Sunday, 3 December 2017

Nimtita Rajbari: The Jalsaghar House

The boy stood by the east window, waiting patiently. He had missed his chance earlier. When he had seen the black Landmaster going past his school and towards his house, he had paid it no heed. It was only when he came back home that he was told who the Landmaster was ferrying. He wouldn’t make the same mistake twice. He had been waiting at that window ever since the family Jeep had left for the station to fetch their famous visitor. It was mid-February in the dusty little Bengal village. The once grand mansion was now in ruins and stood perilously close to the river that separated India from East Pakistan. It was 1956. It would be another 15 years before Bangladesh would be born in a bloodbath.

Sunday, 19 November 2017

Balmer Lawrie & Co., Clive Street

Calcutta’s central business district around Dalhousie Square has two things in abundance. One, Scottish firms set up during the Raj, but now continuing under Indian management, and two, heritage buildings, belonging to the aforementioned Scottish firms, approximately half of which are in a woeful state. If one were only to look at the names – Mackinnon Mackenzie, Turner Morrison, Shaw Wallace, Graham, these are all Scottish names. The Scots were the merchants of the Raj and they made their fortune in the imperial capital. What sets Balmer Lawrie & Co. apart from the rest is the fact that it has survived and prospered much better than its neighbours. The head office on Clive Street (now N.S. Road), therefore, is also one of the best maintained in the Dalhousie area. The legendary Calcutta firm has a rich history filled with many fascinating stories, beginning with how the firm got its name.


Monday, 6 November 2017

Taj Mahal by Moonlight: A Magical Experience

Had it not been for my friend Krishnendu Kes of Maavalan Travels, I would never have gone for the moonlight viewing of the Taj Mahal. India’s number one tourist attraction, its most famous monument is open every day of the week, except Fridays, from sunrise to sunset. But on nights when there is a full moon, and two nights before and after, a special nighttime viewing of the Taj is permitted, for a very limited number of people. But the reviews of this seemed mostly to be negative and there was not a single decent photograph of this on the entire internet. This blog even mentioned that getting a decent photograph of the Taj Mahal by moonlight was almost impossible. So, in spite of being in Agra for the full moon, I had decided to drop my plans for the moonlight viewing until I had a word with Krishnendu, who assured me that not only was the experience magical, but also that he strongly recommended it to all his foreign clients. But, it was already late, the number of tickets were limited, and the tickets could only be obtained from the ASI office on Mall Road in Agra. I did not have the time to get the tickets and wasn’t even sure they were available, but Krishnendu arranged for tickets for the following night’s viewing to be delivered to my hotel! And just like that, I was off for an experience that few people will ever have.

The Taj Mahal by moonlight. Canon 5D Mark IV + 24-105 IS II L @ 55mm. f/8, ISO 100, 80-second exposure.

Tuesday, 3 October 2017

Blood of the Faithful: An Outsider's Experience of Muharram in Calcutta

Every year as Muharram approaches, Calcutta (Kolkata) radio veteran Mir Afsar Ali must remind his non-Muslim listeners not to wish their Muslim friends a “happy Muharram” because it is not a happy occasion. For most non-Muslims in India, Islamic rituals and practices in general, and Muharram, in particular, remains a complete mystery. People’s reaction to Muharram commemorations is tinged with fear. So this year, I set out to experience and document Muharram commemorations in my hometown, Calcutta (Kolkata).

The gathering at Gol Kothi, listening to the story of Karbala


Saturday, 30 September 2017

Durga Puja 2017: My Top 10

This year I set out to cover 100 Durga Pujas in Kolkata. It was more an endurance test than anything else as the heat and the humidity were quite unrelenting. But, I did manage to photograph 100 pujas by Navami morning, the penultimate day of the festival, and now, as Bengalis prepare to tearfully bid adieu to their beloved Goddess, here are my top 10 favourite Durga Pujas of 2017, in no particular order.

Sunday, 27 August 2017

12 Stunning But Lesser-Known Hoysala Temples of Karnataka

While tourists flock in large numbers every month to the Chennakeshava Temple of Belur and the Hoysaleshwara Temple of Halebid, there are exquisite Hoysala era temples in hundreds of villages scattered around Karnataka that receive few or no visitors. The Hoysala Empire was extremely prosperous and the kings and rich individuals across the empire commissioned stone temples that have survived invasions and the ravages of time. In 1978, Dutch professor Gerard Foekema visited Karnataka for the first time. Over the next few years, through repeated trips, he was able to thoroughly document every Hoysala era temple still surviving. While there are some 100 temples or temple ruins still in existence, for the tourist, a visit to a dozen or so of these temples will prove interesting. But to understand Hoysala temples, we need a bit of background on the Hoysalas.

Sculptures on the exterior of the Lakshminarayana Temple, Hosaholalu

Saturday, 19 August 2017

No, Suhrawardy Avenue is not named after "The Butcher of Bengal"

Jaideep Mazumdar’s article in Swarajyamag on August 16th carried the sensational heading – 'It’s A Crying Shame That ‘The Butcher Of Bengal" Has A Road Named After Him In Kolkata”. Swarajya has been publishing one-sided, inflammatory articles for some time now, but in this case, the article is factually incorrect, because Suhrawardy Avenue is NOT named after Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy, the last Prime Minister of Bengal, but after Sir Hassan Suhrawardy, the first Muslim Vice-Chancellor of Calcutta University.

Sunday, 16 July 2017

Basu Bati, Bagbazar

Basu Bati on Bagbazar Street in North Calcutta (Kolkata) deserves to be known as one of the most unique heritage buildings in the entire city. Its architecture is in a style that is not seen anywhere else and its history is rich and eventful. But while few have stepped into its hallowed portals, fewer still know its full story.


Saturday, 1 July 2017

Mackinnon Mackenzie & Co., Strand Road

Inchcape House, known to most as the Mackinnon Mackenzie Building and today as Diamond Heritage, is one of the most prominent buildings on Strand Road and part of Calcutta’s skyline visible from across the river. While the building is not as remarkable architecturally as some of the other buildings in the Dalhousie area, it is magnificent because of its staggering proportions and its history. Mackinnon Mackenzie’s story is another of the great Scottish success stories in Calcutta (Kolkata). It is also one of the rare buildings in the city that has been saved from complete oblivion.

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