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…