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Fleetwood Mac’s Big Love playing on the car stereo, we rush past the menagerie of ramshackle houses, railway tracks and swathes of coconut and banana fields, as we make our way out of the flea-bitten town of Salugara, a few clicks away from Bagdogra airport. The air gets crisper with each hairpin bend and the emerald waters of the Teesta river set against the backdrop of a clear, azure sky assures us we are close to a fairytale kind of place—of pristine forests and enchanting villages.
As we halt at a quaint Nepali shack for a late breakfast of steaming cabbage and garlic momos with spicy Tibetan sauce and mildly flavoured thukpa, we chance upon a signboard that reads in Nepali, ‘The land of Maya awaits you’. Driving through a landscape scarred by landslides, with chunks of hill clawed away, mounds of cement and a chain of unkempt, unpaved roads, we wonder what the ‘Maya’ is all about. As the road winds up, the forests get denser and the valley slowly fades away from sight; the air is touched by a mellow light. The heady fragrance of Cleopatra Mandarins (orange blossoms), peaches and passion fruit interweave with the sharper cardamom and cinnamon scents. We arrive at the tiny, idyllic village of Bara Mangwa (literally ‘big love’ or ‘maya’, whichever pleases you) in Darjeeling district. It’s mid-afternoon.
Our porter, Shankar, a short man with an impish smile, leads us through snaking paths, yellow fields of gundru saag and lavender terraced gardens. After the pleasant trek, we finally reach the Bara Mangwa farmhouse. Designed like a colonial-era British bungalow with sloping red roofs, scalloped shades and an even measure of wood and stone, it stands apart from the hamlet’s usual crayon box-like houses, draped in vibrant colours. Before exploring the place further, we decide to head straight to the dining arena. Ravenous, we wolf down a simple fare of rice, dal and egg curry cooked in traditional Nepali style, washing it down with a mug of steaming Darjeeling tea. Here, we are introduced to the members of the big Nepali family, who would tend to us over the weekend.
A chirpy Kesar Rai, the manager, who prides himself for being a black belt martial artist and yoga exponent, speaks excitedly about the slowly quickening trickle of visitors to the farm, which was thrown open to tourists only at the end of 2010. Although the place was without electricity as late as a year ago, that has not deterred travel hawks from checking in for a spell of respite after an impossibly hectic week.
The room tariff is easy on the pocket (in the range of Rs 1,500 per night) for holidaygoers scouting for offbeat locales. Kesar leads us to our warm, cavernous duplex suite, complete with a lovely fireplace and rock-inlay walls on the ground floor. A wooden, spiral staircase leads to the floor above, with a large octagonal ceiling, stripped wood and bamboo walls, well-crafted glass windows and a king-sized bed. Most inviting, though, is the plush balcony overlooking the mighty Kalimpong to the north, Delo Mountain to the west and, further on, the temperamental Kanchenjunga. This is the highlight of the house.
Waking up early the next day to the shrill cries of flaming red flycatchers and roosters crowing in the distance, we witness a majestic sunrise, which fills the room with a golden glow. The calm is broken yet again by the noisy chatter of locals going about their daily chores and children playing in the banana orchard. After mopping up a grand breakfast of chowmein, a curry brewed with home-grown vegetables and soup, it is time to explore the farm. Sandipan Dutta, our guide, tells us how this village, with only 1,200 families (55 per cent Buddhists and Christians), was originally a community welfare initiative, conceived by Animesh Panda, the regional head of TM Logistics Global Limited.
The idea was to help villagers in various activities such as farming, animal husbandry, education and sports. Only much later did they think of throwing its doors open to tourists. After lolling about in the sun amidst the fig and guava orchards, spotting animal sheds, soaking in the rich essence of the local culture and watching the mighty Teesta flow in the valley below, we decide to explore the outer fringes. But before that, it’s time for some gastronomical satiation. Our guide leads us to the lunch shamiana, where at an altitude of 3,000 feet, we feast on an elaborate spread of gundru saag, chicken curry laced with herbs, along with the super special cherry-sized chilli pickle. With flaming hearts, we set out for the Gurung orange orchard.
Mandarins (are they oranges?) and coffee pods (right) mark the many splendid acres of the rich Gurung orchard. It’s heady stuff.
The endless acres of orange grove owned by the four Gurung brothers are one of the richest in the North Bengal region. The very hospitable Gambhir Gurung takes us around his splendid orchard, lined with several fruit and herb trees. It is here that we learn the difference between mandarins and oranges. Proudly displaying his Cleopatra and Darjeeling Mandarins, he tells us quite condescendingly that the ‘orange people’ have never really tasted the real fruit.True enough, one bite of the luscious fruit is enough to keep us delightfully giddy all day. We even learn the nuances of processing juice at their modest factory, after picking up jars of pickle, marmalade and squash.
Enough walks, our guide now decides to give us a rock-climbing demonstration, an idea we greet with some reluctance. Adventure sports, quite a hit with some tourists, are often arranged by the hosts, with Kesar Rai leading the charge. Following him proves to be a knock-out experience, as he scales a peak with Spiderman-like ease. Rafting and valley crossing ideas were quickly buried. As we take the long walk back, the sun dips below the horizon and the mist settles in.
The next day, we are going sight-seeing. After a quick breakfast of milky tea, thukpa and Lopchu peda, we arrive at Triveni, the confluence of the Rangeet and the Teesta, framed by the rolling mountains and a rocky-sandy beach. From a vantage point high in the hills, lovers are taking in the breathtaking view. After a few meditative moments, we are on the road once more. Meandering paths take us past the Lamahatta eco-tourism spot, the Peshok tea gardens and Chhota Mangwa (a smaller village, like its name implies), until we reach the Tinchulay view point. From here, the snow-capped peaks of Kanchenjunga and Nathu La Pass can be seen, rising like gigantic monoliths on a clear day.
After a long, tiring day, we are back in the farmhouse, while our hosts plan a special martial arts and cultural programme performed by the village kids. An essential ingredient of the community initiative (it includes archery, yoga, martial arts), we’re left, quite literally, spellbound by the spectacle of three and four-year-olds performing bone-defying aerobatics. As a reward, each is given a large helping of khichdi, before being trundled off. As night sets in, we huddle around a fire under the clear, star-studded sky, thinking of the long journey back home, while fireflies and crickets enliven the darkness.
Waking up to a 5 am dawn next day, I see lights shining bright in the mountains and the vision of Kanchenjunga. Or is it just my imagination? Maybe we ought to have stayed on to catch that. Still, I know now why this place is called Bara Mangwa, or rather ‘Bara Maya’.
Dzukou Valley Located at the Nagaland-Manipur border, this little valley of wild flowers is framed by verdant hills, lush forests, natural caves and serpentine streams.
Jaintia Hills The extraordinarily scenic hills in eastern Meghalaya are endowed with plateaus, enchanting valleys and cascading waterfalls. And riven by the Myndtu river.
Karbi Anglong This tribal-dominated district in Assam is dotted by hills, the famous one being Singhason Peak. Dense tropical forests and tea gardens come together.
Namdapha National Park This biodiversity hotspot, one of the few rainforests in the country, is in Arunachal Pradesh. Cloud forests and eco camps are highlights.