About Sambrita Basu
Sambrita Basu is a food-fascinated travel writer and photographer based out of Bangalore India. A background and a degree in hospitality and restaurant management paved her interest in food. As the secretary of the institution’s editorial club, she contributed regularly and wrote about food in their annual magazine, A la Carte.
Sambrita has published interviews of celebrity authors and business veterans in international publications like Infineon. Her contributions also include photographs on foods and restaurants of Bangalore for DNA—a leading newspaper publication in Bangalore. Sambrita’s creative expressions transport readers to alleys, hotels, hide-outs, restaurants, attics, and spice markets in several cities across the world.
Sam (as she is popularly known by her friends and family) doesn’t write for a living, but she lives to write.
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“From where he sat, he could observe the plaza. People continued to come and go from the baker’s shop. A young couple sat on the bench where he had talked with the old man, and they kissed.
‘That baker…’ he said to himself, without completing the thought. The levanter was still getting stronger, and he felt its force on his face. That wind had brought the Moors, yes, but it also brought the smell of the desert and of veiled women. It had brought with its sweat and the dreams of men who had once left to search for the unknown, and for gold and adventure-and for the pyramids. The boy felt jealous of the freedom of the wind, and saw that he could have the same freedom. There was nothing to hold him back except himself. The sheep, the merchant’s daughter, and the fields of Andalusia were only steps along the way to his personal legend”– The Alchemist. A perfect allusion for me to remain attracted to Andalucia the way I have always been.
I don’t understand the language in Spain, nor the songs they sing, but I can feel the intensity that it communicates. I stay miles away from there, but tremendously attracted to the notion of duende, the elusive spirit of Spain. Duende loosely translates as a moment of heightened emotion experienced during an artistic performance, and it can be soulfully evoked in Andalucía if you mingle in the right places. I felt while listening to an organ recital in a Gothic church, or the rush of adrenalin in the spontaneity of a hit-or-miss opportunity in catching a flamenco peña. And that rush is heady. I felt it in the scent of orange blossom, the thrashing sound of the flamenco guitar, the glimpse of a white village perched spectacularly atop a crag: memories of Andalucía will stay with me like collected souvenirs except that its priceless.
Andalucía, despite creeping modernisation, remains a spirited and passionate place where the atmosphere – rather like a good flamenco performance – managed to creep up and tap me on my shoulder when I least expected it. A dream trip with a soul-sister. With non-stop undisclosable stories that will go with either of us to our graves. Those stories cannot be published. But these can be. Stories of Andalucia. A series of stories within a story, but still divided into two parts so that you don’t get bored! A first for me, but that was the only way to get it all right!
Saucy Seville. Like all great cities, Seville has historical layers. Roman ruins testify the settlement’s earliest face, memories of the Moorish era flicker like medieval engravings in the Santa Cruz quarter, while the riverside Arenal reeks of lost colonial glory. Yet, one of the most remarkable things about modern Seville is its ability to adapt and etch fresh new brushstrokes onto an ancient canvas.
On our way from the airport it turned out that our taxi driver Carlito was a guitarist, explaining why he played such great music for his passengers. His taxi smelt of orange blossoms, and he spoke with the sweetness of a caramel flan. Our little hostel was at the entrance of the Barrio Santa Cruz,; and a narrow cobblestone corridor led us to it.
A bright central patio filled with natural light, tiled floor, little coffee tables, and shelves with books welcomed us. Our agenda was simple in this city. Getting drunk on bright red sangrias; allow the natural intoxicating smell of orange blossoms to drive us giddy; walk hand-in-hand with ropeways of fuchsia bougainvillea on musk-melon coloured walls; go crazy trying to play detective figuring out where these melancholy strains of the flamenco guitar by street musicians are emerging from ;sample delicious tapas on wayside colourful tables that tease our tastebuds..and saying ‘hello’ to interesting strangers who can become friends with a single ring of “cheers”! Green tick for all..we were definitely in Seville!
Seville, like the other Andalusian cities of Cordoba and Granada, is a wonderland of fanciful Moorish architecture, the result of Spain’s 700-year occupation. It is a city for aimless walking, with most of the sights gratefully grouped down by the river and cathedral, the third-largest in Europe after St. Peter’s in Rome and London’s St. Paul’s. This is a city with attitude and you must allow it to dominate you. Let the narrow streets lure you and take you in their stride. These avenues are tight and twisting, sometimes turning on a dime, sometimes expanding and then contracting, and then endlessly and surprisingly opening up to new plaza. Some plazas are open and spacious, while others offer little more than a few benches, a fountain and a handful of orange trees providing a welcome canopy beneath the Spanish sun.
The famous Reales Alcázares de Sevilla or the Alcázar of Seville, is an old and expansive building that was originally a Moorish fort that was repurposed into a royal palace. Seville’s local royal family still lives in the Alcazar’s upper levels (making the structure the oldest European palace still in use) while its lower levels and extensive gardens are open to the public for a modest admission fee.
Alcazar and the Cathedral done, we spent a night wandering aimlessly in the Barrio and then to Triana. Sometimes with chuckles. Sometimes barefooted. Sometimes loud. And sometimes in whispers. The bridges still look lovely. The water still looks inviting. And the lovers still kiss. We left the little town with a smile in our hearts.
Contagious Córdoba lives in the shadow of its monumental past. During the 10th century, it was the greatest capital city of Europe, surpassing Paris and Rome in its academic, architectural, and artistic achievements. This fascinating Andalusian city is still a kind of western Mecca because of La Mezquita. As impressive and surprising Cordoba presents itself to today’s visitor, as impressive and surprising was its past. Not many know that in 11th century it was one of the most important capitals in Europe. People of the most different cultures and religions – Jews, Muslims and Christians – were living peacefully together, and important philosophers, scientists and artists emerged from here. Back then, it accommodated 10,000 worshippers, being second only to Mecca as a pilgrimage site.
“History is written by the victors”- that history can be a function of power, the Mezquita demonstrates this wonderfully. The building is a spellbinding maze, where horseshoe arches and columns seemingly cascade into infinity. The atmosphere is mysterious, somber, and, despite its impressive size, strangely unimposing. Built in the eighth century, Córdoba’s Mezquita is known for being one the the largest (former) mosques in the world, and among the best specimens of medieval …Islamic architecture.
The building’s official name today is the “Holy Church Cathedral of Córdoba” (Santa Iglesia Catedral de Córdoba), and it continues to operate as a Catholic church which it became in the thirteenth century following the reconquista of the city. Soaking in the imminent layers of cultural influence in the architecture, I couldn’t resist the ray of straight light that cut through the coloured glasses, straight into the soul of the building. My moment of truth. And with that I said a little prayer – a little hope coloured likewise with rainbow hues, that one day, like this institution, all colors of our different faiths will live in harmony and live as one.
Dramatic, stark, challenged and bold interiors. Outside, the orange trees in the exterior patio flaunted white blossoms and the April heat of the Cordoban Spring was surprisingly refreshing!
The Judería (old Jewish quarter) is a charming labyrinth of narrow, winding streets; quiet squares; and whitewashed houses featuring colorful flower-adorned patios. You can only really appreciate the scale of medieval Córdoba by wandering its tight, whitewashed streets. The Judería or Jewish quarter is stunning! As I wandered in the myriad of tiny lanes and marvelled at the beautiful flower covered patios, I knew I would fall under Córdoba’s spell. I’ve never found anywhere more atmospheric, where you can simply wander around, losing yourself.
Patios have a long tradition in Andalucía, thanks to the painfully hot Mediterranean climate. In ye olden days, houses were usually built around an inner courtyard with a fountain and well in the middle, with an entrance to the street. They are usually two stories, with tiled or clay floors, a staircase, and arches with balconies or windows overlooking the courtyard with the typical red baked clay tiled roof. Sometimes they are covered with fabric to give shade in the summer or keep out the rain. Nowadays, they are famous because the walls and ground are covered with overflowing colorful flowerpots. Talk about sensory overload!
Galvanic Granada: If Granada is calling- its allure is hard to ignore!
Internationally revered for its lavish Alhambra palace, and enshrined in medieval history as the last stronghold of the Moors in Western Europe, Granada is the darker more complicated cousin of sunny, exuberant Seville. Humming with a feisty cosmopolitanism and awash with riddles, question marks, contradictions and myths, this is a place to put down your guidebook and let your intuition lead the way – through the narrow ascending streets of the Albayzín and the tumbling white-walled house gardens of the Realejo quarter.
Elegant yet edgy, grandiose but gritty, monumental but marked by pockets of stirring graffiti, 21st century Granada is anything but straightforward. Instead, this sometimes stunning, sometimes ugly city set spectacularly in the crook of the Sierra Nevada is an enigmatic place where – if the mood is right – you might find something that you’ve long been looking for. A free tapa, perhaps? An inspirational piece of street art? A flamenco performance that conspires with the universe to make sure you can attend it, and the time where you drown in the intangible spirit of duende!
It would have been almost sacrilegious to spend an evening in Granada without visiting the oldest flamenco club in Spain. Inaugurated in 1949, the Peña (Peña Flamenca La Platería) was the first of its kind, a place run by flamenco aficionados with the aim of supporting and nurturing the art rather than making money. I knew that the Peña only throws open its doors on Thursday nights, and I was shattered when I found out that it was booked till the brim for that only Thursday I would be there.
But the universe does conspire..(I did say earlier ,that it was the Alchemist ruling me all the way, didn’t I?)
For every bad thing that happened, a silver lining cleared the way. A dead phone, saved by a couple from Kerala whose portable power-bank enabled google maps and took me to Placeta de Toqueros, an alley or two above the San Nicolas hill, buried in the Albayzín warren. A sold out show that I walked into and (with a little smile and an earnest plea) ended up at the front row at half price tickets and a free glass of sangria. The thing is tourist offices will never direct visitors towards these places like the Peñ, primarily because they rarely offer a regular schedule of shows, but if you are lucky enough to stumble upon one, you will be experiencing flamenco at its unadulterated best – a raw, uncompromising, wonderfully uplifting spectacle where fervent artists uncover a piece of their soul in every stanza. And the best tip to find one of these pulsating places on any given night, you will have to rely on word-of-mouth, posters taped onto lampposts, or, even better, your own ears – simply wander through the labyrinth of Albayzín and let the music lure you in!
The performance was magical. And although I don’t understand the language, I knew how the first intense slow Siguiriyas was squeezing tears from the singer and the dancer; the second jestful Bulerías was teasing and cheeky; and the third happy and playful Alegrías was playful and filled with joy that can come from the gut. It is almost arousing and ineffable..
I have been a dancer myself and I have known dance very closely. For me dancing next to someone who’s singing is a very emotional thing. I could imagine the impact and the transcendental experience, one can feel by something emanating from someone else,someone who is not under your control- like the powerful voice of a singer. You become sensitive to the song. It can emotionally affect the way one dances… and I have experienced that. I saw something similar at the Pena. A singer with a powerful voice, two meters behind the dancer, sings to her stretching his arms towards her, it has to be very touching… and so she lives the soleá, the seguiryia or l’alegría in its truest form. Its like a current that’s running through her whole body. She is aware, but not so aware that she cannot lose herself a little bit. That’s the show. That’s what I took away. The feeling…and not the visual spectacle.
El Duende . Famous Andalusian writer Federico Garcia Lorca described it as “a mysterious power that all can feel, but no philosophy can explain”. “To find el duende there is no map nor exercise”, he said. And when you experience flamenco you understand exactly what he means. You barely need to understand Spanish to understand the sentiment – the rhythm in the song, the rise and fall in pitch and the quickening of pace, the movement of the dancer as she conveys sorrow or joy.
I think Paris is schizophrenic. One is the city that exists in my head that comes from the hundreds of guidebooks I have read up and ‘top-10-favourite’ lists I have browsed in the Internet. Its an impression created by reviews in Trip advisor and hotel rates on Airbnb. And Rick Steves. It’s the city of the sights. The museums, the Louvre, the Monalisa, the Eiffel. And that’s the image I would form naturally before I ever visit Paris.
“I guess it goes to show that you just never know where life will take you. You search for answers. You wonder what it all means. You stumble, and you soar. And, if you’re lucky, you make it to Paris for a while.”–Amy Thomas
The other is the city that I see when I visit Paris. The surreal image that has been created by watching movies, reading love stories and listening to French pronounciations. One that surprises me that the long distances seem quite short actually; the enormous boulevards and pavements that are considerably wider than the roads; the naughty temperatures that seem to make a recorded 8 degrees in the evening seem warmer than the 16 degrees in the afternoon; the contrast between the bright patisserie, its even brighter furniture and the more underground areas or the grey and cream buildings from the era gone by that amazes me; the constant sound of music in my ears, even though there is silence.
These two cities can never be the same. Wandering the streets of Paris, I always forget all about the image I would have formed before my visit. Instead, it is replaced by reality: the Bohemian streets leading up to the Montmartre; our silhouettes framed by the peach and steel Renaissance architecture; the spot of a red flower peeking out of a window sill; the ornate street lamps against the mauve sunset that fixates my eyes; the river, like thick silk, draping and flowing when the tour ferries slice through the waters; or the small tables outside the cafes from which customers observe passers-by as if they were at the Grand Opera Garnier, watching a Mozart being performed.
But I get scared- what if, when I return home, Paris turns back into that city in my head, perhaps slightly modified by a few previous experiences? What if, the idea of head-over-heels romance, of dim lights, drunken nights, sheen of cobblestones under the rain, glisten of the slice of dusk light falling on the Sienne, does not come back to haunt me? What if it does? And, what if it never releases me of my wonder, debating whether what I saw while is for real, or is our mind playing games with us, fusing reality with the image in our heads?
That’s why I must always return.
And I did. A little trip this Spring. When the city is pink like a candy-floss with the cherry blossoms, summer sorbets, pink bonnets and bright nail-polishes! Predictably, the city pokes me and tells me that it never wasn’t ever about the Louvre, Sacré-Cœur, Notre Dame, or any other noteworthy site. Rather, it’s about the invigoration she will make me feel, when I walk the narrow streets of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, when I aimlessly watch people in the Jardin du Luxembourg, when I peek into strange galleries with stranger art on Rue de Sienne or Rue Jacob or simply discover a new arrondissement. So in summary, here’s what I did in Paris, this time when I returned: Anything. Everything. Nothing.
But even then, there are little things among the ‘nothings’ that I knew I needed to do, when I was in Paris. I said “bonjour” , no matter who I was dealing with. It is the custom. Walk into any shop and say “Bonjour” and see the difference. Without this magical word, you won’t be treated as nicely, I promise. Top it up with a “merci” and “au revoir” and let the magic begin! These are powerful words. Very powerful. Like, real power. I did the bisous, one air kiss on each cheek thingie- its a question of integrity, you see! And I smoked a cigarette!
The cigarette is as quintessential to Paris, as the vada-pav is in Mumbai. It is an art, like most things are in this city. You smoke with style. You kiss in style. And even if you are a hair-cutter in a saloon, you do that with the panache of an orchestra.
Which reminds me to tell you, that you must experience an Opera, if you haven’t already. The Opera Garnier is a building that evokes magic. Boasting an ostentatious Baroque design, the Opera Garnier is one of the most extravagant representations of Second Empire architecture in France. It was so easy to loose myself in its silent corridors; amazed by its rich architecture, and spellbound at the opulent decor. As was easy to imagine the swish of crinolines as I strolled through spaces filled with sparkling mosaics, colorful marble columns, and gold-leaf flourishes. It was a performance by the Academie.. a presentation of music by Mozart. Unforgettable, and etched to my memory.
You essentially need to be absent-minded, stroll, wander with an urban flare, casual and elegant at the same time-yet, do that with style. It is something the French call flânier, the concept of actually walking around a city to experience its every true attribute , instead of planning an itinerary. Observe the flirtatious exchanges taking place in sidewalk cafés, and walk off that extra pain au chocolat that you couldn’t resist! Here is my little cheat sheet for what stays in my memory from Paris…
- Cheese. There is nothing like the quality and the variety of choices. Cheese is not just food. It’s art noveaue!
- Croissant. Have you ever had a buttery, flaky croissant from the bakery first thing in the morning? It is life changing.
- Crepes. With Grand Marnier or Nutella. Who knew you could even get drunk on them? The first bite into a a crepe laden with the orange liqueur..and there’s that buzz!
- People dress well. Wearing yoga pants in public isn’t acceptable. You put on lipstick just to go around the corner to get bread!
- The city is beautiful. And, in Spring, it is pink. Candy floss pink! Light reflects off the white stone buildings in the most amazing ways. Even the moss around the old buildings look like it’s been manicured !
- Beret. Such a French hat!
- French toast. Nothing like what you are used to in India!
- Verbs. The French language has 14 verb tenses. English has 6. Go figure!
- Art. Even graveyards of Paris turned into a touristic attraction because artists were so in love with Paris that most of them decided to be buried here.
- Metro stations. Some of them are frames in their own rights. Louvre-Rivoli- whose station font, lighting, and featured artifacts makes you feel like you’re in the museum before you even leave the station. Or Arts et Métiers station, which is lined in copper and feels like the interior of a submarine; evoking Jules Verne.
- Macaroons. You haven’t tasted Paris, if you haven’t had a macaroon a day, baby!
- The Eiffel Tower sparkles. It really sparkles!!!
- Comics. French comics kick quite a lot of ass. They are called bandes dessinées. They are more expensive, larger in format, come on nice glossy paper, and are hard bound and often very erotic
- Sunday isn’t the best day of the week. This is purely for a visitor. ‘Cos I am sure the living-in Parisian revels in the glory of this slowness and unavailability! Stores close early or sometimes never open. Or have inconsistent and weird hours.
Finally when you learn how to correctly pronounce The Champs-Élysées and actually feel like a true Parisian while saying it, or can describe to a passer-by that the neighborhood you need to reach is Miromesmil, and they understand your French accent enough to direct you there, you know you have lived Paris fully.
Let’s face it — the thing I like best about London, is that there is always something new to discover, no matter how many times you have visited the city. There is an urge every time to see the city through new lenses. Last time I wanted to see it in black and white and capture the familiarity it builds around you. It dealt with knowing little secrets, a little history and a little trivia. But then, I could afford that because of the luxury of time. This time it was a three day stop-over, but the urge in me to discover something new took over yet another time. So, this time it was a new and absolutely fascinating neighborhood, and a hell of an unique restaurant that I stumbled upon.
Just north of Soho, near bustling Oxford Street, sits central London’s hidden neighborhood: Fitzrovia. Home to louche, boho types in the late 19th century (the Pre-Raphaelites and Oscar Wilde lounged in its bars), Fitzrovia’s leafy streets are lined with Edwardian-era apartments, neoclassical mansions, and onetime warehouses. The locality was first developed by Charles Fitzroy, lord of the manor of Tottenhall from 1757. ( You guessed right! The bordering tube station and the road Tottenham Court, is indeed derived from this name).
Fitzroy built the neighbourhood for the upper classes, but they soon migrated south-westwards to Belgravia and Mayfair neighbourhoods, forcing subdivision of the aristocratic houses into workshops, studios and rooms to let. Immigrants from France and neighbouring countries crowded in and helped establish the district as a centre for the furniture trade by the end of the 18th century. In fact, back then, George Bernard Shaw lived with his mother at 37 Fitzroy Street in the early 1880′s and then in Fitzroy Square from 1887 until his marriage in 1898. So, you can very well imagine that some of the better contributions to the arts—poets, designers, and musicians did emerge from this central London neighborhood’s dimly-lit public houses, music venues, and speakeasies. Closer ‘home’, the 189m tall BT Tower is roughly in the centre of the neighbourhood.
An ocean of concrete, industry, telecommunications, fashion, advertising, art houses, residential facades with a whiff of bohemia to it. A hijibiji of sorts. Chaotic and evocative.
It is in this neighbourhood, that I discovered Archipelago. Along with the lovely Fiona, a pleasant little walk led us to this restaurant. It offers a menu which animal rights activists would kill for (literally kill for). Actually if you don’t eat animals, just look away now.
The experience starts from the minute you walk in.
(It really starts earlier that day when you receive a call from the restaurant giving you your secret password… but that only happens if you answer your phone.. !)
Set up by South African Bruce Alexander, 11 years back, who wanted to move away from London’s ‘samey’ restaurants, it sources its food from all over the world – crocodile from Zimbabwe, Kangaroo from Australia, Gnu from South Africa and locusts and crickets from the rather less exotic Isle of Wight!
Wooden tribal masks, carved elephants and peacock feathers adorn the walls. A blinged-up Buddha in a sequined crop top watches diners from a corner. On the table, a treasure chest awaits with the menu printed on a tea-stained scroll. It’s rather like stumbling into the attic of a well-travelled but slightly eccentric aunt! Snuggled deep within the winding roads between Regents Park and Oxford Circus, this exotic eatery offers global delicacies of an exciting, stimulating and often unexpected nature. A truly hidden diamond and one that not many Londoners are familiar with, Archipelago will make your jaw drop, your mind dream, and your eyebrows curl with every stunning plate.
It’s a bold claim but the 35-seater restaurant has undoubtedly been a success. It’s never had to advertise – word of mouth being a powerful enough tool to drive people through the door – and it’s even seen some famous faces. I read somewhere that Prince William and Kate had an intimate soiree there (well, as intimate as it can be with four bodyguards).
So with a glass of rose in hand, it was time to sink our teeth into the food. First up, crocodile- very emphatically called ‘Cayman Islands’. Creedon- the chef who trained as a classical French chef , as his previous engagement, has effectively tried to fit as many different cuisines on one plate – crocodile from Africa, Thai curry paste, Chinese plum sauce and vine leaves from Greece – and somehow it works quite well.
This was, of course, a first time for me, and I think the taste, soft and flaky, is somewhere between a chicken and a lobster. The penang curry marinade and the slightly bitter vine leaves it’s wrapped in kept it moist and salty, perfectly complemented by the deep plum dipping sauce. It was laid graciously on a bed of samphire, another new vegetable that was on my discovery platter that day. Its a plant of the parsley family, which grows on rocks and cliffs by the sea, with aromatic leaves and a twig like appearance. Resembles the Rajasthani ker sangri, if anyone has had that before?
Fiona played it safe all along with her ordering, except for the crocodile that we shared!
She ordered chicken. Saigon Seduction is – quite prosaically – an Oriental chicken curry with poppy seed rice and deep fried diced potatoes.
Then came the kangaroo, in skewers, aptly called ‘Hot Marsupial’
I have to admit I was a bit nervous partaking in this strange new meat eating experience. However, I decided to give it a gander, and I am happy as hell to have hopped up to the plate. I wasn’t given a steak knife, and was cheerfully surprised at the ease in which I cut the meat with a dinner knife. I had to clear my mind of the image of some jumpy animal jumping around in the landscapes of Australia as I brought the fork up to my mouth. But, upon first chew I was elated to be partaking in this marsupial dining venture!
The meat was seared to a beautiful rare/medium rare and beautifully tender. It created a sumptuous savory bite that damn near melted in my mouth like butter, but not quite. The kangaroo itself was much less gamy than I had anticipated, I thought it would resemble venison, or even rabbit. It was a soft, luxurious flavor that harmonized extraordinarily well with the pepper marinade. Again, there were many continents and countries residing on this single plate. The roo from Australia, the red onion farofa from Brazil( a carb component made of toasted cassava flour mixture, with few nice spices), and the hot and sweet guandilla pepper salad from Spain, all packed in delicious goodness! With that was candied beetroot. I had fun pairing each bite of roo with a different ingredient from the salad- the sultry meat and the burst of the unexpected flavours of these accompaniments. The contrasting components brought out different characteristics of the kangaroo with every bite.
We skipped the exotic sides of love-bugs and silkworms, and dashed for the desserts. Not everyday do you hear this sentence in a restuarant in a serious tone : “We’re out scorpions and beetle, but we do have some crushed worms”. Thank God! Between us, we had two ‘safe’ desserts’- one was called the ‘Pharaoh’s treasure’ and the other innovatively called ‘An Englishman abroad’. The first one was a chocolate and cardamom soufflé served with white chocolate and curry ice cream and topped with 24 carat gold leaf. Adventurous? Or majestic? You tell me ! The other one was a jelly made of hibiscus, acai berry and raspberry, served with avocado custard and pistachio cream. As lovely as the lovely Fiona!
All this while, we were seated in plush red velvet armchairs. The interior kept us hooked between meals, with peacock feathers, tribal masks, golden and jewel-encrusted trinkets, and miniature palm trees distracting us every now and the, and making up just some of the painstakingly detailed pan-global décor that dominates the two small dining areas.
Archipelago transports you to an oasis that could be taken out from a book. And, some moments will be etched in memory in a strange sort of a way. Like the waiter with golliwog hair who stared straight into Fiona’s eyes with a questioning look on all that Fiona uttered-including a replacement of fresh cutlery.
At the end of the restaurant the large golden Buddha which looks down on guests with a calm, meditative gaze and leaving you to question your everyday necessities as you stumble off into the night, satisfied yet certainly eager for more…
If you haven’t heard of this ancient place, then you should. Banaras is the most visited pilgrimage destination in all of India. One of the seven Holy Cities, one of the twelve Jyotir Linga sites and also a Shakti Pitha site, it is the most favored place for Hindus to die and be cremated. Myths and hymns speak of the waters of the Ganges River as the fluid medium of Shiva’s divine essence and a bath in the river is believed to wash away all of one’s sins.
“Banaras is older than history, older than tradition, older than even legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together”- Mark Twain..
“Kashi” as locals calls it, is a city that should be savored slowly- almost like the ‘paan’ that comes associated with this name in its prefix. It is a city that you either like for its character or dislike for its dirt. So, while packing your suitcase, pack patience. Because, if you don’t wear that, it will be hard for you move along or experience it.
Be it, for allowing the musky smell of camphor to entice you, the sounds of hyms and chants to invigorate you, or even the ability to maneuver through the fresh cow-spills on the road! But once you give a margin to the filth and traffic, you will start liking the place. There is astonishing energy. There is a vibrant spirit among the people who call themselves as “Banarasis” whether they are rickshaw pullers, merchants or rich. There is an art of living, both passionate and carefree- “masti”, “mauj” or “Phakkarpan”. There is an enjoyment of life without ostentation.
If you had forgotten your simple childhood of mango trees and licking fingers with ‘churan‘, it re-teaches you that life is indeed about the simple pleasures– a bath in Ganges, simple ‘poori-subzi’ for breakfast, a mouth full of paan (betel nuts and other condiments wrapped in the tenderest and most succulent green leaves), a nap under a tree shade, a tall frothy glass of thandai with a dose of bhang – and you will say your day was fulfilling! The beauty about Varanasi is that one is never a mere spectator. You are always a part of the frame.
Nightlife exists but in a different form – and the soundscape is nothing short of intoxicating! The clang of temple bells ,chants, hyms, often interspersed with the ‘azaan‘ or some Bollywood music. It is an ambience of urbanity, good living and culture all which comes to be synonymous with the word “Banarasi”. Banaras is a place where living and dying are celebrated. A city where death is a celebration, where the netherworld, heavens and earth all meet.. symbolically perhaps representing the three spokes of the trident Shiva, the host god of this city, holds in his hands.
When I was a child I had (and still have) a deep attraction towards the tiny stories that sprung up from the larger mythological tales. This is a city that comes closest to bringing those stories to life. It is said that all great cities of the world lie next to a river, but never has a river changed its course to touch the banks of a city! It is perhaps the holiness of Banaras that makes the Ganga , till now flowing eastwards, suddenly veer north, as if reminded of her origin in the mountains where Shiva lived. Uttarvahini (northbound), is what the Ganga becomes, in Banaras. Life in this city flows along this one eternal river. A river as truthful as truth herself, and as ancient as history itself. At each sunrise,while we sailed past the ghats in our boat on the Ganga, and watched the steps that led up from the water to the shore, come to life, I would immerse myself in letting the stories that I had once listened peeling oranges on my bed in the winter sun, while Dida spun her yarn, come to life.
Like the story of how Lord Shiva saved the demon-king Sukeshi, from the fire stings of the angry Surya(Sun god), by staring so hard at him that the sun god himself hid in a cool talk, trembling in fear. That pond is the Lolarka Kund, in between the Assi Ghat and Tulsi Ghat. In my mind, a dark-blue silk robed Sukeshi, falling along with his aerial city between heaven and earth, folding his hands for mercy, and praying to his Lord Shiva, while his hair flies like the tributaries of the river..a picture so vivid! Assi Ghat hosts the recently introduced program called Subah-e-Benaras, a cultural programs, mostly for tourists comprising of a arati, school children singing hyms and chants, followed by a yoga ritual for everyone. Very touristy, but nonetheless beautiful.
Or the story of Nishadraj Guha, who was the king of Kevati, a small fishing hamlet on the banks of the Ganga. In the Ramayana, when Rama was sentenced to exile along with his wife Sita, and the doting Lakshmana it was here, near this hamlet, that he was dropped by the royal charioteer. Here he tied his hair into the hermit’s knot. They were to start their journey into the forest the next morning. While they slept that night Guha kept vigil and offered them fruits, berries and roots from the forest that would make them stronger for the tough journey ahead. Rama never forgot this act of kindness and this gesture of true friendship. Later when he returned from his exile, Nishad became his coveted friend and was even invited for his coronation ceremony. In honour of this mythical hero of fishermen, the Nishadraj ghat– a congregation point for fishermen and their boats, was built to honour him along with the Nishadraj temple. Fishermen an boatmen consider this ghat a pilgrimage of sorts, so testified Hanuman, our boatman!
A few oars down was Chet Singh ghat which is a fortified ghat with a historical background. Thesite had witnessed a fierce battle between the British troops of Warren Hastings and former Maharaja of Banaras Chet Singh in 1781. It now boasts of an impressive façade with turrets flanking a giant gateway. Not to mention, it is an impressive component of a backdrop for photographing the Ganga skyline!
Every ghat has a story- either mythological, religious or historical. Harishchandra was a king of the Suryavanshi (the Solar dynasty), famous for his piety and scrupulous adherence to justice that he wouldn’t cremate even his dead son without a fee. Named after him, this ghat is one of the two cremation grounds in Banaras. Rana Mahal ghat, Darbhanga ghat– both have magnificient palaces- The Rana Mahal has beautiful Rajasthani turrets and filigree of stonework in its balconies, and the Darbhanga made of sandstone has grand porches and Greek pillars. At the Manikarna ghat lies a dramatic temple, half sunk into the river. Legend has it, that a nobleman decided that he would build a temple to repay the debt that he owed to his mother for giving birth to him and for bringing him up. But the temple tilted and half sunk into the river- since no son (or daughter, for that matter) can ever repay his mother’s debts. Panch Ganga ghat is superbly imposing with the tall minarets of the Dharahara mosque built by Aurangzeb and the cluster of shorter temples around it.
Dusk turns the river bank near Dasashwamedh ghat into an enchanting place, as the wondrous Ganga arati is performed. Wooden platforms are laid out on the ghat and 7 priests take their positions. Signifying an auspicious start of anything divine and good is the sound of a conch shell in Hinduism; this too starts with the melodious siren of the conch. They chant mantras and trill a bell, and several others start playing cymbals and drums and the ‘dumroo‘, Shiva’s favourite instrument. The river, Ganga maiya is first worshipped with flowers, insence, milk, sindoor and sandalwood. Camphor lights a lamp bowl that sets ablaze in brilliance. The smell of camphor and white jasmines, sweet smell of marigold and rose petals fills up the place and you feel heady and almost in a state of trance. Its a choreographed sequence of positions and turns, prescise movements of hands and fingers that carry conch shells, garlands, incense sticks, bells and multi-tiered lamps with the same panache. As the music reaches a crescendo, the whole atmosphere drowns in the richness of sounds, sights and smells. By then the crowd is spirited and almost possessed. “Harr Harr Mahadevaaaa!”
Gowdolia crossing is quite simply the most chaotic spot in Banaras!Rickshaws, scooters, cycles, motorbikes, auto-rickshaws, determined locals, confused Indian pilgrims and backpacking tourists on foot mingle and dart in different directions. If you stood at the centre at looked at any direction, it would seem like two shoals of fish flowing in opposite directions. Magically, each vehicle is keenly aware of its neighbor, and reacts to it. Side view mirrors of two wheelers are turns in at all times. Amidst all this, loudspeakers, alternately broadcasting religious songs and political speeches add to the din. From here you can choose any galli, that you want to explore. The total length of Banaras’s gallis is said to be 480 kms! Narrow labyrinth lanes barely wide enough for two people of ample girth to pass through! These are the cities nervous system, but have building, often three stories high with narrow doors, steep steps,and ornate verandahs on the top, and crammed bustling shops on the ground floor selling bangles, fabric, sweets, souvenirs, charms, God posters and miniatures. Most names of gallis are synonymous with what they sell through it. So there is Kachori galli, Khoya galli,Kunj galli, Paan dariba, etc.
In one such (much hyped and famous), called Vishwanath galli– a galli leading to the Kashi Vishwanath temple, sits Dasgupta, with his 180 year old business of pan masalas and ittar! Generous trials of every kind led me to buy a half dozen varieties from him. Kasturi ittar for Dida, and jasmine for my mother. And, apart from his products being paid in cash, he found his long lost soul friend in our own Balaji.. smearing him with oodles of affection, a strong scented ittar which he promised wont go away before a week! We quickly had to take Balaji to have more helpings of the malai lassi, so that he could forget this ‘act’ as quick as possible!
Banaras is a land of temples. In a country where today political preferences outsize religion in so many instances, it is simply amazing how in the most ancient site of salvation for Hinduism, stands the oldest Hindu temple in the world, sharing a common wall with a masjid. The beating heart of Varanasi, Vishwanath Temple is dedicated to Lord Shiva and is the holiest of the 12 revered jyotirlingas in the country. So much is the austerity, that even its glimpse is said to be auspicious. The mosque alongside is known as the Jnana Vapi(well of wisdom), named after a well of the same name. It is believed that the Jyotirlinga was hidden in this well to protect it at the time of an invasion and the main priest jumped in the well with the Shivalinga in order to protect it. Some say visiting this temple is written in your destiny. Setting step on this ancient site, whispering your wish-list into the ears of Nandi, who is Shiva’s vahaan, does run a chill down your spine. In spite of the rush and hurriedness of the visit, the darshan will remain as of my most coveted ones.
“gaṅgā taraṅga ramaṇīya jaṭā kalāpaṃ
gaurī nirantara vibhūṣita vāma bhāgaṃ
nārāyaṇa priyamanaṅga madāpahāraṃ
vārāṇasī purapatiṃ bhaja viśvanādham ”
(Oh Lord of Varanasi, whose locks look charming with the ripples of the Ganga; who is ever adorned on His left by Gauri (Shakti), beloved of Narayana, the destroyer of Cupid’s pride.)
Our little trip to Banaras helped some of us make new friends. Paradoxically in one of the oldest cities in the world. We together did a lot of things.. plunged into the Ganga off a boat, devoured the delicious tamatar chaat, licked off malaiyo and kesari doodh from earthen cups, sipped kullad chai by the hour starting from sunrise, buy dozens of pretty bangles, haggle over Banarasi sarees, buy ‘prasad‘ at the sarkari bhang ki dukaan, pose for photographs… and finish our meals with the most delicious Banarasi paan!
Long before Dhanush made my heart flutter on the sets of Ranjhaanaa, a movie shot in this city, and long before Deepa Mehta’s ‘Water’ was stoned with controversy, there was an essential urge in me to visit this city; with ghats that are both dreamy and dramatic, poignant and filled with life, majestic, yet timid in front of the might river that has the power to wash away sins. The essential character of the city is in its bonhomie of colours and the bohemian spirit of its people. There is a feeling of the millennia, of the past, and of the traditions which the city carries in its personality.
The pink sunrise in the morning, the golden arati in the evening, staring at the evening sky lying on a boat, as twilight turns into the river-town into an enchanting kaleidoscope..the saffron of the ascetics during the day and the sound of water lapping against the ghats at night. It wouldn’t have been wise to plan our days in Banaras, like it wouldn’t be just, not to visit this place yet another time.
ts in this spontaneity that I fell in love with this city, and its in this urge that I wish to lose myself in its lap discovering the architecture, re-living more stories from my childhood and straying in time, drowned by the spirituality. But then again, I would be in the city of Shiva, the city of light. Could I possibly lose my way?
Never has brewing tea made me more nervous. In fact, I now tremble and take a deep breath before I dare to make that first pour into the teapot. I take extra care with the water temperature for the first brew now. The spectre of burning my tea leaves on the first brew looms. I don’t even dare to use a thermometer to measure water temperature. “Feel it with your heart. Learn it with the palm of your hand and fingers in relation to the changing environment.” – had said a wise man, once.
I am back from a short stop-over at Makaibari, the first ever tea factory in the world, with tea plantations across seven villages. Few weeks back while we were driving the tea gardens through the serpentine slopes of Pankhabari, I wasn’t sure we were quite ready for what awaited us when we reached the factory.
The Banerjee family who owns the estate was such a delight to meet. In his office, Rajah Banerjee in his baritone voice ordered cups of ‘muscatel’ to be brought to us. Served within a few minutes were porcelain cups filled with honey coloured liquid gold, often known as the ‘Champagne of teas’. It did have musky-sweet tasting notes similar to muscatel wine.
What a perfect relaxing colour that was! Tea making is an art, as much as it is a science and they say you need to brew a tea 20 times to get it perfect. This fact is not an unknown one for me, for I have grown up in a family that treats these finer details like religion. Makaibari isn’t a unfamiliar name either. I have clear memories of when Baba would manage a sachet of Makaibari (Makaibari tea was never available in retail outlets- you needed to know ‘someone’ who can get a packet for you) and brew the tea at home with ceremonial precision.
As Rajah Banerjee started to explain to the smallest tea connoisseur of our family(Nyja), that the drink is really a magic potion, the senior most Basu in our group, did the un-thinkable! He asked for sugar.. SUGAR. Rajah Banerjee, in his usual calm charm, looked in my direction and in his resonant voice said, ” When you go home, boil him some water with sugar and make a syrup. That’s what he deserves. Not tea”. Udayan rolled his eyes in disbelief of what just happened. Needless to say, ‘insulting’ tea like this is sacrilegious in itself, but doing that in the office of the ‘king’ of teas is pure blasphemy! Unlike the uninitiated, I knew that.
That, Makaibari cannot have sugar. Unfortunate that I hadn’t coached him well in this subject. Magnanimous, as most kings are, the king showered his forgiveness and Basu was not to be arrested, was the dictum! And, almost as a token of his forgiveness, we were escorted as guests in their sprawling bungalow, up a little hill opposite the factory.
The living room is a space straight out of the sets of Tara Shankar Bandopadhyay’s ‘Jalshaghor’, complete with stuffed pursuits of hunts carried out by generations before, family portraits, carved furniture, bay windows that open out into vast gardens, and a library that makes you jealous. Add to that pretty plates that serve you pink iced pastries that melt like smooth nostalgia in your mouth. And tea from the kitchens of the Makaibari home, for which, by now you know, you don’t add sugar!
Well that explains my nervousness in making today’s cup of tea.
But I am also back from a trip to Darjeeling, a town that hovers along the ridge of the Himalayas with red roofs of its houses cascading down its slopes, and that explains my excitement. Every Bengali’s jia-nostal, to me Darjeeling should be famous for a lot of other things than its tea! It should stand apart for offering the most spectacular view of the Himalayas from any civilized place. For a whole range of powder white that goes on and on across the horizon, there can be nothing to compare with the view of the Kanchendzonga and its mighty cohorts which rise and fall in glistening pinnacles.
During the days of the Raj, or British Crown rule of the Indian subcontinent, Darjeeling became known as the Queen of the Hill Stations. It was a remote settlement of a few scattered villages when the British took over in the mid-1800s. By establishing a sanitorium, introducing the tea industry, building schools, and constructing a railway line, they created a thriving town that provided a refreshing escape from the heat of the plains, with a vibrant population of Europeans, Anglo-Indians, Tibetans, Nepalis, Sikkimese, Bhutanese, and Bengalis.
The first time I would have traveled the winding road from the plains up to Darjeeling, I was a little girl. On a winter afternoon over thirty years later, when I set off on the same road, the smell of the Himalayan air felt like no stranger. The same steep lanes wound between old villas and shops and, in the surrounding hills, orchids and rhododendrons still flourished. A day after Christmas it was, that we headed up the mountains, invisible in the winter mist at first, but proving its existence by popping our ears. The lower slopes of the foothills were polka-dotted with tea bushes, and little villages made up of multi-coloured houses clung to the edge of the steeply ascending road, decorated with poinsettia bushes, bougainvillea and pots of marigolds.
When in Darj, even if all you did was stare at the Kanchendzonga, all day, the experience is nothing less than a symphony. The name Kanchenjunga is derived from four words of Tibetan origin, usually rendered Kang-chen-dzo-nga or Yang-chhen-dzö-nga and interpreted in Sikkim as the “Five Treasuries of the Great Snow.”
In warm morning light, the rampant brush of the sun with its careless spread of emblazoned colours, kissed the tiered audience of low and erratic ridges standing out of a white carpet. And, you get lost in the white. In the afternoon, the whitening sun is so bright and round atop the peak, that you can almost feel its playing ‘tip-the-point’ game. Its an easy view, maybe just marred by occasional afternoon mists.
The sky is blue, and the snow ranges are stark white, dazzling in its pearly brilliance. If you happen to take a late afternoon stroll through the Chowrasta, it partly veiled view tempts you and makes you want to wait for the evening. When the sun is about to set, the mountains wear a glamorous look. Imagine how rich a place can be when it offers a ruby coloured sun, embellishments of topaz, amethyst and amber scattered in a labradorite sky, and jade, jaspers and peridots dotted against pearly white mountains! That’s a business-as-usual twilight sky up in this Himalayan town.
I wouldn’t mind if I just did this ‘business’ for a few days. And hence, I didn’t want to make too many plans. The dumplings had excitement beyond visible measures because like ‘Dora-the Explorer’ they could wear their snow suits, snow caps and gloves! They did their own ‘me-time’ thing.. over the quintessential ‘cha-biskut’ and ‘adda’, often drawing figures on smoky glass panes made frosty with their own warm breath.
I was happy that I could get my red long-coat out of my wardrobe that I last wore in fall in Toronto. And the man was thrilled that his hip-flask was loaded. The first evening back in our hotels was magical. As the valley darkened with golden filigree, and the sky turned amethyst we sat facing our hotel windows and sipped ‘Rus-tea Nail’ (Our version of my favourite Rusty Nail that has Drambuie and Whisky, only served over tea, this time).
We did one tourism-centric thing during our trip which was taking the ropeway across Rangeet valley which we don’t regret. Stationed across a little hillock across the majestic North Point School, the two hour long wait to board the cable car, is definitely worth that investment. The ropeway takes about 20 minutes each side, and plummets down from the North Point to the Takvar Valley tea estate. As the trolley glides over the beautiful hill station, neatly sequenced tea gardens and quaint cottages, what you really get to see are beautiful vistas that make your eyes dreamy and hungry.
The next evening we took a pair of extremely well-behaved children to have dinner at the famed Windermere Hotel. Originally a cozy boarding house for bachelor English and Scottish tea planters during the 1800s, it is now a hotel remembered best by sophisticated travellers. It doesn’t fail to stir the romantic imagination one has of buildings of this nature! And, why not? ‘A room called Alice’ is a single room; ‘ Daisy’s Music room’ is a place for conversations, music and tea by the fireplace and the Bearpark’s Parlour is a lovely sitting area with a grand piano and a fireplace! Dining there was like dining with your extended family.
The day time’s lunch, I am sure would be warm and polite, but the evening transforms the dining room into a candlelit affair, with soft music floating around in the ether. White-gloved waiters with swallow like tail-coats glide in and around the tables serving delectable British and Indian fare and soft conversations flow..
Each evening of the two days we would drive down from Darjeeling to Ghoom. By 5 it would be dark, and the winding path along the ridge would make us witness the splendid colours of twilight. The roads looked so pretty in comparison to their congested day avatar. Trains by night are far prettier than the day in my opinion.
The mountains tell us their story and help us create ours. It’s been two weeks since I returned. But still my tryst with Darjeeling in the warm morning sun remains memorable. Little children with plump apple cheeks who frolic in the sweet winter sun; prayer flags that fly in the mountain breeze, and the iconic steam engine that chugs along the bustling roads in the hilly-town. It simply refuses to fade away in the midst of the hustle, bustle of city I call home today. And in the cacophony of this city, I can still hear the sound of the wind rustling through my ears as I stood on top of the mountain watching the clouds beneath me getting colored red by the setting sun.
I guess, the mountains will beckon again. Soon.
There’s a slight crispness in the early morning air in Kolkata, almost making it comparable to the nip we are so fond of in Bangalore. The after-effects of the strong showers from the last afternoon hasn’t caused Calcutta to give up it’s resilience in coming back with the briny, balmy humidity, even before the clock strikes 8am..
That’s autumn, a season which welcomes to the city the worship of a deity, who, we believe in all might, has slain the evil, and brought harmony and good to the world. It’s the season of amiable abundance; a time for religion, art and business to blend together. Revellers and late night troopers will once again create frenzy in the streets. The smell of something divine will fill the air with the promise of a much-awaited celebration. Crossroads and street markets will be teeming with eager, restless, swearing and overenthusiastic last-minute shoppers. And soon the city will turn into a mix of religious event, a cultural occasion, a music festival, a literary fair, a food festival, a fashion show — all rolled into one. Nothing short of a carnival!
Bengal is in a hysterical excitement to welcome its beloved daughter, Durga, to her maternal, worldly home..the ‘City of Joy’ will now forget it sorrows and revel in its own pandemonium, unmatched by anything else and… live up to its name!
What Montmartre is to Paris, and SoHo to New York, is what Kumortuli is to Kolkata. Nestled in the lap of north Calcutta’ ornamental past, is a potters’ quarter called Kumartuli. Its winding lanes are home to an artistic community that carry on a centuries-old tradition- making idols of the Gods.
Following the British colonization of Bengal in the eighteenth century and the creation of the settlement that would become the teeming metropolis of Kolkata, workers in various industries were allocated quarters. These warrens soon became identified with the activity carried out within them.
For example, in Bengali “kumor” means “sculptor” and “tuli” means place. Separate districts were allotted to the Company’s workmen – Suri-para (alcohol locality) for wine sellers, Coll-tollah ( machine locality)for folks dealing in oiling machines, Choottor-para became carpenters hub, Aheer-tollah – cowherd’s quarters and Coomar-tolly for potters.
It is here in Kumartuli that human hands started giving birth and shape to the divine, over the years. The narrow lanes are now flooded with mud figures, and a bevy of artists bring them to life. And needless to say, Durga Puja is the most elaborate and important for the potters: the rotund Ganesh, the handsome Kartik, the riveting goddess Lakshmi, the serene one Saraswati and the majestic Durga, jostle for space in the labyrinth of Bonomali Sarkar street, the nerve center of Kumortuli. Flanked by cavernous workshops that are packed with large idols of Durga and her four children in various stages of completion, wiry artisans squat on the street, kneading the clay or working on smaller idols, ignoring the attention of curious passersby and amateur photographers.
“You are taking photos… do you have a ticket?” a voice warns me from behind a partially opened door!“You’ll have to buy one.” It’s about 8am in the morning, and the workshops are slowly opening its doors. Sitting atop a wooden tool in a workshop that is crammed with incomplete clay images of the goddess, the elderly artisan, clad only in a soiled lungi, is almost apologetic when he says that and hands over the pink slip, and provides a short explanation on how this is so that there isn’t damage done by careless photographers who aren’t cognizant of where their tripods are poking and kit bags are protruding!
It’s strange how you find art everywhere in Kolkata. Like Rome. Or London. Kumortuli is a great example of how the mundane in Kolkata can be so terribly artistic. It appears making Durga idols is not just the livelihood of the people living in this tiny neighborhood- it is a way of life that embraces creativity .
But the best of creativity springs up from areas that don’t have an ecosystem nor a conducive environment for artists to thrive. And this area is no exception. They create, and they live their lives in shambles. Every aspect is geared to suit their livelihood. Their professions engulf their lives. In every narrow lane and tiny alley you see piles of hay stacked outside homes, bags and bags of plaster of Paris kept in makeshift sheds, mounds of clay lying around.
There are also umpteen number of shops selling shiny accessories and garlands, all of which go to adorn the deity, including fabrics, silk and satin stocked on shelves in these crowded shops. And in-between all this are vignettes of daily life-There is the grumpy , sickle-bent elderly woman peering curiously from within a shack; a little boy in all his agility prancing through the alleyways playing peek-a-boo; an old man in a red and white checkered loin cloth( we call them ‘gamchas’)settles on a stone and pours water from a rusty tin bucket to begin a morning ritual of washing and scrubbing.
The household women hurl an assortment of clothes across makeshift washing lines high above their rooftops which soon begin to billow in the gentle breeze that blows in from the river. There is the friendly younger generation lad using the reflection of a hand mirror to shave his beard while his young doe-eyed bride makes rutis/cooks rice over the ‘unoon‘. And then there are the artists- toiling away at the clay in their hands. Dexterous movements, moulding with expertise; mixing, trimming, chipping, pinching, slabbing, coiling away. Even when they pause to look up, their hands don’t stop! They keep at it…kneading, shaping, patting the clay, mixing water bit by bit.
“This is commissioned by the neighborhood that has the statue of Kumar Sanu in their local park”, says an elderly artist, with thick framed specs dangling precariously at the tip of his nose. “The statue was feeling lonely; so they wanted his wife’s statue beside it!” .. he himself giggled at how preposterous some customer demands can be.
There are about 500 odd workshops near Kumortullly Pally— that are run by families that have been into idol-making and pottery for generations. During the Puja season, they hire extra hands from across the smaller settlements of Bengal because making the idols of Goddess Durga is a grand affair. The goddess, after all, does not like to be presented alone in a pandal: she must be accompanied by her four children, not to mention the lion she rides and the curly-haired, muscular demon she is shown slaying. And with Kolkata extending its arteries and with Bengalis reaching newer shores across the globe, the demand for idols has gone up over the years. ” This one will be shipped to Germany tomorrow”, says Neepa Dey. Another tiny Ganesh idol was being packed, and I was forbidden to click that, as it was due for an award later that week. Kumartuli is known to create close to 4,000 sets of Durga idols every year, and that calls for a lot of work — work that demands perfection, attention to detail and creativity.
Several artists are busy applying clay on the protruding bellies or bosoms. One of them is in a meditative state as he works on the goddess’ fingers. Strewn on his table are a set of clay fingers, each large enough to befit the 12-ft idol. He picks them up, one by one, and delicately runs his fingers on them to impart them his masterly touch, to make them look as human as possible. The Goddess is getting a manicure done, and soon will get a pedicure!
A typical Kumortuli idol, is made of bamboo and hay — the bamboo serving as the skeleton and hay the flesh. Once the structure is ready, it gets a skin of entel maati, a sticky variety of clay procured from the bed of the Hooghly. Once it dries up, the finishing touches are given with bele maati, a finer variety of clay which also comes from the river. The idols are always pre-ordered and never sold off-the-shelf. Every Kumortuli family is rigid about the time, place and quality of the earth picked up from different places in Uluberia, especially where the river flows towards the south.
The special kind of straw used for the basic ‘flesh’. The bamboo comes from Murshidabad and is kept immersed in water near Baranagar so that termites cannot enter the hollows. The painting in of the eyes of the Mother Goddess has ritualistic connotations. “We must take a bath and wear fresh clothes before we begin to paint in the eyes. The oldest in our family gets the honour to do this”, says Madhusudan, an almost septuagenarian artist, proudly smiling and pointing his index finger towards his chest . There is a certain naivety and innocence in the voice of these koomors . They make their work sound like religion. Things like these that amaze and dazzle me every time I visit my city.
Rabindra Sarani, the biggest road, just outside this labyrinth is now buzzing with activity at 10am. Most shops are open. The sporadic traffic lays bare the pair of glistening tram lines stretched out on the road. Running on them now, however, are not trams but the occasional taxi and autorickshaw and, of course, the human horses — lungi-clad, weather-beaten men pulling rickshaws with the strength of their bones. I munch some hot kochuri and spicy aloor dom, hot off the stove. The perfect Sunday breakfast.
Even after so many years of being attached to my city, one would think I am biased. But the beauty actually lies in the fact that it still provokes me to be judgmental. The intense kinds, that you can be, only when you are passionately in love with someone. I realized, my first feeling for Kolkata still depends a lot on how I enter the city. If I come in a train and alight at the Howrah station, I drive into a city that is a captive of its own long-standing demeanor — the epochal bridge, the caterpillar trams, hand-pulled rickshaws, pavements turned into living-rooms and bedrooms by poor migrants, frail colonial-era buildings emitting a whiff of heritage and fade.
It’s a warm and simple feeling. Like a cup of sweet tea in a hill station. On the contrary, if I fly down to Kolkata and take the Rajarhat Road into the city, the landscape is utterly different, and so are my feelings: upscale high-rises, state-of-the-art offices of IT giants, jazzy malls- that make me amazed, cautious and smart. North Kolkata, where lies the roots of the city, is still a stranger to me continuing to awe me like the kid at a toy store. It is still the dynamic living museum of the era just gone by, totally reminiscent in the Calcutta I have seen in black-and-white Bengali movies, while growing up… and Kumortoli was just a perfect example.
Incredible energy, creativity and culture coming your way. Let’s just say that Jodhpur ‘blue’ me away, like it did the first time I visited the bustling old town. Around the majestic Mehrangarh fort’s feet, Jodhpur unfolds into a jumble of blue-hued houses, medieval buildings and winding streets. The graceful havelis, ornately arched gates and temples strewn throughout the city bring alive its famed historic grandeur.
Set in stark contrast against the harsh backdrop of the Thar, the azure-painted houses in Jodhpur have earned it the nickname ‘The Blue City’. There are several stories behind the city’s unique colour. The most convincing one says that, it was the Brahmins who first took to painting their houses blue, as a mark of proclaiming supremacy- a practice that was later followed by everyone else.
The muscular fort, always compelling and distracting had me in her fist even when I decided not to visit it this time. With no itinerary, but just a focus and extreme curiosity to know about life in the blue lanes drew me to the city this time. Real houses, real hopstality and the sweetest chai served by effervescent 10 year olds! Thus, began my vicarious journey.
It was past 5 pm, when I reached the fort gates. The sun was mellow, and there was a breeze in the air, although a little tepid, would tell anyone that monsoon was around the corner. And, indeed it was. Teej and Rakhsha Bandhan was a week away.
In Rajasthan, Teej is the festival of swings. It marks the advent of the monsoon. An occasion to rejoice in the desert. Late afternoons that promise you rain, early evenings where you can look straight into the eye of the sun, and a twilight of storm clouds that drench your soul as does the promise of a shower in the night hours. Hukum Ram was my host that evening. Serving fine courses of Rajasthani fare in the beautiful Choulakhiya Gardens of the fort as a day job, he stays in the staff-quarters, down the slopes of the ramparts with his family and other colleagues. And, it isn’t everyday that he receives requests from single Indian women travelers to have chai and kachori at his house.
The sun was about to set, and fort gates were closing. As I walked down the path, with the citadel on my left and the rampart wall to my right, I could almost feel goosebumps. The mighty king of forts was in his royal best, as if victorious after a valiant fight. Imposing, terrific and powerful. The Satsuma sun laid its graceful rays on the city below, as if sprinkling on the blue hues ochre marigold shaves, viola petals or carpets of bougainvillea dust! It is not without reason that they say that it isn’t just Rajasthan’s past that shines in a hundred hues. Its present is equally vibrant. As the ladies sat outside their homes in the staff quarters waiting for the menfolk to arrive, the combination of their bright dupattas, the paints on the walls of their houses, fluorescent and shock-colored turbans; the fuchsia, tangerine and crimson sarees; the rust and coffee colour of the soil, all came alive under the umbrella of the twilight hues.. I can’t recollect anything else that can be more eclectic than this.
A group of young boys were running around. The youngest ones, exchanging laughter, were focusing on straightening a few kites that they laid out in front of them; some older ones were checking their phones(perhaps taking selfies, if I observed correctly!), and some matured ones, staring into the horizon. Without any hesitation, I joined them.. dangling my legs, staring into the horizon, sharing their space and joy!
I learnt new things that day. For child on that terrace that day, no matter how old or young he is, armed with a simple diamond-shaped kite, a spool of thread and a bit of precious sharp manjha, kite flying is one of the most liberating experiences. As dusk sets in, the sound of “Woh kata!”, (there, the string is cut!) resounds in the sky and the kites take center stage. From simple diamond shaped kites to designer ones, they all try to soar to unimaginable heights. “On a good day”, says one of them, “one of us can even bring in a few free kites after hectic battles in the sky. On a bad day, we have to chase any fallen kite that hasn’t been claimed yet. Either way, the fun never ends!” Daya is Hukum’s son. Along with his little brother Dharmendra and a bunch of other young blokes, they had been sitting on the wall of the fort that faces the setting sun. Undoubtedly they have the best views in the city. A room with a view, like they say. “So, do you study?”, I asked him, sipping my chai, munching my kachori and looking at him stare into the eye of the sun ahead. “Yes! I am in the 1st year of college now”. “What’s your favourite subject”, I ask him. ” Well, I want to be an astronomer, but Baba wants me to study history so that I can secure a job as a professional guide in this fort”.
In a place like Jodhpur, hearing a 17 year old Daya talk about his dream of becoming an astronomer suddenly puts you in perspective of a lot of things. Of battles all of us fight; of demons that sometimes don’t allow us to do things we want to do. Maybe Daya will never end up an astronomer. Or perhaps he will discover a new planet in his lifetime. He dreams his dreams.
Of new constellations, complicated telescopes or disappearing galaxies. His Baba, dreams of his. Job security, maintaining his heritage and pride, and of his support in his old age.
But today, if you saw the snippy Daya, you would know that what mattered to him, right now was the company of his friends, his little brother who dotes on him, the monsoon clouds brewing in the sky, the intensity of the sun ahead and the breeze that flirted with his hair and the kites. In life, things happen around us, things happen to us, but the only thing that truly matters is how you choose to react to it and what you make out of it. Life is all about leaning, adopting and converting all the struggles that we experience into something positive. The sun was setting. A large ball, dropping graciously below the horizon. Starting a new say , in some other part of the world. I learnt new things that day. I also learnt how to fly a kite!
“What is the neighbourhood below called, Daya?”, I probed. Beneath me each shade of blue had already started telling me its own story. It gets all the more enchanting when perched atop the fort during sunset, when the setting rays fall upon the electric blue buildings and shades of the setting orange, mixed with blue of rising night, serves you a warm, yet seducing colour palette. The visual contrast, the soothe to the eyes, none stops short at taking your breath away! “Bhrampuri. And behind that, is Chandpole”, he says.
Jodhpur’s oldest residential area, as old as the fort itself is Brahmpuri, the settlement of the Brahmins. Their houses packed together along narrow streets and washed blue with indigo to deflect the summer heat and create shade. Later, others too adopted the blue outer façade giving rising to the synonym ‘blue city’. As we sat dangling our legs and chatting about this and that, temple bells down below started chiming. Beneath me, the blue city was showing me different sights. On my right the town was the densest blue. As your eye moves from right to left, so does the density of the colour. If you glide your eyes with a panoramic view to the far right, there are hardly any blue spots. That’s Sodagaran, home to the Jama Masjid, the largest mosque in the city. And, predictably without any Brahmins houses. Hymns by the red-robe cladded Brahmins below filled the air with spirituality and vibrations I have never felt before. The sound getting denser to my right. I close by eyes, and let the smell of incense mesmerize me. Then the sweetest of interventions happen. From the left, where one sees the Jama Masjid, starts the evening Namaaz. And thus results the beautiful subset of the chants of Krishna interspersed with Allah ho Akbar. Divine experience, yes..but nothing short of a dream!
Blues and Brahmins
It was almost 10am when I reached Bhrampuri the next morning. The word ‘Bhram’ means a maze. It is also a derivation of the word ‘Brahmin’- the highest, most adulated and priestly caste of the Hindu caste system. Local legends claim that the old town of Jodhpur was planned in the form of human body; Mehrangarh Fort, the seat of the King represents the head of the body, the right hand ( neighborhoods of Bhrampuri and Chandpole) represents the Brahmins or the priest community. The left hand (the center part of the city surrounding the fort), was for ministers important feudal lords, landlords and other people who were appointed for the Durbar for the services of the Royal Court. The stomach of the body denotes traders and merchants, engaged in trade and commerce. The legs, or the periphery represent all the manual laborers. Bhrampuri was a sensory delight. Inside is a tangle of winding, glittering, medieval streets, which never seem to lead where you expect them to, scented by incense and ghee, roses and sewers, with priests in red garbs and donkeys paired together to carry their load up and down the steep turquoise alleys.
The residents of Jodhpur are extremely proud of the city’s blue color. Pride in the abundance of the higher caste who mark their supremacy, royalty and power. And which is become an acceptable reasoning. Or a more “scientific “reasoning of the colour indigo keeping their houses cooler during the peak summer months of the desert climate. However, the true reason for Jodhpur’s blue color is more practical motivated than artistic reasoning. The dry arid environment of which Jodhpur is located is blighted by termites. The small insects damaged and destroyed the traditional building techniques which involved the exterior being coated in lime wash. It was discovered that the termites were repelled by copper salt compounds and these were added in low concentrations to the lime washes. Copper solutions under certain conditions produce blue compounds and this was true of the materials applied to the exterior of Jodhpur’s houses. The Brahmin class was the only one could afford the copper sulphate lime washes and applied it to their houses which were concentrated in just one area of the city. It is therefore commonly thought that the Brahmins painted their houses the blue color to emphasize their royal connection when in actual fact they were the ones only able to afford the specialist exterior paint.
She greeted me with the eyes of an innocent doe. Padmavati. With her distant cousin in Nagpur, as her only connection to the world outside the blue. And out of the blue, seeing me, from a place that she will never travel to, sparkled her eyes. She finished her task of cleaning the front raised porch, so that her husband, a coveted priest in the Krishna temple can sit on when he returns from work. Quick to check the time, so that she isn’t delayed when the husband returns and demands food, she pulls me by my hand and takes me down the alley into a sort of clearing. What followed next was a bit of a shock, really. Accented English, spoken by a half veiled lady inviting me to her shop called ”Morto Bellow”, and enticing me to apply mehendi! Why “Morto Bellow”, I ask her! “Because it is Italian, and will attract tourists!”, came the prompt reply. I led her on for a while, only to suddenly stop and make every effort to reply back to her in Hindi. And so we conversed. She is her English, and me in my Hindi. And just like that, in a jiffy, with her super accented, quarter correct English and my apparent ‘foreign’ look and pure Hindi, we became friends! Nanda. A rebel in her society of women. Runs a tiny handicraft store that secretly employs young brides, usually married to sexagenarians of this upper caste, who don’t believe in birth control. Married to a Brahmin who works in a government emporium up in the street bazars, Nanda christened herself to ‘Bobby’, and runs a establishment called ” Bobby Heena”, deciding to have a business of her own. That’s a name, she recons that is easy on the foreign tourists, as most definitely a store called ‘Morto Bellow’, would be! She wants her 10-year old son to be an engineer and marry out of caste. She wants to visit Rome. She wants to learn how to ride a bike. And she said to me, that she wants to live my life.
She listens to me bewildered, excited, jealous and in admiration, as I tell her that I am here alone, and all by my own to discover the labyrinth of this neighborhood. ” You not scared?” “Scared of what?”, I ask her, thinking she might have concerns on my safety and security as a solo traveler. “Of your husband and your family”, she answers. Pause, a bit, I tell myself. Pause a bit. In a society where women today do the unthinkable independently, I have with me Nanda who can’t get beyond her fear of the husband. She is so mesmerized with me that she wants to do heena. We settle on my ankle and she says ” I like you. So no money from you”. While I kept insisting on the amount, I had a clever idea. A group of French tourists had stopped by. “Go call them,Nanda… my ankle will model for your business!”. I stick out my freshly tattooed ankle, while an excited Nanda explained that the design was traditional and denoted love, luck and freedom. #instasuccess, as an Instagrammer would say!!
I left the gushing Nanda to her bliss of business, and headed towards the Navchokhiya road, the main arterial road connecting Bhrampuri to the old streets of the city.
At night, back in my little room in The Blue House, when there is nothing but stillness, I opened the tiny window that showed me the fort ahead. It was raining, and the thunder roared somewhere in the distance. A spark zig-zagged atop the fort, and flashed. A few drops of rain fell on my face. And I heard music, of a different kind. I heard in my head the chattering sounds of the kids flying their kites, the chants and the namaaz, the sound of trinkets on Padmavati’s ankle, and the sound of love, luck and freedom.
The best thing about being in London, is that it becomes familiar very quickly. It makes you feel at home. Settled in quickly. With different meanings to ‘settling’ in. You can be just another face in the crowd. Or be the perfect tourist. And, in both these cases, you are still ‘settled’-in…and connected. In heart, soul, pulse and pace. It grows on you. The first day you fumble at the Oyster card machine. Two days later you know the exact change to carry to the Pret-e-manger next door for your coffee and croissant. A week later, you don’t feel like leaving the city anymore.
I am in love with the massive variety of places you can find in this city… like a swanky cocktail bar hidden inside a fridge in a restaurant. You need a ‘password’ to go inside this one! Or that independent coffee shop situated in an old public toilet. Victorian ceramics. Squeaky clean now, I was re-assured.
And I really love that there’s always something happening around every corner, with a rush of people constantly hovering around. Like Dalhousie Square in Kolkata! London has a feeling of life to it; it bulges out of every street, nook and corner. It can be overwhelming, but is re-energizing at the same time. It is quirky as well. Imagine a city in which the pineapple is a symbol to flaunt wealth and prosperity! Christopher Columbus brought in these from the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe. Since then, pineapples remained a rare delicacy for centuries. In the 18th century, a pineapple cost the equivalent of £5,000 today!
You always end up knowing someone in London. A friend. An old friend. A cousin’s friend. An ex-colleague’s nephew. Your father-in-law’s colleague’s daughter. An aunt. Your mother’s-aunt’s-neighbor’s daughter. “People don’t really give a toss what you think of them if they are whistling loudly to their music as they bike along the road at night, or if they break into a dance whilst waiting at traffic lights – because nobody knows or cares who they are anyway. It’s a strange sort of perspective to get used to, and one which can be either extremely liberating, or devastatingly restrictive – depending on how you feel about it.”: pearls of wisdom, from one such!But, even then, I get a feeling that in London you’re always anonymous.
My collection of post cards from London are all in black and white this time. All shot on my phone. Most shot during regular commute. Except that at times when I stopped by for the right person to fill my right frame. While I will rant at times, I want to let the pictures to tell most of the story…
I found it incredible that the St Paul’s Cathedral back in Kolkata is NOT modeled after the cathedral in London! The cathedral’s tower is modeled on the “Bell Harry” tower of Canterbury Cathedral and the cathedral overall resembled England’s Norwich Cathedral! This little detour was my favorite from my BT Centre office. The walk and this frame across the Millennium bridge. Almost every evening. Blissful. Oh, by the way, there is a pineapple crown atop the church in London.
The language of cabbies was so foul that Queen Anne laid down a fine for five shillings for abusive language in the 1700s! Probably the best-known fact about drivers is how well-educated they are about London streets. To become a licensed taxi driver one must pass the infamous “Knowledge Test”. This is no easy feat! Average time to study and pass is 2-4 years.. and we talk about what a dedicated profession medicine is! Oh and unlike Kolkata, shouting “Taxi” at a moving cab, at the top of your voice, and with a vigorous wave of your hand is technically against the law ! Unimaginable, I tell you.
She was as sweet as a lollypop! Crooning to Adele. Bright sunshine through her hay -hair, laughter in her blue eyes.. innocent as a budding rose! The gentleman helping her set up was someone she clearly revered. As she sang, every 30 seconds she would look up to him for an approval. The pleasant looking man gave her a nod and a comforting smile. While she set up shop on a Saturday morning, the Portobello market hadn’t gathered much crowd till then. I stood there looking at her in complete awe. Her notes were therapeutic to me for some reason.For a moment I had no care in the world. My world stood still. A perfect #righthererightthere moment!
The Portobello market wasn’t named after my favourite mushroom! Oh, what a shame. It was named after Puerto Bello, a port in the Gulf of Mexico which exported treasure to Spain and imported European goods into Central America.
Admiral Sir Edward Vernon, with a small fleet of British navy ships, captured the port in the battle of 1739 and to commemorate the event, pubs, streets and districts all over the Empire were named after Vernon and Portobello. This became a lane to sell things soon after, and then when it became really popular a few centuries later, they shot the movie “Notting Hill”. Oh, that isn’t true, is it?
” Mind the gap”- as they say! The tube route from Leicester Square to Covent Garden is the shortest on the tube pathway. It’s actually possible to travel the distance faster on foot! Home to several celebrities, gritty duels and a dhobi ghaat, in the early 1600s( apparently, there lies a map in the archives somewhere that shows that Leicester Square was a place for drying clothes. Women would lay the clothing out in the grass to dry while nearby cows grazed!), a walk in this square was almost a mandate. Closer to this century, M&M had its head-quarters here and Karl Marx lived in Leicester Square in 1848 after several failed German revolutions. He stayed in a German hotel in the square and was visited often by his fellow revolutionaries…
Home to more millionaires than any other part of Britain, Hampstead is the place for which two of my dear friends buy lottery tickets every evening, so that one day they become rich enough to buy a home there! And, in all seriousness! The evening we were wandering about, he actually stopped, complained that he hadn’t been attentive enough to fill up his credit card. He stopped, topped his Visa with enough currency, to do what he believed would one day definitely bear fruit and reserve his place in the current list of distinguished address-bearers!
The Heath has three open-air public swimming ponds: one for men, one for women, and one mixed. Ponds, rabbits and large oak trees. Oh, the London skyline from the Parliament Hill is said to be legally “protected”! (What?!)
After a walk till the top of the “safe” hill in the Heath to fire our appetite, we went to a cozy wooden pub. That was a wonderful evening, you two! Thanks!
Dealers, interior decorators and those who love old and unusual things search through the 300 shops and stalls of Camden market. Several names (Camden Market, Camden Lock, or even Camden Lock Market ), multiple purposes, various opinions..all adding up to one quirky market! Home to several historic writers, including George Orwell, Mary Shelley, and Charles Dickens, the markets stands testimony to the fact the weird always rules! I couldn’t find a better way to end my last Sunday in London!
“Twenty bridges from Tower to Kew.. wanted to know what the river knew!” Every morning my little boy would speak to me over the phone asking me if the London Bridge has indeed fallen down… he wasn’t at all pleased with the present continuous tense update the nursery rhyme spoke about. Most evidently, now that Mamma was in the city where the bridge is, she should be able to provide him with a more believable real time update!
Was a different feeling in London this time. More soulful, and lived in. Not touristy at all. Sometimes in a frenzy. Sometimes idyllic. The madness of tourists on Oxford street, balanced with the serenity of the church organ one rainy evening inside the St Paul’s cathedral.
Call me back, London…quickly as you can!