'(The Blog) With No Name', perhaps best described as a stream of notes and thoughts - 'remembered, recovered and (sometimes) invented'.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Eastward Ho!

The day after we inspected the ruins of Lothal, I set out for Howrah from Amdavad; my longest-ever train journey, in terms of the number of states traversed (Gujarat, Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh, Orissa, Jharkhand and Bengal). During this a massive swing from the extreme West to the Eastern fringes of India, I saw nothing of Orissa and Chhattisgarh as they were crossed at night, but I did see Ajni and Santragachchhi and must have passed thru Bondamunda - all places I had characterized in a quite recent post here as never having been even remotely approached by my worldline.

The Male Rivers:

The far East of India has conceived several of its rivers as male entities ('Nadas' rather than 'Nadis'). I had known about the Brahmaputra and the Damodar and on this journey, crossed the turbulent 'Rupnarayan' ( of course, this region also has the 'Padma', 'Meghna' and 'Jamuna' and yes, the Ganga). I have heard of the 'Panchnad' river in Pakistani Punjab but am not sure if that name is indeed masculine or merely neuter.

Of course, in Europe, they have had river gods - and Bernini personified the Ganga as a bearded and virile man(*)!

Belur Math:

The grand river-side temple dedicated to Sri Ramakrishna is an unusual pastiche of a sandstone edifice with a cross-shaped plan and chruch-like hall (where every evening, a ceremony takes place that is marked by church-like choral singing with an organ in accompaniment), a cluster of domes in the center (something vaguely Byzantine or Russian - or it is Turkish?!- about them) and so forth. The temple also incorporates the kind of elegant scalloped arches one sees in Mughal buildings and pillars which hark back to South Indian temples. Around the central domes are carved, in relief, allegorical figures representing the Nava-Grahas - their style is strangely foreign, reminscent of medieval European woodcuts... or better still, the pictures on playing cards - or tarot cards.

The Vivekananda Samadhi nearby is also a strange syncretic structure, with a dome and a facade supported by Corintian columns. The pinnacle of the Dakshineshwar temple (across the river from Belur) bears a certain resemblance to the Sacre Coeur Basilica in Paris (which is, in turn, said to be a 19th century re-interpretation of Romano-Byzantine style). And a little upstream from Belur is another temple with a facade that, from the distance, looked quite Baroque (or was it neo-Classical?)!

Apart from the temples, the Math consists of several compounds; in one of them stands the spanking new sandstone edifice housing the Vivekananda university. There are several more modest structures around among grass-overgrown plots, dilapidated factory sheds and muddy patches. And the area has many ponds, with a particularly large one right in front of the university building - its murkily green waters teem with fish; cormorants and kingfishers plunge in eagerly; and now and then, water-snakes streak across the surface, wiggling like spermatozoa.

An overloaded, creaking kind of place - indeed, in this city, almost everything that moves creaks - the ancient ambassador taxis, the still more ancient trams (Cal is only the second place after Rome where I saw trams), the consistently awful buses, ... Of course, there is also the Metro (again, among the cities I have visited, only the second with such a thing, Rome again having been the first(**)) which does not creak at all! Half of the buildings in the city look like they could urgently do with a fresh coat of paint - and most of the other half clearly have never been painted at all. But creaking or whatever, there is a resilient vitality that is unmistakable, a vitality that declares it is certainly nowhere near *croaking*! And although decent residential buildings are rarer in Cal than in any other major Indian city, the city has far less slums than Bombay and probably even Pune and Chennai; it is certainly unfair to portray it as a hell-hole of misery and charity-destination as countless firangees have done.

The weather sometimes feels more oppressive than anything I have experienced in Kerala, Chennai or Bombay; must salute the generations of yore who excelled in a game like soccer in such a setting!

The city has several Raj-era buildings in dire need of repair - among those I saw were a huge, rambling and partially demolished warehouse on the Strand Road, the so-called Currency Building near the BBD Bagh and so forth... And somewhere there is a building housing (if I remember right) 'Standard Insurance'. At least a dozen trees have sprouted from various corners of this still functioning structure(***). Its facade has several pairs of heraldic figures done in what looks like stucco. All these (sculpturally quite undistinguished) figures are reclining, nude males playing assorted musical instruments - one of them has even contrived to play a tabla while balancing the two pieces on his person. There is a central panel with a group of figures at the very top, the details of which are now obscure. And then, there are pairs of unclothed figures hiding behind bushes; before I could wonder "The Garden of Eden?!" it struck me that both figures in each pair were actually male - although one of each had 'femininely' long hair!

(*) - The westerners have thought of Ganga as at least an important geographical marker since at least the time of Dante (who predates the 17th Century Bernini by a good 400 years). For example, a passage from the Divine Comedy (that shows awareness of Time Zones and stuff) goes something like: "At sunset on Purgatory, it is midnight in the Ebro river valley (in Spain), dawn at Jerusalem, and noon on the *Ganges*". Wonder if there are still earlier references - I mean not traveler's-notes-types but proper cultural references.

(**) - I had only seen a Metro Station in Rome (when I strayed into one, while searching for Michelangelo's Moses); I actually traveled on an underground train for the first time ever in Cal; am am yet to travel on a tram anywhere.

(***) - Tenacious fig trees growing from the walls of (not necessarily derelict) buildings is a sight I see more often in Cal than in any other Indian city. The most remarkable specimen I know of has grown from the top of the chimney of a probably defunct factory that stands across the river from Belur. The chimney is well over 50 feet tall and the tree which crowns it, something like a dozen.


  • At 7:11 AM, Blogger enu said…

    Like any big city everything in Cal. barely functions. What is even more striking about Cal, is that there seems to be a general distaste for things wordly and material (personal exp.). Middle class is proud of the arts lit, heritage and everything, but there seems to a general distaste for maintaining even a modicum of civic sense. Class divide is growing wider and wider and the government barely functions to point where it is hardly noticeable. Strikes which happen way too often for a metro city, stop daily life almost completely unlike other cities. (A cousin of mine got stoned in his car whilst returning from school on a day when strikers went berserk)

    Strikes notwithstanding I still like Cal. better than Mumbai. Maybe its just nostalgia.

    Anyways, I hope this change for you is for the better.

  • At 1:03 AM, Blogger R. said…

    thanks enu for a former insider's perspective on cal.
    and thanks for the kind wish.
    yes, hope your cousin was not hurt.

  • At 1:32 AM, Blogger kevin hill said…

    like you, i like visiting historical places too..

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