Cooch Behar’s ‘Raash Mela’ is said to be one of the oldest fairs in the country. Raash Mela begins at the time of the full moon in the month of Kartik (that’s a fortnight after Diwali). The Mela isn’t just a fair, it is an extension of the religious festival that is celebrated at the Madan Mohan Bari, a temple that was built by Maharaja Nripendra Narayan of Cooch Behar over a hundred years ago.
So the palace, the temple, and the fair are all part of one composite experience for most people, as it was for us when we visited on the Sunday after the festival began.
The drive to Cooch Behar is a part of the experience too. The road to the town, when approached from Jalpaiguri district, has very little traffic. It is scenic, as it goes through the rural heartland, mostly paddy fields. Cooch Behar town is the headquarters of the district of the same name.
The Rajbari, the palace of the erstwhile rulers, dominates the town. Its people are intensely proud of their past – of their heritage as the former subjects of the Koch kings. The loyalty to the royal family is palpable.
Our visit was on the first fine cold weather Sunday, and the palace and its extensive beautiful grounds were filled with people. The palace is awe-inspiring. It reminds you of grand buildings like Victoria Terminus - now known as Chhatrapathi Shivaji Terminus - in Mumbai and the Victoria Memorial in Kolkata.
It was commissioned by Maharaja Nripendra Narayan in the closing years of the nineteenth century. Four years ago, I remember seeing a signboard outside a bicycle repair shop, just outside the palace walls, that read ‘Maharaja Nripendra Narayan Cycle Repair Shop’ – the sign’s dimensions, of course, exceeded that of the shop’s. This time, I saw a glass fronted double storied building across the road that called itself the ‘NN Shopping Mall’.
I asked the owner of the café within what the NN stood for. Not a doubt about it: Nripendra Narayan. The café had an enormous portrait of his Maharani, Suniti Devi.
The palace was handed over to the Archeological Survey of India in 1982. Some of its rooms are now viewing galleries open to the public. The Durbar Hall just takes your breath away, with its high dome and arches. In the centre of the marble floor, cordoned off by a wooden railing, is the insignia of the Royal House. One of the rooms, which houses a billiards table in excellent condition, has a ceiling with exquisitely painted panels. The colours have faded a little, but the artwork is beautiful. Unfortunately, some of the motifs have been replicated inexpertly on panels bordering door frames in what looks like poster paint.
There are cobwebs and there’s dust, and a good bit of one wall in the Durbar Hall is damaged by seepage. The wooden doors could do with a dab of polish, one feels. Every one of the doors is inlaid with panels of Belgian glass. These are in really good condition, and the motifs on the glass are intricate.
The Durbar Hall displays fine portraits of Maharajas and Maharanis, and a number of photographs. One section called ‘The Royal Children’ aroused our curiosity. There were some photographs of charming children, but not one was labeled! So we couldn’t catch even one picture of Maharani Gayatri Devi, the well-loved daughter of this house. Two galleries displayed stone sculptures dating back as far as the ninth century. One would do well to keep an entire day for just those two galleries.
The custodians of the palace had requested us to leave our cameras outside. There was a glass-fronted cupboard with little lockers, into which we could place our cameras ourselves, lock them in and take the key with us. I was quite taken with the simplicity and the ingenuity of this plan. The people who did this job were really courteous, soft-spoken, and smiling, even though they had to repeat the same thing so many times to so many different people.
When the sun was setting, we left the palace for the Mela. We had to walk the last half-kilometre to the huge Mela grounds, as even the cycle rickshaws that were permitted after the ‘No Cars’ sign were stopped beyond a point.
The Mela is an itinerant fair. These small town fairs have a distinctive atmosphere. They look like bazaars on a weekly market day, and they do good business. There were stalls with everything from pickles, toys and images made of shells or clay, ladies handbags, shoes from Agra, stone and metal implements for worship, cast iron tools, kitchen ware in wood, plastic and metal, bangles and trinkets. We wandered around the mela wondering at the absence of crowds, considering there’d been so many people walking into it with us! I saw the circus tent on one side – that explained it. No doubt those crowds would come pouring out of the tent once the show was over.
Madan Mohan Bari
The exit route from the Mela was along the road leading to the Madan Mohan temple. A mela and a temple – frankly, I expected crowds, noise, and discomfort. To my surprise, there was no microphone playing Bollywood hits, nor was the crowd aggressive. The people seemed so peaceful and their joy – our joy – at the sight of the beautiful temple grounds, which were decorated with fairy lights, and little pavilions, was quiet, and devout. There was no jostling, no urgency.
The Raas Chakra was the first thing we saw – we could see it before we entered the temple. It was a sort of maypole cum prayer wheel. People turned it by the bamboo poles at its end. They were almost jogging around it, and they were laughing and happy. I’d read that the Raas Chakra, which is at the heart of the celebrations, has always been made by Muslims; it’s a part of the tradition. What looked like a laminated panels turned out to be paper cutwork. The design was so delicate, and yet the paper must have been quite strong. At the centre of the panels were images of Lord Krishna. Madan Mohan is another name for Lord Krishna, and the festival celebrates Krishna’s ‘Raas Leela’.
Near the Chakra, there was an enormous statue of the demonic Putana reclining with a tiny Krishna dancing on her breast. I’d heard that the Rajbongshis traditionally made their idols larger than life, and this idol’s dimensions were really something. The eyes of the figure were distinctive. They were very large, and downward slanting at the outer corners. They gave even the evil Putana’s face an expression of child-like wonder.
The temple walls and domes were white, and the domes reminiscent of Islamic architecture – that seems to be a distinctive feature of Koch temples. The silver images of the presiding deities were small and beautifully worked. Once again, they were cast in the distinctive style of the region. I couldn’t recognize Durga because she looked quite different from the traditional Bengali portrayal. The colours that the image used were distinctive too. The eyes, again, were large, appealing, and mystical. All the images had been placed outside in the verandah for worship during the festival. All the priests were dressed in white panjabis and dhotis. The people were serene, the pace was slow.
Politeness everywhere. There was police too, everywhere, but they were unobtrusive. When someone spotted us with cameras near the Raas Chakra, he tapped my husband quietly on the shoulder, and asked, ‘Dada, coupon niyecchen?’ (Have you bought coupons for your camera?)
I’m sold on Cooch Behar. Politeness seems to be a way of life with its residents when dealing with visitors to the town. And yet, a disturbing image lingers in the mind. Soon after we entered the town, we saw a crowd of people in the compound of a house, and all over the street outside. There was a police jeep with a mournful looking sniffer dog staring sadly out of the back window. The first word that came into our minds was ‘Jhamela!’ – the word that covers trouble of every kind in North Bengal. It wasn’t a political rally or a demonstration, as we feared. Someone in the crowd told us that the lady in the house had been robbed and her throat had been slit.
Building housing a Government Office
So that was My World, this Tuesday. See other people's worlds too!