Cooch Behar’s is a story about water. The Torsa, traipsing downhill from Bhutan, skirts the south and west boundaries of the eponymous capital of this erstwhile princely state, going off at a tangent, running southwards towards the Bangladesh border. The river—turgid during the monsoons and lean through the rest of the year—is like a backdrop against which the city’s skyline is painted.

Royal insignia: (clockwise from above) Cooch Behar Palace; the Benfish Tourist Lodge; jute handicrafts being woven; and the royal coat of arms on the palace gates. Photographs by Chitralekha Basu

The other conspicuous feature of Cooch Behar is its religious fervour. A catholicity of views finds expression virtually everywhere. The security officer in front of the Madan Mohan temple points out that the architecture is a mix of Hindu (lotus and pot on top), Islamic (the low, trellised boundary around the first-floor terrace) and European/Central Asian (dome and arches) styles. Built by Maharaja Nripendra Narayan in the 1880s—the heyday of the Koch dynasty, granted 13 gun salutes by the British for being a friendly vassal and later a proponent of liberal Western education—this unobtrusive structure, painted bright white, we’re told, was open to people from different communities.

The major deity here is a bronze idol of Madan Mohan (Lord Krishna), playing the flute. Traditionally, a family of Muslim carpenters carves the elaborate raaschakra (wheel with embellishments), the focal point at the annual raasmela, said to be one of the oldest fairs in the country.

Strange gods may be found in Cooch Behar. At Madhupur Dham, 10km west of Cooch Behar town, for instance, an anachronistic mosaic-tiled arch leads to a temple and monastery. Inside the sanctum, there are no deities, only the relics and personal effects—ink pot, clogs, a rosary—of Shankar Dev, to whom the temple is dedicated, covered with fabric from Assam, woven with gold and red thread. Shankar Dev, a Vaishnav preacher hounded out of Assam in the early 16th century, found asylum with the Koch kings Pran Narayan and Bir Narayan, who would spend time at his sanctuary in quiet meditation. The present temple, of course, was built rather recently, in 1964, hence the confounding mixture of styles.

Decked-up young women arrive on pillion with their boyfriends or demurely follow mothers, queuing up at the temple of Mashan Baba, en route to the temple of Kamteswari in Gosanimari. The giant idol of Mashan Baba—supposedly a cross between the mighty Bhim from Mahabharat and Yama, the Hindu god of death—is a favourite of the local women for solving their personal crises. The light-skinned Mashan Baba, who stares rather menacingly into the distance, is in fact a benign presence, the reason why two rather weather-beaten pigeons are found perched on his left knee at all times.

On our way to Gosanimari, the site of Rajpat Mound, the remains of the old capital, our car is flagged down every half a kilometre. Pint-sized children, struggling to pull up their oversized knickers, thump on the windows.

“Subscription for Kali Puja? Sure. On our way back. Can’t you see we’re on our way to the temple," says Joydeep, our driver, trying to gulp down a self-congratulatory smile, contemplating how the diminutive “devotees" would be left waiting all day while he took an alternative route back home. Joydeep seemed to have a mystic ability to locate the odd shrine, temple and monastery behind the curtain of rice fields, teak forests, bamboo groves and pati (a variety of cane) on either side of the winding state highway.

Talking of pati, it’s difficult to imagine how this innocuous plant (reeds, really) could induce a large-scale movement. The story is narrated by Tagar Rani Dey, who won a national award in 1990 for her imaginative reinvention of the humble sleeping mat. The widespread cultivation of cane—artisans process and weave the fibre into the cooling sitalpati to international acclaim—had led to a clash with local farmers, who resented the artisans’ “easy money". How Tagar’s husband, a Vaishnav kirtan (religious songs) singer, resolved the crisis, managing to win over some of the hostile peasants and educate them in the fine art of making pictures on rattan, is a tale that will sustain a few more re-tellings.

Graphics: Ahmed Raza Khan / Mint

Once a royal residence, the majestic house with heavy black mahogany doors and a glittering silver dome is now partly a museum. The Italian-style marble busts of maharanis Suniti and Indira and maharajas Nripendra and Jitendra look down on a huge mosaic-tiled image of the Koch dynasty’s coat of arms—an Indian adaptation of the lion and the unicorn, with the latter replaced by an elephant, and the figure of a mace-wielding Hanuman added on top.

The person who’s sorely missed is the gorgeous Gayatri Devi, a daughter of the house who married into the royal house of Jaipur. There isn’t much evidence of her presence, except maybe a few uncaptioned sepia photographs from her childhood. But with her death in July, the town lost its biggest icon.

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