If there is one thing that the bygone year can be credited for, it is helping me arrive at my own eureka moment when I realised that my inherent wanderlust shared a directly proportional relationship with the months spent at home, locked in within four walls, with only the window of daydreaming flung open. So come January, with college work pressure building to a crescendo, a long, scenic drive, perhaps a bit of fresh wintry air, the gurgle of waterfalls and the chill of the hills seemed to be just what the doctor had ordered—and it manifested in the form of Ajodhya Hills in West Bengal’s Purulia district.
For the longest time, Ajodhya Hills, located some 330 kilometres from Kolkata, was the hotbed of Maoist activity and tourism was almost nil in these hills which happen to be the easternmost part of the Chhota Nagpur Plateau. During my first visit in 2013, when only limited stay options were available and visitors were warned against stepping out after sundown, to travelling here some eight years down the line, with the roads smoothened out, bordered by flower-showers and patient, tall trees, the beauty of rural Bengal in all its regal display—I was in for a surprise.
In winter, Ajodhya Hills wears a cape of beauty all its own, sans too much network availability (thank you for once, Vodafone?), and your senses grow more attuned to your surroundings. The weather is all-inviting, the sunlight kisses the tree-tops, filtering in like rays of hope, the hills cradle the water in the dams, reflect the blue skies in the manmade lakes while evening brings the mixed melody from the chirping crickets and the raucous beats of the drums (dhamsa, madol) from the nearby village where a Chhau performance has just begun. You look up, briefly, to see the night sky studded with stars, and you find the fleeting moment of peace again.
With a new lens
In memory of my first trip to the Ajodhya Hills along bouncy roads, I had said quiet prayers for my weakly coping back, before embarking on an eight-hour-long drive. Powered by a heart-filling dhaba breakfast of butter tandoori roti and chicken tadka, it seemed like my prayers were automatically answered when the roads stretched out smoothly before us, past Barjora-Durgapur-Bankura and onwards into Purulia. The quickest indication of the changing of districts perhaps comes from the soil, transitioning from the muddy alluvial to coarse, dusty red to arid browns as we entered the largely rocky terrain of Purulia, scenic and attractive even in its ruggedness.
It was nearing dusk by the time our vehicle crept up the mildly serpentine roads. The mercury dipped a little lower, we climbed a little higher and, finally, some 712 metres above sea level, with a bluish fog crowding the distant green hills, we arrived at the other Ajodhya.
At Ajodhya you will be spoiled by the number of things to see. As I pored over the intricate map framed in our hotel’s reception area, trying to find the best route for next day’s outing, indecision was knocking at my door. The manager of the hotel—a certain Bidyut Dey—middle-aged, smiling but curious, bespectacled eyes, came to the rescue. He fished out a pen, grabbed the nearest notepad and etched out a map-route for us to follow.
When dawn broke the following day and I stood at the window with my cup of elaichi chai—the sunlight still locked in an embrace with the fog among the trees of the Kalha forest, I heard the migratory birds chirping in the distance, serenading the aubade. Armed with the hand-drawn map, we set off towards Upper Dam, our first stop for what promised to be a long day. Set amidst softly curving hills with the placid blue waters of the dam nestled in between, Upper Dam is a splendid sight.
In fact, Ajodhya has a lot of dams on offer—Khairabera Dam, Murguma Dam, Lower Dam, et al—all indicating the region’s dependency on hydel power. After Upper Dam, it was customary to follow the trail to Lower Dam before making our way to Turga Dam and Falls. Right next to Turga, Marble Lake is a must stopover. Naturally reminiscent of the Madhya Pradesh wonder, Ajodhya’s Marble Lake is, however, manmade. Yet another star attraction is Bamni Falls (take a deep breath before you attempt this descent), crashing over tempered rocks and gurgling in three different stages. Seeing the falls, despite the physical exhaustion it entailed (some 600 odd steps need to be overcome both ways), was an experience worth having.
Making our way from Bamni, we lost our way trying to find Murguma Dam. After traversing questionable ‘roads’, with the sun racing behind our backs, we made it on time to catch the dying rays of the sun as it hid behind the hills at Murguma. Wonderfully serene and exceptionally scenic, the natural mud dam lay calmly as nature dipped its paintbrush on its watery palette, dissolving the hues of dusk in the still waters.
Call of Culture
Purulia may be famous for a lot of things but the heartbeat of its culture is the dusty little artistic village of Charida, near Baghmundi, which has been labelled as Mukhosh Gram (‘Village of Masks’). These particular masks are associated with Chhau. A form of dance mixed with martial arts, it’s the traditional folk dance of the region and the Chhau recitals usually enact stories from the Mahabharata and Ramayana. In Charida, the narrow roads are delineated by thatched roof establishments with artisans dotting either side of it, heads bent over, paintbrush in hand, deftly making strokes and adding life to the masks.
However, Chhau is no longer performed regularly, having become an occasional spectacle at fairs. So, while we wound our way back to our hotel a little after sundown, we could spot a brightly lit-up outdoor stage in the distance and the euphoric beats of drums as a Chhau performance played out. The beats are quite infectious and you are easily reminded of scenes from Ray’s Aranyer Din Ratri, the santhali flavour of the music difficult to ignore.
A Sky Full of Stars
Perhaps Ajodhya saved the very best for last and, after a hearty meal of fluffy tawa roti and the softest of mutton preparations, I decided to take an unassuming walk outside through the surrounding Kalha forest. Seeing me head off, our ever-friendly and extremely knowledgeable manager, Mr Dey offered me company. He went to get a torch and a walking stick, before leading the way for our night-trek.
Leaving the lights of our hotel behind, we set off towards the forest trail where only the moonlight gently shimmered and bounced off the tall trees that rustled with the winter air. Hands tucked into my jacket pocket, phones put away for good and a chill hanging in the air, the trek began. Making our way through the uneven path with twigs and dried leaves scattered on the ground, their crunch alerting us about our impact, we suddenly came to a clearing and my guide for the night asked me to look up. The next few seconds were surreal.
The sky stretched out like an unending carpet of stars, weaving a magical glow on the celestial canvas. Pointing up, my guide expertly etched out the constellations—the Big Dipper here, Orion there, letting his torchlight cross-stitch patterns across the galaxies, forming meaning out of the apparently meaningless. Shining from myriad lightyears away a bright blue or pale orange, the light from some dead, some nascent, some caught-in-between stars still spiralling with their gaseous fury up-close yet seemingly twinkling from a distance, was oddly revelatory, oddly hopeful.
The following day, as I left Ajodhya, I was still starry eyed. I did not visit Ajodhya with a lot of expectations—what could a place marketed as a rugged hill station possibly offer, especially when visited the second time around? But, returning after eight years—older and with a new perspective—I did not see Ajodhya like I had seen it the first time. Instead, I learned to hear music in the gurgle of the Bamni Falls, the beats of Chhau, a strange placidity in the locked- in waters of the myriad dams and the Marble Lake, to find truths behind the most telling of masks, to discover hope in the rays of dawn and poetry in the hues of dusk and, finally, I found the possibility of magic written in the stars in the most hapless of places, asking me to simply look up and believe again.
How to Reach
Ajodhya hills is a 330km drive from Kolkata. Or take a train to Purulia Junction. The nearest airport is Ranchi, 115km away.
Where to Stay
x The most luxurious property currently is the Kushal Palli Resort, offering even spa and pool facilities
x For a more adventurous stay, choose the Kalyan Forest Resort; they have stay options in tents and treehouses as well
x The Eco Adventure Resorts near Khairabera offers brilliant, one-of-a-kind stay experiences
What to Do
x Go trekking and rock- climbing. Treks range from 1 to 2 days and are fairly easy. You can begin your trek from Sirkabad which will take you across several tribal hamlets, rivulets, falls and rocky paths. Watch out for elephants which sometimes come over to the Ajodhya hills from the Dalma range
x Ajodhya is perfect for birdwatching in the winter months. Pakhi Pahar, aside from its resident peacocks, is a great spot
x Being culturally rich, you can visit Charida and watch masks being made for Chhau and, by evening, catch a performance
x You can also try mahua, the local liquor
What to Eat
x Bengali cuisine dominates, but there’s an odd fusion with tribal tastes as well
x Think dak bungalow- style chicken and succulent mutton recipes and a definite homely taste
x However, resorts like Kushal Palli are dabbling in multi-cuisine offerings as well and can dish up perfectly steamed momos and warm, comforting soups that suit the hilly location