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.
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”.
“‘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).
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.
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.
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.
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 had 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.
An attempt to make the dal
Kali Dal and Dal Makhani etc can easily be made at home or ordered but Langar Ki dal is a tad bit different. I had ready provisions of the black urad dal, the channa dal, onion,tomatoes and but for day I stopped short of trying to make it at home. After some stressful days at work, I felt the need to push myself to make the dal soon. That indispensable ingredient needed for making the dal as the sevadar had told me was with me for sometime now. The day I made the dal, 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 abdy after a whole days work, shaped the dal like a dream coming true.
How I made the Dal
The Langar ki Dal was made and served with a dry thick roti flavoured with ajwain. I made it for a friend who deserved every morsel of it, who earned it for his 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 cooking techniques were needed. 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.I chopped the onions in thick uneven strips, crushed garlic, ginger and green chilli to a coarse texture.The tomatoes were also chopped . I boiled the two dals with salt, turmeric, ginger and garlic shreds. For cooking Langar ki 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 30 minutes.As I stood at the kitchen while the dal simmered and the aroma enticed me, I in my mind put in a lot of love to the simmering pot. After a while added some chopped corriander leaves and covered it. For the tadka, in pure ghee I spluttered dried Kasuri Methi leaves and whole garam masala. Added this to the dal and 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 chance meetings and destinies which are pre written for us all.
“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 .
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 .
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 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.
@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.
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’sCandy 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.
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.
“The one land that all men desire to see, and having seen once, by even a glimpse – would not give that glimpse for the shows of the rest of the world combined.” Mark Twain
The winding paths,the floating clouds,the vintage pine trees,the colorful cardigans and the mufflers,the furry dogs strolling about the Mall,the lure of the sunny mornings,the aftertaste of the orange pekoe and the fried sausages ,the hustle bustle and color of the Bhutia market ,the controlled excitement about the visibility of the mighty Kanchenjunga are images of Darjeeling which have endeared me to the haven of peace for years on.These images even in the most busy day occupy my mind space and brings about a nostalgia of my childhood when I used to be a regular at the town with my parents,my first trips after marriage ,the trips I started doing with friends and colleagues and then when I started travelling solo .I have traveled to Darjeeling in almost all seasons and in every manner-from the nostalgic Darjeeling Express of my childhood to shared taxis uphill from Siliguri soaking in life stories of different co-travellers,staying in quaint cottages to luxurious boutique hotels.Every time has been an experience which I remember and cherish.What changed over the years was the gaze and the experience of pleasure.
For the last few years the night before I travel to the land of my soul I flip through this anonymous poem published in Darjeeling Ditties and Other Poems
Anticipationoftheethereal……..Scan the vista,day by day,
Nature’s glories here survey….
View as far as eye can see,
Height and depth,and cloud land free
Mighty mountains,hooded white,
Rise in front,and add delight…….
Snows eternal,heaven ward climb
This summer I preferred not to stay in Darjeeling overnight,I decided to be there one morning and walk across the town directionless ,breathe in a lot of the cold misty air, my cheeks touching the clouds moving past..favorite songs keeping me company and a leisurely stop by at my favorite spots and restaurants.What I did in reality was a walking trip of the town consciously avoiding the popular tourist places.The mall,the churches,window shops ,the walk across little lanes ,the crowd at the bandstand,the heritage hotels created moments which I will cherish for ever.
Like all other hill stations of India ,Darjeeling too has a colonial past which it carefully preserves and cherishes.The British inscribed Darjeeling with their perceptions of aesthetics and landscape.There were attempts to reproduce a European landscape and an urban site all unified in the single space of the hills.Adorned with bungalows,imposing churches and stately public buildings Darjeeling was refashioned to reflect the multiple visions of the empire builders.The climate evoked reveries of the English countryside to the sahibs as the cool temperate climate drew them in a shared whiff of home like ambience. The British reorganised the landscape into the foreground,distance and background institutionalizing rank,color and class consciousness.The British began to perceive Darjeeling as the place for health,recreation and pleasure. Lloyd and Dr Chapman also endorsed the suitability of Darjeeling as a sanatorium.Travelling to Darjeeling however remained fraught with difficulties.Lt John Gilmore was appointed Executive Engineer with the priority of connecting Terai and Darjeeling by road.Robert Napier replaced him in 1839 and the construction of Pankhabari Road which climbed past Kurseong ,to the top of the hills at Chimney ,Mahaldhera along Sonada ,went past the golf links at Senchal ,dropped to the saddle ridge of Jorebugalow and then the road went through Aloobari and came out to Chowrasta was completed in 1842 .This road came to be known as the Old Military Road.In 1840 Campbell was appointed superintendent of Darjeeling and he took a pivotal role in the building of areas of settlement.
By 1840 Darjeeling had two public buildings,a hotel ,a court and around 30 residences of the English officials.The Chowrasta was known as Dell Corner after the name of a house The Dell .However by 1878 Dell had disappeared.In the 1840’s the Mall was a fairly new road but it followed the present alignment.There was no Victoria Road in the early 1840’s and no cart road to Lebong. The Bhutia Busty area however existed.The construction of the Hill Cart Road began in 1861 from Kurseong to Darjeeling and was completed in 1864.A beautiful road with a smooth gradient it was used for carrying bulk goods on horse and bullock carts and was hence named Hill Cart Road.Built under the supervision of an Anglo Indian Engineer named Dewar ,the road changed the fate of Darjeeling.Fred Pinn called the Hill Cart Road as the Road of Destiny. The development of tea plantations in the area facilitated the growth of Darjeeling into an urban settlement.Mark Twain came to Darjeeling in 1896 by the Darjeeling Himalaya Railway.He wrote,“The railway journey up the mountain is forty miles, and it takes eight hours to make it. It is so wild and interesting and exciting and enchanting that it ought to take a week”.Echoing Twain it is my perpetual wish to stay back at the hill town maybe a job at a local school to keep me going,alone with my thoughts and at peace with the pines and firs.
It was during a late morning -sunny with a hint of a chilly wind that I left my car near the towering Clock Tower of Darjeeling Municipality.Every time I look up to the skies to see the grandeur of this colonial architecture I am awed as well as saddened – the mesh of electric wires seems to disregard history .The clock tower at the Darjeeling Municipality Building is a testimony to the colonial past of Darjeeling,its growth as a town in the colonial period,the frenzy during the Gorkha land movement but has stood tall both against the ravages of nature and man.Located at Laden la Road ,very near to the club stand and the crossing of Gandhi Road ,the history of the Darjeeling Municipality building can be traced to 1850 which was the then Town Hall of the sleepy hill station.The foundation stone of the current building of the municipality was laid by Lord Ronaldshay in October 1917. Built at an estimated cost of Rs 2.5 lakh, the Maharaja of Cooch Behar contributed a large amount. The building housed a hall , a reading room, a square, a 100-ft-high stone clock tower, an octagonal gable roof and flag-staff.The clock which has four faces, was set up by GT Gent and Company, England. The clock though survived a devastating fire in 1996, was repaired in 2006 by the initiative of the Darjeeling rotary Club.The limit of the Darjeeling Municipality was originally co-extensive with the area ceded by the Raja of Sikkim in 1835 and extended from the hills below Pankhabari to the borders of Sikkim on the north. The Municipality area as of now begins at Jorebunglow to the South & extends to a point on the road to Tukvar below St. Josephs’s College on the north. Time seems to stop here ,the faded stone exterior,occasional pigeons flying across the sound of the chimes travelling through the clouds,tourists posing at its background from the terrace of Keventers ,the Clock Tower is indispensable to the Darjeeling skyline.
Walking past it with a favorite tune playing across the road I am filled with nostalgia as I walk across the building of the Darjeeling Head Post Office.The bright painted green and red post boxes and the historic clock at the entrance have seen the beginning and end of so many love stories over time.A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the post office opened in May 1921 and is one of the oldest post offices in the region. The stone wall,the red roof ,chimneys jutting out of the slant of the Post office suddenly implored me to write a letter.A bucket list wish for my next visit to Darjeeling for sure.
Walking ahead to the Clubstand I had the choice of going several ways,either I climb up to the Chowrasta or turn towards the road past Dekeling and Kungas’s to the now abandoned Hotel Everest.I could also walk down to Chowk Bazar from the road to the left of the Clubstand. When in Darjeeling the first thing I want to do always is to breathe and soak in the warm environs of the Mall or Chowrasta. This road breathes life -countless tourists ,the bright colors of winter wear,the lone man playing the flute at the entrance of Keventers,roasted corn cobs served with a dash of chilli and lime,the historic Das Studio,the vegetarian Frank Ross Cafe,shop windows with mystic masks I walk past the green facade of Hotel Shangri La,the Glenary’s,the old Bellevue Hotel with its skylights,the haunted PineRidge Hotel and there I was near the fountain at the Chowrsata. The Indian Airlines building still stands tall to the left but forlorn reminding me of the long queues of foreign tourists waiting for tickets during my child hood.The building suddenly seemed to me old and tired ,probably leading an unhappy life post retirement.
It was late morning and I suddenly felt a craving for coffee strong enough to give me an energy boost.There was no point going back to Keventers or Glenarys ,I decided to go to Sonam”s Kitchen on Zakir Hussain Road.The Google map helped me find the quaint shop tucked away in the road past the horse stable towards the TV Tower.In Darjeeling, there aren’t many other places where you will get fresh coffee made out of roasted beans. Sonam really makes the coffee well. On the door of her kitchen, she proudly displays “Home of real coffee”.Large enough to seat about 15, Sonam herself is at work.She take orders,cooks,serves and smiles.She has a set breakfast of hashbrowns,fried eggs,sunny side ups,cheese omelette ,grilled tomato,soft gooey light colored scrambled eggs.All those who love eggs don’t miss a breakfast at Sonam’s. Her breads are special,they are cut out of old style loaves ,toasted golden brown and served with slices of fresh goat cheese.One can also order for french toasts with honey,porridge and sandwiches made of pulled chicken breasts seasoned perfectly with fresh black pepper. Sonam also serves dinner but remember to drop in by 7.30pm if you want to taste handmade pastas with home made sauces.
I ordered toasted bread with goat cheese,a cup of fresh coffee and the softest pancakes topped with bananas and drizzled with honey. Sonam does not read English well,she asks her customers to write down the order on a piece of paper and her husband puts in the amount neatly besides each item.The wooden interiors ,the great collection of books ,the warm hospitality of Sonam endeared me to the little cafe.
Happy and delighted I started walking towards the Mall again staring at the Tibetan curio shops,cafes,roadside momo shops and the horse stable.As I reached the Mall or Chowrasta I stood there in silence and in fond memories.Snippets of the roasted corn,the steaming cup of tomato soup ,horse rides around the Observatory Hill crowded my mind.As I looked around the Mall which dates back to colonial times I realized the Mall had two faces now-the chique and glittering consisting of cafe chains,boutique tea shops,supersize LCD screens and the old colonial face of the Mall where Oxford Book Store ,Habeeb Mallick and Sons ,Chowrasta Wine shop,Chalet Hotel,Hotel Sunflower reminds one of time gone by.The Mall with its tall pine trees,flocks of pigeons,azure skies,mighty Kanchenjungha peeping now and then,poetic slopes,cloudy dreams,busy and not so busy people walking across,the ponies and horses,the statue of Bhanubhakta ,the post boxes though freshly painted,the Buddhist monks with rosaries in their hands,groups of retired natives with long umbrellas ,the green benches all stood the test of time,they remain unchanged over the years,presiding over changing turbulent times with a determined patience and a grit.
I begin to walk past the Mahakal Temple cutting through mists,walking past little children enjoying their pony rides,Nepali women opening their stalls displaying hand knit sweater,mufflers,colorful caps .Sat for a while at the green benches made famous by Satyajit Ray in his movie Kanchenjungha,looked down at the undulating valleys,looked up at the sky and felt like life may stop here with no regrets.
Walking past Governor’s House and the Mayfair hotel I stopped at the statue of Nawang Gombu Sherpa,the legendary mountaineer who climbed Mount Everest twice.He was the youngest sherpa to climb the might peak .Nawang Gombu who walked tirelessly across mountains was the founding instructor of the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute. Few steps ahead was a beautiful wooden memorial in remembrance of renowned Hungarian scholar Alexander Csoma De Koros who came to Asia in search of the ancient Hungarian homeland.Founder of Tibetan studies he breathed his last at Darjeeling.The memorial was donated by the Mayor of Kovaszna ,Romania and was inaugurated by the speaker of the Hungarian National Assembly in 2010.
Further ahead I stopped in silence and respect to the bust of Rahul Sankrityana ,known as the father of Hindi travel literature. One of his books Volga se Ganga encompasses the essentials of travel writing and the so important theories of gaze. In his full-length text Ghumakkar Shastra (The Science of Wanderlust) Rahul Sankrityayan understood journey in a very broad sense—it as much encompassed the feat of travelling through the entire expanse of South Asia and Tibet on foot as it covered the massive shift in worldview that took him from pre-modern subaltern religiosity, through modernist revivalism to socialism with scientific pretensions. Rahul Sankrityayan never ceased travelling: neither physically nor philosophically. This poem was his guiding principle-
Sair kar duniya ki gafil, yeh zindagani phir kahan
zindagani gar rahi to, naujawani phir kaha…
Rahul Sankritayan breathed his last at Darjeeling at Rahul Niwas,21 Kcaheri Road.
As I walked ahead I saw the erstwhile Loreto College now known as South Field College.Some desires get never fulfilled and it was always a dream though unfulfilled one to teach at this College.May be next life ,if there is one. With an unfulfilled lust if I may call it I stopped at the gate of heritage Windamere Hotel. Windamere Hotel was built as ‘Ada Villa’ in 1841 and soon became a Boarding House for the tea Planters . The property named Adda Villa was owned by the family of Robin Mookerjee. It was leased to Mrs Tenduf La,who turned it into a hotel with the name Windamere .This colonial heritage property is all about dreams and memories. Windamere thrives on returning guests. Eager to see one of the three jewels of the Darjeeling Hills I convinced the security and after a permission from the manager went inside the property only to see colonial grandeur and heritage maintained with love and care. There was a small wooden board fixed on a bench that said “Jennifer and David Bidwell met on this bench on 13.10.1991” – a couple who met here for the first time and went on to become life partners. The unbridlled glistening peaks,the rolling tea gardens,the magic of the mists weaved romance.As I climbed down the slope I was filled with a happiness and an unknown satisfaction.Darjeeling continues its tryst with love and relationships.
As I walked ahead I saw the St Andrews Church standing lofty with its clock tower,the cross atop the pointed towers and the colored window panes.Churches were an indispensable element in the trajectories of establishing a hill station by the colonial rulers.In an attempt to recreate their home country the colonial rulers built churches infusing Gothic designs with local resources. The foundation stone of St Andrews Church was laid on November 30, 1843. The church was badly damaged by an earthquake and had to be rebuilt in the year 1873. St. Andrew’s is an old Anglican church and the early worshipers of the church included many Scottish soldiers and tea planters living in the Darjeeling Hill area. As I negotiated the steep climb to the church the view was ethereal.I remembered John Brames writing,“The triple top of Kanchanjungha,Was a sight such as one see once in a lifetime,The unfathomable depths of the great purple gorges…”. Inside the church there were inlaid marble tablets and brass plaques remembering some of the oldest residents of Darjeeling like Lt. General Lloyd who was known as the “Discoverer” of Darjeeling who came to Darjeeling in 1828 to sign a deed with the Raja of Sikkim so that East India Company could get the administrative control, lived here to die in 1865. There is also a small brass plaque in memory of Charlotte Countess Canning, wife of the Governor General Lord Canning. Charlotte came to Darjeeling in 1861 for fresh mountain air and also to sketch landscapes of the hills. She died in the Terais from malaria while descending to the plains.
Crossing the Deshabandhu District Library and the Gorkha Rangamanch, I reached Chowrasta again and my heart desired for a perfect cup of the Orange Pekoe.The boutique tea shop Golden Tips served me the best orange pekoe,delicate golden in its color and fragrant in its aroma.
Energized and after packing some first flush and second flush tea packets for friends it was time to step into one of my most favorite book shops – Oxford Book and Stationery Co .The place dimly lit smelled of books,crisp pages,told stories unknown and of far off places.Oxford Book Store has a vast collection of books on the Darjeeling Hills,its history, landscape,people,culture,politics.I got three books on the history of the hills and another being a beautiful collection of Nepalese recipes.The old world look of the shop was in perfect symphony with the rich legacy of the colonial hill town.
A visit to Darjeeling without some shopping of delicate stone trinkets at Habeeb Mallik and Sons would remain incomplete.The wide green doors of the shop opens you to a world of carefully and lovingly curated jewelry of semi precious and precious stones engraved in silver.Carpets,engraved kettles,hand crafted wooden curios,ornate jewelry make the shop a virtual treasure house. The Tibetan curios and masks on the walls told so many unknown stories.Run by a Kashmiri family, the shop was established at Chowrasta in the year 1890 by one Habeeb Mallik whose grandsons now are in charge. Don’t miss out seeing a black and white photograph of the shop taken in 1890, hung in one corner of the shop.
My tryst with Chowrasta was over for this visit.Took the road towards Step Aside,the house of Chittaranjan Das and walked past Alice villa, crossing the Bhutia stalls selling colorful woolen garments. I stopped at the corner shop selling pickles which looked tempting.Then I walked past the bend towards Chowk Bazar. Walking past the Masjid I realized that Darjeeling has done its bit to foster communal amity.Not only communal peace but Darjeeling also is proud of its multiculturalism.
I took the short cut towards Mahakal Market as I was feeling hungry and wanted to make the last stop at Glenary’s for lunch.At the corner of Mahakal Market I was pleasantly surprised to see a palatial mansion with colored glass panes belonging to a Bengali family.
This time I walked a bit fast past the Rink Mall and Nathmull’s Tea Lounge past the Clock tower and gazing at the newly built Ramada Inn which to me was an eye sore to the city scape of the hill. Inspite of being a foodie I had to give Kunga’s , Dekeling and Keventers a miss.My next and final stop was at Glenary’s, a heritage eatery which few can miss.The terrace with beautiful views of the Queen’s Necklace was a bit hot that afternoon.I settled for a cosy table overlooking a glass window and gentle slopes I ordered for a Margarita to quench my thirst.
With it came my comfort bowl of steamed rice with vegetables,mushroom and chicken.The aroma of the rice,the freshness of the vegetables and the delicate flavors made me finish the bowl in a jiffy. Asha ordered their signature Grilled Chicken in the perfect brown sauce.Dipped a buttered bread roll in the sauce and heaven was near.
An anecdote about Darjeeling remains incomplete without a read about the history of the Glenary’s. Following is an extract of Margarethe Pliva’s article in a Himalayan Travel Magazine,The life and times of Darjeeling in the early 1900s–“My Father Adolph Pliva, known to all as “Pop”, was born in the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1882. After going to school in Vienna he trained to become a Confectioner…. It was during this early period of Pop’s time in India that he first visited Darjeeling. He found a job in a Gentleman’s Club very close to the Park where he worked as a steward. The Club was home to a number of real English eccentrics – on certain evenings they all sat in their own coffins! He loved this first experience of the magic that is Darjeeling and vowed to return. Since his first visit to Darjeeling, Pop had been corresponding with an Italian gentleman, Mr Vado, who had a confectionery business there. He informed Pop that he wanted to sell the business. This was the opportunity Pop had been waiting for; to allow him to return to the place he had fallen in love with. Pop now had enough money to buy a half share in the Vado business, so we set out for Darjeeling. Darjeeling was at this time governed by the Raj but actually belonged to Sikkim, with the British leasing it as a holiday destination. Mr Vado was married to a Tibetan lady and they had five children; Esther, Pepo, Barno, Jello and Serafino. He had a wonderful voice and used to sing romantic Neapolitan songs in the evenings. He wanted to take the family back to Italy. Pop therefore initially bought half the business that now became “Vado and Pliva”, and then started to pay for the other half.Vado and Pliva were based in Commercial Road, a very nice street consisting of mainly European shops.It was a four story building.The lower floor contained the bakery and kitchens where bread, chocolates and sweets were made. Plivas even produced its own brand chocolate. The second floor was our family accommodation with the third floor used as was the shop for selling the bread, confectionery, cold meats, ice creams and a particular local delicacy – camel hump, which was very popular!The top floor contained the bar and restaurant which was used for lunches, dinner and Tea Dances. It had large windows providing magnificent views of the Himalayas. A four piece Goan band played at the tea dances and lived in a house Pop found for them near the Town Hall.We later fitted a huge bay window in our flat to enjoy the magnificent mountain views. Pop used to teach the cooks as we had a very extensive menu in the restaurant. Dinner would consist of an hor d’oeuvre such as prawns or sardines all presented on lovely dishes; then soup; then fish; an entree; the roast followed by pudding, dessert and coffee. The business was very popular in the summer but there was no one around in the winter except for a few tea planters. It was therefore usually in debt during the winter months which was paid off .Pop soon bought Mr Vado’s half share of the business and the shop became “Plivas”.
Glenary’s today showcases the 4 P’s- Pastries,Puddings,Pies,Puffs.Beautiful black and white pictures adorn the walls,chandeliers reminding of the colonial gaiety,coat stands,artifacts, billing machine of yesteryear have been carefully preserved.I packed my favourite truffle,rum and mint chocolates and shopped for gooey custard rolls,muffins and tarts. Since it was the Easter weekend I could not possibly disregard the Easter eggs. A bottle of Pork pickle too is a compulsory buy from Glenary’s.
Bidding adieu to Darjeeling is always difficult.I was overtaken with a sadness which is akin to two lovers embarking on a long distance relationship after years of closeness and togetherness.The void which was overtaking me was not new ,I had experienced it in the past,but this time it was a little different.This summer break I was not the typical tourist touching upon places of interest or looking impatiently for the peak. Kanchanjungha was not visible to me this time, but much more was seen and experienced. My walking tour gave me a completeness and a oneness with the town.The town is still beautiful yet battered by the long periods of turbulence,the clouds and mists still came down to touch my soul,caress my wants,the blue skies gave an impetus to look forward for life and love.The late spring blooms promised me color.Left behind my eyes and soul,to be back soon .
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 meethe 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-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 diarrhoea. 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.
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 week in mid May in Kolkata pick your bagful of happiness. 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.