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.