The Dooars Nostalgia – Part IV


Its been a long, long, long three months since my last post on this space. While the primary reason for this hiatus is laziness, there are other factors as well. I have finally changed jobs after almost five years at the first one. I also changed house after five years in the first one. There was some travel in this time and ultimately it came to a point where the backlog was getting higher by the day. Wake up call received, here i am, concluding the Dooars series before moving on  to certain destinations in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Uttaranchal and Himachal Pradesh.

At the end of the last post we had explored the beautiful town of Coochbehar and were headed towards Damdim Tea Estate via Maynaguri, Gorumara National Park, Chalsa and Udlabari.

Route Map

This journey, which was little over 150 kms, took us through some of the most beautiful parts of the Dooars. The plains around Coochbehar were planted with paddy and the crop was still green, a month away from ripening. The road resembled a black ribbon in an endless sea of green.

On our way out of Coochbehar
Abstraction

Coochbehar district is surrounded on two sides by Bangladesh. An interesting thing here is that there are certain villages / territories called enclaves belonging to one country, but located in the other. There are 92 Bangladeshi enclaves in Coochbehar District while India has 106 enclaves in three border districts of Bangladesh. While we did not visit any of these enclaves, the road we were on skirted the bleak barbed wire fence that was the border between India and Bangladesh. It is very common for people living in Bangladesh to just cross over and attend haats or weekly markets on the Indian side and vice versa. There were a few villages on the other side. They were so close that the fence was basically where their courtyard ended.

I have this long standing desire to go to Bangladesh, visit my ancestral village in Moymensingh district. I have heard that our house in the village still stands and at present six families live in it! Coming here, i did actually see Bangladesh, where the roots of my family lie.

So near.. yet so far
A very jolly border patrol
Skeletal

Very soon we left the border behind and headed to Moynaguri, where we had some refreshments. Our next destination was the famous Jalpesh Temple, easily the most important religious destination in North Bengal. Dedicated to Shiva, this temple was built in 1524 by one of the Coochbehar kings and renovated several time in the following centuries. The most striking aspect of the temple is its architecture. Like most of the buildings constructed by the Coochbehar kings, it shows a pronounced Islamic influence. This is seen particularly in the bulbous dome over the main garbhagriha. 

The temple is surrounded by a bustling market, which is one of the most important jute trading centers of the region. Here farmers bring their jute and sell them off to merchants who then, in turn, source them off to factories in south Bengal. On the day of Shivaratri though, the jute market is shut and it is replaced by a vibrant rural mela.

Jalpesh Temple
On the way to the jute market
Abstraction – bicycle tire rims on sale at a shop in the jute market
Going to the market – these cylindrical bamboo structures are meant to prevent cows and goats from eating saplings!

After leaving Jalpesh Temple behind, the next town on our route was Lataguri, the gateway to Gorumara National Park. Spread across around 80 sq kms, it has a sizable population of the Indian one horned rhinoceros, apart from elephants, leopards and a few royal Bengal tigers. For the next 15 kms, the road passes through the dense forest and it is advisable to drive slow as animals frequently cross the road. Around five kilometers down the road, on the left is a small clearing where a number of linga shaped stones are placed at the base of a tree. Locals believe that it is a particularly sacred spot and that even elephants come to worship here. We stopped here, not only to see the shrine, but also to soak in the relative silence of the surrounding forest.

Here we met a couple of villagers who were scouring the nearby stream for tiny snails, which are used to make a local adivasi delicacy. They even offered to make us some tea in the makeshift oven they had created by placing an earthen pot  over some stones, between which was lit a fire. We however politely declined the offer.

The shrine in the forest
Chai garam!
The road through the forest
The road again
The snail hunters walking off with their catch – One of my favourite captures

After this break, we drove continuously through Chalsa and Udlabari before taking the turn towards Damdim Tea Estate, our stop for the night. We would be staying at the 150 year old heritage bungalow here. During the colonial period, it used to be the residence of the burra sahib, the manager of the estate. Now the burra sahibs are gone but efforts are underway to restore the bungalows to their past glory and give the well-heeled traveller a taste of the planter’s lifestyle.

Entrance to Damdim
The bungalow – living room
The bungalow – dining room
The bungalow – our bedroom

To be fair, we had not expected the establishment to be as plush as it was. Following tradition, the bungalow had a khansama, a cook, who specialised in colonial dishes like grilled fish, baked beans and sausage breakfast, bread and butter pudding and the likes. And of course there was the tea. Having grown up in the area and coming from a family of avid tea drinkers, i am usually quick to spot the differences in the tea of the hills and the Dooars. Initially we were given what was clearly a Makaibari organic, one of the best tea from the Darjeeling hills, but i asked the khansama to brew me some of the estate’s best. What came was the characteristically full bodied and aromatic Dooars. The colour and the bouquet more pronounced than its cousin from the hills. I’d day this that if you are up on a rainy morning and want something to go with the mellow mood, try Darjeeling. However, if the morning has caught you unawares and you need something to help you get into the routine, Dooars is your best bet. It is, in a very perverse way, the coffee of teas.

Anyway, after the tea and snacks, I decided to go for a walk in the surrounding estate while the boss decided to go in for a nap. Outside it was a riot of colours. The many hues of the autumn bloom stood out perfectly against the background of rain washed green of the tea plants.

A quaint bridge over a tiny stream
The Dooars i Know
The tea fields
Autumn colours
Autumn colours
Autumn colours
Autumn colours
Autumn colours
Autumn colours
Autumn colours
Autumn colours

When i came back to the bungalow, Swati was fresh and ready and we set off to visit another vestige of the colonial era – the Western Dooars Club. Once the hub of the planter’s social life, this once great institution features a teak dance floor, a billiards room, a lavish kitchen, a bar and of course sprawled alongside it, an 18-hole golf club. The burra sahibs and the mem sahibs have left and along with them has gone the glitz and glamour of the lavish balls and the stylish do’s. The inside is dark and dreary and the curtains over the French windows are heavy with dust and spiders. The seemingly endless golf course is deserted and overgrown and watched over by the faint outline of the mountains, visible through the mist like a distant memory.

Western Dooars Club from the outside
The golf course from once upon a time!

By the time we had returned from the club, it had gotten dark. The next day, we would drive back to Siliguri and end the memorable journey we had begun from there a few days earlier. As the crickets sang us to our sleep, i realised it was probably the same sound i had heard as a nine year old kid. Until the next morning comes and  forces us into a flurry of packing and information gathering and shooting and travelling, it was my time. My own time in my very own land.

Until tomorrow, then…

10 thoughts on “The Dooars Nostalgia – Part IV

  1. I had been regularly following the travel sketches you wrote here (accompanied, of course, with excellently vivid photographs). The Dooars pieces were, in short, strikingly beautiful.

    All the best for the new things in your life. Hope you continue to travel to more places, and more travel stories keep pouring in.

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  2. I worked in the Dooars for close to ten years and played a lot of golf at the Western Dooars Club. Nice to go down memory lane , by the way the course is 9 holes and still very active during the weekends !

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  3. Nice travel sketch…lovely pics….some minor changes required……like the bungalow you stayed in at DamDim Tea Estate is not 150 years old but around 35-40 years old only. There used to be a wooden burra bungalow which got burnt years back and another concrete burra bungalow came up at the same place which accomodated the present Manager of the estate.

    Western Dooars Club still has its glitz and continues to have stylish DOs…!!!

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  4. Pure nostalgia..Damdim TE was my first Job with Tata Finlay after my Graduation in’77. the quaint lil bridge in your blog was the way to my chang bungalow..it was also the path thru which the pachyderms of Gorumara would walk throught at night in search of Haria.. the local rice brew.. lol.. Anirban is right the concrete bungalow was a replacement for the wooden burra bungalow that burnt down in ’78 due to an electrical short circuit. Western Dooars club was quite a happening place back then…id love to go back and relive those memories of younger days

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