Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Neora Valley National Park and the Duars, February 2009

The foothills of the Himalayas are known as the Duars in the Jalpaiguri district of West Bengal. In the adjacent Darjiling district, they are known as the Terai, I think. It is here in the Darjiling district that the Neora Valley National Park lies. I am writing about a tour by Durba and myself to the Duars and Neora Valley in February 2009. I am writing from memory, but even as I write, I feel the memories coming alive. It’s never too late to share a travel story, is it? And so, I present below a diary of that very special tour.
February 14
Not a soul was in sight. The sun was setting. We stood in front of a small suspension bridge across a dry stream in the middle of a forest. The Tavera which had ferried us from Sevoke, across the Teesta, past Mal Bazar, Chalsa, Matelli Bazar and Samsing, past the tea plantations stretched all the way to the horizon, had dropped us here a few minutes back and left uphill, the sound of its engine having faded completely by now. We were slowly getting used to the all-pervading silence, and beginning to enjoy it. Signage at the entrance of the bridge read: ‘Welcome, Samsing Range, Suntalaykhola Wilderness Camp, WBFDC Ltd.’. A month back, Durba and I had gone together to the office of the West Bengal Forest Development Corporation Ltd. (WBFDC) at Kolkata to book accommodation in its ‘Wilderness Camps’ in the Duars. The promise of wilderness had been met. But, let alone tourists, was there anyone here to even check us in?

The apprehension was not misplaced. The agitation for a separate Gorkhaland state was gaining momentum. There had been sudden strike calls and almost everyone save the WBFDC staff had advised us to avoid the region. But I was determined. Having fallen in love with the Duars through my past couple of visits, this was the place I wanted to take Durba to. A short walk down a cemented pathway across the bridge brought us to a group of cottages laid out on a landscaped slope. On one side stood what looked like the dining hall, combined with the office. Ganesh, the manager, was present inside. Seeing him, we heaved a sigh of relief. After all, he had spoken reassuringly about the law and order situation in these parts when we had called him from Kolkata earlier, promising us that we were totally safe inside any of the WBFDC properties. And so began our tour of the Duars and Neora Valley, our first together.
February 15
We woke up early to a misty, dew-drenched morning, the view of the forested slopes all around inviting us out of our cottage for a walk. There was a gentle purring sound outside the door. As I opened it, the camp’s cat walked right in, homing in on our bed and the warmth of our quilts! It took some cajoling to get her to agree to leave us alone! We went down to the dining hall for breakfast. The staff had already won our hearts the night before. One of the boys, Roshan, had helped us swap the ceiling mounted CFL in our cottage with the low wattage incandescent from the neighbouring cottage. The soft warm glow of the bulb had set the mood for the evening as we sat in our cottage sipping gin and biting into the tasty, piping hot pakoras served up by the kitchen. Indeed, we had the entire place to ourselves, almost, as only one more couple were checked in.
Shortly after breakfast, we met Nabin Pradhan, a lanky Gorkha in his forties probably. Nabin had come asking if we needed a ride for a sight-seeing tour. He ended up staying with us for the entire tour from here onwards. After telling Nabin to come and pick us up in the afternoon, we went for a walk down the bed of the stream flowing just outside the camp. The hours passed by and before we knew it, it was time for lunch. Nabin came with this huge Mahindra jeep after lunch and we were on our way to Mouchuki, a forest camp on the outskirts of the Neora Valley National Park. As the Range Office at Samsing was closed for some reason, we were unable to collect our pass. But Nabin assured us that the forest staff knew him well enough to allow him on in case we were intercepted without a pass.
The climb up the jeep track was steep. We stopped in the middle to watch from a distance the funeral of a dead leopard arranged by the forest staff. Then up we went, a sheer climb with a near 180 degree turn finally bringing into view the Mouchuki Forest Bungalow. Painted green and with quaint dormers, it was such an interesting building in the middle of the forest. We stood there for some time watching the mist laden hills in the distance. Then it was time to go down. We took in a view of the hydro-electric power plant at Sakkham and then drove down to another camp with tented accommodation named Rocky Island. I had come to Rocky Island on my last trip to the Duars in the August of 2007. It had been drizzling all through the day and the tea plantations were a sea of green. The jeep track down to Rocky Island was overflowing in places. I had walked all the way down, wading through the water. And then, come walking up again! The stream below the Rocky Island camp had been roaring, its waters frothing white. In the late winter evening of 2009, there was no roar, no froth! Gigantic boulders rose from the bed of the stream as the waters gurgled on gently. The sun had set and it was time for us to drive back through the darkness. The cosy comfort of our Suntaleykhola cottage beckoned.

February 16
We left Suntaleykhola in the morning. Nabin took us to an interesting little factory in a nearby village, run by a Gorkha gentleman from his home. He specialised in furniture and show-pieces sculpted out of driftwood. Impressed by the ware on display, we placed an order for a small table to be delivered to Kolkata later on. We then drove down to a shop close by to procure a few cartons of the locally grown strawberry. (We had allowed ourselves only a few of the freshly plucked, juicy, crunchy strawberries during the tour, all the while looking forward to enjoying the rest with friends and family back in Kolkata. Sadly most of the consignment decomposed in the heat and dust of the plains on our way home!)
Nabin then drove us around the Samsing settlement where he lived. We went to an abandoned bungalow with sprawling lawns at the edge of a cliff offering a panoramic view of the Kumai hills. Nabin said that the bungalow was often used by film units when they came shooting in these parts. From Samsing, we took a shortcut to the Kumai - Jhalong Road. We were now on our way to Jhalong, Paren and Bindu. On the way, Nabin stopped at a local weekly market. Villagers had come from far and wide to buy and sell. On Nabin’s recommendation, we tried out some pork curry at a stall. We still remember the delicious pork we had that day, washed down with some lovely Bhutanese beer.
The next stop was the WBFDC bungalow at Jaldhaka. What an amazing location for a bungalow! The Jaldhaka flowed right below it. At Jhalong, a group of schoolgirls requested us for a lift till Paren. A transport strike was on and the roads were empty. So in one big noisy group we reached Paren, a sleepy village on the edges of the Neora Valley National Park. We ordered lunch at the WBFDC Wilderness Camp at Paren which stood in the middle of a clearing partly ringed in by a wooded hill. Standing in the midst of tall trees, and with the densely forested hillside towering up into the sky in the background, the Paren WBFDC cottages form one of the most enduring images of the tour for me.
After a satisfying lunch of rice, egg curry and the pickled fish Nabin offered us, we went to the see the dam which stands across the River Bindu connecting India and Bhutan. We crossed the dam and walked into Bhutan. A bank of fog was rolling in from somewhere. The sky was gloomy. A strong breeze blew through the valley. The place seemed so mysterious and so far removed from civilization, in spite of being home to a hydro-electric project. We seemed to have entered into a trance and ended up spending a long time here. As we retraced our steps to India, a tiny little Bhutanese doggie was following us like a pet. Durba wondered if we could keep it. Well, that was going to be slightly difficult!
Nabin wanted to take us to a nearby hilltop to give us a bird’s eye view of the dam and the Bhutanese countryside. We hurried on in the gathering gloom, rattling up a ruined metal road. Alas, we were too late. The light had faded completely by the time we made it. We were met by the twinkling lights on the dam below. There was just the sound of the wind and of our own breathing. I felt like I was living every moment. We started our long descent to the plains after some time. Our destination was the WBFDC Wilderness Camp on the river Murti, quite some distance away. Somewhere after Jhalong (may be before, I can’t recollect exactly), we were held up by ongoing repairs to a bridge. That set us back by another hour almost. But it also meant that we would be driving through the Chapramari forests late in the evening, prime time for animal spotting! It turned out Nabin and Durba did catch a fleeting glimpse of an elephant. But, as usual, I missed out! Tired and exhausted, we reached the Murti address at last at 10-30 in the night. The WBFDC staff had been kind enough to save some dinner for us.

February 17
We were up before the sun today. The birds were just beginning to chirp when I slid back the window of the sitting room in our first-floor suite at the Murti camp and peered into the darkness outside. Headlamps piercing the gloom, a line of jeeps were approaching from the other side of the river over the bridge near the camp. Our dawn destination was the Gorumara National Park. Nabin drove us into the Park just after the sun had risen. We went down to Gorumara’s famous rhino watching spot. Alas, no rhinos for us! Still, no regrets. Strands of mist hanging still on the rolling grasslands stretched for acres below us, a stream quietly meandering by, the mystic beauty of the place touched our hearts. Back to the camp, we spent the rest of the morning exploring the pebbled bed of the Murti through which a mere trickle flowed, a trickle which transforms into a torrent in the monsoon months when the river is in full spate and extends bank to bank.
Lunch made us extremely sleepy. But Nabin was waiting to take us to the Chapramari Wildlife Sanctuary for the afternoon shift. Wearily rubbing our eyes we boarded the jeep. The drive through the forest rejuvenated us and we arrived at the Chapramari watchtower harbouring great expectations of spotting some wildlife. The wait was not prolonged as a herd of bisons soon descended on the watering hole, joined shortly by a stray elephant. As evening fell, Nabin took us on a safari. Suddenly we spotted a solitary bison standing right on our path and stopped. One angry look from close quarters and it trotted off into a clump of bushes. WBFDC organizes a cultural evening by villagers at the edge of the sanctuary overlooking the Murti (Or is it the Neora river? I am not able to recollect clearly). A bevy of village girls danced to Nepali songs on a raised stage as we watched from our seats under a shed. Far away, the evening train to New Jalpaiguri slowly disappeared over the horizon.
We rode back to the Murti camp in the darkness. Reaching close to our camp, I asked Nabin to stop in the middle of the forest. He did so and switched off the headlights. It was such an amazing feeling sitting quietly in total darkness watching the dance of fireflies and listening to the music of the jungle orchestrated by myriad insects and other creatures. Were we being watched by unseen eyes from the woods? There could be so many possibilities! I recorded the sound of the forest on my phone. Nabin brought us out of our trance, switching on the headlights and turning the engine back on. It was after all not very safe being parked in the middle of nowhere in pitch darkness in what was elephant and bison country. Back in our suite at the camp, we settled down by the window of our sitting room. Would a herd of elephants come calling from across the river tonight? The prospect kept us awake for some time. But tired as we were, we ended our vigil soon and turned in for the night.

February 18
Today we decided to travel uphill again, all the way to Loleygaon. This was the one day on the tour that we had not planned for in advance. Nabin suggested we go to Loleygaon. Durba suggested we enjoy Murti for one more day. I said that we should try out Loleygaon, a decision we were not going to regret.
We set off after breakfast. Nabin drove through Mal Bazar and, after Gorubathan, we started climbing steadily. It was a picturesque journey and we kept stopping at places en route to take in the scenery. We had noodles and some yak cheese at a small village on one of our halts. Around noon, we reached the town of Lava. We had started in light clothing in the morning. It was windy up here in Lava and the chill in Lava made us scramble for our jackets and pullovers. After a short visit to the Lava monastery, I asked Nabin to see if he could arrange to take us to a place I had earlier read about – the Chaudapheri Camp inside the Neora Valley National Park (Lava is one of the entry points of the Park). Nabin took us to the Range Office, Upper Neora Range, from where passes are issued for visits to the Park. The formalities took some time as no one was to be found in the office initially. Finally we were on our way, the tour party augmented by a guide and a couple of Forest Department staff.
We slowly rumbled up a jeep track that was so steep and sharply twisted in some stretches that it looked almost impossible to negotiate. Here, on this path that no one seemed to tread on except the stray villager, and in the midst of towering pines, clouds seemed to have found a cosy nesting ground for themselves. Drenched in mist, we crawled upwards through this melancholy world, the chill intensifying at each bend. I don’t remember how long we drove. Time seemed to have stopped. Suddenly the mist thinned. We had emerged out of the clouds and stopped at a clearing in the middle of the forest basking gloriously in the afternoon sunshine. Standing in front of us was a log hut with signage which read: ‘Chaudapheri Camp, Upper Neora Range, Wildlife Division II, Established - 2002, Altitude - 2372 m’. Some distance away, there were steps leading up to another hut which seemed to be a recent addition. This was the Red Panda Camp inside the Neora Valley National Park, a natural habitat for red pandas which, I believe, are an endangered species.
Treks through Neora Valley National Park start from here. If trekking for more than a day, one can halt at forest villages deep inside the Park. One of the names I can remember is Rochella. In fact, trekking all the way through the Park, one can emerge at Mouchuki, which we had visited earlier. One can also emerge at Todey, near Paren. But I had read that it is not an easy trek all the way. We decided to see what it was like for the first few kilometres. And so, with the sticks that our guide had given us each, we started to climb. Slipping, swaying, tottering we went, making a spectacle of ourselves to our guide out of our total inexperience! Under a canopy of leaves so dense the sun did not shine through, walled in by an impenetrable screen of bamboo on both sides, our path was a treacherous moist carpet of leaves and twigs and moss.
At one point, our guide invited us to follow him up a tree inclined at an angle across a sheer drop, promising a majestic view of the Kanchenjunga from the other side if the weather was clear. Durba didn’t seem confident. So I told her to wait at the bottom of the tree and shout just in case she saw any ‘kala bhalu’ or black bear approaching, a possibility our guide was happy to share with us! I managed to scramble through but, alas, no Kanchenjunga! The side we had come from was shileded from view by dense foliage. Suddenly, we heard Durba screaming from somewhere close. Alarmed, I shouted to know what had happened. Continuing to scream, she informed that she was fine, but we should get back immediately. We complied and, on the way back, found her perched on the middle of the skywalk. Apparently, she had mustered enough courage to try and join us, but had slipped in the middle and almost fallen off!
We took some rest after this incident and decided to head back, making heavy weather of our ‘trek’ as were from our utter lack of preparation and application. Durba wondered what if she had really met a ‘kala bhalu’ on the bridge. I told her I didn’t know about black bears, but she had surely frightened the entire population of red pandas (sadly whatever remains of it) out of the Park and into neighbouring Sikkim with her screams! Nabin, who had found the incident amusing, drove us down to Loleygaon. Travelling through a pine forest that looked looking mysterious in the fading light and gathering mist, we reached our destination after sunset.

February 19
Today was the last day of our tour. We woke up in our cottage at the Loleygaon WBFDC address to find the Kanchenjunga hidden behind clouds. The sun was shining and it was a and beautiful morning. Only the Kanchenjunga was not to be seen! As in Suntaleykhola, we had the entire WBFDC property to ourselves. There were no guests in any of the cottages. The night before we had stood watching the beautiful star-studded night sky from the garden of our cottage as the lights of Kalimpong twinkled in the distance.
After breakfast Nabin took us to a local park famous for its tree bridges – a network of walkways suspended from the trunks of enormous trees. It was fun walking from tree to tree high above the ground. Finally it was time to say goodbye to Loleygaon. On our final journey with him on this tour, Nabin said he wanted to give us a taste of adventure. And so, we took a route that not many would probably be willing to take on the way down from Loleygaon! This was the jeep track that wound its way past Charkhole, through Borbot, through the Chel forest, past Chuikhim, finally meeting the plains at Bagrakote on the banks of the Lees river. We didn’t even know such a route existed. The scenery was breathtaking but progress was slow, the jeep track fit for mainly battle tanks! Not surprisingly, we seemed to be the only travellers on this road. Nabin drove patiently, but to say the ride was bumpy would be an understatement. However, the view amply compensated us for the discomfort.
Passing by Charkhole and some small hamlets, we reached Borbot, a bigger village with a market. But not before Nabin had lost his way at a fork in the middle of nowhere and driven up a wrong track, the result being that we had to drive almost a kilometre in reverse, there being no room to turn round. We can’t blame him. We were not carrying a map and even if we did, I doubt whether this route would be shown. To complicate matters, there wasn’t a soul for miles that we could seek directions from. Had it not been for a party of villagers out to gather firewood, we could very well have driven all the way back to Lava!
After a brief stopover during which we helped ourselves to some noodles and tea at a roadside shop, we entered the most exciting leg of the journey which passed through the dense Chel forest. A Forest Department staff who had a hitched a ride with us from Borbot informed us (through Nabin, who translated it from Nepali) that a tiger had been spotted in the area recently, probably having made its way down from the Neora Valley National Park. I wondered what it would be like to get stranded in the middle of this forest in the evening with a broken down jeep. As it is, it hardly seemed to receive human footfall apart from villagers and the forest personnel and there was no mobile connectivity.
We bid adieu to our forest guard after the Chuikhim village. Some villagers were erecting a shed for trekkers. Apparently, an eco-tourism initiative had been launched in Chuikhim and treks introduced through the forest here. Soon afterwards, we could see the Lees meandering its way through the plains below. We were on our way out of the forest and emerged at the busy town of Bagrakote from where we turned on to the National Highway. We were leaving the beautiful Duars behind. One last halt was made at the Mongpong WBFDC facility close to Sevoke.
It was after crossing the Sevoke bridge that we encountered a serious problem in the form of a traffic snarl which seemed to have clogged all routes to our destination, Bagdogra. With a flight to catch at 3-30 in the afternoon, we were tense. As the minutes ticked by, I asked Durba to call the Spicejet number, almost sure that boarding had closed and the flight would take off without us. To our utter relief we were informed that the flight to Kolkata was delayed by half an hour. In the end we made it just in time. Thanking Nabin for the great service and hospitality, we ran inside the terminal for a just-in-time check in. Half an hour later, we were flying back home, to the heat and dust and humidity, to the smog and the noise of a metropolis. The forests were etched in our memory forever. Even today, when I close my eyes at times, I am transported back to Neora Valley, and Chel forest, and all those beautiful places we had been to…

Tour Itinerary
DAY 1: NSCBI Airport, Kolkata (CCU) - Bagdogra Airport (IXB) - Sevoke - Mal Bazar - Chalsa - Matelli Bazar - Samsing - Suntaleykhola WBFDC
DAY 2: Suntaleykhola WBFDC - Mouchuki Camp (Neora Valley National Park) - Sakkham - Rocky Island - Suntaleykhola WBFDC
DAY 3 - Suntaleykhola WBFDC - Samsing - Kumai - Jhalong - Paren - Bindu - Jhalong - Khunia More - Murti WBFDC
DAY 4 - Murti WBFDC - Gorumara National Park - Chapramari Wildlife Sanctuary - Murti WBFDC
DAY 5 - Murti WBFDC - Mal Bazar - Gorubathan - Lava - Red Panda Camp (Neora Valley National Park) - Lava - Loleygaon WBFDC
DAY 6 - Loleygaon WBFDC - Loleygaon - Charkhol - Barbot - Chel Forest - Chuikhim - Bagrakote - Mong Pong WBFDC - Sevoke - Bagdogra Airport (IXB) - NSCBI Airport, Kolkata (CCU)
(Special circumstances had forced us to book a flight to and fro. The alternative is to take an overnight train between Kolkata and New Jalpaiguri/New Mal Junction.)
Tour Map (all the roads and jeep tracks we travelled on are not shown)

  Google Earth Tour

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Karimganj and Tripura, Durga Puja 2010

Looking Back
Another Durga Puja just went by. I remember last year’s Durga Puja and miss it. I miss it more because this year we did not go out of Kolkata. And the more I remember it and miss it, the more I regret that I didn’t write more about that visit. Now it is almost a year old. But I will give it a try, out of this compelling urge to write about it and, in the process, resurrect this blog! I told the story of our journey to Karimganj via Agartala in my last post, which was such a long time back. I will start from where I ended that time.
We took a cycle-rickshaw from the station, after losing half an hour trying to get an endorsement for a fare refund in part (we travelled second class as the AC Chair Car on which we were book was taken off the rake for the trip). Riding past the crowds enjoying the Ashtami night street shows, we finally reached the Deb residence on Red Cross Road close to dinner time. People were worried for us – we had been incommunicado after Agartala. Abhishek, my brother-in-law, had gone to the station to find out about the train’s arrival first hand, but we had already left the station when he reached.
The next day was Nabami. As evening fell, we trooped into a Beat and went for a tour of the town’s Puja’s. All four of us – Durba (Debarati, my wife), Abhishek, Rosie (Abhishek’s wife) and Mrs. Deb (my mother-in-law) – in a Beat; it was a bit of a crush. But it was fun being together. I remember the crowds everywhere. Hadn’t really expected such volumes in a place like Karimganj. Aahar, supposedly one of the best eateries in town, was spilling over with people. It didn’t look like we could find a table in the next hour. So we decided to settle for the take-away instead. Aahar lived up to its reputation – the Punjabi fare we had ordered was pretty tasty.

Immersion on the Kushiara
On Dashami, I had planned to go to the ghat on the Kushiara, the river that separates India and Bangladesh in these parts, early in the evening with Abhishek, to catch a glimpse of the immersion ceremonies on the Bangladesh side. It was Durba who had told me in advance that the Bangladeshi ceremonies are usually over before it’s completely dark. This was an opportunity I was not going to miss. Or so I thought! For, as is usual for me on any holiday, I got out of my post-lunch siesta when daylight was already fading. That put paid to hopes of watching the neighbour’s rites. However, ceremonies on this side of the border had just about started and so, with Abhishek in tow, I left for the ghat with my Canon A1100IS. Durba and the rest would be joining us later on.
The approach to the ghat was choc-a-bloc with people and it took us a fair bit of time to wind our way through and reach the point from where onwards the Sashastra Seema Bal were allowing only a handful to pass. Only the few who would physically carry the idols to the bank and cast it into the river would be allowed beyond this point. The rest had to enter a barricaded holding area at some distance and watch from there. Having reached late, we found ourselves behind several rows of heads. It took some deft manoeuvring to advance to one of the front rows offering more detail. I knew that the conditions were going to test my point-and-shoot and quietly revisited the page of my wish list which still has a SLR written on it. The scene was lit up in such a manner that the ghat was awash with lights, but the river was in near-total darkness. Only a few lights dimly shone on the Bangladeshi side. One by one, the idols were carried in by the committed, under the strict vigil of the gun-toting border guards whose every gesture looked menacing to me. Indeed, there had seemed to be security personnel in plainclothes too, with arms tucked away under their shirts, monitoring the crowds in the alley leading up to the ghat. I think I even saw some Customs men in white uniforms manning what looked like a speedboat.
We watched as each idol, after being laid on its back on the waters, floated away. In the semi-lit zone which extended a few feet beyond the bank into the river, it seemed as if the idols were slowly floating away towards the Bangladeshi banks, before they finally disappeared in the darkness. What a poignant sight! We watched for a long time, seeking out new vantage points in between, leaving finally when the ladies gave us a call saying they would not be able to make it to the ghats past the crowds. So we went back and joined them.

Train to Agartala
The next few days were taken up by the customary Bijoya Dashami rites. Then came the full moon night when Laxmi Puja is performed. It was also time to pack our bags. We would be leaving for Kolkata via Agartala the next day, stopping by in the Tripura capital for a night.
The day after, we woke early in the morning. We were supposed to catch the early morning Lumding – Agartala Express from Karimganj station. As it turned out, the Express was running on a truncated route, between Badarpur and Agartala, due to some problem in the Lumding – Badarpur section. Disruptions are normal on this meter gauge line. Sometimes it’s a landslide. Sometimes it’s militants. I had read that bullet-proof locomotives have been introduced on this line. This, on what is supposed to be an extremely picturesque route through the North Cachar Hills.
Abhishek accompanied us to the station. We waited patiently for almost an hour. No sign of the train. It was supposed to originate from Badarpur only, a few kilometers away. Then what could have happened to it? From our experience on the inbound journey, we deduced that this, again, was normal in these parts! It finally did arrive, a good hour and a half behind schedule. We were relieved to find a solitary AC coach in the middle of the rake. Acting on our experience of the Agartala – Karimganj journey, we had booked Sleeper Class from Karimganj, lest the AC coach failed to turn up! Moreover, we had booked manually through the Karimganj PRS counter to ensure that securing a refund for a journey not performed was not a hassle, as is the case with e-tickets. Seeing the AC coach, I ran up to it and placed my request for an upgrade to the TTE as soon as he emerged. Request met, we settled down in Coupe ‘B’, clutching on to our last few moments in Karimganj on this trip. Finally the train left and I remember Abhsishek running on the platform alongside our coach for sometime as we waved goodbye.
Trains to and from Agartala reverse at Karimganj. Why this was necessitated when the line was built, I do not know. What I know is there is another line from Karimganj to a palce on the border called Mahishashan which still has a passenger service. I am told that in pre-independence India, one could travel onto what is now Bangladesh on that line. That link is now broken, along with so many other physical links that could have made life easier for the people living in these parts. I remember reading somewhere on the web that one of the considerations towards including Karimganj and Badarpur Junctions in India at the time of the Partition was to ensure that the railway link to Tripura (till Dharmanagar at that time) was not severed.
Dilapidated on the outside, our 2A coach was fairly well maintained on the inside, except for the toilets though. I hadn’t really expected coupe accommodation on what Indian Railways advertises as 2A for this train. But indeed, this was the case! Besides, to my surprise, the AC was really good, not letting us down even when the coach was stationary for long periods during halts en route.

Our co-passengers in Coupe ‘B’, a Bengali lady with two kids and a Marwari business traveller from one of Indian Railways’ contractors for the gauge conversion project (who knows when it will be completed!), had boarded from Badarpur itself. The Marwari gentleman narrated some interesting tales of life on the Lumding – Badarpur hill section, including bizarre methods of hitching rides on passing locomotives. However, tired as were from the early morning rise and the subsequent long wait for the train at Karimganj, Durba and myself settled for a nap after sometime. I slept through most of the journey, coping with a bad headache, and, in the process, missed the delightful forest scenes this time around.
We arrived at Agartala around 3-30 in the afternoon, seven hours or so after leaving Karimganj. Checking into a hotel in the CBD, we decided to rest for the evening, instructing the reception to book a car for us for a sight-seeing trip the day after.
The Shrine of Tripura Sundari
Next day, we started at 9 in the morning with a visit to the Ujjayanta Palace (the facade was undergoing repairs, thus spoiling a good photo opportunity) and the Akhaura checkpost (Agartala is right on the Bangladesh border). Then we moved out of Agartala, heading to Udaipur, 55 km to the south, for a visit to the famous shrine of Tripura Sundari. Reaching around lunchtime, we found ourselves at the end of a long queue. However, the Tripura Rifles personnel on crowd-management duty were doing a tremendous job and our wait was not prolonged. Indeed, this was one of the best-maintained major Hindu temples we had visited anywhere in the country! The temple grounds overlook a huge tank with clean, green waters. We went down to the ghat to find people feeding a school of giant carps that surfaced every now and then – quite a scene!

The Lake Palace
Satisfied by our visit to the Tripura Sundari temple, we left for Neermahal, which was to be the culmination of our one-day Tripura tour. Located 20 km from Udaipur, Neermahal is a lake palace built in 1930 by Maharaja Bir Bikram Kishore Manikya, the then ruler of Tripura. The lake itself is called Rudrasagar and extends for miles around (5.3 sq. km. officially).
The lakefront comprised an open parking lot, a row of shops, a gateway with a viewing gallery on the first floor, and a ticket counter for tourists traveling to the lake palace by boat. There was a choice of small rowboats (for small groups) and larger motorized vessels (for general tourist transit). Our oarsman ushered us into his craft and we set out for the long journey across the placid waters towards the white edifice on a red elevated plinth shimmering far away in the distance. The ride was very soothing, with a gentle breeze blowing across the waters. For company, we had a local gentleman who had hitched a ride to reach his compatriots out fishing in the middle of the lake. Ours’ seemed to be the only boat on the waters as far as we could see. There was open countryside all around the banks, with very little habitation to be seen. The Tripura Tourism rest-house stood close to the ghat where we had embarked.

Drawing closer to Neermahal, we were able to discern the architectural details. It was an axially laid out low-rise structure comprising three distinct blocks knitted together by an elevated walkway. We were approaching almost perpendicular to its axis. Spread over several levels, its overall composition was very elegant, throwing up a rhythmic interplay of solids and voids. The style seemed to be a blend of Mughal and European influences.
Our boatman dropped us on the island with a gentle reminder to be back within the hour, failing which he would be compelled to charge us extra. Not a moment was to be wasted then! As we eventually found out, it was possible to explore the entire complex in an hour’s time. But there is a certain romantic charm about the place which urges you to linger, especially on the terraces overlooking the lake, more so if there is a lovely lady by your side!
I particularly liked a circular hall with huge French windows offering framed views of the lake. Must have witnessed many a glorious evening bathed in the light of grand chandeliers! The gardens too were quite well maintained. But it was disheartening to see that on the other side of the island (opposite the side on which we landed) the water had dried up. Weeds and grass grew in plenty and a few cattle could be seen grazing around. I read later on that there are issues regarding conservation of the lake. Whatever they are, they ought to be resolved immediately, before any further damage is done.
Finally it was time for us to return to shore. As the lake palace receded in the distance, our majhi informed us that light and sound shows are held in the evenings at the palace, for which one needs to stay over at the Tripura Tourism rest house. I tried to imagine what the place would look like in the light of the full moon and added the night stay just advised as another page to my wish list!

In the End…
…we had a flight to catch. So we sped back towards Agartala, through the undulating landscape dotted with rubber plantations, through the forests and the paddy fields. It was the last flight of the day, an Alliance Air ATR. In the best spirit of Durga Puja, we forgave the couple of disinterested air-hostesses for their singular lack of courtesy to one and all on the flight. This, and losses running into thousands of crores, offset by generous government doles coming via the tax-payer’s pocket, is all one has come to associate the Air India family with.
And so, the tour ended as we boarded the Volvo home from NSCBI Airport with a bouquet of memories whose fragrance would grow over time in the corners of our minds…
Agartala - Tripura Sundari - Neer Mahal - Agartala Route Map

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