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10 March 2015

Colours and Surprises - North Bengal Village Fair

I knew it would be a village fair but wasn’t quite sure what to expect.

Dusty fields
 Would there be a big ground lined by stalls at its edges with a vast near-empty space in the middle and a big wheel and other rides in one corner?
Or would it be a small area packed with people, shops and rides where one will be pushed, pulled and compressed?

Next to the Temple

While going there I heard it’s a famous fair in these parts and quite an old one. Since I couldn’t visualise the fair to my satisfaction, I couldn’t really plan my photography. So I decided to go with an open mind – unplanned and ready to be surprised. And boy wasn’t I in for a (pleasant) surprise!

We drove from Jalpaiguri town to Jalpesh Temple, which houses the idol of Lord Jalpeshwar – an incarnation of Shiva. The half-an-hour drive (about 10 kilometers) crossed River Teesta, fields and villages. Though the roads are not really wide, since the road surface was good and there was no typical heavy big-city-traffic, the drive was quite nice. The temple is about 5 kilometers from the nearest town – Mainaguri. Every year in February-March, around Shivaratri or the festival of Lord Shiva, a fair is organised next to the temple. Earlier it used to be held for a month and supposedly attracted visitors from North Bengal, Assam, Nepal and Sikkim. These days, the fair is held only for about a fortnight suggesting its declining glory.

Jalpesh Temple
The temple was constructed by a king of Coochbihar Islamic architectural style. Its facade – white and imposing - is remarkably impressive. The fair starts on a piece of land adjacent to the temple. It goes towards a creek, crossing it using a small bamboo bridge and merging with shops and stalls in the main fair ground.
Colourful Fair

The fair was not anything I visualised – the place was bigger, there were more people, more shops and stalls, and more rides than I had imagined. All around me there were different hues of colours, more than what could be seen in a typical big city fair. Women had taken out their best and probably most colourful attires. There were multicoloured toys, wares, food, rides and posters. Though it was dusty, the weather was pleasant. People wrapped their shawls and woolens amidst swirling dusty wind. The combined impact was a dream-like landscape.

Intriguing Faces

The faces of people I saw around me intrigued me. Their features were different from that seen in other parts of Bengal. Most visitors probably came from villages from around. Perhaps their antecedents are linked to the original residents of North Bengal – Cochs and Rajbangshis.  


The few hours I was there, I remained busy taking in the ambience. My companions and I nibbled some jalebis. Soon it was time to head back through a dusty village road.    

© text and photo: Sanchita Chatterjee 2015 

08 March 2015

Darjeeling and Mirik: A Drive by

What can you do in Darjeeling in a few hours? I spent the limited time available to me lazing in the Chowrasta Mall - a flat land where roads meet, usually described as the heart of the hill town - and taking a walk around the Mall Road, which starts from the Mall and goes around Observatory Hill to join the Mall from a different side. I also visited Mirik – another hill station in the Darjeeling Hills on the same day.

We drove from Jalpaiguri town through Siliguri (via National Highway 31) to Darjeeling (via Rohini and Hill Cart Road) (Distance: Siliguri to Darjeeling - 80 kilometers, Jalpaiguri to Darjeeling – 120 kilometers). Relentless views of fields, military encampments, tea gardens, distant hill ranges, jungles and human settlements on the way, one after the other, left us almost breathless and asking for more.

Before reaching the Mall, we stopped at Batasia Loop – one of several loops of the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway – five kilometers ahead of the town. At Batasia Loop, the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway or the toy train takes a 360-degree turn to make a sharp descent towards Darjeeling town. The spot offers a panoramic view of the town and the ranges around. A war memorial has been constructed at the spot.

Darjeeling is at an average height of 6710 feet (2045 meters). The Mall is a meeting a point of people, a shopping area, a tourist attraction and a viewing point of distant snow-capped mountains. Contrary to our expectations – fuelled by a prediction of the Met Department of possible rains - the weather was good. It was bright, sunny and pleasant. People were out in hordes just standing around. I sat in the Mall watching women in traditional Bhutanese and Nepalese attires, a lady sweeping the Mall, boys and girls from schools, and perhaps colleges as well hanging about, locals lounging and tourists looking around. There are stores including some really old and heritage book and other kinds of shops bordering the Mall and stretching beyond - on the streets around the Mall. I took a walk on the Mall Road and saw dozens of rhododendron trees with various hues of red and pink flowers on the slopes above and below me.

Other attractions in Darjeeling include a few parks, temples, botanical and zoological gardens, Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, a few other institutions, a cable car and tea estates. 

The drive from Darjeeling to Mirik via Ghum and Sukhia Pokhri and the return journey from Mirik to Siliguri (Distance: Darjeeling to Mirik – 49 kiliometers, Siliguri to Mirik 55 kilometers) were even nicer than the first leg of the trip. The routes have miles and miles of pine and fern forests, tea plantations, occasional habitations, cantonments and gorgeous views of distant ranges.
Mirik – at an average height of 5810 feet (1700 metres) - is well known for its lake fed by perennial rivers. The lake – said to be 1.25 kilometers long - is surrounded by a dense forest on its west side, which lends its water a green hue. In winters, migratory birds visit the lake. A board next to the lake claimed this year Siberian Cranes had been there. I took pictures of a few Great Comorants, sitting comfortably with an air of grandness about them, in the middle of the lake. There are a few restaurants and small eateries by the lake. At one end of the lake, people had gathered to feed colorful fish, the kinds you would see in aquariums, only bigger than average aquarium varieties.

I must have spent about 45 minutes at the lake before heading back to Jalpaiguri. It was a day well spent. I was content, happy and tired, all at once!