Glorious Magical Enchanting Kyoto

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I was in Japan for a week over work.

The Sakura trees were in full bloom! A good 10 days early.

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Tokyo was resplendent with the most amazing trees all over. I went to Sakura Zaka ie Sakura Slope and stared in amazement at the beauty of the trees. The 5 km walk around the Imperial palace, the palace gardens, city parks, everywhere one looked it was cherry blossoms. Locals sitting under the trees, picnicking. In the night the trees all lit up with a pink and white glow against the sky, all made up for a most enchanting experience.
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And this happens only for ONE week in the whole year, and I was in Japan !
I was in luck.
I decided to spend a day in Kyoto. Ideally one should spend at least 3 days there to enjoy the beauty and splendor of the city.
Given I had only a day I decided to make optimum use of it.
A brief history of Kyoto will tell you that it was the capital city before Tokyo. And before Kyoto it was Nara.
Now there’s a lot to see in Kyoto – from the famous UNESCO temples, to the Geisha District, to Kamo River , to the Bamboo Street , to Fushimi Inari, to the Museums housing original screens and furniture from the Edo period. The city is full of old shrines, quaint shopping streets and the famous tea houses. Not to mention the restaurants that boost the most amazing Japanese food.
Here is a link to some of the most popular sites to visit in Kyoto :
Kyoto is a world heritage city and one of the only Japanese cities that wasn’t bombed in WWII.
A lot of people had described it to me as the ” Firenze of the East”, and Florence is one of my most favourite cities to visit.
I was very excited to experience Kyoto.
I took the 6 am Nozumi Shinkansen express train from Tokyo Central that gets you into Kyoto Central in 2 hours 12 mins. For those who not aware, Shinkansen is the super fast bullet express trains that run from Tokyo to Shin Nagoya, Shin Osaka and even upto Kyushu. They were launched in 1964 when there were the first Olympics in Tokyo. Today they ply at a speed of 240km /.hour. Earlier this journey used to take 7 hours which I did in just over 2 hours. The anticipation to see the city kept me wide awake, while my co passengers were all asleep at the time.
As you arrive at the station, one needs to take the Hachijo exit into the main Street.
I had decided on seeing 4 temples, and the Nijo Castle and the Imperial palace
There are various options that one can use. Buy a day pass and one ticket that gets you entrance into all the sites. Take a taxi and walk around. Or take the local trains and walk around. I would recommend the latter. If you are pressed for time, the way I was, I would recommend a tour bus – open deck or closed ones. They take you to some of the key sights before they close. All sites close at 5pm.
If you want to beat the crowds , then one should start at 6 am when the sun has just risen. And walk at leisure at the sites, walk by the Kamo River, eat at one of the many restaurants by the river, go for a tea ceremony at one of the famous tea houses. Alas, I only had the one day.
I got into Kyoto at 8:12am and decided to take a tour bus that was covering all the sights that I wanted to see in my first trip.
First stop was Nijo Castle.
A world heritage site, this historical castle was completed in 1603 under the orders of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder and first Shogun. He announced his appointment as the Seii- Taishogun in this castle and it was his residence when he visited the Imperial palace.
The 400 year old buildings of the Ninomaru- gotten palace, the Kara-mon Gate and the Ninomaru Gardens are unique survivals from one of the golden ages of Japanese architecture and design – the early Edo Period that is known for its ornate architecture and interiors.
We walked through the Kara-mon Mon Gate into the Ninomaru- Goten palace and visited all the rooms in the palace. There are over 3600 murals in the palace. The screens are all replicas ( originals in the Kyoto state museum).
We got a glimpse of the Ninomaru Garden. If you have more time, please visit the Seiryu-en Garden which is a fusion of Eastern and Western styles. Built in 1965 it boasts of 2 tea houses, the Koun-Tei and the Waraku-An.
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It was time now to drive to the famous Kinkaku-ji Temple.
A world heritage site, Kinkaku or the Golden Pavillion is a wooden structure covered by thin layers of pure gold and is surrounded by a beautiful pond. The pavilion is part of a temple that is formally named Rokuon- ji Temple.
We just had time to do the customary walk around the pond and take photos. It tends to be very crowded, so would recommend going before the bus tours start.  The cherry blossom trees are not that prevalent in this site. The best time of the year to visit Kinkaku-ji would be the autumn where the trees around the pond would have the orange brown leaves.
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We were heading now to the Kyoto Imperial Palace.
This palace was used as the official residence of the Emperor till 150 years ago. We saw the famous Carriage Porch or Palenquin Porch which was reserved for the exclusive use of the envoys of the Shogun or high ranking courtiers.
We walked past the beautiful Oukeniwa Garden – it is a strolling garden with a large pond and on the right side you can see the famous Keyakibashi Zelkova Bridge.
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I was suitably famished now. If you do a bus tour, normally lunch is included. I would recommend strolling around the city streets near the Tamo River and going into one of the many restaurants there to staple the local food.
There is a wonderful place called Toriyasa by the Kamo River. One needs to book in advance to get seating in this historic restaurant.
Here are some other recommendations for Food in Kyoto : http://www.foodmakesmehappy.com/2016/01/dine-in-kyotos-historic-building.html?m=1
So half my day was done, and I still hadn’t experience the magical, enchanting Kyoto which I had heard so much about. The three sites that I had seen were beautiful, without being glorious. They left me wanting more. I was waiting to be spellbound.
And that’s when the magic happened….
Next stop Heian Shrine.
This beautiful shrine was built to celebrate the 1100 year anniversary of the founding of the city of Kyoto.
We entered through the Red Orange gates of the Heian Jingu Shrine’s Shin-en Garden. The expanse of the courtyard is stunning with the shrine at the far end. And I fell in love with the colour.
Do not miss the characteristic Red Orange architecture of this shrine and it’s pagodas . The cherry blossom trees in full bloom against the Red Orange backdrop, the chanting of the prayers in the shrine, made it most magical.
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I had barely absorbed the beauty of Heian and its gorgeous orange gate, when we were suddenly driving past the most enchanting cherry blossom trees on either side of the Kamo River, flashes of pink and white everywhere. Apparently approximately 50 pct of the cherry blossom trees in Japan are in Tokyo. And at full bloom, you don’t see a single green leaf on the trees. Driving past I was awestruck by the beauty.
There are scenic boat rides that one can do on the river – gliding past with rows of Sakura trees on both sides. But, if one has more time, I would recommend a visit to Najaragi- no Michi – it is a non tourist part of Kyoto, by the Kamo River, with the most incredible Cherry Blossom trees.
Now we had reached, which in my humble opinion, was the highlight of my trip. The phenomenal Sanjusangen – do. How do I describe this place. It is over 800 years old and it houses 1001 statues of the Buddhist deity, Juichimen senju-sengen Kanzeon, which is often referred to by the simplified name of “Kannon”. The famous camera Cannon derives its name from this.
The building itself is very simple. The original Temple building was built in 11d was lost in a fire and reconstructed in 1266. The structure has remained unchanged the last 800 years. One has to remove the shoes at the entrance.
As you enter the Temple Hall, there is a hushed silence. The hall itself is long, around 120 metres long, made in the Wayo ( Japanese ) style architecture, with 33 spaces between the columns, hence the name of the temple Sanjusangen-do ( thirty three spaces).
I wasn’t expecting what I saw next. Rows of 1001 life sized bodhautsav figures ( Kannon), all standing with hands folded, dating back to the 12th and 13th century. They are all made of Japanese Cypruss wood with lacquered faces and gold lacquer all over the bodies. 124 of the standing statues are 12 th century, whereas remaining 876 statues are 13th century. In the centre of the hall is a 5 metre tall gigantic seated bodhautsav statue. The beauty and magnificence of which is indescribable. All the 1001 statues are guarded by 28 guardian deities, inspired by Indian Gods. Their Sanskrit names were written there.
As I walked by the life size standing figures I was completely spell bound. I stood transfixed when I came by the giant seated by statue. The Xian terracotta warriors paled in comparison. Our guide mentioned that if we looked closely at the 1001 faces, we would find the face of our loved one.
I came out of the shrine in a daze. The historical significance, the spirituality associated with the place, the magnificence of the standing figures – it was unreal.
Somehow I managed to wear my shoes and head out towards another orange gate and to the bus.
We couldn’t take any photos inside, sharing a link which shows photos of the images, to give some idea of what they looked like.
We were soon heading to our last stop.
The Kiyomizu-dera Temple.
A world heritage site, it is built at a height. One can get amazing views of the city of Kyoto from here.
This is the site where the birth of Kyoto happened. Earlier Nara was the capital. A monk in the palace there had a divine vision, to go find a water fall near the Kyoto Hills. The shrine was built where the falls were found. And Kyoto city became the capital of Japan.
The walk towards the shrine is through a crowded historic shopping lane where you will find everything from Japanese souvenirs, green tea and food shops, to restaurants, to ice cream vendors.
We could see the famous red orange structure in the foreground as it is at a height. The climb up is not so steep. On the way we passed the Tsunami memorial built by the local people. Only one tree had survived the Tsunami. The locals built a beautiful Buddha statue out of the bark and built a temple in memory of the departed.
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We soon reached the main shrine. Further up ahead we could see the famous orange pagoda – it looked most picturesque with the cherry blossom trees surrounding it. We decided to walk towards it and then walked back via the tiny water fall. Locals pouring water from it on them selves. There were local tea room shops around it. Lots of young girls dressed in rented Kimonos, enjoying the tea ceremony and/or taking photos against the backdrop of the Sakura trees.
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We started heading back via the historic shopping lane, and had the customary macha softie ice-cream.
If you have time, would recommend staying around this area. One can sample delicious local food at the various stalls and restaurants that line this Street. And from this Street one can walk towards Gion which is the famous Geisha area, where you would see them either between 6-6:30pm or 9-9:30pm.
I didn’t have time to visit the famous Bamboo Street or Fushimi Inari or the Ginkakuji Temple or Nara to see the gigantic Buddha figure. That will have to be in another trip.
If one has only a few hours to spare in Kyoto, I would skip Kinkaku-ji and definitely visit Sanjusangen-do and Kiyumezu-dera temple.
It was time now to head to the station to catch the Nozumi Shinkansen express back to Tokyo.
It was a most enchanting day in Kyoto, made even more magical with the Sakura trees in full bloom.
Arigato Gozaimasu !

Colours of Fort Kochi

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My romance with Fort Kochi began over 4 years back when I first visited. And this bond has strengthened over the years. I feel a connection with the town, a sense of belonging.

How does one describe Fort Kochi.

It’s a small but important region of Ernakulam which has historical significance. It has always been a cultural magnet for Europeans and attracted the British, the Dutch and the Portuguese – the most famous visitor being Vasco de Gama.  Situated by the sea with the famous fishing nets adorning the skyline, today Fort Kochi is not only a tourist attraction, but also at the centre of influence for art and culture and boasts of the only Art Biennale in India. The large rain trees , the elegant homes dotting the streets, the centuries old churches and mansions, the colourful shops and cafes that line the tiny walking streets, the sea food road side stalls, the art galleries, the antique shops, the grounds full of budding football players, the colourful graffiti on the walls, all combine to make Fort Kochi a most quaint and charming place to visit.

 

And then there is its proximity to Matancherry. A trip to Fort Kochi is not complete without seeing the Spice Market at Jew Town, the murals at the Dutch Palace and the Synagogue. Not to leave out the world of Antiques by the backwaters, which makes it a most interesting place to visit.

Here is my weekend itinerary for Fort Kochi.

Day 1 : Start with breakfast at Kashi Art Gallery Cafe. Located in the bylane of Burgar Street, it is one of the most popular cafes in the area not only for breakfast, but all day dining. One can spend hours here reading a book over pots of filter coffee. From Kerala omlettes, to French Toast, to healthy options like Granola with yoghurt and poached eggs on avocado toast, one is spoilt for choice.

 

Do a bicycling tour or walking tour of Fort Kochi. The 3 hours tour starts at St Francis Church , walk via the Dutch Cemetery, Bishops House, Parade Ground, Bastion Bungalow, Santa Cruz Basilica, Chinese Fishing nets where they will show you how to capture the fish. The colourful streets of Fort Kochi are most charming and you will want to stop at every corner to take photographs.

Now you will be ready for a wonderful lunch. There are options for all budgets. Nunerous roadside places near the fishing nets where a fresh catch is cooked food you. Or walk down towards Parade Ground to Malabar House and eat their famous lunch thaalis, both vegetarian and sea food options available.

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After a delicious lunch, would recommend taking a leisurely backwater cruise. It is so calm on the backwaters. You pass the locals on their small boats, see their homes on the banks. Can stop at a small ” chai corner” by the backwaters too. And then there are the houseboats also which you can rent.

Post afternoon sojourn, go to the Fishing Nets at the Fort Kochi Beach and watch the most incredible sunset.

Evening tea can be enjoyed at any of the innumerable cafes dotting the streets. Teapot cafe serves wonderful cakes. Passage Malabar has a variety of sandwiches. Farmer’s Cafe , David Hall Cafe & Gallery and then there’s good old Kashi.

Time now for a traditional Kathakali dance performance before heading for dinner. Options include Tokyo Bay at the Cochin Club that serves Asian food, Fusion Bay near Santa Cruz Cathedral serving traditional Kerala cuisine, 1142 at Old Harbour Hotel and Brunton Boat Yard.

Day 2 : Post breakfast, take a tuktuk or car or bicycles and drive down to Matancherry.

Jew Town is very charming. The Dutch Palace has the most incredible murals and is definitely worth a visit. Stop by the synagogue. Visit the spice market. Walk through the streets and potter around the antique shops. There are a no of cafes there but I will recommend the Ginger restaurant at Heritage Arts. It is by the backwaters and serves the most delicious fish moily and prawns with appams.

Time to drive now to the Folklore Museum , where you can browse over three floors of antiques from all over South India. And then onwards to the airport to catch your evening flights back.

Next time come back to Fort Kochi to see the Art Biennale and spend at least a week here.

 

 

City of Joy

What can one say about Kolkota – It’s not just a city, it’s an emotion !
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It is an unforgetable experience each time you visit. It moves the soul, stirs the heart and connects emotionally with you. Once you visit the city, a part of it always remains with you. It’s rich heritage, the sights, colours, sounds, smells, food, people, conversations ranging from Rabindranath Tagore, Satyajit Ray, Kishore Kumar, Cricket, Football, Politics, Literature, Food – all leave you with a feeling of nostalgia and longing. It indeed is one of the most charming big cities in India.
My connection with Kolkota is longstanding – It is the city of my birth. I lived there for the first 4 years of my life, shifted to Delhi, and only returned 20 years later as a tourist. This was my daughter’s first trip to Kolkota.  I was very excited that she would finally experience the magic of the city that continues to mesmerize me each time I visit.
Our 2 day trip began with a bonfire dinner at a friend’s place ( where we were staying too ). They live in an upscale neighborhood of Jodhpur Park. Our flight was late by 2 hours, and we landed at 10.30pm. We were picked up by our host’s friendly driver who told us we will be at ” dada’s baadi ” by 11.30 pm. We arrived and were welcomed in true Bengali style with a warm hug and taken straight to the terrace where a bonfire awaited us. The evening had just begun.
The bar would put any International bar to shame. From the finest single malts of Scotland and Yamazaki to the best wines , we were spoilt for choice. With my poison ie red wine in my hands, I was soon introduced to everyone there, and in a matter of minutes I was part of the extended family. The guests were mostly Bengalis who now live in other countries or cities in India. And come back every year at Christmas and New Year’s to be with their friends and families.
Let’s start with the food – what can I say about the spread. 3 types of fish, mutton, chicken, extensive vegetarian fare, rice, luchi ( the Bengali version of Puri) , 3 desserts followed by Sandesh. Fine Gourmet cuisine. And we had missed the appetizers !
No evening can be complete without music. Every Bengali can sing and/or play an instrument. With a guitar  in our midst I heard the most beautiful Bengali songs – which I was told later lends itself perfectly with a guitar, and does not necessarily need an orchestra to accompany it. Given my childhood training in Hindustani Classical music, I too rendered one of my favourite ghazal of Farida Khanum ” Aaj jaane ki zid Na Karo”. The evening finally ended when the bonfire died down.
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I am an early riser, and though I had retired at 2.30 am, I was promptly up at 7 am, and out of the house at 7.15 am for my morning walk. The house is very well located, close the Rabindro Sarobar Lake , which is a ten minutes, Google maps direction led walk. The walk to the  lake was most interesting – the first few mins was through the residential lanes and suddenly you entered into smaller narrow lanes. Morning rituals had begun, from brushing teeth to drinking chai, children running, stray dogs chasing a squealing hen – Suddenly I stopped, there in front of me was the Goddess Kali Idol – a striking idol, she was right there in the middle of the narrow lane, gazing at you in all her glory.  I couldn’t help but stop and fold my hands as I marveled at the happenings on the streets of Kolkota.
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Moving on I came across railway tracks that one need to cross. Across the tracks I again stopped to fold hands at a Shiv temple – the linga and his devotee Nandi by his side, and a small orange Idol of Hanuman.
Finally I was at the park . The lake is surrounded by jogging, walking tracks -3 rows of them. And there are benches at every corner, facing the lake. People were walking, jogging, doing yoga, meditation, or simply talking to each other. In the middle of the lake,  groups of people were rowing, and I saw a coach standing at one end barking directions. To the other side of the park I saw the Calcutta Cricket Training Academy, with coaching sessions in full flow. Next to it a football field, a game was on with spectators cheering. Next to it another cricket training academy – truly a sports loving city. Through the walk I enjoyed observing people and catching fleeting bits of conversation – from a Kishore Kumar concert description, to the latest Bengali film ” Amazon Obhijaan” to analysis of the recently concluded India Sri Lanka cricket tour. Before I knew it I had reached the other end of the lake. This was my favourite corner – trees in the middle of the lake with hundreds of  birds on its branches. The trees looked like they were part of an art installation, and the birds perched on top were so still, they looked almost lifeless.  This area of the park also had an ” Art Centre”.
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Having done 2 rounds, I decided to head back the same way I came. I was looking forward to a hot scrumptious breakfast.
I was back at their place by 8.30 am and greeted with a hot steaming breakfast of luchis and multiple cups of Garam Chai.
Sufficiently fortified I was ready to begin my day in the City of Joy.
We started at the “Marble Palace”, a beautiful heritage home in North Kolkota – a hidden gem, off the beaten track, not listed on any ” to do tourist attractions”. Built in 1835 by Raja Rajendra Mullick, a wealthy Bengali merchant, it was a visual delight. Managed by a family trust, the entry was free. While the mansion is Neoclassical style in architecture, the plan with open courtyards is in Bengali Style.
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We walked through the beautifully manicured gardens with marble fountains and were guided by the staff to walk first towards the ” mini zoo” there. While there were deer, antelopes and monkeys , it was the exotic birds that caught my eye –  Macau, Hornbill, Yellow and White parrots, African gray. We then moved towards the mansion. One needed to leave the shoes at the entrance and enter with a guide. The first sight inside took our breath away. The floor was all Italian marble with 125 different colours. The walls were also made of marble. While we walked from one room to another, we continued to look with awe and amazement at the artefacts and antiques , sculptures and paintings. From  an original Rubens to a large, almost 15 feet rosewood statue of Queen Victoria to the most beautiful porcelain vases from China and Japan, to rare carpets, to stunning chandeliers , everywhere one looked one gasped at the beauty of the collection –  a collection to rival any international museum. The family still lives there in a portion of the palace that is closed for public viewing. We were amazed to discover this jewel in the city.
The tour had made us hungry and we decided to head to Park Street at our old favourite haunt – Mocambo. We were being wishful to get a table at 2 pm. Given there was a one hour waiting, we decided to grab some rolls instead. It is one of the most mouth watering meals. I had a mutton egg roll , which was gobbled up in minutes, and we were ready to head to Victoria Memorial. After a 30 mins walk across the maidan ( the famous grounds) we reached the Memorial. You cannot visit Kolkota without a sight or glimpse of this most iconic , beautiful marble structure, with the wind angel on top of the dome and Queen Victoria at its entrance.  It was built between 1906 and 1921 and  was dedicated to Queen Victoria. Today there is a museum inside. After a quick photo stop we decided to walk to St Paul’s Cathedral – another famous landmark. Noted for its Gothic style of Architecture, it continues to attract groups of students who visit the Cathedral every day to study it’s edifice.
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While walking , by the roadside, we came across the street food of Kolkota –  puchkas, chaat, jhaal moodi ( my personal favourite), golas ( frozen ice balls dipped in different flavored syrups), Ice cream vendors. With a packet of jhaal moodi in our hands we entered the Cathedral. The stained glass windows are what capture your eyes first. Given a service was happening in the main chapel we quickly made our way out.
It was 5 pm and the sun had already set. We decided to call our car and give our weary feet some rest and head home.
After multiple cups of chai and discussing the main features of the day we were ready for dinner. Choices ranged from Chinese to Park Street options to the famous Kolkota Clubs, but we finally settled for delicious home cooked Bengali fare.
There was one more most essential part of the day that was yet to come.
If you are spiritually inclined, you cannot leave Kolkota without paying homage to Goddess Kali and visiting the Kalighat temple.
It was 10.00 pm and yet there were crowds of devotees who had come for a ” darshan” on the last Saturday of the year.  With some ” assistance ” we managed to get one of the priests to guide us through the crowds into the inner sanctum. And there she was. One of the most powerful deity I have seen. Kali Ma – the Dark Mother, the Goddess of creation, perseverance and destruction of evil.  We were blessed to spend 10 minutes there. The vibrations one felt in the temple is difficult to describe. It was a most fulfilling experience.
Our first day ended, and was filled with rich experiences and emotions.
Day two , post morning routine, we decided to give Mocambo another shot. New year’s Eve brunch only the courageous would venture to Park Street. As they say, ” fortune favours the brave”. We landed up at 12.15 pm most purposefully and were immediately ushered into the restaurant. The old world charm is still alive – from the tables, to the lights, to the unchanged menu, to the uniform of the waitor. Devilled crabs, Chicken a la Kiev, Pork Sirloin Steak Sizzler, Chateaubriand Beef Steak Sizzler, with chilled beers,  followed by Marzipan and Baked Alaska, an old classic for Desserts. Burrrp !
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We were a satiated lot when we walked out of the restaurant and looked most pleased with ourselves when we saw the waiting line to get into Mocambo.
Next stop – The Ganges. We drove to the famous Prinsep Ghat at Fort William by the banks of the Hooghly River ( distributory of the Ganges) – the Ghat was built in 1841 during the British Raj. The Palladian porch there  is named after the famous Anglo Indian scholar  and antiquary Mr. James Prinsep and was constructed in 1843. This memorial is rich in Greek and Gothic inlays and is popular amongst locals to take photos.
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Beyond are the railway tracks which we crossed to get to the Ghat.  Here one got a view of the imposing Vidyasagar Setu, more popularly known as the Second Hooghly Bridge. We paused to soak in the sights – the colours of the boats, the barges, the bridge and the magnificent river .
We headed towards Belur Math next, to see the famous Ramakrishna temple. This is located on the west side of the Hooghly River in  Belur and was founded by Swami Vivekananda, the founder of the Ramakrishna Mission. The temple is famous as it combines architecture elements and motifs from all the three religions Hindu, Christianity and Islam. We reached 30 mins before it’s evening opening hours and went to a roadside dhaba to have masala tea which they serve in clay cups. At the complex, there were over 2000 people. We couldn’t go inside, however we got time to admire the beauty of the temple from the outside and it’s location.
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Just across the river is the famous Dakshineshwar temple – I have had the opportunity to visit in an earlier trip and is one of the most beautiful temple complex on the banks of the river.
The day ended at a country side getaway one hour outside the city.
Alas, it was time to return home.
Au Revoir Kolkota – Bhala Bidaya, Abara Dekha Habe ( Goodbye, See you again) .