Arrival into Malda
‘Come quickly. You can see it from here,’ so says my fellow traveller on the train to Malda. I have no idea what he is talking about. I put on my boots and don’t bother to lace it. I follow him to the door of the cabin. A nice breeze is blowing at the doorway. It is dark outside. The sun had set more than half an hour ago. Within seconds the train passes over a bridge.
‘This is the Farakka dam bridge,’ he says. ‘It has a total of 110 gates.’
The sound of the wheels against the iron rails and their joints carries into the piers and trusses of the bridge. The sound is deep as if it is testing the depth of the Ganges. The river itself is calm and stretches into the still darkness. It is not the Ganges I remember from Varanasi. It is not the river defined by the activities on its banks. At Farakka, the Ganges is wide as the ocean. It is a silent force. It is the river of life in its real form without the images that mankind bestows on it.
I am impressed by the bridge and more by the Ganges. For a couple of minutes the train slowly wheels over the river. My self-proclaimed guide continues, ‘Only 3 0r 4 gates are open at the same time. It all the gates are opened, Bangladesh is gone.’
After perhaps 8 minutes, we are back in our seats. The bridge is passed and we continue towards Malda. I met Pradeep Jha in the train. He works at Kolkata at the Metro retail store. He is on his way to his village near Malda.
‘Malda is famous for mangoes,’ Pradeep tells me.
‘It must be cheap in the markets?’ I ask him.
‘Right now they are very small. Maybe in another 3 0r 4 weeks we should see them in the markets.’
‘Are they exported as well?’
‘The packaging and distribution networks are not well developed here. We get so much quantity that we usually send them out to Bangladesh from where they go to farther markets. We do send them to Kolkata and Delhi.’
Meanwhile, the weather gets chilly. It is a welcome relief from the heat of Kolkata I had faced for a few days. I pull out my sweater to keep warm.
‘What will you be seeing in Malda?’ asks Pradeep.
‘I plan to visit Gaur and Pandua. I believe both are historic places of interest near Malda.’
‘Yes. You can cover them both in one day.’
As we arrive into Malda, we go our separate ways. He gives me his number in case I should need any help when in town. He walks off trying to find transport to his village.
Gaur is barely 16 kms from Malda. It should take me less than an hour to get there. It takes me two and half hours to get to Gaur. Firstly I am misdirected to go to Gaur railway station. I walk back for fifteen minutes to the turning towards the actual town. I wait ages for a crowded jeep. The road is terrible and recent rains have only made the situation worse. This is in fact the main road leading from West Bengal into Bangladesh. The road is used by goods trucks and lorries. Truck loads of onions going into Bangladesh is a common sight on this terrible road.
It feels truly rural in this place. There are no towns to speak of, only scattered villages. There are no pukka buildings to sight, only basic shelters of wood and bamboo. It is little wonder that when there is a flood, thousands become homeless. The scenery is wonderfully green. Fields stretch to the horizon only broken by clumps of trees and wild grass.
Gaur is a historic place home to many dynasties. The town today is filled with monuments of Muslim rule. None of the temples and structures of Hindu rules have survived here. In fact, many of the Islamic structures have used stones from the Hindu structures.
Gaur is something like Champaner of Gujarat with its numerous monuments. The difference is that at Gaur the structures are all brick with elements of stone from earlier Hindu monuments. There is also a distinct architectural style in these buildings. The use of pointed arched vaulting is common. Mosques contain impressive corner towers the project prominently from the walls. Some of the structures contain superb floral designs in brick. This is among the best of brick art that I have seen anywhere. Remnants of beautiful coloured enamelling on such brick designs tell of the refined taste of the builders. Domes rise as terraced circular bands. Facades appear to curve.
It is quite a bit of walking to explore all the ruins in the area. Passing villages guide me as I take in the varied scenes of village life. A man is ploughing a field with his two bullocks. Another is upturning the soil with a hoe. I ask them what they intend to cultivate. I get a reply in Bengali. I make note of the word but I forget it soon after.
Goats are grazing freely in the fields and by the dirt paths. In a lake, a fishing boat is floating idly. A green woodpecker is pecking doggedly. Some children are picking white flowers from a shrub. I meet a man who has just harvested raw bananas.
‘Are they exported out?’ I ask.
‘Tomorrow morning I will take them to the market in Malda. I will leave at 4 am from here. It will be in the market by five,’ he replies. He takes his time to separate bunches of the fruit from the main shoot. He has picked about 250 bananas today. He loads them on to his bicycle and cycles away.
I see the recently excavated ruins of a royal palace. I circle around the five storeyed minar a couple of times. I see an impressive gateway. I climb up a hillock to get a wide view of the landscape. The land is filled with the green canopies of mango trees. Nothing defines Gaur today more than mango trees. They are in every direction. It is quite a sight.
Soon after I pass a few children picking mangoes from a tree. They dangle and swing from branch to branch, sometimes shaking the branches violently and sometimes gently picking the fruit by hand. The trees in these orchards are all of low height. The ground is grassy. The children simply drop the mangoes to the ground without damaging them. Two men are collecting them into cane baskets lashed to bicycles.
‘Do you want some mangoes?’ one of them asks me.
‘That’s okay. What will I do with raw mangoes?’ I reply. Had someone asked me this in Bangalore I would have collected a basketful and let them ripen at home.
The group collects two baskets of mangoes, about 300 mangoes. I am informed that this is a low yield. Some trees can give 20 baskets.
It is afternoon. Two women are bringing firewood. A girl is slapping cowdung cakes to the wall of a house. A kingfisher is waiting by the lake’s bank for its next meal. Earthen pots hanging high up on toddy palms collect the juice drop by drop. Meanwhile bamboo strapped to these palm trunks as easy ladders wait for the next collection.
I head back to Malda, have a late lunch and find a bus to Pandua. I am dropped off at a place named Eklakhi. I visit the Eklakhi Masjid, a structure with an impressive dome. This mosque was supposedly built with one lakh rupees. I visit the Sona Masjid nearby and stop to make a quick sketch of the domeless open prayer hall. It is a mosque of ten domes arranged into 2 x 5 bays. None of the domes survive. Before I can complete the pencil sketch I am driven out. It is closing time.
I enquire about the Jama Masjid. It is the largest mosque in all of West Bengal. I intend to see it. It is quite a walk from Eklakhi. Women in these parts are engaged actively in the beedi industry. It is a group activity. Women sit in semi-circles or in a line reclined against a wall. The sound of clipping of tobacco can often been heard even from a distance. Tobacco is packed carefully into thin rolls. A reel of thread is kept handy to tie the beedi into its final shape. Evening gossip keeps the women company in their monotonous jobs. Meanwhile, girls are bringing baskets filled with dried leaves. These are the leaves into which the tobacco is wrapped and rolled.
When I arrive at the Jama Masjid, the place is already closed for visitors. A Bengali woman begs and argues politely with the security guard.
‘Okay. Only five minutes,’ he says opening the gate. Just the chance I needed.
I take a quick look at the impressive mosque, its large open courtyard, surrounding corridors, the main prayer hall, the wonderfully sculpted stone mihrabs and the superb brickwork above the mihrabs on the western wall. Stone reliefs of Kirtimukha and Ganesh are some remains of earlier Hindu structures of which nothing survives.
We are given more than five hasty minutes. I head to the main road and wait for a bus to Malda. It has been quite a day. More than history, it is village India that I enjoyed lot more today. History only gave it the right perspective and set the ambience to admire present day rural India.