30 April 2016

Fire destroys Delhi’s National Museum of Natural History


“Vritha ahankarshivaya, yathapashyapasoon alipt rahoon, muktapane khanbeerpane va utsaahane, kartavyepalan karnanyalach satvik mehantat”

“The detached and liberated performer, devoid of false ego, endowed with fortitude and insurmountable enthusiasm, unwavering in success and failure, is considered noble.”
– The Bhagavadagita

Tragedy struck Delhi this past week when the priceless treasure horde that was the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) was reduced to a smoldering mass of immense nothingness by a devastating fire.




The indescribable anguish and the surprising outburst of nostalgia, vociferously articulated by the city’s heritage and environment enthusiasts, was considerably more pronounced for Kaustav, my fellow Bio-technologist, and I since it has not yet even been a couple of months that we were standing riveted within the colossal building, in turns enthusiastically admiring the not insignificant collections meticulously arranged within glass cases and acquisitively staring at the scores of preserved flora-fauna specimens which we then heatedly argued about while attempting to classify them according to families, classes and categories learnt back in school (Animalia, Mammalia, Vertebrae…you get the drift). As if it would come alive and charge, the massive preserved rhinoceros standing threateningly at the foot of the staircase leading to the exhibition area too cornered a considerable fraction of our bewilderment.




The brilliantly lit fluorescent displays, the dazzlingly multi-hued butterfly collections seeming so conspicuously fragile, the unbelievably endearing bird specimens, the singularly patterned mollusks, the arrays of taxidermy big mammals, the numerous mesmerizing life-size diorama scenes, and of course the inquisitive-looking leopard sentinel-like staring at visitors from its perch along the ceiling – the loss is literally irredeemable, as if a bright light has become inexplicably extinguished even though it had been catastrophically neglected for so long that little of its magnificence, its magnetism now remained, even though it retained its unparalleled potency for illumination.





Death, in general, and the poignant eulogies that follow undeniably possess the unfailing propensity to elevate even the mundane on to the pedestal of blinding glory. I have no intention of denying that the museum authorities did little to promote its outstanding collections or even to preserve them particularly painstakingly, or that most of the mounted specimens were indeed frustratingly drenched with thick grimy layers of dirt and actually appeared like mottled and unkempt teddy-bears which could not even aspire to compete with the stunning visuals and the enviable narration that, say, National Geographic or Discovery Channel, have to offer today. Yet not unlike most things Indian, the endearing museum excelled not because of the uninterested bureaucracy but despite it, and the loss certainly does overwhelm.




Government authorities, including Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar (under the aegis of whose Ministry of Environment and Forests the iconic museum had been functioning since 1978 from a rented building belonging to the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce & Industry (FICCI) at Mandi House), have resiliently announced the construction of a grander, considerably better equipped facility near Pragati Maidan, how soon can the same be established and operationalized however remains to be seen. The precise cause of the accidental fire too hasn’t yet been ascertained.



12 April 2016

Sarvamangala Temple, Bardhaman, Bengal


“Om Sarvamangala mangalye, Shive sarvatha sadhike
Sharanye Triambake Gauri, Narayani Namo-stute”

(“The Goddess who perpetually bestows auspiciousness and prosperity on all, I bow to thee
The Goddess who is the consort of Lord Shiva, the possessor of three eyes, I bow to thee”)

For a compulsive traveler, every single city, even the hideously grotesque and the repulsively avaricious ones, camouflage within the folds of their superficial selves iridescent jewels unpretentiously masquerading as the commonplace and therefore remaining implausibly untouched by dreadfully corrosive human presence. Remarkably though, more often than not, it is the smaller forgotten edifices, throbbing with a plethora of folklore pertaining to the city’s mythical origins and their own bewitching origins and construction, which ceaselessly fascinate and entice. Effortlessly do the enthralling outlines of myriads of picturesque landscapes, the tortuously snaking convolvulus of streetscape, and the fantastical silhouettes of monumental edifices become perpetually seared onto one’s retinas for all eternity, so much so that fragmented slivers of these reminiscences unfailingly continue to be recreated sporadically in one’s imagination even years later, especially in conjunction with snatches of soothing music that one played on a particular journey.


Timeless simplicity! - Shrine of the mother Goddess


Consider then my elation when I was recently able to retrieve some photographs from my old laptop that crashed almost a year ago, in the process relieving fond, half-forgotten memories of the ceaselessly pulsating city of Calcutta and its languidly laid-back environs, coupled with the sorrowful realization that among a long list of the monumental cathedrals, minuscule Chinese shrines, unheralded colonial memorials and immense temple complexes that I never got around to penning articles about was the soothingly serene Sarvamangala temple, jewel-like ensconced in a beatifically humble corner of the illustrious district of Bardhaman (Burdwan), whose semi-ruinous architectural conformations, subdued artistic adornments and gorgeous terracotta ornamentation I had spontaneously fallen in love with.

Enveloped within enormous brownish-pink periphery walls that, with their towering Corinthian pilasters, elaborate stucco outbursts of intricate floral flourishes, and gracefully multi-layered semicircular arches delineated by exquisite vegetative scrolls, would not have been out of place in late-colonial Indian palatial edifices (such as the one in nearby Birbhum, refer Pixelated Memories - Hetampur Hazarduari Rajbari), the gorgeous lemon-yellow shrine is existential within its own hallowed square described by a second line of enclosing walls whose entrance way is heralded by two cream-yellow shrines dedicated to the “Chandreswara” (“Lord of Chandra”, Chandra being the moon God) and “Indreswara” (“Lord of Indra”, Indra being the God of thunder and lightning and the chief of minor deities in Hindu mythology) manifestations of Lord Shiva, the God of death and destruction.


A cocoon like no other - The palatial edifice enveloping the shrines


Matchless in their delicate conception and dexterous execution, especially spellbinding are the mesmerizingly sophisticated and meticulously detailed vermilion-red terracotta panels, outstandingly embellishing the twin Bengali-style Shiva shrines and portraying vivid scenes from several interconnected folklores involving depictions of several formidable deities encompassed within a multitude of mischievous and voracious monkeys, an overflowing abundance of rudimentary shrines, a profusion of very attentive parakeets and long-tailed peacocks, and an extravagant excess of excessively flirtatious explosions of multi-patterned floral blossoms.

Within the congested central enclosure, gracefully preceded on two of its adjacent sides by huge pillared congregation halls (“Natamandir”) rises the vertically pronounced, vibrant yellow central shrine, its nine soaring spires (“Navratana”) towering above every other edifice, religious or functional, within the sanctified complex.

In the immediate vicinity of the gateway exist three more subsidiary shrines, dedicated to different manifestations of Lord Shiva. The central sub-shrine, surmounted by five fluted spires (“Pancharatna”) and intermittently adorned with tiny terracotta tiles depicting mythological deities, mythical entities, celestial dervishes and angry sages amidst fantastical smatterings of convoluted floral flourishes is considerably better preserved vis-à-vis the considerably constricted side-shrines flanking it whose tiered tapering roofs have become atrociously weather-blackened and whose remarkably decorated terracotta-studded exterior surfaces, where not painfully crumbling to imperceptible dust, have ruinously withered to unspeakably horrible brown-black smudges.


Withered to disintegration - One of the interior Shiva temples


Enveloped with thick layers of brightly colored, glittering glimmering embroidered clothes and festooned with expensive gold jewelry, housed in the sanctum of the central shrine is a tiny, shimmering black stone sculpture of the eighteen-armed Goddess Durga, a fierce manifestation of universal feminine energy, astride her powerfully muscled lion and piercing the body of the formidable buffalo-demon Mahishasura with her intimidatingly long trident.

Arguably, the minuscule sculpture was either surprisingly revealed from within the Damodar riverbed or was accidentally discovered in a lime kiln around the year 1740, and the local feudal lord Rajadhiraj Zamindar Raja Chitrasena Roy (officiated AD 1740-44) immediately commissioned the construction and ornamentation of the unsophisticated temple around it. It is conjectured in popular folklore that the revered Goddess had miraculously appeared in his dream and foretold her manifestation in this black stone which, enshrined and venerated, shall protect the Raja's territories from the ferociously barbaric slaughter and plunder unleashed over AD 1741-51 by the impressively maneuverable cavalry forces (“Bargir”) of Maratha ruler Raghoji Bhonsle I of Nagpur.

Another theory however contends that the beautiful shrine was actually commissioned by the devout Maharaja Kirtichanda Roy (officiated AD 1702-40) in AD 1702. His prodigious successor Raja Chitrasena Roy merely further magnified and embellished it when he assumed power.


History for the fanatics - A Hindu Goddess who protects Hindu subjects of a Muslim sovereign from Hindu plunderers!


It is believed by some that the shrine coincidentally exists at the site of the “Shakti Peetha” (“Seat of Primordial Feminine energy”) where Goddess Sati’s navel fell following the terrible destruction of Daksha’s sacrifice. I copy verbatim from previous blog posts (refer links enumerated at the end of this article) for elucidation of the mythology and historiography encompassing the Shakti Peethas –

The Shakti Peethas’ perplexing origin has its convoluted roots in ancient history's numerous tales where myths and legends conspire alongside hard facts to generate a picture of inexplicable phenomena and locations. Hindu legends recall the ritualistic sacrificial worship (“yagna”) commissioned by the mythological emperor Daksha in which his own angelic daughter Sati (Shakti) and her husband Shiva, the Hindu God of death and destruction, were unwelcome. Sati, though requested not to go by Lord Shiva but persuaded by an unremitting love for her father and maternal family, nonetheless reached her father’s abode only to be faced with an unrelenting onslaught of merciless abuses and insults heaped upon her all-powerful husband, as an anguished consequence of which she committed suicide by jumping into the ceremonial fire; dangerously enraged and unnervingly grief-struck, Lord Shiva picked up Goddess Sati’s lifeless body in one arm and his frightening trident in the other and began the frenzied “Tandava Nritya” (celestial dance of destruction). The entire world was on the brink of irrevocable destruction when all the Gods and deities collectively invoked Lord Vishnu, the Hindu God of life and preservation, who used his “Sudarshana Chakra” (spinning disc weapon) to cleave Sati’s body into 51 parts since an infuriated Shiva had vowed not to stop his terrible dance till Sati’s body existed. Each of the sacred spots where these 51 hallowed parts fell came to be sanctified as an auspicious “Shakti Peetha” where an intent worshiper channeling the said energy would be endowed with immeasurable intellectual and spiritual prowess.


Mythology elucidated in terracotta - Panels adorning one of the exterior Shiva temples


Following the post-independence abolition of the Zamindari system of revenue administration, the then Maharaja Uday Chanda Mahtab (officiated 1941-55) constituted the Sri Sarbamangala Trust Board in the year 1954 for meeting the expenses of the maintenance, conservation and restoration of the shrine as and when required. The long expanse of periphery wall near the Natamandir is entirely tessellated with a grossly unsightly array of small black-and-white marble plaques eternally commemorating charitable pecuniary contributions undertaken by reverential devotees – so much for philanthropy!

In the intervening distance rises a massive tree encircled by tiny clay toys and wreathed with shimmering garlands, deep red religious threads, marigold flowers, and iridescent glass bangles – votive offerings perhaps for the preternatural folk deity Seetla (hideously ugly but kindhearted Goddess of fevers, skin sores, pustules, and several infectious diseases of skin and blood, including chicken-pox) to cajole her to spare the children the terrible epidemics and punitive sufferings. Yes, even in 21st-century too there are such unbelievable primeval incarnations of the mythological mother Goddess in currency!


Contemplation - Looking into the Natmandir


Who would have thought that the glimpse of this ancient tree in this semi-rural locale in distant Bengal would bring to me half-remembered memories of half-understood traditions from over a decade and a half ago when my grief-struck mother affectionately carried me, chicken-pox inflicted and fever-inflamed, to the local temple near our residence to propitiate the primordial Goddess! And who would have thought that I would here regret that my children would probably never know of these hypnotic legends and mysterious folk deities, except perhaps in confused half-forgotten tales such as these my own?!


Twin sentries - Chandreswara and Indreswara, the exterior Shiva temples

Location: Approximately a kilometer and a half from Bardhaman railway station.
Open: All days, sunrise to sunset
How to reach: The shrine is accessible via the street emanating from Curzon Gate (refer Pixelated Memories - Curzon Gate). The route is pretty straightforward and locals can easily guide one to the shrine. Walk/avail an auto/rickshaw from Bardhaman railway station/bus stop.
Entrance fees: Nil
Photography/video charges: Nil
Time required for sightseeing: 30 min
Relevant links -
Other landmarks located in Bardhaman -
Suggested reading -

01 April 2016

TB Day – Operation ASHA, Delhi



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“My brother kneels (so saith Kabir) to stone and brass in heathen-wise,
But in my brother’s voice, I hear my own unanswered agonies. His God is as his Fates assign;
His prayer is all the world’s – and mine.”
– Rudyard Kipling, “Kim” (1901)

Negotiating one’s way through the immense flood of humanity and indifferent cattle ceaselessly streaming the claustrophobic narrow meandering streets delineating the oxymoronic urban village of Tehkhand in south-east Delhi, it is explicably easy to fathom why communicable diseases spread with such diabolical intensity in Indian subcontinent.

On a scorching summer morning, the scene is fairly reminiscent of Dante Alighieri’s “Inferno”. Flanked on either side by unbelievably overpopulated, multi-storied residential buildings whose ground-floor facades have been transformed into cramped cubbyhole shops and confectioneries, the obnoxious-smelling streets, deplorably pockmarked or shrouded with thick carpets of dog and cattle excreta with astonishing frequency, overflow along the peripheries with absolute black putrid sewage. Unparalleled in their irritability, an incalculable number of flies violently flicker around, and yet their all-enveloping presence does not in the least hinder the tiny impoverished children, their straw-colored hair and dust and slime-ensconced faces reflecting terrible tales of starvation and poverty, from carelessly running about in the accumulated filth and grime.

Unremarkable among a row of similar inconsequential buildings is an insignificant little clinic crowned by several cardboard information panels, one of these identifying it as an Operation ASHA DOTS center, another vibrant violet one announcing adherence to RNTCP.


Last-mile Delivery to the BoP


Endeavoring to eradicate Tuberculosis (TB) from the world over, Operation ASHA (OpASHA) is a Delhi-based non-profit, non-government organization operational in India and Cambodia, with third-party replication in Uganda, Dominican Republic, Peru and Kenya. Additionally, medications, care and counseling are also provided to underprivileged patients suffering from hemophilia, diabetes and HIV-AIDS.

Why Tuberculosis?

The statistics are horrifying – according to World Health Organization (WHO), of the 9.6 million people globally diseased with TB in the year 2015, a staggering 2.2 million were in India. Of these, over 330,000 died, that is, two deaths every three minutes, which is the approximate time required to read this article!

More people die of TB-related complications in India than in countries like Pakistan, Nigeria, Indonesia and China. What is however most perplexing is that the disease is totally curable, and the medicines are available free of cost from any government hospital/dispensary. More distressing is the absolute failure of medical health workers to get patients to adhere to the RNTCP-DOTS (Directly Observed Treatment Short-course) treatment regime whereby a patient has to consume the specified drugs for 6-8 months in the former’s presence (thus, directly observed).

Default in treatment can have the TB bacterium transform into Multidrug resistant (MDR) which, at its current rate of manifestation, shall prove to be the scourge of the developing world if unchallenged.

By employing Biometric eCompliance and electronic medical recordkeeping (EMR) systems consisting of android phones and fingerprint readers, OpASHA has succeeded in reducing default rate to less than 3% vis-à-vis 60% reported by governmental bodies and other NGOs, and that too by spending less than 19 times the capital invested by the latter.


Fighting Tuberculosis worldwide


Slightly within the physical peripheries of Tehkhand village is located the aforementioned OpASHA’s community DOTS centers, its inconspicuousness an additional advantage for the distressed patients trickling in intermittently throughout the day since they are often forced to maintain secrecy about their medical condition as a consequence of the severe social stigma associated with the disease.

Every 24th March, recognized as TB Day throughout the world, Tehkhand thunders with the slogans of several score OpASHA volunteers who march the constricted and clogged streets armed with starkly functional placards and posters stating “We want zero TB deaths” and mentioning the numerous indicators associated with the deadly disease.

This year, Dr. Sengupta, Delhi District TB Officer (DTO), too joined in and further expounded on the disease’s symptoms as well as the ill-effects of the consumption of alcohol and cigarettes. Patients and counselors from OpASHA’s Tehkhand centers, volunteers from the village, OpASHA office staff and officials from the government TB departments joined in to help make the event a success and disseminate knowledge about the disease and, most importantly, the complete effectiveness of its cure.


#zeroTBdeaths

This article and the ones that’ll follow germinate from the realization that knowledge about this horrendous disease and its catastrophic consequences is still abysmally low, even among many highly educated and remarkably accomplished individuals with whom we, the OpASHA staff, interacted, and we need to rectify this immediately.

Your help too counts! To know more, visit opasha.org.