The story of Cheese – Melting Moments and Gooey Times.

Cheese often saves my day when there are sudden guests or an impromptu party at my home.It is also one of the best comfort foods too. A late night bite into a cheese cube is often bliss. Cheese is as versatile as the eggs- varieties of cheeses abounds so does avenues to make the cheese interesting.A sudden late evening party and my search for a cocktail snack ends with rice and cheese balls,a sudden afternoon with friends calls for some Spaghetti and some Parmesan,a lazy Sunday morning breakfast often combines egg and cheese in my multigrain slice.Cheese has several childhood memories.Those were the days of Amul cheese cubes which my Ma used to store in the fridge for a cheese omelette or a cheese sandwich.But I loved eating them by itself and often earned the wrath of my Ma when she discovered that the cheese had just vanished.Then came the age of cheese spreads and my good times .Just dip your finger in the gooey pack and bliss is all your.Simple cucumber sandwiches became tastier.Centuries of experimentation and innovation have resulted in varieties of cheese each with it’s own texture,taste and stink factor.These days I feel overwhelmed and lost by the exhaustive array of cheese at hyper stores.

Cheese can be classified by different parameters-texture,flavor,age,preparation method,type of milk used,color,country,region.Popular cheese blogger Marcella the Cheesemonger classified cheese into eight major families.Fresh cheese as Mascarpone,Cottage Cheese,Ricotta;Pasta Filata as Mozarella, Burrata;Soft Ripened Cheese as Brie,Camembert;Semi Soft Cheese as Havarti,Jarlsberg ;Washed Rind Cheese as Limburger; Blue Cheese as Roquefort;Semi Hard Cheese as Cheddar, Gouda;Hard Cheese as Parmigiano, Pecorino and the entire range of Processed Cheeses.The evolution of cheese began around 5000 years ago,when people in warm Central Asia and the Middle East learned that they could preserve naturally soured,curdled milk by draining off the watery whey and salting the concentrated curd.The texture of the curd became cohesive as the curdling took place in an animal stomach.The first cheeses resembled modern day brine cured feta,still common in Balkans.The earliest evidence of cheesemaking known to date,a residue found in an Egyptian pot,dates from around 2300 BC.The birth of modern cheese was well before Roman times. Columella in his book Rei Rusticae described standard cheese making practice.P,tiny wrote that Rome got its cheeses from Nimes in southern France and the Dalmatian Alps.

Cheese as Artifacts- ” Behind every cheese there is a pasture of a different green under a different sky,meadows encrusted with salt that the tides of Normandy deposit every evening…there are different herds,with their shelters and their movements across the countryside,there are secret methods handed down over centuries.This shop is a museum ,Mr Palomar visiting it,feels as he does in Louvre,behind every cheese is the presence of the civilization that gave it form and takes form from it.” Italo Calvino,Palomar,1983.

The art of cheesemaking by late medieval times inspired connoisseur ship as the French court received shipments from Brie,Comte,Maroilles. In England, Chesire cheese became famous by Elizabethan times and Cheddar and Stiltoon by the 18th century.For the poor it became a staple,and for the rich aged cheese became a one course of their multi course feasts. Brillat Savarin wrote,”a desert without cheese is like a beautiful woman who is missing an eye.” The golden age of cheese was probably the late 19th and early 20th century as local styles developed and matured, and the railroads got the country products to the city. With the establishment of cheese factories in United States the modern decline of cheesemaking began.Cheese became an industrial product an expression not of diverse natural and human particulars but of monolithic standard.ll

It is always a challenge to choose a good cheese. A late medieval compendium of recipes known as Le Menagier de Paris,included this formula to recognize a good cheese.” Not at all white like Helen,Nor weeping like Magdalene,Not Argus,but completely blind,And heavy like a buffalo…..Without eyes,without tears, not at all white,Moth eaten ,rebellious, of good weight.”

To cook with cheese is both a challenge as well as a bliss. Cheese can add both flavor and texture ,it can either melt or be crisp.Stringy cheeses are enjoyable on pizzas.The pleasure of melted cheese is beyond words.A cheese dish which always intrigues me is a Cheese Fondue.In the Swiss Alps,cheese has been melted in a communal pot at the table and kept hot over a flame for dipping bread.The ingredients for a classic fondue are,a alpine cheese,a tart white wine,some kitsch and sometimes starch.The combination of cheese and wine steals the show.France and Greece leads the world in per capita cheese consumption.

Last year my trip to Conoor was made memorable by a visit to a cheese farm Acres Wild .The fresh Gouda cheese which I sourced from there will be always be on my tastebuds. The entire range is hand made and includes an array of soft and hard cheese-Feta,Ricotta,Parmesan and even Blue Cheese.Hand crafted artisanal cheeses have become a niche in India and there are several homegrown cheese makers making crumb fried Camembert,salty Ricotta,cheese infused with herbs etc.My favourite cheese dishes which I love to cook apart from a cheese stuffed omelette is a simple cheesy sauce Penne pasta.It can never go wrong on warmth as well as taste.My recipe for a simple herb infused cheesy pasta is short and simple.

For cooking any pasta I prefer whole wheat ones,and for this I boiled whole wheat penne in lots of water infused with some olive oil,salt and some dried mixed herbs.I don’t like my pasta soft,so keep a close vigil on the texture.After draining out the starch filled water I let the boiled pasta to cool for a while.For the sauce butter and minced garlic is a must.Once the butter melts in the pan I add a lot of minced garlic,some dried mixed herbs and when the butter is infused with the garlic, I put in a teaspoon of flour and roast it well.One should be however be careful not to brown the flour.I lower the flame,add the lukewarm milk and stir it well and avoid lumps.To this sauce I add the boiled pasta,some red chilli flakes and let it soak in the flavor. Once I add salt if necessary ,I transfer this to a baking dish and add a lot of grated Parmesan cheese and bake for a brownish soft crust .Once done I add a handful of fresh parsley.This has never failed me and love seeing happy faces of the kids of my friends slurping the melted cheese.

Fishy Fish Tales

Every morning when I board the train for my work I have the pleasure of seeing a known set of my co passengers – doctors, teachers and a large group of fish whole sellers. These people buy fish from the Sealdah wholesale market primarily for supply to suburban small towns. I look forward everyday to see the array of fish in their haul. Fish is a food from the earth’s other world, it’s vast water underworld. Humans have long been nourished by fish and it built nations on them as well. The history of the world’s fisheries are not only the saga of human ingenuity and bravery but also of unlimited hunger. Apart from depleting the fish population, fishing also caused collateral damage to other underwater species.

The array

There are many parts of the world which loves its fish- be it the Salmon, the Mackarel, the Cod, the Hilsa,the Tilapia or the Pomfret . The list is endless – either sea fish or fresh water catch. Fish to me is as fragile as the heart of a jilted lover. Lot of care, timing and precision goes into it to take the fresh catch cooked to the dinner table. In the book Physiology of Taste, Brillart Savarin wrote,”Fish are an endless source of meditation and astonishment.” Fish is cooked in myriad ways across the world – fried,stewed, grilled,broiled, baked, poached, sauted, dried. In the book Of Ancient Customs by Michael de Montaigne, he outlines how fish was prepared in ancient Rome. “In summer in their lower rooms they often had clear fresh water run in open channels underneath, in which there were a lot of live fish, which the guest would select and catch in their hands to be prepared to the taste of each.”

An ancient way of cooking fish is to enclose it in a layer of clay, coarse salt, leaves to shield it from direct heat and to let the fish gently cook. The covering is served intact to be opened at the dining table, releasing aroma that would otherwise have been lost. Fish continues to be cooked in this manner in many parts of India be it the Paturi or the Patrani Machi. Apicus gave a recipe of Stuffed Bonito where he wrote about boning the Bonito. Then followed pounding together of cumin, pepper,mint, nuts and honey which he prescribed to stuff the fish with and then wrap the fish in parchment paper. The parceled fish had to be placed in a covered pan over steam. The fish when served was seasoned with oil, reduced wine and fermented fish paste.

The oldest collection of recipes to survive from antiquity, De Re Coquinaria (“The Art of Cooking”) is attributed to Marcus Gavius Apicius, the famed epicure.The recipes were compiled in the late fourth or early fifth century and were derived from a variety of sources, although many were his own.The ten books with over five hundred recipes were arranged like a modern cookbook, which included recipes for meats, vegetables, legumes, fowl, meat, seafood, and fish.The book contains over four hundred of recipes of fish which included a sauce, invariably made with fermented fish sauce named as garum or defrutum,a syrupy reduction of grape juice. The preparation of most sauces began with a blend of spices and herbs, usually pepper, which often were combined with cumin.Then,it was ground in a mortar with fruits ,(plums, dates, raisins) nuts (almonds, pine nuts, walnuts)as well as liquids, including either Garum, water, stock, milk, honey, oil, vinegar, and wine.The thickening agent was wheat starch but also included the yolks and whites of eggs, pounded dates, and steeped rice or the water in which the food had been boiled. Fish sauces tended to be particularly elaborate-boiled murena (likely eel) called for pepper, lovage, dill, celery seed, coriander, dried mint, and rue, as well as pine nuts, honey, vinegar, wine, and oil .Seneca mentioned Apicius, who competed for a huge mullet put up for sale by Tiberius .Digesting “the blessings of land and sea”, Apicius was the very embodiment of effete prodigality, his cooking school “defiled the age with his teaching.”

Although both Pliny and Apicius wrote in the 1st century AD, they perceived the Mullet in completely different ways. Pliny was fascinated by the value of the fish, which he complained costs as much as a cook once did to prepare it. For Apicius, “a man who displayed a remarkable degree of ingenuity in everything relating to luxury”, proposed a prize for anyone who could invent a new sauce for the fish.The Mullet to Apicus whether served in a shallow pan (pantina), salted or grilled, was less important than the sauces accompanying it (De Re Coquinaria, IV.2.22, 31; IX.10.6, 7, 9; X.1.11, 12).

The oldest cookbook may be by Apicius, but that is not to say that he was the first epicure. Archestratus, a Sicilian Greek whose 4th century BC poem on gastronomy survives in the sixty fragments preserved by Athenaeus. In reading them, one is struck by his emphasis on simplicity and insistence that a delicate fish be sprinkled only with a little salt and basted with olive oil, “for it contains the height of pleasure within itself”.

Salted and fermented

“‘There is nothing,’ you say, ‘more beautiful than a dying surmullet [mullo]. In the very struggle of its failing breath of life, first a red, then a pale tint suffuses it, and its scales change hue, and between life and death there is a gradation of colour into subtle shades….See how the red becomes inflamed, more brilliant than any vermilion! Look at the veins which pulse along its sides! Look! You would think its belly were actual blood! What a bright kind of blue gleamed right under its brow! Now it is stretching out and going pale and is settling into a uniform hue.'”

Seneca, Natural Questions (III.18.1,4)

The red or barbed mullet (Mullus barbatus, from mulleus, “red”) is a small bottom-feeding fish that, although mentioned by the Greeks, does not seem to have elicited any special enthusiasm. The famed gourmet Archestratus comments only on the best locales where it could be found (Athenaeus, VII.325D). In a letter to Atticus, Cicero speaks of wealthy Romans feeding by hand “the bearded mullet in their fish ponds” ( II.1.7). According to Columella, the mullet is difficult to maintain there “since it is a very delicate kind of fish and most intolerant of captivity, and so only one or two out of many thousands can on rare occasions endure confinement” (VIII.17.7).

The art of cutting fish

Of the various kinds described by Pliny, it was the flavor of the red mullet, which tasted like an oyster, that was most appreciated. The fish, he says, also was called the “shoe mullet” (IX.65) because its color (mulleus) was that of the mulleus calceus, the distinctive red shoe (calceus patricius) worn by patricians, which Isidore compares to the red scales of the fish (Origines, XIX.34.10). Tertullian has such a shoe worn by the madam of a Carthaginian brothel to comment on the inconsistency between what is worn and the character of the one who wears it (De Pallio, IV.10).

The Greek name for the fish is triglê, which Athenaeus argued derive from the fact that the red mullet was said to spawn three times a year. By analogy, the mullet was dedicated to Hecate, the goddess of crossroads who looks three ways (Athenaeus, VII.324D ff).In spite of Pliny’s declaration that the mullet was plentiful, Juvenal complains that they have to come from Corsica or Sicily, “since our own sea [the Tyrrhenian] has been totally ransacked to the point of exhaustion, since gluttony rages, the delicatessens raking the nearest waters with nonstop nets—and we don’t let the Tyrrhenian fish grow to size”.

Hilsa has been the prized catch in this part of the land bordering Bay of Bengal.The love for Hilsa connects the the two neighbouring countries which were not long ago part of the same nation.Both the countries account for 3/4 th of this fish of the herring family harvested worldwide. Hilsa like mullet and cod is in danger. Over fishing by trawlers,ecological imbalances, siltation, and under aged Hilsa fishing are the root causes of the near depletion. The Hilsa migrates upstream into fresh water for spawning and greedy fishermen scoop out juveniles as well as pregnant ones.Barrages have also intercepted the migratory route.Ban on hilsa fishing for the breeding months are flouted. Hilsa sanctuaries in Bangladesh are yielding positive results.Fervently hop e that Hilsa does not vanish as the Cod did in the Pacific and we do not love Hilsa to death.

Hilsa being seasoned for drying – Nona Ilish.

When I talked at length about the story of fish in history, felt the urge to share a couple of recipes which I love to cook. Red mullet is not available in this part of the world ,I do this recipe with Bhetki fillets.It crossed my mind that it would be ideal with a mullet fillet too. The mullet fillet has to be seasoned with salt,pepper and extra virgin olive oil.The fish has to be grilled skin side up on a lightly greased baking tray. To make a chili oil I finely chop garlic and put it in hot oil over the flame.I add some red chilli flakes for color.The heat has to be lowered to the minimum till the oil takes in the flavor of the chilli and garlic.You will be surely bowled over by the aroma.I make an aubergine mash with the fish.The roasted aubergine is peeled and mixed with garlic,lemon juice,cumin and a tahini sauce in a blender.Some olive oil is added too for the shine and texture.I serve the fish topped with the chili garlic oil and some parsley with the aubergine mash on the side.

The Hilsa is cooked in myriad ways on both sides of the border.Some prefer it steamed with mustard paste,some debone it and roast it,some like the hilsa in mustard oil sans water with begun or aubergines.Bangladesh even uses the Hilsa fish head to make a pish pash of vegetables with bitter gourd.Tasted this some time ago at a friend’s house and would love to share the timeless recipe with all.The fish head was marinated with salt and turmeric powder and was fried till brown.In the same oil I fry the diced bitter gourd and keep it aside.The left over oil is tempered with bay leaves,panch phoron or five spices and red chilli till spluttering.I add some grated ginger and the bori or lentil dumplings and fry till light brown.I add the diced vegetables of potatoes papaya,radish,carrot and raw banana.After stir frying them I put in water and cover till the veggies are nearly done.The fried fish head is added at this stage and with the spatula break the head in two pieces.When boiling I add the fried bitter gourd and some milk .For flavour I drizzle a teaspoon of ghee and cover to seal the flavors.It is best had with plain boiled rice and for lunch.

The most popular and widely available fish in Bengal is the Rohu and the Katla ,belonging to the family of Carps.On a leisurely Sunday I love to experiment with dishes of Katla. Made a Katla recipe with white sesame seeds paste and yoghurt .I fry the Katla pieces well after salt and turmeric marination.I make a paste of white sesame seed and some cashew with a green chilli. In hot mustard oil I add whole garam masala,bay leaves and whole red chilli. When spluttering I slid in the sesame paste ,some turmeric,red chilli powder and salt.When the oil separates I add the yogurt and put in the fish.I cover the pan for around 10 min.In a separate pan I fry onions till brown and dry the oil over a napkin .After 10 min I add some garam masala and coriander leaves.Before serving I add the fried onions to the fish and serve with plain steamed rice.

The fishy tales goes back long in history and with a fervent hope they survive long long time after with careful conservation, responsible consumption and vigilant ecological watch.

Fresh catch from the sea

Regional Festivals and the Food Ethos – Ranna Pujo

The story began way back in 2001.Fresh out of college with dreams of teaching in a college, I was in for a shock. The West Bengal College Service Commission sent me an appointment letter for a college located in a remote village in 24 Parganas (South). My father in his last days wanted me to take the posting and to give me courage told me, “Love your workplace and the workplace will in turn love you.” A two hours journey by local train which I boarded probably for the second time in my life took me to my workplace. Time flew, I aged, the college grew in dimensions and I fell in love with the place, the college and the people. Every place has its unique culture, food tastes, techniques of cooking, local dialects and traditions. I began learning about them and understanding the moorings. One such tradition of this area is Ranna Pujo or Arandhan celebrated a day before Vishwakarma Puja and continues a day after. The puja centres around cooking and all rituals are associated with cooking the spread which is often more than twenty items.

In essence a tribute to Goddess Manasha (Snake God), the night before the Vishwakarma Puja, kitchens in the household are cleaned thoroughly including the mud stoves. A new mud stove is made, new utensils are used to cook the spread to be offered to Ma Manasha. The spatula used for cooking is made out of a branch of a date palm tree. The lady of the house takes a bath at dusk and initiates the cooking. Payesh is cooked first. Five types of vegetable fritters and five types of vegetable chorchori(mishmash) are a must. A mixed vegetable with kochu (taro) ,coconut and soaked Bengal Gram is also prepared.Another unique trait of the pujo is an array of non vegetarian offerings. Hilsa, a seasonal favourite is a must. Prawn fritters, Kochu shaak and Loti (colocasia stem and greens) with prawns are a must. Shapla (white lily) chorchori and Dal Chorchori (cooked lentils till dry) too are part of the spread. A relish or a chutney is made from Chalta (Elephant Apple). Apart from Payesh sweets like Kolar Bora(ripe banana fritters), taaler Bora and several Pithes(stuffed pancakes) are served. A beverage called Amani is served at the end which is basically the water in which the rice was soaked overnight flavored with salt and lemon.

Next morning the offering is placed before the deity which is a not an idol but a branch of a Manasha tree.The spread is served on seven leaves of the Shapla flower. Incense sticks and a new lamp is lit. The rice cooked last night soaked in water is served along with the vegetables and the fish. This is called Panna. The next day guests come over for a grand feast which is cooked and served hot.

Over years students have treated me to various delicacies cooked during this festival. The one I love is the Dal Chorchori which I have tried to replicate in my kitchen.

For Dal Chorchori, I soak Motor Dal(yellow split peas dal) overnight and make a coarse paste of it. To hot mustard oil I add bay leaves, whole red chilli and fenugreek seeds. Once spluttering I put in the coarse dal paste, turmeric powder, red chilli powder and salt. After the dal paste starts to leave the sides I add some ginger paste and over low heat I keep stirring it till all the water evaporates. A dash of mustard and green chilli paste at this stage.I cover the pan for some time and add a drizzle of mustard oil for the flavour. The Dal Chorchori will require a large amount of rice to be had with it and those on a diet let loose for a day.

Such traditions as Ranna Pujo or Arandhan keep regional and local culture alive and ticking. Heterogeneity in an age of globalization must be valued for it is such unique diversities which keep the spirit of a multicultural, multi ethnic country like India safe. Regional and local deities, festivals, food, cooking techniques, beliefs and faith of every region and culture makes this part of the world a mosaic of life.

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Maa Ki Dal and the journey of the Self

A highpoint of my recent visits to Punjab was my visit to several langars – from Guru Ram Das Langar at Golden Temple to the Langar at Tarn Taran to the Langars of unknown Gurudwaras on the way from one city to the other. I realized a hearty meal requires nothing more than a dal and a roti. But that meal has to be made with a lot of love .The Maa ki Dal at any Langar tastes as delicious as the other.A sevadar at a Langar told me, “No fixed proportion of onion, garlic, green chilli but a fixed proportion of love is what makes Langar ki Dal.”
His words reverberated in my mind ever since I came back. Kali Dal, Dal Makhani etc can easily be made at home or ordered but what about Langar Ki dal? I had ready provisions of the black urad dal, the channa dal ,onion,tomatoes and what ever but I stopped short of trying it at home.
Some stressful days at work but I felt the need to push myself to make the dal soon. That indispensable ingredient needed for making the dal was with me for sometime now.
So I did make the dal today, the proportion of the black urad dal and channa dal was perfect, and for the proportion of love into its making I was not a miser, gave my best after a whole days work, shaped it like a dream coming true.
The Langar ki Dal was made and served with sukha but thickish roti. Made it for a friend who deserved every morsel of it, who earned it for the beautiful self.
For the making of the Langar ki Dal I learnt from the sevadar that there is no fixed proportion, no fine cuts,no fine dining experience. I soaked Black Urad Dal and Channa Dal in the proportion of 3:1 overnight
For Langar ki dal everything is chopped coarsely but with love. Chopped onion in thick uneven strips, crushed garlic, ginger and green chilli to a grainy texture.The tomatoes were chopped .
Boiled the two dals with salt, turmeric, ginger and garlic shreds.
For the Dal one has to use Desi Ghee. Once the ghee reached a smoking point, added whole cumin. As they spluttered in a tune, added the roughly ground ginger, garlic and green chilli.
Added the onions, once translucent added the tomatoes. When mushy added corriander powder, red chilli powder and sauted it till the ghee separated. To it added the boiled dal, some water and covered it. Lowered the heat and simmered it for a good 30min.Stood at the kitchen while the dal simmered and the aroma enticed me, mixed in a lot of love for the person I was making the dal for. Added corriander leaves and covered it.
For the tadka in pure ghee spluttered dried Kasuri Methi leaves and whole garam masala. Added this to the dal and with it a lot of love for the one I was making the dal for and covered it to seal in the flavor.

The Langar ki Dal ceased to be just a dal, it became a reflection of the most basic needs of living – food and love. The making of it strengthened my sensibilities and sharpened my beliefs

In Peace… Harmandir Saheb and some other Gurudwaras

I was within and without ,simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life.”-Scott Fitzerland,The Great Gatsby.

Amritsar has been a city close to my heart, awakening in me my inner most sensibilities and gifting me with a peace which often makes me cry and teaches me to let go.This trip to Amritsar was within a year of my last trip here.Unable to grapple with the close loss of my two pets, I went there last year in search of answers, in search of releasing me from bonds of love towards them, to free them from earthly connections and set them free across the rainbow bridge.Sitting beside the Amrit Sarovar for hours on end in the wee hours of the night and early hours of dawn there were tears which I didn’t want to control.I got my answers about the inevitability of death, about the possibility of coming out strong from loss,about making their loss a part of my being. Just before making the final exit from Harmandir Sahib I had said to myself that I must visit Amritsar every year.

This year for many reasons had been life changing.There were many decisions I took which might help me chart a different course,people I met professionally whom I will draw inspiration for the rest of my life and who later became friends to show me new ways of living meaningfully,people whom I became friends with,who showed me the joys and liberation of crossing boundaries and the importance of knowing oneself.It was few days of nerve racking tension when I was awaiting a news of well being of a friend that took toll on me.During one of my early morning train rides to college those days I was tensed to the extent I did not want to sit through the two hours of travel.Had a hymn of Wahe Guru in my phone and listening to it for 45 minutes gave me a calmness and a strength of mind.Within minutes the hymn got over I got the news that all was well.I knew I had to go back to Harmandir Saheb soon enough. So my second trip to Amritsar was to happen within a year of my first.

Late night flights and nearly after three hours of flying and four hours of transit, I reached Amritsar feeling tired and sleepy.After checking in at the hotel and freshening up with a cup of Earl Grey, hearing the distant hymns of the kirtan from the Golden temple my fatigue vanished and I went straight to the Golden Temple.I had submissions to make,clear my mind and above all offer myself and my service to the Power above who made it possible to keep my promise of revisiting the hallowed place within a year.

As I stepped into Harmandir Sahib there was an instant feeling of serenity,a feeling of belonging and a sense of a Power drawing me irresistibly towards Him.The sense of peace was overwhelming inspite of thousands of devotees as I began walking around the marble pathway or parikrama .The Golden Temple is truly an architectural masterpiece invoking spontaneously a sense of awe and harmony which had its origin only in the Divine. As I descended the steps from the main clock tower the enormity of the temple,the azure waters of the Amrit Sarovar,the stream of devotees,the organized volunteers at work to keep things moving touched my inner nerves.

The history of Harmandir Sahib is enriching, syncretic and above all endearing to the faithful.The Amrit Sarovar which is more ancient than the temple is filled with water drawn from the river Ravi. Guru Amardas discovered the site while he was on a tour of this area.The oral tradition associates this place with the story of Rajni and her husband who was a leper.Wandering in search of food, Rajni left her husband by the pool.The husband saw crows diving into the water and turning white on emerging from it.He thought the pool had magical qualities, he took a dip in the pool and was healed. Bhai Jaitha began digging of the pool in 1574 to be completed in 1589 during Guru Arjan Dev.

Guru Ramdas purchased the land around the tank from the inhabitants of Tung village. The village grew into a town and came to be known as Chak Ramdas. The foundation stone of Harmandir Saheb was laid by a Sufi saint, Mian Mir of Lahore, a friend of Guru Arjan Dev. The entrance to Harmandir Saheb is through an imposing gateway known as Darshan Deorhi. Guru Arjan Dev conceived the shrine to embody the fundamental ethos of the Sikh religion- modesty, humility and God being accessible for all. The Harmandir Sahib has four entrances symbolic of the emphasis laid on equality in Sikhism and it’s rejection of caste hierarchy. The reconstruction of Harmandir Sahib was completed in the later half of 18th century,after it was blown up by Afghan plunderer Ahmad Shah Durani in 1762.The rich marble inlay work was done under the patronage of Maharaja Ranjit Singh.

Replete with domes, balconied windows, chatris, the structure is a harmonious blend of Mughal and Rajput architecture. In a departure from building mosques and templed at a higher plinth, Guru Arjan Dev built the temple at a depression, that required the faithful to walk down steps to enter the parikrama. The floral designs of the inlay incorpoated birds and animals in rich pietra dura style. The wall, the cornicex, the roof columns are covered with gold leaf. Omega watches adorn passages and the entrance. Maharaja Ranji Singh gave a Rs 5 lakh grant in 1803 and an inscription at the entrance testifies his contribution. Marbles were inlaid with floral arabesques in precious stones like lapis lazuli and mother of pearl. Muslim artisans contributed with jaratkari work. The interiors in red, blue and ochre used fresco, gach and tukri methods.

One divine nature of the Temple is that inspite of thousands at the premises, one never feels the rush. The first thing I always do on reaching Amritsar is take a shower and reach out to the Temple, which is 100 m from my hotel. Washing the feet and my sins before entering, the first glimpse from the stairs, the parikrama and the wait at the Darshan Deorhi before entering the holy sanctum, the hymns of the Kirtan, I waited for the line to move on. One of the most disciplined self managed temple line I have ever been a part of. After paying respects to the Guru Granth Sahib I went up the stairs to the first floor. It is actually a gallery overlooking the sanctum and the sarovar. I sat for an hour beside a balcony there and all I could feel were my wet cheeks. I did not want to cry but there were tears all over. Did not want to stop them too, with it may be flowed my negative thoughts.This time I was in Amritsar to reaffirm my belief, to offer my humble gratitude. As I was restless and praying for a loved one one morning, Harmandir Saheb had wrapped me in peace. Within minutes of that divine connection I got the news all was well. At that first floor balcony my mind was lost for some time, could feel my senses in the closest sensations ever. My confusions were cleared, my decision was strengthened and my love reaffirmed. I felt someone was at it. Above the gallery on the first floor is an old manuscript of Guru Granth Sahib. The terrace has the most ethereal views of the entire temple premises. The sky reaches out to you.

Just opposite to the Darshan Deorhi, the Akal Takht stands in faith.Literally meaning the Almighty’s throne,it is the site of temporal authority.It is said that Guru Hargobind laid the foundation stone of the Akal Takht in 1606.It was constructed by Baba Budha – the first head priest and Bhai Gurdas who inscribed the first copy of Guru Granth Sahib. During Operation Blue Star, a lot of damage occured to the 18th century art work.The present white marble structure was rebuily in consonance with the Sikh concept of Kar Seva. The Guru Granth Sahib every night is brought in procession in a ceremony in the Palki Saheb to rest at Akal Takht. Each morning before daybreak the Guru Granth Sahib is again brought back to Harmandir Sahib in a flower adorned golden palanquin.Nagaras announce the beginning of the ceremony. The head priest carries the Holy Book covered with brocade sheets on his head and places it on the palki. I was lucky enough to watch both . While at the temple, the two Nishan Sahibs linked by the shield and crossed swords evoke the temporal and spiritual aspects of the religion, the militaristic phase of Sikhism from 1606.

Harmandir Saheb never ceases to amaze you. There is history and faith at every corner. There is celebration of syncretism, brotherhood, military spirit, selfless service, discipline at every bend. Harmandir Saheb today is an assertion of Sikh faith, it’s power and the indestructibility of the faith. Sikhism continues to offer an abiding sense of spiritual reassurance and an entrenched belief in the Gospel about God’s accessibility to all. The days I am at Amritsar I spend hours at the temple sometimes just sitting beside the sarovar, sometimes near the Darshan Deorhi soaking in the spiritual and mental liberation Harmandir Sahib offers to one and all.

This trip was a bit extended as I wanted to visit Tarn Taran and Dera Baba Nanak.Books are indeed the window to the world. For a non sikh by religious faith I did not know about Nanak Der Baba. Reading a book by Bishwanath Ghosh, Gazing at Neighbors, Nanak Der Baba became a must visit in my itenary.

Since Tarn Taran was a shorter drive from Amritsar and I wanted to be at Tarn Taran Sahib during sunset I drove across the highway in the afternoon and once I reached the Gurudwara I was enthralled. The huge Sarovar with its gleaming water, the mughal style architecture, the gold inlay work was worth the drive. Tarn Taran Sahib has s tranquility that is unique to it.

One of the largest of the Sikh holy tanks, it is an approximate rectangle in shape. The sarovar was originally fed by rain water that flowed in from the surrounding lands. The sarovar was completed in 1778 and Maharaja Ranjit Singh visited the shrine in 1802.In 1833, Maharaja Raghubir Singh of Jmd had a water channel dug, connecting the tank with the Lower Kasur Branch of the Upper Ban Doab Canal at Rasulpur watermills, The name Tarn Taran, since appropriated by the town itself, originally belonged to the sarovar, so called by Guru Arjan. Literally it means, “the boat that takes one across (the ocean of existence)”. (Tarana in Sanskrit is a raft or a boat). According to Sikh tradition, the water of the old pond was found to possess medicinal properties, especially efficacious for curing leprosy. The sarovar was known as Dukh Nivaran, the eradicator of affliction. Akal Bunga, a four storeyed building near the Nishan Sahib was constructed in 1841 by Kanvar Nau Nihal Singh. The only completed column of the four planned by Kanvar Nau Nihal Singh for the beautification of the sarovar at Tarn Taran, stands at the northeastern corner. The three storeyed tower was erected during Kanvar’s lifetime. The dome on top of it was added later.

I spent that evening sitting beside the sarovar at Tan Taran Sahib and time just flew. I no longer longed for appreciation, acceptance and away from worldly acquisitions I realized the biggest joy is perhaps in giving, giving your mind to your loved ones, sharing the worst times of your loved ones and just being alien to the entire gamut of the term expectations. Tan Taran Sahib remains a cornerstone in the journey of my becoming. I do not know the end of my journey or wish to know the path of it, prayed that my journey becomes a healer in itself.

Inspired by the book Gazing at Neighbors by Bishwanath Ghosh,a trip to Dera Baba Nanak was in the offing. Drove past the most beautiful fields which describes Punjab in all its grandeur into Gurudaspur district to reach Dera Baba Nanak and the Kartarpur corridor work which is in progress. 49km from Amritsar on the left bank of the Ravi river and within a few kilometers from the border with Pakistan, Dera Baba Nanak is one of the most important places of pilgrimage. Guru Nanak’s son rescued the urns bearing his fathers ashes from the river and reburied it next to a well where Guru Nanak had once preached in 1515.This place came to be known as Dera or mausoleum of Guru Nanak. Guru’s grandson, Baba Dharam Dad founded a settlement around the Dera and named it Dera Baba Nanak. The Chola Sahib established by a descendant of Guru Nanak was named after a robe or chola with Koranic verses and Arabic numerals imprinted on it which was gifted by a Muslim during Guru Nanak’s visit to Baghdad. A tussle ensued with the SGPC and the descendants of Guru Nanak and later the chola and the handerkerchief embroidered by Guru Nanak’s sister, Bebe Nanaki gifted on the occasion of his marriage are preserved in a newly built shrine managed by the descendants of Guru Nanak.

The best part of the trip was to the border area from where Kartarpur Sahib is visible and where stands alone in silence and agony the barbed wires on Radcliffe Line. Manned by BSF I went to the last steps. From a telescope placed there I could see the Kartarpur Sahib barely a distance from the border. The gurdwara was built to commemorate the site where Guru Nanak settled after his missionary work. He assembled a Sikh community there, and lived for 18 years until his death in 1539. The gurdwara is built where Guru Nanak is said to have died.The present building was built in 1925 at a cost of Rs.1,35,600, donated by Sardar Bhupindar Singh, the Maharaja of Patiala. It was repaired by the Pakistan Government in 1995, and fully restored in 2004.According to Lahore-based art historian Fakr Syed Aijazuddin, the shrine houses the last copies of the original Guru Granth Sahib.

As I saw the border in the setting sun and the work of the construction of the Kartarpur corridor which would connect the two countries for pilgrims to access the gurudwara without a visa, I was filled both with sadness and hope. Looked back from the car and within the dust I could see the barbed wires fading in oblivion. I was happy that may be Guru Nanak one who preached selfless humanitarianism would reconnect the nations cutting across those lines. I was sad seeing how the sun could easily cross borders and set on the Pakistan side while we as mute spectators of history were victims of carnages and hurried decisions which left gaping wounds.Two nations born out of one umbilical cord but divided, bruised and angered.

This trip to Amritsar was not a religious one in its essence.My abiding faith in the Power, my dependence on it to bail me out from moments of despair and anxiety were personal reasons which made go back to the city twice within a year..”Let Compassion be the cotton, Contentment be the threat, Continence the knot, Truth the twist… “. Harmandir Saheb to me expresses the omnipresence of the One Almighty, the Oneness beyond division and the equality of humanity. To me it is peace, a journey in the process of the search of the self .

Nainital – The unknown route.. St John’s Church in Wilderness

Memories of Facebook are a wonderful tool to make me remember, to soak me in nostalgia. Over the years August has been the month when I have invariably travelled. The pictures which came as memories indicated August 2014 as the date when I had stayed in Nainital for nearly a month for an academic purpose.Sundays were free, so were the evenings. Though the climb down from the Institute was sharp and the climb up often exasperating yet a customary stroll around the lake or some unknown hill Road was my favourite. It was one such Sunday that most of my colleagues had gone to Ranikhet, I gave it a miss. The desire to explore the city not on the tourist’s map made me stay back.

Walking across the Mall I had noticed few churches and even some church spirals up the hills. Churches as colonial footmarks are always fascinating. It not only showcases architectural styles but narrate stories. The moss ridden stones, the uncared for cemetery in the compound, the organ pipes stand testimony to the first setllers of the town, their lives and deaths. While looking through books on Nainital in the Town Library the name St John’s Church in Wilderness fascinated me. A church in the wilderness- untold stories, histories and events.

Tucked away within the tall pines and firs where sunlight rarely penetrates the soil, the iron gate of the church and it’s creaking sound assured me that the visit to the oldest standing Methodist Church in India would be worth a rememberance. I almost lost myself in the splendor of the wilderness, the stained glass windows, antique wooden door transported me to the 1800s and to that bygone era.

Nestled within the dark Deodar trees at the foot of the Cheena Peak and located near Mallital,a five minute walk uphill past the High Court,the church was built in 1844.The church was named by Daniel Wilson, the Bishop of Calcutta who fell I’ll and was forced to sleep a night in an unfinished house on the edge of the forest. John Hallet, the then commissioner of Kumaon selected the ground for the construction of a church and the designs were implemented by Captain Young. The cornerstone was laid on October 13,1846. Rev Wilson was an assistant curator at at St Johns Chapel,Bloomsbury and named the church St John’s Wilderness Church.It was opened for divine service on April 1848.

Built in Gothic style, a big metallic bell was purchased and which still hangs on the church spiral. The dark colored timber roof sort of complements the cemetery standing silently and in ignorance. The cost of the original structure was about Rs 15000. Stained glass windows were erected at each end of the church and the art pieces were executed by Ward and Hughes of London. A number of memorial windows representing biblical episodes were built. In the centre is a figure of St John and the Baptist holding a banner and the following words, “ The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness ,prepare ye the way of the Lord.” A brass plaque on the altar is inscribed with names of the victims of the Landslip of 1880.The church had an unusual feature of a gun rack near the door as followers often had to encounter wild animals on their way to Sunday service. A carved communion table was added in 1885 and an Font was also placed in the Baptistery.

Adjoining the church there stands a cemetery, uncared for. The bushes and ferns cover the broken plaques. On one of the upper terraces lies the grave of Christopher Corbett,a postmaster in the local post office and father of Jim Corbett. The grave of Jim Corbett’s mother, Mary Jane Corbett lies here who was the doyen of tourism in Nainital when she built the first lodging facility for tourists.

I was in time for the Sunday service but the church seemed closed. As I walked about the compound I saw the door ajar. There were barely 10 people The church lies uncared for- damp, dark with a flickering bulb. Rose wood windows creak and refuse to open. Sunlight gives the church a miss. The candles burned dimly. A father came out of nowhere and asked me where I was from. Little bewildered, I followed his instructions and sat in the first row. My first service ever, the lights went off, candles flickered, as I faintly heard the prayers I felt something Felt God very near me, a life enriching experience in the wilderness. I remember the theme of the service, God forgives all sins but never forgives a bad word coming from his creatures. These words will reverberate within me all my life. An old woman, a young couple in love , the father who promptly changed his robe once the service was over, the dilapidated but beautiful church will be fresh in my thought for ever. The church reminded me of those silk stoles of my grandmother, neatly folded and preserved but when opened showed signs of being worn out from the passage of time.

Naintal- the city of lakes during that one month seemed to smile in the morning rays and azure skies,glimmer in the orange dusk rays,cry in the torrential rainy season and warm up the soul during the chilly winters. Nainital does not solely exist around the lake teeming with tourists,nor does it live on the rows of shops selling candles,wollens,wooden clocks and rhododendron juices.There exists in sheer grandiose a Nainital less travelled,less cared for yet beautiful steeped in history,colonial past,stories,lives and deaths.The road I travelled ,the road I will remember .

The story of Rimpocha Tea and Cup e Bong – a partnership towards social responsibility.

Enterpreneurship with a goal of social good is often areas of research and theoretical dialogues. To see and hear about #Rimpochatea spearheaded by none other than the king of Darjeeling brew #RajahBanerjee , once of the iconic Makaibari Tea was a pleasure at #cupebong .Amit Halder you deserve accolades for brewing tea with a cause. Using exclusively flavours curated by Rimpocha Tea and venturing into showcasing and retailing the delicate flavours from your outlet, only one in the tea loving city of Kolkata, #Cupebong has endeavoured for yet another partnership with a cause.

The spearheaders of the campaign -Amit Halder and Rajah Banerjee


The story of Rajah Banerjee, the king of tea gardens is an inspiration in itself. Born with a silver spoon and a heritage of tea making Rajah Banerjee infused social responsibility in the archaic colonial system of exploitation in the tea gardens. Starting with building toilets for women labourers within the garden to keep them safe and hygenic to inaugarating the entire concept of tea tourism by opening his bungalows for the tourists to engaging and training community members to run the show Rajah Banerjee did it all. Rajah is not his original name, he was named so by the people of the area.
The image if the king on a horse back along the undulating green slopes is always fresh in the minds of those who have stayed at Makaibari homestay.
To take up challenges and to be reborn within one life is not a fairytale story. One devastating fire at Makaibari razed to the ground the heritage bungalow. Rajah Banerjee heard the calling, decided to exit his known domain and venture into new pastures with a cause. Rimpocha Tea was born with the tagline of partnership not ownership. An inclusive management style, with the aim of empowering women towards self sufficiency and a sustainable reality and above all growing tea in accordance with the principles of biodynamics is Rajah Banerjee’s philosophy of tea growing.
Recycling tea waste, retention of top soil, broker free fair trading Rimpocha began establishing and partening farming communities.

Rajah Banerjee – the tea plantet par excellence

@Amit Halder and Cup e Bong has partnered with Rimpocha. A sip down the Second Flush Musk, a mid day brew at Cup e Bong was bliss. The delicate flavour of the cup that was brewed for three minutes kept lingering for hours.
Available in smartly packaged little cartons the First Spring Flush, Sen-Cha, orange peel infusef Araby Attar, lemon grass infused green tea blend Usha Kiran, the cup for your cold Fortify with ginger and cinnamon, the Sundowner will give you a kick no less than a peg of a fine Scotch.
Take your picks among these and many other like Sanjivani -with unoxidized low in caffeine brew to the most delicate Silver Tips for the connoisseur from Cup e Bong.


My favourite remains the Second Flush Musk.
Going beyond tea towards organic cultivation and hand processing of various varieties of rice Rimpocha will be soon making its forray into handmilled raw rice with minimum processing.Your favourite pork or chicken rice bowl at Cup e Bong will soon use the organic hand milled rice.
Sticky red rice or brown rice permeated with the flavours of your favourite chiili pork at Cup e Bong will soon be a reality.
It was a pleasure as well as a life lesson meeting and hearing the icon of Darjeeling Tea Swaraj Banerjee aka Rajah Banerjee.
Hope to be part of many more tea tasting sessions by Amit Halder at Cup e Bong soon.
Came back happy with my pick of Second Flush Musk for a friend who enjoys the evening cup.