A pinch of adventure and tourism as experienced on my last field visit | Milaap

A pinch of adventure and tourism as experienced on my last field visit

Being a fellow at Milaap is one exciting journey that traverses from the pages of one’s notebook to the various hidden layers and far interiors of rural pockets of India. Isn’t it interesting? Even though I have been born and brought up in Bengal, I didn’t have much of a chance to see the ages old palaces that once boasted of unimaginable extent of reach in terms of wealth and political power. I hadn’t for once imagined that I would be seeing a centuries old Lord Buddha replica in a small unimpressive temple of a lesser known village. That almost every household of Kandi in Murshidabad specializes in dairy and that the residents of Rangali Bazna in Alipurduar are skeptical of going out after 4’o clock fearing a chance interaction with wild elephants that roam freely in and around their locality.
The fellowship with Milaap has gifted me an opportunity to spread out my wings and visit places not much heard of or not been explored much in the past. So, in this particular blog, I shall describe in brief, and yet in detail, how fun my last visit to meet our rural borrowers living in certain parts of North Bengal has been. Since, it was going to be a long journey, and quite a strenuous one, I had to stock up on food and other basic essentials. My first destination was Falakata, a small sleepy town surrounded by numerous tea garden estates. To reach there, if one is coming from Kolkata, the state capital, either by bus or train, he has to surpass Jalpaiguri and Siliguri on the way, and if he chooses to not halt in Falakata, he may continue his deeper foray into the royal district of Cooch Behar or even into our friendly neighboring nation of Bhutan. There was not much to see in Falakata other than the dense green tea gardens, which were beautiful enough to trap one’s attention for hours. Sadly, I didn’t have such luxury of time as I was on work, yet I attained maximum pleasure and satisfactory view of tea gardens while travelling from one borrower’s home to another. In Falakata, the most common crops that were seen to be grown during this time on commercial scale are Maize and Potatoes. The lush green fields filled me with an explicable joy, and I also had the good luck in having freshly plucked corn maize, which tasted so tender and delicious, after being sprinkled over with lime juice and black salt.

Ongoing maize cultivation on a wide scale

Harvested potatoes being collected and stacked in red gunny sacks

People are agriculturally very sound and educated, and most importantly very aware of local and national politics. Falakata is considered to be important for two factors mainly, one being its tea trade industry, while the other being its proximity to the border of Bhutan, and its gateway to various nationally and internationally important reserve forests and national parks.

A beautiful thickly planted tea garden estate in Falakata

After spending a day and a half in Falakata, I made my progress towards Madarihat, a tiny hill-station, situated around 25 Kms away from Falakata. Madarihat is an important suburban town in Alipurduar district that is known globally as the major and probably the only seat of one horned rhinoceros.  The town, that is situated at the foothills of the Eastern Himalayan Range, houses the world famous Jaldapara Sanctuary, a national park famous mostly for its one horned rhinos, but also being a treasure trove of leopards, bison, peacocks, elephants and tigers.

The entrance to the globally famous Jaldapara Sanctuary, the house of one horned rhino

The only one horned rhino that I managed to click a photo of (entry into the forests was not being allowed during my visit due to an ongoing counting procedure of the wild life species)

It’s a huge expansive area, extremely strictly guarded and maintained. I had every intention to go on a jungle safari in the national park, but unfortunately I couldn’t, as during the time of my visit. The reason being an ongoing special census in the park, which referred to the conduction of a counting procedure of the number of animals of each species living in the park at a time. This was being specially done, so as to keep the records of living and also those died in the massive forest fires a couple of weeks before my visit. Madarihat is also the gateway to various other national parks including Gorumara, Hashimara and the Chilapata Corridor that serves as a passage for the wild life from one forest to another. A fun-fact is that it is located at only a 15 minutes drive from Phuntsholing in Bhutan, a different nation, while it is around 5 hours away from Assam, the neighboring state, and most shockingly a 18 hour train journey from Kolkata, its own state capital, which makes it closer to another state and a different nation, no less, in terms of distance than it is, from its own state territories. Anyway, Madarihat is the state capital for wooden furniture making. Due to its proximity to a number of forests, plenty of wood is easily available. A large number of borrowers were found to be engaged in successful wooden furniture business, not only selling furniture locally, but also customizing and exporting to neighboring states and countries for e.g. Bangladesh, Bhutan, etc. The furniture made there is claimed, and quite rightfully to be strong, hardy and durable.

Image of a borrower, a wood furniture maker and seller in her home, with a newly made dressing table

My work at Madarihat was mostly centered in and around a tiny beautiful village named Rangali Bazna. Rangali Bazna was a revelation with its enchanting scenic beauty.  The kind one sees in colorful movies, where the village is nestled inside an almost open and active forested area, with hills that could be viewed from far if the skies are clear enough. There’s a beautiful river that flows through the village, known to all as Mujnai. Since it is frequented by the wild animals, elephants mostly, the villagers prefer to not go out after 4’ o clock. They worship a mythical deity named Mahakal, a supposed incarnation of Hindu Lord Shiva, who they say, protect them from the wrath of nature and nature’s beings.  Every household, irrespective of faith and socio-economic status, has mud stumps in their front-yard, over which they place freshly plucked hibiscus flowers every morning, to please the Mahakal.

One such rural household in Madarihat, where Mahakal is being worshiped as expressed in the above photo

In Madarihat, I had come across some of the hardest working women, most of who were involved in multiple enterprises, either as an assisting partner or as the proprietor herself. This had pleased me enormously, since the picture at Madarihat resonated well with the motto of Milaap.
I was practically roaming from one borrower’s home to another’s, when suddenly  my accompanying field officer showed to me some large sized pits on a meadow, where some cows which were strolling on the meadow, were being led back to their respective homes, by their owners. I didn’t quite understand the context. The officer explained to me that those pits were no ordinary pits, and that those were actually foot prints of some giant elephants, which had come into the village last night.

Those aren't pits, my friend, those are the footprints of giant wild elephants

Since the day was nearing towards its end, and we had been informed that wild elephants would crowd the village roads anytime now, I had to get back to the safety of my hotel room. During the time of my visit, Corona virus had begun making its arrival known across the country, so I chose to not move around much anyway, other than work. Local people could still visit the market on Bhutan’s side, but the Monastery had closed its doors and would open no time soon to the visitors, till the Corona outbreak lessened to a satisfactorily low.  I had a bit of luck on my part, when I noticed some inhabitants of the nearby tribal village of Totopara. They weren’t much keen on communicating, hence I chose better to not interrupt them or click their photos. But if they had talked and let me take an educational peep into their lifestyle and habits, it would turn out to be one amazingly enriching experience. Fortunately, or unfortunately I don’t know yet, they have integrated remarkably with our ways of living. Some even go to schools and colleges, as said my hotel manager. A positive turn out being that they no more engage in breeding within families, which has in turn restored their vigor and health.
My next and the last destination in this work tour was the beautiful town of Cooch Behar, from where I was to board a pre-booked overnight bus to Kolkata, my home-city. A day’s stay in Cooch Behar was my necessity, but the stay offered to me a much needed pleasure after the previous three consecutive days of hard work. Those who have been to Cooch Behar are aware of its magnificent royal history and its remnants. Now that I have been there, I consider it my duty to make others aware of its rich heritage. Jaipur, in Rajasthan takes pride in the fact that they had a progressive, ultra modern and exceptionally beautiful "Maharani", who was a talented polo player and an active politician, proving to be much much ahead of her time. And why wouldn't she be? Daughter of an equally gutsy mother who had fled with her own Prince Charming in her teens to avoid marriage with the powerful Scindiyas, and the granddaughter of an English educated woman, the first woman CIE from India, also the daughter of a glorious father Sri Keshab Chandra Sen.
Gayatri Devi’s pedigree was a mixed one. She had inherited some of her finest qualities from the Gaekwads (her mother's family), the Kochs (her father's family) and Sens (her grandmother's lineage). An epitome of beauty and modernity, she had spent her growing up years in India and Europe. I always had a keen interest to see where she actually belonged from. I wanted to see the long corridors, verandas, and staircases, where she probably had spent a large part of her childhood with her siblings. Finally, work had brought me close to the Royal Palace, and a long awaited dream thus got fulfilled. Modeled after the Buckingham Palace, London, and conceptualized in Renaissance Architectural Style, the Cooch Behar Palace is a sight to behold.

The Cooch Behar Royal Palace

Gayatri Devi, though remembered worldwide as an eternal beauty and the politically powerful Maharani of Jaipur, back in Cooch Behar, she is the beloved daughter of the soil

Landscaped garden stretches on either side, starting from the royal gate and ending right before the patio, provides just the perfect dosage of greenness required to accentuate as well as compliment the grandeur of the Palace. Sadly, several historically valuable artifacts have been lost to theft, and only a few things are to be seen inside the Palace, that throw some light on the history and culture of the Koch Royals and the common Koch man.

An inside glimpse of the Durbar Hall, in Cooch Behar Palace

The outside view from a balcony in the Royal Palace, Cooch Behar

After spending a considerable amount of time admiring the exquisiteness of the Palace, I decided to visit the equally important and famous Madan Mohan Temple, built by King Nripendra Narayan, one of the most celebrated Koch rulers. Milky white in color, this temple is a beauty in its form and in ambiance, it offers not only a pleasant view all over, it calms one’s mind and helps one in self rejuvenation.

The beautiful Madan Mohan Temple, Cooch Behar

The temple complex has well maintained and vibrantly colorful gardens and hedges, which makes it an ideal place to not only pray, but to also pose and click Insta-worthy pictures. The temple worships a number of deities, Goddess Bhavani, Goddess Kali, Goddess Baradevi; though its main worshiped is Madan Mohan, the royal deity of Cooch Behar. People from all over Bengal come and offer their prayers and ask for wishes to be fulfilled by Madan Mohan’s grace and blessings.
Since, time was running out and I had to leave to board my bus, very reluctantly though, I left the abode of Madan Mohan, and proceeded towards the Central Bus Terminus of Cooch Behar.
Apparently, it wasn’t a pleasure tour, it wasn’t supposed to be one. Yet despite shortage of time and a tightly packed schedule, I had my shoulders, and feet, and eyes, and heart brush with a pinch of adventure and a handful of touristy pleasure. This is what makes my fellowship with Milaap an ever exciting one!

An inside glimpse of the Jaldapara National Park, a photo I managed to click from the watchtower of the hotel I stayed in