Darjeeling-Walking Through The Mists of Time.

“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

Anticipation of the ethereal……..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

Towering..grand,sublime.

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…

(Sankrityayan 1945:56)

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.

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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 .

Walking along Kolkata- Calcutta we love.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pleasures of Summer- Phalsa on the Rocks

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

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

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

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

The Making of the Phalsa Mocktail and the Cocktail

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

To serve-

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

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

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

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

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

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Dimer Devil-A Story of Fusion and Adaptation

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The egg is one of kitchen’s marvels and one of nature’s too.Its simple shape houses an everyday miracle,an icon for enigmatic origins of animals,humans and of the entire cosmos.The Egyptian Book of the Dead,the Rig Veda ,Greek Orphic mysteries and creation myths across the world has been inspired by the eruption of life from within a lifeless blank shell.Neither familiarity nor fear should obscure the versatility of a egg.It can be used to generate a variety of structures from a light meringue to a dense rich custard.They give flavor,substance ,put shine and clarify food .On their own they are amenable to being boiled,fried,deep-fried,steamed,baked,roasted,pickled,stuffed and fermented.The most commonplace procedures involving eggs are some of the most astonishing kitchen magics.No other ingredient is as readily and drastically transformed as the egg.

Over the centuries there have been several answers to the conundrum-which came first-the chicken or the egg?The Church Fathers sided with the chicken,pointed out that according to Genesis ,God first created the creatures and not their reproductive apparatus.Samuel Butler awarded the egg priority when he said that a chicken is just an egg’s way of making another egg.However there is a consensus that eggs existed long before chickens did.

Dimer devil has been a favorite evening time snack for Bengalis over the years. Telebhaja shops in Calcutta centering around North and Central Calcutta during the colonial period boasted of Dimer Devil in their menu.A hard boiled egg halved or kept full delicately encased in a spicy potato crust,dipped in a egg batter and then in bread crumbs ,fried golden till perfect was the commonplace Dimer Devil.Some experimented with scooping the egg yolk out and mixing it with the potato mixture and then stuffing it again around the egg.Some added raisins,others added crushed roasted red chill and julienne of fried onion.Well heeled cabins and restaurants added boiled and spiced up minced mutton or chicken and mixed it with the potato for encasing the egg.

Years later Dimer Devil continues to be a favorite but in a way has lost out to the fish fry,fish batter fry and the chicken cutlets.To relish a dimer devil on a rainy evening or to pair it with a glass of your favorite drink in the fleeting Kolkata winters there are less options-either you order it from the select shops selling it or make a golden crusted batch yourself at home.

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The name is in itself sort of contradictory.Every time I make some Devils at home I wonder as to why such a delicious item have the name Devil attached to it. Once I started looking up the origins of it I realized that Dimer Devil has a rich history of fusion and adaptation behind its evolution.Dimer Devil owes its name to the popular Deviled Egg of the West where the process of stuffing the egg with a filling was strangely similar.The khansamas engaged in colonial households learnt the art of making deviled eggs from the memsahibs,they improvised and while churning out the item they were influenced by both the art of making the Mughal Nargisi Kofta. Thus was born the Dimer Devil a beautiful creation and a testament to the entire trajectory of fusion and adaptation in food history.

Serving deviled eggs at picnics and cocktail parties are commonplace in post-World War II America, but these classic creamy concoctions did not originate in the United States. The roots of modern-day deviled eggs can be traced back to ancient Rome, where eggs were boiled, seasoned with spicy sauces and then typically served at the beginning of a meal—as a first course known as gustatio—for wealthy patricians. In Petronius’s satirical fiction “Satyricon” written around 61 A.D, the wealthy freedman Trimalchio invited guests to a banquet in which the menu included fig-peckers marinated in peppered egg yolk and stuffed into peahen eggs. According to Apicius , a collection of Roman recipes compiled between the fourth and fifth century A.D., boiled eggs were traditionally seasoned with oil, wine or broth and served with pepper. In the 13th century, stuffed eggs began to appear in Andalusia, in what is now Spain. An anonymous cookbook from this time period instructs the reader to pound boiled egg yolks with cilantro, onion juice, pepper and coriander and then beat them with Murri (a sauce made of fermented barley or fish), oil and salt. After stuffing the mixture into the egg whites, the two halves were then fastened together with a small stick and peppered.By the 15th century, stuffed eggs made their way across much of Europe. Medieval cookbooks contain recipes for boiled eggs that were often filled with raisins, cheese and herbs such as marjoram, parsley and mint and then fried in oil and either topped with a sauce of cinnamon, ginger, cloves and raisins or powdered with sugar and served hot. In the United States, stuffed eggs began making an appearance in cookbooks by the mid-19th century.The first known printed mention of ‘devil’ as a culinary term appeared in Great Britain in 1786, in reference to dishes including hot ingredients or those that were highly seasoned and broiled or fried. The OED claims, “the term was presumably adopted because of the connection between the devil and the excessive heat in Hell”. By 1800, deviling became a verb to describe the process of making food spicy. Deviled egg traveled across seas with the East India Company officers to India where the khansamas of the colonial households began to learn the art of stuffing eggs with a spicy mixture.

One afternoon when I was cutting my boiled eggs in halves for the Dimer Devil and had toiled hard to make the mutton mince filling perfect with some raisins and fried onions a fleeting thought came to my mind that I was doing something very similar to the Scotch Eggs which I had seen being made in a cookery show. A nagging question occupied my mind space about the origins of the Dimer Devil.Was it indebted to the Scotch Eggs or vice versa?

According to Oxford Dictionary a Scotch Egg is a hard boiled egg enclosed in sausage meat ,rolled in breadcrumbs and fried.The history of the origins of a Scotch Egg is shrouded in controversy but it is a general consensus that it did not originate in Scotland.The upscale London department store Fortnum & Mason claims to have created the savory snack as a potable snack in the mid 18th century catering to the well-to-do travelers passing through Piccadilly Square.Some argue that it began as a poor man’s lunch and was akin to the Cornish pastry consumed by Scottish farmers.There are views that the traditional Scotch egg has roots in the coastal town of Whitby in Yorkshire Believed to be invented by William J Scott & Sons the eggs were covered first in a thick, creamy fish paste (instead of the sausage meat), and then with breadcrumbs. Some evidence also points towards a North African recipe that was transported to England through France. The dish was enjoyed during the Elizabethan times, where it was infused with various spices and cloves for a more palatable taste.

Another powerful view argues that the Scotch Eggs originated from the Nargisi Kofta of Mughal India, which was a hard-boiled egg encased in minced meat, fried and served in a brown gravy. The Nargisi Kofta or “narcissus kofta” was named after the flower’s white-and-yellow petals . According to The Oxford Companion to Food the Kofta came to India from Persia with the Mughal emperors. The Nargisi Kofta later hitched a ride way back to England with the East India Company memsahibs and became known as Scotch Eggs in England in the 19th century. Scotch Eggs were to be platted alongside hot gravy, according to the printed recipes in the domestic bibles by Margaret Dods , Maria Rundell and Mrs Beeton. Annette Hope, in her book A Caledonian Feast, too suggests the dish may like kedgeree or mulligatawny soup be an export from the British Raj.

There are a number of countries who have dishes similar to the scotch egg. The Polish Jaskółcze Gniazda (swallow’s nest), the Dutch-Flemish Vogelnestje (bird’s nest), as well as the Indonesian Bakso Telur (meatball eggs) are few examples. Our very own Dimer Devil is also a close cousin to the Scotch Egg.

If on a leisurely afternoon during a weekend you are preparing for a party and wish to surprise friends with a dish carrying the heritage of the West and the flavor of Central Asia choose Dimer Devil….golden crumb fried eggs delicately encased with a mutton mince …. a lot of nostalgia and pages of history. A Vodka cocktail with Gandhoraj Lebu and crushed mint leaves or a mocktail with tamarind pulp ,Gondhoraj Lebu pata soaked overnight and sugar will work wonders with a plate of freshly fried Dimer Devil.

Never estimate the number you need to make…Dimer Devil will always fall short when served as a starter.

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In case you are tempted to try your hands in making Dimer Devil do give this a read

Things you need –

  • Hard boiled Eggs cut into Halves-4
  • Mutton Mince/Chicken Mince-500 gms
  • Potato Boiled -4
  • Onions sliced-2
  • Garlic chopped-8 cloves
  • Green Chilli chopped-6
  • Red Chilli Powder-1tsp.
  • Whole Garam Masala
  • Roasted and powdered Garam Masala-1 tsp.
  • Corriander leaves chopped-2 tsp
  • Raisins-Handful
  • Fried Onions-1
  • Egg for coating
  • Bread crumbs
  • Salt to taste
  • Oil for frying

Assembling the Devil-

  • Heat 2 tbsp of oil.Put whole Garam Masala in the oil. When it is spluttering add the chopped garlic and fry till light brown and the oil soaks in the flavor of the garlic.Add the chopped onions and fry till translucent.Add the washed mutton or chicken mince.Mix well with the onion and garlic.Add the Red Chilli powder and continue sauteing till oil separates.This may take some time.Add the powdered Garam Masala, salt and coriander leaves.To this mix add the boiled and mashed potatoes .Add salt as needed.The potato and the mince should mix well and soak in the flavors.
  • Take off fire and add raisins and fried onions to the mix.Bring it to room temperature.
  • The boiled eggs should be seasoned with salt.The potato and mince mixture should be delicately used to coat the egg fully using the fingers and the palm of the hand.
  • Dip the eggs with the whisked egg and coat in breadcrumbs.
  • Keep in the refrigerator for sometime ,this will give a golden hue when fried.
  • Heat oil and fry the eggs in batches till golden in hue.
  • Serve with your favorite Dip .

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The Saga of the Kulcha…..Treasures of Amritsar

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Amritsar is a city which is at one go mesmerizing.Be it the first sight of the Golden Temple,the serene waters of the Sarovar ,the soulful ardaas and kirtans Amritsar is not however a pilgrimage city only.Historically rich ,it is a city which carries the ravages of Partition yet it breathes life ,it unifies ,embraces and above all reiterates the intrinsic connection between food and religiosity.Amritsar is a foodies paradise with an array of specialities -be it the Karha Prasad of the Golden Temple ,the early morning tea and the Kheer at Ramdas Langar,the crunchy roadside Kulchas served with tempting choley (chickpea curry),the simmering Maa ki Dals with Tandoori Rotis laced with desi ghee,the irresistible Aam papads and papads,the refreshing lassi and the kulfas and the little warm jalebis dipped in the sugar syrup.

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My trip to Amritsar some months back will be one of my treasured memories.The feeling one experiences at the Golden temple either at the crack of dawn or at the last hours of night cannot be put in words.Spend hours sitting beside the Sarovar listening to the kirtans and the chants of Wahe Guru ki Fateh ,I felt a peace which no religious place has ever given me.The glistening temple,the faith of the people,the eagerness for self less service,the self imposed discipline ,the environment is in itself fulfilling.At that point I felt desire for nothing ,only an inner peace enveloped my being.

Amritsar is not just about the Golden Temple and its Langar. Being a foodie and eager to explore, the entire afternoons were spent savoring the unending delicacies.The restaurants and stalls in the walled city around the Golden Temple follows a strict vegetarian spread. The tandoori chicken ,the laccha paratha,the baingan bharta can be tried and replicated anywhere in the country ,what remains the specialty of Amritsar is its kulchas .It is said that the holy waters of Ravi contribute to the unique taste of the Kulchas of Amritsar. The popular saying “Jis Lahore nahin vekhiya au jamiya nahin. Jis Amritsar aa ke kulcha nahin khada une kuj khada hi nahin…” (If you haven’t seen Lahore it’s as good as not being born. If you’re visiting Amritsar and haven’t eaten the kulcha, you’ve eaten nothing at all.) is right after all.

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One meal no one has to plan for in this city is the Amritsari kulcha. This street food blurs social divides and is available around every corner of the city. The crunch of the kulchas ,the crispy outsides and the soft inside stuffed with aloo ,gobi or paneer turned out to be my favorite at Amritsar.As I went across the city savoring Kulchas in all its forms, the history of the Kulcha- its evolution,adaptation and how it made its home in Amritsar intrigued me. It is believed that about one lakh Kulchas are tossed out of city tandoors every day. . With the Amritsari kulcha, you’ll experience the fifth sense-sound. Once out of the tandoor the kulcha is smeared with a cube of butter and is crushed at the middle. If there’s a crackling sound it is baked to perfection. The crackle ensures it’s got the right texture. Crushing it snaps open the top layer allowing the heat to escape and letting the goodness of melted butter to trickle in…the first bite is close to heaven.

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The history of kulchas can be traced back to the Nizams of Deccan. It was in fact the official symbol of the Asaf Jahi dynasty and even appeared on the Hyderabad state flag till it became a part of the Indian subcontinent post-independence. This amazing crispy bread was chosen as the emblem while the rest of the princely states had the lions and/or elephants as the royal insignia. Food, politics, identity… Mir Qamruddin of the Mughal court went to meet his spiritual Guru- Sufi mystic Hazrat Nizamuddin Aurangabadi after he got appointed as the “Subedar-e-Dakhan”. Hazrat Nizamuddin invited him for a meal and offered the subedar kulchas .Mir Qamruddin ate seven kulchas. , Hazrat Nizamuddin in a prophecy said that one day he would be king and that his descendants would rule for seven generations. This prophecy came true. Soon after Mir Qamruddin came to Deccan, Nadir Shah invaded and sacked Delhi. The Nizams, who were simply governors, declared their de facto rule in the Deccan in the context of the waning power of the Mughals. And with that the kulcha, earned its place in the royal cuisine.

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Other historical findings assert that the region of undivided Punjab gave birth to the bharwaan (stuffed) kulcha. Invaders from Central Asia brought along their cooking traditions. The techniques which originated in Persia were of making the leavened bread and the tandoor were adapted by the province of Punjab. Punjabis, who hitherto made unleavened wholegrain flatbread on an iron griddle, started using refined flour leavening the dough for fermentation and filling it with a mixture of potatoes and baking it in the tandoor. Later influenced by French chefs engaged in royal household they adopted a puff pastry procedure- smearing the the dough with butter and folding it before letting it rest.-Flaky yet soft bharwan kulchas came to rule Amritsar for time indefinite.

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My choice for Kulchas

Amritsar abounds in shops selling Kulchas all through the day though Kulchas are more in demand for breakfast.The tradition of making rotis in community tandoors in villages of Punjab has trickled down to the city and a large number of families prefer having their daily breakfast of Kulcha -Chole in their favorite shop before going for their daily work.Every katra or mohalla of Amritsar particularly in the old walled city has Kulcha shops- overcrowded yet fragrant with the aroma of the fresh butter and the tangy choley.

Pehelwan Kulcha Shop– Very close to Ramgharia Gate and near Shahid Baba Deep Singhji Gurudwara ,the Pehelwan Kulcha Shop is nondescript by appearance.You can easily recognize it by the large crowd outside waiting for a seat at the shop.There is no separate dining area,you sit beside the tandoor and see the kulchas being stuffed,roasted and then that big dollop of butter sliding on to the flaky kulcha..Served on a tissue paper..golden brown crisp,the butter trickles down…the crackling sound of the kulcha and the choley …very delicately spiced with a spluttering of onion and green chilli is a must eat while at Amritsar.

Bhai Kulwant Singh Kulchian Wale- An early morning darshan at the Golden Temple has to be followed by a sumptuous breakfast at this kulcha shop.Located in Bazar Bikaneria in Katra Ahluwalia very near to the temple you can just walk your way.The flaky kulchas are served with choley alonh with several pickles and you can wash them down with a glass of Lassi. The kulchas are available in various variants-aloo, gobi, paneer, pithi.If you are there in the morning you may have to wait for your turn but the service is very fast and the staff very friendly.

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Not to miss are piping hot kulchas at All India Famous Kulcha at Maqbool Road , Kulcha Land at Ranjit Avenue, Ashok Kulche Wale at Gobindgarh Fort Road and Amritsari Neutri Kulcha near DAV College,opposite Arya Samaj Mandir.

If you wish to compliment the Kulchas with a glass of refreshing Lassi which in itself is so filling do visit Gian Di Lassi near Regent Cinema.The creamy lassi cooled to perfection will fulfill your senses.And what is an afternoon without a siesta and the perfect trigger to it is a couple of crisp little jalebis fried perfect at Katra Ahluwalia near the Golden Temple at a shop called Gurdas Ram Jalebi Wala.

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Amritsar is a city which is loved by its people.The mohallas,katras,the Hall Bazar,the numerous gates in the walled city,the Town Hall are spectators to history .The Golden Temple steeped in devotion and selfless service enthralled me in a calmness and gave me a strength of mind that words can hardly describe.The foodscape of Amritsar cannot be experienced in a single visit-every corner has its delicacies ,its USP beinga dollop of love and warmth of the city and its people.

Amritsar…..a city of colors….a city of life and a city of culinary delights.

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BARANTI-A HAMLET OF PEACE AND COLORS

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Tucked away in a remote corner of Purulia District in West Bengal lies Baranti-a sleepy hamlet where your search for peace might end,where your thirst for seeing the colors of nature may be quenched,where life and nature are in perfect symphony to each other.Far  away from the humdrum of life or the excitement of any regular tourist place welcome to Baranti- the sleepy Santhal village abounding in natural beauty of a beautiful dam  and a lush green hill in perfect consonant to each other coupled with the orange blossoms of the Palash trees during spring  which forms a canopy on the entire stretch giving the landscape a hue which reminds one of the colors of the setting sun.A lake glistening in the sun rays,a quiet mountain standing as a spectator to life,a little road running across the dam,dusty red soil,village children playing around with flowers,elderly grazing the cow and ploughing the field,village women walking distances to collect drinking water…little snippets of everyday life in Baranti….you will definitely fall in love with the rustic silence and simplicity of the village.

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An hours drive from Asansol station crossing the Damodar River, passing through quaint raliway stations one can reach Baranti easily.An early morning train on a weekend from Howrah to Asansol and then a hours drive by a car or another ride in a local train to Muradi ,the nearest station one can easily reach the little village.The best time to visit Baranti is during winters if one  wants  to chill in the low temperatures or during spring if one wants to see the orange blossoms of the Palash trees….roads covered in the orange hue.If you like the rains lashing across lifting your tired spirits Baranti can be sensual as well in the rainy season.Eco resorts abound at Baranti…choose the one with an unhindered view of the lake and the hill.Sight of the early morning reflection of the hill in the waters of the lake , birds flying across one cannot but ponder in silence .

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If you are in Baranti and you are stressed due to the humdrum of daily life plan nothing.I planned Baranti in the middle of a week and was amply rewarded.The best way to chill is to sit in the balcony with the perfectly brewed tea or coffee ,a book of your favorite author and your favorite tune.Village boys came to sell little garlands of Palash for a mere Rs 10.Food never tasted so fresh and delicious to me …plain rice, dal with a hint of ghee, a mixed vegetable , fresh fish from the lakes and tomato chutney …an afternoon siesta.Life seemed best that afternoon at Baranti. As the sun was setting the winds became chilly and the best option was a walk across the road up to the end of the dam.

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The setting sun transformed the water magically -red,orange hues,glistening rays and ripples of the water…the view was ethereal.I walked across the lonely road up to the gates of the dam and the sat in silence .Back to the resort I was greeted with a spiced up tea,aloor chop and muri makha with bits of coconut,soaked grams,onions and whole green chillies. Simple yet delicious.Night descends fast at Baranti,howling of the wolves,prayers from a faraway mosque,fire flies ….a lovely dinner of a mildly flavored chicken curry made of local chicken or a plate of steaming hot khichuri with fritters .

 

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For those in a big group and wish to travel around an afternoon trip to Susunia and Biharinath hills are an option.The ancient stone inscriptions of King Chandravarman are found at Susunia. Stone carvings and Dokra artifacts can be seen at several adjoining villages.You can walk up to the the Gardeshwari river bank and the holy spring or if you are an amateur mountaineer try trekking and rock climbing.At Biharinath catch the sunset over the hills ,climb up the Shiva temple and visit Joychandi Hills of Hirak Rajar Deshey fame.

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When at Baranti you can leave a window of the room open and let the fresh air of the morning and the sun rays wrap you in its magical embrace.The mornings are as beautiful and pristine as the nights.After a cup of my favorite Earl grey and some Rabindra sangeet I ventured to the nearby Santhal village.A stop at the solitary village shop selling essentials I meandered my way to the village.The memory created there will be forever etched in my mind.Neat mud houses,artistic tribal motifs on the walls,village wells,the small primary school,little boys running around,women going about their daily chores,people walking miles ,the village market with only one vendor selling all the essentials,bullock carts,husk thrown around,utter poverty yet smiling faces….long winding roads,palash trees and the distant mountain.Untrained yet artistic skill par excellence of the villagers,environment consciousness that too not taught but acquired,cleanliness amidst scarcity of water….lessons of life one can learn from the villagers.

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An early lunch with the typical Bengali chorchori made from vegetables freshly picked from the fields and the fragrant macher jhol with a touch of mustard paste ,I decided to go for a short trip to Garpanchakot and Panchet Dam.

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Panchkot was part of an ancient East Indian kingdom known as Rajchakla Panchkot, locally known as Panchet. Damodar Sekhar established Panchkot Raj probably during early 90 AD with the help of Sardars of Jhalda. To give recognition to the main five clans of the locals the kingdom was named Panchkot. The Sing Deo Dynasty  ruled Panchkot for 800 years . Panchkot Giri has its references in the Puranas also. The place was then known as Sekhar Bhum from which the founder king of Singh Deo Dynasty Damodar Sekhar derived his name. The kingdom was probably a part of old Tilakampa Kingdom. The ruins of Telkupi, went under water after the construction of Panchet Dam. The ruins of the Garh (Fort) of Singh Deo Dynasty  and a group of temples is still standing as mute spectators of the rise & fall of the dynasty. The temples are of different architectural styles, the principal one being a Pancharatna temple accompanied by JorBangla type and more than one Pirha type temples made of stone. The Pancharatna temple still carries some depleted but exquisite piece of presumably pre-muslim period terracotta  work on its arches and pillars. Around 1600 AD, Garhpanchkot came under the rule of the famous king Bir Hambir of Bishnupur Malla Dynasty, . The Maratha raiders, locally known as Bargis, ransacked the place in the 18th century.The great poet Michael Madhusudan Dutt visited the place during 1872 for a short period as an estate manager of Singh Deo dynasty. He wrote three poems on Panchkot namely Panchkot giri, Panchkotoshyo Rajosre  and Panchkot Giri Biday Sangeet.

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The temple has been restored by the Archaeological Survey of India .The terracotta panels are in good shape now.The gate to the temple still stands in lost grandeur,the remains of the palace ,the minars are a mute spectator to history.The overgrown weeds and grasses gives the ruins a feeling of lost in time.Close to the ruins one can stay overnight in a eco resort. If one prefers to spend a night in the jungle a good option would be the property of WBFDC. I decided to catch the sunset from the expanse of the Panchet Dam,one of the engineering marvels of post independent India.The return to Baranti in the full moon night amidst village roads and jungles was filled with a muted excitement of the unknown.The ever smiling manger of the resort served coffee with great chicken pakoras. Dinner was my favorite comfort food – rice,boiled potatoes ,boiled egg and a thin lentil soup charged up with hot green chilies and spoonful of pure mustard oil.

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To leave Baranti and its sunshine,its cool breeze,the little boys,the palash flowers,the silent lake was heart breaking.Yet life moves on and as I bade goodbye to the red soil,the orange blooms and the mountains I made a promise to myself….to be back again soon.

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LITTLE FACTS

  • Take an early morning train from Howrah to Asansol- Shatabdi or Black diamond Express would be best.Ask your resort to send a car.
  • If you are keen on driving from Kolkata take the Delhi road up to Asansol then turn towards Purulia. Then finally turn towards Baranti from Muradi which is 8 km from Asansol on the Asansol Purulia road.
  • There are a range of resorts at Baranti suiting every pocket-the oldest being Akashmoni. Others are Palashbari,Ankhaibari .The most luxurious being Spanglers Resort.I stayed at Lake Hill Resort which has the best unrestricted views of the lake and the hills.
  • Do not expect various cuisines at the resorts but the taste of simple Bengali dishes will leave you satiated and happy.
  • Best buy are local dokra handicrafts,stone sculptures and handmade masks.
  • Best season to go are the winters,the spring and the rainy season.
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The wonder of Corn….Across time,nations and taste.

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Every time we go to watch a movie in a multiplex or visit a food court in some mall the aroma of buttered sweet corn in all its variations are hard to resist.If we are thinking of a vegetarian starter for our party Crispy Sweet Chilli Baby Corn or a Corn on the Cob are a common choice.If we have a vegetarian friend coming over  a Corn Mushroom Pulao is always an easy choice.Corns in all is forms have really caught the imagination and the palate  of the urban Indian from the last ten years .Corn or bhutta  however has been a staple in rural Indian vegetarian household in the central and northern parts of India since historical periods.The history of corn and how it evolved in cuisines worldwide is worth a study.

People living in Central Mexico developed corn at least 7000 years ago. It was started from a wild grass called Teosinite. Teosinite looked very different from the corn we see today. The kernels were small and were not placed close together like kernels on the husked ear of modern corn. From Mexico maize spread north into the Southwestern United States and south down the coast to Peru. About 1000 years ago, as Indian people migrated north to the eastern woodlands of present day North America, they brought corn with them. When Columbus “discovered” America, he also discovered corn. During the first Thanksgiving celebrated in 1621 while sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie were not on the menu, Indian corn certainly was. Columbus received corn as a gift from the Indians he encountered in the Caribbean and carried it back to Spain, where it quickly caught on and became a staple. With a short time, it was grown in Europe and through out the world. The process of maize domestication radically changed it from its origins. Modern maize has hundreds of exposed kernels attached to a cob which is completely covered by husks and so cannot reproduce on its own..The earliest undisputed domesticated maize cobs were from Guila Naquitz cave in Guerrero, Mexico, dated about 4280-4210  BC. Eventually, maize spread out from Mexico, probably by the diffusion of seeds along trade networks rather than migration of people. It was used in the southwestern United States by about 3,200 years ago, and in the eastern United States beginning about 2,100 years ago. Young corn was used as a vegetable, and the dry kernels were ground into flour and used for baking. People also learned to prepare the corn into bread, soup, pudding and fried corn cakes. Today, corn has become the most widely grown crop in the western hemisphere. It is a staple in Latin American diets, and in the United States alone corn has given rise to regional specialties as Grits, Hush Puppies, Ashcakes, Dodgers, Muffins, Cracklin’ Bread, Johnny Cakes, and Corn Pone.

European settlers were content with this colorful corn until the summer of 1779 when they found something more delectable — a yellow variety with sweeter and more  tender kernels. This unusual variety came to light that year after George Washington ordered a scorched-earth campaign against Iroquois tribes. While the militia was destroying the food caches of the Iroquois and burning their crops, soldiers came across a field of extra-sweet yellow corn. According to one account, a lieutenant named Richard Bagnal took home some seeds to share with others. Our old-fashioned sweet corn is a direct descendant of these spoils of war.

While western cuisine has effortlessly experimented and incorporated corn it is only in recent time that corn is being blended with Indian flavors suiting the Indian palate.Whether it is a plateful of Corn Fritters-clusters of corn,gram flour and spices   fried crisp or it is a Kebab made out of corn, potatoes and cheese the option for a spread is endless. Choose between a Corn Pomegranate Salad or a Corn Potato thick Soup as a starter. Don’t forget to make Baby Corn Pakodas or  a Corn Tart with cheese. Serve the Corn Pulao with a Charcoal roasted Corn and a Corn Capsicum Masala .Regional cuisine in India too has incorporated corn or bhutta for some time now.Whether it is the famous Makki da Roti using corn flour in Punjab or the Bhutte ki Keesh -the famous street food of Indore ,corn has been used in various regional variations.

There is nothing more comforting than a movie date with your bestie and a cup of buttered corn in the middle…..the sweetness,the crunch ,the buttery texture….Keep enjoying life .