Kalyani, a West Bengal modern town
Discovering an American Town in India.
The Indian state of West Bengal is land of stupendous dimensions – colorful, traditional and modern. Bengal meets the expectations of every type of tourist. With her varied topography, picturesque valleys, high mountain peaks, cascading rivers, haunting wilderness, she never ceases to surprise the tourists with her kaleidoscopic attractions. Nevertheless, in terms of tourism the state is still a backbencher as compared to other Indian states.
The eco-friendly township of Kalyani, located at a distance of 45 Kms. from the City of Joy – Kolkata though comes as a breath of fresh air for the discerning tourists. This little known township was launched with a lot of fanfare and expectations by the great Bengali statesman of yesteryears – Dr. Bidhan Roy. This township in the district of Nadia, renowned for its spiritual legacy was mooted at a time when the city of Kolkata was reeling under the pressure of the influx of refugees and the then Chief Minister of West Bengal – Dr. Bidhan Roy had dreamt of a satellite township to ease the population from the city and that is how Kalyani was born, phoenix-like, out of the ashes of World War II, at the site of what was once an American Military Base – “Roosevelt Nagar”, aptly named after the former President of USA – Franklin D. Roosevelt who was the 32nd President of USA and served in this August office from 1933 to 1945.
Many believed that Kalyani would evolve as one of India’s model towns in terms of planning with an exclusive industrial belt that would propel the local economy to even greater heights. However, the so called “Industrial Growth” never saw the light of the day.
In its present avatar as India’s “Cleanest Urban City” or India’s first “Open Defecation Free City” Kalyani has evolved into a much sought after residential district and for the past decade has been attracting a lot of NRBs (Non Resident Bengalis) many of whom have set up their dream homes in Kalyani’s pristine environment. Much of the credit for winning the hearts of the discerning global Bengali diaspora goes to Kalyani Municipality, which has been consistently receiving the coveted “Best Municipality Award” for a number of years now.
Apart from its cleanest Indian city image, the outside world is largely unaware of Kalyani’s rich virile past – that of being an American Military Base during World War II when Asia became the centre of war activity. A leisurely stroll through the township’s mettaled roads and tree lined avenues, reveal remnants of the war like the military barracks, truck and tractor garages, Utarborath’s Army Hospital, the Air Force Station at Kapa, a drinking well with names of soldiers engraved etc… all of which transports one to a bygone era.
On the recently concluded Municipal Elections (2010), the residents of the township have voted unequivocally in favor of the Trinamul Congress and they have reposed their faith on the visionary leadership of Dr.P.K. Sur, who comes as a breath of fresh air in the state’s otherwise turbulent political landscape. Dr. Sur, the suave Chairman of Kalyani Municipality is a widely traveled man. Being a Zoologist with academic stints at renowned universities in USA and Phillipines, he knows a thing or two about the Global Tourism Phenomenon.
I was fortunate to interact with him at a recently held seminar in Kalyani and during the brief tete-a-tete over a cup of piping hot Cappuccino coffee, Dr. Sur revealed his plans for the promotion of Tourism in Kalyani and the District of Nadia thus – “We will promote Tourism that is Unconventional as well as Responsible. Mass homogenized Tourism in the form of hotel-sightseeing and back-to-the-hotel stuff will have no place here. In the coming years I foresee tourists in Kalyani staying in Tree houses instead of luxurious multi stored apartment hotels, promote indigenous Bengali cuisine in place of noveau international cuisine, promote tribal folklore and music instead of Rock Concerts, promote eco-friendly farm and agriculture tourism instead of five star luxury tourist experiences and of course set a trend for horse driven carriages instead of the polluting vehicular traffic as far as transportation is concerned”.
Dr. Sur seemed particularly interested in highlighting Kalyani’s unique “Colonial” image and with the red molten ball dipping across the shimmering Kalyani Lake horizon providing for a truly ethereal setting to our conversation, Dr. Sur was a touch poignant when he declared – “The sheer immensity of launching this one-of-its-kind Colonial Tourism project in Kalyani baffles me. Although the concept is still in its infancy, we are preparing the blueprint which should be ready in six month’s time. Apart from the Ministry of Tourism, we have to garner support and technical knowhow from the Indian Army. The key landmark is to build a world class War Memorial Centre, which will have a dedicated arena where the World War II, India’s struggle for independence as well as Indian Army’s present status as a global military giant will be represented pictorially”. Let us hope Dr. Sur’s “Mission Tourism” is successful.
A visionary administrator that Dr. Sur is, made arrangements for me and a few of my photographer friends to have a firsthand feel of Kalyani’s unique tourism products. A local tour operator was given the task of familiarizing us with a Kalyani we never knew existed.
As we were visiting Kalyani in the rainy season when the showers come to this land, it puts on a show no entertainer can ever recreate. The trees wore a fresh, washed look, the animals new coats and the earth took on the distinctive smell of fresh rain. Truly wizardry at work!
After lazing around in the hotel balcony for almost an hour, our tour guide took us on a walking tour of Kalyani.
As we walked leisurely on the tree lined avenues an overwhelming sense of peace engulfed us. At times it felt like we were in a very fortunate place, far from the din and bustle of metropolitan India. Here we were slowly and gradually embracing nature - pure and pristine nature.
Our first stop was the Estate of Sati Ma, which is located on the outskirts of Kalyani and we were told by our knowledgeable guide – Binoy that every year Kalyani comes alive during the annual Sati Ma’s Mela or Fair, which in itself is more than 300 years old and ranks amongst the oldest native fairs of Bengal.
We were ushered to an empty room by our guide where we were shown a documentary of half an hour of last year’s Fair or Mela which he had recorded and preserved on a CD.
The estate is looked after by the descendants of Sati Ma, and according to the estate’s caretaker – who happens to be a man in his nineties revealed all that we wanted to know about Sati Ma and her spiritual legacy. Sati Ma in fact was a renowned spiritual figure during the mid 18th century and she drew inspiration from sage Aul Chand from whom she had taken initiation. Like in the days of yore, even today, Sati Ma has millions of devotees and is hugely revered by the poor and the downtrodden.
As we were about to leave the estate and pay our obeisance to Sati Ma at the “Amro Kunja”(Mango Orchard), a group of devotees from far away Bolpur descended. They would stay overnight and leave early next morning. Sensing an opportunity, our guide Binoy thought that this was one great occasion for us to be acquainted with the nomadic Bauls of Bengal, who are wandering musicians and Bengal’s equivalent to the nomadic Rabari tribe of Gujarat. With due permission from Sati Ma’s Estate, all of us were granted permission for an overnight stay and what followed was a night of revelry, intoxicating Baul music and tremendous spiritual zest. They use Marijuana to heighten their superlative spiritual obsession and so it is advisable not to fall on trap. Discretion is the byword here.
These folk musicians, we were told, very often come in search of solitude and peace to Kalyani. They have a belief that spending a night or two at Sati Ma’s Estate and singing melodies in praise of her will bestow them with good “Karma”.
The Baul people are a mysterious lot. They are illiterate and have blind faith in religion. They are lovers of nature.
The entire episode left all of us spellbound. On one hand you have one of Eastern India’s best planned cities with residents who are global citizens in their own rights, while on the other extreme, there are illiterate nomads who live within the same city precincts. All I can say is India is Incredible.
On our way back to our hotel, we decided to have lunch at one of Kalyani’s upscale restaurants -Dhakeshwari, which isn’t that far from the city centre. Here in Bengal, fish curry & rice is the staple food and we opted for the steamed “Hilsa”, which is the signature fish dish of Bengal.
We made a small request to the Manager that would enable us to see how this prized Bengali fish dish is prepared and we were graciously ushered into the kitchen, which looked decently tidy by Indian standards. With deft hands the Hilsa is first put in a spicy Mustard oil and is allowed to steam to perfection. We were told by the resident chef that one can even get the fish steamed in a pressure cooker. But the fish tastes infinitely better in a steamer.
There was one middle aged American lady – Mrs. Bridgette from far away Las Vegas, whose daughter is married to an Indian and whose hometown is Kalyani who claimed that every year she makes it a point to visit Kalyani just for this delectable Hilsa fare. According to Bridgette, the Mustard oil recipe tastes great with Salmon and Herring too. She even tried it with the Shad fish and it tastes just as great.
After a sumptuous lunch that ended with Misti Doi and Rossogolla, we were provided with the option of going on a horse driven carriage and explore the scenic country sides of Kalyani. Apparently, horse driven carriages are yet to make its presence felt at Kalyani and we were fortunate that this carriage, which was hired during a marriage ceremony wherein the groom reportedly went to wed on this carriage with his army of guests and the owner of the carriage, who hails from Kolkata, had failed to turn up today to take possession of his carriage. We started off from Central Park, the commercial hub of Kalyani and as we proceeded on our leisurely jaunt, passing through Picnic Garden, Ghosh Para, Kalyani Main Station and onwards to the expressway, a bunch of onlookers were hilariously wondering as to the sudden and unexpected emergence of this royal horse driven carriage.
The most exhilarating part of the drive was from the bifurcation at Kalyani Breweries all the way to the virgin and unexplored Saguna farmlands. The road is wide and makes for a truly invigorating drive as you pass by the quaint Bengal countryside. The hinterland we were told is a rich zone for handicrafts and handlooms. People in this part of the world lead a distinct and unique lifestyle, which is far removed from modernity.
We stopped briefly at a village tea shop for light refreshments and we could see farmers tilling their soil and the womenfolk apparently taking care of the household chores.
After the day’s adventure, we retired for the night only to wake up to the chirping of the birds early next morning. Today we would spend the entire day at the global headquarters of ISKCON (International Society of Krishna Consciousness) located at Mayapur, which is a mere 2.5 hours journey by road from Kalyani. The Chairman of Kalyani Municipality – Dr. Sur was gracious enough to have made prior arrangements for us with the ISKCON authorities and we were courteously received by the senior Swamis from ISKCON.
After going around the temple premises and short visit to Nabadweep Dham, the birth place of Chaitainya Mahaprabhu, it would perhaps be apt to state that the district of Nadia has a great spiritual past and that great spiritual heritage and tradition of thousands of years is still alive.
We were told by a senior swami that ISKCON in particular has mega tourism plans for Mayapur and Nabadweep Dham and the government was effectively playing the role of a catalyst. We had sumptuous lunch (delectable vegetarian fare) and waited with bated breath for the evening arati, which was a grandiose affair. Hundreds of devotees, both Indian and foreigners danced to the “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna Hare Hare theme and the hour long arati was like having a date with Lord Krishna. So beautifully have ISKCON set up their headquarters that in terms of efficiency and commitment at the workplace, it will make global corporate entities like IBM, Wipro and Infosys pale into insignificance.
On the last day of our trip, we ventured for some bird watching and fishing activities in the wetlands surrounding Kalyani. In the local parlance, wetland areas are referred to as “Beels” and we found numerous small and big water bodies that are in close proximity to Kalyani. These wetland areas, we were told were also the breeding grounds for migratory birds.
The wetland areas surrounding Kalyani are a world apart. More than 40 avian species have been sighted in Kalyani’s wetland areas. I was particularly amazed by the ethereal sunrise and sunset views from the Kalyani Lake. This oblong shaped lake extends to all of 1.25 Kms. And its width is 0.4 Kms. on the northern side and 0.6 Kms. to the south. This is where the young brigades come to party and rock.
Lunch consisted of fish curry and rice. Although Kalyani Municipality prohibits fishing in the lake waters, a concession was made as we represented the media. Let me tell you - the Bengali and his fish are inseparable and a variety of fishes are reared. Historically, the boatmen of Bengal are a unique lot. Their slow, uncluttered and philosophical outlook on life has been the subject of rich Bengali folklore. A lot of films too have been produced depicting the strange lifestyle of Bengal’s boatmen / Fishermen.
Kalyani Municipality has tentatively identified a bunch of fishing villages for accelerated tourism development. The pivotal idea is to construct rural fishermen’s huts made of straw and bamboo alongside the water bodies so as to provide shelter to the tourists. Plans are also afoot to showcase their unique folk songs and traditions in the central podium of the fishing villages.
All is well that ends well. All that trail walking and outback touring was great fun indeed and Ananda our cook was basting a butterfly-boned leg of a chicken on the barbecue, with his secret marinade as we climbed the lawn. Thrilled by our adventure we planned some action that night and approached the hotel management for a mid night bash. All of us had to drape in white. Liquor flowed freely and the table brimmed with goodies. Tribal Sauthal dancers performed a dance to the percussion beat of native Bengal. A starlit dinner was exactly what the doctor ordered to finish off a truly memorable Kalyani sojourn. Memories of Kalyani will linger on for a lifetime.
Traveler’s Fact File:
The nearest international airport is the Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose International Airport at Kolkata, which is located at a distance of 35 Kms. from Kalyani. The NSCB Airport, Kolkata is well connected by international airlines’ like British Airways, Singapore Airlines, Emirates, Thai Airways, Gulf Air, Royal Druk, Air Asia, Lufthansa, United Airways etc.
Kolkata being a metropolitan city is also well connected by domestic airlines’ like Air India, Jet Airways, Jet Lite, Kingfisher Airlines, Indigo, Spice Jet etc. all of which operate routine flights connecting Kolkata to all the major cities of India. Hired taxis are easily available at NSCB airport and the journey by road to Kalyani, covering a distance of 35 Kms. can easily be reached in 1.5 to 2 hours.
Kalyani doesn’t offer luxurious hotels. However, mid-budget hotels like Aquatic Place, Kalyani Hotel, Banerjee’s Guest House etc. offer accommodations that are at best sketchy. Kalyani Municipality also runs a few eco-friendly cottages, which have to be booked well in advance of one’s departure.
For further information and reservations, please feel free to contact:
City Centre Complex,
P.O. Kalyani, Dist: Nadia,
Tel: 91-033-25828445 / 25828630