by Ganesh Mani Pradhan, Kalimpong, West Bengal, India
Chamaerops No.43-44, published online 05-08-2002

In late January of this year my wife Sangita and I decided to take a holiday from the cold winter of Kalimpong and spend a week or so in warmer climes. We did not want to travel long distances and decided to proceed to Shantiniketan in South Bengal. This would entail driving 3 hours to our nearest railway station of New Jalpaiguri and catching an overnight train to Calcutta. The railway station of Bolpur, which serves the Shantiniketan area, is about 4 hours short of Calcutta. We found ourselves woken up by a fellow traveler in the sleeper compartment at 4:30 a.m. informing us that we were about to reach Bolpur station. The train stops here just for around 5 minutes. Early in the morning Bolpur station is deserted. Dawn light filtering through the horizon of this flat land presented a different picture from that of the hills. There is a definite winter chill early in the morning in these plains that must be hardly a few hundred feet above sea level. We caught a rickshaw and proceeded toward the Tourist Lodge where we had made bookings.

Shantiniketan, “abode of peace”, is a university town, home of Vishwa Bharati University, founded in 1924 by Rabindranath Tagore, a literary stalwart and Nobel Prize winner for Literature in the year 1913. He was knighted by King George in 1915 but renounced his knighthood in 1919 following the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. The University is well known for its excellence in the departments of Fine Arts, Performing Arts, Music, and Languages, among other departments. Our idea of this holiday was to be away from the daily grind and also to study and photograph the process of manufacturing khéjur-gur, a coarse sugar made from the sweet sap harvested from trees of Phoenix sylvestris. There are vast groves of Phoenix sylvestris in the hot flatlands of Southern Bengal, and manufacturing gur from the sap of these trees is a major seasonal commercial activity. We had learned from various sources that villagers in the area around Shantiniketan made good khéjur-gur in winter. Khéjur is the general Indian term for dates (fruit of Phoenix dactylifera) and gur is the term for molasses, whether a by-product of the sugar industry or that made from the sap of palm trees. Phoenix sylvestris, the plant, is known in Bengal as khéjur-gach. The term gach means a tree.

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