ARCHITECTURAL HERITAGE

Cooch Behar in north Bengal has an Italian Renaissance palace so beautiful it will blow your mind

But tucked away in India’s northeast, it sees almost no tourism.

The Rani of Cooch Naheen in Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children is a queen in British India so Anglicised and taken with European culture that her skin – in the best traditions of magic realism – “was going white in blotches”. “I am the hapless victim of my cross-cultural connections,” the Rani says, justifying her Vitiligo. “My skin is the outward expression of the internationalism of my spirit”.

Cooch Nahin – literally “nothing” in the Urdu of the novel’s tragic narrator-cum-protagonist Saleem Sinai – is a pun on an actual princely state in British India, Cooch Behar. And while Rushdie was obviously being critical of the tendency of Indian princes to imitate the British, one needs to actually go to Cooch Behar to see the limits to which Indian royals did actually ape Europeans during the Raj.

The main dome of the palace
The main dome of the palace

The royal palace of Cooch Behar, now a part of West Bengal, is the most beautiful sore thumb there is. A massive palace built in the classical style of the Italian Renaissance – bang in the middle of a small Bengali town. With its ribbed dome and Corinthian pilasters spanning multiple storeys, the building is in fact clearly inspired by St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The resemblance is even starker on the inside, with windows streaming in sunlight placed in a row below the dome’s cornice.

The facade of the palace
The facade of the palace

Not only is the palace beautiful, it has also housed extraordinary beauty. Maharani Gayatri Devi was born in the palace in 1919 and later married into the princely state of Jaipur. Devi – known as one of the world’s most beautiful women during her time – entered politics as part of the Swarajya Party of C Rajagopalachari. Rumour has it that as late as 1999, the Trinamool Congress asked her to come back to Cooch Behar and contest as its candidate – but she didn’t respond.

In spite of this beauty and history, the Cooch Behar palace is little visited. In fact, Cooch Behar’s most popular tourist spot isn’t even the palace, it is another royal monument: the Madan Mohan Temple.

The Madan Mohan temple
The Madan Mohan temple

It is unusual for Bengali temples to have a dome and the structure houses Madan Mohan, Krishna in his sensual form – literally meaning the one who has enchanted the god of love. The name derives from Kamdev, the Hindu god of love, also known as Madan, whom Krishna is supposed to have won over.

Next door to the temple, the city hosts the annual Rashmela fair to commemorate Krishna’s victory and attracts people from all over. As a little paean to the syncretic Koch Rajbanshi local culture, the centrepiece of the fair, the 20-feet tall Rashchakra is, by royal tradition, built by a Muslim family of artisans.

Artisans making the image of Madan Mohan with the milkmaids of Braj
Artisans making the image of Madan Mohan with the milkmaids of Braj
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Children's Day is not for children alone

It’s also a time for adults to revisit their childhood.

Most adults look at childhood wistfully, as a time when the biggest worry was a scraped knee, every adult was a source of chocolate and every fight lasted only till the next playtime. Since time immemorial, children seem to have nailed the art of being joyful, and adults can learn a thing or two about stress-free living from them. Now it’s that time of the year again when children are celebrated for...simply being children, and let it serve as a timely reminder for adults to board that imaginary time machine and revisit their childhood. If you’re unable to unbuckle yourself from your adult seat, here is some inspiration.

Start small, by doodling at the back page of your to-do diary as a throwback to that ancient school tradition. If you’re more confident, you could even start your own comic strip featuring people in your lives. You can caricaturise them or attribute them animal personalities for the sake of humour. Stuck in a boring meeting? Draw your boss with mouse ears or your coffee with radioactive powers. Just make sure you give your colleagues aliases.

Pull a prank, those not resulting in revenue losses of course. Prank calls, creeping up behind someone…pull them out from your memory and watch as everyone has a good laugh. Dress up a little quirky for work. It’s time you tried those colourful ties, or tastefully mismatched socks. Dress as your favourite cartoon characters someday – it’s as easy as choosing a ponytail-style, drawing a scar on your forehead or converting a bath towel into a cape. Even dinner can be full of childish fun. No, you don’t have to eat spinach if you don’t like it. Use the available cutlery and bust out your favourite tunes. Spoons and forks are good enough for any beat and for the rest, count on your voice to belt out any pitch. Better yet, stream the classic cartoons of your childhood instead of binge watching drama or news; they seem even funnier as an adult. If you prefer reading before bedtime, do a reread of your favourite childhood book(s). You’ll be surprised by their timeless wisdom.

A regular day has scope for childhood indulgences in every nook and cranny. While walking down a lane, challenge your friend to a non-stop game of hopscotch till the end of the tiled footpath. If you’re of a petite frame, insist on a ride in the trolley as you about picking items in the supermarket. Challenge your fellow gym goers and trainers to a hula hoop routine, and beat ‘em to it!

Children have an incredible ability to be completely immersed in the moment during play, and acting like one benefits adults too. Just count the moments of precious laughter you will have added to your day in the process. So, take time to indulge yourself and celebrate life with child-like abandon, as the video below shows.

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