Dec 27, 2005

Have you ever seen elephants mating ?

Our usual trek to Shantiniketan was a little extended this time for a few reasons. The first was that we recouped some time which was initially scheduled for a trip to South India, cancelled due to circumstances. The second was a plan to hook up with an old friend (Shunya) and his companion for a look at some of Bengals landmarks.

A quick walk through the Vishva-Bharati campus, accompanied by a University registered guide, was made additionally entertaining by the guides' displeasure (and verbal rebuke) whenever the two ladies in our parties started talking to each other during one of his (many) lectures on Tagore's philosophy about human beings and nature. It should be clarified that all Chandreyee was doing was providing sub-titles to Usha, who was having some trouble with the Benglish lecture. Rabindra Bhavan is still bereft of the Nobel Prize, though security has been beefed up a bit.

We left Shantiniketan the morning after our arrival for other pastures. The four-hour bone-jarring road trip across the Damodar to Bishnupur via Durgapur and Bankura set the trend for our long days on the road. The seat springs in our rental '93 Ambassador has definitely seen better days, and all of us were involuntarily leaning on each other or on doors through out the trip. Frequent stops for tea and pakoras were a necessity.

The district of Bankura is well-known for the artisans who manufacture terra -cotta jewelry and the famous "Bankura Horse". The stunning brilliance of their fore-fathers is illustrated in the terra-cotta temples that were built by the Malla kings of Bengal. There are numerous temples in and around Bishnupur (the guide book cites 300 +), a majority the over-zealous product of the recently converted Vaishnavite king. His heirs also did not seem to have been lacking in enthusiasm. Many of the temples are in an advanced state of decay; most of the terra cotta tiles are severely weathered. The ones that still maintain a high degree of carvings are the Jor-Bangla, the Shyamrai, the Radheshyam and the MadanMohan temples. These, along with the ceremonial platform (the Rash-Mancha), are now under the watchful eye of the tourism department. However, a lot more stringency (IMHO) may be required to preserve the temples from the onslaught of that perennially present, rapidly multiplying creature – the Bengali tourist!

Another set of temples can be found around the corner from Dal-Madal, the famous cannon that helped ward off the marauding Marathas. These temples (about seven in number) are scattered over rolling fields. A few of these have been fenced in, with a park and walkways created around them. Lacking exquisite exteriors like the others, these locations are wanting in tourists. The only people present are the eternal lovers. If any tourism department representatives were present, they were either in plain clothes or well-hidden.

There are also the temples that seem to have been abandoned because of lack of "tourist value". Most of them probably do not have a terra-cotta exterior, just the laterite stone that serves as the base for all construction. We happened to run into one that was located in a nook between residential houses, on the way to one of the "famous" temple cluster. The name of this location is "Jor-Mandir" a literal translation is a "Pair of Temples".

This generic name applies to any similar twin-temple arrangement in Bengal. It has a clearing in front with no evidence of any activity, squatters or otherwise. Does anyone visit this temple? The door to one is locked – I ducked into the other to see mounds of ant hills and possible snake holes in a fairly small sized grotto. No trace of devotion whatsoever. Despite the lack of attention from the tourism department, the area is clean and not subject to vandalism or graffiti. The zealous Vaishnavites still appear to be around in Vishnupur.

Other than the terra-cotta, the other feature of note is the roof of the Jor-Bangla temple. The name signifies a twin roof structure, each mound being similar to the roof (chala) of the huts in rural Bengal that were mostly mud with a thatched roof. The terra-cota images represent the Purans, Ramayana, Mahabharat. We wondered at the fact that these carvings lacked what was standard temple fare, the Kama-Sutra depictions, and started decrying the puritanical spirit of the Malla kings. This apparent lack of attention to sex and desire, as can be deduced from the temple carvings, is contradicted by folk lore – a Malla king once spirited Lal-Bai, a Baiji, away from her lover, the ruler of Maharashtra. His infatuation with her so enraged the queen that she poisoned her husband and drowned the Bai in one of the multiple ponds which were constructed by the kings to satisfy the water demands of the locals and the palace. To ensure an operatic end to this saga, the queen committed sati on the funeral pyre.

Closer scrutiny of the thousands of panels finally revealed one of elephants copulating. My friends, recently back from trips to Eastern Africa and Kumayon, told me that the posture depicted was not how elephants mate. We grudgingly accepted it as poetic license of the artisan although other reasons offered included ignorance ("the artist has never witnessed elephants in the act"), and space ("had only three quarters of a panel to fit in two elephants and meet the quota"). One thing we agreed on – so much for the puritanical spirit.

India's growth rate and economic boom have not spread uniformly across the population spectrum. The retail-heavy restaurant-filled Kolkata is a far cry from the living conditions and employment opportunities in parts of rural Bengal. The onslaught of tourism has been seen as a boon for the locals. Other than numerous restaurants (the paise hotel of yore, with a fixed meal system – choice of fish, meat or egg) and other tourism related units, numerous guides mill around tourist destinations and eateries. They sport a badge certifying their affiliations/accredication, one even gave me a card that said "Senior-most Guide in Bishnupur" a fact apparently attested by the WB tourism department. Having visited this area about 20 years ago, this was a striking change. The poor trying to eke out an existence by grasping at straws. This phenomenon in India used to be restricted to active religious sites; all visitors to Puri will surely remember being mobbed by the Panda the second you stepped on to the railway platform. Murshidabad, which we visited later, exemplified the worst instance of this, but more on that later.

(Click here for more pictures of Bishnupur terracotta and temples)

Dec 10, 2005

Kolkata 12-2005

We have been in the city for less than 24 hours and have blended right into the lifestyle. We have negotiated the bureaucratic machinations of the banking system, gone shoe & grocery shopping, used an Internet cafe, seen a play and chased it up with late night clubbing with the Calcutta Club set – barra pegs of whiskey and rum along with Chicken Reshmi Kebabs.

The play was produced by a theater group called Rupo-Darshini and was set among the lives of Sunderban inhabitants. The theater (at the Academy of Fine Arts) is one of the less attractive places to watch a play in the city. The theater was barely half full – a sad plight for what was definitely a good production. The director/lead actor made an appeal at the end to spread the word if we liked the play.

Awake at 4 AM, although that is better than the no sleep condition of last night. Sounds of street construction filter through the closed windows, the cawing of crows welcome the dawn. Day 2 begins.