Chronicling the haunted places of Kolkata

Kolkata… forever on the move and glittering like a jewel amidst bright lights. A city with a chequered history of more than 300 years.  A city which has seen some of the most decisive movements of our Independence movement. A city which once was called the City of Palaces.

Kolkata iconizes the Victoria Memorial, the Howrah Bridge, the tram lines, Rabindra Sadan, Nandan, the Writers Buildings, Fuchka, Eden Gardens, Durga Pujo, Bangali Khabar and so much more.  But that’s the Kolkata most of us know. Did you know that there are touches of eeriness to this vivacious city too?

NO? Let us take you on a brief tour of some of the so-called haunted places of this city.

  • The National Library– The National Library, housing rare and significant books and journals have been said to be haunted . It’s the erstwhile Lady Metcalfe, the wife of former Governor General, who haunts this place as she was extremely fond of books and was also a stickler for cleanliness. So beware if you are messing around the books! During restoration, a secret chamber was also found in the premises.
  • courtThe High Court– The place of numerous watershed moments, decisions which have had huge ramifications. It’s said that a particular court- court no 13 is still avoided by everyone as blood-smeared footsteps were seen there. It’s also said that people can still hear the shuffling of papers by Warren Hastings, trying to find out ways of impeaching Maharaja Nanda Kumar.
  • Nimtala Ghat –This is one of the oldest crematoriums in Kolkata , and here it is believed that the spirits leave the bodies and sets themselves free. Aghoris are rumoured to abound this space and consume half-burnt corpses. nimtala
  • Hastings House –One of the most haunted places of Kolkata. There’s a rumour that people have seen a gentleman riding horseback in and around this property.  Sounds of hoofsteps and the silhouette of a gentleman has been seen by scores of people. There is also a rumour that people have heard the footsteps of Warren Hastings, who come searching for the folder of papers  which may have saved him from getting impeached in London.hastings
  • The Park Street Cemetery –The oldest graveyard of Kolkata, dating back to 1767. Need we say more? There have been occurrences of  seeing hazy shadows or cameras malfunctioning or people feeling unwell. It’s also said that the trees near the grave of Sir William Hay MacNaghten, killed brutally in the Anglo-Afghan war; starts swaying wildly when stories of his traumatic death is recounted.
  • Putulbari – Said to be a very spooky place as erstwhile wealthy landlords and owners used to sexually exploit vulnerable young girls and it’s their spirits which still roam and haunt this house.
  • Old Radio Station ( Garstin Place ) –It’s said that a Pianist was so attached to this place, that when the Radio Station was moved from here to the Akashvani Bhawan, he was heartbroken. Lot of people in the dead of the night have heard distinct notes of mellifluous piano being played in this now dilapidated house.

Well, we have just tried listing some of the places rumoured to be haunted. Kolkata is a city filled with stories and sagas. We will keep coming back with more such tales.

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College Street Coffee House- weathering the storms of time in a coffee cup

Kolkata, like all living cities, is evolving every day. With the swanky high rises, glitzy malls and upscale eateries mushrooming daily, it is perhaps hard for the 70’s generation and up to reconcile today’s metropolis with the ‘kallolini tilottama’ they grew up in!

However, if you look hard, the city continues to have quite a few pockets where time has stood still. A perfect example will be College Street- the iconic ‘boi para’ of the Bengalis. With it’s rows of shops crammed with books on every subject known to mankind, the towering heritage buildings like Presidency College, Calcutta University and David Hare school, and eateries that transport you back at least half a century, this stretch of Kolkata seems frozen in the era of the yesteryears.

The most iconic of the eateries around this area is undoubtedly the Indian Coffee House. It is a 300 years old cafe that is synonymous with ‘adda’- the Bengali term for an informal conversation about any possible topic under the sun, a term that is so rich in it’s cultural context that it is somewhat lost in translation!

Getting back to the subject of Coffee House- this legendary eatery sitting in the corner of Bankim Chatterjee Street and College Street, is an imposing heritage building that was once the residence of the great Bengali social reformer Shri Keshab Chandra Sen. The Coffee House has had the honour of being graced by personalities like Rabindranath Tagore and Netaji Subhash Bose, and was the regular haunt of gems of the Bengali intelligentsia like Satyajit Ray, Amartya Sen, Ritwik Ghatak, Sunil Gangopadhyay, Shakti Chatopadhyay, to name just a few. In early sixties of 20th century the coffee house became the intellectual battleground of the famous Hungry generation literary and cultural movement and has been the inspiration of several literary and cinematic creations.Coffee-House-Kolkata

The ambience of coffee house will surely leave it’s mark on you when you walk in- a sprawling space with it’s two tiered sitting arrangement, sky-high ceiling with rows of vintage fans and the air thick with cigarette smoke (it is one of the very few eateries in Kolkata where smoking is permitted).

foodThe menu also has probably not changed much since it’s inception, with the highlights being Bengali classics like ‘Moglai Porota’, Chicken and mutton ‘Kabiraji’ and ‘Afgani’ cutlets and sandwiches. Apart from the regular coffee and the delicious cold coffee with cream, a must try speciality is their ‘infusion’- a cup of strong black coffee with it’s signature aroma and taste.

If you love the spirit of Kolkata, if you ever want to experience the nostalgic charm of the city of joy, you must visit the Coffee House at least once. This will be a memory that will remain with you, as unique as the city itself.

Image courtesy: the Internet

Satyen Das- a hero next door

The American motivational speaker Brian Tracy had once said, “It doesn’t matter where you are coming from. All that matters is where you are going.” A simple ‘rikshaw-wala’ belonging from the City of Joy, probably without even knowing such a quote, headed out to actually prove it to the world, armed with only his courage and love for adventure.

You might have rode on his rickshaw some time and not paid much attention to the puller- Satyen Das, who, for two long months peddled and covered a journey of 3,000 kms. in order to reach the Land of Passes- the Ladakh Valley. Apparently, he has become the first man to have achieved such a grand feat and is now looking forward for an entry into the prestigious Guinness Book of World Records for the cause of maneuvering a rickshaw at an altitude above 5000 meters.satyen6

The 44 year old Mr. Das recalls how, after being on his rickshaw for 68 days  and after crossing Uttar Pradesh , Jharkhand , Srinagar and Kargil, had finally reached the treacherous Kardung La pass. In various interviews he narrates several events that took place during this magnum opus journey. For instance, the event in which he chanced upon escaping a herd of wild elephants in Jhimli forest near Haridwar, or the time when he woke up to see an Asian Black Bear in front of him, or the petrifying incident when he saw a Snow Leopard, right before him.

Says Mr.Das, the motto of his journey was basically to support rickshaw as a means of eco-friendly transport and along with that encourage world peace.  His first trip on a cycle was to Puri along with his family in the year 1993 and then travelled to Darjeeling. It was in the year 2007 that he first decided to tour using his rickshaw, his first destination again being Puri. Since then he has travelled to several places using his rickshaw which includes North India in 2008, Ladakh IN 2014, Sikkim in 2016 and again Ladakh in 2017.

satyen3He would often take a halt at Gurudwaras and temples during night, knowing that he would be safe there. Even though the journey was extremely tiring and there were times when he couldn’t find a roof over his head, Satyen Das kept on going, and what helped him do so were the captivating natural sights of the place. Since Das only had the opportunity of getting elementary education these trips acted as a great learning experience for him. It was through these very indulging road trips that he got to witness and knows about the grand diversity of India.

Recently, a documentary film has been made on Satyen Das’s journey called ‘Ladakh Chale Rickshawala’, and it has won the Best Exploration/Adventure Film at the 65th National Film Awards.

Gadiara Tourist Centre- what a beautiful experience!

A few days back I had a very unique but pleasing experience! For the first time ever i experienced West Bengal Tourism ‘s facility and services.

To be honest I had never travelled to a tourist destination in my own state and experienced the facility. I always had the impression that a West Bengal Tourist Centre would be run-down shabby property with unwilling service staff….however, my perceptions were completely overturned upside down by my recent experience! I had travelled down to the Gadiara in Howrah District with a few of my close friends, to a West Bengal Tourism Department managed property. I was promised that the location is breathtaking..At the confluence of Rivers Hooghly and Rupnarayan. I was sceptical and apprehensive to say the least but the faith & belief on the recommendation of my childhood friend who promised to dispel my concern.

gadiara-river-sideMy perception about a typified lodge was broken to pieces the moment I drove into the property. It is a massive property spread over 11 acres with the heritage building co-existing with the new modern wing. A wonderful combination of tradition with modernity. We were greeted by a team of smiling staff who were keen to serve and make their visitors feel wanted..That was my first surprise…. Government employees in a far way remote Gadiara so happy to take care of customer needs! Completely unexpected!

A bigger surprise was awaiting me….the property had Wifi Services available !! Internet connectivity in a far away place from Kolkata….The property has all the ingredients to provide the tourists with a relaxing breakaway. Wonderful open spaces to walk around; children’s park for the young ones to stay busy & happy; hammocks to lie down and gaze at the sky; lots of greenery and above the scenic beauty of the gorgeously flowing river! The icing on the cake was the outstanding spread of bengali cuisine…A big Thumbs Up to the kitchen team…The food was simply super!! The housekeeping is impeccable and the over all environment is quite neat and clean. As far as the accommodation facilities are concerned – the rooms are certainly good and were much above the expected levels. The linen, the toiletries and other amenities in the rooms were certainly very good although there are scopes of improvement which I am sure with passage of time would happen.lodge old

It seems tourism in our state of West Bengal is being focussed upon and efforts are being made to provide best-in-class experience to the tourists. As a state we are blessed with abundance of natural beauty. We have hills, sea, rivers, forests- all the wonderful blessings of nature that very few Indian States can boast of. We must leverage this and make West Bengal an international tourism destination. I myself, along with my friends and family, will be a more frequent tourist within my own state for sure. Also, last but not the least, the road connectivity to this Gadiara property was smooth as silk. .

Kudos to our state administration for the quality of highways & roads that have been built. After yesterday’s experience I will not call this property a Tourist Centre but a Tourist Retreat….Keep it up West Bengal Tourism!

About the author:

sujoySujoy Banerjee is the  Group Chief People Officer at Tractors India Private Limited. He has received innumerable awards in his field, the latest one being the one awarded by World HRD Congress & CHRO Asia in February 2018 ie. the Top HR Minds In the country. Sujoy loves to travel, enjoy good food and enjoy nature. Besides, he is an avid golfer.

A trail of Shaktipeeths in Birbhum- Kankalitala and Fullora

No visit to Shantiniketan is complete without a visit to two major Devi Sati Peethasthans, which are within a couple of hours drive by car from there.
FULLORA
By the banks of River Ishani, in an interior village of Birbhum, called ‘Dakshindihi’- is the beautiful shrine of Maa Adi Shakti or Devi Fullora. It is believed that when Devi Sati’s body was cut into fifty one pieces by Lord Vishnu’s Sudarshan Chakra, her lower lip fell at ‘Attahas’ or ‘Fullora’. There is no idol here but a very large vermilion smeared stone that represents the lip. The temple is a new one, built when the old one was destroyed about a hundred years ago. A ten day fair is held here during the Purnima of the Hindu month of ‘Magh’.Fullora
The home of the famous writer Tarashankar Bandopadhyay is about 2 kilometres away in ‘Labhpur’.
GREEN EARTH & BRICK KILNS 
As your car speeds away from ‘Labhpur’ on the new highway, your eyes are greeted by miles of green harvest. Occasionally, a tall brick kiln raises its head, smoke spewing in lazy curls into the bright blue sky. The serenity of the land seeps into you, as realisation sinks in, that you have been on pilgrimage to a place that is little known and difficult to access. The car’s interior is redolent with the heady fragrance of incense, crushed hibiscus blooms and various flowers you have been given as prasad. The miles are eaten up soon enough and you realise you’ve arrived at the second stop on your pilgrimage route.
kankalKANKALITALA
The mythology of Daksha Yagna and Sati’s self immolation is again the history behind ‘Kankalitala’. When Devi’s body was cut up, the waist ( kaankal in Bengali) fell here. It created a deep indentation in the earth that  was soon covered in water which is now known as the ‘Dudh Pukur’ or the Kund – a shallow pond. It is believed Devi’s waist bones are in this sacred pond. No one is allowed to bathe or take water from the pond.
Similar to ‘Fullora’, there is no idol here at the temple but a very large framed painting of Devi Kali in her Dakshina Kali form. Priests dressed in red clothes patiently help each devotee to reach their prayers to the Mother Goddess.
There are rows of shops most eager to sell you all the ingredients needed for worship and will also look after your shoes for you, as you must go barefoot to the temple. The car park itself, on the day we visited, had the the atmosphere of a ‘mini haat’ as there were lots of little stalls selling everything from images of the Goddess to the Poet and his homes, plastic toys, pens, mementos and every kind of tat to please every pocket and every heart !
BACK TO PAVILION 
The drive back to Shantiniketan is less than half an hour on fairly good roads. The villages you pass through are quite neat and compact; there are many chicken coops on the fields, full of poultry which is possibly supplied to the hotels in Shantiniketan and Bolpur. It’s with a jolt you realise you’re back at your hotel / guesthouse, but as you get out of the car and notice the red dust of Birbhum on your shoes, which you shake off- the memories and experiences of the day will stay with you forever.
About the author:
GopalidiGopali Chakraborti Ghosh grew up and studied in Kolkata and has lived in the UK for the last 25 years. She teaches English and writes poetry and short stories.

Shubho Nobo Borsho- ushering the new year

This post should have probably been written in Bengali.

But then, what’s in a language, when there are people who are in their heart of hearts Bengali, but unfortunately do not read the script?  Also, this is one occasion which had been maintained irrespective of race, caste or creed.

In Bangla we have a proverb – “Baro Mash e Tero Parbon”, broadly translated as too many festivities in a dozen months. Amongst all these Nobo Borsho or Poila Baisakh is an extremely important one. The Bangla New Year starts from the Poila or the first of the Baisakh Month which is the 14th or 15th of April.

Couple of decades ago when the families hadn’t really become nuclear, the  Bengali New Year day would be preceded by almost a month long activity. It was an occasion which required new clothes for every member of the family. Shopping would be done for all the family members and  with utmost care.  The day would begin with everyone waking up early and having a bath to wear the new clothes. The younger lot would touch the elders’ feet and seek blessings.

This was a day when the menu would be elaborate at home. The ’80s and the early ’90s had not seen this tremendous influx of eating out on Poila Baisakh and neither the restaurants had caught up with the idea of laying lavish buffet spreads to celebrate the Bengali New Year. Thus, it would still be the Ma and the Thakumas toiling at the kitchen and producing some lip smacking Bangali khabar.

Apart from the excitement of new clothes and Basanti Pulao and Ilish Maach and Mangsho; another highlight of Noboborsho was the Halkhata.

Does anyone remember what a Halkhata is? This was the auspicious day when the shops would usher in their new financial year and invite their regular patrons and encourage them to open new accounts. In most of the households, it would have been almost a ritual for the matriarchs or the Ginnis to go out for Halkhata in the evening and come back with tightly rolled up Bengali calendars and packets of complimentary sweets. The calendars would mostly have images of Ma Durga, Radha- Krishna, Ganesh, Kali or Swami Vivekananda, Paramhansa and other eminent personalities and the small squares marking the dates would have symbols such as half moon, full moon etc signifying Purnima, Amabashya and other days to be pondered upon.

Noboborsho at a point of time also meant Prabhat Feris. The minstrels would start the day walking along known roads singing songs such as ‘Esho He Baisakh” and other songs. Gone are those days when the Para clubs and the Kakimas or the Didis proficient in Rabindrasangeet would teach the neighbourhood kids songs such as ‘Phoole Phoole dhole dhole’ and take them along for a walk through their locality singing these.

Times have changed. This will be the Bengali Year 1425. We will still buy new clothes, but from the swanky malls. We will still eat a lavish Bangali spread, but from the Bengali specialty restaurants. We  will still listen to Esho He Baisakh; but in TV channels, and only hum to ourselves to satiate our cultural propensity.

On Sunday, we will usher in another 365 days of hope, passion, trials, glory and living life to the fullest.

Let this Noboborsho be a year of new beginnings. May this year be one of fulfillments, one of contentment. May all that you aspire for come true. Shubho Noboborsho. Notun bochor bhalo katuk.

Sharbat- of summer coolers and thirst busters

The season of scorching heat and sun is upon us again and we thought of talking about some summer coolers. Sherbet or Sharbat as we call it to be precise.  These are absolute essentials to combat the hot and humid months; and what better way than to discuss the delicacies and where they can be found???

We start off with College Street today. College Street is what we call the Boi Para. It is a reminder of our colonial past, the revolutionary and reform movements in the ‘70s which rocked the history of Bengal. This is also the place which boasts of two Universities- Calcutta University and the Presidency University. Both sides of the road are dotted with book stalls dealing with antique and rare books to notebooks sold per kg to test papers of the last 10 years on all imaginable subjects to Benimadhav Sil’s almanac. Walking towards Paradise, the first thing that we came across was the akher rosh wala, with the basic machine atop a wooden cart, which crushes the sugarcane and churns out delicious juice with a dash of lemon for that zing.  Priced at Rs.10 each, it was divine, and to people parched – absolute nectar

A few steps ahead and post buying couple of more books, you may come across a kancha aam porar sharbat and pudinar sharbat stall. You will be spoilt for choice here! There’s going to be Kancha Aam porar sherbet, or the Roasted Green Mango sherbet.  The Kancha Aam porar sharbat is a quintessentially Bangali beverage that is an absolute must in hot and sultry weather. It is green mango roasted then made into a puree with a dash of mint and then mixed with water. There is a distinct taste of crushed bhaja moshla; the slightly tangy and sweet taste of this sharbat is a perfect thirst quencher and is said to be really good for the summer.

sharbat-01-sm-300x300You can also choose the fresh and tangy mint or pudina sharbat. It is piquant and salty and has a sharp undertone of rock salt peppered with roasted and crushed cumin seed and an overtone of refreshing lime. Both the sharbat again comes for an approximate Rs 10 – 15 each!

Now, you will come across the beverage seller ‘Paradise’. Getting a place to sit in Paradise can be a constraint as there is not much space.  The ‘Certified by Zomato’ is aamcreamperhaps the only thing that has changed in the décor in the last many decades in this nearly epic shop. We tried the Green Mango Cream and the Daaber sharbat, or the tender coconut water refresher. The green mango concoction was made of raw green mango mixed with sugar syrup, lemon and some yoghurt. The daaber sharbat was the water of tender coconut with wedges of the tender coconut flesh or shaansh as we call it, with heaped ice cubes. This daaber sharbat was originally created under the aegis of the famous scientist Prafulla Chandra Ray. The list of famous patrons hangs on the wall of this homemade sharbat shop. You will always keep coming back to taste more, or carry home some of the bottled delights from Paradise, which will be completing its century in 2018.