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
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

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.


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!