Like dry earth lapping up the first rain, we sat with our eyes glued to the glass window of the bus, drinking in the passing scenery as the bus sped along the highway. The blue sky dotted with scraps of cotton wool clouds, the green expanse of paddy fields with ears of corn turning golden, tufts of ‘kaas’ (Saccharum spontaneum) nodding their feathery white heads in the wind – after over seven months of pandemic-induced confinement, we could not appreciate enough these eternal images of autumn breaking over rural West Bengal.
The world has changed since we travelled last. Gone were those carefree days when you could just put a few clothes in a bag and set off overnight. Now it was all about choosing less crowded areas, packing in masks and sanitisers, carrying your own essential items of use as far as practicable.
After some initial research, I chose a Kolkata-based tour operator (Roopkatha Tours and Travel) who had started operating small group tours with all hygiene protocols in place. Our destination was a small village eco-resort in Jhargram district, about five hours’ drive from Kolkata. The resort takes its name from the local name for the forested belt that is part of the Chhota Nagpur plateau, Jangal Mahal.
As we got into our AC vehicle (fully sanitised) that morning, eight people travelling in a mini bus meant for 15, the tour leader ensured the passengers and the driver wore proper masks. Hung on the door of the bus were three bottles – containing sanitiser liquid, liquid soap, and Dettol mixed water (the last for sanitising washrooms when we made pitstops). We were reminded to sanitise our hands every time we entered and exited the bus.
A couple of hours later we pulled into Kolaghat, the customary pitstop for people travelling to places like the popular beach resorts of Digha, to Midnapur, Haldia port city, etc. This being a long weekend, there was quite a crowd. Many of the restaurants and arriving guests appeared to throw caution to the winds, no masks, lots of crowding. Taking along my mom, a senior citizen, was in itself a leap of faith for me. And being among covidiots was not a comforting thought. We had been served packed breakfast on the bus. We chose a relatively less crowded restaurant where we found the staff wearing masks. After a round of hot tea served in disposable paper cups, we renewed our journey.
As we travelled further into the countryside, the greenery around us deepened. The sight of a green pasture and a brook bordered by the white kaas compelled us to stop for a short photo op. Sanitise, sanitise… gentle reminders from the tour leader floated down the bus as we boarded it.
Located off the highway, the eco-resort was located in the middle of sprawling agricultural land. As a homestay, it had opened its doors a year back. But the adjoining eco-resort is still a work in progress (having been stalled during the lockdown) with a few cottages at one end of the property operational. Although we had to be a little careful, picking our way through the building materials strewn around the reception area, the area around the cottages were neat.
Before we entered the reception area, our temperatures were noted and we had to use the foot-operated sanitiser. Our luggage was sanitised and sent directly to our rooms.
The cottages were arranged in blocks of twos. Red tiles for roof, mud-plastered floor and walls, they were made using local materials as far as possible. Canvas curtains shielded the partly railed verandah. Despite the rustic setting, the rooms and washroom were fitted with modern amenities like air conditioners and televisions. There was in-room and tea-coffee service. The bedsheets and pillow covers were crisp and clean. Clean towels and basic toiletries (in wall-mounted spray bottles) were present in washrooms. However, in a virtual pre-tour meeting, we had been advised to bring our own bedsheets, towels and toiletries, which we did.
The dining hall was a short distance away and the open kitchen plan helped us to keep a tab on how the food was being prepared. In fact, most of the ingredients – vegetables, basic spices, fish and eggs, milk, were either produced in the resort’s own farm or were procured from the villages.
The cottages were hemmed in by greenery from three sides. Paddy fields and vegetable patches stretched into the horizon. A copse of local trees hid the meandering black tar that ran on one side of the resort. We took this road to go to the bank of the Subarnarekha River to see the sunset. One of the important rivers of the Chhota Nagpur Plateau, this river flows through Jharkhand, Odisha and West Bengal. According to local tales, the sand found on the banks of the river used to contain traces of gold and hence the name. However, the clouded sky prevented us from seeing the sun gilding the river with its reddish golden hue. For the greater part of our holiday, we decided to enjoy our stay in the eco-resort.
However, if you have to go sightseeing, the resort can be your base for visiting the lesser known sites of Moghalmari Buddhist Vihar and the Kurumbera Fort. As late as 2002-03, remains of a Buddhist monastery, dated between 6th and 12th centuries, were discovered in Moghalmari by Professor (late) Asoka Datta of Calcutta University. Some of the terracotta and other earthenware findings, including tablets and seals, can be seen in the on-site museum.
There is scant or no recorded evidence about the origin of the stone-built Kurumbera Fort, located in Gaganeswar village. However, according to local people, this was a temple in the medieval period which was requisitioned as accommodation for soldiers. A pillared corridor runs around the entire quadrangle. To one side of the quadrangle is an open enclosure believed to be the ruins of the original temple. Opposite to it, is a closed structure with three domes.
In between we stopped briefly at the Jangal Kanya Setu, a concrete bridge inaugurated in 2016, over the Subarnarekha River. The 12km wide and 1.4km long bridge is said to be the longest in West Bengal.
On the day we decided to go sightseeing, the resort had thoughtfully packed a picnic lunch for us. Our tour leader, a stickler for perfection, did not forget to bring along a few camp chairs for the senior citizens of the group. We chose a clearing within a patch of sal forest near Tapovan (with some rudimentary temples associated with tales from the Ramayana) for our picnic. As we merrily dug into a simple but tastefully prepared meal of rice, vegetable curry and masala chicken, we could not but agree that the pandemic has been a lesson for us in many ways, especially learning to appreciate the simple pleasures of life.