The tepid sun of winter tracked the weed free spots of ponds to gauge its sheen. Our car growled over the many bridges across the endless rivers. My arms itched to cuddle the droopy-eyed puppies snugging quietly by the sequestered road corners. My husband, Subha was at the wheels. I fed our daughter Nirjhorini from time to time during the long journey - first rice, dal and boiled potato, then juice, after that bananas and finally biscuits. Accompanying us were my father and maternal uncle.
The tourist accommodation we had booked for our stay in Jhargram was named Jhargramer Rajbari although it was not the residence of any former kings, but a brand new complex situated beside the actual palace. After the procedures at the reception, we passed through a spacious dining room, crossed a short bridge over a narrow blue pool and spotted the cottage allotted to us. The two-roomed blocks overlooked a large square pond surrounded by evenly spaced trees. There were swings, slides and see-saws on a stretch of green next to the pond. Nirjhorini sprinted to the swing, and after several ascents towards the boughs of trees, with her shadow playfully cloaking and uncloaking the grass flowers, she leaped out to explore the slide and the see-saw. It was a Herculean task to coax her away from these delights to get her ready for lunch and then confine her to the dining chair through the lengthy meal of rice, dal, alu bhaja, vegetable curry and majher jhol.
A five minutes car ride took us to Kanak Durga temple. The presence of a designated parking space, drinking water, toilets and lights along the road leading to the temple indicated at efforts to develop it into a proper tourist attraction. We followed the road, walled by the forest on both sides and passed by a children's park, now shrouded in darkness, before arriving at the clearing where the temple stood. There was a sand covered platform in front of the shrine. We took off our shoes and stepped inside the abode of the Goddess, as the priest conducted the arati, swaying a burning lamp in front of the deity with the rhythmic twists of his hand. Unlike the previous temple, here the sound was not produced by bells and cymbals, but it emanated from a box like device. Somehow, the tune sounded more war-like than devotional. When asked how such a device came into the temple, the priest's assistant replied that it had been gifted by someone, whose identity he was not sure of. We suspected the music box had been donated by one of these recently spawned fundamentalist groups intent on creating divisive sentiments.
When we returned to the tourist complex, blue and violet lights twinkled along the edge of the pond and intensified the shimmer of the water, and it seemed as if we had walked into a fairyland.
The next morning, before setting out for
Purulia, we took a stroll in the Jhargram Palace premises, admiring the flowers dotting the well-maintained garden and watching the birds fly off from the tops of the towering trees. A defunct fountain, encircled by potted plants, and two old temples (they were locked at the time of our visit) in the camaraderie of trees also caught our interest.
The trip to the top of the Ajodhya Pahar in Purulia took the greater part of our day. Reaching the hotel (Akash Hotel) when the birds were swooping down to their nests, we looked out of the wide windows of our room. The hills were in full regalia - draped in greenery, veiled by mist, and crowned by the setting sun.
Subha, Nirjhorini and myself were staying in one room while my father and uncle shared the adjacent one. Both had an adjoining balcony. Soft moonlight seeped into the fibers of our woolen as we stepped in our balcony at the time of sunrise. For the next few minutes, we shuttled between the two balconies to gaze at the full moon from one and watch the spreading red glow of a-soon-to-emerge sun from the other. Finally a dazzling red crest appeared behind the trees and revealed more and more of itself with each passing moment, transforming the deep valleys into receptacles of its colors, which in turn, pricked by the sharp edges of hills, leaked the light down to the trees and all over the landscape. Ambling to the other balcony, we were surprised to see the moon afloat in the sea of sunlight, though only for a few more seconds.
The next couple of hours were a whirl of activities that included bathing Nirjhorini and myself, feeding her omelette and toasts and finally settling down for my own breakfast. Nirjhorini's meal was interrupted several times by her frequent leaps from the chair. While chasing her round and round the dining room with the plate, I was aided by an aquarium, which at least prevented her from dashing to the swings outside.
After packing Nirjhorini's mid-morning and late afternoon meals in small steel containers, we set out to explore Ajodhya Pahar. Our first stop was Bamni Falls. We climbed down a steep rock cut stairway to reach the waterfall that scraped its way down the rugged hills and threaded through the greenery below. The place was thronging with tourists, who clicked photographs and drenched themselves in the frenzied sprays.
Our ascent up the stairs was a little exhausting. We gulped down cold drinks, bought from the vendors who had built makeshift stalls on a comparatively gentle stretch of the slope. Their wares included bamboo and wooden ornaments, hair clips, vases and showpieces. Our next stop was at a road bend that presented us a captivating view of a sparkling reservoir several feet below. As we descended down to the edge of the water body to luxuriate in its beauty from close proximity, we spotted the stream that was flowing into it and decided to trail the curly strip of water. Nirjhorini demanded to know where the quicksand was. She wished to step in it first and then be hauled up by us. Treading on sand and wet rocks, skirting gnarled branches of dead plants, we reached the source of the stream - the voluminous Turga Falls. The water roared down, sparking off white streaks of current and lashing at the boulders in the course of its strides.
The village named Charida is famous for its Chhau dance masks. It was a pleasure watching the villagers at work: one drawing an eye on a clay face with a perfect sweep of his finely pointed brush and another needling shiny embellishments to the crown.
Marble Lake, a deep pit born out of quarrying, was another visual delight with its glittering waters and semi-geometric shape. Back in the hotel room, we rejuvenated in the flow of conversations, in the clink of glasses and the gleam of Scotch(bought from Kolkata). We had ordered some snacks. The chicken pakoras, French fries and crispy mushroom were any foodie's wish fulfillment, thrilling our taste buds, enhancing the pleasure of the sips in between and living up to the splendid experiences of the day.
Black and white patched ducks waded in a square, muddy pond in front of the dining shed, which was a two-minutes walk from our hut. The fluttering of colorful flags stirred up a Carnival feel. Other holidaymakers stepped out of tents that also belonged to the resort and were lined up along the red path running by the pond. These tourists, too, sauntered to the dining shade and queued up at the long narrow table where the various items were arranged, like in a wedding buffet. After a delicious vegetarian meal(rui machher jhol was available too) comprising of rice, dal, alu bhaja, begun bhaja, ghee, paneer-r dalna, chutney and papad, we hurried to the river bank lest we missed the scenery, which would soon be swept under darkness.
Subha made the best of the last traces of sunlight by clambering up the boulders to explore a hill. In a matter of minutes, the dense bushes patching the slope blended into the approaching dusk. The river water rose in dark ripples in emulation of the dark curves of the hills. A couple of hours later in the evening we gathered in the dinning shed to sip tea and sink in the company of the other tourists. Their warmth and friendliness overruled the fact that we had just met. A surprise waited for us in the form of spicy alur chops with muri-makha. We were also treated to cakes as it was Christmas. To my delight, Nirjhorini, who is not too fond of cakes, gnawed up one fairly large slice without fuss.
Despite the breathtaking beauty, like in many regions of India and even parts of Kolkata, the poverty in these hilly villages is unsettling. Bare-bodied children roamed about in the cold, squabbling over a packet of plain biscuits. Here, unemployment and lack of education fosters alcoholism. Dearth of medical facilities lead to untimely deaths. Family planning, too, seems to have remained an alien concept. It is not uncommon to find six-seven siblings walloped by hunger and clawed by diseases, while both parents perished in alcohol.
The next day, on our way back to Kolkata, we took a detour to visit Gangani, a gorge carved out of the red soil by river Silabati and other natural forces. Popularly known as the Grand Canyon of Bengal(though I despise such an epithet and the general tendency to compare anything/anyone remarkable in India with something/someone in a developed nation), Gangani is located in the small town of Garbeta. The surface of the earth, resembling a series of giant waves, is tufted with sparse vegetation, sprinkled with wild flowers and furrowed by natural, shady pathways.
We returned home at 11 PM, hungry and tired, but buzzing with the vibes of the wondrous trip. Subha had driven all the way from Kolkata to Jhargram, Jhargram to Ajodhya Pahar and back to Kolkata. He had also taken us to all the marvelous places in the vicinity of the spots where we stayed, sometimes maneuvering through the constricted village roads and sometimes along the steep hilly paths. Our exhaustion sieved out all lurking stresses, letting us flow into a peaceful sleep, which in turn, molded us for our next day's challenges.