Monday, 4 January 2016

Bishnupur, West Bengal

Bishnupur – 18th Century architecture amuses 21st Century viewers

There are many travelled – untraveled spots in the state of West Bengal. It is one of the few states of India which has all - Historic monuments, beaches, mountains and jungles.

One among them is Bishnupur, which has remained mainly an untouched destination by the people outside of Bengal.

Bishnupur is a small town in Bankura district of West Bengal, India, 132 km away from Kolkata. The uniqueness of this place is its terracotta temples built in 17th and 18th Century. The architecture depicts the socio economic condition of the era. Numerous big and small temples still exist in the city.

Five of us planned to visit the place in October 2014. Kolkata to Bishnupur can be a same day return trip. However, we wanted to spend time in the serenity of Shaniniketan, hence made the trip 3 days long.

We started our road journey at 8am only to repent later. We missed to enjoy the free roads of Kolkata and also missed to see the colour of River Ganga during sunrise. 

Never mind, we crossed the hustle and bustle of cities in some time and reached to the countryside which we call suburbs. We took Durgapur express way route to avoid the bumpy ride of the other route.

For some time, we all just quietly enjoyed the fresh breeze, beauty of long stretched paddy field, white wild flower covering (called Kash Phool in Bengali blooms in early October in eastern part of India) the sides of the roads.

We decided to have our breakfast at around 9:00 – 9:30am after reaching a place named Shaktigarh near Burdwan city. Although entire Bengal is famous for wide variety of sweets, this place is the originator of a sweet named Langcha. 

We noticed a unique thing there. All the eating joints (approx. 25-30 in number) on both sides of the road is named after the sweet Langcha like Langcha Dham, Langcha Bhavan, Langcha kutir etc. ( Dham, Bhavan are all synonyms “house”.)

We entered in one of them. Aroma of hot Kachori and Bengali potato curry made the sound of our growling stomach quite audible. I must admit that the taste and enjoyment of eating local cuisine on roadside joints is unparalleled. We signed off our heavy breakfast session with famous Langcha.  

Kids growing up in metropolitan city are generally deprived of the lovely view of the nature, so they were the one enjoying every moment of the journey. Right from looking at the grazing cattle, herders sitting on a small rock with a stick in hand, men and women working in the field, bullock carts and many more.

It was around 12pm, when our vehicle entered onto the hard road. We knew this stretch of few kilometres is going to bother us and as always we will keep complaining throughout.

However, for a change this time we decided to concentrate more on the beauty of the place and less on the condition of the road. And we agreed that the nature’s beauty subdued the agony. We passed by small villages, long stretched foliage, bamboo trees, small winding rivers…….
we crossed Bankura town and the small station of Bishnupur.

Closer view of the art 
As we entered Bishnupur, started enquiring about the way to the temples. We had an impression that being small place we will find the way easily but to our surprise we got only one reply “Which temple?”
Finally a senior person obliged us by showing us the route of one of the temples- Rasmoncho.. He asked us to further enquire there. That was a fair and honest suggestion. By then we understood that there are numerous temples known by different names (It is better to keep a route map to Rasmoncho - google to find one, from there hire a guide and no hassle thereafter.)

During this quest, kids got bored and started showing the boredom syndrome as feeling hungry. But our aim was to visit the spots so somehow with additional junk eateries chips and cold drink kept them occupied. Frankly speaking the last half an hour was quite annoying for the adults as well.

However, fatigue, anger everything vanished the moment we saw the beautiful temple – our first stop.

We hired a guide who took us to12 different temples each of them with unique art and different stories depicted on the walls.

We also visited one of the rarest temples of Hindu goddess kali built by Hindu king. The idol is famous in the name of CHIINOMASTA KALI (CHHINO meaning separated; Masta came from the word Mastak meaning head).

Though our eyes were stuck on the art of old century; but could not give a miss to the local handicraft being sold outside every temple.

We were quite behind our schedule, still could not resist to buy few articles made out of coconut shell and burnt soil.

We had earlier planned to have our lunch at Durgapur but it was already close to 3pm and there was no way kids could have waited for another hour. So we had our lunch in one of the restaurants there.

After lunch, we left for our next destination. We decided to come back again to see another set of 10 temples.

We concluded our journey by visiting shiv temple near Bardhawan railway station. It is a unique temple complex. There are 108 Lord Shiva temples, arranged in two rows and shaped like traditional Bengali mud hut. Pious end of a beautiful journey.

About me:   My name is Sanchita Sengupta. I have been associated with apparel/fashion industry from past two decades. Travelling, reading, Writing are my passion. I am writing travelogues since my childhood days. 

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Another Goa

I first visited Goa as a student of Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai. The students of only one department (Urban and Rural Community Development), were privileged a second study tour. Almost everyone who heard, including inside and outside of TISS chuckled “Goa, yeh, study tour!?” This near universal expression, we the privileged (URCD-ies) interpreted as envy, a second study tour that too Goa!

Like many other, the good thing about the tour was also the background work. We read up Fish Curry and Rice by Claude Alvares, we read up about Du Pont and the controversial Asia’s largest Nylon 6.6 plant, tourism and how it impacts local culture, five-star hotels, and what they are doing to the fishing based livelihoods, the sea, the waste they generate, privatisation of common properties like the sea face and the beach and most importantly the projected image of Goa “Wine, Women and … (song, food, sun, beach, drugs..You name it), and why that is just not right. 
Paddy Fields in the rain
We have been there one more time after almost more than a decade with friends and stayed closer to the beach. Contrary to the Sun, Sand and the Sea, this time we went to experience the rains, forests, rivers and peace.

Our visit in early July was to watch it rain. Once you love the rains, you will watch them, hear them and feel them very differently. The rains change from place to place, the sound they make on the roofs, tin or clay, on rivers, on hills, on roads is so very different. From the tiniest drops that stick to your hair like sparkling diamonds, the big fat drops, to the sheets of rain that come crashing down to cover the earth, they bring such joy and happiness.

So, we followed the progress of monsoon (been inspired by Chasing the Monsoon/ Alexander Frater). Sadly there was very little to follow. It had rained earlier on, but as we got closer to the date of travel, there was not even as much as a drizzle, neither in Hyderabad nor in Goa!  We were waiting like the Chataka bird (as we call it in Odiya – the cuckoo, Clamator jacobinus), that waits for rains to quench its thirst.

Still, we went with hope.

As your cab turns inwards leaving the coastline behind, and you enter into the inside, curved roads, leaving the city behind, you know you have chosen well. The lush green of paddy fields, shadowy trees, cashew plants engulfs you into a different side of Goa.
Arco Iris
We were staying at a place called Arco Iris (which is Portuguese for rainbow) at Curtorim. A 200-year-old Portuguese house renovated as a homestay. The house faces the unending paddy fields. The walk around is surrounded by similar old houses, some abandoned and dilapidated, some locked up and some being still lived in, surfacing issues around property, ownership and the migratory status of most of us. We do not know where we belong; whether where we physically are or where our heart yearns to be.

The quiet that our countryside offers is amazing. No sound of vehicles, hardly any honking and one can walk miles without being interrupted by any sound that is not local. There is the local fish man/woman who brings in fresh fish. There is also the local bread (pui) which is delivered twice daily.

There is a peaceful rhythm to life. The paths, the river, the cats, dogs, birds make for excellent walking and living companions.

At Arco Iris, besides the lovely family of four, there is also Feni, a beautiful Labrador. The first time she saw us, she barked and then immediately became friends. We also bribed her with tiny bits of pui every day, so that we develop affinity quickly, without wasting the short vacation time of two days, expecting she will come and sit with us in the balcao and walk with us.
Rain-drenched Sunday
As it happened, Curtorim is a good friend’s village and this fact added to the fun, that we were going to be staying in her village, walking those same paths! On a Sunday morning we went to see the old village church, nice atmosphere of familiarity of Sunday mass. Since Sunday is also church day, when everyone steps out to go to the church, I noticed during our walks, two persons on the road who looked mentally challenged. But unlike in urban areas, where we see them uncared for, destitute and living off the road, these persons looked like they were being taken care of. Struck me what we had studied and experienced in community organising (TISS course work) that a close knit community takes care of its difficulties and problems together. It may just be out of charity, but in a country like ours, with multiple and multi-layered issues, we need to exercise both, Charity and Rights.

It rained that night, so we woke up to the rain washed surrounding, looking at the plants and trees, holding last night’s rain drops on their leaves. In no time, it poured! Lovely lovely heavy rains! Our friend (Gouthami works on Responsible tourism and has set up, Travel Another India, she suggested experiencing this side of Goa, other than the beach and sand) drove us around in pouring rain through nice long undulating empty roads. That drive is etched forever as one of the brilliant drives spent in the rain.
Rock Paintings
Since we were that side, we drove around looking for Usgalimal rock engravings, which is one of the most important prehistoric sites in western India. When we got there, about one km down from the main road between Rivona to Neturlim, on the banks of river Kushavati, the river was flowing full since the rains, it took us sometime to find the engravings, but as soon as we figured out one, we found them all! These petroglyphs (rock art) are approximately 20,000 to 30,000 years old and belong to the Upper Palaeolithic or Mesolithic eras. More than 100 distinct figures in an area of 500 sqm, with images of bulls, labyrinths and human figures are carved on laterite stones. The fun part was that there was nobody around; and jamun (Syzygium cumini) trees in plenty laden with fruit, no one to eat or guard. Feast!
Wonder what they were trying to draw?
We also stopped at the beautiful Braganza Mansions, nice, old furniture, knick knacks, the mansion presenting bygone days and ways of a household.
An old toilet at Braganza Mansion
At Braganza Mansion
I have often longed for Rain tourism! May be for us, Rain has come to mean either floods, when too much, or drought when none. But to go from place to place, to be in the rains, to cleanse the summer dust, to fill the lungs with the fresh smell of wet earth and to sit down and watch, to rest and to be in peace, ah! 
Anu and Dilip with Feni in the balcao
Thanks to Travel Another India and Gouthami, and Arco Iris, it was wonderful two days spent in a renovated Portuguese house, with Goan food and Feni. - for bookings, or call +91 9940 559 513

Anuradha Pati
July 2014

Monday, 6 April 2015

A for Authenticity

Authenticity – The A of Responsible Tourism

To explain the principles of Responsible Tourism, The Blue Yonder has come up with the A to Z of Responsible Tourism ( I was inspired by this to write a series of article for Consumer Voice Magazine in Delhi - 

As urbanites travel more and more looking for newer experiences, a slew of “village experiences” are coming up right outside the cities. These are run by hotel chains that excel in the hospitality business. You come away having had fun and being fed a variety of food that could be new for you. To you it doesn’t make a difference whether it was authentic or not, you went to relax and have fun and you achieved that.

The purist in me is a little disgruntled at these experiences. As long as guests have fun, I should be satisfied. However, when they start talking of “village life” and how they know all about it based on that visit, then I feel the need to intervene. Travelling around India, what is fabulous is that the experience you are likely to have changes almost every 100 kms. To standardise these myriad experiences into a uniform one outside every big city is doing an injustice to the peoples of India.

What is the solution?

Avoid the short cut. If you want to know how a Mewari village is, (not even Rajasthani), you need to travel to Udaipur and go on beyond to stay with a family or in a local guest house. It is then that you get the smell of mud and that of burning cow dung that is very unique to Mewar. However much you try, this uniqueness cannot be made available outside Delhi. I think it has to do with the water, the air and the hospitality of the people there which cannot be transferred as is anywhere else.

To give an example, however many photographs of the Taj Mahal you may have seen, going to Agra and seeing it live at different times of the day and night is very special. Keep that in mind the next time you see a piece of craft or stay in a “local style” hut.

I knew little of architecture when I started out in the field of tourism about seven years ago. As I travelled I realised that housing styles in rural India are suitable for the climate as well as make use of natural resources available in the surrounding areas. This would mean that as you go along the West Coast, the houses are built using the laterite rock with tiled roofs having a high slope and big overhang to handle the heavy South West Monsoons. As you go up the Western Ghats, the rock is replaced by mud, which is protected by thatching on all four sides during the monsoons. In the Himalayas, it is the stone that is favoured for both roof and walls – with those areas affected by earthquakes moving to corrugated sheet roofs. In Kutch the cottages are perfectly circular and made of mud with tiny windows to keep out the heat and dust. Where ever you travel, the house construction ensures that the temperature within remains ambient regardless of the temperature without.
Weaver's House in Pranpur - made of local stone

People, world over, have made the effort to live comfortably using the resources available to them. And then over the last half century this has been turned topsy turvy with concrete taking over the world. It has its uses and I am not asking for a ban, but when a Kutchi farmer builds a house of concrete and then adds a layer of mud on top, I would like to register my protest. Probably from having stayed in the all-mud huts, I can actually feel the difference. Yes, mud construction needs regular maintenance, but it doesn’t need an air-conditioner in summer or a heater in summer. What you say on electricity bills makes up for what you put into maintenance.

The smell of wet earth after the first rains – I wait a whole year for it. If it were bottled and available online, would it still be as special?

What is an authentic experience without local cuisines? What I enjoy most about travelling is the variety of food in India. If I enjoy a kothu parota on the streets of Madurai, can it really be replicated on the streets of Panjim? Why not enjoy the poee-bhaji in Panjim instead? Yes, I yearn for a good fafda-jalebi sometimes – but I know that if I have it anywhere outside Gujarat, I am just not going to be satisfied. And that gives me something to look forward to. When I travel, I stick to the local food as much as possible – those flavours just cannot be had elsewhere.
Breakfast in Ahwa, Dangs District
Next time you travel try to appreciate what is unique to where you are going – enjoy the special flavour of authenticity. Hold out for the real thing.


Appeared in Consumer Voice dated August 2014