Travel Tales Part 6

I forgot to mention that we had, before returning to our hotel, hired a car to take us around the attractions that dot the countryside around Jhargram. The plan was that we would visit Kankrajhore and its environs today and then go towards Hatiburu the next day. We did think of taking a bus, but then realized that it would be impossible to visit most of the places we wanted to see by public transport.
Mr Binod Ghose was punctual to the minute and we set off at 8 AM in his old fashioned Maruti Van, The car was a  trifle worse for the wear. However, what it lacked in comfort, the driver made up with his obliging behavior and obvious desire to entertain and inform us. The big advantage of the seating arrangements in this car is that if there are two of you you can sit opposite each other talking face to face and lolling down like a couple of decadent Roman emperors going for a ride.  We had a very good two days with him. If you wish to hire his car; bear in mind that there is no air conditioning, you can call him at 9832332277.
View of the forest at Kankrajhore

Our first destination was to be Belpahari and Kankrajhore. Our route took us back along the way that we had come yesterday; past Silda of uncertain fame and then we deviated from the main state highway towards Belpahari. The road was indifferent, stretches were smooth, others pretty rough. And yes, the PWD was still proud to claim this road as their handiwork.
The way was past cultivated fields which gave way to some stretches of forest and areas of scrub. We reached Belpahari and a less attractive place is difficult to imagine. Dirty and full of feral cows and cowdung and patches of stagnant water which looked like the breeding grounds of malaria, I am amazed that the Tourism brochures mention this horrible place as an attraction. I saw the signposting for several homestays. I would not stay here if you paid me.
But subsequently, the road became magical. Forested, winding up and down over small hills and valleys, crossing an occasional hilly stream and past tribal villages. One could imagine what the Jungle Mahal was like before the population exploded. Plenty of red silk cotton were in bloom; but the palash trees, while plentiful, had yet to flower. About an hour and a half after we left Jhargram, we came to Kankrajhore.
Kankra, I am told means hills while jhor is forest in the local tribal language, thus Kanrajhore: forested hills. The verdant greenery here is comparatively untouched. A possible reason is that this was a hotbed of Maoist activity in the recent past and in fact, there is still a CRPF camp on the top of the hill there was once a Tourism Department bungalow which was burnt down at the height of the insurgency. A short road leads to the camp but the sentinel in the guardhouse prevented us from going closer to it. The camp is well fenced with barbed wire and watchtowers and it appears that they are still taking the possibility of a Maoist resurgence pretty seriously. As we strolled in the forest we saw that the jawans themselves were bringing back wood that they had obtained from the forest. It was not quite clear to me why they needed to use firewood. The local forest office was deserted; the Maoists had driven them off and they had yet to return. A signboard informed us that we were but 25 kilometers from Ghatsila in Jharkhand, once and even now the favoured destination for Bengali bhadralok looking for a “ change”.
An advertisement for a homestay, not the one mentioned in the text

It was difficult to leave the place, the woods were really dark and deep and very lovely indeed. We wandered about a bit, sat on a culvert and watched the surrounding countryside and though how wonderful it would be to camp here. Mr Ghosh introduced us to a local school teacher who runs a homestay here. Mr Mahato showed us around his homestay in a typical tribal house. The bedrooms were on the first floor of the building, pretty dark and to tell the truth not very attractive. However, I guess if you came to Kankrajore, you would spend most of your timeout of doors, so it did not really matter. He was charging Rs 800 per night all found. 

Frying the chops 
Sal leaf serving
The other goodies in the shop, not that I dared to have any 

There are some settlements along the road from Belpahari to Kankrajhore. On our way back we ate in an even more basic tea shop than usual. This was run by a husband and wife team. The husband sat in front of a huge wok where he was frying alu chops and other fritters while his wife made the tea and served customers. Other than us the only customers were the jawans from another Central Police camp, serving another grim reminder that these green forests also housed Maoists. The fried stuff was served on sal leaves, and the tea was typically what I call Bihari, with a surfeit of milk and sugar, thick, and very very refreshing. This is the tea served in dhabas and tea shops all over North India as anybody who has traveled along the highways in these parts will testify.
One interesting local handicraft was the making of rope from the fibres of some sort of Bamboo. The fibres are wound into ropes and then left to dry in the sun and what better place to dry them than the road that winds down the hills?
Ropes drying in the sun 
Swapanda watches as the rope is wound 
Another stage in the drying process

There are a number of really attractive destinations in these parts. We went to the Garashini temple atop a hill. The temple is comparatively new; it was built only in 2001 by a monk who also built an ashram at the bottom of the hill. It was a steep climb to get there, but one was rewarded by a magnificent view of the surrounding forests. It was possible, from here to appreciate the extent of the jungle, even after the depredations of recent times.
The tiny Garashini temple atop a hill 

 The Khandarini Lake has been created by damming the eponymous river and the resultant waterbody had attracted large numbers of migratory birds, teals, sheldrakes and many others. Then to the Ghagra waterfall which was not so much of a waterfall now that the waters were low, but the river narrows here to pass through a mini gorge surrounded by dense forest. A pleasant place to picnic and the remnants of past picnic parties were an unpleasant reminder that others had had the same idea. Finally to the Tarrafeni Barrage, another water body created by a barrage thrown across the Tarafeni river. The water has been diverted by a canal to irrigate the fields but the resultant lake was home to many species of water birds.
The basket with the leaves as traps 
In position at the bottom of the flow 
Drawing up the basket 
The fish!!

On the way back I stopped to see a novel fishing technique that I had never seen before, nor had I even read about it anywhere. At one place the Tarafeni River was pouring down a slope created by channeling the water over a barrage like structure. The fisherman stood on the top, which was the bridge as well and had lowered a basket to the bottom of the cascade of water. He had packed the baskets with some leaves and branches. As the fish was swept down the slope, some were trapped in the baskets and the leaves ensured that they could not leap pout again. At intervals he was drawing these up and retrieving the fish, He appeared to have had quite a good catch.
The Dulung River 

The next day we visited Chilkigarh and the Dulung River. Much has been written about Chilkigarh, so that I am refraining from adding another description. I was revisiting this place after about 30 years and I saw that there has been much improvement in the infrastructure and nice trails have been made so that those interested can wander around the forest. The Dulung River remains as charming as ever. The Chilkigargh palace, home of the local Zamindars has now been partly taken over by the Government which runs some offices from these magnificent buildings. The temples constructed by the rajas were well preserved and the grounds are extensive and, I am told the site of a major mela at various festival times.

Chilkigarh Palace 

A temple in the palace grounds 
A chariot awaits 

 Later we crossed the Subarnarekha River to enter Gopiballavpur. According to our trusty driver, even a few years ago, large size ilish ( Hilsa)  was caught in the Subarnarekha. The Subarnarekha competes with the Narmada, in my opinion for the title of the prettiest river in the midriff of India. In my younger days we spent two glorious winter vacations in Ghatsila where I have seen it in all its glory. I must go back sometime to renew my acquaintance.
The Subarnarekha 

Close to Gopiballavpur is the Jhilli Pakhiralaya (Bird Sanctuary), It is a huge lake secreted in the middle of a swathe of forest which enters Odisha and is contiguous with the Simlipal National Park. A recreational area has been created alongside the lake and you can also stay over in tiny cottages built by the Gram Panchayat. Later we drove through the forests of Hathibari before  entering the Kolkata Mumbai Highway and turning off to Jhargram.
The Jhilli Pakhiralaya

 The next day we took an early train to Kharagpur and then to Howrah. I dropped off Swapanda at his house. I have to take the flight to Bagdogra the next morning.


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