By: Porni Banerjee
The year 2020 has witnessed a lot of restrictions and I missed the ‘big fat’ Durga puja in Kolkata because of the corona pandemic. Every by lane somewhat wept for the vibrant pandals and the magnificent devi. And this festival reminded me very much of our travelling to beautiful Dooars during puja in 2019.
The month was October and autumn has just arrived. Cool winds were ready to breeze in the atmosphere of the city of joy. And most importantly, we all could feel the essence of joy of Goddess Durga’s homecoming. However, this time, the celebration was planned in the midst of woods with a flavour of some adventure. My family along with friends were all set for destination Dooars during Durga puja.
The day was panchami. I knew we had to leave for Dooars just the very next day early morning at 4. Half of my luggage was unpacked even. However, I was determined to go for pandal hopping. It was Durga puja after all and how could I drop the idea of devi darshan being a Bengali? Hence, one of my decade-old school friends and I decked ourselves up and got ready to head towards North Kolkata. The idea of ‘theme pujo’ is not a new concept in Kolkata and North Kolkata offers one a chance to see beautiful pandals having picturesque idols of the goddess. Vibrancy in pandals is also extremely prominent in South Kolkata.
Nevertheless, on our way to the North in a bus, we both were busy planning which routes to take for pandal sightseeing when interestingly, we met an old man who proposed to us the idea of showing some in that area. Elated, we did not think twice and instantly agreed with his idea. Pandals like College Square, Manicktala Chaltabagan Lohapatty, Mohammad Ali Park and Shimla Byaam Sangha completely bowled us over with their unique artistry.
The clock struck 4 am. I hardly got any time to take a sound sleep as I was busy hopping pandals crazily nearby my place till late night. Although a bit dizzy, I managed to wake up anyway. It was travel time after all. And who doesn’t love exploring seas, mountains, deserts and forests? I am not any exception of course. Hence, I took a ‘corporate bath’, got ready and set off for Dooars. It was pitch dark and tranquil all over. My parents and I, including other family friends, met at one place. Since the group was large, one of my uncles decided to take his Ertiga. We tied our entire luggage and were now all set for adventure in the woods.
Dooars are floodplains mainly well known for dense forests and tea gardens in Bengal. A number of endangered animals and birds can also be found there including Bengal tiger, Indian elephant, leopards, Indian rhinoceros, Indian cobra, python, hornbill, peacocks and many more.
Our journey started with light chats, laughing, talking and munching on some cupcakes or chips in the car. Everything was going smooth when in the afternoon we realised that the road we took to reach Dooars was pathetically in a bad condition. Driving became a challenging task as there were potholes all over the road. We all started wondering what would happen next.
It was already six in the evening now and we were all exhausted and hungry. Hence, we decided to take a halt at a small restaurant in Malda district for a tea and pakoda break. Although hunger was gone after a while, thoughts were swirling in our heads. Travelling 14 hours at a stretch from Kolkata to Dooars on the ugly road was a matter of concern for us. Immediately my father decided to call another friend who advised us to stay at a government lodge at Raniganj for a night. The lodge was fairly in a good condition with all necessary facilities available and we were happy to get air-conditioned rooms after such a hectic journey. Turning on the AC and lying down in beds at just one go after freshening ourselves up in the evening with light clothes on was so comfortable for us. Later, the dinner served was simple that included daal, chawal and sabji and were satisfied after eating. One has rightly said, ‘All’s well that ends well’. Relieved and satisfied, we had a tight sleep that night with happy stomachs.
I woke up to a bright morning at 6 with greenery and tranquillity everywhere. That was the onset of winter and there was light fog all around. I was amazed to see a variety of birds chirping and hovering around. Such beauty one could hardly get in cities or megacities. This was just the beginning and I knew more such surprises were awaiting my way in Dooars.
Hurray! Dooars was calling and I couldn’t wait further to reach our destination. We finally reached a resort at Kodalbasti forest in Dooars at around 7 in the evening. I was on the laps of nature that I had longed for so long. I felt the deep darkness of the silent night and could only hear the sound of river Torsha flowing past our resort which was made entirely of wood.
After reaching there, we quickly freshened ourselves up and were all ready for light chats over cups of soothing tea and fish fries. One man and his two sons helped us with all our requirements. However, one problem hindered our activities. Forget internet connectivity or phone network, there was an electricity issue. Nevertheless, we managed that night somehow with the help of torches.
The clock struck 6 in the morning. That day, I woke up to a beautiful morning – our resort, greenery, the river and no houses nearby.
“Elephant, Elephant”! My father shouted in excitement. Elated, I quickly woke up at one go and rushed to the balcony to see them. Elephants in Dooars are wild and unlike the ones that we see in cities or once in circuses.
Post our simple lunch that included rice, daal, and fish curry, we left for another resort at Panijhora forest and finally reached our destination after approximately two hours. In the midst of a vast dense jungle laid a small resort.
On having entered, I noticed that the rooms were quite spacious with comfortable beds and wide windows which offered a scenic beauty at the back of the resort.
The day was ashtami and I was all decked up as we all decided to visit the nearby pandal for pushpanjali puja. It is believed that during this ritual Goddess Durga opens her third eye to shower her blessings on her devotees while the latter chants the mantra thrice along with the Bengali Brahmin priest.
In addition to its picturesque beauty, Dooars has boxes full of surprises. We were all so delighted to notice that the locals at the puja mandap left no stone unturned about our hospitality and never made us feel the fish out of water. The next two days were spent at the resort only relaxing and chatting amongst ourselves.
This day is indeed memorable. That evening was well spent with a flavour of some adventure. It was a full moon night and light chats were going on over hard drinks and other snacks when suddenly we saw a giant wild elephant nearby our resort. There was utter silence all around. The moonlight fell on it which looked literally glamorous. We were awestruck by the beauty of the wild elephant. Focus was shifted from alcohol to the elephant! However, it was chased away after a while else it would have chased us and destroyed the plantation nearby and our resort.
Our visit to river jayanti which is approximately an hour from our resort is also worth a mention. Adventure spoke volume while passing through a deep jungle with an eerie silence and greenery all around to reach at the destination river jayanti which is a good picnic spot as well. Sitting by the riverside while carefully watching the playful ripples in addition to taking a view of the hills across the river which is the region of Bhutan is indeed paradisiacal.
A fresh start with new experiences! Post our breakfast, we set for yet another resort at Chilapata forest from Panijhora forest. The day was bright and sunny and my eyes were full of hopes for some new adventures. We reached our destination in the afternoon. The cottage we stayed in was petite and situated in the middle of a vast rice field which looked just like that in fairy tale stories.
Since I’m slightly inclined towards fascinating historical facts, we decided to visit the palace of Coochbehar where Maharani Gayatri Devi would live before her marriage. The palace is grand, jaw droppingly beautiful and houses a number of antique artefacts.
Post our lunch, I could wait for no longer to go for jungle safari in the Chilapata district. The one hour safari was one of its kinds. Although we could not get a glimpse of any wild animal, it gave a different feeling to pass through the alleys of the jungle. Locals say that wild animals like tigers, elephants and bears are found best in jungles during winters. We even enjoyed a tribal dance performed by a few Santhali women that was included within the package of our safari. On having returned to our resort, the evening was well spent over light chats and soft steamed momos.
It was time to return to Kolkata. But there’s a twist! The story doesn’t end here. Everyone seemed somewhat quiet in the car. Suddenly we decided to stay back one more day there but at an all new place. Hence, we immediately changed the route and headed towards Jaldhaka forest. This decision finally brought smiles in our faces.
A slight research on the internet brought us to a resort where we received a warm welcome by the owner couple after reaching there in the afternoon. Post our arrival; I discovered something unique, something surreal. A bright sunshine that made everything look vibrant, vast rice fields, a view of Bhutan in the form of Himalayan mountain ranges and river jaldhaka passing by our resort looked absolutely mesmerising as if a painter has splashed all the hues there at one place under the sun.
I found myself in a fantasy world as I sat in the balcony of my room and saw the river flowing endlessly and hearing the typical sound of the train while it crossed the rail bridge.
“Hey! Why don’t ‘you’ try crossing the rail bridge once”? The lady owner boldly asked me. Although, I was a bit nervous initially but not reluctant. Hence, I decided to reach there in the evening before dusk. Going across the river by crossing the bridge will lead you to a watch tower that gives you a 180 degree view of the surroundings. Locals say that if luck favours, one can even get a chance to see elephants or bison from the tower that come to the river to quench their thirst.
The eight-year-old daughter of the owners accompanied me as she was familiar with the place. After walking a few meters, we reached the rail bridge. But it was already somewhat dark. I felt good seeing the kid encouraging me to perform the daring task with cent percent confidence. Hence, keeping self doubt aside, I first took a few tiny steps. I could hear the sound of the river below very loud and the bridge was also partially shaking. But I was determined to perform the daring task. I could not get a glimpse of any wild animals, but I was happy to do such a bold task.
The owners were game, generous and friendly. They did not treat us like any other customers. “How about night safari”? The owner asked me seeing my so-called adventurous nature. I without even a second thought, agreed to his proposal. It was once in a lifetime opportunity for me and I did not want to miss it at any cost.
The owners, their daughter, one family of three and I were all set for the safari at 12 am. Seeing King Cobra at a petrol pump on our way to the safari was unreal that added more thrill to our adventure. There was none on the streets except the pitch darkness and dense forests that followed us all throughout. We tried tooth and nail to watch any elephant or bison and the like. But we failed again this time. They are usually best seen in winters in December or January. Nevertheless, it was a memorable experience and probably that is the reason I have expressed my feeling here in this story.
The day finally arrived to bid good bye to Dooars. I was remembering all the beautiful days we’d spent together. But as we know, if there’s a beginning, there’s an end. I didn’t want to get out of the lap of nature, but I knew Kolkata was calling me and I was now longing to see the streets and by lanes, my home and feel the air of the city too. I got ready to go back to my destination. I hugged the cute little kid and left early in the morning without any further delay. We halted in between Malda district only for lunch. Our journey to Kolkata was safe and sound and reached our respective homes by evening.
P.S. In the car on my way back to Kolkata, I learnt that travelling surely teaches you how to live the moments with eyes full of hopes and positivity. This trip led me to a quiet introspection that travelling is meditation for me and celebration of my life amidst hassles.