenerous army hospitality the previous night (I had had more whisky in one night than I have in a month! Read about it here). We took comfort in the fact that sunsets were so late in Ladakh that it would only be completely dark by 8pm. 

Monday, 5 September 2016

Ladakh Travelogue Part 3: From Kargil to Leh

Although Ladakh is part of the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, it is culturally, linguistically and ethnically distinct from either Jammu or Kashmir. In fact, when one is in Ladakh, one does not say that one is in Jammu and Kashmir, but simply in Ladakh. This was my first venture into this part of India, and it was only on the 3rd day of our tour, that we actually entered Ladakh (follow the Ladakh travelogue here - part 1, part 2, part 4). What stood out to me immediately, were the landscape and the light. I had never seen any other place in India, which looked like this. So how did a place so distinct and different, come to be part of J&K?

Sunday, 14 August 2016

Ladakh Travelogue Part 2: One Night in Kargil

"When you go home, tell them of us and say,
For their tomorrow, we gave our today"

Epitaph at the Kohima War Cemetery, written by John Maxwell Edmonds

After our fortuitous escape from a riot-torn Srinagar (read more about that here), we crossed most of Sonmarg in the dead of the night, which was a real pity. Sonmarg is an incredibly beautiful place and I could have got some terrific photographs there. Unfortunately, the weather too took a turn for the bad. The sky was overcast, with a constant drizzle, which drove the temperature down. Srinagar had warm and humid. Our heavy jackets were in our suitcases. If it got any colder, we’d be in serious trouble. But thankfully, my windcheater was enough. We were proceeding to the town of Drass, where we would stop for breakfast, followed by a visit to the Drass War Memorial and finally Kargil, where we would stay the night.

Monday, 8 August 2016

Ladakh Travelogue Part 1: Paradise is Burning

"Gar firdaus, ruhe zamin ast, hamin asto, hamin asto, hamin ast."
   (If there is a paradise on earth, it is here, it is here, it is here)

-          Mirza Nur-ud-din Beig Mohammad Khan Salim, aka Mughal Emperor Jahangir

Perhaps a somewhat predictable way to begin an article on Jammu and Kashmir, but I could think of no better way than Emperor Jahangir’s famous Persian couplet, about a place that even we Bengalis call “Bhu-shorgo” – paradise on earth. My trip to Kashmir and Ladakh began with a conversation of an entirely different nature though. “There’s a lot of pressure on me to get married. Before that happens, I want to do this. I want to travel down NH1 to Ladakh”. With that startling revelation from my friend Prasenjit, our planning for the trip began. A group of five, Prasenjit, his friends Ananya and Harsha, my friend Sreyashi and I, would take the trip down India’s National Highway 1, to the northernmost region of our country, which is both one of the most inhospitable and one of the most beautiful. But our trip would begin with Srinagar, the capital of Jammu and Kashmir.

Monday, 27 June 2016

Zafar Khan Ghazi Masjid: Bengal's Oldest Mosque

Located some 70 km to the North of Calcutta (Kolkata), in the town of Tribeni, the Zafar Khan Ghazi Masjid is not just the oldest mosque of Bengal, it is the oldest standing Islamic structure of any kind. The complex consists of a mosque and a dargah, with several tombs and it remains an active religious site. However, the identity of the man, i.e., Zafar Khan Ghazi, remains something of a mystery and colourful tales about him continue to circulate. So just who was this man and why does the mosque that he built, look so strange?

The Zafar Khan Ghazi Masjid

Monday, 20 June 2016

Pariyon Ka Talab, Aurangabad

From the fort of Daulatabad National Highway 211, aka the Solapur-Dhule Road, takes you North West, towards the town of Khuldabad. Around 10 km down the road, a dirt track leads off the highway towards a place called Sulibhanjan. Here, next to a small hill, is Pariyon Ka Talab, the Lake of the Fairies. A minor tourist attraction, Pariyon Ka Talab is associated with a Muslim saint who could grant fertility and is an active religious site even today.

Pariyon Ka Talab: view from Shah Jalal-ud-din's Dargah