At the end of the last post, we were in the scenic forests of Buxa. We were staying at the forest guest house at Rajabhatkhawa where we woke up to a bright autumn morning. Characteristic of the Dooars, everything was washed with dew. Everything seemed new and gleaming with colours that were a solid shade of brilliant.
Since we had wrapped up with the foresty bit the day before, we decided to go down to Coochbehar or Kochbehar, the largest town in Dooars after Siliguri. This meant driving more than a 100 kms through the idyllic countryside. The first town in our route was Alipurduar. The town is named after Col Hedayat Ali Khan, an officer in the British Army during the Bhutan wars of 1864.
Alipurduar was an important trading post on the famed ‘Silk Route’. It was here that two ancient trading routes, the first from Mathura and Pataliputra (modern Patna) and the second from the sea-port of Tamralipti (modern Tamluk) merged. From here, the road went on to Xi’an in China after passing through Bhutan and Tibet. Remains of the ancient road can still be seen in the nearby village of Santalabari. Since there was nothing extant from the time Alipurduar was a prosperous settlement, we decided to pass by it.
Covering an area of around 2500 hectares on the Alipurduar-Kamakhyaguri road is Rasikbil, a large lake that is famous for its large population of migratory birds. A deer park and a crocodile rehabilitation centre are located close by. Also around it are a leopard house, a python house, an aviary and a tortoise rescue and rehabilitation centre. The entire lake was covered with a thick growth of water hyacinth and could not see why any migratory birds would alight here if it was not cleared. It was although a very pretty sight specially how the little suspension bridge built above the lake seemed to span a sea of green.
After some time at Rasikbill, we decided to drive on to Coochbehar which was only 25 kms from here.
Seeped in history and culture, the town of Coochbehar is a veritable treasure trove for the historically inclined traveller. Coochbehar, is the only ‘planned’ city in north Bengal. This erstwhile princely state was part of the Kamarupa empire during 4th-13th centuries AD. With the weakening of the Kamarupa state in the early 13th century, a significant portion of their territory came to be controlled by the Khen dynasty which ruled from its capital at Kamtapur. The Kamta dynasty held sway over the region till 1498 AD when they were defeated by Alauddin Hussein Shah, the Sultan of Gaur.
Though successful in subduing the Kamtas, Hussein Shah was plagued by constant attacks from the local Bhuyan chieftains as well as from the kings of Ahom (Assam). During this period of political confusion, the Koch tribe became increasingly powerful and took control over Kamta, proclaiming themselves Kamteshwar (Lord of Kamta).
Thus established, the Koch kingdom reached its zenith under Nara Narayan (1540-1586). After his death, the kingdom was divided into two parts. The eastern part under his son, Raghudev came to be known as Koch Hajo, while the remainder under Nara Narayan’s nephew, Lakshmi Narayan, came to be called the kingdom of Coochbehar. The last ruler of Coochbehar, Jagaddipendra Narayan, transferred power to the Government of India on 12 September 1949. The Coochbehar state became a district of West Bengal on 19 January 1950 with Coochbehar town as its headquarters.
The beautiful Sagar dighi (lake) is located right at the centre of the town. It is surrounded on all sides by heritage buildings, some of which have been converted into government offices.
Located at the heart of the city is the famous Madan Mohan Temple, built by Maharaja Nripendra Narayan, and dedicated to the kula-devata (tutelary deity) of the royal family. The temple complex also hosts a Raas Mela every November.
The state of Coochbehar embraced modernisation quite early. Maharaja Nripendra Narayan (r.1863-1911) broke convention by marrying the daughter of the prominent Brahmo Samaj leader, Keshub Chandra Sen. He is also credited with building Coochbehar’s lasting landmark, the Victor Jubilee Palace, also known as the Rajbari or simply the Coochbehar Palace in 1887.
Built on a 1.5 metre-high platform, this double-storeyed brick building covers an area of 4,768 square metres. Modelled on the St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, the Durbar Hall is dodecagonal in shape, resting on four arches supported by massive Corinthian pilasters with a lantern projected at the top. In the centre of the Durbar Hall, the marble floor has the insignia of the royal family engraved in pietra dura. There are over fifty rooms/halls of varied dimensions in the palace that include a billiard room, dancing hall, library, toshakhana and the ladies gallery.
After visiting all the sites in Coochbehar we started asking around if there were any other places worth going to around the town and it was then we heard about the Baneshwar Shivalaya. Baneshwar Shiva Temple is located about 10 kms north of Coochbehar town. Next to the main temple here is another temple which has the image of Ardhanariswar. This 400 year old temple had recently been whitewashed and made for a pretty sight afainst the backdrop of the blue sky. A big pond in the temple compound is home to a large number of tortoises, some of which are very old.
By the time i reached Coochbehar, dusk was setting in. Luckily for me, it was one of the typically brilliant and colourful Dooars evenings. When i was passing through th main market of Coochbehar, i happened to notice the soaring dome of the palace set against the painted sky. Unfortunately for me, the palace gates had closed and there was no way i could get in. So i walked around the palace walls and found a spot where i could stick the lens of the camera between the iron grille and clicked a couple of shots.
In the next post, we sample the simple charms of a tea-growing Dooars. Also in my thought, its going to be the most colourful of the Dooars series. So watch this space for more, or just SUBSCRIBE!