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

Monday, 13 June 2016

Pandua (Malda): Ruins of a Former Capital

Located in the Malda district, in the North of the Indian state of West Bengal, Pandua is also known as Hazrat Pandua or Boro-Pendo (larger Pendo). The prefix “Hazrat” is thanks to several prominent Muslim saints and preachers who made the city their home. Chief among them are Jalaluddin Tabrizi and Nur Qutb Alam, whose tombs have made Pandua a Muslim pilgrimage site. Boro-Pendo is to distinguish Malda’s Pandua from the town in the Hooghly district which bears the same name and is consequently called Chhoto-Pendo, meaning smaller or lesser Pandua. From the mid-fourteenth to the mid-fifteenth century, Pandua served as the capital of Bengal under the Ilyas Shahi Dynasty and would continue to serve as a mint town until the time of Sher Shah, aka Sher Shah Suri. Pandua today, apart from being a centre of pilgrimage, is a tourist attraction thanks to the many ruins from Bengal’s Sultanate period.

Adina Masjid - view from the East

Monday, 6 June 2016

Terracotta Temples of Gurap

In search of some obscure terracotta temples, I ended up in the village of Gurap in the Hooghly district, 70 km to the Northwest of Calcutta (Kolkata), on a Sunday in April, 2016. Accompanying me were Amitabha Gupta, well-known blogger and travel writer, and my mother. Narendranath Bhattacharya’s book on the antiquities of Hooghly district (published by the State Archaeology Department) pointed to the presence of several temples with terracotta ornamentation in the village. But the book was more than 20 years old. How much of what the author had documented still remained, we wondered?

Sri Sri Nandadulal Jew Mandir of Gurap

Tuesday, 31 May 2016

The Ruins of Gauda: Bengal's Ancient Capital

Gauda (also spelt Gaur or Gour), located in the Malda district in the North of the Indian state of West Bengal, is a ruined city that served as the capital of Bengal between the 12th and 16th centuries. Over a period of four centuries, Gauda has seen more than a dozen ruling dynasties come and go and today is home to some spectacular ruins mostly from Bengal’s Islamic period. Historically and architecturally there is much in Gauda that is of interest, especially its spectacular mosques.

Inside Gunamanta Masjid, Gauda

Monday, 23 May 2016

Choong Ye Thong Church (Chinese Temple), New Meredith Street

Wherever there is sunshine, there will be Chinese. Wherever there are Chinese, there will be Hakka” – Chinese proverb

A little removed from Calcutta’s (Kolkata) old Chinatown in Tiretta Bazar, on 19-20, New Meredith Street stands the Choong Ye Thong Church or Chinese temple. The quaint little building has enough architectural uniqueness to make it stand out from the other structures in the area. But few Calcuttans ever venture inside the building, and fewer still know, that this building once served as a school started by Calcutta’s thriving Hakka Chinese community.

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

In Print 3 - Soul City: Inside Stories From Calcutta

Thanks to my friend Preeti Roychowdhury, I got the opportunity to be part of a book on Calcutta (Kolkata), called “Soul City: Inside Stories from Calcutta”. There have been many books on Calcutta before this, but what sets Soul City apart is the fact that this is more a book about impressions of the city. 14 people have collaborated on this book, each contributing a chapter. Soul City is stuffed with memories, poetry, urban exploration, and many fine photographs.

Photograph courtesy Preeti Roychowdhury

Monday, 9 May 2016

Lake Mosque, Rabindra Sarobar

The Lake Mosque is the only example of a mosque in the middle of a lake in the city of Calcutta (Kolkata). It is also one of the city’s many little secrets, because, in spite of the fact that it is right there, staring everyone in the face, many people are not aware of its existence. But how did a mosque come to be located in the middle of the Dhakuria Lake or Rabindra Sarobar, as it is now called? Who built it, and when? Let us begin with the story of the lake itself.


Monday, 2 May 2016

Jama Masjid, Lucknow

When I told my family that I wanted to visit Lucknow’s Jama Masjid, everyone was surprised. “There’s a Jama Masjid in Lucknow? We thought that was in Delhi”! Many non-Muslims would probably react in the same way because few know that the name “Jama Masjid” does not refer to a specific mosque, but rather to a particular kind of mosque. Before I tell you about Lucknow’s Jama Masjid, perhaps I should explain what a Jama Masjid is.


Monday, 25 April 2016

Tomb of Malik Ambar, Khuldabad

On the 14th of May 1626, at the grand old age of 80, Malik Ambar, the man who turned the little village of Khadki into the city we now know as Aurangabad, halted Mughal ambitions in the Deccan with an entirely new kind of warfare, and almost single-handedly saved the Nizam Shahi Dynasty of Ahmadnagar from obliteration, breathed his last. An eyewitness of Deccan affairs over many years, the author Bhim Sen wrote in his Nushka-i-Dilkusha, “although Malik Ambar was dead, but his sweet fragrance still remained behind”. He was a man so remarkable that even Mu'tamad Khan, Mughal Emperor Jehangir’s biographer, who had no love for him, was forced to acknowledge, “in warfare, in command, in sound judgement, and in administration, he had no equal or rival”. But perhaps the most remarkable thing about Malik Ambar was the fact that this Indian king, was in fact, not Indian, but African.


Monday, 18 April 2016

Mughal Gardens of Khuldabad

The little town of Khuldabad in the Indian state of Maharashtra was known as Roza or Rauza meaning garden of paradise thanks to the large number of Dargahs or tombs of Muslim saints that it is home to. But apart from the saints, there are also two other interesting tombs. One is of a royal while another is of a warrior. One is well known while the other is obscure. But around both, a Mughal Garden was originally laid out. Armed with Pushkar Sohoni’s book on Aurangabad and Khuldabad, I set out in November of 2015 to find these gardens. But before I tell you the story of my quest, let me tell you about what a Mughal Garden is.

Jahan Banu Begum Bagh

Monday, 11 April 2016

Aurangzeb's Tomb, Khuldabad

Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb’s tomb in the little town of Khuldabad, near Aurangabad in the Indian state of Maharashtra, is the first Mughal tomb I ever visited, and it is starkly different from any other Mughal tomb. No grand Taj Mahal like structures here. The Emperor was a pious man of austere habits and hated ostentation. His simple tomb, open to the sky, is a lesson in humility. But how did that the richest, most powerful man in the world come to be buried in an open, unmarked grave?

Aurangzeb's Tomb - note marble "jaali" screen placed by Nizam of Hyderabad

Monday, 4 April 2016

United Service Club, Chowringhee

If the name United Service Club sounds unfamiliar to Calcuttans, that is because the club does not exist anymore and its handsome building on Chowringhee (now Jawaharlal Nehru Road) is known as the office of the Geological Survey of India. While the story of the club is certainly interesting, equally interesting is the story of the building itself, because, in all of Calcutta (Kolkata), this is possibly the only building to be shaped like a Maltese cross.


Monday, 28 March 2016

Army & Navy Stores, Chowringhee

I distinctly remember the day I first heard the name “Kanak Buildings”. I was in college and was entering the Maidan Metro station when I happened to look up and on the wall found the sign saying “Kanak Building Exit”. While I was much less curious about heritage buildings back then, it did strike me as very odd. The red and white building in Edwardian style could pass for a Raj era government building. But “Kanak” was an Indian woman’s name! What the hell was going on here anyway? Many years later, when I started writing about Calcutta’s (Kolkata) heritage buildings, I chanced upon the Flickr page of DCR Finch and discovered that this was once The Army & Navy Stores.


Monday, 21 March 2016

The Metropolitan Laboratory & Nursing Home Ltd., Theatre Road

“That building over there? That used to be the Metropolitan Nursing Home”, said my colleague Robin in answer to my question. He has been working at our office on Camac Street for much longer than I have, and our 13th-floor veranda gives us a bird’s eye view of the building on 18 Theatre Road (now Shakespeare Sarani). By the time I started working, the building was far past its prime, the nursing home was shut, and the entire plot was overgrown. It was only recently, over a cup of tea at my uncle’s house on Amherst Street that it emerged that my uncle, Dr. Dipak Ranjan Sarbadhikari was connected to this building.

Monday, 14 March 2016

Victoria Memorial, Lucknow

It is not only Calcutta (Kolkata) that has a Victoria Memorial, but also Lucknow! I was completely unaware of this monument until I visited Lucknow in the winter of 2014. Although Lucknow’s Victoria Memorial is nowhere near as grand as Calcutta’s, it is a beautiful monument and sadly, not many outside of Lucknow seem to know about it.


Monday, 7 March 2016

Aurangabad Caves

Before we visited Aurangabad, I had done some basic research on the city and the surrounding areas of the Indian state of Maharashtra, and it is during that research that I had found out about the Aurangabad Caves. I planned an itinerary and sent my sister off to the Maharashtra Tourism office in Calcutta (Kolkata) to make some enquiries. She came back and told me that the Maharashtra Tourism office had never heard of the Aurangabad Caves! I was rather taken aback; after all, the caves are mentioned even in the Wikipedia article about the city. But it seems, in spite of being nearly 2000 years old, the Aurangabad Caves are not really high on any tourist’s list of priorities.


Monday, 29 February 2016

Graham Building, Clive Street

One of the reasons why I do what I do, photographing and writing about old buildings, is because I personally got fed up looking at buildings and not knowing what they were. According to author Brian Paul Bach, Calcutta is one of the least demolished cities in the world and a combination of declining economic activity in the East of India, a hopelessly overstretched judiciary and antiquated laws has meant that many of Calcutta’s colonial era buildings survive, still occupied by tenants. However, pro-tenant laws ensure that the revenue generated by many such buildings is so minuscule that their proper upkeep is often not possible. The sad truth is that if you own a commercial building with a heritage tag in Calcutta, it is much more profitable for you if that building collapses or goes up in flames. Thus, many of Calcutta’s old buildings continue to exist in a precarious condition, ghostly reminders of a colonial past. One such building is the one at 14, Netaji Subhas Road (formerly Clive Street).


Monday, 22 February 2016

Baneshwar Shiva Temple, Bonomali Sarkar Street

The Baneshwar Shiva Temple of 2/5 Bonomali Sarkar Street in Kumortuli in North Calcutta (Kolkata) is one of only two surviving terracotta temples of the city. Terracotta means baked earth, and many of Bengal’s temples, notably the ones in Bishnupur, are decorated with terracotta tiles. These tiles depict tales from the Hindu epics, scenes from daily life and society, wars and historic events, or simple floral or geometric patterns. Intricate designs and fine workmanship are the hallmarks of Bengal’s terracotta tiles. But unfortunately, the relentless march of progress has deprived Calcutta of many of her temples. Many have been demolished, many have been lost altogether and many have been “renovated” by rank amateurs, who have simply removed all external ornamentation, smoothed the surface with cement, and added a layer of distemper, often of a gaudy shade. There were probably not many terracotta temples in Calcutta (Kolkata) to begin with since by the time the city became a major centre of art and commerce, the art of terracotta was already in decline. The Baneshwar Shiva Temple is the sole surviving example of it in North Calcutta and it is now under threat.


Monday, 15 February 2016

Alamgir Masjid: Aurangzeb's Personal Mosque, Aurangabad

The Alamgir Masjid of Aurangabad in the Indian state of Maharashtra, also known as the Shahi Masjid (Royal Mosque), is the personal mosque of Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb. Surprisingly not many people seem to be aware of this, even though this is one of the most important Mughal era monuments of the city. My friends in a popular Aurangabad radio station didn’t know about and neither did my chauffeur Anand who had lived in the city all his life. The only reason I found the mosque was because I was looking for it, because I had read about it in Pushkar Sohoni’s book.


Monday, 8 February 2016

Hooghly Imambara

Around 60 km to the North of Calcutta (Kolkata), in the Hooghly-Chinsura municipality may be found the magnificent Hooghly 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 Hooghly Imambara functions as both a Mosque and an Imambara. With its striking 80 feet tall towers above the main gate, it is the principal tourist attraction of the area. Although the Hooghly Imambara is associated with Haji Md. Mohsin, the original Imambara existed long before he had the present one constructed.


Monday, 1 February 2016

Bibi Ka Maqbara, Aurangabad

The Bibi Ka Maqbara is the chief tourist attraction of Aurangabad in the Indian state of Maharashtra, although technically it lies just outside the city. Due to its resemblance to the Taj Mahal in Agra, it is called the Taj of the Deccan or even unflattering names like “poor man’s Taj Mahal” or “duplicate Taj Mahal”. But the Bibi ka Maqbara is, in fact, an original design; “the last in a distinguished lineage of Timurid inspired imperial Mughal mausoleums”, the earliest example of which would be Humayun’s tomb in Delhi, which was constructed 100 years earlier.


Monday, 25 January 2016

Garia Rajbari, South 24 Parganas

I have been staring at the Garia Rajbari of South Garia for years without knowing what it was. You see, every year, before the Kali Puja festival, a bunch of my friends and I travel to the firecracker market of Champahati and we pass a crossing known as China More or Cheenar More (more being Bengali for crossing or crossroads), and right there, next to a pond, stands this palatial building. Last winter, I carried my camera with me and managed to take a shot. When I asked around in the local market, a shopkeeper told me that this was the house of someone called Durgadas Banerjee. A google search threw up the following information…

Durgadas Bannerjee (1893-1943)

Major Bengali actor in Calcutta Theatres. Born in Kalikapur, 24 Parganas District. Introduced to film by Sisir Bhaduri (Taj Mahal Film) in 1922. From his first major film, Maanbhanjan, until the late 30s, he was the definitive Bengali screen hero.

I get it, actors are rich people, and they can have large houses, but why here? Surely it would make more sense for someone who worked in the studios in Tollygunge, to have a house in Calcutta (Kolkata)? And the house certainly does not look like it was built in Durgadas’s lifetime. So I returned, armed with a camera, and with my friend Ranajit, determined to get to the bottom of this. What I found was completely new to me. As it turns out, Garia Rajbari is the ancestral home of actor Durgadas Banerjee, politician Bijoy Banerjee (who served as speaker of the Bengal Legislative Assembly) and musician Sudipto “Buti” Banerjee of Bengali rock band, Cactus!


Monday, 18 January 2016

Duff College (Jorabagan Police Station), Nimtala Ghat Street

I'm standing on Calcutta’s (Kolkata) Nimtala Ghat Street taking photographs of the building known as Duff College (now Jorabagan Police Station) when suddenly I hear a voice behind me say, “I see you've found our heritage forest”. The cheeky humour and sarcasm, as well as the voice itself, make me turn around. This is the voice of a man who is used to commanding people. The only equivalent that comes to mind is Bengali actor Kamal Mitra whose portrayal of tough father-in-law characters would make people quake in their boots. The source of the voice turns out to be advocate and author Guru Biswas. “You should upload this photograph with the caption, Is this a heritage forest?”, he chuckles, and he isn't very wrong. The building is completely overgrown with weeds and trees making it impossible to get a clear shot. Mr. Biswas takes me inside the Jorabagan Police Station, which now occupies a modern building behind Duff College, and I manage to get a few shots of the northern side of the building as well. But ever since I saw photographs of this building in INTACH’s book on Calcutta’s built heritage, I have wanted to find out exactly what this massive structure was, and how it was connected to Scottish Missionary Alexander Duff. Let us begin with Duff himself.


Monday, 11 January 2016

Niyamatullah Ghat Masjid, Nimtala Ghat Street

The Niyamatullah Ghat Masjid stands on Calcutta’s (Kolkata) Nimtala Ghat Street. Notice something curious there? Nimtala and Niyamatullah sound rather similar don’t they? That is what originally sparked my interest in this mosque. So who was Niyamatullah and why is a mosque named after him? And how did the area come to be known as Nimtala? As it turns out, several stories intersect at this one location.


Monday, 4 January 2016

Photo Feature: Chandi Mela, Behala

Behala’s famous 10 day annual fair, known as Chandi Mela , known as Chandi Mela is held in the winter of every year at the Sakher Bazar crossing of Behala, in South Calcutta (Kolkata). Stalls are generally set up in the lanes to the west of Diamond Harbour Road at Sakher Bazar and take up the better part of an entire municipal ward. To my mind, there are two things which make this fair unique. First is the fact that it is not limited to an open ground and spills out on the streets, and the second, the fact that in the middle of a modern metropolis, Chandi Mela offers all the attractions, sights, sounds and smells of a rustic village fair. The fair gets its name from the Chandi Puja (worship of the Hindu Goddess Chandi, another incarnation of Goddess Durga) which was started by Mahesh Chandra Ray Choudhury, of the Sabarna Ray Choudhury family, in 1792.