Friday, December 30, 2011

Kolkata Kaleidoscope : Portuguese Church

Since this is Christmas time, I decided to share with you the experience of my visit to one of the old churches of Kolkata. The Portuguese Church located at the Portuguese Church Street near Dalhousie Square was set up as early as 1747. The best way to reach the church is to walk a few paces northwards along Brabourne Road behind St. Ardrew's Church (which is just on the right side of Writers' Building).

However, I came across the place from an altogether different side. Actually, I along with my friend Saibal went to visit the Armenian Church but could not locate it although we spent quite some time roaming around the Armenian Street. No body seemed to have any knowledge of the church, though I was sure it was somewhere in the vicinity. One shopkeeper showed me a narrow street to follow and while he gave us direction I was confident with his conviction that the street would lead us to the church. But alas it was an altogether different church that we landed up at. Having said that we were not disappointed with this church, formally known as the Cathedral of the Holy Rosary but commonly referred to as the Portuguese Church.

When we entered the premises we found a good many car parked in the compound which was something odd given the abandoned status of most of the churches in Kolkata. We were thinking of whether it was any special day but given the fact that it was a Saturday, it would not have been possibly the day of the weekly mass. Soon however we realized that the church compound was being used as a parking space and even there were a couple of hawkers. A homeless person was sound asleep at the main door of the church building and the door was closed to our dismay.

Thankfully one of the doors on the side was ajar and we could sneak into the church. There was no one inside and we had a brief tour of the church of our own. The striking feature of the church is its colourfulness. Most of the other churches that I have visited before are painted in dull white but not this one. The chapel at the centre hosts a wooden statue of Virgin Mary and on either side of it, round stained glass windows adorned the walls. There were many more colourful wooden statues all over the church and wooden panels depicting the various stages of the passion of the Christ decorate the walls. 

All in all it was a good experience. We were very much impressed with the church. Just hope it becomes more approachable to the public in general, not only the devout but also people who like to visit the place as a historical monument and pay a tribute to its elegance.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Killer Kinnaur - Chitkul

On the 26th of May, we left Kalpa at 8:30 in the morning and took the same road back up to Karcham. From there we turned left towards Sangla. There was a tunnel just beyond the small bridge that we were crossing and initially we were all excited to drive through the tunnel. However, when we reached there we saw that it was still under construction and we took the road around the tunnel. As usual, the road was in pretty bad shape. Actually from a distance I could not see any road at all. So when our driver was telling us that we were not going to take the tunnel, I was confused since I did not notice any road after the bridge except the tunnel way. 

Our car stopped at a roadside temple for a couple of minutes which is probably considered auspicious by the local drivers. The priest came and offered us some prasada and prayed for our wellbeing and safety. We took our tea break in the market area of the town of Sangla. The town is quite a big one in the neighbourhood and most of the tourists stay at this place only and go for sightseeing elsewhere. However, on recommendation of some of my friends, I had booked our accommodation in Chitkul which is a small village with a few lodging options. 

We filled ourselves with pakoras and sweets along with desi chai in a small but clean tea shop. Whatever we had eaten in the breakfast had already been digested and we anticipated having a late lunch at Chitkul as there was still some distance to cover.  The view of the Baspa river and the mountain range was enchanting from Baspa. It lifted our spirits all the more thinking about what we would have in store at Chitkul. 

The view on the road from Sangla to Chitkul was awesome. And although the road was narrow, it was in a relatively good condition. And there was hardly any traffic on the route. I was sitting in the front beside the driver and tried hard to capture the surroundings with my lenses. The view was changing at some times ranging from lush green trees on the mountains to dry and barren places with boulders and stones lying all around. The temperature was also a pleasant one. In fact I kept my windows down and caught a little cold. On the way we noticed some nature camps which provide tourist accommodation. Our hotel was however further up. 

Initially, we had booked Hotel Shahenshah which is owned by the same person, Sandeep Karar, who runs the hotel Rakpa Regency at Kalpa. Since there was a large tourist group (whom we noticed at Kalpa itself), he requested us to stay at Panchali Resort, which is also owned by him. Panchali Resort is the last hotel at the end of the motorable road. However, what we heard over there is that the road would be extended a further 25 Kms. So, new hotels would crop up I guess closer to the mountain range. The hotel had an exquisite view of the mountains. Once we opened the windows of our room, there was nothing between the mountain and us. However, the cleanliness and service of the hotel was not good. Also, food options were limited and there was a huge delay between the time we ordered and we got our food. Perhaps they were also running short of staff. 

After having lunch and a little rest, we went to the riverbed in the late evening. The clear blue water of the Baspa river surrounded by the mountains and the snow covered peaks at stone throwing distance formed a breathtaking view. In fact back at the hotel, people told us that the place was not far from the Tibet border, Chitkul being the last village. The river water was very cold and it had a good current too. The riverbed was studded with small pebbles and large stones and we rested for a while on those stones taking in the superlative beauty of the place. There was a school nearby. We envied the location but at the same time pitied for the students who have to come so far away every day. 

When it was time to return, I proposed to take a different route which I noticed further up. Only Bappa agreed to accompany me in this adventurous detour. Now the only question was how to go up and be on that path. We started to follow the way what seemed to go up and meet our target path but after some time we were kind of lost and doubted whether it was the right way. After some time we met a local man with a cow. He assured us that we were on the right track and when we enquired whether the path was tough, he commented that even his cow could use that comfortably. Our confidence was restored and we continued our walk but the path was becoming all the more difficult with little waterfalls in between and it was tough to breathe as well. Anyway I have a breathing problem and the high altitude was taking its toll. I was feeling sorry for Bappa. Though he has healthier than me, but he was also feeling exhausted and he had only agreed to come with me so that I am not alone. We stopped for a while and contemplated whether we should go back. When we looked back we did not find any one of the team so they must have returned to the hotel already. Just then we noticed two young girls coming down. They were not locals but tourists. They were confused whether they could go down to the river following that route. We told them we have followed that route from the riverbed itself so they could continue walking down. And they assured us that we would find the way back to the hotel if we continue moving up. We were encouraged that if they could do it so could we and started walking upwards. But after some more time we were again confused as we could not find any way further. We stopped for a while to catch some air as we were breathing heavily by then. Ultimately we found our way back to the hotel amidst the cultivation land which was being prepared for step farming. On our way back we met some military personnel from Indo-Tibet Border Force, who were returning to their check posts at the Tibet border. 

When we finally reached the hotel we found the other members of our group worried and anxious as a long time had passed and the fact that they could not contact us over our cell phones (there was no mobile tower) made them more tensed. They were a little bit comforted they were told by those two girls that they had met us some time before. We found Mukherjeekaku had returned to his room much earlier as he was not feeling well. Even Chhotomasi was having some breathing problems. I on my part did not disclose that I experienced some spasms myself and went to my room to take rest. During night I was running a mild temperature and Chhotomasi rebuked me for my bravado. I was disheartened and agonized by the fact that my body did not respond positively to the small trek and was worried about how would I go to places which involve fair bit of walking in hilly terrain. 

The next day was the last of our sojourn in the Himalayas. We took our way back to Kalpa from where we boarded the return train, halting at Narkanda in between for the night. It was time to bid goodbye to the picturesque Kinnaur and return the routine chores of city life. 

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Killer Kinnaur - Kalpa

We left for Kalpa on the 24th of May after having an early lunch at Sarahan.  The road looked dangerously appealing being curved out of the mountain walls, at times with hanging cliffs over head. The beautiful Baspa river was flowing beside the road on the other side but the water was still muddy. After some time however, the road condition deteriorated considerably and our bodies became stiff and pained absorbing the shocks. I have read before, in trip reports of some travel forums that the road between Wangtoo and Karcham was particularly bad. However, the road after Karcham did not provide us any relief either. In fact it was worse; the road was broken at many places due to landslides and too narrow for comfort. 

Major construction was going on at Karcham where a major dam is located and probably the cement and the dust made the water of river Baspa muddy, since after Karcham the water was blue and clear. The road for Sangla took off on the right and we continued straight ahead towards Kalpa. At places, the road was so narrow to commute that long queues of cars resulted. A few times our car came so tantalizing close to the edge of the road that some of us cried aloud cautioning the driver. Although our driver had a rock steady hand, he too became tensed a couple of times and requested us not to panic. In fact, afterwards, he admitted that on those occasions he was a bit nervous as well. 

When we reached Reckong Peo, the district head quarters of Kinnaur district, we knew we were not too far from our destination. After driving further up for some more time when we finally reached Kalpa, it was 5 o’clock in the evening.  We had booked Hotel Rakpa Regency in advance and were delighted with the view it offered. A friend who had earlier stayed at the hotel mentioned that Room 406 has the best view and Runa and Abhishek had the good opportunity to occupy that room. However, I think the corner room that I stayed at had an even better view of Kinnaur Kailash. Surprisingly, the owner of the hotel, Sandeep Karar, is a Bengali from Howrah. Most of the staff, except the manager, was Bengali as well.
Kalpa is known for its golden apple orchards and beside our hotel itself there were a whole lot of apple trees but unfortunately it was not the time for apple harvesting.

After evening tea, I went for a leisurely stroll along the deserted road. Suddenly I heard a strange hymning sound followed by some drum beats. It was near the Hotel Kinnaur Villa. I was trying to figure out the origin of the sound and after some time realized that it is coming from a small hut up in the hills. It was quite far away and hidden behind the trees, so at first I could not locate it. Actually, it seemed some people were dancing to the mystic tune in some ethnic dress. Probably it was some sort of ceremony. I noticed some stone steps going upwards from the road and an idea crossed my mind that I might try to go nearer to the place to comprehend what it was all about. But the steepness of the steps was disturbing me and I found no one in the vicinity to ask how far the path leads up to. Meanwhile, it started drizzling and suddenly the temperature dropped considerably. I decided it would be wise to return to the hotel and not get wet since I am susceptive to cold. Back in the hotel, I found my folks were getting apprehensive about my delay and the fact that they could not reach me over my cell phone (there was no tower) made them tensed. 

The next day, we woke up early but there was no spectacle of sunrise to speak about. It was cloudy to begin with and the sun abruptly came out from behind the mountain range. However, as the day progressed, the sun shone brightly and apart from Kinnaur Kailas, Parvati and Shivling peaks were clearly visible. The Kinnaur Kailash peak appeared so close that it seemed as if we could just reach out our hands and touch it. Chhotomasi mentioned that its shape is similar to Mt. Kailash near Manas Sarovar and hence the name. While we were zooming in our lenses to take closer snaps, we observed a black spot in the white snow that covered the mountain range and it changed position a few times. It seemed larger than to be possibly any bird and the hotel staff told us it was still not the time of the year when trekkers go around. So, it remained a mystery to us. Chhotomasi jokingly declared that it must be some Yeti then. 

At breakfast we noticed a really large tourist group coming all the way from Bengal and there was pandemonium all around. The manager of the group was shouting all kinds of directives to his own staff who were running around doing all sorts of errands. After breakfast, we went to visit the nearby Rodhi village. From a local shop there we bought some walnuts at really cheap price. The view of the other peaks (which were out of sight from our hotel) from that place was also fascinating. So, we were dumbfounded when some tourists were complaining about the place arguing that there is nothing to see. Now, what else does one need; one can behold the majestic Himalayas all around and still people grumble! 

A short cut path from the village led us to the monastery we noticed from the balcony back at our hotel. The actual village of Kalpa is probably located around here. We noticed many local small huts but surprisingly most of them were under lock and key. Not sure if that was because the people had gone to work or they had moved to some other place. The monastery was small and nice and comes with the traditional Buddhist prayer rollers. 

In close proximity to the monastery, resides a Durga temple. It had some intricate woodwork and it was queer to see those wooden dragons decorating a Hindu temple. The temple was unfortunately closed and we could not see the deity. However, back at the hotel, I noticed a picture, which was some amateurish replica of an old and celebrated picture, illustrating the temple and the original painting was done more that hundred years ago. 

The weather changed drastically in the afternoon and there was a heavy downpour restricting us to the interiors of our respective rooms. Even in the evening, when the rain stopped, it was still very cloudy and the wind was chilly. Since we could not go out for a walk, I spent some time in the terrace but soon it became so cold that I had to return to the warmth of my room. From the balcony, I could see a thick layer of cloud down below where the monastery was located and soon the cloud engulfed the entire hamlet. 

The rest of the night was uneventful except for the drop in the temperature. I was literally shivering when we went to take dinner in the ground floor. The fact that I was not carrying any heavy woollens was upsetting as my jacket was not giving me much comfort. One of the Bengali staff who is from the Burdwan district told us that the hotel is entirely covered with snow in the winters and remains closed from the end of November until March, and when they come back in March they have to clean the thick layers of snow and how painstaking a job that is. Luckily the next morning the sun was shining bright and after having breakfast we started our journey to Chitkul.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Killer Kinnaur - Sarahan

After the initial stopover at Shimla, our real tour started on 23rd May as we got ready to drive to Sarahan. We had booked a tempo-traveller with 12 seats from Shimla for the rest of the journey back in Kolkata itself via Diamond Tours and Travels. However, the one that reported to us had its back seats facing sideways and the worn out tyres looked ominous for the dreadful roads which awaited us. After an animated argument, it was finally changed but only after intervention of the original tour operator. Since this furore continued for almost an hour, our journey also started late. The newer tempo-traveller was in excellent state and the driver was also a good one.  The credit goes to Runa and Chhotomasi for doing all the hard talk and ensuring us a comfortable journey. 

The road until Narkanda was in an appalling state but the view outside alleviated all discomforts. After Kufri we first noticed the snow capped mountain peaks. And there after the pine and fir trees were keeping us company. We had a meagre lunch at a roadside eatery after Narkanda and in the afternoon reached Rampur. The stretch of road between Narkanda and Rampur was first-rate.

Rampur (135 Km from Shimla on NH 22) was once the capital city of the princely state of Bushahr and is now one of the biggest commercial towns of Himachal Pradesh. We stopped for a while to visit the Padam Palace which was located amidst the hustle-bustle of a busy market area. Only Bappa, Abhishek, Chhotomasi and I ventured out to visit the palace and the rest preferred to wait in the car but we were not disappointed. The near century old palace was built by Padam Singh and the large edifice made of stone and wood with a sprawling lawn is a place worth visiting. The second floor of the two storied building has intricate woodwork with floral designs and the front door is beautifully designed with glass fittings. Unfortunately one cannot go inside the palace as it remains locked. Later we came to know that since the palace is still a private residence of Virbhadra Singh, the erstwhile King and presently a cabinet minister of the central government, entry is subject to permission only. And a normal tourist cannot obtain permission I guess since there was no office in the vicinity. 

After Rampur, we had the Sutlej flowing by our side for the rest of the journey but we were puzzled that unlike rivers in the mountain, it was muddy. Probably it was due to the work going on for a hydel power project that was coming up. When we reached Sarahan finally, it was around six in the evening. After checking into the hotel, we made a brief visit to the Bhimakali Temple which just beside the hotel. However, I had to wait in the courtyard and could not enter the abode of the deity as I was carrying many leather items and camera and did not have a headgear. On the way back to the hotel I bought a Kullu cap and Chhotomasi bought some designer jackets as gift items. 

The HPTDC hotel, Hotel Shrikhand, was located in an excellent position with exquisite view. At first we thought staying at the guest house inside the Bhimakali Temple itself. I had read in some fellow traveller’s trip report that they have the best view in Sarahan and comes at a cheap price as well. But it was already booked when we inquired by calling a Rampur number. While waiting in the courtyard I made a sneak peek into what seemed to be the temple guest house. The arrangements looked basic and our hotel did not seem to provide any less view of the mountain peaks, but I am not absolutely sure on that. Trehan Guest House was our next choice and we even booked rooms in that hotel. But then Runa’s friend who visited the place last year and stayed at Trehan’s gave us some very negative feedback of the place and hence we cancelled that booking and booked the tourism hotel. Luckily the tour operator forgot to charge us any cancellation cost. 

The next day the alarm went off at five o’clock in the morning. Although we could not behold sun rise as such but the golden orange rays of the morning sun burning down the snow capped peaks and watching the mountain ranges changing their colour from mystery blue to milky white was mesmerising.  Shrikhand and Kartikeya are the eminent peaks that are visible from here.

When the sun was out properly we visited the Bhimakali Temple again. This time round I was only carrying the camera which I deposited before entering the main temple building. The newly bought Kullu cap served as a perfect headgear. The goddess Bhimakali is consecrated at the top floor of the three storied building and one has to watch one’s head while moving up and down the narrow stair cases. 

The temple is dedicated to the presiding mother goddess Bhimakali of the former princely state of Bushahr and the town of Sarahan which was earlier named as Shonitpur was the capital city of this former princely state before it was moved to Rampur. According to a legend the temple is associated with the Daksha-Yagna incident when the ear of Sati fell at this place and became a place of worship. It is accordingly considered as one of the 51 Hindu peeths.

The temple built with stone and wood manifests conspicuous woodwork with carved designs. That apart the mere location the temple itself amidst the mountains is fascinatingly magnificent and perhaps has no parallel. 

After breakfast, we went to a view point and while others returned after some rampant photo sessions, I stayed back to take some snaps of the temple from this side. The temple looks all the more beautiful from here as the mountain ranges form the backdrop and one can have the full view of the temple. To have a better view, I took off the road and entered a private property which looked dilapidated and abandoned. Though there was a main gate locked down, one could easily sneak through by a side gate which was open. I was getting curious to explore more but then it was getting late and I was also worried that I might be charged of trespassing.

After an early lunch it was time to say good bye to Sarahan and start for Kalpa. The food was wonderful which adds to the terrific location of Hotel Shrikhand. 

According to a legend, it was believed that the country of Kinnaur was the Kailash mentioned in Puranas, the abode of Shiva. In fact Lord Shiva disguised himself as Kirata for some time at this place. The town of Sarahan, once the capital city Shonitpur, is considered the gateway of Kinnaur and we were delighted to be on our way to behold the Kinnar Kailash.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Killer Kinnaur - The Trip Begins at Shimla

People of the plains, during summer, incline to escape from the heat to the pleasant cool shadows of the hills. This year we thought of visiting the Himachal but decided to avoid the overtly touristy circuits and were looking for newer and relatively peaceful destinations. Taking into consideration the holidays and available vacations of all the people concerned, we zeroed in on the Kinnaur belt. This time round our group was also a large one comprising 10 persons and we had a tough time booking accommodation and transportation. Thanks to Runa and Chhotomasi for taking all the trouble.

In the evening of 20th May, we boarded the Howrah-Kalka Mail and reached Kalka on 22nd at 4:45 AM. In the rush of getting off hurriedly we left behind in the train the box of sweets we carried specially, from Kolkata, and we lamented for the misfortune time and again for the rest of the tour. I had handed over the box after boarding the train so I was trying to evade responsibilityJ. The fact that our seats changed after Delhi was also a reason for the misplacement. I would like to share a trick to fellow travellers from Kolkata at this juncture. There are very few tickets available on the Kalka Mail; only 10 AC2 seats to be precise. So one can book from Kolkata to Delhi and then Delhi to Kalka on the same train and the tickets from Delhi are available on the same day itself. 

From Kalka, we had to arrange for transportation since we did not pre-book any car. Actually at first we thought of travelling in the narrow gauge toy train to Shimla but did not get any ticket. So, finally, we set off to Shimla in two cars, one Innova and one Indica. It cost us a total of Rs. 3300. On the way we had our breakfast with tea and aloo-parantha at a roadside dhaba.

When we reached Hotel Oceen in Shimla, we had to wait for a little while since our rooms were not yet prepared. However, the staff co-operated with us and ensured that our wait was not a long one. The room was not that great but we already knew that before and anyway we would only stay for one day and start for Kinnaur the following morning. After having breakfast and freshening up, we decided to have a tour of the city. Most of us had visited Shimla before barring Runa, Abhishek and Rishi. Again, we booked two cars to move around the city.

Shimla, at an altitude of 2205 metres, was the summer capital of British India and still has a colonial nostalgia. It has been a popular hill station for long and over the years the number of tourists visiting the city has only increased. Also, it is now the capital city of Himachal Pradesh; so there are many office buildings as well. 

At first, we went to the Sankat Mochan Temple, dedicated to Lord Hanuman. There were some other temples as well in the complex dedicated to Rama, Shiva and Ganesha. The calm and peaceful surroundings must facilitate meditation of the devout. From the terrace at the back side of the temple, one can have a lovely view of the lush green hills. I remembered taking snaps at that place during my earlier visit, about 10 years before. The laddoos distributed as prasada were delicious and I went back again to have some more of it. Nearly 60 years ago, Baba Neeb Karori Ji Maharaj spent a few days at this beautiful place and his desire of a temple to be built at the place was materialized a few years later. The story and the pictures of the Baba reminded me of another temple near Ranikhet which I visited last year. It was also built by the devotees of the same Baba. 

The next place to visit was the erstwhile Viceregal Lodge which has been now converted into Indian Institute of Advanced Study. The majestic heritage building was constructed in 1888 as the residence of Lord Dufferin, the then British Viceroy to India and had been a witness of many historical events and decisions that changed the geography and fate of the sub-continent. Located on the Observatory Hill, this sprawling Scottish baronial building was designed by an architect of the then public works department, Henry Irwin. The south facing entrance portico leads the visitors to the reception hall. Facing the main entrance is a grand fireplace which must have been renovated later on since it comprises the national emblem of India curved in wood and has a large photograph of Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan on the top of it.

The gallery was decorated with an exquisite teak panelling and the guide told us that in case of any fire, the wax coat of the woodwork melts and water sprinkles by itself. 

To the left, is located the erstwhile ball room and dining room, with gorgeous Belgian chandeliers, which has been now converted into a library containing more than one hundred thousand books. We were told that the dining room once boasted of an enormous dining table with a capacity to seat 70 guests at a time, but the table has been relocated to the Rashtrapati Bhavan in New Delhi.

Way back in 1888, this Lodge had electric light and the guide showed us the German switches which are still operational. Beside the reception hall, there was a closed room where the agreement on transfer of power and partition of India took place. It has been now converted into a conference room and since some conference was under way, we could not visit the room. 

However, we did visit another room which was probably used as an antechamber where leaders used to wait before discussions and negotiations. A round table joined at the middle, perhaps metaphorically signifying the partition, adorns the room. The room also comprises some lovely portraits including those of Lady Elgin and Lady Minto and the ceiling is decorated with intricate wood carvings.  

The Billiard Room, next to it has been converted into a photo gallery with a piano at one end and the huge presidential chair at the other. A 185 year old clock, made in Holland, is displayed in this room and it is still functional. It needs to be wound up once in a week and the peculiar thing about it is that it shows the moon position in the sky along with time and date. 

It was astounding to know that a staff of 800, including 40 gardeners, were employed here at one time. The Lodge remained the summer retreat of the President of India after Independence until it was handed over to the Indian Institute of Advanced Study in 1965. It is said that Dr. S. Radhakrishnan, the then President and a leading philosopher and writer himself, was instrumental to this effect. 

Bappa had been saying from the beginning that he had visited the Viceregal Lodge during his previous vacation in Shimla. But it turned out that the place he was actually referring to was the place near Kufri where the Shimla agreement was signed between India and Pakistan in 1972. So, it was a pleasant surprise for him as well.

While we were waiting for our cars, after the guided tour of the Viceregal Lodge and after roaming around the lush green lawn and well maintained garden for a while, we sneaked into the Court Gallery which comprised an exhibition of photographs. It was just round the corner beside the erstwhile fire station which has now been converted into a cafe and souvenir shop. There was also a swimming pool located there. Beyond that was out of reach for the tourists.

When we reached the Mall, the first thing we visited was the Christ Church. It is reputed to be the first church of Shimla and the second oldest church in northern India. It was designed by Colonel J.T. Boileau who worked for PWD. The corner stone was laid in 1844 but it was consecrated only after 1857. The clock was donated by Colonel Dumbleton in 1860 and the porch was added in 1873. The simple but elegant yellow structure made of stone and brick in lime mortar can be seen from miles away and is a popular tourist destination in Shimla. The interior is quiet and peaceful and the stained glass windows, depicting the virtues of Faith, Charity, Hope, Fortitude, Patience and Humility, are attractive. However, when we were coming out we noticed some ruckus, resulting from someone’s pair of shoes being stolen, which was contradictory to the usual calm. I was astonished in the first place about the prerequisite of removing one’s pair of shoes before entering the church, as I do not think there is any such obligation in Christianity.

The walk along the Mall road accentuates the one-time colonial presence of the British in Shimla. Even the day to day office buildings such as the municipal office or the mayor’s office are reminiscent of the bygone era. People strolled around leisurely while some enjoyed a pony ride. Bappa treated all of us with ice cream and after a while in the middle of some confusion we got isolated in small groups and with mobile network not working for some, it was some time before we could all reunite. 

The day being a Sunday, many of the shops were closed. However, we did shopping to our heart’s content in the remaining shops which were open. While some of us bought gift items, others procured woollen pullovers under the perception that they are cheaper in the hills. 

In the middle of the whirlwind shopping, we made some time for lunch at a Punjabi restaurant which Bappa and Poulomi had visited during their earlier visit to Shimla. 

After a sumptuous lunch and a tiresome shopping spell around the Mall, we started off towards the famous Shimla Kalibari with heavy legs and the steep road was making it tougher for us. The serene temple was built in 1845 and is dedicated to Goddess Kali who is also known as Shyamala. It is believed that the city of Shimla derived its name from the name of Goddess Shyamala. It was nice to see notices written in Bengali so far away in the hills and even the hawkers outside the temple understood Bengali. Perhaps Kali being a popular goddess in Bengal has its effect on the Bangaliwana of the temple. We were told that the temple was earlier located in the Jakhu hills but was shifted by the British to this place.

Evening was uneventful as we did not go out and took rest in the hotel punctuated at times with tea, pakoras and adda. The actual tour of the Kinnaur circuit would begin from the next day after the initial stopover in Shimla and we were all excited and were engrossed discussing the minute details and intricacies of the planning.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Tranquil Tripura

Independence Day holiday gifted us a long weekend and my friends and I planned a short trip to unwind ourselves. At first we thought of north Bengal and Sikkim but later relocated our plans to Tripura anticipating rains would ruin our holiday in the hills. Air tickets and hotels were booked in accordance. However, as our day of journey commenced, Kolkata itself was engulfed by depression and heavy rainfall and the weather forecast for Agartala was not very soothing either. In fact when we reached the Kolkata airport on Saturday morning it was raining like cats and dogs outside and our Indigo flight was delayed by 15 minutes due to low visibility. But once we reached Agartala the weather was much better and a bright sunny day welcomed us to the small and beautiful state tucked away in the north east, the last bastion of the communists in India.

Tripura, a former princely state shares an international boundary with Bangladesh on its three sides and adjoins Assam and Mizoram on the east.  Altogether 185 royal rulers had ruled Tripura and in 1949 it acceded to the union of India through a treaty. A brochure published by the state tourism mentions that the name Tripura has its origin from two Tripuri words namely Tui (meaning water) and Pra (meaning near). Another opinion is that the name originated from the name of its presiding deity Tripurasundari. We were astonished to know that the total population of the state is just over 35 lacs, much less than that of the city of Kolkata itself.

As we were walking out of the airport (one needs to walk down the distance between the runway and the airport building) we found a small kiosk of the tourism department which redirected us to the prepaid taxi booth. However, we learnt quickly that no taxi would be available on that day as there was some kind of strike and demonstration. We took an auto-rickshaw (one with doors unlike its counterparts in Bengal) to the hotel and on the way noticed a rally with the comrades carrying red flags and shouting Inquilab Zindabad and Cholchhe Naa- Cholbe Naa, a scene that has become rare in Kolkata after the overhauling of the left in the last assembly elections. 

Hotel City Centre, the budget hotel that we booked from Kolkata via a travel agent was a big disappointment. The room was grimy, food was cold most of the times and not palatable and service was lacklustre. On top of it, it charged us handsomely for the extra person and levied 25% tax on the room rent (something that is put in place by the state government). Actually the auto driver had told us on the way that there were many other good budget hotels around and there was no need to book in advance. From the hotel itself we booked a car for sightseeing and the car cost was also exorbitant (a combination of a fixed component and per km rate). 

After a while a red Indica arrived to pick us up and our first destination was the Sepahijala Wildlife Sanctuary, located at a distance of 28 kms from the capital city of Agartala and on the way to Udaipur, the ancient capital of Tripura. The first thing to take notice of is that the road was in excellent condition for majority of its length. Yes it was narrow, only 2 lane, but was not bumpy with all those potholes that we are so accustomed to in Kolkata. I inquired our driver about how efficiently the state government under Manik Sarkar operates and from his monosyllable replies I got the idea that the state lacks industrialization initiatives and has less job opportunities as a result of it but overall the government is doing a creditable job in terms of building infrastructure and social development.

With a total area of 18.53 sq km, Sepahijala came into existence in 1972 and was accredited to a sanctuary in 1987. When we reached the place there were not many visitors, only a handful of locals. Although it is named a sanctuary, but most of its habitats are kept in cages or even if they are kept in open spaces, they are surrounded by dry moat and high walls resulting in a zoo like ambience.  The first species that we came across were vultures and then emu birds. After that we noticed the famous spectacled langur, pig-tailed macaque and capped langur. But they were so far away, separated by open dry moats, that I could not take any good snap. However, later on we found some spectacled langurs in close by cages and they happily posed for us to take pictures. Also present in the zoo, were lions, bears, cheetahs and clouded leopards amongst others. Most of them were having their after lunch nap. The last cage that we came across contained a couple of hoolock gibbons and they did some wonderful acrobatics in our honour. One amusing thing we noticed was that a common monkey which was roaming around freely outside continuously irritated the gibbons confined within the cage. So, to irritate, infuriate and aggravate someone who is already suffering, is not unique to human beings alone. In front of every cage, the name of the species was displayed in Bengali, English and a peculiar language which we later came to know as Kokborok. It is the local Tripura dialect and the script is almost similar to Bengali and yet we could hardly pronounce it.

Our next destination was Neer Mahal, the royal summer palace built in the middle of Rudrasagar Lake. From Bishramganj the road diverts. The road on the right takes off towards Neer Mahal while the road straight ahead goes to Udaipur. When we reached Neer Mahal, we first went to the Sagar Mahal Tourist Lodge to order our lunch and then headed towards the ghat from where the motor boats ferry. It is a fascinating view as the boat approaches the palace in the middle of the lake. Maharaja Bir Bikram Kishore Manikya constructed the palace in 1930 perhaps inspired by the Lake Palace of Udaipur in Rajasthan and the palace was christened as Neer Mahal by none other than Rabindranath Tagore. The palace illustrates Mughal school of architecture with copious dome shaped minars and although the walls are now not that well maintained, it still depicts the past royal grandeur of Tripura. The strong breeze blowing through the royal bedroom justifies its choice as the summer palace of the Tripura royalty. Besides, there are hawa-mahals, dancing rooms and a garden as well. Light and sound shows are organized in the evening but we could not wait that long.

When we reached Udaipur, it was already evening and sunlight was getting dim. So we decided to visit the non-functional ancient temples first. Udaipur was the capital city of the princely state of Tripura before the monarchy shifted its capital to Old Agartala. It is known as the city of temples for its numerous ancient temples but most of them are now without any deity. The deities were also transferred to Agartala during the capital shift. The first temple we visited in Udaipur was the Gunavati group of temples. The temple in the north was built by Queen Gunavati, wife of Maharaja Govinda Manikya, in 1668. The other two of the triplet of temples do not bear any dated inscription but their architectural resemblance indicates them to be contemporaneous. The temple architecture characterizes a charchala roof surmounted by a stupa like structure. The temple complex is maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India and it was locked down, so we could only look at it from outside the fence.

The next temple we visited was the Bhubaneswari Temple, by the bank of river Gomati, also constructed by Maharaja Govinda Manikya in the year 1660 and exhibiting similar architectural structure of a mandapa with charchala roof surmounted by a stupa like structure. The temple is immortalized in Rabindranath Tagore’s famous play, Bisarjan. This temple also is maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India but the fence here was without any lock. Our driver, Pinku, took a snap of all three of us, Srimanta, Anirban and I, in front of the temple with dusk setting in, in the background. A few paces away from the ancient temple, a makeshift temple has been built up where goddess Durga is still worshipped. Pinku informed us that funds are being raised to construct a grand temple there. 

On our way back from Bhubaneswari Temple, Pinku stopped for a while near a Shiva-Kali temple where lord Shiva and goddess Kali are worshipped in a relatively modern structure with two abandoned ancient temples in the backward.

The last destination of the day was the Tripurasundari Temple. The temple stands on a tortoise shaped hillock and earns special veneration as it is considered as one of the 51 peeths of Hindu religion. There are two idols installed in the temple; the larger one is that of the deity Tripurasundari and the smaller one is known as “Chhota Maa”. The temple designed in the model of typical rural Bengal hut with a square shaped sanctum was built by Maharaja Dhanya Manikya in 1501. The place was then known as Rangamati and was then the capital of Tripura. Legend goes that in a revelation in dream Maharaja Dhanya Manikya was ordered to bring the idol of Tripurasundari from Chattagram (now in Bangladesh) and install here. It is also believed that when the capital of Tripura was shifted to Agartala, most of the deities were also shifted but the idol of Tripurasundari could not be moved.  We bought some pedas (sweets) from a nearby shop for offering puja (worship) and ascended the flight of steps to the temple. There were many devotees present even though it was late evening. After our visit to the temple, our driver Pinku took us to a large lake named Kalyan Sagar adjacent to the temple, dug by Maharaja Kalyan Manikya. There were a few tortoises and fishes aplenty swimming around. Pinku informed us that they are not caught and killed since the lake is considered as holy.

On our way back to Agartala, it was quite dark and we dropped Kasba Kalibari from our original itinerary. Pinku asked us about our plan for the next day and inquired whether we would need his service. However, our plan was to take the rail route to Unakoti and accordingly we had booked chair car tickets from Agartala to Kumarghat and planned to take a cab to Unakoti from Kumarghat railway station. Pinku did not comment but only smiled learning our desire to take the rail route and we comprehended the significance of his smile only on the next day.

The scheduled departure of the train was 6:45 AM and we checked out of the hotel dot at six o’clock. We were lucky to get an auto-rickshaw just outside the hotel but soon were bewildered when the auto driver told us that the train might have already departed from Agartala station and advised us to try the next station instead where it is scheduled to arrive at 6:15 AM. We fell in a dilemma half believing his conviction and being half sceptic about the absurdity of the possibility but ultimately we decided to go to Agartala station. When we reached the station, a train was already waiting in the platform full of passengers and it made us apprehensive since as per the railway website the first train to leave from Agartala was the 6:45 AM train. We looked around and did not find any chair car compartment at all. It enhanced our anxiety further. A group of ticket collectors were chatting in a corner and we approached them for guidance. A middle aged man amongst them checked our ticket and, to our dismay, told us that all trains from Agartala had been cancelled due to security reasons and a special train (the very train that was standing in the platform) had been sanctioned to run once in a day and that too was about to leave in a few minutes’ time. He advised us to cancel our ticket and book fresh tickets. Since ours was an e-ticket, we could have cancelled it online only; but a kind official scribbled on it that the train had been cancelled and also put a stamp on it. However, I did not get back any refund till date as I could not cancel it online within the stipulated time. Hence I had to pay for a journey on a train that had been cancelled by railway itself. Hope Indian Railway would rectify its procedure and refund automatically in future for similar circumstances. 

We let the train go mainly due to my insistence as there were no more seats available and since I was not keeping well I did not entertain the idea of travelling in a passenger train standing for 3-4 hours. After coming out of the station we had our morning tea and called up Pinku, our driver on the previous day. He assured us that he would arrange a car for our trip and call us back. However, when we called him again after quite some time, he offered his apology for not being able to arrange any car. Next we called up the reception of Hotel City Centre and asked for their assistance in booking a car for our Unakoti trip and instructed them to send the car to the station itself to pick us up. While we were waiting in the deserted station, we watched all the auto-rickshaws leaving the station complex one by one. A lone person was keeping us company. We learnt that he was from Midnapore in Bengal and had been waiting for a train to Lumding for last couple of days. He also informed us that long distance buses are also not plying. We were getting worried as time was passing by and no car reported. We kept calling the hotel staff and they kept assuring us that the car would reach any time. In the meantime we took some pictures of the attractive milk white railway station building which is constructed as a replica of the palace in Agartala city. In fact the palace is in much worse state. 

The car finally arrived and our much anxious wait ended. We cruised through NH 44 which stretches to as far as Shillong via Guwahati. The road though narrow was in excellent state and our elderly driver had a steady hand. After having lunch near Kumarghat, when I was beginning to doze off in the back seat, we observed, in front of us, a Maruti Van slip off the road and hit a tree. The lady driver and her fellow passenger in the front seat were thankfully alive but they were bleeding. They were attended to by a couple of lorry drivers who stopped at the spot but our driver continued without halting and only stopped at the police station a couple of kms further away to report the accident. As a police team was sent off for help, we went on with our journey to Unakoti. 

Unakoti means one less than a crore. At about a distance of 178 kms from Agartala, the site is an archaeological wonder. It comprises colossal bas-relief rock carvings datable to 7th – 9th centuries. The bas-relief sculptures of Shiva depicting only faces can be considered as the largest in size of its kind in India. The faces represent tribal features both in decoration and anatomy. Three gigantic rock-cut figures of Ganesha with a spring flowing right on them is another important sculpture worth mentioning. 

The legend goes that a group of gods and goddesses, a crore in number, were travelling to Varanasi lead by Lord Shiva and they took refuge at this place during night. The next morning, Shiva woke up and found others still sleeping. In his rage Shiva turned all deities into stone.  Hence the name Unakoti, signifying one less than a crore stone figures. However, the figure one less than a crore is a massive exaggeration. And the story does not hold true due to the fact that there are figures of Shiva himself. 

The stone stairs running around the site is full of moss at places and I slipped a couple of steps once. Thankfully I did not hurt myself apart from bruising my hand a little and for the rest of the time, I was extremely careful. The stair near the Ganesha figures was the worst of the lot. The entire place was quiet and peaceful barring a few tourists. A group of boys were enjoying a bath at the spring near the Ganesha figures. Moving up and down so many steps was taking its toll on us, and probably since I had a fall in between, my legs were feeling extremely weak. So I was relieved when we came back to the car and headed for the Unakoti Tourist Lodge in Kailashahar.

Like most tourism hotels run by government, the rooms at Unakoti Tourist Lodge were well maintained and the food was palatable. However, since I was suffering from acute acidity and indigestion I ordered a safe and plain diet. The hotel did not even charge us for the extra person. The lady manager of Manipuri origin chatted with us for a while and took offence when Srimanta imprudently asked her how come she speaks English so fluently. She informed us that she knows many languages including a little bit of Bengali and that she was a graduate and got the job through TCS i.e. Tripura Civil Services. We told her jokingly that TCS means an IT giant from our perspective.

The next day was Independence Day and the national flag was hoisted on the terrace of the hotel. Local children were invited to the celebration and greeted with chocolates. Though we were late for the occasion we got our share of the chocolates. On the previous evening, we noticed the border between India and Bangladesh a few yards away from the hotel. So before checking out we made a brief visit to the border. On this side was a road along the barbed wire and on the other side was cultivable land. A peasant was ploughing up his land with the help of a couple of bulls on the Bangladesh side. A football field shared its boundary with the border a few metres away. Our driver told us that many a times, the ball lands on the other side during play. So we knew that not only panchhi (bird), nadiyan (river) and pawan ke jhoke (wind) but football as well could not be bounded by any border (koi sarhaad na use roke).

On our way back from Kailashahar, we stopped by the Chaturdash Devata Temple (temple of fourteen gods) in Old Agartala, which is 6 km away from the present capital city of Agartala. According to history, Maharaja Krishna Manikya shifted his capital from Udaipur to Old Agartala in 1770 after being defeated by Shamsher Gaze. The images fourteen gods were transferred at the same time from two temples beside Tripureswar Bhairab Temple in Udaipur to this newly built temple. I am not sure if they are the same couple of abandoned temples that we noticed beside the temple dedicated to Shiva and Kali in Udaipur where we stopped for a while on the first day of our tour. In 1840, the capital was again shifted to present Agartala but the images of the fourteen gods were retained back. To our dismay the temple was completely closed. I have never heard that a temple remains closed due to Independence Day holiday. A lone police guard was patrolling the temple complex with a rifle. When our driver informed us that the gods remain hidden from the common public since the idols are very precious, we were more perplexed but the fact reduced our disappointment. He further told us that the only time the images are visible is on the occasion of a special worship know as Kharchi Puja. The worshipping includes a combination of Vedic and ethnic rituals performed by a group of priests known as Chantai and the chanting is in a language which is neither Sanskrit nor the Tripuri dialect Kokborok, but a secret mantra known only to the priests. 

The ruins of an old royal palace were still there opposite the temple. Our driver let us know that no one lives there anymore and before renovation the place was full of deadly snakes.
When we reached the capital city of present Agartala, we passed by the Ujjayanta Palace. The Indo-Saracenic building with Mughal style gardens was built in 1901 by Maharaja Radha Kishore Manikya. The palace has three domes, each 86 feet high. I was under the impression that the palace is now used as the assembly house of the state of Tripura, but our driver informed us that a new assembly house has been constructed recently. However, the palace was in shambles and was under renovation much in contrast to the imposing white structure seen in the brochures. The palace is accessible for the general public but was closed on that particular day due to Independence Day holiday.

We went for a stroll in the evening to have a feel of the city. An amusing observation we made was that there are no traffic lights on the roads and the traffic police still control with hand signals. There is a shopping mall known as City Centre at the heart of the city where we roamed around for a bit. We also visited a nearby handloom store to buy some gift items made of bamboo for which Tripura is famous. Then at 8 o’clock we went for dinner to a restaurant named Hata-Khunti, recommended by our driver, which serves strictly Bengali food. We were the only guests when we arrived, may be since it was so early by Indian standard, but throughout our meal also no other guest appeared. Srimanta apprised us the benefits of early dinner, probably making him acclimatized with the European lifestyle appropriate with his soon to be overseas stay. The food was good, at least the best we had during our stint at Tripura.

The next morning, we had nothing to do before we take our return flight. So we thought of visiting the Agartala Museum which was not far away from our hotel. Since there was still some time left for the museum to open, we decided to eat something first as we did not have our breakfast. We made another peculiar observation that there are not many fast food centres or small eateries where one can make a quick bite. Even in moderate shops carrying a long list of food items very few are actually available. We had the same experience a couple of hours later when we went for lunch. Even at noon, many restaurants were not functional and again at the place where we finally had our lunch, we were the only guests. May be the people of Agartala do not eat out much.

The city museum was a small one comprising some artefacts and sculptures from ancient times, not necessarily from Tripura. The top floor of the two storied building displayed some paintings of the royal rulers of Tripura. The attires of the later Maharajas had a tint of colonial reflection. The paintings of Maharaja Radha Kishore Manikya and Maharaja Bir Bikram Kishore Manikya were most conspicuous amongst them.

Before I end my trip report, I would like to mention a couple of experiences. First, the small 48-seater propeller Air India plane was a unique experience; never had the opportunity to board one before. It was reminiscent of the retro movies. And lastly, the way in which the Tripura government has promoted (feeling sorry for using the word but cannot ignore the fact that newer generations have mostly become unfamiliar to his work) Rabindranath Tagore is utterly commendable. There are numerous billboards carrying his pictures and his quotes throughout the state. Feeling pity for the chief minister of Bengal for being labelled overdramatic (yes, I am guilty of criticising at times as well) for naming a few projects and places after the Vishwa-Kabi. Tagore had doubted whether his work will have relevance after hundred years but hope he will have the same significance in our lives for many more years to come.