Sunday, November 27, 2011

Dhaka Delight!

After weeks and weeks of induliging in laziness, I finally managed to kick my own butt (thanks to my new yoga classes) and here’s my account of my recent travels. There are actually 3 places I want to cover (Munnar, Trivandrum and Kol-Dhaka), but shall do so in 3 different posts (hopefully before the year runs out!) 

New Market
After a girls-only trip to Israel in March, my friends and I picked up the courage to leave the kids home and venture on a second trip in late Oct. Due to various commitments and maid-schedules (yes!) we decided to go to Kolkata. I’ve lived in Cal for almost 2 years and I LOVE the city, but did not fancy going there for a whole week.  In a moment of pure whimsy, giving in to my tantrums, my friends agreed to go to Dhaka with me. Why Dhaka? Our Jet Miles were sufficient to only cover that distance J Pure economics, nothing else(at least initially).

Evening at Kalighat
To cut a lengthy prologue short, we arrived in Cal one lovely cool Sunday evening. Spent the next day with a really close friend of mine and my 4 months old godson.  Went to Kalighat that evening. Despite having lived for 2 years at only a stone’s throw away from the temple, I had previously never visited Kalighat. I REALLY wanted to visit the temple this time, and what a rousing reception She gave me. There were no queues, very minimal hankering for money and a lovely long darshan. Filled my heart with joy! Ate that evening at ‘6 Ballygunge Place’, a restaurant that serves authentic Bangla food. I recommend the restaurant as a must-visit – the ambience is perfect (an old Bungalow), the menu quirkily designed (all mocktails are very ‘cal’ centric) and the food, oh-so-yummmy (I only had veg food though). The nolin-gud icecream is delicious beyond imagination, the sukhtoi is an explosion of veggies and the lucchi-aloo just melts in your mouth. Two thumbs up!

The next morning we went to Dakshineshwar and Belur-Math. The temple is well maintained and beautiful.  Spent the rest of the day in shopping out Kolkata (am sure the next day was a self-declared bandh, we shopped SO MUCH!) Treated my friend to authentic street food, courtesy puchkas and Maharani. Spent a grand total of 21 INR and could barely walk after that. Cal is just the same!

A Hero's welcome indeed!

Early next morning, the 3 of us left for Dhaka. A half-hour flight led us to a lovely airport with a never-ending corridor. Thanks to our host (a friend’s really influential friend) we breezed past immigration and exited to…… chaos! “Mine is bigger than yours” is the driving mantra in Dhaka. Big minivans are the chosen vehicles to plow one’s way through the traffic or cool off, feet stretched when stuck.  Traffic is completely a jungle here… make-way-for-the-biggest-and-meanest! Estimates for going to Sonargaon from Uttara, Dhaka (about 30 kms) range from 30 mins  to 10 hours!!! We were lucky to have a super guide(Z) with us (a dear friend of one of my fellow-travelers). A witty and engaging personality, he kept us entertained  and we were in Sonaragon in a record 45 minutes (also thanks to Farukh, the brilliant driver. Move over Vettel!).

Sonargaon was the old capital of Bangladesh. We took a look at the  17th century houses (walled in, but in good condition) belonging mostly to Hindu traders who had settled here. The streets are intact and the inscriptions on the door-arches are clearly visible. The pink sandstone houses had large courtyards for singing and dancing. Pretty trellises and carved arches spoke of the sophistication of the inhabitants here. It was surreal looking in, as if one were in a set of ‘Devdas’ …. I could almost hear the singing and dancing that went on here ages ago.

Returning from Sonargaon, we were stuck in a traffic jam for over 2 hours… and our host said we were lucky it lasted only that time!  Drove past all historical spots in Old Dhaka, with Z pointing out the key sights from the University to the Parliament building to Ahsaan Manzil, Lalbagh Palace, Kazi Nazrul’s memorial, Banga bagaan and the Old Court building. Mostly a blend of Anglo-Mughal architecture. Similar to many of the monuments we have across India, yet different and architecturally unique. We visited the Dhakeshwari temple (I guess from whom Dhaka gets her name). The kali avatar here is smiling and oh-so-pretty. The temple is maintained really well and unlike Dakshineshwar and Kalighat (which we had visited in Calcutta), there aren’t any touts here, making the spiritual experience richer and memorable.

We also had the opportunity to savor some local veg delicacies (which I strongly recommend). The first was a sweet 'pitha',  yummy dish with a nalin gud (palm jaggery) filling. The covering was made of rice noodles and garnished with coconut flakes on top. Somewhat similar to the Tamizh ‘idiyappam’, this dish had us licking our fingers for more. Where to find it? On the roadside in Old Dhaka! We also had 'dal puri', a deep-fried dish, with a batter outer covering and different fillings of potato, onion and raw banana. Similar to fritters or bhajjis, except made with mustard oil in a roadside shop in Old Dhaka J The other foods that tantalized our taste buds  were  the excellent dal (the lentil preparation had coconut shavings and poppy seeds to give it a twist), eggplant roast and the alu-parval (which traveled across its Paschim Bongo border I guess!)

On day 2, we headed off for a leisurely cruise down Sitalakhya river (I strongly recommend Guide Tours, however  only if you take the longer cruises). Our guide was an entertaining enterprising young lad (just turned 20) whose dream was to do an MBA in Delhi! He was thoroughly clued into Indian politics and cricket, and was quite a find (ask for Johnny, if you use Guide Tours). A slow ride on the river took us past the Zamindar’s old bunglow (called Zamindar bari) to a village that specializes in weaving Jaamdaani saris. After a walk around the village, we headed back after enjoying a lovely dinner onboard. 

Dhaka is known for its export-quality china. My friends bought a complete set of dinnerware, from serving bowls to dinner and quarter plates, soup bowls, spoons, tea cups & saucers et al (some 78 pieces in total) each. These sets were meant for Royal Doulton, Harrods. The retail price at Harrods is about 800 GBP and my friends picked it up for about 14000 INR!!!! Thus spake export-economics!

Day 3 rushed past in a blur of shopping in Aarong (a cooperative, a MUST-visit should you shop in Dhaka) and just making the flight back to Kolkata.

The entire trip away from family gave us perspective on how much we missed our husbands and kids J It was a lovely breather and despite raised eyebrows, Dhaka is a lovely city to visit.  Unlike what one may ‘assume’, Dhaka is NOT like any Indian city. The culture, people, language, food and even the outlook of the man-on-the-street is different from India and uniquely Bangladeshi.  And that uniqueness is endearing, warm and lively. In my opinion, it’s an affordable holiday…. Just do it!