Kurseong – The Story of the Idyllic Hill Town

It was April 2019, precisely a year back that I went on a holiday to Kurseong. People were surprised at my choice for Kurseong,for it has often been neglected as the less beautiful sibling of the Queen of the Hills -Darjeeling. Kurseong is at best a stop over for a hot plate of momo en route Darjeeling or a one day sightseeing trip squeezed in. I wanted leisure and I wanted a respite from schedules, itineraries and time lines. Just a couple of days before the trip I realized that my trip had clashed with the dates of the Lok Sabha elections there. I remained undettered and looked forward to soak in the election fever of the sleepy town.I did not choose any luxurious resorts or tea garden home stays.I planned to put up at the wooden bungalow of Kurseong Tourist Lodge which had lot of memories of a second flush tea and soft chicken sandwiches on way to Darjeeling with my parents.The skylights, the tall pines and firs had remained etched in my thoughts for long and wanted to experience it all in silence and happiness.About 60 km from the airport at Bagdogra, Kurseong nestles among undulating valleys, mountain flowers and the winding DHR railway track. The route to Kurseong is picturesque as the road trudges along the old tracks of the DHR. I was lucky enough to go past a steam engine of the heritage toy train.The whistles,the smoke, the colors of the engine added to the sculptured beauty of the road.

The original inhabitants, named their home “Kurseong”, because every spring it was alive and bright with Kurson-Rip orchids. Kurseong is a Lepcha word (the original inhabitants of this area) and it means the white orchid of the eastern Himalayas. The name was apparently given by a European researcher who was researching on an exotic variety of white orchid that could only be found at the height of Kurseong i.e. 4500 feet from sea level. Kurseong was a part of the Sikkim kingdom, before the British came to India. However around 1780 the Nepalese conquered and annexed Kurseong and its surrounding areas. After loosing the Gurkha War, the Nepalese ceded Kurseong to do of the British. Although a road was built from Kurseong to Darjeeling from Titalia in the 1770s and 1780s, its irregular maintenance soon made the new route, the Military Road, almost useless. The new route Hill Cart Road opened in 1861 and fared better . Kurseong is one of the oldest municipalities in the state of West Bengal. Established as an independent Municipality in 1879, it did not become a Sub-Division until 1890, when the District of Darjeeling was formed. Kurseong was added to the Rajshahi Division by the British Raj . In 1908, it was transferred to the Bhagalpur Division in the same Presidency. In 1939, when Bengal became a province of British India, Kurseong was allowed to elect its own member as the chairman, but the British Raj continued to send ward commissioners until India gained independence.

It was a morning flight that I took from Kolkata and reached the idyllic sleepy town of Kurseong in time for a brunch at the tourist lodge.The tourist lodge at Kurseong has an old world charm,a wooden bungalow with screeching stairs,huge skylights,large windows which open into the undulating valley.My favourite window seat at the dining hall was empty and as I opened the panes and a flash of cold air swept by my cheeks . I opened my eyes and heart to the world,the mist,the green and the blue mountains far far away.The mountains across the valley from Kurseong looks like a distant dream,dreams which can be fulfilled but can also flow away.As I sat with the golden brew-a cup of first flush I wanted to dream wild and as I looked out of the skylight the red spiral of the church and the pines and firs whispered happiness to my ears.

The smiling elderly employee took me to Room 201,and as I entered the room I was happy-wooden walls,a cosy bed ,an ornate mirror, glass windows and a huge balcony.One of the best rooms of the property, it was a room with a view. Wide glass windows, overlooking the peak and the undulating slopes and a balcony which was hanging delicately on the slopes.It was cloudy with a haze, a haze which often overcrowds my vision ,my life goals I thought. Took a quick shower and curled up to the bed with another cup of second flush from Makaibari and waited for my car to arrive.Since it was a day of hectic election campaigning, the young smiling manager of the tourist Lodge took pains to get me a car for some places I wanted to go to.Mountains have always a calming influence on me and as I had dozed off for a nap my phone rang and It was time to get dressed.

A stop at the beautiful Margaret’s Deck tea lounge, a cup of Castleton second flush and a slice of a carrot cake,beautiful views of the valley and I was on an uphill ride towards Downhill.Seeing the wild flowers in myriad colors I wished to be one such nameless flower on a hill slope next life. The mauves,pinks and yellows perching, peeping across walls and across the slopes were at peace with their lives…privileged to watch life and grow as they wished…no deadlines,no expectations, no roles to be emulated to perfection.The road to Dowhill was one of the most splendid roads that I have travelled. It reminded me of poems about wooded forests and the long unwinding roads of life that poets often wrote about.The dark misty road appeared to me just out of the Scottish highlands as dark clouds came down embracing me in its soft cuddles.I could almost feel the moistness of their embrace.As my car stopped at one of the dark woods I looked up the sky and could remember all the geography lessons where I was taught about the types of clouds-the cumulonimbus etc.

Boarding schools had always an illusive charm to me.Whenever I played truant when I was a kid my Ma would often reprimand me by threatening that I would be put in a boarding school.Not that it intimidated me much,infact I pined for it,the Enid Blyton stories of midnight feasts and life at boarding schools drew a very rosy picture of a life of a boarder.Perhaps I never disobeyed my parents to the extent that I was really sent off with my suitcase.The trip to Dowhill made me excited.It was my dream school of childhood.Nestled among the blue sky,overlooking dark woods with pines and firs, the facade of the school itself evokes a liking for the place.The altars,the classrooms,the church,the dining hall wore a deserted look as the school was closed for the summer recess. I left my car at the corner and walked up the winding road till Victoria Boys School.The road had a strange feeling of loneliness…stories about the ghosts crowded my mind. Dowhill and Victoria Boys School keeps on the legacy of a boarding school culture,excellence in sports ,debates.A look back into the history of the school which I wish could be my school in next life.

The general belief is that Dowhill was named after a lovely little bird called “Dow” (in a local tribal dialect) which used to frequent the place. In 1879, Sir Ashley Eden, the then Lieutenant Governor of Bengal, wanted to start a Government School for boys and girls of Government servants belonging to the middle and low income group. A house called ‘Constantia’ was bought and repaired for the purpose of a residential school. In August 1879 the first batch of 16 children arrived at the school. Soon ‘Constantia’ was found to be too small for the growing school. It was shifted to Dow Hill, where the Railway Offices were vacated and the Railway Quarters at Dow Hill were handed over to the Education Department. Dow Hill site was considered more suitable because the air was very pleasant and there was abundance of water. Mr. Edward Pegler was the first Headmaster of the school; he was assisted by his wife. The Peglers worked alone till 1885. The school then had 103 students. However, in 1887, the coeducation system was discontinued in the best interest of the school. The school was run entirely for the boys for a decade. The boys’ school was shifted to its new building in the Jubilee year of Queen Victoria and it was renamed as Victoria Boys’ School. Sir Charles Elliot, who had provided funds for the new building wished to reopen the girls’ school in Dow Hill where it had been before. In 1898 the girls’ school was started again in the old building of the school.. Mr. Edward Pegler, the Headmaster, was transferred to Alipur in 1901. Mrs. E. Pegler became the first Headmistress of Dow Hill Girls’ School in 1898.Till the 1950’s the Headmistresses of Dow Hill School were Europeans or Anglo-Indians. Miss Latika Ray was the first Indian Headmistress of Dow Hill School. The last Anglo-Indian Headmistress was Miss R. E. Ballantine, who retired in 1970.

I moved uphill to visit the Kurseong Deer Park.Quite high in altitude ,the place was damp,there were no deers around,but dense forests around made the cold unbearable.The silence of the place was eerie,the lone Nepali lady selling vegetarian momos,Nepali Alu Dum and Titora was the only person in sight.Sat in the wooded area for a while but as I saw dark clouds descending I decided to warm myself up with the freshly made alur dum. The alur dum was deliciously spicy,as the frail lady garnished it with some alu bhujia. I finished two bowls of it with a slurping sound quite audible to my ears.The frail lady slipped a packet of titora in my hands as she talked about her house,her spouse,her village,the cinchona plantations and her very difficult life.Yet her warm reassuring smile attempted to tell me that there is always a silver lining to all dark clouds.Little did I realise that I would be able to see the silver lining soon enough.

The next stop was the Forest School of the state government, a training institute for freshly recruited forest officials.The museum at the premises is worth your time.The keeper of the museum was hesitant about letting me in as there was a power failure.I reassured that I would be fine with the natural lights.The old wooden building with near dilapidated stairs,the greyish darkness with little streams of sunlight streaming in,the caracas of wild animals,remnants of flora and fauna well preserved.At one time I felt a little eerie too.But the visit to the museum will remain an experience to savor.The Central Academy of Forest Education college was established in 1927, the only Rangers’ College in the country under the direct control of the Government of India.The College Building was said to be constructed during late 19th Century. It along with its landed property was once a property of St Mary’s Seminary . 

As my car took a sharp turn downhill I saw the new campus of Presidency College being built. Kurseong would soon get another institute of higher learning.As we descended downhill across one of the most artistic roads had ever seen,I thought that the best artist had played with his brush at leisure.

The next destination was the museum at Giddapahar housing precious memorablia about Netaji Subhas Chandra Basu. It was a beautiful house with a rush of colors around and as I entered the museum it was like a flight back to history.Handwritten presidential address of the Haripura Session of the Congress,numerous correspondence between Netaji and his wife presented Netaji in his various facets.The family photographs are well treasured.Sarat Chandra Bose purchased the house in 1922 from Rowley Lascelles Ward. Between 1933 and 1935, Sarat Chandra was interned for 2 years in this house. Netaji, who was placed in this house for 7 months under house arrest by the British Government in India. Netaji again visited this house in October 1937. It is said that Netaji wrote his address for the Haripura Congress from this house.The museum also has in its collection several letters written by Netaji to his wife , Emily.A couple of weeks before his death in Darjeeling on 16 June 1925, Deshbandhu Chittaranjan Das  too visited this house.

As I entered the sleepy town which was not so sleepy on the eve of the Lok Sabha Election thought of making a stop at the iconic Kurseong Railway Station.It is not a broad gauge railway station with level crossings, overhead bridges, it is an idyllic station of the heritage Darjeeling Himalayan Railway- the toy train in common parlance.It looks straight out of British countryside, people relaxing with newspapers, senior citizens in groups, the red letter box with a lock that probably has not been opened hor long, a small but tasteful station masters room and a forlorn ticket counter.The station houses a museum of the DHR and as I was keen to see the artifacts and documents of the DHR, I met the stationmaster.An young man from Bihar quite unhappy with his posting at this little station he was quite warm.He asked me to come back the next day, though it was the day of the election.Since it was late afternoon and dusk descends on hill slopes suddenly, it would be ideal if I could visit tomorrow, he said. As I was walking away from the station, I saw a sudden stream of activity and the thrilling whistle of the toy train. It was one of the few steam engines still functioning and with a chain of smoke making circles in the air it entered Kurseong Station.Remembered a toy train ride with a friend a decade back where we had purchased tickets from an agent, at a premium price.Actually we had got the tickets from black market and since we were two women frantically looking around for the queue, a women in her late 40’s approached us with the ticket. It was peak season time and we had no other option but to accept the offer.

Driving past the TV Centre and after a climb of a few steep stairs I reached Eagles Craig.Once you make your way up the spiral staircase to this steel-caged observatory – the viewpoint, you are in for an unparalleled visual treat. Revel in stunning panoramic views of the mighty mountains as well as lush green slopes around the small town of Kurseong with the river Teesta snaking its way through the valley.I witnessed the sky change colours from yellow to orange and then to a bright red, as the sun sets behind the mountains. Breathing in the fresh mountain air, the views took my breath away nearly. The orange dusk with the grey clouds will be remembered for ever.With a memorial for the Gorkha warriors, the place abounds with the white orchids after which Kurseong is named.As the sun was sliding across the horizon ,the little town became ablaze as on fire, not a untamed one but one resembling the dying flames of a barbecue.

Back to the tourist lodge under the comforting blanket and a fragrant cup of the golden liquor,I sat through seeing the photos.As the night got darker and little lights fluttered like a diamond from the mountains across I could not resist sitting in the balcony..The balcony does not have walls in between and form a continuous line with the other balconies. There was an openness about it.Began chatting with this elderly couple who seemed to enjoy their vintage togetherness.With a peg of single Malt down the couple whom I called uncle and aunt now began humming Tagore songs.They chose the most sensitive ones which overflow with emotions of love and longing. I could feel the wetness on my cheeks which I enjoyed to the brim.A dinner of khichuri and fried chicken served in the balcony itself , the night seemed soulful.I popped on two rum filled chocolates and shared some with the elderly couple…a perfect desert with the tum oozing out as if life was oozing out with everything good and beautiful. The night was one of my most memorable ones till date,every little sound of the hills were audible, the distant car passing by occassionally, the snoring sound of the elderly couple from the next room, I lay awake most of the night tucked into the mellow warmth of the soft blanket as I thought that charting new emotions and crossing self laid boundaries is not always bad.It might be laden with possibilities of happiness.Maybe my world changes after that night.With such thoughts and fleeting dreams , woke up late and over several cups of tea made my days plan.

The day should not have plans.The tourist lodge was abuzz with activities with central observers, police personnel and election officials.Most of the staff were away on leave , the dining room was open to the boarders alone.After a rather late breakfast of minced egg and mustard sandwich in soft white bread , a cup of strong Americano I thought of venturing out.The young manager of the tourist lodge was not happy with my intent to walk on empty roads. On my insistence he relented but tucked in a paper with his mobile number written on it in case I needed it.

Walking directionless on unknown streets on an Election Day is novel,never have I done it,or never will I ever get to do it in near future.Walked the winding streets to get to the railway museum of the DHR.The station master had kept the keys ready but could not find the ticket booklet given by UNESCO for heritage museum.After a wait for about half an hour signed in the register and realized the museum was having a visitor after nearly a year.From the earliest road map of the DHR, the naming of the stations,to the first signaling systems,to the couches,to the cutlery, to the medicine box it had all of it nicely preserved.Loved to see the instruction manuals,the appraisal reports of the train drivers, the old tickets,the clocks, the cloak room mirrors.The station was deserted than usual days.Crossed the track to the other side and peeped into the now defunct NF Railway Printing Press,the Priyo Gupta Cottage.A walking distance from there past some crowded hotel area I then visited the Loco Shed.On display was one of the oldest steam engines with chimneys which probably wants to get back to work again.The pains of being static to once mobile life can best be felt in days of the Lockdown now.

As it was nearing afternoon and had to back in time for lunch, I began walking way back past police patrols, an occasional voter going back after casting his vote , a dog lazing in the afternoon sun, wild flowers looking more beautiful in empty roads.I picked up some yak churpi and two packets of Titora from the only shop which had its shutters open. The car of the central observer went past and the officer from Telengana who you was staying at the Toutist Lodge waved back.Lunch with an old style chicken roast served with baby potatoes and carrots was sorted ,the dining room was empty and with the sky clearing up could see the pristine Kanchanjungha looking across.

An afternoon nap and some quick chat with friends followed by a walk uphill to the church opposite. The Good Friday service was in progress ,sat in the church for some time and tried understanding the service conducted in the local language.The church with white orchid offerings, beautiful glass panes, heritage oil paintings, and the last rays of the sinking sun gleaming through made it look holy and peaceful. Taking a sharp turn from the church walked up to see the Elysia Place which was the DHR headquarters location,a beautiful  wooden creaking bungalow, it was sadly closed for the day. On my way down saw a signage of the building Churchgate which was the halt for DHR officials .The Kurseong Station was located here till 1896 before it moved to the present location.

The best moment of the trip was when I stood their at the forlorn tracks strewn with dried leaves of some unnamed trees looking ahead.The track turned in the next bend and could not see much beyond,only imagined the track moving up to the next station at Sonada. This is also life, we try to look beyond the present, predict, plan but everything is destined for it’s own history. Can’t see life beyond the next turn.

Back to the hotel the setting sun from my balcony looked as if it was on fire.Yet it was not that kind of a fire which devastated or ruined,it was those pleasant orange hues which sent the word of hope,of renewal of life and love not lost.The sun even being tired after it’s long journey through the day made efforts to lookthrough the dark clouds over and over again .This again is akin to our daily struggle of life- joys and sorrows and efforts to overcome that sorrow.. a perennial duel with the self.

A Village in Myriad Hues- Raghurajpur, Orissa

The waves of a sea cutting across the sands are always heterogenous. Different in size, volume, height, texture waves in many ways are also illusive. They look beautiful from a distance. Once you try to touch them it breaks, it even splashes against you, it may hurt you but it will definitely wrap you around its embrace.Sitting on the beach at Puri a fleeting thought came to my mind that only if the harmony in the heterogeneity of the sea waves could be replicated in human lives. The sea at Puri – tumultuous yet beautiful, does all these to us. A trip to Puri for Bengalis is the quick fix to an extended weekend relaxation. Sometimes you loose count of the number of times you have been to this beach town. For most of us the first experience of the sea is at Puri, for many of us Puri featured in the first few trips after marriage, for many of our parents Puri figured in the list of to go to places before they became too old and infirm. Me and my friend planned a trip to Puri last summer, looking for some relaxation and some fresh sea breeze to rejuvenate our frayed nerves.

Customary visit to the temple, gazing at the waves sitting on the beach at daybreak and dusk and attempting to reorient thoughts and perspectives, walking through the narrow lanes of the old city, experiencing visuals of death and the rituals of last rites at Swargadwar, watching life and the mix of people at the beach, the lazy camels looking for children and their parents for a ride and livelihood,the faux pearl seller, the green coconuts quenching thirst, the sweet sellers with can fulls of Madanmohan,Channa Pora,typical delicacies of the state. We did it all at Puri. Early morning barefoot walk along the beach, the wet sand sticking lovingly on our feet, the tornado stricken dead trees, roofless houses, the occasional sea shells, the sand mounds built only to be washed away, the fishing boats at the mohona (river mouth)….. All that was Puri to us.

It was a lazy morning laced by unending Earl Greys and sharing life stories of both of us and one which was lashed by the combination of the rising sea waves and a torrential downpour, we decided to explore the surroundings. It was too wet for Konark, our choice zeroed on to Raghurajpur, the artists village barely 18 km from Puri. The drive past Puri was agonizing as we saw hundreds of coconut trees destroyed, houses broken… ravages of nature at work. The river Bhargavi was picturesque where the faithful had come for the holy dip for the first Monday of the month of Shravan for paying obeisance to Lord Shiva. I was overwhelmed by the crowd, the colors, the faith and above all the fervour of faith.

It was a rain soaked afternoon, the tress looked coy and green, the sky was azure, maybe it had a sad song on its mind when we reached a sleepy village adorned with coconut trees. It was Raghurajpur, now known as the artist’s village made famous by the tag of Heritage by INTACH. A sleepy village in its outside facade with lines of coconut trees and little ponds, Raghurajpur is a place where creative talent flourishes.With 150 houses,each family nourishes talent,there is one or more artists weaving magic on indigenous bases with organic colors.

Walking around I saw an old man sitting on the front porch of his house bending over a sketch while his kittens lay snuggily besides him. Several artists were eager to take us to their homes and I visited quite a few.Narrow houses located on either side of narrow lanes, a temple on each lane, a sit out area in front of each house, wooden interiors (beams, pillars, doors and the likes) is how Raghurajpur looks at first glance. But once I stepped in one of their homes,I realized there was a deeper and a sadder story behind the creative excellence.I saw pictures of the artist being awarded by the President of India, and a Padma Bhushan award gathering dust on the walls of their home.They were not well off but they looked happy and content.The satisfaction of creativity is so clearly manifest in their faces. Women too are excellent artists and balance their creativity with their daily chores.Their humility struck a chord in me.While I was walking by the lane saw a little boy learning the art from his grandfather.Creative genius honed by experts I thought.

Pata refers to cloth and chitra means painting.As I visited the houses I felt like I had stepped into an art gallery. Every house was a veritable museum and every household member was an artist.The village was quiet and the silence echoed in the air, the rain soaked temples and courtyards had so many untold tales.Identical row houses stood next to each other and I was fascinated by the walls that come alive with murals and paintings.Most of them were tribal art fused with paintings of deities and demons. The folk motif runs as a constant thread in all the walls.Some houses specialize in patachitra-a style of painting on cloth,some engrave folklore on palm leaves,some has expertise on stone carvings,some make paper mache masks and toys.Some draw on bottles and kitchen utensils.

Raghurajpur Patachitra as the craft is known had its origins in the traditional murals of Orissa that dates back to the 4th century. The craft has been passed from generations and every family has its own signature style of designing a patachitra. From drawing on tusser cloth to palm leaf engravings,to stone murals, every piece was distinct in its style and content. To make a patachitra a strip of cotton cloth becomes a canvas as it is soaked in water filled with tamarind seeds. The artist then adds a coat of chalk and gum and then pastes the same with another layer of cotton cloth. He then rubs the canvas with stones so that it has a glossy finish and has a smooth surface. No pencil or charcoal is however.A lacquer coating is added to the painting at the end to give it a lustre.

The colors come from natural products, like rocks from a neighboring hill and kajal from the burnt thread of the lamp. White is prepared from conch shells,yellow from Haritala stone, blue from indigo, green from leaves.red from geru (red oxide stone) and Hingula or black from burning lamp and coconut shell and other natural products for various colors. The natural gum of a fruit called ‘kaitha’ is mixed with the colors along with water in coconut shells to ensure that the colors remain fast.The chitrakaras uses buffalo hair to make brushes for the thick lines while rat or squirrel hair is used for making brushes meant for finer line work. According to the text, ‘Manasaullasa’, the crayon for initial sketches or ‘vartika’ is to be made by mixing lamp black with boiled rice paste and rolled into sticks. According to another text,‘Shilparatna’ ‘kitta lekhani’ or the writing/drawing instrument was a wick made out of the dust of bricks and dried cowdung made into a paste.In the typical style of Pattachitra, the faces of characters have long beak like noses, prominent chins and elongated eyes. They are distinguished from each other by facial features, hairstyles, clothing etc. Central focus of the painting is the expression of the figures and the emotion they portray, the strong colors only reinforce them.

Another important art practiced in Raghurajpur are palm-leaf paintings. Fine line drawings in black, sometimes with daubs of colours, are made on inter-locked strips of palm leaves. Usually each drawing is like a tapestry narrating a story. Ganjifa playing cards or the Dashavatar playing cards of Odisha are also part of the pattachitra genre. These unique paintings, especially the playing cards, are on display in museums across the world.Apart from traditional paintings, the artists also produce souvenirs, such as painted palm leaf bookmarks.

Raghurajpur presented itself as an idyllic village practising a dying craft with love and discipline. The younger generation refuses to be lured away to the cities, they learn the beautiful craft with commitment and love.Most buyers are foreigners, only a few are Indians who visit this village. The village is also the home of Kelucharan Mahapatra, the noted Odissi dancer and the place from where Gotipua dance originated. As I got a few paintings, bookmarks, paintings on bottles as souvenirs for my friends I promised myself to be back again whenever I visit Puri again. Next time I am there made plans to carry a plain silk saree which I would leave to be drawn upon by some woman artist who promised to courier it to me wthin three months. Raghurajpur, it’s beauty, it’s creative talent and above all its humility endeared me to this sleepy hamlet, quite forgotten by mainstream tourism and their marketing blitzkrieg.

Some useful travel tips for Raghurajpur-

  1. Take an auto or a car for a half day trip to Raghurajpur. The enire trip would take about four hours .
  2. Carry cash if you want to buy the art pieces .
  3. Respect the artist families and don’t bargain much.

Raghurajpur awaits us with all its artistic brilliance and simplicity of life.

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 .

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.

An Ode To a Late Night Temptation-The World of Chocolates

Chocolates are like the closest of friends -be it during a mid morning laziness, a necessary dose of adrenaline at work or a late night bout of sadness,chocolates give me a succor and a love 24×7 round the year.On this International Chocolate Day, I thought of looking back to the evolution of modern day gooey chocolate and its varied use from a very modest beginning of a simple cacao bean. Chocolates have become synonymous with so many emotions of life-love,friendship,making up after a tiff, in a sense chocolates build relationships.They create and seldom destroy.

Made from the astringent ,bitter seeds of a tropical tree,chocolates has an unique consistency-hard and dry at room temperature ,melting and creamy in the warmth of the mouth.Sculpted into almost any shape, with a flavor which is versatile and unique, chocolate which we know and love existed only fora tiny fraction of chocolate’s full history.The story of chocolate begins in the New World,with the cacao tree, which evolved in the river valleys of equatorial South America.The first people to cultivate the trees were the Olmecs of the southern coast of Mexico.Introduced in Maya in 600 BC, it was traded to the Aztecs in the cool and arid north.The Aztecs roasted and ground cacao seeds and made them into a drink served in religious ceremonies.The first Europeans who saw the cacao beans were the crew of Columbus’s brought some beans back to Spain.One of the first detailed accounts of the original chocolate comes from the History of the New World (1564) by the Milanese Girolamo Benzoni who travelled to Central America.He wrote that the region had made two unique contributions to the world-Indian fowls and cavacate or the cacao bean.

Etymologically the word chocolate has a complicated lineage.The Aztec word for cocoa water was cacahuatl but the early Spanish coined chocolate for themselves.The Europeans added their own flavorings like sugar, cinnamon, cloves,anise,almonds,vanilla,orange water.According to English Jesuit Thomas Gae, the cocoa beans were dried and ground with spices,heated to melt the cocoa butter and form a paste.Then they scrapped the paste onto a large leaf, allowed it to solidify and then peeled it off as a large tablet. The first European factories for making the spiced chocolate paste were built in Spain around 1580 and within 70 years chocolate found its way into Italy, France and England.By the late 17th century chocolate houses were thriving in London as a kind of specialty coffeehouse.

Henry Stubbe in his treatise on chocolate, The Indian Nectar(1662) wrote about chocolate lozenges in Spain. Cookbooks of the 18th century include a handful of recipes that needed chocolate like marzipan and biscuits,ices and mousses. French Encyclopedie wrote about half cocoa, half-sugar cake flavored with some vanilla and cinnamon -eaten with a cup of water.Even in the middle of the 19th century Gunter’s Modern confectioner devoted only 4 pages out of 220 to chocolate recipes.

For a couple of centuries ,Europe knew chocolate almost exclusively as a beverage.Chocolate was ‘the’ drink of the European aristocracies – no upper-class home was complete without chocolate making and drinking. But things started to change in 1828 when Coenraad van Houten from Amsterdam changed the game. He invented the ‘cocoa press’, which could separate the fat from a cacao bean, leaving behind a fine powder.This powder was much more tasty to enjoy as a drink, and people started adding milk to it instead of water, making it more like the hot chocolate we’d drink today. This method also meant chocolate could be mass-produced, which made it cheaper and so the wider public could buy and enjoy it. Some called this the democratization of chocolate.

In 1847 British chocolatier J.S. Fry and Sons had the novel idea of recombining the fat and liquor, and adding sugar. He set this in moulds and chocolate bar was born.The next big episode in the chocolate saga came when Swiss chocolatier Daniel Peter put powdered milk in the mix, creating the world’s first milk chocolate bar. In America, chocolate was so valued during the Revolutionary War that it was included in soldiers’ rations and used in lieu of wages. While most of us probably wouldn’t settle for a chocolate paycheck these days, statistics show that the humble cacao bean is still a powerful economic force.
By 1917 Alice Bradley’s Candy Cook Book devoted an entire chapter to assorted chocolates pointing to the fact that the South american bean had come of age asa major ingredient in confectionery. In 1876 a Swiss confectioner Daniel Peter used the new dried milk powder to make the first solid milk chocolate.In 1878,Rudolph Lindt invented the Conche, a machine which ground cacao beans,sugar and milk powder slowly for hours to develop a fine consistency.Till date Switzerland’s per capita consumption of chocolate is about double that of United States.

Some Facts-

The inventor of the chocolate chip cookie, Ruth Wakefield, reportedly sold the recipe to Nestlé for $1 only.

White chocolate isn’t actually chocolate, because it doesn’t contain cocoa solids. Sorry.

The largest chocolate bar in the world weighed in at 5792.5 kg. Thornton’s made it for their 100th birthday.

The largest chocolate bar in the world weighed in at 5792.5 kg. Thornton’s made it for their 100th birthday.

The phrase ‘death by chocolate’ could have applied to Winston Churchill- during World War 2, the Nazis plotted to assassinate him using an exploding bar of chocolate.

The range of chocolates is wide and varied now-from the simple milk chocolate to various artisanal chocolates to handmade ones, one is spoiled for a choice.Magical,perfect,endearing, forever chocolates are for one and all.To me chocolate saves me from my late night hunger pangs after a day of dieting. My refrigerator is never short of a mildly flavoured orange dark chocolate.One piece and you know sleep is not far way.Chocolate stocks are always replenished in my house-it may be a luxurious Toblerone or a out of the budget Lindt Chocolate for extra grey days or even a humble bar of Amul Fruit and Nut or at least the colorful sugar coated childhood favourite Gems.Even at work when hours of looking at the screen with statistics of students and results one is dead tired there are instant saviors.Friend and colleague Anupama is always their with a bar of happiness and energy.

Let chocolates remain evergreen,let it take the place of sleeping pills and life coaches.Ring in happiness and shun out clouds from life.Have a chocolate with a smile.

Walking along Kolkata- Calcutta we love.

It was one of those Sundays when the customary late morning breakfast at a cafe or a visit to the Mall to pick up weekly provisions seemed boring.It was a very warm June morning, a laid back tea in the bed would be most comforting, my driver who generally has a Sunday off called me to inform that he was available in the morning and I might make some plans to go somewhere.My mind danced at the joy of doing something unplanned-routines,deadlines ,alarm clocks had made life so predictable.Even a coffee with a friend followed a known destination.I asked my driver Rabi to come at 9.30 am sharp.Asked around the house if anybody was eager to accompany me and everyone shuddered at the idea when the mercury was touching 38 degree centigrade and I could offer no concrete plans or destination. Rabi was enthusiastic at the plan for I gave him no destination and asked him to simply drive along Red Road ,past Akashbani straight to Babu Ghat.

In Col Mark Wood’s Map of 1784 ,Babughat marked the southern boundary of Dhee Calcutta and today Babughat is synonymous with death rituals of grieving families,bus stands,milling crowds,priests,chants,people seeking salvation.

I stood in front of an imposing Doric column and arched gate with a plaque containing the following text-“The Right Hon’ble Lord William Cavendish Bentinck, Governor General, with a view to encourage the direction of private munificence to works of public utility ,has been pleased to determine that this Ghaut ,constructed in the year 1830,at the expense of Baboo Rajchunder Doss ,shall hereinafter be called Baboo Rajchunder Doss’s Ghaut”. The Ghat was constructed in 1830 by Rani Rashmoni ,the zamindar of Jan Bazar in memory of her husband Late Babu Raj Chandra Das.

Babu ghat as it is known in the cityscape was swelling with grieving families trying to finish the rites as fast as possible,hymns of the ceremonies traveled through the crowds and filled the air with a sense of melancholy.I stopped short of taking pictures of the rituals.The steps of the ghat were muddy and slippery,garbage of rotten flowers,cooked rice,earthern pots were heaped on the stairs. Babughat has an everyday life where death is synonymous with livelihood of the numerous priests who go about their work with a stereotype rhythm devoid of any emotions.The dead here is just a name and a gotra ,a mound of ashes in an earthern pot in a hurry to be immersed in the holy waters. I remembered that February evening years back when I too came here with the ashes of my most loved person-my baba. Kolkata on that hot summer afternoon suddenly seemed sad and embroiled in the ever going cycle of creation and destruction.The ghat was mostly crowded with grieving male members of every family,I felt a bit out of place in the ambience of grief and loss,I walked towards the car and asked Rabi to drive towards the High Court.

The High Court premises were absolutely empty except a few uninterested policemen walking about.Standing in front of the impressive building built in Neo-gothic style in 1872,I was starstruck seeing the oldest of all the high courts in India.The centre tower of the building is nearly 180 ft high with the capitals of the pillars built in Caen stone and is beautifully sculptured Walter Granville built the present building of the High Court on Esplanade Row. It has red brick facing with stucco dressings, above an “elegant vaulted cloister of Barakur sandstone with capitals of Caen stone”. Philip Davies described it as “the only significant secular Gothic building in the city”. Jan Morris characterized the building as “tremendous,” and “the most daunting building in town” Heritage commentators agree that the High Court structure was influenced by George Gilbert Scott design for the Hamburg Rathaus (1854-56), itself based on the Cloth Hall in Ypres. When the Cloth Hall was destroyed in World War I, the Mayor of Ypres asked for the plans of Calcutta High Court to help reconstruct it. I walked about the premises and turned left and saw the various entrances for the litigants,the lawyers,the clerks. Neighbourhood boys were playing cricket in the empty roads ,the arched windows had silent stories of great legal luminaries like Sambho Nath Pandit,Dwaraka Nath Mitter, Ramesh Chandra Mitter,,Gurudas Banerjee,Ashutosh Mukherjee who practised in High Court in the colonial period and the famous legal battles which echoed through the hallowed pillars of the great edifice.

The very name Town Hall recreated history classes of the school days in my mind.Images of the swadeshi’s and revolutionaries congregating at the Town Hall cloud my mind.To my lack of knowledge about the cityscape I have never been to the Town Hall all these years of my life in Kolkata. A stone’s throw from the High Court stands the Town hall built in Doric architectural style, the origin of which can be traced back to a meeting held in Le Gallais Tavern in 1791.The Town hall is currently under renovation but the glimpses of the pillars with the canons on the gateway of this milky white edifice made my day worth.

The Town Hall was not built by East India Company funds .When European citizens decided to construct a town hall with the purpose of holding meetings and formal receptions necessary funds were raised through public lottery. Plan for the proposed hall was sanctioned in 1807 and Col J Garstin completed it in 1813, Initially the Hall offered the Europeans of Calcutta a permanent public space where they could meet and discuss matters of common concern. Later joint meetings by Europeans and Indians became common .The Calcutta School-Book Society held several of its meetings in the Hall. A farewell was accorded to Sir Hyde East, a founding father of the Hindu college, at the Town Hall on the eve of his departure for England in 1821.In the second half of the nineteenth century Raja Rammohun Roy, Radhakanta Dev, Dwarkanath Tagore, Ramanath Tagore, Motilal Seal, SK Lal Mohammed, Rajendralal Mitra, Aga Mirza Shirazi held meetings in the Hall . The Sadharan Brahma Samaj was formally launched in a Town Hall meeting of 15 May 1878. The Indian Association and the Indian National Congress made use of the Hall on different occasions. In the 1890’s Jagadish Chandra Bose demonstrated his early experiments in electric waves in the Town Hall. Rabindranath Tagore delivered his famous speech Kantha Rodh in the Hall in 1898. The Swadeshi movement was formally launched from a Town hall meeting of 7 August 1905.After the First World War, the Town Hall gradually lost its aura and eventually became what it had initially been, a place for ceremonial gatherings. After the introduction of the Dyarchy in 1919 the Town Hall was used as the Council Chamber of the Bengal Legislative Council.The Town Hall today houses a very valuable archive where several first person accounts are treasured.

My happiness in gazing at the Town Hall had an abrupt end when I was walking back.The plaque of the Town Hall lay uncared for with wild bushes growing around.With a heavy heart when I turned to look at the building once again there was a sudden wind and the green cloth cover of the renovation work swayed and I got a glimpse of history.

Driving past GPO on an absolutely empty Sunday Road I asked Rabi to stop near Writers Buliding. Writers Building is more than a building or an architectural wonder,it is what Calcutta and later Kolkata has been over decades.Standing tall in the BBD Bagh area (Dalhousie Square) and covering the entire stretch of the water body, the Lal Dighi, a stately structure served as the secretariat building of the State Government of West Bengal. It houses stories of colonial rulers,the Communist government at its heyday,the withering away of the communist movement and later the government,the abandoning of the building as the seat of power by the new government.It is a story of grandeur as well as story of sadness.The road in front of the building was empty,there were a few police personnel and a lone RAF person guarding the lost pages of history.The red color stands bright and bold,several windows were broken or open.A picture of neglect was well written on the walls of Writers Building.

During the British rule, due to the increasing need for a building to carry out the various administrative works, the idea of constructing the first three storied building was conceived by Governor Warren Hastings. Clerks of the East India Company (EIC) began to reside in this building which was designed by Thomas Lyon, in 1777.What began as a resident for writers, deriving the name of Writers Building for itself, later became a major trading post for the British invaders. The Writers Building soon became the Secretariat of Bengal.The beautiful building with its Greeco-Roman architecture, contained a portico in the central bay and had several marvelous statues sculpted by William Fredric Woodington lining the terrace. In 1800, to accommodate the Fort William College and the Government Engineering College within its premises, a 128 ft long veranda was added.When the British Raj took over, a French Renaissance-styled makeover was given to the building, to make it more ornate and almost palatial in terms of its architecture.

I was walking on the opposite path of Writers Building as I looked up to click photos of the building with mansard roofs I was amazed to see several beautiful figurines adorning the terrace of the building.Noted English sculptor William Frederick Woodington had made them.Above the pediment in the central portico is the statute of Minerva.The Ashokan Pillar replaced the British Coat of Arms after independence in the middle of the pediment.Allegorical figures of Science,Agriculture,Commerce and Justice line the parapet.Embellished with floral carvings the cream colored statues stand in contrast to the deep red color of the building.The Writers Building stands in dignity and sadness,counting time it left behind and looking forward toa more respectable rehabilitation.

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Walking straight down the road ,the white facade of St Andrews Church cannot miss one’s eyes.Located on 2/2, Council House Street, at the North Eastern side of the Writers’ Building, St.Andrew’s Church was basically built to serve the Scottish Presbyterian community of Calcutta. It stands on the plot, which was once occupied by the Old Court House. The Anglo-Indian Presbytery was created by the Charter of 1813 along with the Anglo India Episcopate and The Rev. Dr. James Bryce arrived in Calcutta on 28th November 1814, as the Chaplain at the Bengal Ecclesiastical Establishment. St Andrew’s Church, also known as the Kirk, is the only Scottish church in Kolkata. The foundation stone of the Church was laid on the 30th day of November, 1815 by Marquis of Hastings, which was also attended by The Countess of Moira and the Countess of Loudon. Since the foundation stone was laid by the Governor General himself, the Church was also known as Lat Sahib ka Girja. Designed by Messrs Burns, Currie and Co, the construction of the Church was completed in 1818, and it was dedicated to St. Andrew. Like the St. John’s Church, St. Andrew’s church was also designed in the lines of St.Martin’s in the fields, London.

The building consists of a massive square structure based on a high plinth with a massive triangular pediment, supported on the tall Doric pillars forming a royal portico in the front and a high spire on the top of the building. In 1835, a clock was fitted to the tower.Though the first Bishop of Calcutta objected to the idea of the erection of the spire, Reverend Bryce, went ahead with his plans to construct a spire which will be higher than the steeple of the St John’s Church. He also mooted a plan to place on the top of it a cock. Standing on the wide stairs of the church facing B.B.D Bagh the skyline of our city appeared fresh and vibrant .The clock of the church sill functions and the weather cock still dances to the tune of nature. The church inside like any protestant church is not ornamental though it has massive Doric columns and marble flooring.The organ pipe looks beautiful in its wooden facade.Since it was a Sunday I was lucky enough to be part of the service too.

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It was nearly afternoon and the heat was taking its toll on me.But I thought the walk would not be complete without some fresh air of the river I started walking from Babughat towards Princep Ghat past the Gwalior Monument.The Gwalior Monument caught my eyes and I read the plaque describing the history and the architecture of the monument.In 1847, Lord Ellenborough built a Cenotaph to commemorate the memory of the fallen soldiers of the Gwalior War,1843.The British fought at two fronts at a time and attacked the Marathas simultaneously. General Sir Hugh Gough led the British army in the Battle of Maharajpore, while Lt. General Sir John Grey faced the Marathas in the Battle of Punniar. Both sides suffered several casualties, but finally the Maratha force was defeated and their guns and artillery were seized by the British.The octagonal cenotaph was designed in Indo-Saracenic style by Colonel H Goodwyn of Bengal Engineers, and the construction was executed by Jessop & Co. Crowned with a bronze dome,which was cast from the melted guns, seized from the Marathas the cenotaph was supported by pillars.From the entrance, a spiral marble staircase leads to the upper floor, which looks like a Mughal ‘Chhatri’.The Gwalior Monument was living history and with an awe for the British and respect for the Maharani of Gwalior I walked past towards the river front.

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The river front with the calm waters ,the occasional steamers,the trudging boats,heritage on one side and technology on the other,I thought Kolkata still remains caught between its past and present.The much talked about triphala lights,the pollution from the factories across the other side,high rises standing tall in the sites of erstwhile jute factories fused to create a city scape unique to Kolkata. The tired salesman cooling under the tree, traces of rituals of death ,people engaged in collecting the holy water to be sold ,the lone idol left beneath the trees,families lamenting the loss of their dear ones…image,varied images of Kolkata …….Calcutta endeared me to the city where I was not born but where I grew up and now growing old.

The air around the river made me hungry but by then I wanted to be back home.Decided to give Rabi a treat and as I yearned fora strong filter coffee. I stopped at Prema Vilas at Lake Market on way back home.Ordered a dosa for Rabi and I settled for the sunday special brunch Puttu Kadela. As I put my spoon across the steamed cylinder of rice and coconut and dipped it in the rich black peas coconut milk flavoured Kadela my thoughts about Kolkata reiterated itself. Kolkata…Calcutta lives peacefully,fusing people together across religions,dialects and class .Both Calcutta and Kolkata lives in perfect symmetry ,history and future not at crossroads but in a beautiful melange of memories and expectations.

Pleasures of Summer- Phalsa on the Rocks

It was during a walk in the busy Dalhousie area with a friend amidst the din and cacophony of tired people returning home I heard my friend inquiring about Phalsa with a fruit seller.The name Phalsa reminded me of the sing song tunes of Kaale Kaale phalse,sharbat wale phalse,thande meeteh phalse,raseele phalse …..the words reverberate fresh from memories of years ago when I used to visit my Pishi (paternal aunt) in Bihar during summer vacations . Seeing the Phalsa lovingly displayed in a hypermarket here in Kolkata after a few days I decided to pick it up for my friend who yearned for the taste of his favorite childhood fruit which was so much part of growing up. Associated with such food memories are not just the taste but also the nostalgia about places and people no longer around. Food evokes a very strong emotive sense as we often try to search for a long forgotten food or attempt to recreate the taste which still lingers on in our taste buds.I wanted to write an ode to Phalsa -a food icon of our childhood summer vacations and our loved ones who are no longer there to garnish the bowlful of Phalsa .

Phalsa an indigenous summer fruit -a blackish purple berry with the scientific name Grewia Asiatica resembles blueberries to an extent. It is cultivated mainly in the northern regions of the country between April to June .Indigenous to India ,they are also grown in Nepal ,Pakistan, SriLanka and Bangladesh.Introduced in Indonesia and Philippines in the early half of 20th century Phalsa now is very popular in Thailand,Cambodia and Vietnam.A thirst quencher , Phalsa is intrinsically linked to hot summer afternoons of our childhood days. Phalsa defined summer for many. Vendors calling out on cycles with wicker baskets where Phalsas were delicately wrapped in a wet jute cloth ,cousins rushing out to buy the cherished fruit ,a little sprinkling of black salt on them and you have the whole afternoon to turn it within your mouth ,close your eyes in happiness as the sweet tangy juice envelops the senses.The taste of the berry depends on its ripeness. Hand plucked and very delicate in texture it turns reddish from a freshly plucked green one to a ripe purplish one which is the most tasty.

The health benefits of Phalsa are multifarious.Astringent and a cooling agent they are excellent for heart and blood disorders ,fevers and diarrhea. With a low glycemic index they can well be a super food soon.A strong antioxidant with anti bacterial properties they prevent dehydration during summer months.The benefits of Phalsa are well documented in Ayurveda treatises which highlights its anti inflammatory property and antibiotic usages.

If you salivate at the sight of the purple berries do not wait, have the Phalsa straight out of the shopping bag.Just wash it well ,sprinkle some black salt ,give it a rub.If it is a Sunday afternoon rush to the balcony or the terrace with a book you always wanted to reread and the bowl of Phalsa and enjoy the time to yourself.You have varied options with the Phalsa depending on your mood and occasion. If it is a very humid afternoon try preparing a Phalsa sherbat to be had in the evening as a mock-tail or add gin to the pulp,some soda ,crushed mint leaves,top it with ice and say cheers to your loved ones.If you wish to cool yourself after dinner try making Phalsa Mousse or Phalsa Popsicle for the kids around.

The Making of the Phalsa Mocktail and the Cocktail

  • Wash the Phalsa well.
  • Soak them in water overnight in a glass bowl.The Phalsa should be submerged in the water.
  • Add the required sugar to the water.The water will turn into a mystical purple and the sugar melt in it.
  • Refrigerate this mixture.Take this out half an hour before you want to serve it.
  • Mash the Phalsa with your hand,the pulp should be separated from the small seeds.
  • Mix in more water and run through a sieve.

To serve-

  • Pour the phalsa extract to the mixer tumbler.
  • Top it up with some black salt,some roasted cumin powder and sprigs of mint leaves.
  • Give it a light shake .
  • Transfer into glasses.
  • Finish off with soda or water and crushed ice.

For those of us who want a heady summer evening add in Vodka or Gin to the mixer tumbler.

For the Phalsa Mousse combine the pulp of the berry with sugar and incorporate it into a light fluffy whipped cream and gelatin mix. Refrigerate for about six hours and serve as a desert on a hot summer evening.Experience temperatures going down ,frayed tempers being soothed and smiles around.

Available only for a few months in northern India and for a few weeks in Kolkata pick your bagful of happiness soon.Introduce Phalsa to your kids on a summer afternoon and see their eyes illuminate . The beautiful purplish pink colour of the Phalsa drink will undoubtedly weave magic in your life.

For all those who love the Phalsa beyond words,for those whose eyes glisten with joy when they mix the salt with the Phalsa here’s a toast to their long lost love.Cheers to life and food memories.

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