Monday, 25 March 2019

Orange and Blue: Terracotta Temples and Indigo Factory of Supur

With the possible exception of districts which are an extension of the Chhota Nagpur Plateau, West Bengal is mostly lacking in stone. It is because of this that builders in the region have favoured brick, and also why terracotta has become the dominant style of the region. The English word “terracotta” comes from the Italian words terra, meaning earth, and cotta meaning cooking. Terracotta, thus, means cooked or baked earth. In Bengal, terracotta was always a folk art form, before being elevated to a fine art through the patronage of the Sultans of Gaur and Pandua, who used terracotta on their mosques. 200 years after them, an explosion of terracotta temples happened across Bengal, and most of the surviving terracotta temples that we can see today, are from the 16th and 17th centuries. Unfortunately, lop-sided promotions on the part of the government and private tourism bodies have meant that most people identify only Bishnupur with terracotta temples, when in reality, terracotta temples are spread across multiple districts in West Bengal, especially in southern West Bengal. Located approximately 9km south of Shantiniketan, in the Birbhum district of West Bengal lies the village of Supur, home to no less than 6 terracotta temples, only one of which has been chosen by the state for preservation.

Tuesday, 29 January 2019

Forgotten History: The Port Canning Disaster

Blogger Soham Chandra first drew my attention to a crumbling building near the Sunderbans in South Bengal that he called “Lord Canning’s Bungalow”. The British Governor General, he said, had once had this house constructed, which is why the city in the South 24 Parganas District of West Bengal is also called Canning. But this struck me as rather odd. Lord Canning had died in 1862 and back then, this part of Bengal was malarial, tiger-infested jungle. Why would the Governor General of India ever want to live here? And if it wasn’t him, then whose was the once-magnificent colonial building? My research led me to one of the biggest commercial debacles of British India – the Port Canning disaster.


Monday, 24 December 2018

The Ghosts of Garstin Place

One of the first references I read about there being a ghost in Garstin Place near Dalhousie Square in Calcutta (Kolkata) was in an article that appeared in The Telegraph. My friend and college classmate IftekharAhsan, who pioneered walking tours in the city was doing a haunted night tour. 1 Garstin Place was the location of the former studios of All India Radio and supposedly, a musician committed suicide in the studio and sometimes a piano can still be heard playing late in the night. “Buildings have many lives”, photographer Luc Peeters told me long ago, when I was just starting my journey as a photographer. The statement is also true of neighbourhoods, and especially true for Garstin Place which has seen some incredible changes and dramatic events over the last few centuries.

Garstin Building no.4 (left) and 5 (centre) - the only surviving buildings

Monday, 10 December 2018

Akbar's Tomb, Sikandra

“Jalaluddin Mohammed Akbar, guardian of mankind” – I learnt the Kipling poem when I was in school, and its opening lines were all I could think of as we drove the 5 miles from Agra to the Emperor’s final resting place, Sikandra. Growing up in India, the history you are taught in school is somewhat one sided, but creates a lasting impression, especially about the Mughal Emperors of India. Babur was the conqueror. Jahangir was the just one. Shah Jahan was the romantic. Aurangzeb was the angry old man. But only Akbar was “The Great”. A king who was just, fair, a great warrior, a wise administrator, a man who gathered around him a court of such brilliance that stories about it are told to this day. Every child in India knows the stories of Akbar and his court wit, Birbal, about his Hindu Rajput wife, Jodha Bai, who in all fairness is more legend than fact, and about how his court musician, the Vaishnava Tansen, could make it rain by singing the raga “Malhar”. Akbar is to Indian history what Shahrukh Khan is to Bollywood cinema – a superstar you see on screen or read about, but never imagine will be able to approach. Needless to say, I was excited as I stepped into the vast funerary garden at Sikandra – this is the closest any human being could get, to Akbar the Great.

Akbar's Mausoleum, Sikandra


Sunday, 2 December 2018

How Guides are Destroying the Murshidabad Experience

I have visited the Murshidabad thrice in 2018. The city was the last capital of Bengal before the East India Company took over and the power centre shifted to Calcutta (now Kolkata). From 1704 to 1757, Murshidabad was the seat of the powerful Nawab of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa, who ruled over the richest province of the Mughal Empire, accounting for some 50% of the Empire’s GDP. There are a large number of historic structures and ruins left over from that period which make the historic city a fascinating place to visit. Like all historic sites, tourist guides are locally available. But while these guides are supposed to enhance the experience, in Murshidabad, their effect is quite the opposite. Tourist guides, who behave like goons, harassing visitors makes a trip to Murshidabad deeply unpleasant. Through my last 3 visits, here are some experiences I have had.


Monday, 26 November 2018

Belur & Halebid: Finest Examples of Hoysala Art

When it comes to ancient Indian art, the best examples are all associated with temples. While the erotic art of the Khajuraho Temples is famous, the Chennakeshava Temple of Belur and the Hoysaleshwara Temple in Halebid are perhaps a little less famous, but are no less beautiful and magnificent. These are temples that were built by the Hoysala ruling dynasty of the South India and represent some of the finest achievements of the people this country in architecture and sculpture. I visited the temples in February of 2017, but before I tell you more about them, let’s take a look at the dynasty which had them built.

Sunday, 11 November 2018

The REAL Dakshineswar Temple

Let me start off by clarifying that I do not mean to suggest that the Kali Temple established by Rani Rashmoni in the Dakshineswar village (Barrackpore Subdivision, North 24 Parganas District, West Bengal), is false or fake. The temple is, in fact, one of the most popular Kali Temples of West Bengal and is visited by lakhs of devotees every month. But the temple is commonly referred to as the “Dakshineswar Temple”, which is incorrect. While it is a temple, and it is in Dakshineswar, the name of a temple of Goddess Kali cannot be “Dakshineswar”, because Dakshineswar is a male name. Many people believe that it is called Dakshineswar, because the idol inside is of Dakshina Kali. This too is incorrect, because the idol housed in Rani Rashmoni’s temple is of Bhavatarini, one of the many aspects of Kali. Even if the idol was of Dakshina Kali, then the temple’s name couldn’t have been Dakshineswar, but Dakshineswari – that crucial “i” in the end makes it a female name. The temple is erroneously called Dakshineswar because that is the name of the village it is located in. But the name Dakshineswar definitely refers to a Hindu deity of some kind. So who is this Dakshineswar and where is his temple? That is the point from which my search began.


Sunday, 4 November 2018

Kaliprasadi Hungama: The Scandal That Shook Calcutta

Noun; Persian
tumult, riot, uproar, confusion, disorder

Bengalis in general, at least the educated upper and upper middle classes of the capital city of Calcutta (Kolkata) pride themselves on being liberal and permissive. Inter-caste, and even interreligious marriages, that can cause uproar in the rest of India, especially in what is referred to as India’s cow-belt, are fairly common in Calcutta. To a large extent, this liberal outlook is the result of the Bengali renaissance, led by such stalwarts as Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar and Raja Ram Mohan Roy. 30 years of atheist, communist rule in the post-independence period, have also ensured that caste plays no part in politics. But of course, it wasn’t always this way. In the early 19th century, Hindu society, even in Calcutta, exposed constantly to Western influence, was notoriously conservative and it is during this period that one of the city’s biggest scandals happened. Known as the Kaliprasadi Hungama, the scandal connects several of Calcutta’s biggest families, and places of worship belonging to multiple faiths, including Calcutta’s most famous Hindu temple – Kalighat.

Thursday, 20 September 2018

The Imambaras of Kolkata

Say the word Imambara to the average Bengali in Kolkata, and what he or she is likely to think of first, is the Hooghly Imambara. Prod a little further and the Nizamat Imambara will come up. Located in Murshidabad, it is the largest in Asia. The really well-informed will be able to name the Sibtainabad Imambara in Metiabruz where Wajid Ali Shah, the last Nawab of Oudh is buried. But what the vast majority of people in Kolkata don’t know is that there are some 20 imambaras in city, most with long histories and some are spectacularly beautiful. For Muharram this year I would like to highlight this unknown aspect of Kolkata.


Sunday, 8 July 2018

Sarfaraz Khan: Murshidabad's Forgotten Nawab

Since Murshid Quli Khan moved the capital of Bengal from Dhaka to Murshidabad around 1704, there have been only 4 Nawabs of Bengal from two dynasties to have succeeded him, before the East India Company’s takeover. The Nasiri Dynasty to which Murshid Quli Khan belonged, was unseated by the Afshar Dynasty, led by Alivardi Khan. The Afshar Dynasty’s rule came to an end with the Battle of Plassey, on the 23rd of June, 1757. The next to take their place on the Musnad of Murshidabad, was the Najafi Dynasty, beginning with the much-maligned Mir Jafar. But while the war that brought the Afshar Dynasty to an end is much discussed, and how its last scion, the hapless Siraj-ud-Daulah met his end has been memorialised in plays, the end of the Nasiri Dynasty has been almost completely forgotten. We know where every Nawab of Bengal is buried, except the last Nasiri Nawab, Sarfaraz Khan. For years, books have pointed to the rough area where he was buried, but no one has given the actual location, nor printed a photograph of the tomb. Has the tomb of a Nawab actually been lost? And how did it come to this?

Interiors of the incomplete Fauti Masjid. Construction was started by Sarfaraz Khan and ceased upon his death

Sunday, 1 July 2018

Weekend at the Himalayan Hotel

“How would you like to stay in a 100 year old hotel”? The question from fellow blogger Poorna Banerjee was a purely rhetorical one, of course. She knew that I would jump at the chance. And so it was that in the last weekend of the month of May, I found myself escaping the heat and dust of Kolkata for the chilly comfort of the historic Himalayan Hotel, now the Mayfair Himalayan Resort and Spa.

Friday, 15 June 2018

The Abandoned Mosque of Beliaghata

On Beliaghata Main Road, a little under a kilometre southeast of the point where the road crosses the canal lies a mysterious, abandoned mosque. I say abandoned because the mosque is not used for prayers by Muslims anymore, although it is far from empty. What was once a mosque is now used as a residential building and storage space. I first found out about the abandoned mosque in Beliaghata from a Facebook post by my friend Avijit Das. Avijit and Souvik had been alerted to the presence of the mosque by another Facebook post. “Sayan Banerjee had posted about the mosque, claiming that it was the oldest mosque in Kolkata and that it was ASI property”, Souvik told me. But when they visited the site, they found it to be occupied by a Hindu family. Souvik was able to identify the family as Vaishnava based on the “kanthi” or wooden necklace that a male member of the family was wearing. The sheer ridiculousness of a Vaishnava family living inside a mosque was enough to pique my curiosity, and so I decided to do some investigation of my own.

The western side of the mosque

Friday, 18 May 2018

The Lesser-Known Museums of Kolkata

Such is the reputation of Kolkata’s Indian Museum, that when one says museum or “jadughar” in Kolkata, the Indian Museum is what one refers to, and that one word is enough for taxi drivers to take you to your destination. However, housed in various buildings around the city, are a number of smaller museums, from 1-room displays to multi-gallery affairs, which house antiquities and objects that can educate and provoke curiosity.


Sunday, 13 May 2018

Photo Feature: The Transformation of the Calcutta Bungalow

Back in 2015, I remember having the first conversation about what is now the Calcutta Bungalow with Iftekhar Ahsan. I had known Ifte since college and had watched his Calcutta Walks growing in popularity, till it became the number one thing for visitors to do, on Tripadvisor. A Bed & Breakfast for his guests seemed like the logical next step.