Saturday, December 31, 2011

Victoria Memorial

Perhaps one of the most beautiful colonial building in Kolkata, the Victoria Memorial was conceived after the 1901 death of Queen Victoria. Lord Curzon, Viceroy of India, sought to have a building constructed in her honor - one that would be stately and spacious, and be surrounded by a beautiful garden. It was envisioned to be a historical museum showcasing paintings and statues of those who contributed to the country’s history and help instill a sense of national pride. Through donations, the memorial was constructed and opened in 1921. Situated on a 64 acre tract of manicured lawn, the white marble building stretches 184 ft (56 m) high, with the statue of Victory extending another 16 ft (1.8 m). While the exterior of the building was worth a visit in itself, I paid the extra money to go inside. Here, visitors were welcomed with a large collection of period oil paintings, maps, manuscripts, coins, armor, and weapons. 
With the sun casting a faint orange hue over the dome, it was a signal for me to go. Walking back through the tall iron gate with guardian lion figures, I looked back at the elegant building, sad to see my time in Kolkata drawing to a close.

Happy New Year - Chennai Style

A kolam of Chennai welcomes in the New Year. May the New Year bring prosperity, health, and happiness to you, wherever you are.

Friday, December 30, 2011

BBD Bagh Area, Kolkata

After a pleasant early morning walk through a small market and through some back streets, I headed down to the area of Kolkata known as BBD Bagh. One of the villages from which Kolkata grew was situated here. Now it is more noted for its beautiful 18th and 19th century British colonial buildings, many of which were used for commercial and administrative control.

One such building is known as the Writer’s Building. Constructed in 1777, this stately building with its Corinthian columns and arched windows was once operated by the East India Company. Named after the “writers” (clerks) who worked there at the time, it still is used by the state government. 

Another landmark of the area is fondly known as the GPO - the General Post Office. Built in the 1860, its rotunda rises to over 220 feet (67m). Even today, the GPO continues to handle much of the city’s incoming and out-coming mail.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Kali Puja Night

Although I saw homes and business place tealights and small oil lamps by doorways and in windowsills as part of Diwali, it was Kali who stole center stage in this Bengali city. At street corners, inlets, and in front of storefronts, temporary structures were built to display and honor the idols of Kali. Each had one to several statues of the goddess Kali, typically portrayed with blue skin, long (and often rather unruly) black hair, a garland of trophy severed heads around  her neck, and the signature tongue sticking straight down. Music blared from the speakers, making it easy for those in the vicinity to know that a puja stand was near.
Walking up to one display, I admired the statue that likely took many days to make, contained costly decorative elements, and yet would be drowned in the river a few days later. One person invited me to sit down. Seizing the opportunity, I asked him some questions about this goddess. He explained that Kali actually started out as Durga. According to a story, Durga was asked if she could help stop the rampant overrunning of demons. Soon she developed a taste for blood and began getting out of control. In an effort to stop her, Shiva (her husband) laid down in front of her. Just as she was about to step on him, she stopped in surprise and stuck her tongue straight down, aghast at the thought of what she almost did. (Cultural beliefs were that a wife’s feet should never touch a husband). When asking further questions the man smiled and apologized, saying that he was Muslim and was here to enjoy the festivities with his HIndu friends who had sponsored the display. The man next to him was also Muslim. Celebrating of Indian festivals definitely crosses religious boundaries!

Monday, December 26, 2011


Driving across the steel Howrah Bridge boasting as being the third longest cantilever bridge in the world, we then went to Kumartuli, meaning “Area of the Potters.” In these narrow alleys were tiny shops where potters churned out the many Durga idols used for the autumn festival. Few were at work, but I did see some in progress, revealing the straw framework of the nearly life-sized statues, then covered with layers of clay. Over ten men carried a headless multi-armed clay figure through the street using a bamboo support system. Along with the requisite chai shops, some stores specialized in decorative elements for Kali and Durga idols. Here you could take your pick amongst decorative metal swords, tin tridents, and even rows of severed heads. 

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Merry CHRISTmas

From the streets of Pondicherry to the coconut groves of Kerala, some in India are celebrating the most important birthday recorded in human history. No, not a Bollywood (or Kollywood) movie star, and not even that of a politician. It is someone who grew up in very humble circumstances - much like the village huts of the India of today. This individual was Jesus -or Immanuel, which means God with us. I pray that the Christians of India will hold fast to the true reason for Christmas - the birth of our Savior. Happy birthday, Jesus! 

Friday, December 23, 2011

Flower Market, Kolkata

After a meal at a restaurant for locals, our next destination was the flower market. Much like the Kali Temple, this usually busy place was jam packed with people due to the festivities. Trucks unloaded bundle after bundle of flowers, each about 3 feet in height. Workers were busy unwrapping the bundles’ contents, cascading strands of strung marigolds. Many were being loaded in large openly woven baskets and placed on the heads of men who carried what reminded me of massive pompom caterpillars through to other areas of the market and onward. Vendors were lined up along the narrow path, eager to sell the mountain of flowers before them. Children sat in mounds of orange and yellow marigold heads while their mothers strung garlands. While the photo opportunities were ripe, the sheer congestion of people along with the pushing and shoving made it incredibly difficult as well as being a potential hazard for my equipment. I did, however, marvel at the sheer volume of flowers being unloaded, dispersed, and sold  - right before my very eyes. Where were all these marigolds grown? How were they picked? What types of systems were in place that enabled such quantities of flower heads to be picked, transported into the city, and then manually distributed throughout the city - all while the short-lived pickings remained fresh?
After my motorcycle guide’s helmet got broken in the pushing and shoving of the sea of people, he rather grumpily suggested that we finish our time in the market and move onward.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Hooghly Bridge and the Botanical Gardens

Our journey took us onward, over the long suspension Hooghly Bridge and then to the Botanical Gardens. Here I was led to the star attraction of the gardens - the massive banyan tree. A sign prominently displayed its importance, indicating that this tree, with over 2,880 prop roots and area covering 1.5 hectares, is over 250 years old and is in the Guinness Book of World Records. Like the impressive banyan tree in Chennai’s Theosophical Society, its central trunk is no longer present, having been exposed to damaging fungus after two severe cyclones in the mid 1800’s. Despite not having the 15.7 m in diameter main trunk, the banyan tree continues to thrive, offering great shade and a wonderful playground for the langur monkeys. 

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Kali Ghat Temple

Although the current building of the Kali Temple only dates back to the 19th century, it has been a sacred site for much longer. A favorite pilgrimage place for Hindu devotees, this normally busy place was especially crowded on the day of my visit. The line to pay respects to the wild -looking female deity known as Kali. During my visit in Kolkata, I would see many idols of this favorite Bengali goddess, typically depicted with blue skin, black hair, tongue sticking down, and adorned with a garland of the decapitated heads of the demons she killed. Bypassing that long, snaking line, my motorcycle guide led me to a place within the temple compound where sacrifices were taking place. A family passed its goat over to a temple person. Everyone crowded around to witness the swift decapitation. Although I was not in a position to see the gruesome action, I did see the body fly to the left, with the blood spurting out of the neck like a fountain. As we left, I spotted four black goat heads lined up on the ground. How many more sacrifices would occur that day?

Birla Mandir, Kolkata

On our way to the famous Kali Ghat temple, we stopped at the Birla Mandir. Made out of white marble, the Hindu temple had some beautiful details. Built from 1970-1996, it was commissioned by the wealthy Birla industrialist family. In contrast to much of the city, there was a feeling of tranquility here.

This was the second Birla Mandir I had visited, the first being in Delhi. Its architectural style resembled the Lingaraj Temple in Bhubaneswar.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

The Ice Cream Man Cometh

On a rather deserted Kolkata road surrounded by vegetable gardens and a "Garbage Mountain" came an ice cream truck. Although I could be wrong, I doubt he had many "takers" from the population present at the time. Who would be more tempted by an ice cream bar - the vegetable garden pickers or the scavengers in the garbage dump?

Friday, December 16, 2011

Roadside Design - Revealed

Did you guess it?
These colorful roadside collections are comprised of bits of broken up plastic. It was one of many things recycled at this very modest facility located near "Garbage Mountain" in Kolkata. 

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Roadside Design

Moving onward from "Garbage Mountain," I spotted a colorful scene and managed to capture this photo, despite the faster speed of the motorcycle on which I was riding "pillion." Can you guess of what materials this roadside design is composed?

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Garbage Mountain and the Vegetable Fields

With surprisingly light traffic, we quickly made it out of the main city.  On both sides of the road were small fields of vegetables. Due to the festivals of Kali Puja and Diwali, only a few workers were in the fields, weeding and attending to the small cauliflower. My motorcycle guide was keen to point out the huge garbage dump off to one side. A few gypsies were picking through items in front. Adding to the rather incongruous scene was an ice cream cart, rolling its way down the lonely road as if it were the most natural place to be. Back on the motorcycle, we drove past several crude buildings where recycling of leather, paper, plastic, and other items took place. 

Monday, December 12, 2011

Park Street Cemetery

Through a pair of barred gates was an equally tranquil place - the Park Street Cemetery. Dating back to 1767, this cemetery is the resting place for VIP Europeans who died in Kolkata. Early morning fog magnified the feeling of mystique; the dew made the slightly mossy walkways a bit slippery. Large, but simple tombs lined the walkway. Some were tall and cubical, others had a slender pyramid on top. With archways and columns, others looked like a compact building. Moss and vines provided ornamentation to the otherwise plain tombs. 

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Mother House

The first place we visited is fondly known as The Mother House. The building was very unassuming and simple. In one corner near the entrance was an enclosed statue of Mary and a larger bronze statue of an older Mother Theresa, slightly stooped over and fingering her rosary. Still an active house with nuns, photography was permitted only in the room where Mother Teresa’s body was interred. Inside this room illuminated mainly with the light of the windows and open doorway was the focal point - her tomb. A visitor kneeled at the far end of the tomb, saying a silent prayer. A nun gently placed a lit candle near the top end of the smooth white marble surface. A cross and the words “I belong to Jesus” composed cleverly out of marigold petals decorated the otherwise plain, flat surface. In the adjacent area was a museum area containing information about this revered Albanian and some of her items. On the way up the stairs to Mother Teresa’s room, we saw nuns washing white and blue saris by hand, engaged, but appearing satisfied. Her room consisted of a simple twin bed, table with equally worn benches, desk, a crown of thorns on the wall, a framed photo of Pope John Paul II, and a few other basic items. 

Kolkata - Drive-by Shaving

Despite having arrived back from the Sunderbans around 10 pm, I was ready to go for a motorcycle tour through Kolkata early the following morning. It was the day of Diwali, so I was eager to see how this bustling cultural capital of India would celebrate this country-wide festival of lights.
On my walk over to the tour agency, I walked through a narrow street. One one side, people were sitting on makeshift stone benches, reading the paper. On the other, people were brushing their teeth, washing clothes and dishes, and getting a shave. Once you were done with your morning preparations, the stalls next door were available to serve you chai (sweet milky spiced tea) and various fried breakfast foods. If it hand’t been for the hand-carried rickshaws also plying through the same narrow lane, it could have been like walking through the bathroom and kitchen of a house.

Friday, December 09, 2011

Leaving the Island

Our boat trip now done, a bicycle taxi once again picked us up and pedaled us through the island to pick up the boat taxi. This driver was rather “horn-happy,” squeezing the bulb horn as a regular communication tool. Others chimed in, dinging their bicycle bells or more robust motorbike horn. With several simultaneously honking, it could have been part of an Indian symphony. With evening soon setting, a fog began to descend over the rice paddies. Older girls and women carried water to their homes. A small child held his mother’s hand, skipping along the narrow dirt path past the rice paddy near their home. The small market area was bustling with those buying produce or picking out the choice firecrackers. Music blasted from the temples and small shops. Men played cards in near darkness. The homes of many now disappeared in the darkness. Others were lit by a single kerosene lamp or light bulb (some powered by solar electricity). The single bell at a church clanged, inviting worshippers as we departed the island. The taxi boat made its way in virtual darkness, guided by experience and the lights coming from the distant shore. 

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Stilts and Tusks

The roots of the mangrove trees fascinated me. The long Rizophora stilt roots made it appear as if the tree could suddenly get up and walk away. The roots of other trees snaked along the muddy surface. The abundant breathing roots grew upward out of the anaerobic mud to breathe, peppering large swathes around the tree with finger-like projections. Some of these breathing roots were taller, resembling curved tusks. 

Wildlife at Low Tide

The boat chugged its way through some of the five interconnected rivers as well as a few smaller ones. As the water receded once again, I could see how an understanding of the river topography would be invaluable in successful navigation. What was completely flooded several hours ago was now a steep mounded bank. An egret stood in the remaining trickle of water flowing in the clay valley. Several types of colorful crabs and conical shelled creatures abounded on the shores. Shore birds such as the curlew and Indian Pond Heron combed the mud for tasty morsels. Other animals spotted included several Ganges River dolphins, wild hogs, wild roosters, and spotted deer.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Patiently Waiting

Although even larger than the monitor lizard, the crocs in the Sunderbans were also difficult to spot. (Estuarine crocodiles can reach up to 10 m - 32 feet in length). It amazed me how they could hold perfectly still and then suddenly bolt, running on their short feet towards the river, perhaps for a tasty fish snack. It may also prey on large animals. The Estuarine crocodiles are critically endangered due to habitat loss and hunting.

Monday, December 05, 2011

Leaping Lizards!

Perfectly camouflaged with the clay soil, it certainly would have been a lot easier to spot the monitor lizards had they done a bit of leaping. This lizard was likely going on a feeding frenzy, enjoying all the crustaceans crawling about - along with the occasional fish, eggs, and perhaps even some ground birds. From this photo it is difficult to visualize its size, but the Bengal monitor lizard can reach a size of 175 cm - about 5 3/4 feet!

Sunday, December 04, 2011

High Tide Wildlife

During high tide, all I spotted were a few monkeys and some birds. After a few hours, the stilt roots of the Rizophora trees began appearing. The lower leaves revealed the typical high tide level, now tinted a lighter color with salt deposits. As the clay ground emerged, so did more animals. 

Saturday, December 03, 2011

High Tide!

As I made my way back to the boat, I was shocked to see how vastly the scene had changed in an hour. The tide had come in, flooding the area, submerging trees up to their lower branches. The boat had drifted a bit, so they had to pole it in in order for me to board. After breakfast and a short stop at a visitor center, the boat motored down the river. Our guide explained that there were 102 islands (mostly forested) in the Sunderbans, with 54 of those inhabited. Some are kept exclusively for wildlife. Covering an area of 18,000 sq. km (6,950 ft), the  Sunderbans (a portion in West Bengal and the rest in Bangladesh) is both a UNESCO World Heritage site and a Tiger Reserve. I didn’t expect to see any of the illusive Bengal tigers, but would simply enjoy the natural beauty of the mangroves. 

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Early Morning walk in a Sunderbans Village

After being awoken at dawn by the unwelcome serenading of a mosquito, I got up and observed my surroundings from the boat’s deck. Still early, everything was quiet. Still low tide, the boat was currently marooned a fair distance on grey clay. The cement dock led to the steeply embanked clay path, over the protective embankment, and into the village. 
Within the hour, the sleepy village residents began to stir. Walking around brushing one’s teeth seemed to be in fashion. A yellow metal iron-gridded school bus trike made its way on the narrow path. A young boy led its black groat through the quiet street. Spotting a small pond with water lilies, I climbed down to its shore. From here I paused for a while, admiring the tranquil scene and several photos as the golden rising sun cast its warm colors and light on the lilies and pads.