Tag Archives: India travel

Calcutta for the Soul

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It’s said that memories fade with time, which is probably a good thing, because some of us would find it impossible to go on. But there are certain reminiscences that cannot afford to be forgotten. They are like precious keepsakes that need to be extracted from the dusty realms of time. They have to be caressed and fondled with affection, reinforced and perhaps refurbished, before being tucked away securely again.

One such memory that I’ve guarded fiercely is that of my trip to Calcutta. Over the years it has been revisited a million times and imbued with subtle nuances so to add color and character.

I was perhaps ten or twelve (my mother stresses on the latter and she is probably right as I’m pathetically poor with specifics). The trip would never have come about hadn’t it been for my father, who after one of his numerous travels brought back an exquisite Bengal handloom sari of olive green and cream. It became my favorite. My mother looked lovely in it. He also spoke of a land rich in culture that had produced the likes of Rabindranath Tagore, Vivekananda, Satyajit Ray and of course the indomitable Kishore Da. Armed with a miniscule amount of information and barely suppressed curiosity, I embarked on my sole journey to the east, with my tiny family in tow.

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We boarded the Coromandel Express which I believe covered the distance from Chennai to Howrah in little more than a day. My very first recollection of the place that endeared it to me forever is the memory of delicious, melt-in-your-mouth, spongy roshogollas in clay handis (pots) that I relished with gusto right on the railway platform. I swear, I haven’t had anything more delectable in my life!

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We stayed in a cosy guest house favored by the bank my father worked for. It was winter time; I know because I could see my breath in front of my face and the owners’ little white Pomeranian had a sweater on. There were pleasant smiles everywhere and though I didn’t have a clue about what was being spoken, I didn’t mind listening because the words floated in the air like the melodious strains of Lord Krishna’s flute.

On our first day out, I recall seeing trams loaded with commuters, coursing on tracks right in the middle of the street. Having never come across anything similar before, either in Delhi or Chennai, I of course wanted a ride.

We did the usual touristy things. I remember gawking awestruck at the magnificent Dakshineshwar temple glistening in the morning light on the banks of the Hooghly; then trying to battle through the mad melee at Kalighat which had my mother utterly riled up and me dumbfounded and overwhelmed.

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The Victoria Memorial came as a welcome respite; more so the calm serenity of the Botanical Gardens that also touts the world’s largest Banyan tree.

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I remember the distinct tang of mustard oil in the air and spending a lazy afternoon strolling the lanes of New Market absorbing the banter of many tongues, the fragrance of fresh flowers, resisting the lure of jewelry and garments, and the calls of hawkers and shopkeepers selling anything and everything from furniture to fish.

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The city pulsed with life, from am to night- an eclectic and intoxicating blend of culture, beauty, intellect, relationships and raw emotions. I left feeling thoroughly confused but lastingly intrigued.
So here are my experiences; trivial they may seem but to me they are dearly cherished because they are what I remember my father by– simple, adventurous and carefree.

The Beautiful Art of Kolam

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Kolam is an age old tradition in Southern India. These are temporary geometric designs consisting of curved loops drawn around a grid of dots employing rice flour/chalk/chalk flour or oher types of white or colored powders. Female members of Hindu families draw Kolams in the front of their houses. These are also known as Rangolee in Maharastra, Hase in Karnataka, Muggulu in Andhra Pradesh and Golam in Kerala.

While living in Chennai, I have watched with fascination my mother along with several other women on our street, drawing a fresh new Kolam every morning. This would be done after cleaning the floor with a broom and then with water. They would draw what appeared to be very complex designs in a jiffy, sometimes without lifting their hands off the floor. During the day the Kolams would get eroded by people’s feet, and the wind. But not to worry. A new one replaced it the following morning.

As always these Kolums are not just decorative. They have a cultural sginificance. They are meant to bring prosperity to the house and are symbols of welcome as well. There are many other purposes, but the following is what I found particularly endearing and is probably also true. In days of yore rice flour Kolams were drawn so the ants did not have to travel too far for food. They also attracted small birds and likewise other small creatures, hence welcoming other forms of life into the home and everyday life symbolizing harmony and peaceful coexistance with nature.

Below are a few Kolam designs drawn by my cousin and her friends 🙂

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‘A Tanga Ride’ and an Excerpt from ‘The Accidental Wife’

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It has been more than fifteen years since I left my homeland and as expected the memories have begun to fade. Yet some persist stark and bright reinforced by odors, colors and textures and often bring a whimsical tear to my eye. If I go back now, I doubt my experiences will be similar as I’m older thereby more cynical though I like to think otherwise. Some of these reminisces are irreplaceable and as I don’t trust my brain enough I try to preserve them in my writings. Taking a tanga (horse drawn carriage) ride in Agra or through the streets of Old Delhi is one of them. The following scene in The Accidental Wife illustrates it—

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Then turning to Naina, Rihaan asked, “What now wife?”

She colored, appearing markedly disconcerted and made toward the autorickshaw stand.

He yanked her back. “No, that’s not what I had in mind.”

A few minutes later they were on their way.

“Are you sure you’re okay?” Naina looked at Rihaan, concerned.

“I’m perfectly fine. Couldn’t have asked for anything better.” He let out a contented sigh, allowing his head to sink back into a pillow of fresh straw, and his worn out body to stretch along the length of the traditional tanga. With eyes closed, he inhaled deeply, filling his lungs with a mixture of the sweet hay and horse dung. The jerking rhythm, the clip clop of horse’s hooves, punctuated by the shrill cries of the tangawallah as they made their way through the busy thoroughfare was strangely comforting.

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Fatehpur Sikri- A Must See Marvel of Indian Mughal Architecture.

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The Imposing 55m tall BULAND DARWAZA (victory arch) stands at the entrance of the palatial complex.

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The Horseshoe Gate, where horseshoes were nailed for good luck.

Salim Chisti Tomb

Jali, the exquisite stone screens that are a feature of the tomb of Salim Chisti in the center of the complex.

Jama Masjid courtyard

The Jama Masjid (Mosque)

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Panch Mahal by Bruno Girin

Located a stone’s throw away from Agra (the home of the TajMahal), in the North Indian state of Uttar Pradesh is Fatehpur Sikri (Fateh Arabic word meaning victorious). It served as the capital of the emperor Akbar (of the famed Jodha Akbar) from 1571-1585.

Designated a world Heritage sight, it is a prime example of India’s Mughal Architecture and is not to be missed particularly if you make the effort to visit the Taj Mahal in Agra.

Built in the honor of the Sufi Saint Salim Chisti, it is a walled city with a series of palaces, courts, harem, a mosque, private quarters and so on.

Constructed almost entirely from red sandstone, this essentially Islamic edifice has many Hindu and Jain embellishments. Spend about an hour or two and wander around the complex and sink your teeth into some juicy history by availing the services of some readily available local guides.

Accommodations to suit all pockets are available in Agra or if you want to make it a day trip, you can choose to stay in New Delhi which is only a 6 hr commute away. But be sure to start early so to avoid the hellish traffic.

Whenever I see these pictures, I’m reminded of the beautiful Qawwali ( a style of muslim devotional music) from the movie Garam Hava (Scorching Winds) which was shot at this place. The movie is perhaps the most poignant depiction of India’s partition which occurred in 1947 when it gained its independence from the British Raj (rule) and is a must watch.

Amazing India- Brihadisvara Temple of Thanjavur

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One of the most stunning examples of Southern India’s Dravidian architecture is The Brihadisvara Temple located in the city of Thanjavur in the state of Tamil Nadu. Completed in 1010 CE, it was built by Rajaraja Chola 1, one of the most powerful rulers of South India and is dedicated to Lord Shiva. It is built almost entirely of granite blocks. The circumabulatory passage along the periphery of the temple feature some exquisite sculpture and paintings from the Chola period.