Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Karimganj and Tripura, Durga Puja 2010

Looking Back
Another Durga Puja just went by. I remember last year’s Durga Puja and miss it. I miss it more because this year we did not go out of Kolkata. And the more I remember it and miss it, the more I regret that I didn’t write more about that visit. Now it is almost a year old. But I will give it a try, out of this compelling urge to write about it and, in the process, resurrect this blog! I told the story of our journey to Karimganj via Agartala in my last post, which was such a long time back. I will start from where I ended that time.
We took a cycle-rickshaw from the station, after losing half an hour trying to get an endorsement for a fare refund in part (we travelled second class as the AC Chair Car on which we were book was taken off the rake for the trip). Riding past the crowds enjoying the Ashtami night street shows, we finally reached the Deb residence on Red Cross Road close to dinner time. People were worried for us – we had been incommunicado after Agartala. Abhishek, my brother-in-law, had gone to the station to find out about the train’s arrival first hand, but we had already left the station when he reached.
The next day was Nabami. As evening fell, we trooped into a Beat and went for a tour of the town’s Puja’s. All four of us – Durba (Debarati, my wife), Abhishek, Rosie (Abhishek’s wife) and Mrs. Deb (my mother-in-law) – in a Beat; it was a bit of a crush. But it was fun being together. I remember the crowds everywhere. Hadn’t really expected such volumes in a place like Karimganj. Aahar, supposedly one of the best eateries in town, was spilling over with people. It didn’t look like we could find a table in the next hour. So we decided to settle for the take-away instead. Aahar lived up to its reputation – the Punjabi fare we had ordered was pretty tasty.

Immersion on the Kushiara
On Dashami, I had planned to go to the ghat on the Kushiara, the river that separates India and Bangladesh in these parts, early in the evening with Abhishek, to catch a glimpse of the immersion ceremonies on the Bangladesh side. It was Durba who had told me in advance that the Bangladeshi ceremonies are usually over before it’s completely dark. This was an opportunity I was not going to miss. Or so I thought! For, as is usual for me on any holiday, I got out of my post-lunch siesta when daylight was already fading. That put paid to hopes of watching the neighbour’s rites. However, ceremonies on this side of the border had just about started and so, with Abhishek in tow, I left for the ghat with my Canon A1100IS. Durba and the rest would be joining us later on.
The approach to the ghat was choc-a-bloc with people and it took us a fair bit of time to wind our way through and reach the point from where onwards the Sashastra Seema Bal were allowing only a handful to pass. Only the few who would physically carry the idols to the bank and cast it into the river would be allowed beyond this point. The rest had to enter a barricaded holding area at some distance and watch from there. Having reached late, we found ourselves behind several rows of heads. It took some deft manoeuvring to advance to one of the front rows offering more detail. I knew that the conditions were going to test my point-and-shoot and quietly revisited the page of my wish list which still has a SLR written on it. The scene was lit up in such a manner that the ghat was awash with lights, but the river was in near-total darkness. Only a few lights dimly shone on the Bangladeshi side. One by one, the idols were carried in by the committed, under the strict vigil of the gun-toting border guards whose every gesture looked menacing to me. Indeed, there had seemed to be security personnel in plainclothes too, with arms tucked away under their shirts, monitoring the crowds in the alley leading up to the ghat. I think I even saw some Customs men in white uniforms manning what looked like a speedboat.
We watched as each idol, after being laid on its back on the waters, floated away. In the semi-lit zone which extended a few feet beyond the bank into the river, it seemed as if the idols were slowly floating away towards the Bangladeshi banks, before they finally disappeared in the darkness. What a poignant sight! We watched for a long time, seeking out new vantage points in between, leaving finally when the ladies gave us a call saying they would not be able to make it to the ghats past the crowds. So we went back and joined them.

Train to Agartala
The next few days were taken up by the customary Bijoya Dashami rites. Then came the full moon night when Laxmi Puja is performed. It was also time to pack our bags. We would be leaving for Kolkata via Agartala the next day, stopping by in the Tripura capital for a night.
The day after, we woke early in the morning. We were supposed to catch the early morning Lumding – Agartala Express from Karimganj station. As it turned out, the Express was running on a truncated route, between Badarpur and Agartala, due to some problem in the Lumding – Badarpur section. Disruptions are normal on this meter gauge line. Sometimes it’s a landslide. Sometimes it’s militants. I had read that bullet-proof locomotives have been introduced on this line. This, on what is supposed to be an extremely picturesque route through the North Cachar Hills.
Abhishek accompanied us to the station. We waited patiently for almost an hour. No sign of the train. It was supposed to originate from Badarpur only, a few kilometers away. Then what could have happened to it? From our experience on the inbound journey, we deduced that this, again, was normal in these parts! It finally did arrive, a good hour and a half behind schedule. We were relieved to find a solitary AC coach in the middle of the rake. Acting on our experience of the Agartala – Karimganj journey, we had booked Sleeper Class from Karimganj, lest the AC coach failed to turn up! Moreover, we had booked manually through the Karimganj PRS counter to ensure that securing a refund for a journey not performed was not a hassle, as is the case with e-tickets. Seeing the AC coach, I ran up to it and placed my request for an upgrade to the TTE as soon as he emerged. Request met, we settled down in Coupe ‘B’, clutching on to our last few moments in Karimganj on this trip. Finally the train left and I remember Abhsishek running on the platform alongside our coach for sometime as we waved goodbye.
Trains to and from Agartala reverse at Karimganj. Why this was necessitated when the line was built, I do not know. What I know is there is another line from Karimganj to a palce on the border called Mahishashan which still has a passenger service. I am told that in pre-independence India, one could travel onto what is now Bangladesh on that line. That link is now broken, along with so many other physical links that could have made life easier for the people living in these parts. I remember reading somewhere on the web that one of the considerations towards including Karimganj and Badarpur Junctions in India at the time of the Partition was to ensure that the railway link to Tripura (till Dharmanagar at that time) was not severed.
Dilapidated on the outside, our 2A coach was fairly well maintained on the inside, except for the toilets though. I hadn’t really expected coupe accommodation on what Indian Railways advertises as 2A for this train. But indeed, this was the case! Besides, to my surprise, the AC was really good, not letting us down even when the coach was stationary for long periods during halts en route.

Our co-passengers in Coupe ‘B’, a Bengali lady with two kids and a Marwari business traveller from one of Indian Railways’ contractors for the gauge conversion project (who knows when it will be completed!), had boarded from Badarpur itself. The Marwari gentleman narrated some interesting tales of life on the Lumding – Badarpur hill section, including bizarre methods of hitching rides on passing locomotives. However, tired as were from the early morning rise and the subsequent long wait for the train at Karimganj, Durba and myself settled for a nap after sometime. I slept through most of the journey, coping with a bad headache, and, in the process, missed the delightful forest scenes this time around.
We arrived at Agartala around 3-30 in the afternoon, seven hours or so after leaving Karimganj. Checking into a hotel in the CBD, we decided to rest for the evening, instructing the reception to book a car for us for a sight-seeing trip the day after.
The Shrine of Tripura Sundari
Next day, we started at 9 in the morning with a visit to the Ujjayanta Palace (the facade was undergoing repairs, thus spoiling a good photo opportunity) and the Akhaura checkpost (Agartala is right on the Bangladesh border). Then we moved out of Agartala, heading to Udaipur, 55 km to the south, for a visit to the famous shrine of Tripura Sundari. Reaching around lunchtime, we found ourselves at the end of a long queue. However, the Tripura Rifles personnel on crowd-management duty were doing a tremendous job and our wait was not prolonged. Indeed, this was one of the best-maintained major Hindu temples we had visited anywhere in the country! The temple grounds overlook a huge tank with clean, green waters. We went down to the ghat to find people feeding a school of giant carps that surfaced every now and then – quite a scene!

The Lake Palace
Satisfied by our visit to the Tripura Sundari temple, we left for Neermahal, which was to be the culmination of our one-day Tripura tour. Located 20 km from Udaipur, Neermahal is a lake palace built in 1930 by Maharaja Bir Bikram Kishore Manikya, the then ruler of Tripura. The lake itself is called Rudrasagar and extends for miles around (5.3 sq. km. officially).
The lakefront comprised an open parking lot, a row of shops, a gateway with a viewing gallery on the first floor, and a ticket counter for tourists traveling to the lake palace by boat. There was a choice of small rowboats (for small groups) and larger motorized vessels (for general tourist transit). Our oarsman ushered us into his craft and we set out for the long journey across the placid waters towards the white edifice on a red elevated plinth shimmering far away in the distance. The ride was very soothing, with a gentle breeze blowing across the waters. For company, we had a local gentleman who had hitched a ride to reach his compatriots out fishing in the middle of the lake. Ours’ seemed to be the only boat on the waters as far as we could see. There was open countryside all around the banks, with very little habitation to be seen. The Tripura Tourism rest-house stood close to the ghat where we had embarked.

Drawing closer to Neermahal, we were able to discern the architectural details. It was an axially laid out low-rise structure comprising three distinct blocks knitted together by an elevated walkway. We were approaching almost perpendicular to its axis. Spread over several levels, its overall composition was very elegant, throwing up a rhythmic interplay of solids and voids. The style seemed to be a blend of Mughal and European influences.
Our boatman dropped us on the island with a gentle reminder to be back within the hour, failing which he would be compelled to charge us extra. Not a moment was to be wasted then! As we eventually found out, it was possible to explore the entire complex in an hour’s time. But there is a certain romantic charm about the place which urges you to linger, especially on the terraces overlooking the lake, more so if there is a lovely lady by your side!
I particularly liked a circular hall with huge French windows offering framed views of the lake. Must have witnessed many a glorious evening bathed in the light of grand chandeliers! The gardens too were quite well maintained. But it was disheartening to see that on the other side of the island (opposite the side on which we landed) the water had dried up. Weeds and grass grew in plenty and a few cattle could be seen grazing around. I read later on that there are issues regarding conservation of the lake. Whatever they are, they ought to be resolved immediately, before any further damage is done.
Finally it was time for us to return to shore. As the lake palace receded in the distance, our majhi informed us that light and sound shows are held in the evenings at the palace, for which one needs to stay over at the Tripura Tourism rest house. I tried to imagine what the place would look like in the light of the full moon and added the night stay just advised as another page to my wish list!

In the End…
…we had a flight to catch. So we sped back towards Agartala, through the undulating landscape dotted with rubber plantations, through the forests and the paddy fields. It was the last flight of the day, an Alliance Air ATR. In the best spirit of Durga Puja, we forgave the couple of disinterested air-hostesses for their singular lack of courtesy to one and all on the flight. This, and losses running into thousands of crores, offset by generous government doles coming via the tax-payer’s pocket, is all one has come to associate the Air India family with.
And so, the tour ended as we boarded the Volvo home from NSCBI Airport with a bouquet of memories whose fragrance would grow over time in the corners of our minds…
Agartala - Tripura Sundari - Neer Mahal - Agartala Route Map

View Agartala, Tripura Sundari and Neermahal in a larger map

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