The International Political Science Association conference on “Elections and Political Parties in South Asia: A 21st Century Perspective” happened at the University of Kalyani last week from December 7-9. I was one of the many delegates in attendance presenting research, and just flew back from Kolkata to Delhi on Saturday. So much happened over the last week that a lengthy, photo-filled post is necessary.
Saturday, December 5: Departure from Delhi
I arrived at the New Delhi train station just fifteen minutes before my train was scheduled to leave. Frantically, scrambling around the platforms looking for a sign for the Rajdhani-Sealdah Express, I hopped on the train three minutes before it was to leave. Thus began the 18-hour train ride from Delhi, in north India, to Sealdah station in Kolkata on the eastern side of the country.
The train ride to Kolkata was mercifully uneventful. I was seated in AC Tier 2 class, which proves to be a mark more comfortable than AC Tier 3. Instead of three beds along the sides of the train car, there are only two. It makes a difference.
I have been reading Diana Eck’s India: A Sacred Geography, and got a lot of reading done during this trip. I must recommend this book to anyone interested in Hinduism or religion in India. Eck, a professor at Harvard Divinity School, has spent her academic career learning about the rivers, mandirs, and tirthas that make up the religious sites of India. India is a comprehensive look at how the mythologies of Hinduism and the sacred meanings associated with such mythologies are inscribed into India’s very geography. It’s part travelogue, a tour of religious India, while also a religious history of the subcontinent. Some parts read slower than others–it is a heavily-footnoted piece of scholarship–but I would even recommend this book for those seeking an introduction to Hinduism. Chapters on Hindu cosmology, the religious significance of India’s rivers, Shiva, Shakti, Vishnu, Krishna, and the Ramayana offer detailed explanations to novices while also exploring how the ritual sites and practices related to each are very much tied to India’s geography.
After knocking out two chapters, I folded up my blankets and went to sleep.
Sunday, December 6: Arrival in Kolkata
I awoke at 7 am the next morning to see the Bihari countryside whizzing by. It was a few more hours before the train pulled in to Sealdah station, where I descended to meet Rahul Halder, who would be accompanying me to Kalyani and beyond. We took a cab — yellow Ambassador cabs are ubiquitous on the roads in Kolkata, making you feel like you’ve stepped back a few decades when you first arrive — to the hotel, which was in Dum Dum on the outskirts of Kolkata.
After checking in, we ate lunch at the City Centre II mall before driving over to the New Town Eco Park. At the heart of this pristine park which opened in 2012 is a body of water where visitors can take boat rides or rent paddleboats. Rahul and I grabbed a paddleboat and spent the next half hour paddling off the Chinese food we had just consumed at City Centre II.
After returning to shore, we drove to the Kalighat Kali Temple, which is at the southern end of Kolkata. Kali, a manifestation of the goddess Shakti, is worshipped by many in West Bengal. This temple is one of the 51 Shakti Peethas across India where it is said a piece Shakti’s body fell after Vishnu flung a discus at her to stop Shiva’s dance of destruction as he carried her corpse. The Kalighat Kali Temple is supposedly where one of her toes fell.
The temple does not allow photography inside. Rahul and I lined up and followed a crowd into a small chamber where people pushed and shoved to get a glimpse of the image of Kali (the image I have included below is taken from Wikipedia). Taller than most of the other visitors, I could gain a glimpse of her three orange eyes before quickly being pushed towards the exit.
Outside of the temple was a courtyard where a pool of blood was running from a goat sacrificed which had been performed earlier during the day. Across from the temple was a smaller temple to Lord Shiva, Nakhuleshwar Mahadev Temple, with a stone lingam at its center.
We next drove towards Park Street, the thoroughfare at the heart of Kolkata’s downtown. On the way, Rahul and I stepped out to take the Metro the rest of the way. The Metro, which is India’s oldest, was built by the Soviets in 1984 (the state of West Bengal had a Communist Party-led government from 1977 until 2011). After getting out and wandering around the boutiques and nice restaurants along Park St, we took a human-pulled rickshaw — unique to Kolkata — towards the Esplanade, where dense crowds filter through the stores, outdoor shops, and street food vendors.
Political advertisements for the Trina Mool Congress (TMC), led by Chief Minister Mamata Bannerjee, are to be found all around the city. The TMC, a breakaway faction of the Indian National Congress, defeated the Communist Party of India (Marxist) – led coalition government in the Vidhan Sabha elections of 2011. Their symbol, the orange, white, and green clover, was spray-painted along many walls. The TMC is expected to win again in the Vidhan Sabha elections to be held in West Bengal during the first half of next year.
The billboard below, in the middle of the Esplanade, shows well the cult of personality around Mamata Bannerjee. On the right side is “Didi,” as she is known, and on the left are images of Durga, a manifestation of the goddess Shakti who is worshipped by many in Bengal.
After enjoying some fried dal from a street vendor and purchasing some apples to eat in the hotel room, we drove back to Dum Dum, where Rahul dropped me off for the night before he headed back to Kalyani.
Monday, December 7: Kolkata to Kalyani
I woke up and had breakfast in the lobby next morning while waiting for my ride to Kalyani. It turned out that a number of attendees at the Kalyani conference were staying at the same place, including Sanjay Kumar, the Director of CSDS and my research adviser. After a few hours of waiting, Rahul drove up and we started the drive to Kalyani.
Kalyani is about 50 kilometers from Kolkata, a scenic drive. When I suggested to Rahul that we were driving by countryside, he said it was quite developed and that the real Bengali countryside was not so near to the main road.
After a quick stop to visit Rahul’s mom, Lakshmi, we drove down the quiet main road of Kalyani and arrived at the university. A large sign welcomed the international delegates at the entrance to the university.
I registered at the main desk and arrived just in time to see the eminent journalist Paranjoy Guha Thakurta deliver a plenary session on how media shaped the 2014 national election result.
After a tea break, we had the first set of paper presentations, which included mine. My panel, which included papers on the electoral politics of different states, was being moderated by my supervisor, Sanjay Kumar. I think that my presentation did go well for the most part. However, I went a little long on time, so when Sanjay ji told me that I needed to wrap up my presentation, I rushed through the end of it. I will publish the stills from my presentation in a follow-up post.
After the panel had wrapped up, I went to the university guesthouse, where I would be staying for the next two nights. There was a buffet of Bengali food on the first floor of the guesthouse, and I mingled with some of the delegates from Sri Lanka. Unfortunately, I was starting to come down with a cold, so I retired to bed early for the night.
Tuesday, December 8: Kalyani
Tuesday was a conference-filled day. A morning business session featured Professor Ashutosh Kumar of Panjab University, who spoke about the history of the Akali Dal, and Professor Dwaipayan Bhattacharrya of JNU, who spoke about the significance of class in shaping political identities in West Bengal as opposed to class.
Professor Ashutosh Kumar speaks about the history of the Akali Dal
Following a tea break, Sanjay Kumar gave a plenary address on the political cultures of the different countries of South Asia. To compare the countries against one another, he used data from the State of Democracy in South Asia surveys that CSDS had fielded in 2004 and 2013.
We went back to the guesthouse for lunch, which featured pabda fish (fish is a staple of West Bengal), as well as some rasgullah for dessert.
Lunch was followed by a video-linked speech by Professor Mukulika Bannerjee on the London School of Economics on why India votes (I reviewed her book on this question here), and another round of paper presentations. I attended a panel in which each presenter had written about one political party: the BJP, Congress, the Communist parties, the Biju Janata Dal, the Aam Adami Party, and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party.
Below are some photos with different student delegates and attendees at the conference.
By this time, I was really coming down with a cold. A quiet dinner in the guesthouse then early to bed again.
Wednesday, December 9: Kalyani
I woke up early the next morning to wander about the University of Kalyani campus before the final day of the conference.
The day opened with a business session featuring Sandeep Shastri, the Pro Vice-Chancellor of Jain University in Bangalore and National Coordinator for the Lokniti network, and Samatha Mallempati, a fellow at the Indian Council of World Affairs in New Delhi. After lunch at the guesthouse and one last paper panel session, we were addressed by Professor Lal Hangloo, the vice-chancellor of the University of Kalyani, then received our certificates and were dismissed from the conference.
Before this trip, I had made plans to visit Puri in the neighboring state of Odisha following the conference. Thanks to arrangements made by the University of Kalyani, Rahul would be accompanying me there and back.
We met up with Rahul’s mom and uncle, Sahadev, before hurriedly driving the 50 km to Kolkata to catch the train to Puri from Shalimar station.
It was another fairly close call. After stopping to buy some chicken biryani from a street vendor near Shalimar station, we arrived with about seven minutes to spare before the train left.
We were in AC Tier 3, and my bed birth was on the top of the right side of the cart. After a dinner of biryani, I folded my sheets and went to sleep nearly immediately.
Thursday, December 10: Arrival in Puri, Puri, Konark, and departure for Kolkata
Startled, I awoke as the train pulled into the station at 6 AM the next morning. Rahul and I followed the queue off the train and walked into the parking lot, where we grabbed an auto ride to the beach. We arrived at the beach just as the sun was rising over the Bay of Bengal.
After soaking in the sunrise, we walked east along the beach and found a hotel. We checked in, showered, and had a breakfast of omelets and coffee, before hiring a cab for the day to take us to the Jagganath Temple in Puri and then the Sun Temple at Konark. We started by driving across town to where the Jaggannath Temple is.
The Jagannath temple is one of the most revered in India. It is the eastern end of the char dham pilgrimages in the four corners of India that Hindus revere. While Jagannath’s origins are almost certainly from the tribal people of Odisha, he is considered to be an avatar of Krishna. Jagannath is often depicted with his brother, Balbhadra, and his sister, Subhadra.
Jagannath, on the right, sits beside his brother, Balabhadra, on the left and his sister, Subhadra, in the center
The rules of entry to the temple are very strict. Non-Hindus are not allowed inside (the image of Jagannath above is from Wikipedia, and is not from the Jagannath temple). Even Indira Gandhi was denied entry in 1984 for marrying a Parsi, Feroze Gandhi.
Fortunately, there is a library across the road from the Jagannath temple from which it is possible to ascend to the roof and have a nice vantage point of the temple and the surrounding area.
Overlooking the main street in Puri
This is also the site where the rath yatra, or chariot festival, is held annually. In the middle of each year, gigantic chariots carry the deities of Jagannath, Balbhadra, and Subhadra from the temple around Puri. This ritual dates back at least one millennium.
Outside of the temple entrance, vendors sell khaja, honey-filled pastries, all along the main road. These are supposedly Lord Jagannath’s favorite snack. Rahul and I purchased a handful, and I can see why Jagannath likes them so much. They are very sweet and incredibly delicious.
Our next stop was Konark, a town 35 km away where the ruins of a magnificent 13th century temple to the sun god Surya is located.
From the eastern side
From the western side. The clump of stone bricks in the foreground used to be the base of a tower which stood 70 meters tall. The tower collapsed in the 19th century
The Konark Sun Temple is a UNESCO World Heritage Site which dates back to the Ganga dynasty from the 13th century.
The temple is famous as well for its sculptures of lovers in erotic couplings along the sides.
After exploring the temple, Rahul and I took our taxi back to Puri and ate a late lunch. We then sat on the beach and waited for the sun to set.
The tea shop we were sitting at was run by an older couple, Babul and Minu. While Babul is Odishan, Minu is Nepalese. Their marriage was a love marriage.
We watched the sun set over the Bay of Bengal, then were joined by a group of boys who were selling conchs. One of them, the youngest, was the same who had sold us two conch shells that very morning.
Rahul and I took an auto to the bus station to begin our night journey back to Kolkata. It was not particularly comfortable, but at least I was starting to get over my cold.
Friday, December 11: Kolkata
Once we arrived in Kolkata, Rahul and I took a cab back to Dum Dum to return to the same hotel I had stayed in earlier that week. Rahul returned to Kalyani, so I had the day to explore Kolkata.
First, I met with Himanshu Bhattacharya. He is the technical wizard for the CSDS Lokniti team, taking care of everything from generating tables to weighting data. He has worked with CSDS since the mid-90s on their surveys, and despite his deep involvement in all of their projects, he lives in Dum Dum, on the outskirts of Kolkata. I met with him for two hours to discuss his experience working with CSDS, his role in the processing and analysis of their surveys, and the state of Bengali politics.
The rest of the day was for sightseeing. I returned to the Maidan to see Kolkata’s most famous monument, the Victoria Memorial. Built to commemorate Queen Victoria, the monument was completed in 1921, almost a decade after King George V announced the transfer of British India’s capital from Calcutta (as it was then called) to Delhi. Inside the monument is a marble sculpture of Victoria, as well as a magnificent museum about Bengal’s history from medieval times until independence.
The Victoria Memorial is in the middle of a beautifully maintained park.
After my visit to the memorial, I hopped in an Ambassador cab to have a lunch of Szechwan chicken in Kolkata’s Chinatown, the only Chinatown in India. After lunch, I was planning on going to Prinsep Ghat to take a ferry across the River Hooghly. But the restaurant owner told me that it was quite a distance, so I took an Ambassador cab to Park Street to spend the evening.
After picking up a slice of vanilla cake at Flury’s, a bougey tearoom that dates back to the 1920s, dipping my head into the library of the Asiatic Society, and picking up some apples for an evening snack, I decided to return to the hotel in Dum Dum since my flight would depart early the next day. After knocking out another chapter in India: A Sacred Geography, it was lights out.
Saturday, December 12: Kolkata to Jaipur to Delhi
My early morning departure was delayed due to bad visibility in Delhi. Air pollution there, which is already the worst of any major city in the world according to the World Health Organization, has been particularly bad of late. After two hours on the runway, our flight took off in the hopes that visibility would have improved by the time we arrived.
But this was not so. The pilot attempted two landings at Indira Gandhi International Airport in Delhi, but each attempt was stopped as the pilot pulled up since he could not see the runway. Our pilot had an unfortunate habit of sharing with the cabin exactly how much fuel was in the plane: “We’re going to hover around for another twenty minutes before make another landing attempt. If the visibility is still no good, we will head over to Jaipur to refuel. We have another seventy minutes worth of fuel in the plane.” Then: “We are going to head to Jaipur to refuel the plane. We will be arriving in twenty-five minutes, but I don’t want you to worry, since we have fifty minutes of fuel left.”
After two hours on the runway in Jaipur, visibility improved in Delhi and we were off again before safely landing. Apparently, this was not such an uncommon occurrence. During winters in Delhi, the smog is often so bad that pilots cannot see the runway and must be diverted to another airport while they wait for visibility to improve.