Call of the Dooars


I have always wondered where my love for nature comes from. The answer came to me as I was standing in the middle of a stream with cold, clear water lapping around my shins: I was born to it.  The first twenty years of my life were spent in the Dooars, the sub-Himalayan terai region of northern West Bengal. It rained everyday for six months and as a result the greenery was extravagant. It wasn’t uncommon for us to see the Kanchenjungha from our classroom on a clear day. The mountains always loomed large over my hometown and on nights you could spot the twinkling lights of Kuseong and Darjeeling. Nature was in reality, at our very doorstep.

Birds I shot from the window of my parent’s house using my mother’s Nikon P610 camera that boasts of a 60x optical zoom

The somewhat lackadaisical attitude I had towards the unbridled nature right at my doorstep waned as I moved my boxes to Delhi. Over the last few years, as I became increasingly enamoured with birds and the art of watching and photographing them, I was reminded of Gajoldoba, barely an hour away from Siliguri. Gajoldoba, spoken about in hushed tones by ornithologists professional and amateur, is a reservoir created by an irrigation dam across the Teesta river as it emerges from the mountains. The reservoir, in turn, creates a vast wetland to which migratory birds are attracted in large numbers. This time, I had to check it out.

Our small little getaway for the day. Switch to satellite view for a better understanding of the landscape

The drive to Gajoldoba is as rewarding as the place itself. For most of the way, you follow a lovely road that runs beside one of the many irrigation canals. To top it off, both the road and the canal cut through dense forests and tea estates. We couldn’t have chosen a better time to visit. It was a hot, dry week, bang in the middle of the monsoons. The sky was at its bluest and the green was at its greenest. Talk about getting lucky!

On this day trip, we avoided the highways and stuck to the smaller roads that, like rivers, snake through the region. The roads took us through villages, duck ponds, inundated rice paddies and of course, a river every few miles. If you happen to travel through the Dooars in July-August, your nostrils could be assaulted by a musty smell wafting in from the water bodies. This is a result of bundles of jute plants fermenting in the water. As the stalks ferment, the bark transforms into the strands of golden fiber that we are familiar with. Outside every farmer’s house bales of the golden  fiber are set to dry. Public infrastructure, like the bridges below are also extensively used in the process.

Some villages and many rivers later we reached Lataguri, the small town on the edge of Gorumara National Park. A road from here cuts through the national park and if you are lucky, you can catch an elephant or a bison crossing the road. Almost halfway through the road is a small outcrop of phallic rocks by a small stream. Local imagination has turned the stones into lingams and as a result people leave small offerings – fruits, flowers, rice, etc – near it. The part time priest of this ‘temple’will tell you (should you run into him) that often elephants can be seen visiting the temple, ‘worshipping’ the stones with their trunks. Not very surprising considering some free food happens to be found here on a regular basis!

On the other edge of Gorumara, just past a small village and a host of architecturally unimaginative resorts lies the small bridge over the river Murti. During the winter months the sand and pebble banks of the river is very popular with picnicking groups. But this being the warm season, the spot was refreshingly devoid of the tourist meelee. It was perfect, therefore, to wade out into the cool, fast flowing stream and stand there, contemplating where one’s love for nature came from.

In spite of the heat, there were a few people here, chilling themselves and their beer bottles in the water. A group of uniformed students out on a school trip also seemed to be enjoying themselves. The most fun, however, was reserved for a bunch of kids from the nearby village who were splashing around in the water. They would clamber up on the embankments, run up and canonball into a deep pool in the river – over and over again.

After watching them do this for nearly half an hour, I asked one of them “How long do you plan to do this?”

“Until the sun goes down” promptly came the answer.

It was past mid-day by the time we were done talking to the river jumpers and perhaps not unsurprisingly severe hunger pangs had started to set in. Our driver knew a local restaurant, one of the many unnamed ‘line hotels’ that dot the highway, in the nearby town of Malbazaar. The restaurant itself was a simple affair – tables, benches, soot in the ceiling, people sharing tables, etc. There is a particular way of ordering food at these line hotels; the moment you sit down, a vegetarian thali will be set in front of you. This usually involves a generous helping of steamed rice, one-two veg curries, a portion of crisp potato fritters (aloo bhaja) and a bowl of dal. On top of this, at extra cost of course, you can order from a selection of fish curries, mutton and chicken dishes.

A couple of tips: If you are on the road in Bengal, choose a busy ‘line hotel’. The busier the joint, the fresher and the better the food. Sometimes even the veg dishes have bits of fish for taste. So if you are a vegetarian, please specify this with as much clarity as possible before ordering. In most places, additional helpings of rice or even the dal are absolutely free, so if you need more make eye contact with the waiter, point to your plate and hope for the best.

 

After a very satisfying lunch, we proceeded eastwards on the last leg of our journey. We were to cross the Teesta again, this time over the mighty Coronation Bridge, which is undoubtedly one of my favourite spots on earth. My school was very conveniently halfway between my home and the bridge and on days when the pursuit of scholastic excellence did not seem that appealing, we would slip out and cool our heels at the bridge. From the bridge, a steep track leads down into the river below. In the dry season, you can sit on the exposed rocks and sandy beaches by the side of the river and watch on as time, much like the aquamarine waters of the Teesta flows swiftly by.

Completed in 1941, the bridge was thus named to mark the coronation of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth in 1937. The gigantic single span has since then connected Siliguri with the rest of Northeastern India. Years later, this same graceful span rendered a 5 year old kid speechless on a sunny winter afternoon. Almost 25 years after that fateful first encounter, I stood on its ramparts, on a warm monsoon afternoon, flanked my father and my to be father-in-law.

To be honest, this day trip was an attempt to show (and show off) my little corner of the country to someone who is to soon be a part of my family. My father is the son of a farmer and although he did not follow his father’s profession, did maintain close ties to the land. As I grow older, my attachment to this land I call my own grows increasingly stronger.

My land is as bountiful as it is diverse; it has lofty mountains, plunging valleys, dense forests and open fields. My land is excruciatingly romantic, yet somewhat unpredictable. My land has inspired poets and nurtured bloody revolutions. And I would like to believe that if you get to know my land, you would get to know me.

Amen!

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…

The Dooars Nostalgia – Part III


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.

Morning glory
..and the drops of morning dew

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.

The road from Alipurduar to Kamakhyaguri
Another river crossed
Fishing contraption cum sentry post
A bamboo bridge over a river
Playing the goat

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.

The ‘lake’ at Rasikbill
The tiny bridge over the ‘lake’ at Rasikbill
Rescued but not rehabilitated
I thought this was just another pond…. and then i looked closely!

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.

Coochbehar GPO
Established in 1861, the Jenkins School is one of the best schools in town
A bungalow in Coochbehar

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.

Sagar Dighi
Quidditch, anyone?

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.

Madan Mohan Temple

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.

The coat-of-arms of the royal Family of Coochbehar on the gates of the Palace
The Palace as viewed from the front
View of the palace from the back where the light was better
Details of the beautiful mouldings
The stunning ceiling of the main durbar hall
The durbar hall
Maharaja Nripendra Narayan, the builder of modern Coochbehar

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.

Light drizzle on the way to Baneshwar
Baneshwar Shivalaya
Ancient devotee in an ancient temple
Age!
One of the Turtles at Baneshwar

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.

Golden Dusk
Perfection!

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!

The Dooars Nostalgia – Part II


The new day began rather early. In fact it was still dark out when i woke up. The previous night, when we reached the Jaldapara Tourist Logde in Madarihat, he had made bookings for the elephant safari. The elephants, along with their mahouts leave twice a day – in the mornings and in the afternoons. However, if you really want to spot wildlife, take the very first safari which starts around 5:30.

The safaris leave in groups of 2-3 elephants, each carrying a maximum of four people and a mahaut. One should try and get a place in the first group which usually leaves at 5 am during summers and 6 am during winters. For its size, the elephant is an extremely agile animal and manoeuvres easily through the various streams running through the forest.

Around 5 AM, a car came to pick us up from the lodge. It must be told here that the safari begins from the Hollong Tourist Lodge, which is seven kms from the gate of the forest and around 9 kms from where we were staying. Apart from us, the only people we saw were the mahouts and a British couple.

Our Ride!

Elephants have a distinct advantage over the jeep safaris popular elsewhere because it lets the visitor get much closer to the wild animal without it being put off by the noise of the engine. The elephants used for the safaris are employees of the state government and draw monthly salaries, have a retirement age, and upon retirement are eligible for a pension! Apart from safaris, the elephants, also known as kunki are used to round up wild elephants that have gone musth (a periodic condition in bull elephants, characterised by highly aggressive behaviour, accompanied by a large rise in reproductive hormones) and help in patrolling for poachers.

in the early morning light…

For its size, the elephant is an extremely agile animal and manoeuvres easily through the various streams running through the forest. At the start of the safari, we veered off the tracks used by the jeeps and entered the dense forests. As i had said in the earlier post, the forests had just opened after the monsoons and the foliage was at its thickest. Though chances of sighting wildlife in such thick vegetation are very slim (all we saw were a couple of monkeys and a yelping wild boar), the feeling of being deep inside these luxuriant forests, surrounded by a quietitude so thick that a mere snap of a twig makes you jump on your high seat is priceless. So thick is the foliage that at times, the sunlight does not reach the forest floor.

All terrain vehicle!
One of the many streams in the forest

The dense forests soon make way for the grasslands. The grass here is so tall that they are popularly called elephant grass. This is where most of the rhinos can be spotted – feeding, resting or wallowing in the muddy pools. We saw signs of their presence – hoof-marks, flattened patches of grass, etc but failed to spot the actual rhino.

Rhino land in elephant grass

Having said that, i must also point out that we did spot a monitor lizard, carefully camouflaged against the tree bark.

Monitor lizard

Anyway, since we had gotten up so early and trampled around in the forest for hours, the hunger demons were on a rampage on my stomach. The entire day lay ahead of us and whatever had to be done, needed to be done quickly. So anyway, i gulp down half a litre of milk, a couple of eggs, snatch some sandwiches from the breakfast table and rush to the car to head off to Chilapata forest.

On the way to Chilapata
On the way to Chilapata

Torsha river flows through the southeastern part of Jaldapara and separates a stretch of dense forests from the main wildlife sanctuary. Chilapata, as this forest is better known acts as an elephant corridor between Jaldapara Wildlife Sanctuary and Buxa Tiger Reserve. Chilapata has some of the densest forests of the region. In a struggle to reach for the light, creepers crawl up trunks of small trees while shrubs and smaller plants sprout out from every possible free space on the ground. So dense are the forests here that driving through them feels like going through a green tunnel.

The green tunnel

Originally, Chilapata forests were home to a large number of rhinoceros, but they have since vanished due to excessive poaching, especially by the erstwhile ruling family of Coochbehar. However, during the winter months, when the Torsha is reduced to a lean, fast flowing stream, the occasional rhinoceros is known to cross over from Jaldapara to Chilapata.

This time, we did spot some wildlife, and whats more… wildlife posed for photos too
No country for taking a break

Deep inside the forest are remains of an ancient fort which historians say could date back to the Gupta period (4th – 7th century AD). Locally known as Nal Rajar Garh (the fortress of the Nal king), the ruins are around three kms into the forest off the NH31A. While you are expecting soaring buttresses and sprawling complexes, do not get your hopes up. The heavy rainfall and the high humidity of the region, not to mention the 1500 years in between has really takes its toll. All that remains are some walls and a couple of neat looking arches. Anyway, it was here that we saw a baby elephant. While it was indeed a cute sight, i couldn’t but help think about the mother which would have been lurking nearby.

Infant elephant

Further down the national highway, as the road leads towards Hashimara, a smaller track leads off on the right towards the Chilapata forest outpost. Located on a high spur of land on the banks of the Torsha, the building provides a stunning view of the forests on one side and the Torsha river bed on the other. During autumn, the bed of the Torsha river erupts with a profusion of kaash, white, fluffy, plume-like blossoms of tall grass.

The sea of Kaash
More kaash!
A closer view

So far in the day, we had completed an elephant safari and then driven into the heart of the forest for some wonderful sights. It would have been the day for the tourists, but one glance at the watch confirmed that it was not even lunchtime. We anyway had to get to this place called Rajabhatkhawa (literally, ‘where the king ate rice’), the ehtry-point to Buxa Tiger Reserve. Our driver suggested a shortcut through a village called Kodalbasti (literally, ‘a village of spades’). It turned out to be a narrow winding track through small hamlets, but in the middle the road had vanished! It was gobbled up by the Baniya River flowing alongside. So about turn and a longer drive to reach Rajabhatkhawa.

Road ends, but the journey doesn’t

We reached Rajabhatkhawa by 2 in the afternoon and checked into the rest house operated by West Bengal Forestry. A quich shower and a change of clothes later we were off to explore the many mysteries of Buxa. Also in Rajabhatkhawa is a Nature Interpretation Centre, that helps the tourist grasp the delicate biodiversity of Dooars. It was here, via a mural on the wall and a very talkative guard that i found out how Rajabhatkhawa got its strange name. Long ago, the King of Coochbehar was in constant warfare with the king of Bhutan. The wars were severe and bloody and neither king emerged a clear victor. To put an end to the bitterness, the king of Coochbehar invited his Bhutanese counterpart for lunch to work out a settlement. As it turns out, the luncheon bore fruits and the two kingdoms never warred again.

The mural

Buxa Tiger Reserve, established in 1983 is sprawled over an area of 759 sq kms, of which 314.5 sq kms is the core area. However, the dense forests and the general shy nature of tigers make sightings here a rare delight. The northern boundary of the Park roughly coincides with India’s border with Bhutan. National Highway 31C runs along its southern boundary. A part of a contiguous forests that extend across North Bengal, Assam and Bhutan, it serves as an international corridor for elephant migration between India and Bhutan. According to the state wildlife officials, even tigers are known to move freely in to Bhutan through the continuous belt of forests.

The beautiful forests of back home!

We wanted to explore the more frequented Jainti beat of the forest. We paid for our permits at the forest check post at Buxa and headed in.

@ Rajabhatkhawa forest check post

There are no permanent roads inside the forest. Like all forests in Dooars, the park is nurtured by a large number of rivers, most important of which are Jainti and Raidak. Jainti carves a wide basin across the Tiger Reserve. Most of the rivers change courses frequently and hence you have to cross a riverbed or two to get to your destination. At one such river crossing, i decided to get off the car and wade my way through. I was having a nice walk with the car ambling along behind me when all of a sudden i was startled by a loud honking. Turning back i was quite surprised to see an AUTO, full of people making its way through at breakneck speed. I quickly stepped aside to avert a collision and realised that even after a nuclear holocaust, the autos will survive, probably to be driven around by then roaches!

A peaceful walk…..
… turns into a near hit-and-run
The tata guys should pay me for this!

Anyway, re reached our destination without any more incidents. The wide bed of the river Jainti as it snakes through the forest is one of  the most beautiful places you will ever see. Standing by the river, to the north one sees rolling hills, covered with dense forests. To the south, as far as the eyes can see, is the milky-white riverbed of smooth pebbles fringed by dark-green forests, known for their rare orchids and medicinal plants.

J
Jainti

As a kid, every winters, our family, along with some friends would come here for picnics on sunny, winter days. The last time i came here, i was prolly 11-12 years old, but i could remember flashes of fun i had here. For once, i remembered that if you dug into the sand on the riverbed, you could get water.Then there was the hapless look on the face of our cook. All the housewives and my mother had nothing to do on the picnics, but get after the life of the cook and interrogate him for every additional ounce of ginger paste put in the mutton curry simmering on the wooden flame. Then there was my father, who is, without doubt the worst player of any card game in the world. So he would usually stand and watch others play and indulge me with stories of fantastic creatures that would come out of the forest once we left for the day.

Driftwood wishbone!

We stood on the river for some times. shooting, talking but mostly enjoying the sight. As the darkness started to descend, we made our way to the forest lodge. The next day we would head to the beautiful town of Coochbehar where there would be more stories to tell and more roads to travel. Until then its time to say goodbye with these two pics:

Speeding through the forests
One last breath taken away!

The Dooars Nostalgia – Part I


I didn’t know I loved the earth
can someone who hasn’t worked the earth love it
I’ve never worked the earth
it must be my only Platonic love

– Nazim Hikmet, Things i Didn’t Know i Loved

When i was in Siliguri, being what every geeky Bengali teenager was like, i tended to take the bounteous nature around me for granted. Sure, there were the occasional trips to Darjeeling, Gangtok or the forests; sure there were the winter-time picnics in Sevoke and Murti, but the sense of belonging had not developed.

Then came the big shift to Delhi. Then came the longing for home. Whenever i managed to get back, i would spend almost all the time in our little apartment, without even feeling the need to step out. This was back in college when i had not yet tasted the charms of travel.

Then came my job. I still maintain that this was probably the best thing to have happened to me. I discovered photography and i discovered travel – two things that have gone on to define me ever since. My initial travels were in central India across Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh, but it was not long before we got a project on West Bengal and images and experiences of a not too distant childhood came flooding back.

A trip to North Bengal was soon planned and with gentle manipulations on my part, it was extended to cover almost all parts of the Dooars region of North Bengal over a period of five days. I only realised this later, when i was back in Delhi, that it had been a return to the familiar sights, sounds and smells. It was a a long chain of deja vu’s.

I was accompanied on this by my boss Swati. We landed in Siliguri on a sunny October morning and were met at the airport by my dad who had arranged for a car (a brand new Tata Sumo Grande) and a driver for our trip. We intended to reach Madarihat by the end of the day. Madarihat happens to be 141 kms from Siliguri and is the gateway to Jaldapara Wildlife Sanctuary, home to the largest number of Indian Rhinoceros in India after Kaziranga National Park in Assam.

We got out of Siliguri after a quick lunch at home and headed to Jalpaiguri via a smaller back road that cuts off from the bridge over the Teesta canal at Fulbari, south of Siliguri. Fulbari is famous for its pantuas, otherwise known as gulab jamuns and needless to say, we stopped at one of the many sweet shops for a taste. Luckily we had some fresh of the pan and still warm. See, i am not a big sweet fan so any comments i make will not do justice to these dollops of heaven. Here’s a pic instead:

Delight, some say!

From Fulbari we followed the road to Belacoba, a small town known for another sweet, cham-cham (no translation this time). For the first part the road ran along the canal. Autumn had just set in the pujas were just around the corner. It is that magical time of the year, when you suddenly feel light-headed for no apparent reason. The sky was a clear shade of blue, and there was greenery everywhere. The kaash flowers had just started to bloom and the forests opened their gates to tourists after the customary monsoon hiatus. Everything had been washed clean, awaiting the daughter’s return.

Autumn country!
Cotton candy heads!

The paddy fields were a shade of emerald washed in the first dew of the year, the rivers were calm, reflecting the skies above. There was harvest in every barn and yearning in every heart.

Paddy fields back home!
…of the skies above and the skies below
The Fisherman

It was the day of Vishwakarma Puja. Vishwakarma, one of the 33 crore gods that my ancestors created, is the lord of everything mechanical. On our was to Belacoba, we passed a group of tea estate workers transporting the idol to the factory where he was to be worshipped. While the god was on a truck, the mortal retinue followed, armed with incense, drums, gulaal and a very infectious urge to break into a jig!

In the name of the lord!
Beedi-in-mouth euphoria
Euphoria, your garden variety

After Belacoba, we hit the badly potholed Siliguri-Jalpaiguri highway and in some time reached the bridge over the river Teesta just as the sun was going down over the horizon. The mile-wide river was broken at places by sandbanks and spanned by a road bridge and another for the trains. I spent my early childhood in a small town called Falakata, deep inside the Dooars. Every weekend, we would make trips to Siliguri to meet friends and family, and every week the bus would cross the river. I would usually be asleep on my mother’s lap, but somehow managed to wake up to see the Teesta. The river amazed me. At four years old, it was the biggest thing i had seen. Now, more than 20 years later, it seemed even bigger.

The Teesta Bridge – Just as i remembered it
Teesta!

Darkness descended suddenly, like it always does in my land, except for the crimson afterglow still lingering in the fluffy clouds. In an hour we would reach Madarihat and check into the Jaldapara Tourist Lodge. In a day, the ardours of travelling, taking notes and shooting would catch up and dilute the feelings of being back home. In a week, i would be in Delhi, worrying about what to cook, when to service the bike and what movie to watch next. Till then, just like the afterglow, the familiar sights and sounds and smells persist. Just like what Colin Hay said. ‘yes, this is as good as it gets’.

Afterglow
After-Afterglow

PS: In the next part of the Dooars story, we explore Jaldapara and Buxa, two of the most famous wildlife destinations in the Dooars.

Kolkata – 30 September


Kolkata was the prelude to the Andamans. We stayed at Maniktala at Bubu mama’s place and we met Au Dida, a very nice old lady who has known ma since she was a toddler.

Maniktala

Kalbala Tank Lane

Mamar bari is in the typical North Kolkata para of Maniktala in this little street called the Karbala Tank Lane. The family has resided in the building for over 150 years. The walls of the house are so thick that you dont get network on your cellphones when you are indoors.

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Mami and Ma on the way to Au Dida’s place, which is only like three buildings away from mamar bari. The lanes and the architecture is typically north Kolkata.

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She stays with her two sons and their families in this another old house, As you can see in the pic, there is the central courtyard to which all the rooms in both the floors open. The ground floor is mostly the kitchen, the store and some spare rooms while the family lives on the first.

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Ma negotiating the steep stairs to the first floor.

Au Dida

Au Dida. As you can see, she is very pretty and she is great with kids. I remember she came to Siliguri once with mama, mami and Maam di. So she took maam and me out to the Baisakhi Mela. While every adult we went with dragged us away from the fast food stalls, she infact kept feeding us all the delicious and restricted food items that we used to fantasise about.

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Au Dida and Ma deep in some animated conversation.

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Thats two of Au Dida’s three similar aged grandsons. As you can see, they are not the quietest of souls. To the left is Chunilal while Pannalal holds up a kite. Hiralal is nowhere to be see, so i guess its safe to assume that he is up to no good.

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Mami (Ratna Lucy Sinha) and me

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Au Dida comes to the balcony to see us off

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Another one of Maniktala’s many lanes

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In the evening, i went off to Salt Lake to meet my old friend Ipshita. She had warned me pehle that if i came to Kolkata and did not meet her, that would be the end of my life. She meant it. So i went and we hung out at City Centre and visited some bookshops. After that we went for some food at this amazing Italian place called HUSSH. Here’s another pic we took there:

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While  coming back i was stuck at this huge traffic jam caused by the bhashan procession. I had nothing to do in the taxi and there was a market by the roadside. I got this photograph from the taxi.

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