Lost and found in Monihara

Soumya Mukherjee | Updated on October 02, 2020 Published on October 01, 2020

Time travel: About 600 years ago, the Kashipur maharaja invited a Sanskrit scholar from the Bhatpara region to settle in Monihara village in Bengal’s Purulia district, handing it to him as a zamindari   -  SOUMYA MUKHERJEE

A family looks for its roots — and turns the pages of history, old and recent

My grandfather called me the Prince of Wales of Monihara in jest. Monihara, which means a lost jewel, is the name of our ancestral village in Bengal. My grandfather, an engineer, had left the village in the early decades of the 20th century for higher studies.

My father — his only son — had last been to the village as a child. A plan for a family trip was cancelled after his sudden illness and untimely death. When, years later, my daughters — possibly because they had a mixed cultural background — became curious about their roots, I began to make enquiries about the village in Purulia district.

Cousins who had been there put us in touch with relatives still living in the village. Reaching there was easier now with a metalled road and a bridge across the stream on the way, which earlier had to be crossed on foot, a bullock cart or, for the lucky few, an all-terrain four-wheel drive vehicle. I googled the route and found only two landmarks mentioned on the map — a temple and a school, both of which were established by my forefathers.

We decided to stay at a government guest house not far from the village. My welcoming relatives had insisted we have lunch with them and, if we could, share their traditional rural breakfast of muri or puffed rice. But by the time we set off from Kolkata (much before the lockdown, of course), it was too late for a morning meal.

We drove towards a beautifully rugged countryside. This was lal matir desh — the land of red soil. We could see low hills on the horizon, scrubs and palm trees. Occasionally the road would disappear into deep forests, earlier a Maoist stronghold but now a quiet haven for a handful of tourists.

In six hours or so, we had reached our village. A kind stranger hailed us, and started walking in front of the car, leading the way. He turned out to be our host — a second cousin we’d never met. We parked, and walked up to a heap of ancient bricks, the ruins of our 300-year-old ancestral home. Our host led us through the bricks to a portion that had been repaired somewhat and was his residence. He lived there with his wife on the earnings from the land and ponds.

We were served lunch seated on the floor in a row, on leaf plates. We ate with relish the rice from the farm, kolai dal, a lentil staple, posto or a poppy seed preparation popular in the region, fish from the ponds, and vegetables and salads from the kitchen garden.

After the fabulous meal we were taken for a tour of the house and the village. The earlier kitchen was a huge affair, the size of a fair-sized city apartment, but now in ruins. Cowsheds and barns had been turned into modern buildings housing new residents — the principal of a school, the doctor of a health centre. Most of the homes belonged to just three surnames. The explanation was in the history of the village.

About 600 years ago, the maharaja of Kashipur had invited a Sanskrit scholar from the Bhatpara region by the Ganga to settle in the village, giving it to him as a zamindari. The scholar started our clan, established a temple and generally prospered.

We went to visit the temple, the landmark recorded by Google. The temple deities were Ganesh Janani, or Durga in the form of Ganesh’s mother, and the gram devta or village god, Damodar. The temple had been renovated — a bit garishly perhaps — but the idols were ancient. The shrine, which was open only to Brahmins, was still run by sections of the family.

We visited the other landmark — the more secular one. This was, and is the pride of the village, the only high school in the area. Established by my great-grandfather, it proudly bears a sign that says it was set up in 1911.

Over the years, political equations in the area have changed — what was once a red bastion is now a ruling party stronghold. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is the main Opposition to the Trinamul. The once militant indigenous people’s movement and the ultra-left Maoists have been integrated into the mainstream. Our host was the Trinamul representative in the village, and his childhood friend and the family priest was a BJP leader. The only red flag in the village belonged to a former principal, whose home was also the party office.

We left before dark. The next day we went to the Susunia Hills, a popular tourist and pilgrimage spot not very far from where we were. We had planned to climb up to the hilltop, but had been warned that it was an arduous trek. I was spurred into action when a group of young men passed us by, and, addressing me as grandpa, said the trek was not for me. That did it. I huffed and puffed all the way to the top with many breaks, when I caught my breath while pretending that I was looking at the view. We did reach the peak.

The next morning we were on our way to Kolkata, happy that we had finally seen the place where our roots lay. This indeed was monihara — the lost jewel.

Soumya Mukherjee is a blogger based in Delhi

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Published on October 01, 2020
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