Their red combs flailing, two roosters were fighting beak and claw. A sharp knife was tied to the leg of each. Like trained pugilists, they eyed each other, waiting for the right moment to strike. The group of people, obviously supporters of each side, lustily shouted at the roosters, urging them to charge at each other. The knife of one ploughed into the feathers of another, the latter’s brown feathers got speckled with drops of blood. I scooted from the gory sight and went back to the tea stall in the market where we had stopped our car.
“Cock-fights are very popular among the local people of Purulia,” my driver, a local tribal man, explained to me, “especially on the haat (weekly market) days.”
A haat day also doubles up as a day for family outings, so, there were quite a few people in bright clothes milling around. Around us, temporary stalls were doing brisk business selling fresh vegetables, plastic goods adn household utensils. We tasted the bhavra bhaja, a popular fried snack made of gramflour, usually had with tea.
It was heartening to see the district, which was in the news for the wrong reasons over the past few years, slowly getting back to its old rhythm. Endowed with hills, forests and waterfalls, Purulia, lying to the west of Kolkata, had always been a favourite with hikers and rock climbers, until the various political problems flared up in the recent past.
Late November, we boarded the early morning Rupashi Bangla Express and reached the Purulia Junction station about five hours later. Purulia, the eponymous district headquarters, is an old commercial town. A car was waiting for us at the station and we set off on a nearly 60km drive to the Khairabera Lake. Kolkata-based Priya Entertainments (better known for their association with the Indian film industry) has set up an eco-resort here, complete with luxury tents and comfortably furnished cottages. This was our immediate destination.
We drove through some of the older towns of the district, Balarampur and Baghmundi, and crossed the Kangsabati River, stopped a while at the Matha forest bungalow (now under repairs)–which we would often visit during our college days for treks up the Ajodhya Hill–and finally drew up at the gates of the resort.
Lying at the edge of Koreng Village, the resort Khairabera Lake are surrounded by low hills. Far from the urban chaos, the only noise we could hear was that of water lapping against the rocky bank, cow bells tinkling as the village’s cattle made their way to the uphill grazing grounds, or a kingfisher’s shrill cry piercing the afternoon calm. As the sun set in the hills to our right, the gloaming crept over the forest and the water, a signal for us to wait for the stars to come out. If you wanted to be a lotus-eater, you could not ask for a better place.
We later learned that the barren land was nurtured for several years to give its green cover before the resort was planned. A host of vegetables were grown in the kitchen garden, which found their way to the dining table, much to the delight of the guests.
One morning, we decided to go on a local sightseeing tour. The Ajodhya Hills are home to several hilly springs, Turga and Bamni being the most popular ones. As there’s no motorable road up to the waterfalls, we had to trek along a rocky and lightly-forested trail to see the springs in their full glory. From the car park, we could catch glimpses of the white waters through chinks in the forest cover.
After a brief stop at a place that locals call the Marble Lake, which formed when the rocks here were quarried for stone to build irrigation dams, we drove up to Murguma Lake, the reservoir of a dam on the Kangsabati River. This area is quite well known to local tourists, but we were certainly surprised by the sight of the two old temples of Deulghata. A narrow, unkempt path branched off from the Ajodhya Hill Road, ending in a small ashram. Lying next to it were two magnificent temples, almost 50 feet in high. Built of terracotta bricks, their outer walls were covered with sculpted terracotta panels and stucco work, and a corbelled gateway marked the entrance. In between the two temples, lay the ruins of another temple, with a huge Shivlinga lying open to the skies.
According to archaeological records, these were probably built between the 9th and 10th centuries CE. Apparently, once upon a time, there were around 15 such temples here but we could only find two more, both in ruins, with their ornamental work broken off in most places. Inside the thin scrub forest beyond the ruins, we could discern the sculpted base of yet another temple.
Although known for its rich natural heritage, Purulia is also home to some fine specimens of architectural heritage–mostly Hindu and Jain temples. However, little has been done for their protection and publicity. We were sorely disappointed when we visited Suissa, off the highway that goes to Ranchi. The temples, now almost reduced to heaps of stones, are believed to be ancient Jain temples.
All that sightseeing had made us hungry and we drove to the top of Ajodhya Hill for lunch. The top is actually as long, flat ridge, as the Ajodhya range forms an outer part of the Chota Nagpur Plateau. According to local legends, the hill is associated with the Ramayana. Rama and Sita are said to have stopped here during their exile. Sita was thirsty so Rama pierced a hole in the rock with his arrow. The spring from which Sita quenched her thirst became known as Sita Kund and a temple marks the spot. Every year, in April, the local tribes arrive to offer their prayers here and set off on a ritual hunt.W made a pit stop at the state tourist lodge on top of the hill, and then settled down for rice and spicy chicken curry at a local eatery. Later, we were lucky to catch the Jungle Mahal Festival and a performance of the famous Chhau naach (masked dance) of the region.
On the way back, after a customary tour of Upper Lake, another reservoir, we returned to the resort via Charida. The main road cuts through the village, and both sides of the road are dotted with workshops, which also double up as sales counters, where masks of various shapes and sizes are made. The masks, made of pulped paper, which are used for the Chhau naach, are huge and typically represent deities, their animal mounts and demons. But as the traditional dance form is on the wane, the mask makers have adapted their style to make smaller masks to be used as household dÃ©cor.
The enterprising artisans of the village even make Kathakali masks dancers are made. These sell quite well, we were told, by one of the older artisans, whose traditional Chhau masks are now displayed in several museums around the globe. In a dusty corner of the village, stands a lonely statue of Padmashree Gambhir Singh Mura, who was not only a great exponent of the dance form but also responsible for spreading awareness about it all over the country.
It was difficult to break away from the comfortable lodging and the scenic beauty but finally we bid goodbye and returned to Purulia station for the journey back home.
Purulia district is connected to Kolkata by road and rail. The Rupashi Bangla Express departs from Santragachi station for Purulia but arrives in Howrah on the return journey. You can also take an overnight train to Adra and then travel onward to Purulia. The roads here are in great condition, so driving here is certainly an option.
Where to Stay
There aren’t too many choices in the area, but in Purulia town, you can opt for Hotel Akash Sarovar (from â‚¹1,500 onwards; 03252-224488; akashsarovar.com). The state government-run CADC maintains a tourist complex on Ajodhya Hill top (WB CADC, Nilkuthidanga, Purulia; 03252-225726). We stayed at the Khairabera Eco-Adventure Resort (from â‚¹4,500 for a cottage for two, including all meals; ecoadventureresorts.net) about 67km from Purulia town. The resort also runs a bunch of adventure activities in the area.
Best Time to Visit
December to February is the best time, when the weather is cool. In April, when the palash flowers bloom and the forests turn into a sea of red.