Kolkata- Of Saints and Men

In Kolkata, everyone knows Mother so getting to her home was easy. The noise and chaos of the city vanish once you are in the alley leading to Mother House as the headquarters of Missionaries of Charity is popularly known.

Mother is IN

There is nothing to indicate that this place is a major pilgrimage center and tourist attraction.

The door leads to a small courtyard; there was no one around except for the lifelike statues of Mother Mary and Mother Teresa.  After some time an elderly nun came and directed me to the main hall which has the tomb of Mother and a small chapel.

No somber air about the tomb. This is a bright, cheery place.

The tomb is adorned with candles and flowers.  The altar is at the other end. The final resting place of the Mother stands out for its simplicity.

I see a group of novice nuns writing on pieces of paper and depositing it reverentially in a box.  These are prayer requests which are offered at the altar during the weekly mass.

Right next to the main hall is a small museum showcasing the remarkable journey of Anjezë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu from Macedonia to Saint Teresa.   The trademarked blue-bordered white saree,  rosary, and sandals are some of her personal items on display.

 Then I took a flight of stairs to see the room of Mother. The tiny spartan room has been preserved with her cot, desk and a bench. Everything is austere and utilitarian.

Back in the courtyard, I stand before the statue:

Her knobby feet caught my attention; I vaguely remember reading  Mother acquired this deformity from constantly wearing ill-fitting shoes.

Critics have questioned the functioning of the various centers under the Missionaries of Charity citing pathetic living conditions, inadequate medical facilities, staff, etc. They also have issues with her sainthood.  Hey, who are we to judge?

Nuns, volunteers, and visitors are coming in. I wanted to talk to a volunteer, but they all look very busy.  Another day begins at Mother House.

 

Kolkata- Of Gods and Men

Leaving the hustle and bustle of the Flower Market, we took a ferry to go to Bagbazar, North Kolkata. It was exciting to drift through the mighty Hooghly River.   Ferry ride is a good way to beat the morning traffic.IMG_5413

This part of the city was like the sets of a vintage Bengali movie:  crumbling old mansions, trams, and hand-pulled rickshaws. One of the houses is even rumored to be haunted!

Putul Bari (House of Dolls)

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I like this cozy balcony with its intricate grill

Crying for repair and restoration

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Hand-pulled rickshaw and the yellow taxi-iconic symbols of Kolkata

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Tram tracks- Kolkata is the only Indian city with tram service and it is the oldest in Asia

Finally, we reached a warren of narrow streets lined with workshops.  This is Kumartuli- the Potters’ Colony: the place of birth of Gods and Goddesses of Hindu pantheon.

Navpreet gave a brief introduction into the history and led us to explore.

Kumartuli- where Gods are made

The tradition of idol making dates back to the 16th century when rich landlords had grand puja celebrations at their residences.  The idol makers used to come from the neighboring villages.  Later as pujas became a community affair there was more demand for the idols and the potters set up a permanent workshop/residence near the banks of Hooghly River.   Kumartuli( In Bengali kumor is potter and tuli means locality) has since grown into a lively art community.

Bengalis celebrate many festivals all year round;  Durga Puja, invoking Goddess Durga is the most popular. It celebrates the victory of the Goddess over the demon Mahishasura.  During the 10- day- long festival, idols of Goddess is worshipped in thousands of marquees (pandal) all over the city.  The festival is in September-October, though preparations start early.

Idol making is a long, elaborate process.  Meticulous preparations start from the month of  March and continue until the idols are despatched to various parts of the country and overseas.

We are here in April and today seem like any other working day for the artists. I watch the activities with awe. The artisans work silently with total concentration. The workshops are filled with statues in various stages of completion. They are carrying on an age-old craft passed from generation to generation.   Everything is handmade; the raw materials used are bamboo, hay, clay, and jute.

 

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It starts by making a framework out of bamboo and hay.   The skeletal frames are plastered with layers of clay and the structure is kept in the sun to dry.

The straw dummy of the Goddess Durga with ten arms. Amazing symmetry and proportion!

Lord Ganesha waiting for the clay coating.

The torso and limbs are sculpted first;  face, fingers, and toes are moulded later.

The tiny workshop

Many faces of the Goddess

Goddess Kali

All set for the painting and varnishing

Next step is painting and varnishing. The painted models are dressed in dazzling clothes and adorned with jewelry.  Thus a team of artists and ancillary workers transforms the shapeless mass of clay into a divine figure. The end product looks like this:

Goddess Durga with her children and the vanquished demon at her feet.

Navpreet regaled us with fascinating rites and rituals associated with idol making.  The eyes of the Goddess is drawn on an auspicious day.  Known as Chokku dan, the Goddess is supposed to descend to earth from her heavenly abode this day. I wish I can come back and see all the stages of idol making someday. It was heartening to learn that a few women are also in this predominantly male- dominated field.

From the studios, the idols are shifted to the pandals and celebrations begin.  Prayers, dance, music, feasts continue until the 10th day.  On the last day, the idols are taken on a grand procession and immersed in the river. Even Gods have a short lifespan!

After bidding farewell to Goddess Durga, the artists get busy with other festivals.   There is a popular Bengali saying that there are 13 festivals in 12 months so the artists are making idols all year round.  Their expertise is not limited to deities;  philosophers, freedom fighters, political leaders, and writers are also made here.

Vivekananda and Tagore

Apart from the workshops, there are many small stores with puja paraphernalia.

We chatted with this gracious artist; he is specialised in miniature idols.

The young man was totally immersed in the art using chiyari– a sculpting tool made from bamboo.

Goddess with celebrities

There is more. I see some idols dumped on the road:

Forlorn idols on the banks of Hooghly River

Languishing festal remnants. Wake up, Kolkata Municipality.

There is never a dull moment here in Kumartuli. It was a privilege to walk through this historic quarter and see the artists at work. One can’t help but notice their skills, simplicity, and the humble working conditions. I am so full of admiration and respect for the clay masters.

 

 

 

 

 

 

City of Joy- Flower Power

The day started well with a sight like this:

Howrah Bridge

I am in Kolkata gaping at the iconic Howrah Bridge. The gleaming bridge stretches across the Hooghly river connecting the twin cities Howrah and Kolkata. It looks like a giant mythical creature with tiny humans and vehicles in its belly.

Two days is ridiculously inadequate to see the old capital of India but I am very excited.   My host, a dear friend who is a  long-term resident of Kolkata, suggested a heritage walk and here we are at the Jagannath ghat waiting for the guide.   Expecting a large group of tourists I was pleasantly surprised to find just the two of us with Navpreet, the vivacious host of FunOnStreets. After the brief introduction, she led us down the ghat which was already a hub of activities at 7 a.m:  morning ablutions, prayers,   wrestling practice, and photo shoots.

 

From the ghat we walked to the Flower Market, supposed to be the largest wholesale market of its kind in India.

Mullick Ghat Flower Market

The first sight of the narrow lanes filled with flowers and people is overwhelming. The bustling market has been operating for the last 125 years. Truckloads of flowers start coming as early as 4 a.m from all over West Bengal and the frenetic activities go on till late. The whole atmosphere is colorful and chaotic. We picked our way through the petal strewn path, careful not to collide with the milling crowd.

Flowers have always been an integral part of Indian festivals, weddings, and temple rituals. Here you can see a staggering variety of flowers and leaves of different colors, textures, and designs. Some are exclusively reserved for the temples; I didn’t know that Gods also have their favourite flowers!

Goodmorning Sunshine

Pristine white and deliciously fragrant jasmine

Fiery cockscomb

Aparajita flower

Akundo flowers for Lord Shiva

Lotus buds for Lord Vishnu and Goddess Lakshmi

Floral offerings for the temples

Special leaves for the temple rituals

Exotic roses for export

Over 250 stalls line the alleyway. Despite the shabby exterior, they make a decent income which goes up considerably during festival and wedding seasons. Navpreet kept us engaged with interesting trivia.

There are people everywhere: vendors, buyers, porters, and tourists. You just got to go with the flow and take in as much as you can.

Deftly weaving garlands

Pitching sales

Red hibiscus garlands for Goddess Kali

Where are the buyers today?

We need a break.

Men outnumber women; they lug their colorful, fragrant merchandise with ease and grace.

I like the way he is holding the garlands

Wonder why none of the ladies have worn flowers in their hair.

Vendors are quite used to the awestruck tourists; photo permits sought and granted in the most eloquent silent language

Spilling over to the footpath

Marigold flowers are the most in demand. The bright yellow and orange blooms are visible all over the place:

Unloading

Heavy load!

Abloom

In bundles

Floral cascade

 

I see a giant floral dump; some flowers look too fresh to be discarded.IMG_5652

 

Temples and religious rituals require a fresh batch of flowers every day so all the unsold wares end up in the dump. I wish the authorities do something about it. There is a Kanpur based startup ‘HelpUsGreen’ which recycle floral waste into incense sticks and vermicompost.  Anybody listening?

It will be exciting to spend an entire day in this market but we have to catch a ferry, so let me stop and smell the roses/ marigolds.

Reference:

https://www.helpusgreen.com/