Winter had just set in Kolkata and the roads beckoned. So one weekend we decided to explore the city of Krishnanagar, about 110km from Kolkata, along with the spiritual centre of Mayapur and the Bethuadahari Wildlife Sanctuary. We went past the university township of Kalyani, across the bridge on Churni River, past the handloom weavers’ village of Fulia and entered Krishnanagar.
Krishnanagar, a former royal kingdom and now the headquarters of Nadia district, was a commercial hub not far from the India-Bangladesh border, and hence rather congested, we had been warned.
So we decided to exchange our car for the local ‘toto’, an all-sides open four to five seater vehicle, more suited for negotiating the city’s crowded streets. The drivers, being local people, also knew the lanes and by-lanes, which sometimes helped in beating the busy thoroughfares. But yes, hold on tight as the drivers can be a wee bit reckless too.
We began with a visit to the Rajbari or the Royal Palace. The decrepit main entrance now stands in the middle of an unkempt field. Its arched entrance and towers mute reminders of the once grand façade that was built in Islamic style. Then comes the Lion Gate of the main palace, reflecting a mix of Islamic and European styles. The palace is in use by the present generation and therefore out of bounds for the public. However, one may take a look at the sculptures of some of the rulers and a few cannons kept here. It is said that these cannons, used in the Battle of Plassey (1757), were gifted to Maharaj Krishnachandra by Robert Clive. A private horticultural firm maintains a garden and nursery here. One of the striking buildings in the palace complex is the Nat Mandir, where the annual Durga and Jagadhhatri Pujas, take place.
While Krishnanagar shares its claim to Jagadhhatri Puja with Chandannagar (in Hooghly district), the Nadia Raj palace hosts a unique annual festival in March/April, known as the Barodol, where 12 deities from different temple are brought to the palace for a month-long festival.
Ghurni, in the heart of the city, is where most clay modellers’ workshops are situated. Although an almost extant art, the place is famous for its life-like handmade clay toys, from human figurines to vegetables, etc. Unfortunately, the clay artists have almost stopped making the platters of dry fruits and nuts or the spices or the sweets and biscuits. It is said these looked so real that one would not know the difference by sight. We bought the famous old couple pair, marvelling at how they managed to create the wrinkles on clay.
All that travelling had made us hungry. A perfect excuse to stop at one of the popular sweet shops in the city for Krishnanagar’s famous ‘shorpuriya’ and ‘shorbhaja’. ‘Shor’ is the skin that forms on the surface of boiling milk. This skin is removed layer by layer and kept aside. The hardened skin is then used to make sweets.
If you have time, you may visit the old temples and churches, such as Anandamoyee Kali Temple, Roman Catholic Church, etc. The Kali temple is an example of the traditional mixed roof style of Bengal, a flat-roofed temple with a single spire.
From Krishnanagar, we headed to Mayapur where we would be spending the night, at the guest house of International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON). On the way, we stopped at Ballal Dhipi. Maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), it is a sprawling complex with brick structures, excavated between 1982-83 and 1988-89. Stucco heads, terracotta figurines, copper utensils, iron nails, etc. were found here. According to the ASI, the upper remains are datable to c. 12th century and were built over earlier structures dating back to c. 8th-9thcenturies. The place takes its name from Ballal Sena, a king of the Sena dynasty.
Once a small village on the bank of the Ganga, Mayapurshot to global fame as the headquarters of ISKCON, a Vaishnav institution founded by Srila Prabhupada in the 1970s. It is believed that the famous 15th century Vaishnav scholar and preacher Chaitanya Mahaprabhu was born in Mayapur. There are several temples in and around the town, including Yogapith or Chaitanya’s birthplace. At the ISKCON complex, we had a quick tour of the Pushpa Samadhi Temple built in memory of the founder before attending the evening ‘arati’ at the Chandrodaya Temple. The sanctum sanctorum is divided into two halls. In one resides the presiding deities of Radha Madhav, along with their ‘asta sakhi’ (eight companions). The gaily attired idols and their companions adorned with ornaments and floral offerings looked magnificent. But photography was not allowed. We had to deposit our shoes, cameras, cell phones, bags, everything at the lockers outside, and pass through a metal detector.
The huge complex has its own guest houses, dormitories, shops, gardens, museum, restaurants and dining halls, schools, colleges and other institutions, a huge dairy, agricultural fields. But towering above all is the soon to be launched Temple of the Vedic Planetarium. “An exposition which would take the viewer on a journey through the material cosmos to the spiritual world; all according to the descriptions found in Srimad Bhagavatam,” according to Ambarisa Das, chairman of the project. Das (Alfred Ford) is a great-grandson of Ford Motor Company founder Henry Ford.
On the morrow, we rose early for a ferry ride from Mayapur to Nabadwip and back, which enabled us to catch a glimpse of the temple and the town from the Ganga River.
After breakfast, we drove to the Bethuadahari Wildlife Sanctuary, less than an hour away. Located in Murshidabad district, it is a sanctuary for spotted deer. The deer are quite docile, and if you do not make hasty movements, it is possible to watch them grazing near you. Although we were told we may find civet cat, jackal, porcupine, mongoose and snakes, and nearly 50 species of birds here, the Sunday crowd of local visitors swelling at the gate made us beat a hasty retreat. With a lunch break at Krishnanagar, we completed the return journey to Kolkata in almost six hours.
Getting there: Krishnanagar, a key city on the north-Bengal bound national highway from Kolkata, is about 110km away. From Krishnanagar, Mayapur is nearly 20km by road. From Mayapur, Bethuadahari is about 30km. If you do not want to drive, you may also travel by train and local transport as these places are well connected. The Bhagirathi Express and Hazarduari Express trains (both with AC chair cars) are two of the most comfortable trains on this route.
The best place to stay in Krishnanagar is Hotel Haveli, which is located just outside the city. One of their two restaurants serves typical Bengali cuisine in bell-metal utensils as was popular in the old days. Or, you may stay at ISKCON’s guest houses in Mayapur. But remember ISKCON serves vegetarian food only. Best time to travel on this circuit is between December and February.