Doha, Qatar, September 2015 - For the last eight years I have been flying to India from Newark, New Jersey. The daily non-stop United flights to Delhi and Mumbai are pretty painless...the only headache for me is getting to and from Newark. I was therefore excited when Qatar Airways began flying to India from my hometown of Philadelphia. The layover in Doha is really long - 13 hours - but they have a superb hotel and a spa/wellness center in the airport and they fly directly to many cities in India, including Kolkata (where my office is located), Kochi, Ahmedabad and Chennai.
Since I had never been to Doha, I decided to spend a few nights there on a recent trip to India. I stayed in a boutique hotel in Souq Waqif, which was adjacent to the Falcon Souq and in walking distance of the stellar Museum of Islamic Art designed by I. M. Pei. The souq was (by design) a little sterile when compared with traditional Indian bazaars, but still fascinating and filled with superb restaurants. I ate wonderful Lebanese, Moroccan and Iraqi food during my stay. I even convinced one of the shopkeepers to let me hold one of his falcons!
Kolkata, West Bengal, September 2015 - Until recently, it was considered a religious obligation for Bengali Hindu women to indicate their marital status by wearing shankha, or conch shell bangles. It is still common practice for a bride-to-be's father to present her with at least one pair of shankha, which are typically carved with geometric or floral patterns and/or inlaid with 22-karat gold. Wearing shankha is a symbol of purity and an outward statement by a wife of her desire for a long married life. Furthermore, since conch shell contains calcium, wearing shankha is said to be good for a woman's bones. Legend states that Shiva gave a pair of conch shell bangles to his wife Parvati, while historical records indicate that conch shell craftsmen had their own guild as early as the 13th century.
Shankha are traditionally pared with pola, or red coral bangles (red lac is typically used today), and one loha, an iron bangle that may or may not be gold-plated. Red coral is said to counter the negative effects of Mars, which is a furious planet that can cause excess anger, accidents, blood disorders and marital discord. A single loha is a sign of marital bliss; the iron in the bangle is also purported to treat anemia. Shankha pola loha are never removed by married women. In order to avoid excess 'bangling' and the possibility of breakage, bangles of the smallest diameter possible are worn. Bangle sellers are trained in the art of rapidly crushing a woman's hand and thrusting on the tiny bangles, a process that is akin to rapid tooth extraction. Thankfully these shopkeepers were afraid of hurting this newbie, so they let me purchase extra large bangles and put them on myself.
Hoogly River, West Bengal, September 2015 - The Hoogly, a tributary of the Ganges, begins near Murshidabad and travels south into the Bay of Bengal. The river was a key transportation channel in undivided Bengal, supporting the emergence of Kolkata as the gateway to eastern India. In the early 1600s, trading posts were established along the Hoogly by the Dutch, French and Portuguese, followed eventually by the British. Jute, cotton muslin, opium, salt and spices (see "Unwrapping Bengal") were all transported to Europe and Asia from points along the river. As such, key battles in India's history, including the 1757 Battle of Plassey, were fought on the banks of the Hoogly. In riverside cities such as Murshidabad, Kalna and Chandannagar, one can still see the remains of colonial settlements, royal palaces, and ancient Hindu temple and mosque complexes.
To date, travelers to West Bengal have primarily visited these sites by car and local ferries that ply back and forth across the river. Since road conditions are poor and accommodation options limited, an itinerary of this nature is only for hardy travelers. How happy I was, therefore, to learn about the newly-christened Ganges Voyager II.This floating boutique hotel contains 27 luxury cabins, a formal dining room, a sundeck and a small spa. Seven-night sailings begin in Kolkata and visit the cities mentioned above, as well as Mayapur (headquarters of ISKON) and several agricultural and craft villages along the river. Cruise passengers are provided with all meals, daily guided excursions, and a variety of cultural demonstrations and performances. An experience on the Ganges Voyager II can be incorporated easily into any India itinerary, but ideally follows several days of intensive exploration in Kolkata. For those who want to experience more of West Bengal post-cruise, a land excursion to Shantiniketan, Bishnupur or the Sunderbans is highly recommended.
Gour and Malda, West Bengal, September 2015 - Gour and Pandua (near present-day Malda) are ancient capitals of Bengal. Beginning in the 4th century BC, these cities were ruled by a succession of Hindu and Buddhist dynasties, including the Mauryans, the Guptas, the Palas and the Sena. In the late 12th century Bengal was conquered by the Muslims, and they retained Gour as their chief seat of power in the region. Over the next few hundred years, this capital switched several times between Gour and Pandua. Many mosques, tombs and darwazas (monumental entrance gates) were built, blending Islamic and regional Bengali architectural styles and often using materials plundered from nearby temples. After the partition of India, the majority of Gour became part of India, while the remainder became part of Bangladesh.
Malda is known for its delectable mangoes and its large sericulture industry. The region around Malda is also one of the largest producers of jute in India. Near Malda we visited the ruins of Adina Masjid (below right), built by Sultan Sikandar Shah between 1364 and 1374 AD. It is one of the largest mosques in India; its ground plan resembles the Great Mosque of Damascus and it is the only hypostyle mosque in Bengal. In Malda we also visited Eklakhi Masjid (1412 to 1415 AD) and Sona Masjid (1582 AD). In Gour we visited Qadam Rasul Masjid (above left, 1530 AD), which is believed to contain the footprint of the Prophet. We also saw several monuments in Gour that still retain their colorful enamelwork, such as Lotan Masjid (1475 AD) and the Gumti Darwaza (below left, 1512 AD). Other beautiful mosques in Gour include Barasona Masjid (1526 AD) and Chika Masjid (1450 AD).
Kannur District, Kerala, October 2015 - Theyyam is a drama-based form of worship found throughout the northern Malabar region of Kerala. Through tremendous mental preparation, theyyam performers literally “inhabit” certain gods and goddesses and depict them via codified actions and gestures for devotees. Theyyam originally focused on local village gods and ancestral spirits, but was later absorbed by Brahminical Hinduism. For example, the prime deity in theyyam, Muthappan, was originally a folk deity, but now is held to be a unified version of Shiva and Vishnu. The rituals borrow strongly from kalaripayattu (an ancient form of martial arts) and are accompanied by drums, pipes and cymbals. All performers are male, and they wear masks, body paint and costumes in vibrant shades of red and orange. Their mudi, or headgear, can be over six feet in height, thus requiring incredible skill to balance on the head.
I recently met with artisans in Kannur District who make theyyam costumes, including headgear, breastplates and body ornaments. Due to their enormous size, lightweight materials must be used in their construction, such as bamboo and wood from the coconut and areca nut palms. I also visited the Kerala Folklore Akademi in Chirakkal, which is currently undergoing renovation but still has on display a good collection of theyyam costumes and other artifacts. Two excellent books on theyyam include Reflections of the Spirit - The Theyyams of Malabar by Pepita Seth and Mooring Mirror by Sreekanth A. Trikaripur.
Theyyam season runs from November through May, and the best place to see theyyam is in and around Kannur/Thalassery and Kasaragod/Bekal. Performances often start at 5:00 a.m. and continue until 8:00 or 9:00 a.m., though certain temples conduct a daily puja featuring Muthappan. While there are several luxury resorts near Bekal beach, there are few accommodation options in Kannur and Thalassery. I stayed at a basic but charming beach house; the trade-off for superb seafood caught right before your eyes by local fisherman is a lack of air conditioning...well worth it in my opinion.
Kerala Kalamandalam, October 2015 - The Natya Shastra is an ancient Indian manuscript which codifies fundamental principles of dance, music and drama. It is believed to have been written sometime between 200 BC and 200 CE and is generally attributed to the Sage Bharata. It is very broad in scope and includes discussions of body and facial movements, speech, stage design, makeup, costumes and musical instruments, among other topics. This is why many classical Indian dances include elements of music and drama and vice versa. The Natya Shastra also analyzes the theory of rasa, that is, the emotional responses that inspire an audience – love, pity, anger, disgust, heroism, awe, terror and comedy.
On my recent trip to Kerala I enjoyed “A Day with the Masters” at the renowned Kerala Kalamandalam performing arts center. Founded in 1930 by the poet Vallathol Narayana Menon, the school offers intensive training in South Indian dance and theater traditions, such as Kathakali, Mohiniattam and Koodiyattam, as well as Carnatic instrumental and vocal traditions. The visual centerpiece of the campus is the school’s Koothambalam, a reproduction of a traditional temple theater that was completed in 1976 and was designed in accordance with the Natya Shastra. I also visited the school’s art, costume and jewelry gallery, and sat in on several classes. Students range in age from early teens to early 20s, and all live full time on the campus, which is located one hour northeast of Thrissur.