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Monday, December 12, 2011

Ruins of Hampi - Stones CAN and DO speak!!


Hundreds of years ago, in a kingdom far, far away, ruled a king who was known for his bravery and kindness. People talked about his magnificent kingdom in far away lands; the mighty king had two queens; the younger one was incredibly beautiful and an acclaimed dancer. 
Sounds familiar? Ah yes! Thus started the fairy tales, spinning their magical web, about kingdoms where the sun didn’t set, where trees were laden with fruits all year round, flowers bloomed irrespective of seasons and the people were satisfied and happy with life.
Well, one outgrows bedtime stories and then school happens to you and the very boring history curriculum spoils all the fun. You have to mug up so much without ever visiting the real place that you feel totally disconnected and as a result - hate the kings, their queens, every man who was ever a part of their kingdom and obviously the poor history teacher!
My interest in historical places started much later in life; somewhere in my mid twenties when I first took a stroll around Shahjanabad or Old DelhiJ And since then the love has grown manifold. The ‘ruins of Hampi’ has been on my must visit list for nearly a decade.

Till I set foot there, I had no idea that long forgotten tales from childhood - that of kings who were brave and wise and far sighted can still hold me captive. You need to inhale the fresh, unpolluted air of Hampi, close your eyes and listen. Listen to the clouds that float over the ruins, the sun that swathes the land with its golden rays from time to time and the colossal boulders strewn hills that stand solemnly all around you; you can hear their faint whisper narrating the tale - the tale of erstwhile Vijaynagara empire.  

Just to revive your memory!
Hampi (Humpi or Hampe), a UNESCO world heritage site is situated on the banks of river Tungabhadra and formed one of the core areas of the capital of Hindu empire Vijaynagara (The city of victory) from 1336 to 1565.  The kingdom was established by two brothers - Harihara and Bukka and reached its zenith under the rule of King Krishnadevaraya. The empire was finally overthrown by the Deccan sultanate who post capturing and killing Rama Raya (Krishnadevaraya’s son-in-law and considered very powerful) in the battle of Talikota, plundered Hampi and its surroundings for months, reducing it to a ruinous state in which it remains. It was never re-occupied.
The ‘ruins of Hampi’ is more of an open museum showcasing history, architecture and spirituality – one can take their pick!

Bangalore - Hampi:
Now that we own a SLR, Hampi started blinking bright on ‘No.1 place to visit’ before the year ended. The trip was planned with 4 of us keen on unraveling history. AR backed out last moment and rest of us started one bright sunny morning from Bangalore.
Hampi or rather Hospet (the nearest town 12 kms away) is well connected with rail and roads. We prefer undertaking road trips and honestly it is nice to have your own car to move around in Hampi.  
The journey was quite uneventful. The distance between B and H is 350 kms which we managed in 6.30 hours with 2 breaks. Getting out of Bangalore is always a pain until and unless you diligently leave home sharp at 5 am, but on most of our road trips we get delayed.
Bangalore to Tumkur as usual consisted of nonsensical traffic. The stretch between Tumkur and Chitradurga was awesome; it is a four lane highway, part of Golden Quadrilateral project and reminds you of Hollywood road flicks. Yes, there are also sunflower fields and windmills dotting the horizon to complete the effect!

There is Kamat Upachar and 2-3 more such joints on the way, where you can stop for a South Indian breakfast and strong filter coffee, but I do miss the North Indian dhabas; nothing like paratha, bhurji and pickles to cheer you upJ
Once you hit Chitradurga and take right on NH 13, the person who is driving stops having fun. There are loads of trucks plying, the so-called National Highway is actually a narrow stretch of road with two way traffic and one needs to be rather alert. We kept our spirits high by listening to random (read: Emran Hasmi type) Bollywood numbers and cracking mindless jokes till we suddenly came across something that looked like a sea. It was out of the blue and we were so NOT expecting it, that we were dumbstruck.
Breathtaking! That is the only word to describe the Mighty Tungabhadra reservoir. It is so vast that you seriously cannot see the bank on the other side. Few clicks happened (what is the use of having a good camera if you don’t capture every other scene that catches your fancy?) and we headed towards Hospet.

Hospet is like any other regular tier 2/3 town in India - lots of two wheelers plying on the narrow roads, a wide variety of medium sized shops, all kinds of ATM’s and a standard Gandhi Chowk with Gandhiji’s bust adorning it. Two points need mention:
a)      We got a little lost; too many people gave us too many directions (there were hardly any signs informing us which way to go). Some kind soul even said, “Hampi is beyond Hotel Mallige”, as if we knew all about Hotel M’s location!!
b)      People were actually speaking fluent Hindi. Yes, it does feel strange; we have relocated to Bangalore 4 years back and the junta here gets pretty stressed if you try conversing in the NATIONAL languageJ (On few occasions I had to actually spell out in B’lore “No Sir, I am not from North India; but yes, we Indians do need a common language!)

Places to stay in Hampi:
a)      Lots of people prefer staying in Hospet. It does give you a choice of hotels to suit every budget, but ideally not the best option. You will miss out on the charms of quaint little Hampi; not to mention the magnificent sunrise and sunset.
b)      KSTDC Hotel Bhubaneshwari in Kamalpura (we chose this option; its 3.5 kms from the ruins and has modestly clean rooms and a lovely garden. Also had 3 cats and 1 kitten that was damn cute. The rates for semi deluxe A/C room start at 1500/- night, which is quite affordable. They serve terrible chilli chicken and awesome masala peanuts for snacks)
c)      Guest houses/ home stays in and around Hampi Bazaar and across Tungabhadra. One needs to of course take a coracle ride to reach the other side of the bank. I am petrified of drowning, so this option was out for us.
You also have fancy resorts – Kiskinda Heritage and Hampi Boulders to choose from.

Day 1: Stones can and do speak!
We were to meet our KSTDC approved guide Lokesh at the hotel foyer at 8.30 am.  Post a good sleep and filling breakfast (the bread was fresh, omlette was so-so) we were geared up for the tour; our internal batteries fully charged. I had my printout ready and we had already discussed with Lokesh that we needed to tick all that was on my listJ
We drove approximately 3 kms on a lovely winding road with lush green fields on both sides; there was a slight breeze and one could spot the boulder strewn landscapes at a distance. As the car took another turn, we suddenly came face-to-face with two lovely ancient temples and mammoth boulders strewn all across us. There was a collective hiss from all of us. We were so not expecting to come face-to-face with something so beautiful and vast and gorgeous- all rolled into one!

The Kadalekalu  Ganapati Temple

My one line definition of Hampi (since then) is: Hampi catches you totally unaware; you take a turn and suddenly an invisible curtain lifts and transports you back to another time, hundreds of years ago!

 FYI: There is a parking just before entering the Hemakuta hill region, where no parking fees are required for your vehicle; whereas if you park closer to the Sasivekalu Ganesha, they charge you Rs 40. There are boys who sell pamphlets and booklets on Hampi for a rather cheap sum, and I bought myself a set.

Quick info: The Vijaynagara Empire had four main villages (according to our Guide) namely, Hampi, Kamalpura, Krishnapura and Vittalnagara. The architecture a combination of the Chalukyan, Hoysalan, Pandyan and Cholan flamboyant styles is made mostly of the locally available hard granite.

Hemakuta Hills:
We started our ‘walk back to past’ with Hemakuta (Hemakoota) Hills. There are two huge monolithic Ganesha images – Kadalekalu (gram seed) and Sasivekalu (mustard seed). I felt like a tiny tot standing in front of Kadalekalu Ganapati. The gigantic grey stone statue is 4.5 m high and is housed with open mantapa in front.

The mantapa is singularly classical in its architectural proportions and has tall, slender pillars with ornate carvings. On whole, it is a striking work of art; unfortunately the damn invaders have broken Ganapati’s round, cute belly!
This is how tiny we were in front of the huge monolith
A huge crowd comprising of schoolchildren landed up chattering incessantly and I was got a tad little sad that I will be distracted with their constant high pitched banter when all I wanted to do was cut out every other human voice and soak in the atmosphere, but to my relief they went in another direction and we started our stroll towards Virupeksha temple.



Approx 100 mts before entering the temple, there is a derelict stone façade on the left. Thinking it must be just-another-stone-ruin, we entered it casually.
OH-MY-GOD!
When we saw, what we saw, we just stood dumbfounded for a minute. All around us were vast stretches of rocky sheets that had pre Vijaynagar era temples scattered all around. The horizon was dotted with some small sized raised platform kind of structures and our Guide informed that those were used as stages where one performed or sang praise of the King.
Hemakuta Hills
Rocky sheets
I have never, ever seen something like this. (I know I have already said this when I started, but that’s what Hampi does to you). 
We ran around like excited kids who have been left in their favourite playground. Innumerable pictures were taken; I even decided to roam the entire area barefoot. It was my way of feeling one with the people who have walked the same stretches barefoot seven hundred years back. 

On the top of the hill, there is a three tier, flat roof temple from where you get a bird’s eye view of the ruins. Lokesh,  our Guide was thoroughly hassled with us and on his insistence, we finally started making our way to the Virupeksha Temple.

FYI: Since Lokesh (our Guide) had worked out an 8 hour package with us, he was keen to show us all the important landmarks before sunset when the ruins are closed for visit for the day.

Virupaksha Temple:
The magnificent nine storeys east facing Gopuram of the temple, visible from quite a distance is one of the most prominent landmarks of Hampi. Dedicated to Lord Shiva, it is believed to be one of the oldest functioning temple of India (uninterrupted since 7th century AD). It also has sanctums dedicated to Pampavati and Bhuvaneshwari, Lord Shiva or Virupaksha’s consorts. Entry fee is pretty cheap (Rs 5/person) while fees for carrying camera is hefty. 
Royal Emblem
On entering you get to see Vijaynagar’s emblem carved on stone on your right and as you take few more steps ahead, you meet Lakshmi. She is the in-house pet elephant, gentle and well mannered and in exchange of bananas and coins, he blesses you with her trunk.  
Gopuram - as seen between two boulders

The temple is huge and needs at least more than an hour for detailed viewing. It was also quite untidy (I have no idea why Hindu temples do not stress on cleanliness) and since we landed just after celebration pertaining to Lord Kartikeya, the floor was slippery as hell (Prakash explained it was a result of milk bath of deities).
Intricate work on Gopuram

The mural panel on the central hall and the pinhole camera effect that one gets to see behind the main sanctum caught my interest. There is a dark chamber with a slit in the hall and when the sun rays pass, one can see the inverted shadow of the main Gopuram on the stone wall. Local belief is that ‘If you touch the tip and pray, you are most likely to go to heaven on your death’.
Detail on this temple can be read at: http://hampi.in/virupaksha-temple

Once you step out of the temple, you come face-to-face with the crowded Hampi Bazaar. History says Hampi was well known for its bazaars; merchants from far away places gathered here to show off their wares. Besides gold, diamonds, horses and cows which formed the main trade materials, the markets boasted of a variety which impressed even visitors from foreign shores! They were well laid out in neat rows, paved with stones, and also included residence for the merchants and stables for their horses.
Peddling wares
 Few of the stone chambers still exists full of cluttering 21st century shops. They sell turkish pants, brightly coloured kurtas, semi-tacky looking gypsy bags, toys, hand made musical instruments, mineral water and small artifacts’ made of plaster-of-paris which somehow has a stone look. There are innumerable ‘3-rickety-wooden-benches’ kind of eateries, claiming to have a mention in Lonely Planet. They did not look hygienic, we gave them a pass and walked on.
The bazaar
If you keep walking straight, you hit the police station (a rather cute affair) and the handicraft bazaar which is a dimly lit, long room which has rows of bedsheets, handkerchiefs, gypsy bag (yet again), few products made of hand made paper and other sundry items. Not much to choose from, but I did manage a stone chariot replicaJ
There is a winding lane on the left once you step out of the Virupaksha Temple; it takes you to the banks of Tungabhadra for a lovely trek-cum-walk which we missed and plan to take up next time!

Lakshmi Narasimha
On our way back to the car, we also checked out Lakshmi Narasimha (The largest monolithic statue in Hampi; it is an interestingly carved statue of Lord Narasimha sitting in a yogic position on the coil of seven headed nag, Sesha) and Badavalinga.

Next stop: Zenana enclosure, Lotus Mahal, Elephant stables:
The queens lived lavishly indeed! That was my thought as I strolled the vast garden here. The secluded, walled area reserved for royal women has a huge bath, massage parlour, sprawling garden and a lotus shaped hall which was the meeting place for the queens. (Polygamy was not unlawful back then)

Lotus Mahal
The Lotus Mahal, the main attraction, is a two storied, pastel coloured arched pavilion which is a blend of Indo-Islamic architecture. The roof of this structure consists of nine pyramidal shikaras of varying sizes, the central one being the tallest. From the top, it appears like a blooming lotus, giving the palace its name.

The Queen’s Palace (only the basement remains) is located at the middle of this area; measuring 46 x 29 meters, in fact this has been the largest palace base excavated in the Hampi ruins so far.


Elephant stables
 
The elephant enclosure is right next doors and consists of 11 chambers dedicated to the eleven elephants who served only the Royal Family. The chambers are airy, spacious and have beautiful carving. The middle chamber is extra elegant with three tiers and apparently housed the elephant who carried queen Bhubaneshwari during Dasara procession.
On one side, there are abandoned rooms meant for mahouts and on the other side there was the elephant treasury which is in shambles.

However, some researchers claim, that the entire area was actually Rama Raya’s secretariat; why otherwise would you have stables just next to the queen’s living area!

IMP: The same ticket which you purchase while entering Zenana enclosure, is valid (only for the same day) for entry at the Vittala Temple and the nearby Elephant Stables. Preserve the ticket.

There is a museum outside the Zenana enclosure, if you have time, you can take a closer look at a lot of statues that has been excavated.

Hazara Rama Temple:
I remembered this from a story read during my teens and was very excited to finally see it first hand. This is located south east of the zenana enclosure and is much smaller than the other temples indicating that it may have been a private temple for the Kings.
Hazara Rama Temple - Just see the artwork!

View from inside Hazara Rama
The 'Break Dancer'
Sculpted friezes, depicting Ramayana, covers every inch of the outer wall. Inside the temple there are black granite pillars exquisitely carved and had images of Krishna, Mahishahsur mardini (the Bengali in me was pleased with this) and also that of a break dancer! Break dance, in those days!!
James Brown, now I know that you didn’t invent it J




To liven up the quiet atmosphere, there was a gay couple, dressed identically in yellow t-shirts and black Turkish pants (representing yellow/ black cabs) who took nearly 1000 photographs of themselves oblivious to the architectural beauty all around!

We were famished (at least I was) and requested our Lokesh to suggest an interesting place where we could grab lunch. He named a place called Mango tree and further mentioned that it is a vegetarian joint. Traumatized upon hearing “only veg”, we requested him to take us to an alternate eatery and he decided to take us to a place called Hotel Ashoka near the main bus stop.

The interesting tale of two sisters: On our way to the bus stop, as we crossed two mammoth boulders touching each other precariously, Lokesh narrated an interesting tale.
Apparently, there were two sisters who once got lost in a mela in Vijaynagar (uff, this is sheer Bollywod in 60s); they took shelter in a place where a holy man was meditating. Since their chatter disturbed him, he turned them into stones. Rather than using magical powers to help them he turned them into stones? A very unhelpful, rude man, if you ask me. I wish he mentioned how to lift the curse; someone may have freed the sisters who have stayed like this for years!!

Hotel Ashoka is beyond definition. Not that we were expecting a five course meal in a posh joint, but goodness gracious, it was the most dingy place where I have had food in the last decade. I was 100% sure, I will fall sick after eating there, but did not. I will still NOT recommend it to anyone.
From here on, we headed towards Vittalnagara (Vittalpura) & Vittala Temple:

On the way to Vittalswamy temple
For me, this place is what made the Hampi trip so endearing (apart from running around barefoot on Hemakuta Hills). This place is sheer goosebumps; you must visit it to feel it. 
A similar winding road with plantations on both sides take you towards Vittalnagara; once you pass by main entrance to the village/ town and cross the stone house of the gatekeeper of the erstwhile town, you seriously wish that instead of a car you were riding a horse! 
The winding road takes you through a completely deserted town till you reach a point where cars are allowed to park. 

You can either walk for ten minutes or board a battery operated vehicle (rate Rs 10/ person), much like an elongated golf cart that takes you to the epicenter of Hampi’s attractions – The Vittala temple.
Interestingly, ALL these vehicles were being driven by women! When we asked for more details, we were told that this was on a trial basis, and if it worked out, the same system would be implemented all over Hampi. It was nice to see this little empowerment project.

The Gopuram of the Vittala Temple is severely damaged, but once you enter the courtyard, you are struck by the sheer beauty of the structures. 
The stone chariot takes its proud place in the centre of the courtyard and I stood transfixed next to it for some time – it is a sheer piece of art!
Stone Chariot
The wheels used to move earlier, but now they have been fixed because tourists would manhandle them. There were few art students who were intently doing water colour/ pencil sketches and I loved some of their work.

Wheels of stone chariot
Inside temple compound













The temple, dedicated to Lord Vishnu houses a Kalyan Mantapa (marriage hall) and a Maha Mantapa. The main highlight of the MahaMantapa is its richly carved giant monolithic pillars. The outermost of the pillars are popularly called the musical pillars. These slender and short pilasters carved out of the giant pillars emit musical tones (can be heard till a distance of 1.5kms) when tapped and they also reproduce the sound of various musical instruments.

Musical pillars
 The technology behind how the music emanates it is still a mystery; the British did try finding out by neatly cutting two of those pillars (they are now found in Chennai museum) but they did not succeed in their quest!
The irony is that touching them has been barred. Guess why? Indian tourists being what they are, they had been damaging what had been left untouched by the marauders years back. It is such a shame.

There is simply too much artwork all around, each pillar has and interesting story. I think, one needs at least 5-6 hours to grasp all that is there. There are points in the courtyard, from which you get a good view of Tungabhadra and after loitering around for some more time, we headed back.
Temple courtyard
 The clouds had darkened in the horizon, and we went back towards Hampi to visit Mahanavami Dibba (and watch sunset): This was the last leg of the day’s tour.
King Krishnadevaraya constructed this in commemoration on the victory over Udaygiri (now in Orissa). Legend is that the king used this platform to watch the army march-pasts, war games, aquatic sports, shows of the royal animals, musical performances and also the most important Navarathri celebrations, the nine day-nine night state festival. And this was the annual occasion the governors of various provinces under the king visited the capital to pledge their loyalty to the king’s dominion. For the king it was an event to demonstrate the imperial pomp and power at his disposal.
View from Mahanabami Dibba
From a distance this looks like an ordinary elevated square stage. As you go close, the details emerge. The whole structure is made as a giant square structure in three layers. There are mainly two stairways to reach the top.
The front one (east facing) is highly decorated on either sides with carvings of elephants, horses and a host of other things. At the back of the platform a twin staircase is located. Probably this was used as a service staircase during the ceremonies.
On the top there is nothing special to see except the great views all around it; honestly I have not seen such a large undisturbed view of the sky for a long, long time. Mornings or evenings are preferred time of visit, as this vast enclosure does not have shades.
Puskarini
There is also a large Puskarini or a step tank close by.

We returned dog tired to our hotel and spent the rest of the evening chatting, guzzling drinks, discussing the places seen and revisiting it through the snaps clicked.




Day 2 (Bit of a dampener for me):  Started bad; I woke up with severe body ache and realized that I should have been more careful and taken it a bit easy. Nearly 2.5 months of illness, innumerable courses of antibiotics followed with strict instructions of not exercising had left me in a “not at all’ fit mode. Post breakfast, shower and roaming inside the hotel compound (Iramma, the main porter informed me that our Presiden,t the severely saree clad Ms. Patil had visited them sometime back), we drove back towards Hemakuta Hills. 
Local kids who wanted to be clicked



Loitered for 2 hours amongst the rock sheets and boulders and had a whale of a time. It was drizzling and we did have a nice time taking in the beautiful view all around us. 







Post lunch, I stayed back at the hotel, while the husband and friend visited Matanga Hills to watch the sunset. 
 
Sunset @Matanga
They came back ga-ga and from the pictures I could see that it must have been one glorious sunsetJ
The Veerbhadra temple on top of the hills (the only temple where prayers are performed 24x7x365) also forms one of the important vintage points from which a good and picturesque view could be had of the Hampi monuments.




Ruins of Hampi is “I-cannot-really-put-it-in-words” experience. It is truly a traveler’s paradise; every turn springs a surprise, every monument hides more than what they reveal. The mammoth boulders that forms the ruins stands the test of time; they stand testimony to the high level creativity of the artisans and the highs and lows of the various dynasties that were once a part of the magnificent Vijaynagara empire!

My two bit suggestion to the ASI:
a)      Can there be more toilets? And a compulsory rule that states that children should not be seen relieving themselves on the road? I mean, are we all not supposed to treat heritage sites more seriously than an open lavatory?
b)      Maybe the ticket prices should be increased so that you do not have unruly crowd trying to spoil what is left? Or maybe more security?

Day 3: The return journey was peaceful. The sole highlight was the lunch at Hotel Aishwarya Fort @Chitradurga. Finger licking good food. I recommend to everyone who travels by Chitradurga to stop there.

Hampi can be visited again and again – am sure some nook or corner will always be around to tell you one of the long forgotten tales! I am sure going back!!

Guide Lokesh: +91. 944.821.2579
Hotel Aishwarya@Chitradurga: 7184, Turuvanur, Chitradurga (Opp RTO office)

Photograph courtesy: Sudipto Chakraborty

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Oh Calcutta!


‘Tillotoma’, ‘Kollolini’, ‘Swapno Nogori’, ‘Praner Shohor’ – these are just a few of the charming adjectives used to describe India’s erstwhile capital Calcutta, time and again. When you read or hear a city being described in such lofty phrases, a slow desire urges you to explore it, like it, fall in love with it.
Unfortunately, my very first impression of Calcutta* as a six year old which I still remember vividly had exactly the opposite effect on me.
*In those days it was Calcutta and not Kolkata and to be honest I prefer the earlier version, so that’s how I will refer to the city in my blog.

We three - me, Ma and Babai were in taxi (yes, that’s how one refers to the dear old black and yellow ambassadors) trudging along in an overcrowded Calcutta street. We were on our way from Howrah station to one of our innumerable relative’s house.
FYI- Whoever has been in Calcutta knows that speeding is impossible there; you mostly crawl. Yes, even now.
Well, back to the scene from the 1980s.
Roads in most parts of the city were narrow, clustered with shops on both sides and there was way too much traffic. Metro and flyovers were just visions; no one had any idea that in future they may / will help decongest the famous Calcutta traffic jams.
Little Gargi was in a puzzled, unhappy state with cranky questions lining up her mind. Why are the cars not moving? And why are the buses around us so dirty looking with black smoke emitting from them? When will we finally reach so-and-so uncle’s place?
A little impatient and tired from the train journey that brought us to Calcutta, stuck with  petrol smell all around me creating a severe sense of suffocation, I had finally turned and asked Babai with the wide eyed wonder of a child, “All I can see are shops, where do people live? There is so much dust and smoke all around, why do they live in this untidy looking place?”
To my six year old self, the city looked like a mess. It was a congested (data suggests it is the 13th most populous urban area in the world), dusty and dilapidated.  
I also remember the hurt in Babai’s eyes post my comment.
And the fact that I started throwing up - result of that polluted petrol smell all around me.
Ahem, not a very memorable first impression!

Well, you can’t exactly blame me. I grew up in a place called Durgapur – a quaint, neat well planned industrial town on the banks of river Damodar. Our townships had roads lined with trees. Sal, eucalyptus, gulmohars, mangoes and jackfruits. The road that took us back from school had lush green paddy fields on both sides of the road that swayed like a smooth green velvet carpet when it was windy. You could see the blue sky and green fields merging at the horizon. Well almost. Traffic jams were an alien concept to me till the day I landed in Calcutta. In those days, Durgapur hardly had traffic. In fact there were fixed time for public buses on all routes. If you were unfortunate to miss one, you had to wait for at least half an hour for the next one to arrive.

Calcutta was my Babai’s city. His true beloved. In his eyes, there wasn’t any place more precious (read beautiful) than Calcutta on this earth; it was close, pretty close to Utopia. In his workplace Durgapur, approx 176 kms from the state capital of West Bengal, he perpetually lamented all that he missed about Calcutta. Such was his fierce loyalty for Calcutta that he even gave extra tips to plumbers, carpenters, rickshaw pullers and other such staff who claimed they were from Cal!

It has been 27 years since then. I have never really managed to appreciate Calcutta or its people.
Its not that I did not try, but somehow it has always been the city I love to hate.
Let me spell out the few prominent reasons for loving it. The architecture fascinates me - Calcutta has many buildings adorned with Gothic, Baroque, Roman, Oriental and Mughal motifs. The thought of the wide variety of finger licking street food available in Calcutta– the chicken rolls, fish cutlets and phuchkas – makes my mouth water at any given time of the day. The magnificent book fair in Maidan that I used to visit during my childhood every winter was to-die-for. And of course the mighty Ganga (known as Hoogly there) – I am still in awe of her; every time I lay my eyes on her.
I will not go ga ga over mishti doi, rosogolla and jeelipi. Yes I agree that they are God’s gift to mankind, but then trust me you get them everywhere in Bengal – the entire state is a paradise for sweet lovers.
It is also a city which I relate with some very bad memories. And not to forget my strong dislike for the super interfering relatives and neighbourhood aunties who a) never mind their own business and b) asks you too many personal questions thus succeeding in adding points to the hatred part. Also the traffic jams and the incessant honking. The flyovers and metro have helped in decongestion, but the situation on an average is still pretty bad. And the climate sucks - it is HUMID and makes you sweat. I totally abhor the smell of sweat.
Yet, I have gone back there – time and again!

So, this time while planning the impending trip after 3 long years, I was clear that I will give it my best shot - to sincerely like / love Calcutta. I had made up my mind to visit it without past baggage. I wanted to explore the Calcutta that I heard of from Babai and read about in novels penned by my favourite authors.
I did explore Calcutta this time; in fact quite a bit in spite of heavy duty relative-meeting sessions. However, since it is not possible to write all that I explored in one post, I will break them in segments.
This post is specifically about Pincode – 700009, which our gang of four explored one sunny and lazy winter afternoon.

Calcutta – 700009 = College Street
The epicenter of Kolkata’s cultural milieu
In 2007, College Street, featured among the famous landmarks of India in Time Magazines’s “Best of Asia” list. That is just one of the many accolades that have been bestowed upon the street steeped in history.
College Street basically refers to a street in North Calcutta which stretches from Bowbazaar to Mahatma Gandhi road crossing which leads to Hatibagan and Shyambazar further north. There is a tram line which runs right through the middle of the road and there are thousands of makeshift bookstalls on both sides of the road. These stalls are made of bamboo, wood, canvas and even corrugated-tin sheets!

Well-known academic institutions such as Presidency College, Sanskrit College (the pioneer institute of oriental studies in 1824), Scottish Church College, Bethune College, Kolkata Medical College (Asia’s first medical college in 1857), Vidyasagar College, Hare School (established in 1872), Hindu College (established in 1817) and School, and the University of Calcutta (established in 1857) are situated in and around this street and has turned it into the intellectual nerve centre of Calcutta.

If one decides to visit this locality, it is better to keep a couple of hours aside so that one can explore and soak in the vintage sight, sound, smell that it offers. I would strongly recommend the following on your must-check-out list while visiting College Street.
  • Coffee House
  • Boi Para
  • College Square
  • A visit to Presidency College / Calcutta University campus
  • Snacks at Putiram
We were not sure how much time we can manage, as we all got delayed due to respective commitments earlier in the day. But since a visit to College Street without visiting Boi para or Coffee House is like going to Agra and not checking the Taj Mahal, we decided to meet at the Coffee House on College Street.
As the taxi trudged (yet again) the meandering streets of North Calcutta while Sudipto gave kept up his narrative (my husband after all had spent his childhood in these bylanes), I kept waiting anxiously for the first sight of the famous landmark. The road was one way from where we were coming, so we had to get off at one point from where the Coffee House was a few minutes walk amidst book lined roads.  I was super excited. Finally I am visiting the iconic place I have been reading about all my life.

The Legendary ‘Indian Coffee House’
It is not the coffee that pulls you there. It’s the romance and the history that one associates with it.
Coffee House to me has always represented freedom. Freedom of speech and thoughts thus converting the utmost ordinary youth who fights his everyday battle to become extra ordinary through his discussions, views, writings! Established in 1942 under the vaulted ceilings of the Albert Hall, it still remains THE favorite place of artists, writers, revolutionaries and of course groups of bright-eyed-full-of-ideals students who indulge in animated discussions on every possible topic under the sun.

The entrance to the Indian Coffee House is deceptively low key. In fact its semi hidden behind shops, so if you are not careful, you may actually pass by the entrance without realizing.
Once you enter the dark interior, you will be greeted by red spit filled winding stone staircase, the surrounding walls lined with various posters. Once you reach the first floor, on your right you will find the roaring two floor cafeteria. On your left, you will notice signs for bookstores which pulled us like a moth to flame.
We decided to visit the Rupa Publishers stall first. For any book lover its can be hailed as paradise. You are left gaping at the vast and varied collection!
There were books on nearly every topic you can think of at affordable rates. And boy, it had the old world feel stamped on it. The smell of books and dust in cramped book shelves, piles of books lying around anywhere on the floor - it made the entire experience so much more relaxed and comfortable. No one kept hovering over you in a boring looking uniform asking “Ma’am, can I help you?” They just let you be. Help yourself is the motto. You can look around at your own pace and stumble upon something that will make your dayJ
Modern day book stores – please note.
With the amount of room fresheners that you spray and the over lit, antiseptic looking interiors and vague looking employees who go on doing their job but does not really care for books (the attitude is too obvious) you are killing the fun.
After browsing, I wish I could do that for endless hours, I settled for The Illustrated History of Art – Judisth Clarck and Da Vinci’s Notebook.
FYI – There was also a small booklet on “emotional sms” near the cash counter!

With a satisfied smile plastered on my face (I always do, post buying books) we lazily strolled towards the coffee house.  Long before the Café Coffee Day, Barista and Cafe Mochas of the world there stood this monument to the glory days of past steaming with conversations, gossip where seeds of political revolutions germinated.

We managed to find place in the ground floor near a window overlooking the busy street below. All around us was incessant chattering and spirals of cigarette smoke while veteran waiters in faded white uniforms with turbans and cummerbunds moved deftly amongst tables serving coffee and snacks from an eclectic menu. The food served in steel cutlery is cheap. Damn cheap. You can have a plate of Moghlai Porota for like 15 bucks which is amazing! While one of our friends tried freezing images in his camera, I soaked in the atmosphere while the warm sunlight streaming in through the window fell on my shoulder. 

There was a counter on one side manned by some very bored looking bhodrolok. The wall on the other end had a huge photograph of a young Rabindranath. There were old ceiling fans which you get to see only in black and white movies of bygone era. The tables around us were occupied with a motley crowd. There were groups of students, full of giggles and chirpy talks. Few were comparing notes, few busy with cell phone cameras. There was some couple types totally engrossed with each other. There were the elderly patrons who seemed very comfortable with their endless cups of coffee while they discussed the current political scenario and life passed by. Apparently the prices on the balcony floor are strategically priced at two rupees more, than the main hall. Though the balcony floor looks cleaner, somehow it does not have the madness of the ground floor.

The coffee was bad. I did request repeatedly for sugar, since it was missing from my cup, I never got it in the forty minutes that we spent there.
As I sat there, listening to the bright hum and sipping the weak, sugarless coffee, I realized that in spite of the bad coffee this place has managed to evoke a positive feeling in me. Adda is like oxygen to us - Bengalis. And by providing a favourable atmosphere the Coffee House permeates a good adda - amiable but hot discussions ranging local politics to global warming to cricket/ football to Neruda to iPad. Spending a few hours here is like stepping into a time capsule where everything moves in a slow unhurried pace like a graceful ballet; it is a world where the images are still in black and white. For someone who thrives on nostalgia, this is a place worth visiting.

As we started walking towards Boi Para, I kept humming in my mind the soulful, famous song by Manna Dey - ‘Coffee House er sei adda ta aaj ar nei’.
The words must be so true for an entire generation of people who grew up spending endless hours at the coffee house; this place has provided many with some very poignant memories to be cherished for a life time.
As you walk out of coffee house you hit the boi para.

Boi Para (Boi:book, Para:Neighbourhood) or Book Market
You have to see it to believe it.
College Street, famous for its book stores is lined with stalls & stores of every shape, size and attitude!  Known as ‘boi para’ or ‘book mart’, it is a paradise for academicians and book lovers. Dotted with countless book shops - humble small book kiosks / make shift stalls holding tattered chronicles dating back at least a century stand shyly beside their smarter / bigger counterparts. Many bigwigs of the Bengali publication industry are also situated there.
Hidden behind the innumerable book shops are the compound walls of Hare school, Presidency College and Calcutta University. 
You can totally related to the unbreakable bond between educational institutes and books while strolling down this old neighbourhood.

Said to be more than a hundred years old, Boi para is the world's second largest market of second hand books. You get all sorts of them here; from classics, textbooks, and manuscripts to comics and so on at unbelievably low prices.
It provides a perfect shopping stop for students looking for text books and reference material. Book-lovers and avid readers of all genres routinely visit the Boi Para. Ah, the thrills of finding an out-of print book or an original leather-bound classic jostling for space alongside a 'how-to-crack-the-IAS'. The shop-owners are very knowledgeable and can help you find a book of any interest. I have heard from my friends that some of the stall owners are very knowledgeable about books and can even tell you immediately whether a particular book can be found at all.

However, the old-world nostalgia will change very soon with the West Bengal government planning to build a book mall and pull down the shops in order to beautify the city. The upcoming project called “Varnaparichay” is a Public Private Partnership Project between Kolkata Municipal Corporation (KMC) and Bengal Shelter Housing Development Ltd. As a part of urban development they are planning to construct the world’s largest book mall in this area. I just hope it can retain the comfort level this run down place provides and also hope that the street vendors will not be uprooted but will be able to go on with their year old family business.

FYI : Varnaparichay or Bornoporichoy (if you want the correct Bengali pronunciation) is the first text book for basic Bengali education. The word Varnaparichay in Bengali means “introduction to Varna or alphabets”. This is the book of basic language construct and fundamentals compiled by Pandit Iswarchandra Vidyasagar, one of the most prominent scholar and social reformer of Bengal.

Past the books shops, we started strolling leisurely in the warm afternoon glow towards College Square. My friends had moved ahead while I stared at the magnificent Calcutta University. It looks very impressive and imposing with its colonial white architecture. However, since others had moved on and I am not too familiar with the place and did not want to lag behind, I rushed to catch up with them; promising myself that next I visit Calcutta I will definitely visit the campus.

College Square:
You have to know where this is located to find it amongst the lines of shops. There is an arrow that points towards it, but seriously amongst so much graphitti one tends to miss it. Dominating the center of the area is the Vidyasagar Sarovar, traditionally known as the College Square. It has a large tank that is used by numerous swimming clubs and swimming coaching institutes. The water looked bit muddy to me; apparently the water is drawn is drawn from river Hoogly, which explains the colour. There is a walk surrounding the tank which I am sure is occupied by college sweethearts and others seeking leisure. It was mostly empty when we visited it and had a very lack luster feel to it.

As we walked out towards the main road, we realized that Police has started cordoning off stretches of the road because of CM’s impending visit to the locality. As we waited endlessly for a taxi I realized that visiting Putiram for snacks and the famous fruit juice stall in the vicinity remained unexplored. But, never mind. College Street – am coming back to visit you as many times as I visit Calcutta in future. You made my day and offered me vistas of old colonial times which are a great fix any day for a nostalgia junkie like me!

And yes - Babai, this will never reach you, but I have to acknowledge that I have started liking CalcuttaJ. In bits and pieces but that is a ‘start’ nevertheless.

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