Monday, 29 June 2015

Sinhagad Fort, Pune

Known as “Kondana” in the old days, Sinhagad (also spelt Sinhgad), or “the lion’s fort” is one of the most popular weekend destinations from Pune. Located at around 30 km to the Southwest of Pune city, on a hill of the Bhuleshwar range of the Sahyadri Mountains, some 1300 metres above sea level, Sinhagad is a favourite with trekkers but may be reached via car as well. The Marathas have fought multiple battles from the 1640s to the early 1700s for control of this fort.

Kondaneshwar Temple at Sinhagad
The earliest mention of Sinhagad fort (then called Kondana) is from 1328, when the Koli chief Nag Nayak defended it bravely against the vast armies of Muhammad bin Tuhglaq, Sultan of Delhi. Nag Nayak, it is said, held out for almost nine months when Tuhglaq’s army laid siege to the fort. More than 300 years later, in 1647, Shivaji, the great Maratha warrior King, rebelled against the Adil Shahi Dynasty and took control of the fort. Forced to return the fort to Adil Shah only two years later to secure the release of his father, Shivaji recaptured the fort in 1656. The Mughals attacked the fort thrice, in 1662, 1663 and 1665, but all efforts to take the fort by force failed. Finally the Mughal commander Jai Singh laid siege to Shivaji’s fort in Purandar in 1665, and compelled him to hand over Sinhagad, along with almost a dozen other forts and large tracts of land to Mughal control. But Shivaji’s armies laid siege to the fort only 5 years later, leading to the most famous and legendary confrontation of all.

The attack was led by Tanaji Malusare, who was nicknamed “Sinha” or “lion”, and his brother Suryaji. On the night of the 4th of February, 1670, Tanaji was informed that the garrison of 5000 guarding the fort would probably have their guard down, as there was to be a celebration of some sort. As the Mughal soldiers drank themselves into a stupor, Tanaji surveyed the fort and found one bastion to be completely unguarded. But a natural advantage to the defenders of Sinhagad was that it was on top of an immensely steep cliff which afforded it natural protection. How would the Maratha soldiers scale the sheer rock face? Tanaji came up with a brilliant solution. A rope was tied around the waist of a giant water monitor lizard named Yashwanti. Water monitor lizards are extremely strong and can climb any surface with ease. With Yashwanti’s help 342 Maratha soldiers reached the bastion. On the other side, Suryaji prepared to attack one of the fort’s gates with another small force of men. Once inside, the Marathas attacked the drunken Mughal soldiers who were taken completely by surprise. In the fierce combat, Tanaji and Jai Singh’s nephew Udaybhan killed each other. When the commander is killed, soldiers often panic and retreat. To prevent them from using the rope to escape down the bastion wall, Suryaji cut it down. The message was a simple one, fight or jump off the cliff to your death. The tiny Maratha force was ultimately able to subdue the fort’s defenders, even though the Mughals outnumbered them 10 to 1. When news of victory and Tanaji’s death reached Shivaji, he is said to have uttered the famous words, “Gad aala, pan Sinha gela”, meaning “the fort has been won, but the lion has been lost”. He renamed Kondana Sinhagad in Tanaji’s honour. Sinhagad was to fall to the Mughals again in 1689, only to be recaptured by the Marathas in 1693, by Aurangzeb’s armies in 1703 and by the Marathas again in 1706. The East India Company’s overthrow of the Maratha Empire finally put an end to this Ping-Pong game in 1818.

Sinhagad is mostly in ruins today, but enough of the fort remains to provide the visitor with an idea of what it must have been like in its heydays. This includes the fort’s two gates, the Kalyan Darwaza and Pune Darwaza. The fort is used by the National Defence Academy, Khadakwasla, who send their cadets carrying heavy battle gear on runs through the fort to build up their endurance and stamina. Exploring the fort can take several hours and there is much to see. Indian freedom fighter Lokmanya Bal Gangadhar Tilak built a villa on top of the fort which he used as his summer residence which remains standing. But for some inexplicable reason, state television Doordarshan has been allowed to erect a huge broadcast tower on top of the fort. The power generator for the tower is located right next to Tilak’s Bungalow! There are multiple tanks atop the fort, the most famous among them being Dev Taki and Ganesh Taki. The water of Dev Taki is sweet and considered potable. Near it is the temple of Kondaneshwar. Kondana… Kondaneshwar, get it? There is also a memorial to Tanaji Malusare, and a plaque atop one of the gates says the following in Marathi, “On this Fort, warrior men have the saffron flag. Because they have shed their blood, we have been able to see a happy today. Brave warrior Tanaji Malusare laid down his life and won the fort on 4th Feb 1670. After that, freedom fighter Navji Lakhmaaji Balkavde also laid down his life and won us the fort on 1st July 1693. And Chatrapati Rajaram Maharaj also passed away on this same fort on 3rd March 1700”. From boards put up near the Pune Darwaza, it appears that Sinhagad today is in much better shape than a decade back. Mountains of garbage have been cleaned up, the road up to the fort has been repaired and stairs and pathways have been laid out well.

Tilak's villa at Sinhagad

What is the best time to visit Sinhagad? I had visited it in October-November, and found clear blue skies and very pleasant weather. Do avoid going in the monsoons because the stairs are all stone and can get very very slippery. Keep in mind that exploring hill forts means climbing up and down stairs constantly and as such, Sinhagad isn’t really suitable for the elderly or unfit. The fort remains as treacherous today as it once was for Shivaji’s soldiers, and in January 2015 a young man who was taking photographs slipped and fell to his death from one of Sinhagad’s bastions, so do be careful. While you’re there, don’t miss the hot and crispy “Kanda Vada”. Sliced onions, deep fried in a spicy batter, Kanda Vada is a popular snack all over Maharashtra. There are also stalls selling some excellent “baingan bharta”, which is a spicy dish made with eggplant, accompanied by “bhaakri” which is the Maharashtrian version of the “chapatti”, made with Jowar (Sorghum) or Bajra (Millet). To cool your stomach down after that spicy meal, have a cup of cool, unsweetened yoghurt, which is also sold here.

The view from Sinhagad

- by Deepanjan Ghosh



  • I am grateful to my cousin Ayan Sarbadhikari for accompanying me on this trip.
  • Thanks also to Madhuri Bhosale for translating the Marathi plaque commemorating Tanaji Malusare and others.


Monday, 22 June 2015

Holy Rosary Church: India's Only Submerged Church

I found out about the Holy Rosary Church, in the Shettihalli village of Hassan District, in the Indian state of Karnataka, from a photograph posted by my friend Ananya,on Facebook. A rudimentary Google search revealed some surprising facts. Remarkably, the Holy Rosary Church in Shettihalli is India’s only submerged church. Submerged by what, you may ask? By the waters of a dam’s reservoir, of course! An opportunity to visit the church finally emerged this year. I was going to Mysore, and I decided to take a day out, and drive over to Hassan.

It was the last weekend of May, and roasting hot in Karnataka. The monsoons would arrive by the following week, and common sense suggested that water in any river or reservoir would now be at its lowest level. I set off with my friend Sreyashi in a rented car at 6 am. The drive from Mysore to Shettihalli was about 130 km and took exactly 3 hours. The roads were in good shape for the most part, and even when they got a little patchy, they were far from the worst roads I have been on. Some distance inside the village, the car turned off the metalled road into a dirt track, and after clearing some bushes, I got my first sight of the Holy Rosary Church. To my relief, my guess was completely correct. The reservoir was all but bone dry, and the church was completely visible. Our car almost ran right into it!

Monday, 15 June 2015

Prinsep Ghat

Because Calcutta’s Prinsep Ghat now stands some distance away from the river Hooghly, many make the mistake of assuming that it never was a proper “ghat”, or quay. But in his Recollections of Calcutta For Over Half a Century, Montague Massey describes a set of steep stone steps from the ghat to the water and writes, “When it was low water…you had to be carried ashore by the dingheewallahs on an antiquated kind of wooden chair or board, as the mud between the river and ghat was more than ankle-deep”. Those steps are no doubt buried under the earth and the river has retreated towards Howrah over the years. Nevertheless, Prinsep Ghat on Strand Road, between the Water Gate and the St George's Gate of the Fort William, continues to be one of Calcutta’s best known colonial monuments.

The man, who has been honoured by this Palladian porch, was born on the 20th of August, 1799. James Prinsep was the 7th son of John Prinsep, a rich Indigo planter turned East India merchant. James initially studied architecture under the gifted but eccentric Augustus Pugin. But an eye infection made it impossible for him to pursue his studies. His father then secured the job of Assistant Assay Master in Calcutta, and James arrived in the city on 15th September, 1819, to work under the distinguished Sanskrit scholar, Dr. Horace Hayman Wilson. As his eyesight improved, James undertook several important architectural and engineering tasks alongside his job. He studied and illustrated Temple architecture, built a new mint in Benares (Varanasi) and in 1822 even produced an accurate map of the city. But he is best remembered for his translation of the rock edicts of Emperor Asoka, which were in the Pali script. His long hours of work would eventually take a toll on his health, and an unwell James was forced to return to England, where he died on the 22nd of April, 1840 of “softening of the brain”. Prinsep Ghat was built in Calcutta (Kolkata), in 1843 in his memory, and the money for the monument was collected through public subscription. The architect was Captain W. Fitzgerald.

Monday, 8 June 2015

Smaranika Tram Museum, Esplanade Tram Depot

The Calcutta Tramways Corporation, or CTC has come up with a unique initiative to showcase its 140 year heritage in the form of Smaranika (literally meaning memorabilia), a tram museum housed inside an actual tram, stationed at the Esplanade Tram Depot. Although tram services were introduced in Bombay (Mumbai), Madras (Chennai), Nashik, Delhi, Patna and Kanpur, Calcutta (Kolkata) remains the only city in India with an operational tram service. The first tram service in Calcutta (Kolkata) was on the 24th of February of 1873, with a horse drawn tram running between Sealdah and Armenian Ghat Street. Madras was the first city to have electric trams, in May of 1895, and the electric tram made its debut in Calcutta (Kolkata) 5 years later. The Smaranika tramcar, officially designated CTC-142, was built in 1938, and has been renovated and modified to accommodate a cafeteria in the 1st class compartment, and a tram museum in the rear, 2nd class compartment.

What is the difference between 1st and 2nd class you ask? 1st class has fans and more space to sit. 2nd class is missing the fans, has fewer seats, and therefore more space to accommodate standing passengers. But in its current avatar, the Smaranika tramcar is completely air conditioned; no class-divide! The cafeteria serves basic tea and coffee; don’t expect your fancy lattes and green teas here. Along with that there are soft drinks and various chips and crisps which are sold at MRP. It’s a great place for a long, relaxed Calcutta-style “adda” or chat and the staff tells me that on weekdays a place to sit may be difficult to find. I can imagine myself working in an office in Dalhousie Square, popping over at the end of a long day, perhaps with a little chess-set and a friend, and sitting here in air conditioned comfort, playing a game while discussing life, economics and family problems!

Monday, 1 June 2015

The Calcutta Collectorate and The Black Hole of Calcutta, Dalhousie Square

The Calcutta Collectorate Building on Clive Street (now Netaji Subhas Road), at the North Western corner of Dalhousie Square (now Binay Badal Dinesh Bagh or BBD Bagh), is one of the many unfortunate victims of Calcutta’s (Kolkata) unplanned and uncontrolled green drive. Large trees have been planted at random along the pavements of many of the city’s streets, which completely blocks of the view of the architectural marvels behind them.

When the English bought the villages of Kalikata, Sutanuti and Gobindapur from Sabarna Roychowdhury in 1698, and established their factory here, they also had to take over the tasks of tax collection and policing. For this task, a European collector or zamindar was appointed who would have a native as his deputy. During the tenure of John Zephaniah Holwell, the “black zamindar” was the notorious Gobindram Mitter (or Gobindaram Mitra) who was famously rich and, legend says, the first native in the town to have a horse carriage. Gobindram Mitter was the man who built Chitpur’s famous “Black Pagoda”, a “nava ratna” or nine turreted temple that was so huge, it was used as a navigational aid by ships on the Hooghly. It was knocked down by a cyclone in 1820, and its ruins can still be seen.

Monday, 25 May 2015

Myanmar (Burma) Buddhist Temple, Eden Hospital Road

Like many others, I too had passed by the Myanmar (Burma) Buddhist Temple on Eden Hospital Road (now Dr. Lalit Banerjee Sarani) in Calcutta (Kolkata) many times without being aware of it, until the evening the white sign with red and green letters caught my eye. A Burmese Buddhist Temple in Calcutta is not all that unusual. Burma, or Myanmar as she is now known, was once part of the British Indian Empire. Many Indians, especially Bengalis were settled in Burma and had to leave their homes and return to India during the turbulent years of the Independence struggle. There was a small but significant Burmese presence in Calcutta (Kolkata) as well of which few vestiges still remain.

The Myanmar (Burma) Buddhist Temple is devoid of any external architectural significance; just another decaying building in a mostly decaying neighbourhood with masses of unruly electrical wiring hanging from every conceivable place. That’s because this was not really a purpose built temple, unlike the Chinese Temples of Tiretta Bazar, nearby. The building was purchased from an Indian in 1928 by a Burmese national, U San Min, for the sum of Rs. 47,000. U San Min named it the “Burma Buddhist Dharmasala, Calcutta”. The first presiding monk was Rev. U Nandawuntha. In 1932, U San Min handed over the temple to the monks and ever since the Burmese have been electing monks who are sent over to Calcutta to take charge of the temple. The ground floor of the building on 10 A, Eden Hospital Road is leased out to shops. The first floor functions as a guest house for visitors from Myanmar. The temple is located on the second floor. The gate on the ground floor is almost always locked. I had arranged for permission to visit and photograph the temple through the help of my friend Shabnam and her family. As I walked up the stairs, I felt like I had passed through some kind of portal, and entered a different world. The signs on the walls were all in Burmese! The only sign I could read said “Please remove your shoe”.

Monday, 18 May 2015

Nipponzan Myohoji Japanese Buddhist Temple, Lake Road

Few people living on Calcutta’s (Kolkata) Lake Road are aware that there is a Japanese Buddhist Temple in the vicinity, and even fewer are aware that it is officially called The Nipponzan Myohoji Temple. I don't blame them. One generally only discovers such things if one walks, and this being a relatively affluent neighbourhood, most people travel in cars. The omnipresence of smartphones with large screens has also somewhat destroyed people’s natural tendency to look around. But the real question is, how did we end up with a Japanese Buddhist Temple in Calcutta (Kolkata)?

The altar of the Nipponzan Myohoji Japanese Buddhist Temple

India’s ties with Japan have been long and cordial. Nobel prize winning poet Rabindranath Tagore had visited Japan in 1916 to deliver a series of lectures. The Japanese collaboration with Indian revolutionary Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose and his Indian National Army or INA is also well known. The Japanese had been practicing Buddhism since at least 552 C.E. Nichidatsu Fujii (1885 – 1985) was a Japanese monk who was deeply influenced by the writings of Nichiren, a Japanese Monk revered as a saint. Nichiren held the opinion that the Lotus Sutra, a collection of teachings of the Buddha near the end of his life, was the sole means of attaining enlightenment, and that one day the Lotus Sutra would be preached in India. It was with this aim in mind that Nichidatsu Fujii arrived in Calcutta (Kolkata) in 1931 and walked the streets of the city beating his drum and chanting “Namu Myōhō Renge Kyō”, which translates to “I take refuge in (devote or submit myself to) the wonderful law of the Lotus Flower Sutra”. This chant or mantra may still be seen above the door of the Nipponzan Myohoji Japanese Buddhist Temple of Calcutta (Kolkata).