Although originally hailing from West Bengal, my knowledge of the state till about a year ago, was at best, sketchy. I figured its one thing to like baul songs and the films of Satyajit Ray and another to understand how deeply the landscape of West Bengal inspires them.
As we headed out of Kolkata, taking the Vidyasagar Setu and then catching the NH-2, we were absolutely unprepared for the world that lay beyond. Life in the Hooghly district is a mosaic of people and crammed but dainty houses alongside grand European structures left from the days of early European settlers.
And suddenly, through this vista, you catch glimpses of the vast river, also known as Hooghly, flowing quietly by, governing the larger scheme of things.
Serampore, Chandannagore, Chinsura, Bandel – each carries the imprint of a European settlement, each is unique. But perhaps the most breathtaking sites along the route are the Imambara at Hooghly, abandoned yet grand,
and the Hanseshwari Temple at Bansberia, straight out of the thrice-ten kingdoms of Russian fairytales.
We ended our trip at Kalna, where the Nava Kailash Temples and the adjoining complex of panchavimsati (25-turreted) temples made us gape, and upon recovering, marvel at Bengal’s hidden wealth.
The second trip, from Kolkata to Murshidabad, was largely through fields that were coloured so vividly, with such fabulous skies, that whatever we did with our cameras ended up with painted images.
Along the way, we stooped at a poshurhaat (animal fair) in Madhyamgram, a tanti or weavers’ village in Shantipur, and a clay doll-making workshop in Krishnanagar.
Staying overnight at Berhampore, we woke up at the crack of dawn and made our way to Murshidabad, via Cossimbazar. After an unforeseen jam in the super-narrow lanes of Berhampore’s fish-market, the quietness of the English and Dutch cemeteries at Cossimbazar struck one quite forcefully. From there, we proceeded to Murshidabad.
Note: Asking for directions in West Bengal yields hilarious results, so don’t unless you want a good chuckle. In response to “Bhaisaab, Hazarduari kahaan hai?”, a rickshawalla pointed right at exactly the same moment as his passenger pointed left. Anyhow, the search was worth it. Hazarduari is impressive, and more Victorian than Victoria Memorial. In fact, the never-ending Nizamat Imambara facing it was no less impressive.
The high-point of the trip though was, sans doute, the ferry-ride to and from Khoshbagh, where Siraj-ud-Daulah lies buried. ‘Manush ek taka, mosh paanch taka’ (Man One Rupee, Buffalo Five Rupees’) said the ferryman as we gingerly stepped on to the crowded ferry. But the ride was fabulous and highly recommended. Just don’t mess with the buffaloes.
Among other things, this you’ll notice wherever you go: whatever the space between you and the people you meet in this fascinating land, you’ll never be made to feel like a stranger.