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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…