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Something for Bill — Kumartali

November 29, 2009

Bill had been looking for Kumartali in north Kolkata since we arrived.  We finally found a cab driver who knew just where it was. Kumartuli is in the north-central part of the city and is the Mecca of clay idol makers in Kolkata.  The artists have been living in this densely populated part of the city for generations. The idols of Kumartuli get shipped to outside Kolkata and to foreign countries too. The word “Kumartuli” means potter’s place (the word “Kumor” means potter).  Kumars are the sculptors who churn out statues of the gods. The entire process of creation of the idols from the collection of clay to the ornamentation is a holy process, supervised by rites and other rituals.


Most of the idols of Durga in the city are made here. Begali craftsmen prepare these clay idols of Durga for Durga Puja celebrated in September or October.


These artisans start with a wire and straw base and then add clay.


The delicate and long process of making Durga idols starts couple of months before Puja season begins.  Here’s Durga and Shiva.

The first time that Bill and I tried to find Kumartali, we found the remains of last year’s celebration.  At the end Durga Puja, the idol is taken for immersion in a procession amid loud chants of ‘Bolo Durga mai-ki jai’ (glory be to Mother Durga’) and ‘aashchhe bochhor abar hobe’ (‘it will happen again next year’) and drumbeats to the river or other water body. It is cast in the waters symbolic of the departure of the deity to her home with her husband in the Himalayas.

Early the next morning we caught a cab to the airport and flew to New York City where we got our car and drove home.  I may have left India, but India will never leave me.


Something for me — The Flower Market

November 26, 2009

Under the Howrah Bridge on the banks of the Hoogly is the Malik Ghat wholesale flower market.  Bill negotiated our way through the back streets of Kolkata to find it for me.

It was the holiday Raksha Bandham that means “bond of protection”.

Rakhi is basically a sacred thread of protection symbolizing the love and affection of a sister for her brother. The Rakhi festival also has a social significance because it underlines the notion that everybody should live in harmonious coexistence with each other.

On the day of the Rakhi festival, the sister ties the Rakhi on the wrist of her brother and both say a prayer to God for the well being of each other.  In return, brothers make a promise to take care of his sister under all circumstances.

We found a unique set of Hindu deities, Durga for Bill and Ganesha for me!  This shop had been in the same family for years.

Swings are adorned with flower garlands and erected on altars in August during festivals celebrating Krishna’s life.


We passed by shops selling orange clothes for Shiva pilgrims.

We were getting close to the Howrah Bridge–and the flower market.

At this wholesale market Kolkata’s shopkeepers go each day to stock up on fresh flowers brought in directly from the countryside.

The market is the supply point to all the flowers shops in Calcutta. Some merchants will collect the supplies here and wait in one big hall for the next ferry to take them to the other districts and states of India.  So many people depend on it for their livelihood.


Offering flowers is a must during Puja (the ritual paying homage to the Gods and Goddess). Every single flower offered to the deity gains a single value of blessing.

The trident symbol of Shiva were prominent.



If you offer a single Marigold flower during Puja, you can receive a blessing equivalent to 10 flowers. That’s because each Marigold flower contains more than 10 single complete flowers in itself!   These strings of Marigold are used for decorating the temple, garlanding the God/Goddess at home or in the temple, and blessing a marriage hall or home.  The marigold strings also bless new places of business, shops, cars, buses, even bicycles.  Family members put marigold garlands around the photos of their beloved dead.

Too soon we left my flower market and were back on the street.

My India is also great.


Back on the streets of Kolkata

November 22, 2009

We took once last look around The Sukapha, boarded the steamer and headed toward the Howrah Bridge.

The Howrah Bridge is the busiest bridge in the world with a stream of 100,00 vehicles a day.  It leaps dramatically across the Hoogly River in a single span.

We disembarked, our luggage was unloaded, we said our goodbyes to our British friends and were taken back to the Fairlawn Hotel.  After settling in, we headed back to the streets of Kolkata.

We were on our way to the India Coffee Workers’ Cooperative Society.

The coffee house was a meeting place for the poets, artistes, literati and people from the world of art and culture.

We were close to the Presidency College.

We had such little time left in Kolkata.  But we had enough time to visit one place just for me and one just for Bill.


Kolkata Outskirts

November 15, 2009

We landed at Bandel knowing that the next day we would have a wake-up call at 5:30, put our luggage outside our cabin door at 6:00 and after a quick breakfast, board a steamer for a 60 minute ride to the Police Jetty in Kolkata.  It was our last day on the Hoogly River.

(Bandel came from the Bengali word “bandar” which means “port”) and appears to have been the port of the Hooghly River. at the time of Portuguese and Mughals.)

We took the country boat to the Imambara Mosque, our camera lens foggy from the our air-conditioned cabin and the humid air outdoors.

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We wandered through the prayer hall of the mosque and were allowed to take a picture before leaving.  Glass oil lamps hung from the ceiling.

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IMG_2558Next to the mosque was a madresse, a school to train young men to be clerics.

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We had entered from the river at the rear so we left via the entrance where there was a replica of the mosque in Mashad, Iran, where Bill, Elizabeth and I lived from 1975 to 1976!

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Allah, Mohammed, Ali, Fatima and Hasan and Hussein–the five holy members of The Phrophet’s family, Peace Be Upon Him.

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We  chatted with two students while we waited for our air-conditioned minivan.

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Finally we were off to a Portuguese church.

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The Bandel Church is one of the oldest Christian churches in West Bengal, India. It stands as a memorial of the Portuguese settlement in Bengal. Built around 1660, it is dedicated to Nossa Senhora di Rozario, Our Lady of the Rosary.

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We were off to our next stop, the Dutch cemetery at Chinsura.  Along the way we found more images of Kali.

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Back on the street, cycle rickshaw “school buses” were taking younger students home while older students rode their own bicycles.

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We boarded The Sukapha and continued down to Barrackpore where we landed and took a walk through Flagstaff House, the country house of the governor of Kolkata, that housed many of the British statues removed from central Kolkata.

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We sailed on to dock just below the Howrah Bridge at dusk.  Our Hoogly River adventure was over.

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On the Hoogly–Kalna

November 8, 2009

Another morning on the Hoogly–one of our last.

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We were heading ashore to the country town of Kalna to take cycle rickshaws and see a group of some of Bengal’s most attractive terracotta temples as well as the unique Shiva temple with concentric rings made up of 108 shrines.


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We walked across the street past our waiting cycle rickshaws to the 108 Shiva Temples. Built in 1809, the temples are constructed in two circles. One consists of 74 temples while the other circle has 34. The former has white marble and black stone shivlingas, while the latter has only white marble ones. Due to its ingenious planning, all the shivlingas can be seen from the centre of the temple complex.

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After our cycle rickshaw ride back to The Sukapha, we cruised on down to an overnight anchorage in the outskirts of Kolkata.


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On the Hoogly–Matiari, Nabadwip and the Hari Krishna

November 1, 2009

On day five we took the country boat to the shore to visit the brass working village of Matiari.

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(You can see in this video that at first the lens kept fogging up going from an air-conditioned cabin to the high-humidity outdoors.)

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As we walked through the village, we heard the incessant beat of brass making.

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We wended our way down village lanes to the homes of families who now made small brass objects so that tourists from The Sukapha could buy them.

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The whole family worked at either making these objects or selling them.

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I bought a set of stacking brass water pots for my collection and Bill convinced me to get the little “bejeweled” elephant in the lower right corner.

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It was so good to know that our rupees went directly to this family–and then we were off to the next brass working family.

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The patriarch of this family sat in the background, occasionally leaning forward to oversee the work.

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The two small plates in the foreground with the floral and peacock designs are now in my living room.

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Our guide, Sumit Bhattacharyya, accompanied us everywhere explaining Indian culture and history and answering our questions.

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You may begin to recognize some of our followers who greeted us and stayed with us for our entire visit.

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The Manager of The Sukapha, Kunal Singh, held the baby from the first household of brass workers as Sumit reached out to her.

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There was a complete process for making brass in Matiari although we didn’t see it in order.  Here men are taking brass sheets and cutting them into circles to be worked into plates.

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At another home, brass bowls were being turned out.

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This man is shaping a bowl.

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The ubiquitous jute dried on the roof with haystacks elevated above it to prevent rot.

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Every home had its role.  In this one, large brass vessels were hammered out.

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This boy kept trying to stand in front of my camcorder and then dark behind it to look at himself in the screen.  Kids are used to seeing themselves in digital cameras!

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At the next home, brass scraps were heated in a wood fired kiln and pressed out into new larger pieces.

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After returning to The Sukapha, we sailed again and then stopped at Nabadwip on the opposite bank to visit the giant Banyon tree–and shop for Ganesha statues!

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Underneath were temples to Shiva and Kali.

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After another short cruise, we visited ISKCON (International Society for Krishna Consciousness) or Hari Krishna so well-known throughout the world as the cult-like people passing out flowers in airports during the Age of Aquarius.  On the walk to the ISKCON temple (where no pictures were allowed) we passed more Shiva pilgrims.

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Back on board we cruised down the Hoogly River, as villages grew to towns.  There were only two more days before we were back in Kolkata.

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On the Hoogly–Khushbagh and Plassey-and Bauls

October 25, 2009

It was our fourth day on the Hoogly and after an overnight on the riverbank, we sailed downstream a short distance.  We then traveled by cycle rickshaws to Khushbagh, a peaceful Moghul-style garden enclosing the tombs of Siraj-ud-Daulah and his family.

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Behind the gardens and tombs was a small family mosque.

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Everywhere we went we had an interested audience.  As we returned to The Sukapha, we noticed some ads in a tree (one certified by Microsoft) as well as a local goddess at the base.  Ah, India.

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We cruised downstream to the battlefield of Plassey where in 1757 Clive’s defeat of Siraj-ud-Daulah changed the course of Indian history.  We walked through fields to the commemorative obelisk, a thunderstorm chasing us, until in a tiny village we decided to head back to our boat.

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Driving back to the boat, we realized that we’d seen the life cycle of jute.

Jute Cultivation:  “Almost 85% of the world’s jute cultivation is concentrated in the Ganges delta.  To grow jute, farmers scatter the seeds on cultivated soil. When the plants are about 15-20 cm tall, they are thinned out. About four months after planting, harvesting begins. The plants are usually harvested after they flower, but before the flowers go to seed. The stalks are cut off close to the ground. The stalks are tied into bundles and soaked in water (retting) for about 20 days. This process softens the tissues and breaks the hard pectin bond between the bast & Jute hurd (inner woody fiber stick) and the process permits the fibres to be separated. The fibres are then stripped from the stalks in long strands and washed in clear, running water. Then they are hung up or spread on thatched roofs to dry. After 2-3 days of drying, the fibres are tied into bundles.”

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That night on the boat there was a surprise performance on the top deck.  Baul performers sang poetry and danced for us.

Bauls are a group of mystic minstrels from Bengal. Bauls constitute both a syncretic religious sect and a musical tradition used as a vehicle to express Baul thought. Bauls are a very heterogeneous group, with many different streams to the sect, but their membership mainly consists of sahajiya Vaishnavas, tantriks and Sufis Muslims. They can be often identified by their distinctive clothes and musical instruments, like the ektara. Though Bauls comprise only a small fraction of the Bengali population, their influence on the culture of Bengal is considerable. In 2005, the Baul tradition was included in the list of “Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity” by UNESCO.

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We cruised to an overnight mooring near Katwa, a market town with narrow bustling bazaars.  Tomorrow we would visit the brassworking village of Matiari.

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