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Traveling West Bengal like a local

6

In the local (mode of transportation). To feel the local (way of life). With the local (my best friend).

Six month after I was born, my dad was posted in Kolkata. My aunt till date, says how lucky I was to have traveled in a helicopter at that age. I wish I could remember how I felt and I think I slept off the entire journey. But I would like to believe that my travel bug got me then. We stayed in Kolkata for a few years. Even though I cannot remember anything, it feels like home. Every time I land in Kolkata, be it for layover or for friend’s wedding. Also, I cleared my first job interview in Kolkata. So, this city has been my cause of joy  for many reasons. And as much as I wanted to explore every nook and corner of the city and planned to go pandal-hopping during Durga Puja every year, I was not able to. Until this year.

Nook and CornersPhoto Copyrights - Priyam Kakoti Bora (@nookandcorners)

I don’t believe in having only one best friend. Because I am blessed to have three. Aparna, Sabreen and Senjuti. Though I cannot quite pin-point what bind us together, but our worlds seem so much easier only because we have each other. Senjuti is the first among us to have bought a house and we had always planned on visiting Kolkata together to see her house and celebrate. But jobs came in the way and it became impossible to find a suitable time-slot where we four can travel to Kolkata together. Aparna’s parents had moved to Kolkata and she planned on visiting them in January. Senjuti also planned to be home during that time. I had moved to Assam in December and Kolkata was not very far for me to decline anymore.

So we decided to meet on the Republic Day weekend, even though Sabreen could not join us because of deadlines at work. Senjuti was our local guide and would take/show us around her home-city. As I reached a day earlier than Aparna,  I asked Senjuti to plan and we decided to try and visit Sundarban. It is not often recommended but we wanted to challenge it. I was excited to travel Kolkata on a budget and eat all the street-foods which I had heard so much about.

TRAVEL DATES: 24th-28th January 2018

DAY 1

We wanted to see whether Sundarbans tour is possible through local/public transport in a day. Being on a budget also meant not being tempted by the packages offered by many travel companies for Sundarbans tour.

The nearest railway station to the Sundarbans is Canning (South Kolkata). We set out early morning from Konnagar (where Senjuti lives; in Hooghly district) around 6 AM to catch the morning train to Howrah (15 INR per person till Canning). We packed a couple of Bapuji cakes (local bakery cakes, available warm in the morning; 6 INR per cake) for our journey. The train to Canning (Canning Local) is available from Sealdah. So we hopped on a bus from Howrah to Sealdah (8 INR per person) and reached just on time to catch the train to Canning. As we traveled south onward, we could hear the sweet dialect of Bengali changing to a faster version. The women folk chatted about their daily lives on the train while I and Senjuti began to enjoy the clean, crisp air of the countryside.

After 1 hour 15 minutes, we arrived at Canning railway station. I think we were the only travelers on that train. I had read about Chere Paratha (10 INR per plate) being sold at the station. Since we came without any breakfast, we decided to try it out before proceeding any further. It is basically huge pooris, shredded to eat like tacos with Ghugni served on top. It was really delicious and we also asked around how to reach Godkhali (ferry point for Sundarban). They told us that shared taxis and buses are available outside the railway station. The buses run between Canning and Godkhali (1 hour journey) on an hourly basis. We missed one by a few minutes and decided to take the next available shared taxi (20 INR per person).

Nook and CornersPhoto Copyrights - Priyam Kakoti Bora (@nookandcorners)

The roads were good and as I always do on a good journey, I took a nap. An hour later, we reached Godkhali and headed to find out where we can get the next ride to the Sundarbans National Park. We wanted to check out whether cheaper means of transportation were available. Shared boats were available only for travel to Gosaba, a nearby village. The shopkeeper who we got water bottles and snacks from, directed us to a local travel agent (Jayanti Tours and Travels). After a lot of persuasion and negotiation, the agent agreed to take us on a 1- day tour at a nominal price (3000 INR for 6 hours; off-season price).

The plan was to cover 2 main watch-towers: Sajnekhali and Sudhanyakhali. We kept our fingers crossed, hoping to catch sight of the Royal Bengal Tiger and other animals. But since it was almost afternoon, chances were slim. The boat (also known as launch) was really good with a comfortable seat on the top deck. The sailor, Suman Haldar happened to be the son of the agent and was a friendly guy. He gave us information on the Sunderbans, its villages, types of mangroves and how his family has been running the boat business since his grandfather started it. He patiently answered all our queries.

Nook and CornersPhoto Copyrights - Priyam Kakoti Bora (@nookandcorners)
The Sundarbans National Park is a National Park, Tiger Reserve, and a Biosphere Reserve in West Bengal, India. It is part of the Sundarbans on the Ganges Delta, and adjacent to the Sundarban Reserve Forest in Bangladesh. The delta is densely covered by mangrove forests, and is one of the largest reserves for the Bengal tiger. It is also home to a variety of bird, reptile and invertebrate species, including the salt-water crocodile. (Source – Wikipedia)
Nook and CornersPhoto Copyrights - Priyam Kakoti Bora (@nookandcorners)

We arrived at Sajnekhali Watch Tower. This is the point of collection for the entry permit into the Sunderban Tiger Reserve (60 INR per person, 400 per boat) and also where a mandatory tourist guide (460 INR per guide) accompanies us for the rest of the journey. Our guide, Pulak was from the nearby village and had recently joined as a tourist guide. He took us around the Sajnekhali Eco-tourism complex, which housed a crocodile park as well as a museum. There was a Banbibi Mata temple and he told us the story of how she became revered in the Sunderbans as the forest Goddess.

Ma Bonbibi originally emerged as a “super power” who protected the fishing community, honey-gatherers, wood-cutters and others who entered the jungle from tiger attacks. A 19th century booklet, Bonbibi Johuranama, tells her story, probably authored by a Muslim – it’s in Bengali, written from left to right, but back to front to emulate the Arabic script.
Nook and CornersPhoto Copyrights - Priyam Kakoti Bora (@nookandcorners)

We sailed towards Sudhanyakhali Watch Tower, hoping to find a tiger drinking water or may be crossing the delta. We could see the border of Bangladesh and saw a ship carrying ash from India to Bangladesh. Navigating through the international waters, Pulak and Suman took us through various routes where tigers are normally seen. They told us stories of how often they had seen tigers crossing between the two countries and showed us the video of doing so. Once, when they saw a tiger trying to cross from far, they sped up the boat to interrupt it midway. But the tiger swam fast and reached the shore before they could reach him. It is amazing to find out how fast the tigers can cross the countries because the delta is quite deep and wide. At least, they don’t need VISA or Passport to cross over.

We reached Sudhanyakhali watch tower but saw no sign of the Royal Bengal Tiger yet. We saw monkeys instead, trying to steal food from another boat. Inside, the tower security informed us to proceed quietly as a pair of Deer had appeared from the forest. We got to see them and take pictures before they ran back to the safety of their dense forests. The forest department has cleared some land area with a pool nearby so that visitors can see tigers when they visit. However, we were not so lucky. But we still craned our neck with wide open eyes the entire way, hoping to catch as glimpse of the elusive king of the Sunderbans.

Nook and CornersPhoto Copyrights - Priyam Kakoti Bora (@nookandcorners)

Despite the obvious disappointment, we still managed to have a great time. Sailing along the delta felt very peaceful and we saw the various species of Mangroves on the way. It reminded me of the Mangrove safari trip I did last year in Sri Lanka. (Read about it here.) Pulak and Suman tried their best to show us a tiger and were apologetic and sad that we could not see one. Even though it was not their fault, their humility and bigheartedness made our journey more memorable. I and Senjuti could never stop praising how simple and friendly the people were in Godkhali.

Nook and CornersPhoto Copyrights - Priyam Kakoti Bora (@nookandcorners)

After a quick cup of tea, we got on the bus to Canning (20 INR per person). The bus sped all the way with the conductor shouting at the people who dared to be on its way. We had delicious Phuchhkas (paanipuri/golgappa; 10 INR per batch) served by a lady (a rare sight according to Senjuti) and packed a plate of Chowmein (which again, were to die for; 40 INR) for the way back. The return journey would take us 2 hours but we were rejuvenated by the memorable day we had. Even though we could not catch sight of the Royal Bengal Tiger, we managed to do the tour locally and on a budget, met amazing people and had some heavenly street foods.  I am now looking forward to the rest of my trip.

DAY 2:

We had a good sleep but woke up early again to go on Kolkata City Tour. The plan was to cover all means of local transportation to visit the iconic places within the city.

Like the previous day, we boarded the local train from Konnagar to Howrah (10 INR per person). The Howrah Ferry Ghat was within a walking distance and the Howrah bridge looked wonderful from the ghat. We were going to Bagbazar by ferry (6 INR per person) and I was excited to know that we will be cruising under the iconic bridge. I tried my best to take pictures of the entire bridge from the ghat but it kept getting difficult with the increasing crowd awaiting the ferry. In the ferry, I was allowed to walk towards  the back of the ferry and as we kept moving ahead, the Howrah bridge came in full view for my camera. At last, I got a shot that I liked.

Kolkata, Nook and CornersPhoto Copyrights - Priyam Kakoti Bora (@nookandcorners)

We arrived at Bagbazar (also spelt as Baghbazar) ferry ghat and as it was early in the morning, people had started bathing and praying in the Ghats. Little tea-shops had opened and we had Bhare Chah (kullad/matka chai; 5 INR for the small one and 10 INR for the bigger one). Nothing could beat a good cup of tea in the morning. We found a small shop selling breakfast meals like Kachuri, Aloo Chop etc. We had a plate of Kachuri, Ghugni and Jalebi each (14 INR per plate) and it was mouth-watering. No wonder, Kolkata is among the best places to have street-foods.

Kolkata, Nook and CornersPhoto Copyrights - Priyam Kakoti Bora (@nookandcorners)

As Senjuti walked me through the narrow lanes towards her maternal grandparents’ place, I could not help getting carried away by the old, rustic charm of the city. The houses have lanes inside itself and one main door lead to many doors inside.  I was intrigued by the architecture of it all and often peeked at houses whose main door were left open. The old houses with shuttered windows and spacious porches on the ground floor are another thing that I have always loved about Kolkata. I made a mental note to come back again and spend a few days roaming (and photographing) around these lanes.

Kolkata, Nook and CornersPhoto Copyrights - Priyam Kakoti Bora (@nookandcorners)

The house where Senjuti’s maternal Aunt lived had 7 families living under one roof. I was bewildered by how a house that looked small from outside is not in reality. There were spiral staircases inside to go to the first floor. Senjuti showed me around how she used to spend her holidays with her cousin and how much the house has remained the same since her childhood. I was amazed by the the paintings that her grandfather made, specially the portrait of her grandmother. No wonder Senjuti paints so well herself. I loved the corner in the window where one can sit and daydream or gaze outside.

Nook and Corners, KolkataPhoto Copyrights - Priyam Kakoti Bora (@nookandcorners)

After bidding Aunt goodbye, we headed towards Kumartuli, the famous potters’ quartersIt holds an important place in history which has a long tradition of clay idol-making along with a strong association with the most important festival of Bengal – Durga Puja. The entire vibe of this area changes before Durga Puja, as they get ready putting final touches on the idols. The roads were almost empty when we went as it is not Puja time and we could see some artists/Karigars working on some private orders. While some were busy making the framework, others were busy sculpting out the details of their idols. It was inspiring to see the artists at work, the details that they worked on and some even allowed me to take photos of their work. I could feel how festive the atmosphere must be during Puja time. (Another mental note to come back before Puja.)

Nook and Corners, KolkataPhoto Copyrights - Priyam Kakoti Bora (@nookandcorners)
Kolkata, Nook and CornersPhoto Copyrights - Priyam Kakoti Bora (@nookandcorners)

Aparna and her family joined us here and we took a taxi to Jorasanko Thakurbari. It is the ancestral home of the Tagore family (yes, Rabindranath Tagore’s family). Though Google said that it would be open but when we arrived at the location, we found that it was closed on account of Republic Day. Apparently, it remains closed on all public holidays and Mondays. I really wanted to get inside since I wanted to see the big houses of affluent Bengali families with their huge courts in the center. So far, I have seen them only in movies/TV shows and I was really excited about the plan to see Thakurbari. The red-green color of the house was already tempting enough. I tried pleading with the officials and when they didn’t relent, I had to dejectedly content myself with a few photographs through the closed gates.

Kolkata, Nook and CornersPhoto Copyrights - Priyam Kakoti Bora (@nookandcorners)

Next on our agenda was to have Kolkata Biryani for lunch. The best being served at Arsalan Restaurant in Park Circus, we took a taxi there while Aparna’s family went ahead in their car to book a table for us. The place was crowded and had a long queue out in front. Thankfully, we got a table and had a scrumptious lunch of Biryani with chicken and mutton gravies. After we bade goodbye to Aparna’s family, we three went to see Senjuti’s undergraduate college, Lady Brabourne College. 

Our next destination was the South Park Street Cemetery (10 INR per person, 70 INR per camera). Though I told them I won’t use the camera, the officials insisted on paying up for it. The thought of being in a cemetery was eerie for me but I had decided on going anywhere Senjuti took us. I held on to both of them and was relieved that they were not a scaredy-cat like me . It was almost evening and we had planned on reaching Prinsep Ghat to see the sunset from a local boat. We reached on time but there was a long queue for boats (as it was a holiday) and the sun set before we could book any. So we took a walk around, had some Ghoti Gorom (10 INR), a snack and took lot of selfies.

Kolkata, Nook and CornersPhoto Copyrights - Priyam Kakoti Bora (@nookandcorners)

The day had been a long one and we decided to turn in for the night after a last stop at Flurry’s in Park Street. Since Aparna missed out on the morning tour of the Howrah, we booked tickets for ferry just so that we can see Howrah bridge at night, from the secluded ghat – a perfect end to an eventful second day in Kolkata.

DAY 3

Another morning to wake up early as we have a train to catch for Bolpur/Santi Niketan. We dragged ourselves from bed and got ready. Senjuti’s mom was joining us too. We ran to the station and got on the local train to Sheoraphuli. From there, another train to Bolpur.

Since we had general tickets (unreserved; 65 INR per person from Konnagar to Bolpur), it meant we had no reserved seats for ourselves. Luckily, we found a seat for Aunty and made ourselves comfortable in the upper berth, usually meant to keep luggage. The street food vendors came often and we had Jhalmuri, Samosa and tea over the entire journey. It took us around 2 hours to reach our destination. A pre-booked toto (electric vehicle) awaited us on the instructions of Senjuti’s dad, to take us around for the entire day (1000 INR for the entire day).

Nook and CornersPhoto Copyrights - Priyam Kakoti Bora (@nookandcorners)

Since Aparna’s family was joining us in Santi Niketan, we decided to visit Konkaali temple in Bolpur to pass the time until they arrived. Senjuti informed us that Baul musicians are often found singing outside the temple and we should listen to their soul stirring music.

Baul or Bauls  are a group of mystic minstrels from Bengal, which includes the country of Bangladesh and the Indian State of West Bengal. Bauls constitute both a syncretic religious sect and a musical tradition. They can often be identified by their distinctive clothes and musical instruments. Not much is known of their origin. (Source- Wikipedia)

We found ourselves in a local market, selling all indigenous things like souvenirs, jewelry and clothes. They were priced reasonably and I had to keep myself from being tempted to buy anything. Thankfully, my attention was diverted by a young Baul singer, who enthralled us with his melodious voice and music from Dotara. It reminded me of folk music from western part of Assam and I suspect it might be because of the shared borders. Aunty told us how they are a romantic community and get married by exchanging a piece of jewelry that they wear since childhood. Senjuti translated the lyrics for us and we had to agree that they are quite the romantics. We set out for Shanti Niketan, humming the tunes of the Baul song that we had just heard.

Nook and CornersPhoto Copyrights - Priyam Kakoti Bora (@nookandcorners)

“Tomay hriday majhe rakhbo, chere debo naa…” loosely translated as I will keep you in my heart and I will never let you go.

We had a heartwarming local breakfast of Muri (puffed rice), Ghugni and Aloo Chop. A combination which I had never tried nor seen earlier and I was surprised to find out that it worked perfectly with each other. Apparently, it is much preferred by the villagers since it is a filling meal and they can work in the firelds the entire day without  getting hungry.  We still managed to finish two Nolen Gurer Rosogulla along-with our heavy meal.

Nook and CornersPhoto Copyrights - Priyam Kakoti Bora (@nookandcorners)

Refreshed, we were eager to explore Santi Niketan. I had heard so much about this place. Dad wanted to send my 5 year old elder sister to Santi Niketan during his stint at Kolkata. He could not bear to part with her and hence that decision never saw the light of the day. After being here, I could safely say I could understand why he thought so. A small part of me wished that I came instead. I am not sure whether it is because of the way it has been designed but the moment I entered the campus, I felt that great things happened here. The liberality and freedom to learn in a natural environment was evident everywhere as we saw happy children wrapping up their daily sessions under the huge tree.

In 1862, Maharishi Debendranath Tagore, father of Rabindranath, was taking a boat ride through Birbhum, the westernmost corner of Bengal, when he came across a landscape that struck him as the perfect place for meditation. Captivated by the kaleidoscopic beauty of the luxuriantly canopied chhatim trees and palm groves that offered shade in the rugged, red coloured terrain, he bought the large tract of land that had charmed him, built a small house and planted some saplings around it. At that time, the area was called Bhubandanga after a local dacoit named Bhuban Dakat, but Debendranath Tagore decided to call the place Santiniketan, or the ‘abode of peace’, because of the serenity it brought to his soul. In 1863, he turned it into a spiritual centre where people from all religions, castes and creeds came and participated in meditation. (Source- Google)

The campus has been divided in two parts for tourism purpose. One part remains closed when the other part remains functional. In our case, the museum and Uttarayan complex was open till 1 PM and the other part with Santi Niketan Griha was open after 1 PM. Since it was afternoon, we got our tickets (40 INR per person) and rushed off to visit the museum and Uttarayan complex. One has to open shoes to go inside each of the houses as well as the museum. The museum (Bichitra) had several floors but the main floor documented the life of Rabindranath Tagore and his family in an elaborate manner. I was bewildered by the history of the progressive and intelligent Tagore family.

Inside the Uttarayan complex, I went crazy seeing the five houses of Rabindranath Tagore. The entire complex is divided into many buildings in varying architectural styles and named as Udichi, Udayana, Konarka, Shyamali and Punascha. The one that totally stole my heart was Punascha, a little house with a gorgeous veranda. I wish it was up for sale, even though I doubt whether I would be able to afford it. We finished checking all the houses in the complex before it closed up and we set out to complete visiting the other part before lunch.

Nook and CornersPhoto Copyrights - Priyam Kakoti Bora (@nookandcorners)

The second part housed Maharishi Debendranath Tagore’s prayer place Chhatimtola, the school Patha Bhavan where artists such as Nandalal Bose decorated the walls with their work, the exquisite glass prayer hall Upasana Griha and the oldest building in the campus, Santi Niketan Griha where the Tagore family resided before they moved to the Uttarayan complex. We heard a baul musician singing outside the Griha. We found a group of girls who came to visit, singing Rabindra Sangeet in their melodious voices. The energy inside this university town was amazing.

Nook and CornersPhoto Copyrights - Priyam Kakoti Bora (@nookandcorners)
Nook and CornersPhoto Copyrights - Priyam Kakoti Bora (@nookandcorners)

Last on our itinerary was the Saturday market at Sonajhuri. After a quick lunch of Fish Thali, we hurried towards Sonajhuri as the market closes by dusk. Sanibarer Haat, as it is called, is an ethnic weekly market (like Surajkund Mela in Haryana) in an open area in Sonajhuri where the local craftsmen come together to sell their arts and crafts. It is also one of those places where one can go to get a taste of the Bengali culture. We had a great time looking around, shopping for clothes/art pieces/jewelries etc and often stopped to enjoy the music of the Baul singers.  In one corner, we found some ladies joining the tribal ladies and dancing jhumur to the beats of the Madol instrument. The tune was catchy and we could not stop shaking our shoulders too.

Nook and CornersPhoto Copyrights - Priyam Kakoti Bora (@nookandcorners)
Nook and CornersPhoto Copyrights - Priyam Kakoti Bora (@nookandcorners)
Nook and CornersPhoto Copyrights - Priyam Kakoti Bora (@nookandcorners)

We were tired but exulted by the wonderful experiences we had in the past few days. The sun came down, the shops started packing up and it was also time for us to be back to Bolpur railway station to get on the last train to Sheoraphuli at 6:30 PM. And thus ended my 3 day trip to Kolkata. I cannot wait to get back to the City of Joy again and I know now that once won’t nearly be enough as I keep humming “Tomay hriday majhe rakhbo, chere debo naa…

TRAVEL TIP:

  • It is possible to book local railway tickets for the entire journey (onward or return), irrespective of how many stations you change in between. For example – on our day 1, we booked our tickets from Konnagar to Canning for 15 INR per person.
  • Carry water bottles and snacks on Sundarban tour, if you are arranging yourself. You can buy them at Godkhali.
  • Clean restrooms are available at both Sajnekhali and Sudhanyakhali watch towers.
  • Please ask before taking any photographs or entering their stores in Kumartuli as some artisans don’t like strangers watching their work.
  • Jorasanko Thakurbari remains closed on all public holidays and Mondays.
  • Try the tram ride, if possible. It was not operating on days I was there but I plan to get a ride next time.
  • Be cautious about street-foods if you have a weak stomach or indigestion issues.
  • Santi Niketan can be dusty; so be prepared accordingly.
  • Big bags are not allowed inside Santi Niketan complexes; provisions are there to store near the entry ticket counter.
  • Rabindra Bhaban Museum is open on working days from 10:30-16:30. Santi Niketan is closed on Wednesday for tourists.
  • Try Panchobyonjan Restaurant in Santi Niketan if you are looking for authentic Bengali thali at a reasonable price.
  • Sanibarer Haat starts at 3 pm and closes by sunset, every saturday throughout the year. Make sure you carry enough cash if you want to purchase anything.
  • Please tip the Baul musicians if you like their music as they are keeping a culture alive with their songs (it can be of any denomination but respect their integrity).

 


Note: All my photographs are copyrighted with all rights reserved.  Please do not download/use my work and never for any commercial use without contacting me in advance for purchase or licensing rights.

 
  1. Senjuti Senjuti

    Totally loved it. You have repainted the travel with meticulous details and lovely images , which was unknown to even myself. Bengal (a part thereof) in truest sense described!

    • nookandcorners nookandcorners

      Thanks a lot dear. For being in my life and inspiring me every single day. For showing me around and making me look forward to another visit. Thanks to Aunty for having me and cooking delicacies every single night. My fond memories of Kolkata is not only about the places that I had been to, but also of how you both had me feel at home. Love and thanks to you both. :*

  2. Sabreen Ahmed Sabreen Ahmed

    So regret not being there on that trip. Beautifully written almost felt as if I was present with you guys . I do hope we all get a chance to visit again together. Keep traveling and posting

    • nookandcorners nookandcorners

      Thank you so much, sweetheart!!! We missed you too. Hopefully, we will be able to do a second round (much longer) next time. 🙂

  3. Debasish Sen Debasish Sen

    Excellent Priyam….It’s really well described of the outing during ur stay at Kolkata…We also felt very happy and joyful during ur short trip to Kolkata with Senjuti…Do come once again and visit the places like Darjeeling, the queen of the hills and Digha/ Mandarmoni, to have the view of the sea…Waiting for ur next trip…

    • nookandcorners nookandcorners

      Thanks a lot, Uncle. I have been to Darjeeling while in college but yet to visit Digha/Mandarmoni/Dooars… Also many many rounds of Kolkata is left. I can’t wait to be back soon. You all helped me to feel at home during my short stay. I hope you can accompany us too next time.

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