Bengal Tourism has identified a destination with a difference
a river belt from Murshidabad to Howrah a stretch of 260 KM
studded with monumental history, spiritual aura and abundance of
green eco-friendly habitations.
Recently West Bengal
Tourism organized a Ganga Heritage Cruise which it is
hoped, will become a regular affair in the near future. The cruise
was to project the amalgamation of multicultural sentiments.
However, life and culture along the Ganga is as unique as the
grandeur of the past and at times it projects an unchanging lifestyle
amidst an ever-changing civilization.
A group of 60 odd people
drawn from different backgrounds like the travel media and tourism
travelled to Behrampur via rail. It was an overnight journey. Next
morning we woke to a light drizzle and drove through lush green
surroundings to our hotel. There were towering coconut and tal trees
swaying as if to acknowledge our visit because tourists do not
usually frequent this place. After a quick bath and breakfast we
fastened our shoestrings and were ready for our tour. The first lap
of our journey was by road.
Our first halt was
Murshidabad. This city was founded by Nawab Murshid Quli Khan and it
prospered into a famous silk centre of Bengal. As the silk culture
spread, the Europeans started eyeing this trade belt, initially for
trade then to rule the trade as well. The Battle of Plassey that
took place in Bengal in 1757 was a turning point in the pages of
Indian history because the East India Company succeeded in Laying the
foundation of the British colonial empire.
Katra Mosque was first on
our itinerary. The mosque was built by Murshid Quli Khan.
Originally it had five domes but now only three remain as the rest
were destroyed in an earthquake. After one year of construction of
this mosque, Murshid Quli Khan died here but before his death he
humbly wished that his tomb be below the stairs as in future
whosoever came would step over him and his sins would be washed away.
Small rows of sitting
places, designs in an arch-like fashion and meant form maulvis
(Mohammedan priests) to read the Koran, is a unique feature. It was
interesting to learn that during the EID Festival, the Muslims place
a banana tree outside their houses to usher prosperity. One wonders
how a Hindu symbolism could become a part of Islamic culture. Here
we see the cultural synthesis in its true colour.
Moreover, even in the
silk business you will find that cultivation is handled by Hindu
peasants and the weaving is the expertise of Muslims. There is also
a Shiva temple within the boundary of Katra Mosque. The sound of
conch shells echo in the surroundings.
We passed through other
celebrated places and finally halted at Katgola garden. A huge gate
bearing Indo-European influence awaited us. Scattered around were
European style statues. Then we discovered a Jain temple of
Pareshnath built in 1780 by Raja Lajpat Singh Dugger. From the
purohit (temple priest), Bhagirath Sharma, I came to learn
that this temple was built by Rajasthani craftsmen who used silver,
ivory and wood to create this temple. However, the pillars are
studded with conch shells and done by local artisans of Murshidabad.
Tracing the lifestyle
which the purohit has heared about from his forefathers, he
describes how the Rajas used to sail in a silver bajra (a type
of boat) listening to strains of classical music. Listening to him I
suddenly felt saddened to see the present depleted conditions of this
place except for the temple.
There are a few boys,
Mithun, Ratan and Mohan, who work as part time guides and earn around
10-20 rupees a day describing the details of the place in a manner
close to a religious discourse in Bengali. Mithun states that the
Ganga is changing course very swiftly and has taken many houses
and old palaces in her womb ! Marine archaeologists, are you
listening here are some virgin places for a rich
From Katgola we moved
towards Hazar Duari. En route, with a cold drinks halt,
we were allowed to spend a few minutes to see Nasipur Rajbari. Here
the Nahabhut Khana depicts the regality of a bygone era. Hazar Duari
means 1000 gates. However, all are not real. It was built by General
Duncan between 1829-37. This extraordinary place with fifty halls
and galleries is the first sign of European architecture. Today it
is part of the museum which houses rare books, original paintings,
antique furniture, an ivory palanquin and a howdah.
At the entrance of Hazar
Duari is an Imambara which is said to be the largest in India.
IT was built by Siraz-ud-Daula and was destroyed in 1846 by a
devastating fire and reconstructed in 1848. Between the Imambara
and Hazar Duari is the Medina Mosque. It is said that Siraz brought
mud from Karbela of Median and placed it here .
From Hazar Duari we
walked to the Wasif Manzil which was built by Sayed Ali Mirza
the Nawab Bahadur of Murshidabad. From the nearby ghat we started our
river cruise. Here we boarded M.L.Ratna, the flag ship of the
District Collector which took us to our launches, Chitralekha, and
Sarbojaya, anchored offshore. These launches have a capacity of 60
passengers each. I boarded Chitralekha, my allotted launch. The mini
cabins had curtain separations. Upstairs there was a covered deck with
restaurant settings where the incredible view around with a strong
breeze blowing was simply intoxicating. Below the cabins were more
sleeping arrangements and a kitchen which they say can serve 200 people.
While talking to the navigators, I learnt that the launch could move
smoothly only if the portion below water could get at least 5 ft.
depth and so the launch can sail only during the monsoons because
of the depth of water required.
Before long, we were
sailing upstream towards Aazamganj where the Jorebangla (four temple
complex) is situated. The temples were constructed during the rule
of Rani Bhawani. The four face-to-face terra-cotta temples are unique
examples of brick terra-cotta work. On the outside walls are 52
manifestations of Goddess Shakti or Kali. The 20 Shiva lingas
and 10 avatars (reincarnations) of Vishnu and a recreation of
war scenes from the Ramayana held us spellbound. In yet another
temple there were delicate flower and foliage decorations. A little
distance from Jorebangla was the Eight Door Shiva Temple.
The unusual feature here
is the lotus at the top of the dome which is placed upside down !
Nearby some boys were playing football oblivious to our presence.
Well, here in Bengal, football is another heritage of our times.
When we returned to our launches we witnessed another heritage of
Bengal the hospitality. Small children to senior citizens had
lined up along the shore watching us silently. Standing on deck I
waved to them and they all waved back as if in gratitude and shouted
in unison Aabar aashbe! (come again). This spontaneous
gesture was perhaps far better than the red carpet
ushering we had received elsewhere.
We sailed downstream back
to Murshidabad, this time to watch silk manufacturing but due to some
miscalculation of time we missed the opportunity so we headed back to
Hazar Duari, which by now, was illuminated. From a distance we saw
the land of Plassey from where Indian history changed its course. We
anchored for the night. I preferred to sleep on deck in the cool
breeze and in the gathering darkness. As I drifted into sleep, I
relived the glorious past where once delicacy and patronage for
aesthetics enveloped this land.
I awakened at dawn as our
launch was about to move and it was raining. I immediately recalled
that it was August 15, Independence Day, and India was stepping into
her 51st year of independence. It was also Janmastami,
the birthday of Lord Krishna. I stood by the railings and thought
the rain was a celestial blessing of important conjunctions of
history and mythology with different dimensions of time and space.
was Nabadwip and Mayapur, the birth place of Shri Chaitanya who, some
five hundred years ago, revived the prem bhava (eternal love)
as a method to attain vaikunthya (the Vaishnav heaven) where
Lord Krishna resides.From here, in the medieval era, Vaishnavism
dawned and displaced ritual Brahmanism.
Our launches cruised
through the Bhagirathi. On the banks we could see badminton
racquet-like fishermens nets swinging to and fro to catch fish.
Women were washing their utensils, some were bathing and starting
their daily chores. There were small villages all the way. Arch-like
huts with thatch and bamboo show how eco-friendly they are. Bamboo
and paddy cultivation is seen all along.
While cruising I noticed
on the river bank were small triangles like sign posts tied on tree
tops. This indicates that the waster level near the bank is shallow
and its a zebra crossing on the river. One can see
cowboys crossing the river with their herds of buffaloes
and cows. We were now nearing Katwa, the start of Vaishnav Land.
This is a pilgrimage site for Vaishnavites as the place is associated
with Shri Chaitanya. On the launch we were served a vegetarian lunch
to suit the land of non-violence.
By late afternoon we
neared the Triveni, the confluence of three rivers Padma,
Jolangi and Hooghly. We anchored between Mayapur and Nabadwip. We
could see the towering Samadhi temple of Prabhupada, the propounder
of ISKCON (International Society for Krishna Consciousness) in
Mayapur and rows of temples studded the banks of Nabawip.
We were ferried to
Nabadwip. This land is called the Oxford of Bengal. Shri Chaitanya,
way back in 1485, propounded the philosophy of Vaishnavism here. It
was a great land of religious discourse and dharma
(religion), artha (meaning) and karma (work) till Shri
Chaitanya introduced prem bhava (eternal love) for the Lord
and his creatures.
We landed as the sun was
setting. An old Vaishnavite, offering prayers to Ganga, was
silhouetted against the setting sun. There is an ancient temple with
a Sonar Gauranga statue, a golden statue of Shri Chaitanya who
is also known as Gauranga. His footwear is kept in a glass case. It
is said that in 1885, the descendant of Shri Chaitanya, Pratap
Chandra Goswami, constructed this temple and its now a seat of
On the other bank we
visited the ISKCON temple, a place of renewed
Vaishnavism with abundance of affluence. The massive building, the
structural administrative machinery and the recreated Gurukul
(traditional school) with a touch of modernity are some of its unique
features. Janmastami was being celebrated with great enthusiasm with
dancing and aarti (prayer offered by the temple priest). After
partaking of some Prasad (offering), we returned to our
launches for the night.
Next morning we headed
towards a new destination Kalna known as a heritage locale for
terra-cotta temples. Kalna lies on the west bank in Burdwan district.
A large group of people came to witness the anchoring of our launch.
We visited the 108 Shivalinga temple which is unique in
architecture and an unparalleled example of religio-aesthetic
grandeur. It is built in Bengals traditional char-chala
style (a typical style adapted from the local thatched roofs of
Bengal). There are 74 Shiva temples on the outer circle and 34 in
the inner circle. The outer circle has black and white Shivalingas
The bases of the
Shivalingas change their angle gradually from one temple to another
to maintain their proportion. One can see 8 temples at one glance.
From inside all 108 temples can be seen. The geometric perfection is
simply awe-inspiring. This extraordinary temple was built by the
Maharaja of Burdwan in 1809.
Just opposite the Shiva
temples is the exquisite terra-cotta temple known as Pratapeswar
temple. The ornamentation and motifs are so detailed that it would
probably take a whole day to see them all. This temple was built in
Lalji temple of c. 1739
is an important religious punctuation from the architectural
perspective. The Pancha Bimsati temple with twenty-five pointed
ornamental tops is to be seen to be believed.
Other important sites are
Krishna Chandraji temple, Shyamsunder Bati and Amli Briksha, where it
is said that Shri Chaitanya met one of his important disciples,
Gouridas Pandit. If you are on a treasure hunt, do visit Gour
Gouridas temple where once Gouridas Pandit resided. You will find
xylography believed to be made from logs of neem wood under
direct supervision of Shri Chaitanya.
There are some rare
manuscripts kept in the temple which are said to by annotations
written by Shri Chaitanya in his own handwriting. It is written on
palm leaves in Maithili language. These manuscripts are in bad shape
and in urgent need of treatment.
After completing the
sightseeing of Kalna we returned to our launches. We breakfasted on
board. By noon the weather had deteriorated. The heavy, lashing
rain prevented us from disembarking at Chinsura (pronounced as
Chunchra). Finally, when the weather cleared a bit, we had arrived
at Chandanagar, the erstwhile French settlement. The governors
house where Dupleix stayed, the prison, police headquarters and the
French institute were some of the interesting sites.
Bellur, the foundation of
Ramakrishna Mission, was the last halt on our 260 km long cruise. On
the last leg of the cruise everybody came up on deck to get a rare
all-around glimpse of the Ganga old temples on the banks, old
colonial institutions, the archaic Bandel church
clicking fast as evening was caving in. Fishermen were netting their
catch midstream with floating lamps tied to the corner of their nets
so that steamers and launches can avoid their path. Ferry boats
carried people back to their homes.
Children were seen
playing on the historical ghats
Finally our launch reached
bellur. We could feel the original sentiments of the Mission. The
room where Swami Vivekananda lived gave us the impression that he has
gone out for a stroll and would be back nay moment. The temple is
really a milestone of new awakening. It is said that the temple was
visualized by Swami Vivekananda himself .
Our cruise not only
provided us with rare glimpses of the interiors of Bengal and it
heritage but also evoked a tremendous positive response from the
travel industry and the press. The Ganga here is quite different
from what one sees in Rishikesh, Varanasi or Allahabad. This can
become a hot destination even for budget tourists. For
us it was yet another wonderful chapter where we Discovered India