Monday, April 24, 2017

A Ride to Bishnupur - the Terracotta gallery of Bengal

A Ride to Bishnupur - the Terracotta gallery of Bengal

Finally, a time comes when you manage to free yourself from the shackles of monotony and puff out an extended sigh. But before you resume your normal breathing, what is that one portrait which captures your mindscape? For me, few important elements of that liberating picture are- the ‘Vroom’ of my motorcycles, ‘Click’ of my camera shutter and of course, the ethereal call of some unknown soil. This motorcycle diary dates back to 25th June, 2011. My only pony used to be a Bajaj Discover 125 back then. I wanted to ride along the beaches of Bengal which was demanding a complete week. Ouch, luck returned me a disdainful smile when my leave application got rejected at the climax of a much fantasized trip! Thus my well-planned twenty days vacation got truncated to a bad joke of three. But I refused to sit back and doze like a panda.

A Ride to Bishnupur - the Terracotta gallery of Bengal
Tall greeneries at two sides were real comfort to our eyes.

As I Googled for places nearby Bardhaman, Indiamike travel forum came to my quick help. The old town of Bishnupur with its widely acclaimed terracotta architectures topped the destination shortlist. Bishnupur, renowned for its exquisite terracotta temples, illustrious terracotta crafts and the gorgeous Baluchari Sarees made of Tussar silk, is a town in Bankura district in the state of West Bengal. A quick web-search can fetch you a lot of information about the rich history of this temple town. Owing to its significance as a tourist destination it is nicely connected via roads to almost all major places of Bengal. There are regular and frequent bus services available between Kolkata and Bishnupur, which roughly takes 4-5 hours. This place is also connected by rail to the rest of India via Kharagpur and Bankura. Once you reach Bishnupur, you better hire an auto-rickshaws or cycle-rickshaws, though I personally would prefer the later option due to its sluggish pace that enables your eyes to record the details of the town and its people better.

A Ride to Bishnupur - the Terracotta gallery of Bengal
We came across a group of elephants near a place called Kotulpur.

Luckily, my brother agreed to join me for the day ride to Bishnupur. As a routine ritual, last night I had packed my backpack before going to bed. The 4 AM alarm was anything but comforting. There was mild drizzle, so we couldn’t commence our ride before 05:45 AM. The sky was clouded and I could sense the pleasing collision of tiny drops of rain over my face and forearms. Unless you’re commuting for office, or an allergy-prone individual you love getting mildly wet… don’t you? We crossed Krishak Setu over the river Damodar and took the truck-congested Arambagh Road. We were never in hurry and kept mopping miles over the narrow yet nice state highway. What a bliss, there were no dust and smoke of big vehicles due to the wet atmosphere around us! What could be a better token of love from your lady luck when you are riding on a two-way road? Soon we reached Arambagh, and it was time to take the diversion to Bankura-Bishnupur road.

A Ride to Bishnupur - the Terracotta gallery of Bengal
Bishnupur is renowned for its exquisite terracotta temples and illustrious terracotta crafts!

Now it was the time for some woes as the road condition changed for bad. You can find a smooth span of 100-200 meters of tarmac, and suddenly a big trench (yea I really mean a trench)! The message is: be steady and watch out for ugly potholes. If you’re planning to drive your four-wheeler then you have to be twice slower, provided you love your machine. We came across a group of elephants near a place called Kotulpur. My brother spotted them first and showed me. I took out the camera and clicked few shots while passing by them gently. Our pony was no larger than a toy before those royal creatures. Due to some unknown reason, men riding those tuskers seemed displeased with my photography zeal. I couldn’t take the risk of annoying them and signaled my brother to speed up.

A Ride to Bishnupur - the Terracotta gallery of Bengal
Inside the Rasmancha.

Gradually we entered the forest road of Joypur. The road became butter smooth once again. Tall greeneries at two sides were real comfort to our eyes. Although the sun had come up the air was still cool. We came to know from a local guy that one can spot deer in the early morning on that road. We reached our destination by 09:30 AM. The trip-meter was showing a satisfying reading of “100” kilometers. I got down and inquired the directions of the places in my list. A veteran came to our aid. He was unexpectedly helpful and information rich. I listened to that nice man until he was satisfied with his guiding endeavor. Then we covered different places of tourist interest at Bishnupur, one by one. Here I won’t elaborate each spot, because I believe, wanderers in general are not so thirsty for the background history. Rather they are more concerned with the visual appeal. Obviously I’m not talking of those serious group of travelers who don’t miss out any single chronology.

A Ride to Bishnupur - the Terracotta gallery of Bengal
Dalmadal Canon.

Outside the Mrinmayee Temple we took double glasses of Lassi and came to know that tourists usually start gathering there from the Dussehra month. I was extremely happy to find the place almost tourist-free. In the entire trip we had to purchase tickets twice- once a Rs 5 ticket from Archaeological Survey of India for visiting three temples under their care (Jor Bangla temple, Temple of Shyamrai and Rasmancha), and another 5 rupees ticket for Lalgarh Nature Park. We covered thirteen places before the afternoon clock struck two. A couple of places were yet to be explored, like- a museum, Nutan Mahal etc. But we were left with no energy to push farther.

A Ride to Bishnupur - the Terracotta gallery of Bengal
Jorbangla Temple.

Brother wanted to freshen up in a hotel to get rid of the dust and sweat over his skin. But I knew once we enter a hotel and take shower nothing would better cloud our decision than a cat nap which eventually shall delay our return ride indefinitely. So I swapped my cap with his helmet and zoomed out of Bishnupur. On reaching Joypur, we found a manageable roadside restaurant ‘Banalata Restaurant’, adjacent to a vehicle exhaust analysis center. There you can have your lunch in air-conditioned cabins by paying few extra bucks. Expect semi-decent Chinese and North Indian dishes, along with common Bengali cuisines. Pricing was OK. We had our lunch, sipped coke, and rode back to Bardhaman in a post lunch idle mood.

A Ride to Bishnupur - the Terracotta gallery of Bengal
Radhashyam Temple.

Having munched 217 kilometers in the odo, we returned back to our place by 5 in the evening. I stopped by River Damodar to capture few quick snaps and conclude our road trip. As a bottom line note I must say, squeeze out some time, rekindle your traveling spree and head out for Bishnupur. You don’t have to plan anything in particular. You’ll be touched by the simplicity and down to earth nature of locals. When you are at Bishnupur, every time you breath in, you urban conditioned soul will be rejuvenated by the relaxing aroma of rural Bengal. Finding an accommodation won’t be an issue. I would recommend a 2 days stay to make your trip more effortless and absorbing.

A Ride to Bishnupur - the Terracotta gallery of Bengal
Rasmancha.

Folks, do you make it a point to put on your helmet while riding two-wheelers? If not, then you should be seriously ashamed of your riding behavior. You’re not only risking your life but also peace of your dependent ones. A helmet not only safeguards your invaluable head from road trauma but also protects your eyes, face and ears from the effect of dust. Do not apply your cost-cutting ideas while purchasing a helmet. Always go for a robust one from reputed manufactures. Nothing can be worse than a helmet breaking into pieces after a collision and its sharp parts piercing into the scalp of the unfortunate rider! I support CEAT whole-heartedly for taking this initiative in promoting road safety. Apart from wearing a proper helmet, few safety measures which every rider should stick to are:

- Check your tyre pressure periodically and maintain the optimum pressure as recommended by the manufacturer. Remember, slightly under-inflated tyres are safer than overinflated ones.
- Avoid abrupt changing of lanes on a highway. Do so with proper turn indicator on.
- Respect other drivers, riders and pedestrians on your way.
- Engrave it in your mind that driving is a privilege, and by no means it is your right!

A Ride to Bishnupur - the Terracotta gallery of Bengal
I stopped by River Damodar to capture few sunset snaps and conclude our road trip.


(I’m chronicling my road trip adventure for CEAT Tyres in association with BlogAdda.)

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

A quick weekend Ride to Mukutmanipur

A quick weekend Ride to Mukutmanipur
Last Saturday, my morning surfaced at ten when the outside was already quite sunny. Soon I realized that I was free for the entire day. What about a quick ride then, I teased myself! One thing I knew, if I sat on my chair and gave that riding thought a scope for reasoning, eventually procrastination would take the upper hand and a motorcycling trip shall never materialize. So, the first-aid measure was to ignore the overhead sun and lock the riding plan. When it came to choosing a destination, three places seemed practical for a half day ride- Bishnupur, Susunia Hill and Mukutmanipur. Being farthest among three, Mukutmanipur won hands down. This was my first leisurely ride with Benu (Benelli TNT 600 GT). The idea of her first thousand kilometers getting clocked up in my work related commute started taking its toll on me. She was not meant to haul monotony. Go by your heart or literature. Either way, she was born to travel. In Italian, "Gran Turismo" (abbreviated as GT) refers to vehicles that can make long distance tours in optimum comfort and style. Benu's first service is due on coming Saturday. I had to initiate her self-actualization before that.
A quick weekend Ride to Mukutmanipur
Cars are not allowed to enter this scenic road over the dam. But Benu could squeeze the juice.
Mukutmanipaur is a picturesque hamlet in Bankura district of West Bengal, nestled at the confluence of rivers Kangshabati and Kumari, houses a giant blue lake as the center of attraction for thousands of tourists visiting Mukutmanipur for unadulterated weekend relaxation. Just like Maithon, Mukutmanipur is a place to be best avoided during summer. Still, if you are a traveler with a spoonful of madness and can put up with the baking heat waves of Bankura, you're most welcome to visit Mukutmanipur anytime round the year and setup your own picnic spot. Apart from the vast water-scape, there are plenty of greenery and hillocks studded in the canvas of Mukutmanipur to exhilarate a wider variety of wanderers. Thankfully, my brother volunteered to be the pillion in my sudden-planned weekend ride to Mukutmanipur. We left Bardhaman at twelve noon!
A quick weekend Ride to Mukutmanipur
You might encounter an elephant or deer (strictly in the early morning though) crossing your way.
Our route to Mukutmanipur (170 kilometers stretch) was fairly simple and mostly through well maintained roads, starting from mammoth NH-2 to modest yet smooth SH-2. As soon as we touched the highway tarmac, Benu started pulling like a charm, easily cruising over triple digit speeds without letting us feel the rapid motion. When I ride my dark mare (Bajaj Pulsar 220 F) on highways, at times young wannabe racers play the "catch me if you can" game. With Benu the situation is bit different. Whoever chases me on a motorcycle, does so to know my machine and certainly not for outracing her. When the old problem gets perished a new one is conceived. Nowadays many four-wheelers on highways do tend to treat Benu as their competitor. You want to know how I respond? Well, that's an evil secret I'm not ready to share. After attaining a stable speed on road I can use the engine guard (also called- limb guard) on either side as highway footpeg, and I tell you the posture is so damn relaxing after that!
A quick weekend Ride to Mukutmanipur
Mukutmanipur welcomed us with her beautiful roads, Kangshabati Dam and a huge lake.
Soon after crossing Durgapur Barrage the typical Bankura landscape, comprising curvy roads fenced by tall furniture trees and red rocky soil popped up its head. Even if I keep aside those faint childhood memories associated with my three years of stay at Bankura back in kindergarten days, I had accumulated enough while revisiting the town on multiple occasions later. Luckily, despite its dry heat and rough terrain, this district still boasts of a number of prominent forest areas. You might encounter an elephant or deer (strictly in the early morning hours though) crossing your way. The surrounding nature is so beautiful that one would long to take numerous photo stops. But, when the afternoon heat is at its zenith and your two-wheeler weighs north of 250 kg, you often put a rain check to your other longings.
A quick weekend Ride to Mukutmanipur
When you are at Beliatore, spot one of those old sweet shops selling Mecha, like Mecha Mahal.
After a couple of halts at different forest zones, our third and final halt before Mukutmanipur was at Beliatore. It was neither a re-hydration necessity nor a photo break. Beliatore is famous for its Mecha Sandesh (a special form of local sweet) which I absolutely wanted to include in my trip blog, more than I wished to taste one. When you are at Beliatore, spot one of those old, less glossy sweet shops selling Mecha, like Mecha Mahal. Call me old-school but I'm deeply skeptical about the newer shops claiming to sell authentic Mecha or any other traditional item in that matter. To cater the anti-diabetic (do not take it literally) need of modern travelers, sweet shops also offer a less sugary type of Mecha which is vastly different from the one we used to savor in our childhood. Despite its sophistication and price it was tasty. I would recommend you to taste both of them.
A quick weekend Ride to Mukutmanipur
Half a dozen of motorized boats were dozing by the jetty (Of course with their boatmen).
Mukutmanipur welcomed us with her beautiful roads, Kangshabati Dam, huge lake, scanty tourists and rows of closed shops. The government has certainly done its bits to make the town look like a tourist spot. I think you are getting me, right? A hand few food shops screaming desperately to pull few customers in for lunch, and a couple of tourist groups packing up their mess near the boating jetty were the only signs of life in an otherwise still Mukutmanipur. We were starving like rats, yet postponed our lunch for surveying the place. Half a dozen of motorized boats were dozing by the jetty. The shadow of off-season was clearly visible over the entire tourist ambiance of Mukutmanipur. Either those boatmen were too exhausted by the summer heat or they were least optimistic with a unshaven loner. One of them invited me reluctantly. A two-hours boat ride, which includes two sightseeing spots, one of which is an old temple, costs only 400 bucks.
A quick weekend Ride to Mukutmanipur
Like a dreamer, I indulged in the fantasy of being there in a full-moon night...
We were in real paucity of time. Half an hour could have been manageable, but two hours... in no way we could have afforded. Cars are not allowed to enter the scenic road over the dam. But Benu could squeeze the juice out for us. Voila! The kilometer-long (probably more) road turned out to be motorcyclists' paradise. It is twisted but without sharp bends, wide enough to let you corner with confidence, maintaining the perfect harmony between the green valley (slightly exaggerating) at your left and the blue endless water at right, and most importantly giving you the illusion that you're part of a Hollywood chase sequence. Those of you who won't be carrying your two-wheeler there, do not lose hope. There are auto-rickshaws available to offer you the Corsican experience! Like a dreamer, I indulged in the fantasy of being there in a full-moon night and imaginations those followed spontaneously made me real high...
A quick weekend Ride to Mukutmanipur
Off-season is the perfect time to explore a place especially so if you are a shutterbug.
Who can beat the whims of nature? The tyrant sky turned cloudy all of a sudden. There were distant roars of cloud. Our lunch was long due. As a matter of fact, the overall dehydration had engulfed our appetite. What choice did I have but to abort our dam-side riding ecstasy! Off-season is the perfect time to explore a place especially so if you are a shutterbug. But, availability of food becomes an issue. Avoiding those roadside food hotels (desperate ones I mentioned earlier) we tried our luck in a decent restaurant. The silly waiting time they threw at us was the clear indication of how disinterested they were to toil in an overcast summer afternoon. The scarcity of good food coupled with the moody gravid sky above compelled us to cancel our food. We went for packaged fruit juices instead before bidding goodbye to Mukutmanipur. 

Benu is blessed to be a machine. She doesn't have to lose her patience out of hunger. Human coldness fails to disappoint her. She claims her needs without a tinge of hesitation. Once she gets fueled, she munches miles effortlessly without the slightest bother for weather, terrain or hospitality. Yes there are few areas where she falters and right now I'm too hexed by her spell to highlight those. Safe riding folks. Summer is on. It is very easy to lose patience and engage in a road rage. So, keep calm and ride smart! 

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

A Trip to Maithon - the "Kashmir of Koyalanchal"

A Trip to Maithon - the Kashmir of Koyalanchal
"Kashmir of Koyalanchal", the name itself might be confidence inspiring for many travelers. But, if you are lured enough to visit Maithon anytime in summer be ready to confront its unforgiving warm weather. After all, coal belts of eastern India are meant to be hot, dusty and rough; aren't they? You must be wondering whether I belong to that elite group of high spirited wanderers who does not hesitate to accept challenges offered by extreme climatic conditions. Certainly I am not. Ladakh in winter does fascinate me, but not Jaisalmer in summer. So, why did I still choose to make a trip to Maithon in the ugly afternoon of 31st March? Those of you who know me personally or follow my blogs regularly are quite familiar with my status of being a solo traveler. Yes, solo traveling has its perks. But once in a blue moon when you get to take the highway and spend some quality time with your old school comrades then group traveling itself turns out to be boon!
A Trip to Maithon - the Kashmir of Koyalanchal
This time it was four of us. Few weeks back, we met in a cafe (not by any coincidence though). All four of us were desperate for a short road trip which necessarily would include a night halt. After few lazy permutations and combinations we agreed upon Maithon. Maithon is barely 135 kilometers away from Bardhaman and the better part is, Maithon doesn't have many distractions to fatigue those visitors looking for an idle weekend stay. To top it all, I must admit, we cared very little whether our destination was Maithon or Madison. What kept us excited were the imposing thought of a journey together and of course, the anticipation of a blissful gentle-men's night out. Maithon is a small town located on Jharkhand - Bengal border, famous in the map of eastern India for its dam built on the river Barakar, which not only controls flood but also generates a huge amount of hydroelectricity.
A Trip to Maithon - the Kashmir of Koyalanchal
Maithon Dam is independent India's first dam project under Damodar Valley Corporation (DVC) which contributed immensely in turning the erstwhile wild river Damodar from "River of Sorrow" to a "River of Opportunities". Our subject of interest was bit off-center though. The mini travel plan was pretty simple- to reach Maithon by evening, find a comfortable stay, make every minute count in our exclusive style (because, one should make hay while the sun shines), wake up early, witness a mesmerizing sunrise from the dam-side (totally cliché I know), indulge in boating over the picturesque lake and commence our return journey with the usual, yet never-materializing consolation of planning another group trip very soon.
A Trip to Maithon - the Kashmir of Koyalanchal
None of us had a SUV/MUV, and hatchbacks we have couldn't provide us the space we needed. I wasn't ready to settle with a Mahindra vehicle but now I'm glad that I took a chance. The white Xylo we hired was sufficiently smooth and roomy. Other than our expected brouhaha the drive to Maithon was almost uneventful. I was overjoyed to discover complete absence of toll booth on NH-2, from Bardhaman to Maithon. Happy toll-free days won't last long as NHAI is setting up a toll plaza near Rajbandh. Although it was dark by the time we left highway and took the Barakar-Kalyaneswari Road, there was perceivable change in landscape. The surrounding was hilly which signaled us that we were not far from the "Kashmir of Koyalanchal".
A Trip to Maithon - the Kashmir of Koyalanchal
From the list of accommodation options provided in Wikitravel we decided to start our hunt from Hotel Shantinivas. Luckily the room was fine and the tariff was negotiable. We submitted ourselves to the hotel confinement and untied our inhibitions in search of Nirvana. For obvious reasons parting with the bed early was an onerous task, but the call of a rising sun over Maithon Dam was too shrill to ignore. We stepped out of the hotel only to discover an overcast morning sky. Somehow I wasn't disappointed. There were half a dozen of tea stalls outside. It'll be a gross understatement to call them tea-stall as you can find a wide variety of beverages, bread-omelette, puri-sabji and "what not?", all under the same tin roof. You'll find auto-rickshaws eager to take you for a spin around the dam for 100 bucks or so. Avail them if you're not ready to walk 2-4 kilometers, or if you visit Maithon in odd hours of scorching noon.
A Trip to Maithon - the Kashmir of Koyalanchal
The boating dock was small, adjacent to a strategically located hotel run by DVC- Majumdar Niwas. Majumdar Niwas sits picturesquely on an isle, surrounded by green water and connected to the land by a long footbridge. I could only fantasize how ethereal it would be to spend a full moon night in that hotel! On the spot booking is not entertained there. So, you've to make prior reservation through DVC. Soon we reached the dam to explore the real essence of Maithon. Photography is strictly prohibited over the dam and there are enough security personnel to ensure that. Take a leisurely walk over the bridge. Although vehicles are not allowed to halt over the bridge, as a pedestrian you can take that leverage. Enjoy the vast turquoise (being overly poetic) reservoir at your left, studded with tiny islands of myriad shapes. Spot a distant fishing boat or try to figure out faraway rock forms. Just settle down, take deep breathes, curse DVC for their anti-photography policies, imagine how majestic the view would be during the monsoon time and start walking again to discover Jharkhand on the other end of the bridge. Oh hold on, do gaze at your left too, to find a herd of deer grazing undisturbed. We were back to the boating harbor, managed by Salanpur Panchayat Samiti.
A Trip to Maithon - the Kashmir of Koyalanchal
There are three options to choose from- speed boat, country boat and paddle boat. A friendly, tribal boatman took us for a hour long ride to Sabujdeep. Only a non-motorized country boat, sluggishly cutting through the emerald lake water could satisfy our boating appetite. We were in no hurry to reach. We wanted to smell the water and gulp its surrounding visuals with wide open eyes. A speedboat ferrying tourists went past our modest boat and the waves it created kept swaying us for a minute. Instead of feeling threatened we felt more pampered! The isle, Sabujdeep has certainly lost her chastity. Tourists have littered this once pristine piece of forest land with everything from liquor bottles to snacks wrappers. Otherwise, the local Pachayat authority has spent money generously in shaping this island tourist friendly. Occupy an umbrella shade at the extreme edge of Sabujdeep or hike the little hillock in front of the jetty to capture the best possible 360 degree panorama of the lake-scape.
A Trip to Maithon - the Kashmir of Koyalanchal
Good times get spent rocket fast. We had to check out of the hotel by 11:30. Our sole aim was unadulterated relaxation. But if you're visiting Maithon for the sake of exploring, do also visit the 500 years old Kalyaneshwari Temple and Pahari Baba Mandir. Owing to its close proximity to NH-2, Maithon is well connected to other places by road. Nearest railway station is Kumardubi, just 9 kilometers away. You have plenty of hotels and lodges to choose from. My half cent- visit this Kashmir of coal belt only in winter months. Safe traveling folks. Summer is on. Drink ample fluids and keep yourself adequately hydrated.