Thursday, January 26, 2023

Tales from two cities

Musings by Shekhar Nambiar

November marked the 347th year of the ninth Sikh Guru Tegh Bahadur’s martyrdom, beheaded by the orders of the Mughal ruler Aurangzeb in Delhi’s Chandni Chowk. The penalty he paid for defying the Mughal’s diktat to convert to Islam.

In three years – November 2025 – it will be the 350th year of the Guru’s execution. A courageous warrior, spiritual scholar and poet, his philosophy and teachings of peace and universal brotherhood should continue to guide not only his followers but also serve as a beacon and pathway for India and Indians.

Sikhs observing the martyrdom of Guru Tegh Bahadur in front of the Gurudwara in old Delhi built in memory of the martyr.

Today, a gurudwara stands to honour the Guru’s sacrifice. The gurudwara was erected by Baghel Singh in 1783 to mark the martyrdom spot. Son of Guru Hargobind Sahib, Guru Tegh Bahadur’s 115 hymns form part of the holy book Sri Guru Granth Sahib.

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The tales of  Delhi and Calcutta are intrinsically linked. The transfer of British India’s capital from Calcutta was proclaimed by King George V at the Delhi Durbar on 12 December 1911. The buildings housing the Viceroy, government, and parliament were inaugurated in early 1931.

Guru Tegh Bahadur’s execution and other events is a tale of a hoary and turbulent period in India. And following Aurangzeb’s death, the decline of the Later Mughal rulers, including Bahadur Shah, the Sayyids and Muhammad Shah among others, and their eventual defeat such as at the hands of the Persian king Nadir Shah. Delhi had been destroyed and rebuilt several times but its defeat, plunderand sack at the end of three centuries of Mughal rule was the proverbial last straw.  

A busy street at Dum Dum, a overgrown village on Jessore road.

Dum Dum

On to Dum Dum, not the song by the same name! It’s as different as it can be from the fast-paced, peppy song by Himani Kapoor and Benny Dayal from the 2010 film Band Baja Baaraat. Dum Dum is what Calcutta airport was known by, somewhat like Palam in Delhi, later renamed as Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose International Airport and Indira Gandhi International Airport – two names that cannot be obliterated so easily from India’s past.

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Dum Dum is a locality within Kolkata district. An overgrown village on Jessore road, it’s also where the bypass to the city from the airport starts via Salt Lake that has sprung up on large tracts of open fields. 

I cannot say how many of Kolkata’s old natural water bodies were destroyed in the process of the new development. But, notwithstanding the relatively new and mammoth Salt Lake stadium and the ITC Sonar hotel at the intersection on the road leading to the city, the water bodies and the surrounding greenery appear to have been retained to some extent.

Salt lake city in Kolkata, one of the best places to visit in the capital of West Bengal.

 

Jessore road 

Travel to Kolkata from Dum Dum via the old Jessore road, as I did on my first visit years ago, was simply out of this world. Passing through semi-rural pockets of water ponds, coconut palm groves and dwellings, it offers glimpses of typical rural Bengal. Taking the bypass via Salt Lake no longer gives the traveller to Kolkata, especially a first-timer, a glimpse at those quaint rural pockets.

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One of the first sights of the city past the Sonar and the Science City & museum northward is a busy and crowded city street lined with old houses, one side of which is Chinatown. 

Tram in Kolkata. Beside Kokata the trams are found perhaps only in Melbourne and San Francisco

Neglected relic

You start spotting the trams plying in the city since over 120 years. The excitement knows no bounds, for which city in India gives you this brush with the past!

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Melbourne and San Francisco are perhaps the few international cities where trams still operate. The rides on Frisco’s streetcars, as the trams are known by, are simply breath-taking and adrenaline rushing as they glide downhill to Fisherman’s Wharf on the northern waterfront overlooking the Alcatraz and a beautiful distant view of the Golden Gate Bridge.

The fairy tale of Kolkata’s trams is getting to be a neglected relic. All tram lovers will find Park Circus very exciting with tracks crisscrossing and tram cars everywhere, seemingly in a hurry traversing different directions.

Chandni Chowk, the busiest and oldest market in Old Delhi

Heritage Delhi 

Trams used to run in Delhi’s Chandni Chowk until they stopped the service in the early sixties giving way to the chaos of cycle-rickshaws, horse-drawn carriages Tonga, scooters and the like. 

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The Connaught Place to Red Fort iconic Harley Davidson motorcycle passenger cars, known by the name phatpat because of the noise its engines made, were exciting adventures that gave great and thrilling rides through Ajmeri Gate, Turkman Gate, Delite and Gokcha cinemas, Delhi Gate and Daryaganj.The rides during cold wintry mornings were particularly enjoyable. The motorcycles have since become things of the past. 

There’s a silver lining though. A heritage project has been conceived and developed creating a corridor at Chandni Chowk bereft of vehicles.Cycle-rickshaws and pedestrians are all that you see now on the stretch between Jain Mandir and Khari Baoli, an unhindered view that the Mughal emperor once enjoyed from Red Fort or Lal Qila.

Historic Jama Masjid in Delhi. Devotees offering namaaz on Eid-Ul-Fitr in 2022

Aussie legends

Farther down south on Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose Marg a few hundred metres from the Chandni Chowk – Lal Qila intersection is the historic Jama Masjid built by Shahjahan. The Azan, or Adhan in Arabic, from here and the Fatehpuri mosque on the western end of Chandni Chowk calling the faithful for prayers can be heard for miles around the walled city. Climb the elaborate steps of the mosque for a magnificent view of Lal Qila from the top. 

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The stretchfrom here and the mouth-watering eating places down the mosque’s steps on the southern side, including the legendary Karims, past NaiSarak, ParathewaliGaliKhari Baoli  spice market and the wholesale mandi all form part of an exotic and memorable heritage trail. I once did the walk with restauranteurs Master Chef Australia legends Gary Mehigan and George Calombaris with excited fans, press and TV crews in tow. Yes, stop we did at the Jalebiwala. Talking of Karims at Jama Masjid, it was here that I first tasted Habshi halwa, kin of the gulab jamun but hard, not soft or pulpy, and believed to have been brought to the Mughal courts from Africa. That’s another slice of history!

And can I forget the walk with Brett Lee, who was on a promo tour post his cricketing career, to the equally famous Lodhi Gardens in New Delhi!

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Gurdwara Sis Ganj

No description of Old Delhi can be complete without a mention of and paying obeisance at Gurdwara Sis Ganj where Guru Tegh Bahadur was beheaded on 24 November 1675.  

Lal Qila in Delhi, etched in Indian history. It is where Prime Minister of India hoists flag on every independent day.

The nearby Phawwara, or Fountain, at the intersection of the road leading to Delhi Main railway station and a Bengali sweetmeat shop, long since gone, with sandesh and rosagollah were equally significant landmarks.

As an interesting aside, there is a Chandni Chawk (spelt differently) in Kolkata’s Esplanade that I didn’t know of until recently. It is a hub for electric goods as is the Bhagirath Palace wholesale market at the eastern end of Chandni Chowk near Lal Qila in Delhi.

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Oh! Kolkata 

Kolkata is full of people walking here, there and everywhere, not aimlessly so much but with a purpose. There is a pulsating rhythm to all the movement, the irritant being the constant hooting by the yellow Ambassador taxi cabs.

The longest North-South corridor right up to Sealdah Station is the AJC Bose Road continuing onward as APC Road, flying over the government Nandan film and cultural centre. Nandan never ceases to excite with its shows, art exhibits, plays and, of course, film festivals from the days of Satyajit Ray.

Victoria Museum, Kolkata, a historic place to see

Historic sites

The Victoria Museum stands regally tall overlooking the Race Course, circling which and crossing the road leading to Alipur and past Fort William, the garrison and headquarters of the Indian Army’s Eastern Command, takes you on to India’s first and longest cable-stayed bridge spanning the Hooghly Vidyasagar Setu. Fort William at Hastings on the eastern banks of the Hooghly was the scene of the Battle of Plassey between the British and Siraj-ud-Daulah, Nawab of Bengal. It is also the location of the infamous Black Hole of Calcutta.

The historic cantilever Hooghly Bridge nearly 3.5 km northis in a league of its own built as early as 1943. No visitor can afford to leave the city without a drive or walk on the bridge.

Eden Garden, Kolkata, a venue of many cricketing events

The iconic cricket oval Eden Garden stands looming over Chowringhee and almost overlooking the Oberoi Grand and the Indian Museum further down the street. 

A little distance away from the Grand in the direction towards Writer’s Building is the now revived and restored The Great Eastern Hotel, and a few blocks away Prafulla Sarkar Street with another Kolkata icon, the Bengali-language Ananda Bazar Patrika newspaper. Yes, it’s alive and thriving in this day and age of digital media and news aggregators. On 4 Chowringee Square, Esplanade, is the offices of the English-language broadsheet The Statesman, established in1875

and now in its death throes and crying for succour.

So much for history.

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Foodies’ paradise

As food goes, Kolkata is the ultimate destination. From kathi rolls to fish delicacies, food here will suit all pockets. 

From the small shack next to the exit gate of the Hotel Taj Bengal selling macher-jol to the upmarket restaurants at the Grand, ITC Sonar and the much written about Park Street joints, there’s so much on offer everywhere.

Street food in Kolkata, Park street special

Simply walking along the brightly-lit Park Street as dusk falls is enough to give you excitement. Watch the people throng the restaurants, bars and nightclubs in search of food, wine and crooners singing. The sidewalks on street corners offer some delicious options too and they do not burn a hole in your pocket.

If you are a book lover, Kolkata is the place for you. Something you can in indulge in is to spend time at Oxford Bookstore. The bookstore organises regular book discussions and releases of new titles. Aficionados can spend hours browsing books and reading stuff.

Spiritually inclined

If you are the heritage walk type and spiritually inclined too, visit Kalighat temple. Then savour street delicacies at New Market or try out the more expensive restaurants with the choicest fish dishes, including at The Peerless Inn, Esplanade.

Vice President Jagdeep Dhankhar along with his wife, offering prayer at Kolkata’s Kalighat temple when he was Governor, West Bengal.

Walk across the Hooghly Bridge amid the heat, humidity and dust, visit Belur Math – Ramakrishna Mission on the foreshore of the Hooghly and to the Dakshineswar Kali Temple on the river’s eastern bank, a pilgrimage in itself. For, this is where Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and Ma Sarada Devi prayed and led their ascetic lives. The temple’s presiding deity is Bhavatarini, a form of Parashakti Adya Kali, or Adishakti Kalika. By now, it can be safely assumed that you are spirituality inclined. So, visit you also must Mother Teresa’s Sisters of Charity headoffices in the city. 

The City of Joy never ceases to amaze!

Also read: Why oh why do I love Kochi!

Shekhar Nambiar
Shekhar Nambiar
Shekhar is a communications professional who has spent a good deal of time in international organizations and in the development sector. As he puts it, it's been an "exciting journey" for him, beginning his working life as a journalist, with some of the best editors and professionals, before venturing into public affairs and then forays in the private sector. He believes "every day brings new challenges, achievements and success, and the key is to play a small part in whatever it is that you're doing". He tries to keep pace with new tech, and learn a new word a day, of course, "Gen Z lingo!"

2 COMMENTS

  1. Njoyd ur well çomposed piece. I’ve travelled the harley davidsons often during young days….so thats a memory. & the sweetmeat shop near phuwwara i guess u’re talking of annapurna, quite an icon with its cham cham & the rest

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