The ding and the dong

You would probably not think much of dings and dongs except in the context of bells (and American slang). However, the disambiguation feature of Wikipedia tells us about several other dings and dongs:

There are a couple of examples from India which Wikipedia did not catch-such as the small railway station of Ding in Haryana:,75.2582959,15z

It is served by a number of trains (mainly slow passenger trains) between Hisar and Bathinda.

You may also have heard of Ding as a derogatory term for Anglo-Indians. The internet has an explanation for this, apparently from a blogger from Tamil Nadu:

Not sure if that was to be taken seriously. However there is a traditional Anglo-Indian dish called ding ding, which is called jerky in other countries:

The dong has many more meanings including names and places, and even a large company based in Scandinavia:

Dong is a common name in China and Vietnam, where Pham van Dong was one of the architects of their victory over the US:

Then there is the Vietnamese dong, which until recently was the least valuable world currency unit. More recently the thinly traded Iranian rial has taken this position.

At the moment the US dollar will get you over 22,400 VND (Vietnamese dong). while the Indian rupee will get you over 330. Even the Indonesian rupiah will get you 1.6 VND. The most valuable currency unit is the Kuwaiti dinar, which will get you 3.29 US dollars, 221 Indian rupees or…73,800 Vietnamese dong.

And Dong is the easternmost village in India. Its population fits into three huts. You still have to travel about 20 km further east to reach the tri-junction of India, China and Myanmar.,_Arunachal_Pradesh

This map shows its location more clearly:,96.7613483,10z

There is no railway line anywhere in that area, though there are stations such as Dongargaon and Dongargarh:

This station used to have a large steam shed earlier. It lies in Chhattisgarh on the main line from Mumbai to Kolkata.

Then there is the more common American usage for the dong, which needs no explanation.

Oddities in Indian history-Chandernagore/Chandan Nagar

The history of the French territories in India gets little or no mention in school history nowadays. Most of us vaguely know about the Union Territory of Puducherry, Karaikal, Yanam and Mahe whose constituents have tenuously clung on to their “privileged” status despite several determined attempts to incorporate them into the adjoining states.

We will return to the Union Territories and their oddities later. For a quick overview see this:

Chandernagore (now Chandan Nagar) was an integral part of French India along with the southern territories mentioned above.It was a tiny pocket of 19 sq km surrounded by British India, though it did abut the Hooghly. The main railway line from Howrah to Barddhaman (Burdwan) did have a station named Chandernagore though it seems to have been just outside French territory. It still survives as Chandan Nagar and is served by many EMU locals and a handful of long-distance trains.

You may hear that the railway line runs outside the former territory because the British railway engineers did not want their line to pass through foreign territory. My friend Souroshankha Maji, who has studied the history of this area in detail, feels that this “diversion” was more because of the desire to create a straighter and more convenient alignment rather than to avoid the territory.

However, there were some other cases where alignments avoided certain territories because of some problems associated with their governments. A good example is Rampur in what is now Uttar Pradesh, where the rulers initially did not permit the main Lucknow-Amritsar line to pass through their territory. So the trains ran through another route via Chandausi which was built in the early 1870s. By the 1890s the rulers of Rampur relented and the line now runs through the town. It is even a junction now.

Once the British left in 1947, the new Government of India started making polite noises to the governments of France and Portugal stating that it would be a good idea to give independence to their colonies in India. Portugal, in line with its semi-fascist government’s policy,  told India to get lost and continued to do so until they lost some of their colonies in 1954 and all of them by 1961.

The French were more willing to listen.They probably felt that the Bengalis of Chandernagore were more likely to create trouble than their compatriots in Southern India so Chandernagore was the first to be given independence in 1948. This followed a referendum in which 97% of the population voted for independence.

The handover was in May 1950. Here is a contemporary report (from the Hindu’s “50 years ago” feature in 2000):

In due course Chandan Nagar became a subdivision of Hooghly district and thus an integral part of West Bengal. It does have many traces of its French heritage and there is some attempt by West Bengal’s government  to market it as a tourist spot. It is, after all, within easy reach of Kolkata by road and rail.

The population can be said to be a bit unlucky, since the more obscure places like Karaikal, Yanam, Mahe, Dadra & Nagar Haveli, Daman and Diu continue to enjoy their UT status. Among other things, this allowed a complete backwater like Silvassa (DNH) to become an industrial hub of sorts. Daman and Diu (particularly the latter) are relatively unspoiled and probably derive much of their revenue from alcohol-starved Gujaratis on weekends. Some tourist guides specifically warn unwary visitors against this.

For more details see

Subsequent blogposts on this topic will cover Oman’s outpost in India, and answer the question why DNH is an Union Territory in the first place, and will reveal the hidden enclave of Diu in Gujarat which most atlases and even Google Maps do not know about.

Travels through the unseen railways of Kolkata

The Kolkata circular railway is one of the least known suburban rail systems of the country. It has little coverage in timetables and elsewhere. It was hastily patched together from existing suburban lines, disused dock lines and freight lines besides a new link to the airport which is little used. To begin with, here is a 2010 map which may give the general orientation:

Kolkata Rail (ER Suburban)

If you were to start your journey at Ballygunge and proceeded west (anticlockwise), this is what it would look like. Note the comments along each station (including a few PJs and historical notes):


No Sealdah? There is a reason.


For variety, you can divert from the “circle” at Dum Dum and travel on the still more obscure line to the airport:

airport line

Here are some pictures along the route, taken on 8 Apr 2015:


The starting point of Ballygunge. Note the crow perched on the loudspeaker.


While changing trains at Majerhat.


Along the Hooghly.


Further along the Hooghly. Below there are various stations along the way:

20150408_123957 20150408_124310 20150408_125039 20150408_125407 20150408_125745 20150408_131618

Tala is where many of the rakes for trains from Kolkata Terminus are stabled.


(This is at Kolkata terminus, where the trip to Bangladesh begins.)

20150408_134958 20150408_135524

A few short videos along the way can be seen here: Apart from the trip along the Hooghly we also cover the large rust belt towards the airport.

Several longer clips of this route by others can be found on Youtube.

Jessore Road has its place in history with this piece of poetry by American poet Allen Ginsberg written during the tragic events of 1971, though I suppose he was referring to a place in Bangladesh rather than this suburb of Kolkata:

Hope that has inspired you to travel along the little known byways of your city.

MH 370-the Indian angle

As the anniversary of the disappearance of MH 370 draws around, we look back at some news reports from last March considering what India may have been able to do at that time and why they did not do anything.

We first look at this report discussing possible landing sites in the Andamans and the nearby Coco islands (which are Myanmarese territory). This was written before the Inmarsat pings and the Southern Indian Ocean trajectory became common knowledge.

Of course, landing at the Indian airports at Campbell Bay, Car Nicobar, Port Blair and Shibpur could not have happened without the knowledge (or connivance) of the Indian armed forces. And the path to the Coco Islands should have been detected by Port Blair’s radar if it was working.

As this is the most remote part of India, a few maps may be helpful for orientation:Andamans-A 001

Note that the Andamans and the Nicobars are distinct island groups. They are grouped together as a single territory called “The Andaman and Nicobar Islands”, as in the map above.

Most of the population is in the Andamans, and the Nicobars have little population outside the Indian military bases. The forests of both island groups are largely inhabited by tribes who have little contact with the outside world. (You may recall the poison dart man from “The Sign of Four”).Very few Indian civilians (other than those employed by the government) are allowed to travel to the Nicobars.

Another point of interest is that the islands are considerably closer to Myanmar and Indonesia than they are to India. In turboprop days the Indian Airlines Viscount flights from Calcutta to Port Blair used to refuel at Rangoon. Direct flights started only with the 737s.

The islands had been occupied by the Japanese for a long period during WW2.

A closer look at the Andamans (and the Coco Islands):

Andamans-B 001

Here you see the main town of Port Blair, its airport (which is run by the military, who allow civilian flights for part of the day), the little-used airstrip at Shibpur and the Coco islands.

And finally the Nicobars:

Andamans-C 001

Here we see Car Nicobar with its 8900-ft airfield which was wrecked in the 2004 tsunami and promptly rebuilt, and the smaller base at Campbell Bay which handles smaller aircraft and probably has little or no radar. Car Nicobar does handle 737s and A320s on military charters, besides Il-76s and the smaller military transports such as AN-32s.

Note the proximity to Banda Aceh which would have been circumnavigated by MH 370 as many believe.

Now a couple of articles by an Indian aviation expert. This newspaper and the writer are generally considered to be reliable. Of course, these articles are based on what was known at the time of writing.

From the Hindu of 18/03/2014:

and from the same paper of 26/03/2014:

These two articles reflect what was known at that time. I am not sure whether the writer’s comments about the state of affairs at the radar facilities at Car Nicobar and Port Blair are fully reliable. But if the Car Nicobar radar was functioning, it would certainly have caught some part of the track of MH 370 before if it disappeared towards the South Pole (or to the Maldives or Diego Garcia if you believe that theory).

However, even if you stick to the northern path to Baikonur or nearby, it would be difficult for it to get through the radars of Kolkata international airport and several large air force bases in eastern India where the radar would be better monitored than in the sleepy outposts in the islands.

Who or what is Amla?

If you ask this question to Wikipedia, you will be given various alternatives such as:

Hashim Amla


Amla fruit

or even

Amla station

The first probably needs no introduction.

The second (i.e. the fruit) deserves to be better known. In the West it would be known as the Indian gooseberry, though it has many other names as we will see below. It is a cheap source of vitamin C and anti-oxidants. For more about its benefits, see this: and several other articles on the net.

It has many different names:

“Names for this plant in various languages include:

amalika (अमलिक) in Sanskrit
Dhatric (धात्रिक) in Sanskrit, Maithili
āmlā (आमला) in Hindi
āmla (આમળાં) in Gujarati
aavnlaa (amla or awla) in Urdu
āvaḷā (आवळा) (or awla) in Marathi
Bettada nellikaayi ಬೆಟ್ಟದ ನೆಲ್ಲಿಕಾಯಿ (ನೆಲ್ಲಿಕ್ಕಾಯಿ) in Kannada
āvāḷo (आवाळो) in Konkani
Aula (ਔਲਾ) in Punjabi
amloki (আমলকী) in Bengali
amalā (अमला) in Nepali
ambare (अमबरे) in Garo language
amlakhi in Assamese
anlaa (ଅଁଳା) in Oriya
Suaklu in Paite
sunhlu in Mizo
nelli (നെല്ലി) in Malayalam
heikru in Manipuri
halïlaj or ihlïlaj (اهليلج هليلج) in Arabic
sohmylleng in Khasi
rasi usiri ( రాశి ఉసిరి కాయ) (or rasi usirikai ) in Telugu
nellikkai (நெல்லிக்காய்/ ನೆಲ್ಲಿ ಕಾಯಿ/ ಗುಡ್ದದ ನೆಲ್ಲಿ) nellikkaai or nellikaayi in Tamil, Kannada and Tulu
nelli (නෙල්ලි) in Sinhala
mak kham bom in Lao
ma kham pom (มะขามป้อม) in Thai
anmole (庵摩勒) in Chinese
Kantout Prei (កន្ទួតព្រៃ) in Khmer
skyu ru ra (སྐྱུ་རུ་ར་) in Tibetan
melaka in Malay, A state in Malaysia, Malacca was named after this tree.”

As you can see, it is important enough to have a state in Malaysia named after it.

And that is not all. Its other uses include: “Popularly used in inks, shampoos and hair oils, the high tannin content of Indian gooseberry fruit serves as a mordant for fixing dyes in fabrics. Amla shampoos and hair oil are traditionally believed to nourish the hair and scalp and prevent premature grey hair.”

However, it is doubtful if our South African friend would feel the need to use Amla hair oil. But a smart marketer like Dabur should have found some way of tying up their hair oil with him, especially when he scored heavily in India in 2010-11. One is reminded of the old joke when the bald man was presented with a comb; he said “I’ll never part with it.”

Finally, the town and railway station called Amla in Madhya Pradesh. It is a junction of some importance on the Delhi-Chennai route, but the town is little more than the station and an army base. Long ago the British decided that this was a sufficiently remote place to store ammunition for the army’s requirements in India and beyond. Thus the unknown place was named Amla after AMmunition LAnd. This might be true, unlike the contrived acronym Military Headquarters Of War for Mhow elsewhere in Madhya Pradesh. This is probably the result of a bored soldier making a joke, since it sounds too contrived and in any case the original place was named Mhow long before the British arrived.

Amla might have lost some of its military importance as several other large ammunition depots came up, notably one at Pulgaon which is close to the centre of the country and a somewhat larger place. In the 1980s, Amla station had a base kitchen which was to provide meals to the numerous trains on the main North-South route. It closed after some years.

Whether Hashim Amla’s surname has anything to do with the fruit or the town is doubtful, as it does not seem to be a common surname in India. Not even in Gujarat where his ancestors came from.

There are a few other stations which cricket fans are fond of photographing. One is quite obvious:

Sachin station

It is a little south of Surat in Gujarat. More recently another small station called Kohli near Nagpur may have started becoming famous. It is doubtful if there is any Punjabi connection here. So far no picture of its signboard can be seen on the net.

But one wonders at the incongruous names elsewhere on the Indian railway system. One could understand some relatively lesser known British officials having a small town or station being named after them. Special cases include Margherita in Assam’s Far East, which gets its name from the person who was Queen of Italy in the 1890s. That particular line was being built by the Assam Railways and Trading Company who had engaged a team of Italian engineers to construct it. Elsewhere in Assam, among names like Lumding, Langting and Haflong we come across the incongruous Kalachand. There must be some story behind this.

You will also find the names of Pataudi and Vizianagaram elsewhere on the railway map. But the places are indeed connected with the Indian cricket captains.

Jhumritilaiya and the grizzly bears

Many may think that Jhumritilaiya and Timbuctoo are fictional places. They are real places, like their slightly lesser known counterparts like Rajnandgaon and Monkey Bottom in the US.

Much of what you may have heard about Jhumritilaiya would be in this context:–jhumri-telaiya-/325656/0

It is, however, a place of some distinction as we will see shortly. One reason for its obscurity is that it does have a railway station on one of the main routes from Delhi to Kolkata, but the station has a more prosaic name like Koderma:


What is odder still is that Koderma is a town which is some distance away, but this station lies within Jhumritilaiya town. More recently a new railway line from this station (which now becomes Koderma Junction) which passes through the “real” Koderma which has a station called Koderma Town. If you think this is odd, think of the equally unknown town of Hathras in western UP which has no less than four separate stations.

The basic facts about the town can be found here:

including the rise and fall of the mica industry. What does strike you is the presence of educational institutions such as:

and another one for grizzly cubs:

At least you can see a bear as part of the logo here. But there is no clue in either website as to why these institutions have been named after this fellow:


But why, indeed, is he called a grizzly bear? Does he grizzle? If so, what is grizzling? Or is it just because he is grisly?

None of these. Wikipedia makes it clear:

Meaning of “grizzly”

The word “grizzly” means “grizzled”; that is, golden and grey tips of the hair. This is not to be confused with the word “grisly”.

However, some zoologist must have got a kick out of giving him the Latin scientific name of Ursus horribilis. You probably do not need Google Translate to tell you that this means “Horrible bear”.

And of course there are no grizzly bears anywhere near India.

Jhumritilaiya’s “cousin” in the Vividh Bharati stakes is Rajnandgaon in Chhattisgarh, which is a slightly more important place and is located on the main line from Mumbai to Kolkata:


Timbuctoo deserves an article to itself.

Many governments in India and elsewhere have traditionally had places of sufficient remoteness and obscurity to transfer unwanted employees to. For instance, in Kerala state this role goes to the quaintly named town of Sultan Battery, where Tipu Sultan once set up his artillery. This is not to be confused with the small structure outside Mangalore, though you can see the rifle slits there.


If you are a moderately senior officer in the Indian civil services, you could be dispatched to a variety of high-sounding positions where there is no work. If no such position exists, your CM will create one just to get rid of you. Or you could become the chief administrator of Lakshwadeep or Diu or the Andaman Islands. This is not as bad as it seems since many of these places have no elected assembly or ministers which makes the life of bureaucrats considerably simpler.

Most countries have some small place which is the butt of jokes. Not surprisingly this position in the US goes to this city in Montana:


Like other mining towns in the US, it has a bit of history but it seems to be more famous for its name than anything else. Then there is Monkey Bottom. Try googling for images with this name and you will get more or less what you expect. But there is indeed one place of this name, the Monkey Bottom Wetland Walkway.

Monkey bottom

And there is a story behind it :

Enough of a tour of obscure corners of the world. Next stop Timbuctoo.

Tsunduru, Tsetse flies and Tsunamis.

You probably haven’t heard of Tsunduru. It has one claim to fame in that it is the only railway station in India which starts with a “Ts”. This is in Andhra Pradesh (or Seemandhra if you wish) and Telugu does not have any alphabet corresponding to “Ts”. It is actually Chundur in local records. Some Englishman may have wanted to make this place famous and may have been inspired by tsetse flies elsewhere in the Empire.


Note the Hindi spelling which has no hint of a “ts” sound.

Tsunduru/Chundur’s moment of importance came in 1991 in inter-caste clashes which left several Dalits dead.

At one time the station was more important as it could call itself a junction, since a short line bypassing Tenali started from there. It seems to have closed in the 1970s.

Like many other small places, it has a website of its own:

There are not many things which start with Ts. A better known one is the Tsetse fly of Africa which spreads sleeping sickness which is generally fatal unless treated. Most of what you need to know about them is here:


This is what they can do to you:

Sleeping Sickness

You also need to know how to pronounce their name properly:

Tsetse pronun

The only other commonly know word starting with Ts is Tsunami, which is of Japanese origin. There had not been major tsunamis for many years until December 26, 2004 which led to the deaths of approximately 230,000 persons, over half from Indonesia but with significant numbers from Sri Lanka, Thailand and India as well. Some fatalities were thousands of miles away in East Africa.

These details are well known. There is a good example of black humour of Sri Lankan origin relating to Mr T. Sunami of Indonesia. It is presumably untrue, but like elsewhere one is prepared to believe the worst when disaster strikes. This is from one of the original sources:

T. Sunami

A particularly nasty PJ, unless it was true.