30 August 2012

1000th Milestone

Finally Pixelated Memories crossed the barrier of more than 1000 views in a single month. This is to thank all the readers, it is certainly very motivating for someone who started blogging to give inputs to all fellow travelers about spots in India.


At the edge..


& the 1000-mark!!

29 August 2012

Birla Planetarium, Calcutta


Walking down the road filled with buses, yellow-taxis & pedestrians carrying all kinds of loads & packages on their heads & in their arms, the people speak in their native tongue rapidly, not waiting to ensure that you understand. The buses too with their destinations painted on them in the local language. The entire city, with its hustle, confusion, & curiosity, conspires to make you lose yourself in the myriads of colours, shadows, tones & emotions that it has to offer. Welcome to Calcutta, the so called “City of Joy” & also for me the “City of Chaos”, filled with people whose language is considered to be one of the sweetest in the world, & yet quick to anger & argue, & apologise too if proved wrong. A city that oscillates between sudden bursts of happiness & celebration & of poverty & despair so widespread that naked beggars, crying orphans & destitute widows have become a common site around its railway & bus stations. & yet you are forced to come here time & again, attracted to it like a moth to fire, despite all the sadness & confusion the city opens itself to everyone irrespective of any worldly barriers.

Calcutta is perhaps the only city that can boast of a large serene Buddhist stupa in the middle of a busy traffic intersection. & if you aren’t amazed yet on seeing this white stupa, you will be as soon as you notice the long lines extending outside it, waiting for their turn to buy tickets to get in. As a large fountain sprays a mist around, one reads the crafted letters atop the stupa, informing visitors (in three languages – Hindi, English & Bangla) that it has been christened the M.P. Birla Planetarium (or the “Birla Taramandal” in Hindi/Bangla). Since this was my first trip to a planetarium in a long, long time (last I visited a planetarium, it was in Delhi when I was in class 5, that doesn’t actually count since I don’t recall half of what followed then), I was pretty excited & hopeful of an incredible show laced with nuggets of information about the universe – when I was young I had a great interest in learning about the Universe & the planetary system & beginning & their respective mysteries. But over time, the interest faded, to be replaced by a phase of interest in nature & photography that is still continuing today. Now I am in Durgapur, a suburb close to Calcutta, the night sky is clear here & stars visible in their entirety, yet sitting under the open skies just to count the stars & make out the constellations, as I used to do back in Delhi sitting in my mother’s lap, has become an occasional thing.


The Birla Planetarium


The M.P. Birla planetarium was inaugurated by Jawahar Lal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India, on July 2, 1963. It is one of the largest planetariums in the entire country with a seating capacity of more than 500 people & spread over 1 acre of land. The dome surmounting the planetarium itself is 27 metres in diameter. Specialized equipment imported from Germany is used to conduct the daily shows (again in the 3 languages – Hindi, Bangla, English) showcasing the creation & expansion of universe, providing knowledge about the planetary systems & other celestial bodies. The Planetarium conducts research & takes up various projects related to all phenomena astronomical, it even brings out a regular journal dealing with planetary information & has even introduced a Post-Graduation course in Astronomy & Planetarium Sciences in several colleges in Calcutta & its observatory boasts of a very powerful telescope called the Celestron C-14 Telescope further fitted with solar filters & ST6 cameras. The planetarium has also hosted several national & international seminars & conclaves on varied topics such as astrophysics, astrobiology, celestial mechanics, literature related to celestial bodies & so on.


One of the portraits in the outer chamber of the planetarium


We bought tickets for the English show that was about to start within 5 minutes of our reaching there (well, we skipped the line – telling the person in the beginning of the queue that you are in a hurry & on a very tight schedule always works (of course, with a puppy face!!)). Inside the planetarium, a black-painted bronze statue of Greek God Mercury carrying a flaming torch (obviously made of bronze too, duh!!) welcomed us. Beside it was a notice proclaiming (here comes the bad part) “Photography prohibited”.


Statue of Mercury


The viewing chamber was next to empty when we entered, soft music played on the speakers, & intermittently a lady’s voice announced time & again that photography is prohibited & the 35-minute show would start soon. In the dim light, the high circular roof that would soon transform into our screen looked enchanting. Its pale colour & vast size was appealing & soothing at the same time. A strange-shaped projector stood in the centre of the hall, blinking its myriad eyes & occasionally whirring & rotating (I later read about the planetarium & the equipment they use, the projector, built by Carl-Zeiss, Germany is more than 50 years old & has been in operation for upwards of 80,000 hours!!).


The projector (clicked secretly during the show)


The show began later than the lady had said it would, & was more of a description of solar system, nebulae & constellations. Sitting in the air-conditioned chamber & gazing at the artificially created night sky, with all the stars & constellations shining bright, was an ethereal experience. I certainly hope to see a similar night sky once in my lifetime, perhaps from the peaks of Himalayas. Patterns were emphasized on & information presented to the visitors (the hall had filled to full capacity) in a palatable manner. Sadly, we couldn’t enjoy the show. If we were a few years younger, it might have been interesting & informative to us, but most of the information was already known to us & we didn’t learn anything new. 15 minutes later, it had turned into a boring ride, & we were cursing ourselves for coming here.


& the projector's model


The lady announced time & again in the middle of her long monologue that photography is prohibited. We ran out as soon as the lights came on, the next chamber was decorated with life-size portraits of Hindu Gods & Demons related to the solar system – the Gods Surya (Sun) & Chandra (Moon), demons Rahu (the body-less demon causing eclipses) & Ketu (the demon Rahu's cutoff body), Sage Brihspati (Jupiter) etc. A side panel displayed photographs & information about various nebulae & constellations. An entire room besides the present one is dedicated to a souvenir shop where one can buy glass globes of various sizes, books, key rings & other saleables. I bought a pack of picture postcards. A small replica of M.P. Birla planetarium was placed in the centre of the room enclosed in a glass case (which perhaps hadn’t been cleaned in many days, given the amount of dust that had settled over it).


& the planetarium's model too is here


In its entirety, the trip to Birla Planetarium was not as interesting as we had anticipated. The only saving grace (I make all itineraries for my friend circle whenever we travel & one failed destination means me cursed to death!!) was that we had fun chit-chatting while the show was on (OK, apologies to the people in front of us). The statues & portraits, covered with dust & reflecting glass, coupled with lightning systems that instead of highlighting them made them act like large mirrors, certainly provided me with a challenging composition while taking photographs (Yes, I think up excuses like that to cover up my “not-so-good” photography!!). The planetarium design certainly won our hearts. If you heed my advice, visit M.P. Birla Planetarium but only from outside to marvel in its architecture (unless of course you are with small kids & you want them to know tidbits about the universe).


Rahu..


Location : Chowringhee Road, walking distance from the famous Victoria Memorial (see http://pixels-memories.blogspot.in/2012/04/victoria-memorial-kolkata.html for more details & photographs of the Victoria Memorial) & right adjacent to St. Paul’s Cathedral.
Nearest Metro Station : Maidaan
How to reach : The planetarium is walking distance from the metro station. Taxis & buses can also be availed from different parts of the city.
Open : All days
Show timings : Hindi – 12:30 PM, 2:30 PM, 4:30 PM, English – 1:30 PM & 6:30 PM, Bangla – 3:30 PM & 5:30 PM. Additional shows are organized on Sundays & other holidays at 10:30 AM (Hindi) and 11:30 AM (Bangla)
Entrance Fee : Rs. 20 per person
Photography/Video Charges : Strictly prohibited

20 August 2012

Connaught Place, New Delhi


Classical English architecture, wide beautifully-kept roads, colonnaded walkways and glittering large showrooms of every known brand – if it were not for the recurring garbage piles and betel (“paan”) stains ornamenting the white walls and grey marble floor, one would have thought they were somewhere in Europe. Welcome to Connaught Place – the heart of Lutyen’s Delhi! Officially called Rajiv Chowk and often abbreviated as CP, the massive commercial area was originally conceived to provide maximum shopping experience to British colonialists and military officers who then ruled over the subcontinent from their newly developed capital ostensibly christened as “New Delhi”, but now predominantly caters a clientele consisting of the Westernized, rapidly multiplying, newly affluent middle-class of a modern capital. A reflection of the vast changes that have crept unopposed in the society with time, the market’s large buildings that once housed British shops, bakeries and bookstores are now owned by multinational retail and food outlets catering to Indians and foreigners alike who throng them in search of instant gratification stemming from the belief that “A lot can happen over a Coffee” and one is supposed to be “lovin’” their burgers.


Connaught Place - Shopper's paradise


Interestingly, about a century ago, the entire area was dominated by forest lands used as grounds for shooting partridges and a cluster of three villages (Raja ka Bazaar, Madhoganj and lastly Jaisinghpura where Gurudwara Bangla Sahib exists today, refer Pixelated Memories - Gurudwara Bangla Sahib); between 1929-33, the villages were evacuated and demolished and the massive megalith was raised in their place as a showpiece of modern British construction and Georgian architecture. Today, one cannot even attempt to imagine the erstwhile villages/forests in place of the glistening white facades since every sign of their existence has been obliterated by the unrelenting surge of capitalism and urbanization – the partridges are long gone from among the high-rises of the commercial mega-hub and it is regarded amongst the top five most expensive realty and commercial establishments globally! Designed by architect Robert Tor Russell and christened after H.R.H. Prince Arthur, The Duke of Connaught and Strathearn (seventh child of Queen Victoria), the gigantic circular structure, inspired by the Royal Crescent of England, is divided by intervening roads into three concentric layers (obviously) christened as Inner, Middle and Outer Circles (actually the circles are horse-shoe shaped – superstitious British planners and administrators thought the shape would prove lucky for both shoppers and shopkeepers); the double-floored buildings were intended to house shops on the ground floor and residential quarters on the first-floor; in the center of the entire scheme is located a grass-shrouded lawn from which radiate seven streets like the spokes of a wheel and divide the concentric building into large arched blocks.


Nocturnal sparkle at the commercial heart of Delhi


If there is one place that showcases the fast-paced and frenzied life in Delhi and also its vibrance, it would definitely be Connaught Place. Walk into any of the wide colonnaded avenues along its horse-shoe structure and into the outlets offering everything from food (McDonalds, Pizza Hut, Bercos, Kaventer’s, Café Coffee Day, Wenger’s) and clothing (Pantaloons, Levi’s, Shopper’s Stop, Woodland) to electronic and electrical accessories (Sony, Nokia, Samsung, Canon) and you will notice an equal mix of foreigners and Indians alike enjoying their time here. Even the pavements are lined up with kiosks and pavement dwellers selling books, posters, street food, cold drinks and ice cream. This is what I like the most about CP, the big and small conduct their business side-by-side, especially the numerous book sellers with their wide range of popular covers (though one can get much cheaper, though often second-hand or pirated, books at Daryaganj flea market (refer Pixelated Memories - Daryaganj Sunday Book Market)). Over time Connaught Place has become a shopper’s paradise, and even if you aren’t one for shopping, the wide walkways and shop windows that give a glimpse of the marvels they store within shall certainly tempt you into buying one thing or the other.


So many shops, so many brands!


As part of a project initiated by Delhi Municipal Corporation to showcase CP in good light during Commonwealth Games 2010 (CWG XIX) that Delhi hosted, the inner and outer circle areas are being redeveloped and beautified, but as with almost every Indian civic project, it too is mismanaged, has missed many deadlines, incurred vast cost overruns and is still in progress, thereby leaving many of the footpaths and walkways destroyed or dug up and shop facades re-plastered but not painted. Following the 2008 bomb blast attacks in the area in which terrorists hid bombs in dustbins, all the dustbins have been removed from the market place prompting people to throw plastic bottles, ice cream wrappers and fast food packaging around the walkways from where the sweepers simply shove them to one or the other corner – I realized this late one night while out with a friend and even pointed it to her – the authorities have to provide dustbins of some sort, right? The condition cannot continue status quo.


Colonnades and symmetry - Georgian architecture at its exemplar


The underground metro station at CP, officially Rajiv Chowk station, is one of the largest and busiest in the city and serves as interchange station for Yellow and Blue lines of metro service. The headquarters of Delhi Tourism is also located in Connaught Place, opposite the famed Hanuman Mandir (an ancient temple dedicated to the monkey-faced Hindu God Hanuman). One can visit the temple too, though it doesn’t have much to say for itself, except the idol of course which is said to be over a millennium old. Also located nearby is the revered Sikh shrine Gurudwara Bangla Sahib. If you are one for history and monuments, head to the nearby located (or rather hidden!!) Agrasen ki Baoli or the majestic Jantar Mantar complex (check links at the end of this article). And if even after all this your urge to shop isn’t satisfied, you can always visit Palika Bazaar (an underground shopping arcade immediately next to the inner circle) or Janpath (which is basically a large flea market selling both men and women clothing and accessories at dirt-cheap prices). Of course, unlike Connaught Place, one has to extensively bargain at both Janpath and Palika Bazaar, plus there aren’t trial rooms available at either which becomes an issue for women shoppers. Baba Kharak Singh Marg adjacent houses state emporiums – individualized outlets where one can purchase traditional textiles, sculptural art, souvenirs, religious items and handicrafts of that particular state.


The handicrafts building at Baba Kharak Singh Marg, a cornerstone of CP's touristy image


Edit (May 2014) – Overlooking the entire business district, the country’s largest tricolor, a 60 X 90 square feet mammoth monumental flag weighing 35 kgs and hoisted upon a 207-feet high pole, has come to flutter proudly in the Central Park courtesy of Flag Foundation of India (FFI) and Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD). As it quivers and trembles in the wind, the leviathan sends surges of pride, wonder and excitement through the hearts of onlookers who, even if they have seen it numerous times before, cannot take their eyes off its majestic form. The charm refuses to fade, especially of gazing at it at night when it has been lighted up with powerful arc lights.


National Pride


Nearest Metro Station: Rajiv Chowk
How to reach: The metro station exits at CP's inner circle. Autos can also be availed from different parts of the city for reaching CP.
Timings: The shops usually open around 11 am and close down somewhere around 1 am.
Entrance fees: Nil
Photography/Video Charges: Nil
Other landmarks in the neighborhood - 
  1. Pixelated Memories - Agrasen ki Baoli
  2. Pixelated Memories - Jantar Mantar
  3. Pixelated Memories - Gurudwara Bangla Sahib
Other shopping destinations in the city - 
Suggested reading - 
  1. Blogs.economictimes.indiatimes.com - Article "Patriotism can’t flag now with a tricolour atop every roof" (dated March 22, 2014) by Reshmi R. Dasgupta
  2. Blogs.wsj.com - Article "Bending the Rules to Fly India’s Largest Flag" (dated Mar 12, 2014) by Aditi Malhotra
  3. Hindustantimes.com - Article "A village that made way for CP" (dated June 02, 2013) by Nivedita Khandekar
  4. Hindustantimes.com - Article "CP's blueprint: Bath's Crescent" (dated Feb 08, 2011) by Sidhartha Roy
  5. Hindustantimes.com - Article "Who will keep the tricolour flying in Delhi's Connaught Place?" (dated June 08, 2014)
  6. Indiatoday.intoday.in - Article "CP's decline and fall is a capital shame" (dated July 24, 2011) by Sourish Bhattacharya
  7. Timesofindia.indiatimes.com - Article "NDMC’s digging frenzy in CP stalls traffic, hits trade" (dated Jan 08, 2010) by Ruhi Bhasin
  8. Wikipedia.org - Connaught Place, New Delhi

16 August 2012

Dargah Dhaula Peer, Saket, Delhi


"O son of Adam, you will die alone and enter the tomb alone and be resurrected alone, and it is with you alone that the reckoning will be made! Be with this world as if you had never been here, and with the Otherworld as if you would never leave it."
– Hasan al-Basri, 7th-century Persian preacher-theologian

Lying curled up in bed, researching the annals of medieval Delhi’s history, smoke curling around in wisps at the end of the cigarette whose grey-speckled ash tail is already dangling too long, one cannot occasionally help but reflect upon repetitively about how many of the city’s existential myths and documented architectural and cultural heritage trace in one form or another their origins to the legendary 14th-century feud that assumed gigantic proportions between the benevolent mystical Chishti Sufi saint Hazrat Nizamuddin and the megalomaniac ruthless Sultan Ghiyasuddin Tughlaq (reign AD 1320-25). It is of course well documented that Ghiyasuddin’s son Muhammad Juna Khan (reign AD 1325-51) and nephew Feroz Shah (reign AD 1351-88) revered the dervish saint and had commissioned numerous structural and artistic additions to the latter’s mausoleum complex (refer Pixelated Memories - Hazrat Nizamuddin Dargah). It has also been repeatedly conjectured that the conspiratorial and ambitious Muhammad Tughlaq might have himself orchestrated, under influence of the wordsmith saint, the accident whereby a canopy pavilion collapsed upon his father and younger brother Mahmud Khan and claimed both their lives.


Desolation! - Dargah Hazrat Dhaula Peer


But one often wonders what about the other members of the Tughlaq clan and the extended Qaraunah Turk brotherhood – what did they think about this all-engulfing clash between religion and regime? What sides did they choose and why? Apparently, a piece, unarguably miniscule, of this historic jigsaw puzzle is camouflaged in plain sight as a mediocre decrepit structure that not many would bother to grace with a second glance in the very shadow of Sultan Ghiyasuddin’s bewilderingly colossal fortress complex (refer Pixelated Memories - Tughlaqabad) which has since then been accusatorily rendered as being the notorious root cause of the said extraordinary quarrel even though the latter itself is celebrated and even esteemed in religious and contemporaneous literature, folk lore and bardic traditions. Close to Lado Serai Crossing, in the immediate vicinity of some of the most renowned monuments that dot the city’s verdant beautiful landscape, including the majestic Qutb Complex and the lush, architecturally prominent Mehrauli Archaeological complex, exists the small, long forgotten, perennially ignored, sacred mausoleum ("Dargah") that also lends its name to the little known bus stand adjacent – Dhaula Peer.


Pearlesque!


Hazrat Makhdum Sheikh Haidar “Dhaula Peer” happened to be another nephew of Sultan Ghiyasuddin who too, enchanted by Hazrat Nizamuddin’s engaging sermons and insistent emphasis on brotherhood, compassion and religiosity, became his disciple. He quit both the royal palace and the lavish lifestyle and chose instead to earn his livelihood through honest permissible business as prescribed by Islamic jurisprudence (“Sharia”) – for the purpose, he set up a modest soap factory and within no time, through his proficiency and business acumen, rose to become a leading soap merchant-manufacturer who nonetheless continued to frequently attend to the saint and also philanthropically contribute to noble causes. Besides his near-constant immersion in prayers and devotions, his pilgrimages (“Hajj”) to Mecca and the eminent scholarship of Islamic jurisprudence and religious legalities he professed to, he was also renowned for his insistence on always being attired in unblemished white, which earned him the sobriquet “Dhaula Peer” (“White Mystic”). Upon his demise in AD 1357, his grandson Muhammad Kabir commissioned a remarkably simplistic square mausoleum to shelter his mortal remains at the exact same location where he contentedly spent most of his adult life.

The structure, illustrious of Tughlaq no-frill architecture focusing essentially on bare functionality while entirely ignoring ornamentation and artistic superiority, is an elegantly simplistic chamber surmounted by an unusually massive, slightly oblong dome. As in life so in death, the Sufi’s shrine is drenched in spotless white and bears no adornment except the beautifully subdued minimalist highlights in red and blue paint and the huge golden finial that rests, crown-like, upon the large dome.


Simplicity!


The interiors too are equally evocatively unsophisticated and the only decoration, besides the golden-brown copper-gilt chandelier that is suspended over the green-shrouded grave, are the framed posters of Islamic religious calligraphy and numerous photographs of the hallowed shrine of Hazrat Moinuddin Chishti of Ajmer (Rajasthan) who established the Chishti sect of Sufi saints in India.

On either side, the mausoleum is flanked by a functional mosque-madrasa (Islamic seminary) complex and a twelve-pillared, flat-roofed pavilion (“Baradari”) where recline and share news and gossip the aged visitors to the mosque at almost all times of the day. The arid tract of land around the mausoleum, as if attempting to obliterate all signs of its sacredness, is pockmarked with a well, a few decrepit graves and the remains of old cycles and broken furniture. Considering the devout Islamic belief that the mausoleum of a holy man accords sanctity to the entire area surrounding it, especially surprising is the relatively fewer number of graves and the absence of thick covers of vegetation and foliage around the shrine. The shrine itself very nearly disappears from sight when viewed from the perennially crowded arterial Mehrauli-Badarpur road opposite – one cannot help but imagine that the evasive saint-prince still prefers his reclusive isolation.


The associated mosque - A straightforward religious affair


Location: Mehrauli-Badarpur Road, 700 meters from Lado Serai crossing in the direction of Tughlaqabad/Badarpur
Nearest Metro station: Saket (400 meters away)
Nearest Bus stop: Dhaula Peer
Nearest Railway station: Tughlaqabad
How to reach: All the buses plying on MB Road stop at Dhaula Peer. Alternately, walk from Lado Serai crossing/Saket metro station.
Entrance fees: Nil
Photography/Video charges: Nil
Time required for sightseeing: 20 min
Other monuments/landmarks located in the immediate vicinity - 
  1. Pixelated Memories - Ahinsa Sthal
  2. Pixelated Memories - Azim Khan's Tomb
  3. Pixelated Memories - Mehrauli Archaeological Park
  4. Pixelated Memories - Qutb Complex
  5. Pixelated Memories - Tughlaqabad - Adilabad - Nai-ka-Kot Fortress complex
Other prominent Tughlaq-era monuments in Delhi - 
  1. Pixelated Memories - Begumpur Masjid
  2. Pixelated Memories - Feroz Shah Kotla
  3. Pixelated Memories - Hauz Khas Complex
  4. Pixelated Memories - Khirki Masjid
  5. Pixelated Memories - Satpula

12 August 2012

Kshitish's Durgapur


The last post I put on was shared from my cousin’s photo-blog & it’s been more than a week since I myself wrote anything. I haven’t grown lazy over the past few days (ok, a little bit), but the main reason to be blamed for this lack of activity is the internet connection at my college. We are provided with high-speed internet connectivity & LAN inter-connectivity & I spend my entire days surfing the internet for reading material & history stuff like an addict. Hence, the dereliction of duty towards this blog. Thursday was a holiday, it was celebrated as the Hindu God Krishna’s birthday throughout the country. Had I been back in Delhi I would have gone to the temple nearest to my house & taken photographs of the proceedings & celebration. But Janmashtami (as the occasion is called in Hindi) is not celebrated with the same pomp & gaiety in Bengal. Oh! How I miss Delhi!!

My friend Kshitish (who has become a fixture in this blog’s posts, in terms of new ideas & topics for photography) suggested we visit the nearby rural/semi-urban areas of Durgapur (that’s where my college is situated, some 3 hours from Calcutta). I was baffled – to a Delhiite, the entire Durgapur is semi-urban!! So we decided for a photo walk at 6 in the morning. Sadly neither of us woke up at the decided time & 4 hour later while brushing our teeth we were still discussing where to go. The sun was up high & it was getting real hot & sticky humid & we decided to convert the photo walk to a photo motorcycle ride (if there is any such thing). We borrowed a rickety motorcycle - that stopped more than it ran - from a friend (no names – he would flay us if we say anything about his bike) & off we were. Wandering here & there through parts of the city we had already seen, still confused about where to head. For the uninitiated, Durgapur is one of the most planned cities of the country, boasting of 2 national resources – the Durgapur Steel Plant (DSP as it is called) & your truly’s college (wonders of wonders!!). There are wide roads, boulevards, public parks – but the city planners could not change the rural nature of the township & there are no large malls (except one) or markets (again except one) or for that matter, any other spot of historical or national importance. So phut-phutting our way around, Kshitish decided that we should stop at a tea-shop & have some cigarettes & then continue from there on foot. From one tea-shop to other, we wandered & talked to people. Actually, Kshitish talked to people. I somehow could not open up to strangers as he does. & while he talked, I photographed birds. & dogs. & goats. & more birds. I am posting a picture I clicked (& we all liked) – the bird is called “Lali” in Hindi. I couldn't find its English nomenclature.


Lali Bird


At a small run-down tea-shop we met an old man selling lottery tickets. The guy used to work at DSP for more than 40 years & considers himself a “Sarkari Aadmi” (Government Official). He did indeed tell us that the lottery tickets are all sanctioned by the Sikkim Govt. & thanks to him several people had earned a lot of money. So Kshitish made him pose with a “V for Victory” sign to show his happiness over helping others rake in heaps of cash!!


The king-maker - Lottery ticket seller


The shop owner was a middle-aged lady with a pale face, jet-black hair & was very shy by nature. In fact Kshitish had to coax her to get a photograph clicked. & oh she was so jubilant when I showed her the photograph in my camera. Perhaps this was the first time she has been clicked. It should have been obvious to us, we are in Bengal, one of the poorest states of the country, where millions starve everyday & Calcutta boasts of Asia’s largest red-light district.


Lady in orange - Tea shop owner


Next we headed to a nearby temple, where I was handed dates as Prasad (offering) & allowed to click pictures of the beggars. The beggars too were very happy on being clicked, & wanted me to take more photographs of them while the priests tried to shoo me away. The beggars & truck drivers lying here & there seemed wasted with liquor & disease. It was very moving & I guess any sane person would have felt pangs of pain at the sight. Though most Indians have seen so much of poverty & deprivation that they have become numb to it & don’t even spare a second glance – leave alone some coins for the poor, or even sympathy!! The beggars did ask me for money when I was done & though several of the books & guides or even photography tutorials would tell you never to give money to beggars while in India, it is very difficult not to do so after seeing their horrible conditions & many-a-times, disfigured or amputated bodies.


Withered & wasted - A beggar


While I was at the temple (yes I was alone there & my poor communication skills made sure that the priest finally shouted me out of his premises – I sometimes feel like a foreigner in my own country!!) Kshitish went to a small school next door. While the entire country celebrated a vacation on Janmashtami, the kids & teachers had gathered at the Govt. funded school for the mid-day meal. It is a scheme started by the Govt. sometime back with the aim of providing nutrition to the poor & needy children & decrease the school dropout rates by providing free food to all kids who have enrolled themselves in the educational institutions. Besides this the scheme has also helped bring down the barriers of castes & religion in certain parts of the country by seating the kids together for meals without any distinction (special attention to “certain parts”). The kids were all the more eager to get themselves clicked & literally clambered all over me & Kshitish. It was so much exhilarating & at the slightest indication of a picture being clicked, they would all gather together in a tight group lest someone remained out of the photo.


The eyes say it all..


I could only take very few “portraits”, the rest are all more of group photos with everyone pushing everyone else to get in the frame. I was shoved & pulled & made to get down on my knees to show the photos to the kids & I actually enjoyed it (ok, one part of me was afraid that I would break the new camera!! My heart stopped pounding every time someone took the camera from my hands!!). But the kids looked so innocent & cute & their eyes sparkled to show signs of mischief, & the way they all laughed at each other’s photos (or may be at my photography) was so refreshing, & their curiosity heart-warming. Half an hour later, I had to literally shake all the little ones off myself in order to get up. We didn’t want to leave, & the kids too didn’t want us to leave, but the school was in progress & though the teachers had been so very cooperative with us, we didn’t want to waste the class hours & left again on the phut-phut motorbike which roars when starting. The kids all ran out to the front porch of the one-room school to bid us farewell & their “byes” could be heard even though we had covered some distance between ourselves.

Sparkling white - One of the kiddos


It has started to drizzle softly & we were enjoying the sudden change in weather (Durgapur is like that only – one minute sunny, the next it’s raining) & the cool breeze, & decided to head back home. In one of the alleys, we saw a small structure composed of stitched cane & woven bamboo, kind of like a glorified hut. Several young men had assembled there for a friendly match of carom in the amazing weather & over shared cigarettes & discussions about college life, we took several shots of the players & their endless games.

Let the games begin..


Returning to the college, I began thinking that Durgapur is a much better place then I used to think it was. Kshitish made me see a new, beautiful township full of beaming people eager to share their stories, happy in the confines of their own small worlds - contented might be the word to describe them – quick to form bonds over cups of steaming tea & cigarettes, ready to leave the tasks they have at hand to welcome you to their shops & schools. Perhaps this is the real India & I am actually a tourist in my own land. I have to see a lot now & waiting for the next Durgapur tour & have a feeling that I will miss Durgapur (& Bengal as a whole) a lot when I leave for Delhi for good.

It's not a Pokemon, you know..

05 August 2012

Howrah Bridge and Railway station, Calcutta


“But immediately afterwards we had to slow down to a crawl as the road grew progressively narrower and crowded. Rows of shacks appeared on both sides of the road now, small ramshackle structures, some of them built on thin slits, with walls of plaited bamboo, and roofs that had been pinched together somehow out of sheets of corrugated iron.”
– Amitav Ghosh, “The Shadow Lines”

Amongst the most impressive edifices that the beautiful old city of Calcutta possesses is the majestic Howrah Bridge that has since its conception become iconic of the crumbling city; a structure which I have traversed numerous times in the past and always eagerly look forward to traveling upon every time I’m in the city – in fact, the massive bridge, the magnificent railway station opposite and the thoughts of availing a ferry ride through the fiercely intimidating deep waters of the river Ganga are among the highlights that keep attracting me back to the erstwhile grand capital of the country and should, I believe, be amongst the most cherished memories of it once I leave it.


The bridge and Calcutta's iconic yellow taxi cabs


The first time I happened to travel over the colossal bridge was also the first occasion I visited the spellbinding city from the small, industrially advanced yet densely vegetated suburban township called Durgapur where I’m doing my Bachelors in Technology from (though I’m on the road so often that my friends have coined a new term for me – Bachelors in Travelling!). I entered the city on a bus which passed over the bridge and awestruck by its enormity, I looked around wide-eyed, trying to squeeze my head through the window bars to glimpse a little more of the confounding visual scene of huge steel bars projecting in numerous directions all around the bus and the near perennial flow of undisturbed traffic above and the unobstructed sluggish deep green waters of the river underneath the bridge. In the parallel distance stood serenely the Vidyasagar Setu (“Setu” translates to “bridge” in Hindi/Bangla) and numerous ferries, rendered miniscule by distance and comparison to the immensity of the river and the bridges, gracefully skirted, nay barely skimmed, the water’s surface. The very same evening, my friends and I returned to witness the bridge in its striking glory when it is attractively lighted up with hundreds of incandescent bulbs as twilight settles peacefully over the vast metropolis and renders the river an inky blue trail of fierce gurgling sounds. Even in the furthest confines of one’s fanciest of dreams, one cannot gauge its enormity looking at its photographs or even travelling over it, but stand close to the superstructure and you realize what it is – the two 270-feet tall vertical towers that support its bulk seem to be rising through the clouds, the line of yellow taxis and red-green buses furiously whizzing in every possible direction appear like mere insects buzzing around its colossal frame and the beautiful Gothic-inspired railway station located adjacent, though itself unimaginably vast, appears like a small palace, its vibrant red tinged with bright yellow conflicting against the uninspiring grey-silver of the bridge. Together, contrastingly and yet somehow harmoniously, both dominate the visual and the figurative landscape, reflecting both in numerous awestruck passer-bys’ eyes and dozens of flawless poems and stories, most notably by the renowned Anglo-Indian author Rudyard Kipling, and portraying altogether the scientific and industrial superiority of the British who once dominated the country militarily, technologically and territorially.


Howrah Bridge - A testimony to human inventiveness


Technically, the iconic 27,000-tonne steel bridge, re-christened since 1965 (at least officially) as Rabindra Setu (after the Nobel-laureate poet Rabindranath Tagore) to reflect the cultural and literary heritage of Bengal, is a combination of suspension-type balanced cantilever (i.e, the central portion above the river is entirely supported upon the two massive end portions) and, as is perceptible from its overall structural design, utilizes steel beams arranged in an ordered manner to support the overall weight of vehicles and pedestrians and to balance the effect of wind and cyclones – it actually feels exhilarating to not just be able to throw around these scientific terms, but also understand them! Hey, I’m not so bad with college studies either! Statistically, the structure, proportioned 705 meters X 30 meters and currently the 6th longest cantilever bridge in the world, bears daily traffic of 100,000 vehicles and 150,000 pedestrians and is therefore the busiest bridge in the world! And surprisingly, the entire structure has been constructed without using any nuts and bolts! Presently, two other bridges – the Vidyasagar Setu and the Nivedita Setu – have been constructed so as to ease the congestion and weight load on it. Culturally, besides featuring in several poems, stories and anthologies, it has also been portrayed in several Bollywood flicks, the most recent being “Kahaani”, starring Vidya Balan and Nawazuddin Siddiqui. It is interesting to note that the bridge expands around 4.8 inches during the sweltering daytime heat and contracts almost an equal length during the cool nights. It also slightly bends when afflicted by strong winds.

Opened to vehicular traffic in 1943 (construction work began in 1937) whereby it replaced an older Pontoon one (which consists of shallow specialized boats connected together across a river with a track attached on top whereby the total weight that can be supported is limited by the buoyancy of the pontoons/boats) that was originally commissioned for 25 years but served for 69 instead, the bridge is presently monitored round the clock by surveillance cameras and police teams to prevent any vehicle or steamer/barge to cause damage to the structure because of reckless driving/shipping. Kolkata Port Trust is its custodian and regularly hires teams of contractual workers to clean it at regular intervals to prevent accumulation of water, human spit, bird droppings and any other organic/chemical materials that might corrode the metal structure. The railway station is much older – designed by British architect Halsey Ricardo and constructed in 1905, it was designated to be a change point for goods trains, but ironically, not a single goods train passes through it now as it is lined full with passenger trains throughout day and night – it also happens to be one of the busiest stations in the country in terms of trains plying across it as well as the number of passengers.


Fairytale setting - Howrah Railway station


In what can best be described in Amitav Ghosh’s aforementioned words (which too mind you can never truly capture Calcutta’s quintessential eternal essence), around the railway station exist a number of makeshift shops and hawkers lined up to sell cheap wares – combs, handkerchiefs, plastic mugs, containers, metal chains to tie luggage with in trains, faux leather belts etc; tea vendors carrying large cylindrical containers cry out for patrons while fruit sellers squat on the footpaths where they jostle for space with passer-bys and beggars. On the roadside between the bridge and the station stretches an extremely long (and unbelievably ordered, unlike the rest of the scene around) queue of yellow taxis ready to take one anywhere they wish to be on either side of the bridge. Across the road unfolds a scene mind-numbingly different and yet essentially same – here happen to be uncountable small eateries serving food that can be described as being cheap while lacking entirely in both hygiene and delectableness! Unsurprisingly, the eatery owners and waiters would quickly discontinue bang in the middle of whatever they are doing to call out to passer-bys strolling by or gazing within to eat at their shop and not at any other.

Unbelievably so, the station’s interiors, incredibly stuffed to the seams with millions of travelers, porters, vendors, police wo/men and tea sellers, appear cavernous compared even to the gargantuan exteriors. Nearly every major train running in any direction and connecting the rest of the country to its eastern sections pass through Howrah. There are three and one score platforms in total, but they always prove to be confusing for the uninitiated as they tend to start, or rather end, from a particular point as if the railway line is only limited to that particular point. In my humble opinion, the Howrah and Old Delhi stations are two of the most perplexing and frustrating railway stations I have ever encountered – and incidentally both were built by the British.

The disabled-friendly station offers food facilities, a guest house, passenger transit facilities, cloak room and a dispensary. Besides vendors peddling snacks, chains (to tie the luggage with), magazines and newspapers, there also are hundreds of shops lined along the station sides selling foods and beverages, books, newspapers and magazines and even electronic accessories like phone chargers and earphones. Notwithstanding that Calcutta itself can be unbelievably chaotic and hassled, the station seems to give fair competition to the city – as serene and fairy-tale like it appears from outside, inside it, with its heady confluence of several languages, smells and accents (at the same time intriguing and harrowing!), turns out to be implausibly strange and baffling. And the most amazing, although security-wise intimidating, aspect is that vehicles are allowed on the platforms and passengers can simply alight from their own car/taxi outside the train coach they are supposed to board and hop into the latter with their entire luggage without the conundrums of security checks and dysfunctional metal detectors.


A newspaper article highlighting the features of the three bridges on the Hooghly river


The palatial station and the humongous bridge have become a fascinating emblem not just for the city, but for the state of Bengal as well, drawing to themselves throes of awestruck onlookers and defining both for locals and visitors alike a most outstanding moment of their time in the timeless city. Oh Calcutta and thy charms unsung!

Location: Howrah
How to reach: Buses, taxis, ferries and trains ply from different parts of the city for Howrah.
Entrance fees: Nil
Photography/Video charges: Nil
Time required for sightseeing: 30 min
Other places of interest located nearby - 
  1. Pixelated Memories - Belur Math
  2. Pixelated Memories -Dakshineshwar Temple
Suggested reading - 
  1. Bbc.com - Article "Scheme to save Calcutta's Howrah Bridge from spit" (dated Nov 23, 2011) by Amitabha Bhattasali 
  2. Howrahbridgekolkata.gov.in (Official website of the bridge) 
  3. Wikipedia.org - Howrah Bridge

03 August 2012

South City Mall, Calcutta


I believe the South City Mall outstrips all the malls in Delhi & NCR in terms of size. & I never thought Calcutta boasts of such a large & lively place as this. Visiting the mall on a Saturday afternoon/evening with my friends Aakash & Sunil on the same trip when we visited the Calcutta Zoo (see http://pixels-memories.blogspot.in/2012/07/alipore-zoo-calcutta.html for more details & photographs of the Calcutta Zoo), I had been told by my Bengali friends that the mall is gigantic, I took their words with a pinch of salt, after all don’t most Bengalis think Calcutta is the best city in the world? Most of them had even said Calcutta Zoo is largest in Asia, but it wasn’t. In fact the Delhi Zoo is much much larger than it. But guess what - for the first time, my Bengali friends were right!!


South City Mall


As we entered the mall, security guards manning defunct metal detectors welcomed us, they smiled when I stepped before them for a pat-down check & let me in without any. Aren’t these guys concerned that someone can smuggle in any illegal substance or weapon in the mall? Moving around the mall, we saw almost all the shops there were, from the ones selling garments (Pantaloons, Planet Wear) to the ones selling electronic accessories (Fundamental, NEXT) & cameras (Canon, Sony, Nikon). The mall houses large showrooms of all these big brands & has been built to maximize the shopping experience. The shops have been clubbed together according to what they have to offer. So while food shops are on the top & ground floors (inside Spencer’s Retail), electronic accessories are on the first floor, while cloth showrooms jostle for space with the mighty Spencer’s on the ground floor. The mall was next to empty & we didn’t see many people around. This allowed me to take some nice photographs inside the mall, especially from the third (& last) floor. Being bookworms, all three of us were salivating as soon as we spotted Star Marks. The book shop had almost half of the floor to itself & believe me I had never seen so many books stacked at one place. Fiction, comics, science books, coffee table books & even kids colouring books – the shop had it all. The smell of new books was enough to drive us crazy & we picked one after the other book, not sure which one to buy. I was impressed by their collection & even asked them for permission to take pictures so I could upload them on my blog. Sadly, to protect their design & décor they had a “No Photography” policy. It really broke my heart. After spending almost an hour in the book store, sifting through many a delight’s covers, we had started to feel hungry. Heading first to the Spencer’s store at the ground floor that also houses a small food court, we had our fill in almost all the outlets there, ordering one or two dish from each. After all we are growing kids with a large appetite!! & food tastes much better when shared with friends. I would suggest some spicy food from Bombay Shiv Sagar, their Pao Bhaji is good. The Garlic Dosa at the South Indian joint is delicious. Head to Flurry’s if you have a sweet tooth (teeth in my case!!). Tummies bursting but not satisfied yet, head to the top floor which houses another food court, this one with all the top names – Pizza Hut, KFC, Mainland China, Benjarong.

Big might not be the right word!!


Designed by city architect Dulal Mukherjee for the company ICS Bentel Associates, South City is said to be one of the largest malls in Eastern India & I guess I would take their word for it (there aren’t many malls in Eastern India). The design is impressive with a large glass atrium running through the center of one side & surrounding the roof, acting as a filter for the sunlight.

Whenever you are in Calcutta & are done with all the sightseeing & travelling, head to the South City Mall. There is nothing more relieving than an evening spent with friends & family shopping & eating.

Location : Jadavpur, Calcutta
How to reach : Taxis & Buses are available from different parts of the city. The taxi drivers would agree to charge you by the metre when you board but would tell you that you have to pay double of what the metre shows when you get down. & you have to pay as all the people side with the taxi drivers.
Entrance fee : Nil
Photographs/Video Charges : Nil. But prohibited inside some of the shops
Time required for sight seeing : 3 hrs.