This city has always been my home. I have always prided myself on the way I know it, its streets and thoroughfares, its lanes and bylanes. The city also has so also much that is unknown and little known, much that I need to see and discover and it is of late that I have begun doing so. One such finding out about my city happened on a December morning as I joined a group of explorers to walk through and explore a part of my city.
The Tiretti Bazar area is like any crowded central Kolkata area, a busy thoroughfare for most of the day, an area that I travelled by many a times. This area is home to Kolkata’s Chinatown. Kolkata has been home to a Chinese population since the early nineteenth century. In the local imagination, the name Tiretti Bazar is associated with crowded streets, with business and with garbage lined up in its bylanes and its recycling business. Most people are aware of its association with the morning breakfast associated with the place. However, I was amazed to discover the Chinese temples in the area.
Dwarfed by tall buildings reaching high up is the Toong On Temple. The ground floor of this temple housed the Nanking restaurant that closed down in the 1970s. The temple, located opposite a huge garbage dump, is closed now.
Close by is the Sea Ip Temple. The ground floor houses a large space used for community meetings, a photo of Sun Yat Sen adorns a wall, the only Chinese newspaper still brought out sits on the huge table, a few pictures and calendars adorn the walls. The first floor that is accessible by stairs and a green railing houses the temple. Dedicated to Kwan Yin, the goddess of war, it is interesting to see that way small crowns adorn the heads of the deities, almost in the Hindu style and garlands too. There is a shrine dedicated to the earth god too. Wonderful wood work adorns the shrine and temple.
Located above a Chinese carpentry shop is Gee Hing temple. The temple also houses a club and we were delighted to see a game of Mahjong in progress.
Chung Dong Thien Haue temple is close by.
Nam Soon temple located at the end of Damzen lane is tucked up in a corner and is a spacious temple that is the best maintained of all the Chinese temples in the area. The temple has a large courtyard too and houses the idol of Kwan Yin, the goddess of war. It also houses the goddess of learning too apart from many other idols.
Sei Voi Young Leong Futh temple is located at Blackburn lane. The temple has a a community room that houses a charcoal portrait of Sun Yat Sen. There used to be a dormitory beside it which now has been converted into a restaurant.
As we walked through the lanes and bylanes, these treasures revealed to us the wonder of Kolkata, its past history and the sad state that most of its heritage is now in.
Hoards of rhesus monkeys accord you a noisy welcome, as you alight at the quaint little town of Hindupur with its duty roads and leisurely tempo. About 136 km from Bangalore, this town in the Anantpur district of Andhra Pradesh is five hours by train from Hyderabad. Fourteen kilometres from Hindupur and well-connected to it by buses and trains, is the village of Lepakshi, famous for its Shiva temple and the largest monolithic Nandi bull, it makes for an ideal day trip from Hindupur.
An interesting legend is associated with the name of the village. It is said that the giant bird, Jatayu, on hearing Sita’s cries for help when she was being abducted by Ravana, came to her rescue and in the combat that ensued, was grievously wounded. When Rama, on his mission to rescue his wife, found the dying Jatayu, he granted the bird salvation and bade him rise. That is how, apparently, the name le pakshi ( Telugu for “Rise, bird”) was born.
Built by the loyal treasurer, Veerupanna, between the 15th and 16th centuries during the reign of Achyut Raya of the Vijaynagar dynasty, the temple squats upon a hill like a tortoise. The bus from Hindupur to Lepakshi stops at some distance from the temple, hidden from view by a cluster of houses. A walk through the village, away from the main road, leads one to the temple. Approaching its ruins, we stumble upon a flight of stairs cut into the rock. A local offers to act as my guide and during our exploration of the temple’s interiors, regales me with its history, its legends and the fascinating stories behind each one of its wonderful sculptures.
What is so unique about Lepakshi’s Shiva temple is the absence of gopurams, so characteristic of the temples of South India. The main temple was once protected by seven tall boundary walls of which only three survive. They carry inscriptions in Kannada pertaining to the various activities undertaken by the Vijaynagar kings. Moving from the first to the second boundary wall, one comes across the huge figure of the god, Ganesha, all six feet of it hewn out of a rock. Sculpted on a rock alongside is the figure of the devotee, Kannappa, along with the likenesses of a snake, a spider and an elephant worshipping a Shivalinga, an indication that this temple was built before the one at Sri Kalahasti came into existence.
Built on a sprawling terrace, the Lepakshi temple has three sections: the main pavilion or mukhya mandapam (also referred to as the natya mandapam), the artha mandapam and the kalyana mandapam. Within the premises is a huge seven-headed figure of a coiled snake that holds in its centre a Shivalinga.
The kalyana mandapam, resting on 38 monolithic pillars, is incomplete. The Pallavas built this mandapam in the 15th century, conforming to the Vijaynagar style of architecture. The tale goes that, Veerupanna, falsely accused of fraud, strove to prove his innocence by tearing his eyes out of their sockets and hurling them at the wall. The two small holes visible on the wall of the mandapam are accepted by the locals as the eyes of this ardent devotee. On the pillars of the mandapam are depicted the various activities associated with the wedding of Shiva and Parvati. Hence the name kalyana mandapam. Some of the pillars here are adorned with a variety of floral and geometric patterns.
The natya mandapam has 70 exquisitely carved pillars. Among the figures in the center of this mandapam, is that of the celestial nymph, Rambha, frozen in a dancing posture. It is accompanied by representations of celestial beings playing musical instruments. Across the ceiling sprawls a 100-petalled lotus, sculpted out of 12 stones called the shata patra kamalam. Nearby is the antariksha pillar, an eight-foot structure suspended from the ceiling without touching the floor.
The mukhya mandapam containing the main temple is dedicated to the god, Veerabhadra. The temple’s ceiling and walls are adorned with beautiful paintings in natural colours depicting tales from Hindu mythology. The sanctum sanctorum features figures of women and among others, the architect of the temple, Natya Ganapati (Ganesha in a dancing pose)., Durga, Navagraha, Vidya Ganapati, Parvati and Bhadrakali. The figures of Shiva and Vishnu face each other. The presiding deity is called Veerupanna Veerabhadra, after the builder of this temple, and the ceiling carries a huge painting of the god, Veerabhadra.
My guide stops here to pause for breath and I am free to explore the huge figure of Nandi on my own. Some distance down the main road, away from the temple, I come across the massive monolithic figure of the bull, all 15 feet of it carved with bells and shells, facing the Shiva temple. I can only marvel at the proportions of this sculpture which seems to dwarf everything in sight. And aptly so, considering what an important part it plays in the life of the village over which it presides.
As I retrace my steps to the bus stop. I notice to my delight that the weekly village market is in full swing. I give in quite willingly to the persuasion of a bangle-seller who is more that eager to sell me his wares. The journey back is made in silence. For all its decay and ruins, Lepakshi’s Shiva temple has that effect on you.
(First published in The Sunday Statesman, 1 January 2003)
Spring time nip in the early morning, a small station, the train chugging off, sounds of the chai wala, we reach Adra enroute to our destination in the district of Purulia, West Bengal. Baranti is a small village about 265 kms from Kolkata that is becoming a popular weekend holiday destination. An overnight journey from Howrah by the Chakradharpur Passenger takes us to Adra from where we take a car to Baranti. A local train is also available that takes one further to Muradi station which is just 6 km from Baranti. One can also travel to the place via Asansol. As we move towards Muradi, the condition of the road deteriorates and further there is just a mud road that makes our journey seem somewhat like a roller coaster ride. The green all around is broken by brilliant flashes of orange as we get a taste of the palash, the flame of the forest (butea monosperma).
Nestled between hills referred to as Baranti hill or Muradi hill is Baranti lake or as some call it Muradi lake. A mud dam constructed here and maintained by the irrigation department created this huge lake. The road to Baranti almost circumvents the lake on one side and fields on the other. We reach our place of stay just in time for breakfast.
It is completely quiet here, the rustle of leaves, the occasional dog bark, the cuckoo in the trees, these are the sounds that one gets to hear. The orange flowers strewn on the ground, the black seeds on the trees that will soon be all blooming, the red simul flowers (red silk cotton, bombax malabarica) here and there, are a visual treat. There could be no better place to experience the colours of spring. We walk down the streets of Baranti, mud houses all lined up, grain being dried in courtyards, men sitting out enjoying a puff between work, little children playing and posing for us, women at their chores, a bullock cart lying idly. Another wonderful thing about the place is the beautiful view of the sunset that one gets to see. It is a delight walking by the lake observing the changing colours of the setting sun and the reflection it casts on the calm waters of the lake. We see men and young boys use huge tyres to float on the lake, a wooden plank laid on the tyre as a seat, armed with fishing nets. Sitting by the lake, we lose sense of time and place. Darkness soon descends and we head back to the resort.
Baranti is surrounded by the Panchkot and Biharinath Hills. The forests around are full of teak and mahua trees, apart from the palash and simul. Day two, we decide to explore nearby places and begin our day with a visit to a Santhal village, Jibanpur. Village folk at their daily work, beautiful mud houses with geometric patterns on the walls, small open structures, their roofs covered with straw that serve as places that the villagers gather to celebrate, the drums tucked up in the lofts tell us of the place of music in the lives of these simple folk. Contentment writ on the face of a woman who when asked if their house has a bathroom replies that there is so much of space all around, where is the need for a bathroom? It was good to see hand pumps here and at Baranti and other nearby villages but our driver, Chandi, a local, tells us that the water level is very deep here and hence setting up these pumps is a very costly affair.
We travel further to the Jaychandi hills, about 21 kms away, the setting of Satyajit Ray’s masterpiece, Hirak Rajar Deshe. About 500 steps take us to the top of the hill from where we get a wonderful view of the place. The ruins of Garh Panchokot are about 12 kms from Baranti. Situated close to the Panchet Hill and lake, Garh Panchakot was a fortified area owned by the Rajas of Panchakot, who belonged to the Singh Deo dynasty. The ruins of Garh Panchakot stand as witness to the ravages of time – part of the gate of the fort, ruins of temples constructed in different architectural styles and ramparts with trees and creepers enmeshed in them stand guard. The Panchet dam is close by. Other nearby attractions are the Maithon dam, the Biharinath temple and the Kalyaneswari temple.
Baranti is a nature lover’s paradise, time stands still here and a calmness and serenity overpowers our senses. We leave Baranti with the images of the beauty of the place, the palash in bloom, the dry leaves strewn on the ground covered with the petals of the flowers all around adding so much colour to the place, small children picking the fallen flowers to suck the honey, the smiles on their faces, the gentle pace of life that goes on undisturbed, the simple villagers, the colours of the setting sun reflecting on the waters of the lake, the languid walk along the mud roads – the quietude that has energized us.
This essay appeared in The Sunday Statesman, 23 August 2015
Saptami, 2017. An extremely crowded air conditioned bus trudging its way down VIP Road. I did not realise that it was so crowded as I boarded it. As the doors closed behind me, it was too late to disembark. Here I was stuck. For people in Kolkata or who have been in Kolkata, this is a common thing. However, there was a difference, this was the regular office crowd. The bus was crowded with pandal hoppers deciding to leave early to catch a glimpse of the best pandals in Kolkata. After all, it was Durga Puja, the biggest festival in West Bengal. Kolkata was bedecked and shining. There is a certain fervour and energy in this pandal hopping. People in their best were out with friends and family, clicking pictures and eating their favourite food. No rules, no diet, no restrictions. I was on a totally different purpose though.
I was struggling to get a foothold in the bus. The air conditioning did not seem to work. Instead the fans inside the bus were on. People were grimacing and were angry at the state of affairs. I was angry at myself having boarded this bus. People inside the bus were all feeling stuffy and uncomfortable. This was the common sentiment voiced by all. I said aloud that it seemed as if the air conditioning was not functioning, the bus conductor vehemently disagreed. Squeezed between rows of people, almost bending on a lady on the seat in front, I could not help but notice that the lady kept looking at me very intently. Did I know her? I could not recollect having seen her. She kept looking as if she was trying to place me. I kept looking elsewhere and the crowd and heat was disturbing. When I voiced my complain aloud, the lady opposite me took this as a cue and said that she had been looking at me for quite a while. I smiled back.
I had nothing to say. Yes, all that staring did make me uncomfortable but here in India, we say nothing about it. She then went on, she said she had been admiring my look, my hair in particular. “It speaks volumes she said about how you have left your hair so natural”. I smiled, Ah! That was it. “It is not an easy thing to do, she said, but you have done it and you look fabulous”, she went on. “It just looks so good.” “I dye my hair, you see” I have not been able to give it up”. It surely made me feel good. I had to tell her that I had been working on it, thinking about leaving it the ‘natural’ way for quite some time now. I told her that I used to use mehendi (henna) to colour my hair, but have stopped it for some months now.
My first grey hair made its appearance when I was studying in college. I was a tad bit upset but then my dad said my genes were to blame and that certainly made me feel better. That was when I started using mehendi to colour it. As years went by the grey quotient was on the raise and the frequency of colouring my hair increased. Henna gave it a nice deep reddish tinge, I liked that look. Since last year I have been toying with the idea of leaving my hair the way it is. I did not want to colour it. I must admit that one of the prime reasons was that using mehendi was a cumbersome task, it took so much time and energy. I had to work a lot on that too. Moreover, I did not like all the smell of mehendi. Someone suggested I should use hair colour, the market was full of them. That was something I did not want to try. As it is I was hating to have to do mehendi, I was in no way going to try out something else to colour my hair.
For almost a year now, I had been toying with the idea of leaving my hair just the way it was. I was planning to stop using mehendi to colour. Close friends said no, it was too early to don the salt and pepper look. Well, in my case, it would be more of the salt and less of the pepper look. I took some time to go ahead. I did not say anything to my dear ones. I stopped using mehendi to colour my hair. Over some days, the grey near the ears starting showing, then a little more. A dear friend said I should colour. That was when I told her, I was not going to colour my hair. She disapproved of it and kept quiet. More and more of grey started revealing itself. Friends asked me if I was leaving it on purpose. There were still some of the red strands along with the white and black. I decided to wear my hair much shorter than I had been wearing. I get mixed reactions, some approving, some saying that the earlier look was better, some saying that the grey added to my new look, some said it was good, my nephew said I looked older. I liked the reactions, keep them coming. I like the way my hair looks on me now. I guess that is what matters at the end of the day. Of course, that lady’s response to my look made me feel nice surely. Now, who does not love compliments.