Monday, 28 December 2015

Sea Ip Church (Chinese Temple), Tiretta Bazar

At 22/1 Chattawala Gully, in Calcutta’s (Kolkata) old Chinatown stands the Chinese temple known as the Sea Ip Church. It is one of the many temples built by the city’s Chinese community which has been settling in this part of town since the early 19th century. The Sea Ip Church is one of 6 Chinese temples in the area, and one of the most active, with Chinese families still worshipping in the old way. But if you were to ask anyone in Calcutta today about Chinatown, they would tell you about a very different area called Tangra. This part of Central Calcutta (Kolkata) now goes by the name “Poddar Court”. So what are so many Chinese temples doing here?


Monday, 21 December 2015

Basri Shah Masjid: Calcutta's Oldest Mosque (err...maybe!)

The oldest mosque in Calcutta (Kolkata) should be called the Basri Shah Masjid, but unfortunately, the name has been anglicized to Bhosri Shah, Bhonsri Shah, or even Bhousri Shah by some chroniclers of the city, such as the venerable Cotton. It is unfortunate because in Hindi, Bhosri literally means c*nt, and is used in the same sense; as an obscenity. But that is not the only thing that is intriguing about this mosque. Its claim to being the oldest mosque of Calcutta also cannot be unambiguously verified; a definite date of construction cannot be found. Neither can I confirm to you its exact address. The municipality’s list of heritage buildings says that this is a Grade I heritage building, and is “popularly known as 1 Lock Gate Road”. Pijush Kanti Roy’s Mosques in Calcutta says that the address is 8 Seth Pukur Road. Ok, so age not verifiable; exact address not confirmable, does it even exist? Oh yes it does! Here it is in Google Maps. See those three green (actually almost fluorescent yellow) domes? That is it. But when it comes to Basri Shah, we are dealing with two structures, not one. Thoroughly confused? Good. Now we can begin.


Monday, 14 December 2015

Photography Inside Ajanta Caves: Recommendations, Tips & Tricks

On the 28th of April, 1819, John Smith of the 28th Cavalry Regiment of the Madras Presidency stumbled into Cave no. 10 of a complex that has since come to be known as the Ajanta Caves. He was on a hunt and was following a tiger, but what he had in fact managed to do was rediscover a Buddhist cave complex whose construction began as early as the 2nd Century B.C.! Abandoned and overgrown, the caves contained some of the finest examples of early Indian art, especially painting and 30 caves were eventually uncovered. The Ajanta Caves, now in the Indian state of Maharashtra, and under the care of the Archaeological Survey of India, are a world heritage site and a major tourist attraction. But photographing the Ajanta caves, especially what remains of the paintings can be a challenge.

They are called the Ajanta CAVES and caves are usually dark. Some amount of daylight does enter the Ajanta caves, but that’s far less light that is needed for photography. There are also a few artificial lights, but they are dim, dull and yellow since bright lights cause colours to fade. On top of that, while photography inside Ajanta caves is allowed, the use of tripods and flash is PROHIBITED!!! So how do you get great photographs under such terrible conditions? Here are my suggestions based on my experiences inside the Ajanta Caves.

Monday, 7 December 2015

The Gates of Aurangabad

If Calcutta is the city of joy and Paris is the city of love then Aurangabad in the Indian state of Maharashtra is the city of gates. The city owes its existence to an Ethiopian by the name of Malik Ambar. Sold as a slave in childhood, he would eventually rise to become the regent of the Nizamshahi Dynasty of Ahmednagar (which later shifted its capital to Hyderabad). He turned the small village of Khadki into a modern city and equipped it with waterworks and other municipal conveniences. Khadki would eventually come to be ruled by the Mughals and Aurangzeb made it his capital when he was the appointed the viceroy of the Deccan in 1653 and it is after him that the city is named.

Sunday, 29 November 2015

All Saints Garrison Church, Lucknow

Located in the Cantt. (Cantonment) area of Lucknow, the All Saints Garrison Church is high on the list of the spookiest places I have ever visited. The mutiny of 1857 ruined the British settlement of Lucknow, which had grown up around the British Residency. Damage from heavy shelling by the rebels forced the British to abandon the Residency and the new settlement was what is known as Cantt. today. Since British officers and families were living in the Cantonment area, a large number of Churches were built to serve them, and most of them survive to this day.


Monday, 23 November 2015

6 Things You Don't Know About Calcutta's Victoria Memorial

The Victoria Memorial of Calcutta (Kolkata), officially The All India Victoria Memorial Hall, is the city’s number one tourist attraction. In his book “Calcutta’s Edifice: The Buildings of a Great City”, Brian Paul Bach writes, “Probably no other structure is currently called upon as often to serve as a symbol of Calcutta.” Victoria Memorial attracts tourists by the thousand every day and yet, there is much about the monument that even Calcuttans are unaware of. Here are 6 things about the Victoria Memorial that most people don’t know


Monday, 16 November 2015

Babughat, Strand Road

Babughat is one of nearly 80 ghats that stand on either side of the Hooghly river, between Calcutta (Kolkata) and Dakshineswar. While the name Babughat is well known, not many people in Calcutta are aware who exactly this “Babu” is. So who is Babughat named after?


Monday, 9 November 2015

Beth El Synagogue, Pollock Street

On Pollock Street, surrounded by shops that sell electrical goods, stands the Beth El Synagogue. It is one of Calcutta’s (Kolkata) three surviving synagogues and is evidence of the fact that the city once had a thriving and rich Jewish community.

Monday, 2 November 2015

The Art of Calcutta's Durga Puja

Durga Puja, or as Bengalis say, Pujo, 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), Durga 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 being acknowledged as the world’s largest street festival. Bengalis are known to be liberal in their interpretation of religion, and Calcutta’s Puja organisers now compete against each other every year, drawing from the realms of art, folk culture and even current affairs to put a new spin on the idol of the Mother Goddess.

The traditional idol is always the same. In the centre is Maa Durga, her ten hands holding ten weapons. Accompanying her is her “vahana” or mount, a lion. Together they do battle against Mahishasura, the demon who is able to take the form of a water buffalo and is usually shown emerging from one. Durga is thus known as Mahishasura-mardini, the slayer of Mahishasura. Mahishasura is usually seen near Maa Durga’s feet, her spear having pierced her chest. Surrounding Durga are her children, from left to right, the elephant-headed Ganesha and his mount the rat, the Goddess of wealth, Lakshmi and her mount the owl, the Goddess of learning Saraswati with a “veena” in her hand and with her mount the swan and finally Kartik or Kartikeya and his mount, the peacock. Durga's husband, Lord Shiva must also be portrayed somewhere in the scheme of things, and is usually seen high above the battle scene, looking down on the carnage. In this photo feature, I present to you some of the most unusual depictions of the Mother Goddess this year. As I toured the city taking photographs of the Puja, I was reminded of a phrase used by The Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek as an album title - The Whole Thing Started with Rock and Roll Now It's Out of Control.

Gujarat themed idol at Badamtala Asharsangha

Monday, 26 October 2015

Zohra Begum Masjid, Tollygunge Circular Road

The Zohra Begum Masjid or Mosque on Tollygunge Circular Road (officially 32 Somnath Lahiri Sarani) came to my notice while doing a photowalk with members of Wikipedia in the Chetla area of South Calcutta (Kolkata). We were photographing the four temple complexes in the area when Indrajit Das took a look at the Municipality’s list of heritage structures and found a Mosque in the list. Curious to find out more, we walked in. We had no idea that we had walked into a property connected with Tipu Sultan of Mysore.


Saturday, 17 October 2015

Chamundeshwari Temple, Mysore

Located 13 km away from the city of Mysore, atop the Chamundi Hills, is the Sri Chamundeshwari Temple, one of the 51 Shakti Peethas of the Hindu religion. The legend of the Shakti Peethas originates from the story of King Daksha, whose daughter Sati married Lord Shiva against her father’s wishes. Determined to attend a “yajna” at her father’s house, the uninvited Sati did what would today be called gate-crashing. But she was disrespected and humiliated by her father. Unable to bear the insults she immolated herself. The enraged and grief-stricken Shiva picked up the remains of his wife’s body and began the “Tandava”, the dance of destruction, laying waste to all creation. The panicked Gods appealed to Vishnu to intervene and Vishnu using his disc, the “Sudarshan Chakra” severed Sati’s body into multiple pieces. These pieces then landed in various parts of the Indian subcontinent, and in each place there exists today a Shakti Peetha, each spot corresponding to a body part. On the Chamundi Hills, it is said, it was Sati’s hair that fell.


Monday, 12 October 2015

Safed Baradari, Lucknow

I would not have walked into the Safed Baradari of Lucknow if it hadn’t been for my auto driver Dubey, who kept pointing it out every time we went past it. After the 4th time I heard him point to the structure and say “Baradari”, I thought I must investigate, and that is how I came upon this most intriguing structure, with a very chequered history.


Monday, 5 October 2015

General Post Office (GPO), Dalhousie Square

Although the General Post Office or GPO, Calcutta’s (Kolkata) central post office, is one of the city’s best known, and most often photographed heritage buildings, there are many things about it that remain unknown to the general public. Not many people are aware that the spot where the GPO stands today, once stood the Old Fort William of Calcutta, which was the centre of violent battle when the Nawab of Bengal, Siraj-ud-Daula laid siege to Calcutta. Even fewer people are aware that a few markers of the siege of Calcutta still remain.


Monday, 28 September 2015

Chota Imambara, Lucknow

Lucknow’s Chota Imambara, also known as the Hussainabad Imambara is located a short distance away from the much larger Bara Imambara. An Imambara, also referred to as a Hussainia, an Ashurkhana or Imambargah, is a congregation hall for Shia commemoration ceremonies, especially those associated with the Remembrance of Muharram. The Nawabs of Lucknow, being originally from Iran, were Shia Muslims and Lucknow remains a predominantly Shia city. But while the Chota Imambara is indeed “chota” or small, it is magnificent and opulent in its own way.

Monday, 21 September 2015

Bengali War Memorial, College Square

Not too many Bengalis in Calcutta (Kolkata) know of the Bengali War Memorial in College Square. The marble monument was raised to honour the memory of the soldiers of the 49th Bengali Regiment, the only British Indian Army regiment to consist entirely of ethnic Bengalis, that would go on to serve in the Mesopotamia theatre of WWI.


Monday, 14 September 2015

Toong On Church (Chinese Temple) & Nanking Restaurant, Blackburn Lane

The quaint little red and white building on Blackburn Lane, in Calcutta’s (Kolkata) Tiretta Bazar (now also known as Poddar Court) area, housing the Toong On Church, a Chinese temple to the warrior God Kwan-Ti, was also once home to Nanking, Calcutta’s first Chinese Restaurant. The building has survived against all odds and is today part of the restoration efforts spearheaded by The Cha Project, which seeks to revive Tiretta Bazar, Calcutta’s first Chinatown.


Monday, 7 September 2015

Temple Chambers, Old Post Office Street

When I chanced upon Temple Chambers for the first time on my walk through Esplanade Row West in Calcutta (Kolkata), I didn’t even realize I was looking at a heritage building, leave alone a heritage building designed by Vincent J. Esch, who went on to work on the Victoria Memorial. For all its history, Temple Chambers is a rather shabby looking building, at least on the outside. It is clear that it was once quite something to look at, but now the signs of neglect are everywhere. Parts of the exterior of the building have been appropriated by squatters and pavement dwellers. The exterior has received a coat of cement but is devoid of any paint. And yet, Temple Chambers continues to serve some of the most powerful people in the city of Calcutta.


Monday, 31 August 2015

Bose House, Serampore

I discovered Bose House in Serampore purely by chance. Actually even using the word “discovered” would be inaccurate. It would imply that I came upon something, and knew what it was. I did not. I was doing my rounds of Serampore, taking photographs of the town’s colonial era buildings, and just happened to drive past the building on 22, T.C. Goswami Street. I was struck both by the size and obvious magnificence of the structure, and it’s almost frightening decay. I told the chauffeur to pull over, and entered to take some photographs that I was pretty certain I would never use.


Monday, 24 August 2015

Royal Exchange, Clive Street

To rid the city of what it calls its “colonial hangover”, the government of West Bengal has renamed the road once known as Royal Exchange Place, to India Exchange Place, although the building that houses the Bengal Chamber of Commerce still bears the name “Royal Exchange” in gigantic letters on its façade. The list of people who have at some point occupied these premises on Clive Street (now Netaji Subhas Road), is a long and impressive one.


Monday, 17 August 2015

Christ Church, Lucknow

Located in the Hazratganj area, Christ Church is Lucknow’s oldest Church, built in 1860. The first Anglican Church in North India, and probably the third in all of India, was the St. Mary’s Church, located inside Lucknow’s Residency. During the mutiny of 1857, it was heavily shelled by the rebels and was completely destroyed. For the next few years, services were held inside the tomb of Nawaab Saadat Ali Khan II. Christ Church was designed by Lt. Swetenham of the Royal Engineers and was consecrated by Bishop Cotton on 26th November, 1860.

Monday, 10 August 2015

Dzongu, North Sikkim: Holy Land of the Lepchas

North Sikkim Travelogue Part 3

For the last leg of our 2014 trip to North Sikkim, our travel agent suggested that we try the Mayal Lyang homestay in Dzongu. Bordered by the Teesta River in the south-east, Tholung Chu River in the north-east and by rising mountains in the west, Dzongu is a forested mountain valley that is a reserve for the Lepcha people. The Lepcha are the indigenous people of Sikkim, with their own language and script, distinct culture and cuisine and are mostly Tibetan Buddhist. Our hosts were Gyatso and Samsay Lepcha, and their family.


Monday, 3 August 2015

Kamarghat Dwadosh Shiv Mandir, Prankrishna Chandra Lane

I was exploring the temples in the Chetla area of South Calcutta (Kolkata) when I found the Kamarghat Dwadosh Shiv Mandir, completely by accident. I was there with my friends Amartya, Soumyadeep and Sourav, visiting the Radhanath Temple of Mondal Temple Lane and the Baro Ras Bari and Chhoto Ras Bari of Tollygunge Road when a local walked up to us. All of us were carrying rather large cameras, so it was quite obvious what we were here for. Since we were photographing old temples, he asked us if we had seen the “Baro Shiv Mandir”, a group of 12 Shiva Temples which he assured us was quite old. With guidance from locals, all of whom were aware of the existence of the temple, we reached a large courtyard on Pran Krishna Chandra Street and found written on the wall the words “Kamarghat Dwadosh Shiv Mandir” and the date 1259, according to the Bengali calendar.

Monday, 27 July 2015

Teele Wali Masjid, Lucknow

Teele Wali Masjid, literally meaning “the Mosque on the Hill”, located in Lucknow’s Hussainabad area is a potentially controversial monument. To understand why I say that, you need to first know that the name Lucknow apparently derives from “Lakshmanavati”. Lakshman was the brother of Lord Rama in the Hindu epic Ramayana. Legend has it that Lakshman established his capital where Lucknow stands today. The hill in the Hussainabad area is known as “Lakshman ka Teela”, or Lakshman’s hill and Hindus believe that buried under it are the remains of Lakshman’s capital. There are also vague references to a Sheshnaag Temple being somewhere around the same spot. So Teele Wali Masjid is a Muslim monument standing on top of an allegedly Hindu site. See the problem?


Monday, 20 July 2015

Lalitha Mahal Palace, Mysore

Mysore’s Lalitha Mahal Palace has got to be the fanciest hotel I have ever lived in. I almost always stay in budget hotels, but since I was in Mysore for only two nights, my friend Sreyashi suggested this luxury hotel, built by the Wadiyar Kings of Mysore. It wasn’t frightfully expensive, plus I thought I’d have the chance to live in and photograph an actual palace, so we went ahead with the booking, and I can tell you, the Lalitha Mahal Palace did not disappoint.


Monday, 13 July 2015

Why is South Calcutta losing its buildings?

Author Amit Chaudhuri’s campaign to save Calcutta’s old residential buildings, its old neighbourhoods, seems to have caught on. It is sparking discussions in social media and articles about it are getting written and shared. But the houses that he wants to save are not what Calcuttans call “heritage buildings”. They are not colonial, and are not homes of famous people or zamindars, Bengal’s fabulously wealthy landlords. They are family homes of nameless, faceless Bengalis mostly from the middle-income group. What makes these buildings unique and interesting is their often eccentric and unique architecture. A colonial building in Dalhousie Square in Calcutta will find echoes in London, Rangoon and even Australia. But these buildings in Dover Lane, Puddapukur, Bhowanipore and Lansdowne Road are unique, and they are unique to Calcutta. Even more interesting are the few features that almost all these houses share. Two of them in particular have caught Amit Chaudhuri’s eye.

A building near Northern Park being demolished

Monday, 6 July 2015

St. Andrew's Church, Dalhousie Square

St. Andrews Church, located at the North Eastern corner of Dalhousie Square, has two other names; The Scotch Kirk and Lat Sahib Ka Girja. The second name it probably acquired from the fact that the foundation stone was laid by the Countess of Loudon and Moira, wife of the then Governor General, The Marquess of Hastings. The former nickname stemmed from that fact that it was built to serve the Scottish Presbyterian community of Calcutta (Kolkata).

St. Andrew's Church. The tram seen here is entering the B.B.D. Bag Depot

The place where St. Andrews Church now stands was once occupied by the Old Court House. It may have originally been a charity school, which then became the Mayor’s Court, and finally the Supreme Court, before the magnificent Gothic pile on Esplanade Row West came up. The road leading from the Church to the Maidan is still known as Old Court House Street. This was the same court house where Maharaja Nandakumar was tried and sentenced to death in 1775. The Old Court House eventually fell into disrepair, and was pulled down in 1792. The Anglo-Indian Presbytery was created by the Charter of 1813 along with the Anglo India Episcopate. The Court of Directors in a public general letter dated 12th November 1813 informed the Governor General of the Presidency of Fort William in Bengal of the appointment of “one Minister of the Church of Scotland with the same Salary as is granted to the Junior Chaplain at each of the Presidencies, and we direct that a suitable place of Worship be provided or erected”. The Rev. Dr. James Bryce arrived in Calcutta on 28th November 1814 to fill the position of Chaplain on the Bengal Ecclesiastical Establishment. It seems that right from the beginning a bitter rivalry existed between Rev. Bryce, and the first Bishop of the Indian Episcopate, Bishop Fanshawe Middleton, who headed the Anglican St. John’s Church located at the North Eastern corner of Government House (Raj Bhavan).

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.

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).

Monday, 11 May 2015

Bhot Bagan Math, Ghusuri, Howrah

There aren’t many in Calcutta (Kolkata) who have heard of the Tibetan Buddhist Temple or Monastery known as Bhot Bagan Math in the Ghusuri area of Howrah District. Fewer still will be able to locate the dilapidated complex on 5, Gossain Ghat Street. The extremely narrow approach roads through dense slums populated by mostly Bihari migrant workers make it inaccessible for most cars. And yet, Bhot Bagan Math was the first Tibetan Buddhist Temple in the plains of India; in fact, it was the only pre-Twentieth Century Tibetan religious institution in all of South Asia. The word “Bhot”, used in ancient India to refer to Tibetans probably comes from the Tibetan word “Bod”, meaning Tibet. “Bagan” in Bengali means garden, and “Math” is Bengali for monastery. Bhot Bagan therefore, would mean Tibetan Garden, and that is what this was originally meant to be.

Bhot Bagan Math (in the distance)
The origins of Bhot Bagan Math maybe found in the conflict between Bhutan and princely state of Cooch Behar of 1771. The Bhutanese had long claimed the right to appoint the ruler of Cooch Behar, and when a succession dispute erupted, the King of Bhutan, known as the Druk Desi, Zhidar, invaded Cooch Behar, ousted the Raja, and installed his own candidate. The deposed king, Maharaja Dharendranarayan appealed to the East India Company for help. Warren Hastings readily agreed for the small consideration of Cooch Behar’s sovereignty, half her annual revenues and the cost of the military campaign. Zhidar’s army lost three border forts to the East India Company’s force led by Captain John Jones, and it is at this point that Lobsang Palden Yeshe, the 3rd Panchen Lama, chose to intervene. Jamphel Gyatso, the 8th Dalai Lama was then only a boy, and the Panchen Lama was the de facto ruler of Tibet. In a letter to Warren Hastings, the Panchen Lama made the grossly inflated claim that the Bhutanese were Tibetan subjects, and offered to broker a peace settlement. As his envoy to Calcutta (Kolkata), the Panchen Lama sent a Hindu monk by the name of Puran Giri Gosain.

Monday, 4 May 2015

Sink or Swim: The Bimal Kumar Chandra Story

“Ever heard of Bimal Kumar Chandra?” asked my friend Krishanu. I confessed I hadn’t. “Who was the first Indian to cross the English Channel”? Every Bengali child knows the answer to this question, for it was a Bengali, Mihir Sen. “Well, Bimal Kumar Chandra was the second. I can take you to his house if you like”. And just like that, we set off on a Sunday morning, to meet his younger brother, Amal Kumar Chandra.

Amal Kumar Chandra

Monday, 27 April 2015

Chetla Baro Ras Bari, 78, Tollygunge Road

One of the four temple complexes in the Chetla area of South Calcutta (Kolkata), the Baro Ras Bari (also spelt Bado Rash Bari, Bado Rashbari or Bado Rashbadi) on Tollygunge Road is probably the most neglected, in spite of being declared a Grade A Heritage Building. The story of Baro Ras Bari begins in the village of Bawali, 30 kilometers to the South West of the city of Calcutta, where the Mondals had reigned since the Mughal era. Raja Ram Mondal had been granted full control of 15 villages by the Mughal Emperor. His descendants, Ramnath and Manick Mondal settled in Chetla on the invitation of Robert Clive. Their name is associated with three of the four temples in the Chetla area.

The ruined temples of Chetla Baro Ras Bari

Monday, 20 April 2015

Damzen Lane: A Street and its Story

Damzen Lane would be what in Calcutta is referred to as a “Muslim area”. What it means is that the people living in the area are primarily Muslim. The result is that such areas have an atmosphere of their own, very different from the other parts of the city. The people, understandably, look different. Women are seen clad in burqas or abayas, covered head to toe in black. The men are often seen in shalwar-kameez, with the lower garment, the shalwar, ending just a little bit above the ankle and often with a very thick hem. Beautiful handcrafted skull caps and fine flowing beards, often without the moustache also provide clues to the faith of the men sporting them. But this does not, by any means, describe all the people of the area. A large number of people of a single faith living in close proximity also give an area a certain look and feel. There is a certain rustic charm to Damzen Lane, but hiding within are stories and relics from a bygone era.

A goat pops out to say hi!

Monday, 13 April 2015

Portuguese Church, Brabourne Road

Calcutta’s (Kolkata) Portuguese Church, formally known as The Cathedral of the Most Holy Rosary, has existed in various forms since 1690, but has always experienced some friction with the British. Many Portuguese migrants to India took native wives, and their offspring came to be known as Kintal. Many of these Kintals moved to Calcutta in search of fortune, and the East India Company allowed them to settle in specific areas near the river. Since the Kintals were the only people in India then breeding and selling fowl, the area they settled in is known as “Moorgeeghata” or “the fowl market” even today. Job Charnock had originally granted 10 bighas of land to the Roman Catholics of the Augustinian order to set up a mass hall in the area. But when in 1693 Sir John Goldsborough of the East India Company found the company’s Protestant factors were converting to Roman Catholicism in the mass hall and taking native wives, he ordered them out. The friars would return on his death only 6 months later, and this time they erected a brick Church, a little further away from the original mass hall, and this is where the Portuguese Church or The Cathedral of the Most Holy Rosary stands today.

The Portuguese Church

Monday, 6 April 2015

Saroj Bhavan, Guruprasad Chowdhury Lane

The article in the Times of India’s Times City, on the 24th of March, entitled “House that! Old but still shining” by Saikat Ray and Subhro Niyogi caught the eye of many members of my mother’s side of the family. That was because the article carried a photograph of a house that they once called home. What the article calls “Sen Bari”, owned by the Sens of Senco Jewellers fame, was once known as “Paul Bari”, home to the Pauls of Burdwan, and that is not the only factual error in this story either. But let’s start from the beginning.

Saroj Bhavan today

The Pauls were landlords in the village of Gotan, Thana Rayna, in the district of Burdwan in West Bengal. Harendranath Paul (1877 – 1961), the 2nd of three sons, shifted to Calcutta (Kolkata) in 1899. Of his two brothers, one remained in Gotan and his family still stays there. The younger brother, Gour Chandra Paul, became an advocate. Among his classmates was India’s first President, Dr. Rajendra Prasad. He moved to Patna, Bihar and the family has lost touch with him since. In Calcutta (Kolkata), Harendranath initially joined the staff of Raja Subodh Mullick, doing mostly clerical work. A palmist is said to have recommended that he quit his job, and predicted that he would prosper if he started something connected with river trade. Harendranath had observed the comings and goings of vessels on the Hooghly and the Europeans engaged in the jute trade. He started by buying an old ship and selling it for scrap, making a large profit. This gave him enough capital to leave his famous employer and start his own business as a stevedore, partnering with a certain Biharilal Chakraborty under the name Paul & Chakraborty Private Limited in 1901. Within two decades he would make enough money to move his family from rented accomodations on Madan Mitra Lane (no connection to the current minister) to his own house, at the crossing of Guruprasad Chowdhury Lane and Shankar Ghosh Lane.

Monday, 23 March 2015

Chitpur Local Photowalk

With a name that sounds like a local train, Chitpur Local is an event, or rather a collection of events aimed at reviving Calcutta’s Chitpur area, which was once known for its association with “Jatra”, the popular Bengali folk theatre form. Two photowalks were part of Chitpur Local and I decided to join in. Chitpur gets its name from the temple of Chitteshwari, and Chitpur Road (now Rabindra Sarani) is one of the oldest roads of Calcutta. Old roads = old architecture, I thought, and hence decided to join in. But the theme, I was told wasn’t flat architecture, this was more in the nature of street photography, and the best photographs would be used to create picture postcards of Chitpur. I decided to do what the pros do, shoot with a “prime” lens. A prime lens is a lens with a fixed focal length, no zooming. I chose the only prime in my arsenal, the Canon EF 40mm f/2.8 STM, and turned up at Lal Bazar Police Headquarters, on the corner of Chitpur Road and Lal Bazar Street.

Thursday, 19 March 2015

Yumthang Valley, Sikkim

North Sikkim Travelogue Part 2

For 2 ½ hours we were enchanted by the beauty of India’s 2nd highest lake, Gurudongmar, but we finally had to make a move for the equally beautiful grazing pasture called Yumthang Valley, in North Sikkim. After a short stop for lunch, I and my friend Prasenjit reached the little town of Lachung, where we would rest for the night. Our tour operator had set us up in a top floor room and we had a beautiful view of the mountains from our window, and since I can never sleep peacefully in a new place, I woke up obscenely early, and managed once again, to get that “sunrise in the mountains” shot, that so fascinates tourists.

Sunrise at Lachung

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Gurudongmar Lake, Sikkim

North Sikkim Travelogue Part 1

Yumthang Valley and Gurudongmar Lake had been on my travel wish-list for a long time. Both of these places are in the Northern part of the Indian state of Sikkim, high in the Himalayas of North East India. Our travel agent in Calcutta suggested we add Dzongu, a forest valley that has been reserved for the Lepcha peoples of Sikkim, to our itinerary. Since I am not the type who treks, me and my friend Prasenjit chose to do the normal tourist thing, i.e. travel from Calcutta to Bagdogra via air, and take a car from there to Gangtok, Sikkim’s capital. A four by four would then take us for our week-long vacation in the mountains. I don’t know why, but to me, music always sounds better in the mountains, and I find myself quietly staring out of the car window at peaks and valleys, listening to classic rock. Sikkim is magical, they say, and the first piece of magic happened as we pulled in to Gangtok. I had just turned on Led Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy album on the iPod, and as if on cue, as the first strains of The Rain Song started playing, it began to rain! We arrived at out hotel as it was getting dark, to the sounds of thunder echoing in the mountains.

Thunderstorm in Gangtok

Monday, 2 March 2015

Gillander House, Clive Street

It is fairly simple business to pigeonhole a building based on its architectural style. The Writers’ Building is Greco-Roman. The High Court is Gothic. The Esplanade Mansions are Art Nouveau. But one building in Calcutta completely defies such pigeonholing, partly because it was designed by a man who was a musician, alongside being an architect. The man in question is Harry Stuart Goodhart-Rendel, and the building is Gillander House.

Gillander House

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

The South Park Street Cemetery

Located at the corner of Park Street (now Mother Teresa Sarani) and Lower Circular Road (now A.J.C Bose Road) is the South Park Street Cemetery, known to many as “the great cemetery”. One of the largest colonial cemeteries of its kind, it is today one of the many tourist attractions of Calcutta (Kolkata). The South Park Street Cemetery replaced the St. John’s Church graveyard as the principal burial ground of Calcutta and the road leading to it, which is today called Park Street, was originally known as Burial Ground Road. It is perhaps difficult to imagine that this part of the city was a jungle back then. Clive hunted tigers in what is today Free School Street. Indeed, so far away was this from the main city, that the Bishop who had to be present for the burial, had to be paid a special allowance so he could maintain a carriage and horses. The reasons behind siting a cemetery so far away from town are not difficult to understand. Calcutta was a malarial swamp, and in an era where there was no understanding of tropical disease, poor hygiene and poorer diet, the mortality rate was shockingly high. The monsoons were particularly bad, and every year at the end of the rainy season, feasts would be organised by those left living to give thanks to God. In such a scenario, repeated reminders of death in the form of funeral processions were thought of as undesirable.

Graves in the South Park Street Cemetery

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Mahishadal Rajbari, Haldia

Located around 60 km to the Southwest of Calcutta (Kolkata), in the Mahishadal administrative division in Haldia subdivision of Purba Medinipur (East Midnapore) district is the Mahishadal Rajbari, home to the Gargs of the Mahishadal Raj. Spread over a large area, Mahishadal Rajbari consists of two palaces, a cutchery or court house, a ghat, a large navaratna temple, all surrounded by a protective moat spanned by bridges. The vast property left to decay for many years is now being renovated and opened to visitors. Mahishadal Rajbari is an ideal weekend getaway from Calcutta, especially for history buffs.

The Phul Bagh Palace, Mahishadal

Wednesday, 11 February 2015

Shaniwar Wada, Pune

Pune’s Shaniwar Wada is a rare example of a fort right in the middle of a modern city. It was the residence of the Peshwa, the prime minister of the Maratha Empire that dominated central India from 1674 to 1818. Once the centre of Indian politics, it was considerably reduced in importance after the Maratha loss in the third Anglo-Maratha war, which left the East India Company in control of most of India.

Shaniwar Wada: Dilli Darwaza

Saturday, 7 February 2015

Nadan Mahal: Lucknow's Oldest Monument

Located in the Yahiyaganj locality of Lucknow, the Nadan Mahal Maqbara is the oldest monument of Lucknow, dating back to the Mughal era. But finding it can be a bit of a challenge. When we told our auto-driver we wanted to go to there, he took us to a private house on the Nadan Mahal Road which had a cement airplane on top! If you don’t have Google maps when on tour (I didn’t), what you need to do is to get to Nadan Mahal Road, find an octogenarian Muslim (easy to tell them apart from the attire, fine flowing beards, and exquisite skull caps), and ask for the “Chishti sahib ka dargah”.

Nadan Mahal (right) and the Solah Khamba (left)

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Bathgate & Co., Camac Street & Ballygunge Circular Road

The first time I heard the name Bathgate & Co. was when I asked my mother about the dilapidated building that once housed my Kindergarten school. That was the name originally associated with building, she said. Thus, my digging began. I present to you here, information that I have gathered through countless hours of internet trawling. Because, in spite of the fact that Bathgate & Co. were Calcutta’s very first chemists, there is no book or website dedicated to their history.

The root encrusted walls of Bathgate & Co's Ballygunge Dispensary

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Rumi Darwaza, Lucknow

Standing on the old Hardoi Road, the Rumi Darwaza (also spelt Roomi Darwaza) is one of the most well-known icons of the city of Lucknow. Like the Howrah Bridge and Victoria Memorial for Calcutta (Kolkata), the Rumi Darwaza serves as the logo for Lucknow in posters and other visual communication. It is another architectural gem that was built under the patronage of Nawab Asaf-ud-Daula by his favourite architect, Kifayatullah. Kifayatullah, as you may know was the man behind Lucknow’s Bada Imambara.

Rumi Darwaza - Western Face