Saturday, July 29, 2017

Monsoon Ride to Giridih - visit to the untamed Usri Falls and lofty Harihar Dham Temple

Monsoon Ride to Giridih - visit to the untamed Usri Falls and lofty Harihar Dham Temple
It was a cloudy Thursday, precisely 13th of this month. Weather forecast was least assuring, threatening me with a precipitation > 90% in and around Giridih. If you are a motorcycle fascinated with monsoon rides, you just can't afford to pet ombrophobia. After cross-checking multiple weather predictions from different Internet sources when I was sure that there was hardly any possibility of thunderstorm at Giridih, I finalized my riding destination for the day right in the crack of dawn. Giridih, the land of hills and hillocks, is the headquarter of Giridih district of the Indian state of Jharkhand. Despite Giridih's location in the mining belt, its natural grandeur and presence of abundant religious sites have secured it a popular spot in the tourist map of Eastern India. Oh, don't mind that amiable chameleon in the cover photograph. I met him in the jungle adjacent to Usri Waterfall. Although there are several places of tourist interest at Giridih, considering the paucity of time and unpredictability of the season I had decided to limit my focus only on two sites- lofty Harihar Dham Temple at Bagodar, and the untamed monsoon impregnated Usri Falls located at a close proximity to Giridih town.

Monsoon Ride to Giridih - visit to the untamed Usri Falls and lofty Harihar Dham Temple
Benu clocked almost 540 kilometers in the day, and she was all geared up for her 2nd servicing.
My first halt of the day, Harihar Dham was pretty easy to find. Bagodar directly falls on NH-2 (presently, renamed as NH-19), approximately 240 kilometers north of Bardhaman. As you leave the national highway and take a left diversion thereafter, drive a couple of kilometers at most to reach Harihar Dham Temple. After crossing Raniganj, a sudden pour reminded me that my breakfast was due. Luckily I could spot a decent highway inn before rain could embrace me more intimately. Here comes the best part- the Aloo Paratha they had served me with a tumbler full of Punjabi Tea was truly rejuvenating! As I crossed the Bengal-Jharkhand interstate border I was quite surprised to find no congestion of loaded trucks and other goods-carrying vehicles. Those commercial drivers must be thanking the newly introduced GST (Goods and Services Tax) for putting an end to their hours of waiting at every state border to oblige custom police with relevant taxes and bribes.

Monsoon Ride to Giridih - visit to the untamed Usri Falls and lofty Harihar Dham Temple
Probably those colorfully crafted swords are local handicrafts of Isri.
Road deteriorated as Benu touched the highway passing through Jharkhand. There are unpredictable furrows, inappropriate elevations and sudden potholes over the Delhi-Kolkata Highway to make your high speed cruising sufficiently life threatening! Considering the congestion of heavy vehicles over NH-2 such distortion of the tarmac is no surprise. But, my question is- Why NH-2 is not being maintained at Jharkhand? Who, or what is stopping NNHAI (National Highway Authority of India) from carrying out their duties even after leeching bagful of money from passing by vehicles? Do share your opinion. Sometime after crossing the coal-dust coated city of Dhanbad, I passed through Isri, the small town from where devout Jains start their Parasnath Hill pilgrimage. I was surprised to see a number of roadside shops selling designer canes and colorful swords. I could relate the cane with hiking, but why would anyone sell swords near a Jain pilgrim site?

Monsoon Ride to Giridih - visit to the untamed Usri Falls and lofty Harihar Dham Temple
Harihar Dham Temple boasts of housing the largest Shivalinga in the world.
I stopped by one such shop and presented the seller with my innocent doubt. He was cordial but not so rich with information. All he said was, "These are sold here", as if I didn't already know that! Probably those colorfully crafted swords are local handicrafts of Isri. Bagodar was not far from there. Mere two kilometers ride from the left deviation at Bagodar took me in front of the much hyped Harihar Dham Temple. You can clearly see the upper half of the mammoth Shivalinga right from the road where you'll be parking your vehicle. Harihar Dham Temple, a popular tourist cum pilgrimage destination at Giridih, enclosing a 65 feet high Shivalinga, boasts of housing the largest Shivalinga in the world. There is sufficient free area inside the temple complex. You can offer puja to the presiding deity, or simply laze around to observe various religious idiosyncrasies of other devotees and appreciate the neck-straining stature of the mighty Shivalinga.

Monsoon Ride to Giridih - visit to the untamed Usri Falls and lofty Harihar Dham Temple
Usri Waterfall is formed by the steep descent of the Usri River 39 feet down a gorge!
Among many other Hindu festivals, Nag Panchami is observed in Harihar Dham with great devotion. On a regular basis, Hindu marriages are conducted in this temple for a prefixed nominal fee. Shortly, a group of distant devotees clad in saffron, chanting "Om Namah Shivaya", playing drums and trumpets entered Harihar Dham, and I realized it was the right time to leave for Usri waterfall. My next landmark in G-Maps was Dumri over NH-2 from where one has to divert to Isri-Giridih Road. This road is remarkably scenic, almost fairly maintained and represents the typical landforms of Chota Nagpur Plateau region. The same road can take you to Madhuban, a pious town for Jains from where the ascent to Parasnath Hill actually starts. I headed to Giridih. Usri Falls is located another 10-12 kilometers beyond Giridih, on the road towards Gobindpur. You can't ignore Gobindpur, because that's where you'll rejoin NH-2 in case you're planning your return journey towards Kolkata.

Monsoon Ride to Giridih - visit to the untamed Usri Falls and lofty Harihar Dham Temple
A dilapidated idol of Goddess Kali found in the jungle adjacent to Usri Falls.
Excusing few kilometers of chaotic ongoing road construction over SH-13, just prior and post to Usri Falls, I appreciated the effort taken by Jharkhand Tourism (or, is it PWD?) to iron out the tarmac of Usri Falls Road. It meanders while ascending through the village and forest cover to take you up to the hissing mouth of feral Usri Waterfall. Usri Falls is undoubtedly the most precious gem in the tourist crown of Giridih district. Usri Waterfall is formed by the steep descent of the Usri River 39 feet down a gorge, into three separate untamed streams, to transform into a relatively calm Usri River once again and join Barakar River after a short while. Although Usri Falls won't charm you with clear blue water, her wild roar and deep impact on scattered metamorphic rocks (as evident by their polished, eroded surfaces) are sure to make you respectful towards her powerful presence! Be careful while stepping down to approach the waterfall. Rocks are mostly wet and slippery. If you lose balance Usri will surely gulp you in a single sip. Don't get too close while capturing photographs too.

Monsoon Ride to Giridih - visit to the untamed Usri Falls and lofty Harihar Dham Temple
Parasnath Hill, the sacred pilgrimage for Jains veiled by monsoon clouds, as seen from NH-2.
Heavy mist produced by the dynamic water can harm your camera lens. There is a stunted watchtower nearby. You may climb up its poorly built stairs to enjoy breeze at the top. Do not expect any better view of the waterfall from there. I straightened by back for a while. When I realized my eyes getting heavy, I woke myself up with a sudden jerk and bid hearty farewell to the beautiful Usri. Return journey to Bardhaman was almost uneventful, except the horrible late lunch devoured at Khalsa Vegies. Benu clocked almost 540 kilometers in the entire day, and with mud and dust ornamenting her curves she was all ready for her 2nd servicing. My monsoon ride to Giridih was overall a fun ride. Oh hold on folks, I've got an update to share. I'm flying to Leh this coming Tuesday. Once I reach Leh, I'll be renting a Royal Enfield Classic 350 to explore the mesmerizing Ladakh. Unfortunately I'm down with fever, just two days prior to the commencement of such a dream journey! Please wish me some luck here. See you soon with my Ladakh motorcycling diary.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Monsoon Ride to Jhargram - met a gentleman Motorcycling from Kashmir to Kanyakumari

Monsoon Ride to Jhargram - met the gentleman Motorcycling from Kashmir to Kanyakumari
A rolling stone gathers no moss, makes sense only when uttered by a botanist. Otherwise, I do not know any selfless soul living anywhere in this entire universe who would take interest in growing slimy evils over his well developed gray matter. People who do not travel, consciously or unconsciously end up being static and eventually mossy. Like many of you I too have a step-motherly day job to put up with. But, long back I chose to be a rolling stone, and till date I have not found a single valid reason to dock. You might be wondering why yours truly is force-feeding you with pills of wanderlust instead of narrating the Jhargram travel tale. Well, not everyday you get to meet a passionate motorcyclist who's on the verge of completing his Kashmir to Kanyakumari circuit ride on a humble RE Classic 350! Hold on folks. Catching up with Shashidhar on NH-6, somewhere near Kharagpur was the highlight of my Jhargram ride. Before I get back to Jhargram, let me tell you what this Bangalorean IT guy was up to.

Monsoon Ride to Jhargram - met the gentleman Motorcycling from Kashmir to Kanyakumari
Shashidhar Sunagar, the Bangalorean gentleman motorcycling from Kashmir to Kanyakumari!
By now, having ridden a mountainous distance of 12,100 kilometers in 38 days, Shashidhar Sunagar has successfully concluded his dream motorcycle trip of Kashmir to Kanyakumari, covering 16 states and 5 union territories, almost traversing India circumferentially. Anticipating good amount of rainfall I had started off with Benu just after the morning tea. Sky was overcast. Online weather forecasts were not very dry either. Formerly a sub-division town of Paschim Medinipur, Jhargram is the headquarter of newly formed Jhargram district. With dense forests, hills, elements of history and tribal touch arranged proportionately in her platter, Jhargram has marked her presence in the tourist map of Bengal long back. Still when it comes of finalizing a weekend destination, travelers are reluctant to choose Jhargram. Probably, it will take few more years for us to convince ourselves that Maoists reign of terror has faded away from that region.

Monsoon Ride to Jhargram - met the gentleman Motorcycling from Kashmir to Kanyakumari
Jhargram Palace, the hub of tourist attraction at Jhargram was my first hunt of the day.
My objectives in the Jhargram ride were pretty modest: reach Jhargram as early as possible, visit Jhargram Palace, Kanak Durga Temple and Chilkigarh Rajbari, savor a sumptuous lunch, and then return Bardhaman before it gets dark. Benu's second servicing was due. I didn't want to take her to service workshop before clocking 4,000 kilometers. A couple of long day rides seemed necessary at that point. Anyway, the starting of the journey went absolutely trouble-free. NH-2 was partially wet, yet welcoming as always. I was expecting mild drizzle in the first half of the morning, but the monsoon sky took a rain check. Kindness is the last thing a traveler can ask for from the gloomy clouds of July. Calmly cruising at triple digit speeds on NH-6, popularly known as Mumbai Road is a pure bliss for any rider. I had got so engrossed in that act of euphoric mile munching that I missed the right diversion to SH-5 after crossing Kharagpur. That's when I passed by a motorcyclist in riding jacket, driving a RE Classic, hauling substantial luggage, flags and a yellow board at back that read- Kashmir to Kanyakumari.

Monsoon Ride to Jhargram - met the gentleman Motorcycling from Kashmir to Kanyakumari
Jhargram Palace still functions as the regal residence of successors of Narasingha Malla Deb.
For salaried professional it's never easy to get such a long leave from his boss. However stringent you maintain your policies as an employer, you simply can not hold back a rolling stone for long. When he was refused a month-long leave from the office, dejected Shashidhar expressed his intention to resign. Guess what? His travel leave was granted! A gentle disclaimer for my readers- This approach had worked for Shashidhar, but it doesn't necessarily mean it'll work for you too. If you're planning to threaten your boss with your letter of resignation, be mindful and calculate the associated risk beforehand. It was 31st day of his marathon tour. He had ascended to the north till Leh taking the west coast of India, and was descending for Kanyakumari following the east coast. He had been documenting his motorcycle journey through a helmet mounted camera. When he was traveling in Ladakh the snow layer on the road was so thick that he couldn't help toppling over more than a few times! As Shashidhar was sharing his trip highlights I could sense nothing but deep-seated satisfaction in his voice.

Monsoon Ride to Jhargram - met the gentleman Motorcycling from Kashmir to Kanyakumari
There is a full-fledged remnant of an old temple beside the new Kanak Durga Temple.
Our destinations were different. Eventually we parted our ways after a highway chitchat. By then I had rode more than ten kilometers from where I was supposed to change route for Jhargram. Better late than never, I took a U-turn. Soon, monsoon started showing its real color. It started all of a sudden and got intense in no time. Before I could dig out the raincoat my clothes were all drenched in rain water. Realizing the futility of searching for a shelter I pushed on, only to discover how efficiently Pirelli tires could hold onto the slippery road, an essential feature which Eurogrip tires had always refused to provide. Nagging rain, wet clothes, thick population of trucks on SH-5 and the ongoing road construction works joined hands to slow down my pace. Despite the unfavorable wetness I tried to appreciate the beauty of woods and red soil on both sides of the road. Taking out the camera was risky. Last year I had to get a fungal growth removed from the camera mirror. Humidity promotes such nuisance. Since then I have learnt to be more protective towards my photographic equipments.

Monsoon Ride to Jhargram - met the gentleman Motorcycling from Kashmir to Kanyakumari
Many devotees take bath in Dulung River before offering their prayers to the idol.
Jhargram Palace, the hub of tourist attraction at Jhargram was my first hunt of the day. Built in 1931, Jhargram Palace presently functions as a heritage tourist accommodation as well as the regal residence of successors of Narasingha Malla Deb. You too can experience a royal sojourn by parting with 3,000 bucks (plus taxes of course). As maintenance works are being undertaken tourists are prohibited from entering the main gate of the palace. Only privileged tourists residing in the cottages managed by West Bengal Tourism are rewarded with special entry pass to explore the beautiful blend of Islamic and Italian architecture. That's loudly unjust! After the security person came to know that I had been traveling all the way from Bardhaman solely for the purpose of visiting that palace (that's what I had told him with extra spoonful of meekness) he was kind enough to oblige me with an unofficial permission to trespass. Apart from the repairing process, abundant bushes surrounding the palace were chaotic enough to kill the overall aesthetic appeal of the majestic architecture. Probably, now is not the good time to visit Jhargram Palace.

Monsoon Ride to Jhargram - met the gentleman Motorcycling from Kashmir to Kanyakumari
Kanak Durga Temple has been built generously over a wide open ground.
Short spell of rain-free weather at Jhargram Palace encouraged me to take few quick snaps and rush towards my second destination- Kanak Durga Temple. This temple is probably 12-15 kilometers from the palace, but I had lost my way in the jungle and kept riding many useless miles. At last, a local guy on a motorcycle helped me out. Remember, Kanak Durga Temple is very near to Jamboni. The entire area around the temple is properly maintained. The path leading to the temple is fenced from both sides with myriad varieties of plant species, some of which did carry their biological name tags. Strychnos nux-vomica caught my attention. Its seeds parent a dangerous poison called Strychnine. The temple has been built generously over a wide open ground. The presiding deity is Devi Durga. There is a full-fledged remnant of an old temple beside the new one. It should be no less than 300 years old! Unfortunately, there was no authentic history available about that ruin. If you farther walk hundred meters down the Kanak Durga Temple you'll be greeted by the serpentine riverscape sketched by the calm Dulung River (a tributary of Subarnarekha). Many devotees take bath in this river before offering their prayers to the idol.

Monsoon Ride to Jhargram - met the gentleman Motorcycling from Kashmir to Kanyakumari
Despite all mud and water Benu felt more meaningful than ever...
Sky was getting murky again. I remembered my obligation towards my gut. Yes, lunch was still pending. There are couple of basic eateries on the temple ground. Whatever food they serve you is bound to be cold, because lighting fire is prohibited near the temple. Be watchful of the naughty population of langurs dominating the Kanak Durga Temple complex. Your momentary inattentiveness may cost you your food or other belongings. Before I could wrap up my compromised meal, it started raining. As I left Jamboni, the rain took a furious form. I surrendered my desire of visiting the Chilkigarh Palace. There's always a next time, I had explained myself. I was so wet that I could even pee my pant hundred times without letting anyone discover the grossness. Well, combating with the monsoon continued for first half of my return ride, and I must confess, it was damn tiring. Bounty of the ride was catching up with Shashidhar and the booster dose of motivation obtained from his feat. By the end of the day, Benu had clocked more than 550 kilometers. Despite all mud and water she felt more meaningful than ever. Obviously it made both of us happy!          

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Ride to Chandannagar in search of French connection

Ride to Chandannagar in search of French connection
The holy month of Ramadan was finally over. Devout Muslims throughout the world were busy in celebrating the much awaited Eid. Despite being a 'Monday' it was almost a day off for me. One of my staffs had showered his affection right in the early morning with some home cooked semai (vermicelli) and coconut barfi. Definitely that was a good start. A wise man once said, when the tide is high your boat should take a trip. How could I simply pamper my sloth and expect the universe to caress my soul? It is much easier to pretend to be rational than acting one. Although I was relieved of my duty in the first half of the morning, it took me more than few hours to decide how to make my Eid more gratifying. By mid-afternoon, after repeated episodes of procrastination I could convince myself that Chandannagar should be my destination for the leftover day. Chandannagar, the erstwhile French colony nestled at the bank of River Hooghly, barely eighty kilometers away from my home is famous for two things- Jajadhatri Puja and Jolbhora Sandesh.

Ride to Chandannagar in search of French connection
The alternate episodes of 'drizzle' and 'dry sky' kept accompanying us till Chandannagar.
It was my second visit to Chandannagar, and also the second leisurely ride with Benu, albeit a short one. Her odometer was nearing 3,000 kilometers, but all that bulk had been accumulated by work related commuting. I didn't incorporate her into my family for such lackluster life. If you get a horse would you ride it, or use it for hauling loads? Everything has a primary purpose. Are you getting me? The moment I left Bardhaman, the alternate episodes of 'drizzle' and 'dry sky' kept accompanying me till Chandannagar. That's not a very desirable weather for any rider, but what else would you expect at the end of June? I was already late in commencing my journey. As a reward, the only non-essential item which failed to get a place in my backpack turned out to be the raincoat! Luckily, I'm not allergic to rain, and I hardly mind few bouts of sneezing after getting drenched.

Ride to Chandannagar in search of French connection
The entire strand road is studded with Pani-puri and other fast-food wheeler stalls.
As you enter Chandannagar, you'd surely get desperate for the riverside. The portion of the sub-divisional headquarter away from the Ganges is quite congested and mundane like any other old town of West Bengal. Surprisingly, as you approach closer to the river, Chandannagar begins to unfold her glory. The town looks more planned and lovingly portrayed. Without much glitches G-Maps guided me to the Strand road. Strand road is not just a point of tourist interest at Chandannagar but its tourist hub. There you'll find a kilometer long, wide and well-maintained promenade by the river bank, partially ornamented with greenery and thoroughly lined by street-lamps. You are free to take a walk, visually absorb the calm riverscape, enjoy fellow-walkers' activities, sniff the historical aroma prominent in the buildings on the other side of the road, or simply excuse those countless young attention-shy couples looking for privacy behind not so opaque park benches.

Ride to Chandannagar in search of French connection
As you enter Chandannagar, you'd surely get desperate for the riverside.
Strand area is heart of Chandannagar and indeed the comprehensive testament of its French connection. Look around to discover various vintage structures depicting their French roots, standing amidst modern buildings with unaltered gravity. Apart from the former French Governor's residence (Dupleix Palace) which is presently housing the Chandannagar Museum and Institute for French language study (Institut De Chandernagor), bygone Indo-French essence in the architectures of police station and court is sure to charm any traveler. The museum, established back in 1956 is open everyday for visitors from 11:00 AM to 5:30 PM except on Thursdays and Saturdays. A nominal fee is charged for good. Photography is prohibited inside the museum. You have to document everything by your eyes only. If you're a museum buff unlike me you'll love exploring antics of 19th century, items of Anglo-French War and vivid illustrations of European settlements in India.

Ride to Chandannagar in search of French connection
Dupleix Palace and the adjoining Institut De Chandernagor.
Irrespective of your passion for history, some stories from the past are too intriguing to miss. History of Chandannagar falls in that category. Ibrahim Khan, the last Subahdar of Bengal had granted permission to the French to set up a trading post on the bank of Hooghly River. That's how this "The Arab and his camel" story started. Chandernagore (as spelled by the French) turned into a permanent French settlement in 1688. The tussle between French and British resulted in the alternate shifting of the governing authority at Chandannagar till the town was finally handed over to the French in 1816. It's a shame that it took almost another five years post independence to get back our snatched territory from France! Finally, on 2nd October, 1954, Chandannagar was incorporated into the state jurisdiction of West Bengal. The take-home message in today's scenario should be: Do not let anyone control your life in any form. Be your own master. You may offer a sit but not the driver's one.

Ride to Chandannagar in search of French connection
The Sacred Heart Church is one of the finest specimens of French architecture in West Bengal.
Once you're strolling in the Chandannagar Strand, you just can't miss out a visit to the Sacred Heart Church at your vicinity. The church established in 1884 still stands tall facing the Ganges, overlooking the boomerang-shaped garden encircling it, is one of the finest specimens of French architecture in West Bengal. If you want to see a bigger church in Bengal, you have to head onto the nearby town of Bandel to find a Portuguese built church- the Basilica of the Holy Rosary, or simply the famous Bandel Church. Apart from its grand size and serene interior, the Sacred Heart Church has beautiful stained glass windows and glass ornamentations to impress you with the aura of French aesthetics of 19th century. The entire strand road is studded with Pani-puri (we call it 'Phuchka') and other fast-food wheeler stalls to tease the monster inside your gut.

Ride to Chandannagar in search of French connection
It was a day ride to Jhargram and the blog will be published soon.
I settled with bottled juice. Sunset was not far. I could imagine the magical riverscape under the spell of a crimson sun. Famous Jolbhora Sandesh of Chandannagar was yet to be tasted. But, riding on highways in dark is something against my motorcycling code of conduct. With a partial feeling of unfulfillment I left Chandannagar with Benu. If you get to know everything about a place then why would you ever revisit it? Self-rationalization definitely helps. Despite this extremely truncated ride itinerary to the erstwhile French colony my Eid holiday was well spent. I would suggest you to visit Chandannagar as your weekend destination where you'll have the liberty of an overnight halt. Although Benu had clocked a meager 160 kilometers, she seemed to have enjoyed the irregular patches of rain on NH-2. Five days later she accompanied me on a longer ride. It was a day ride to Jhargram and the blog will be published soon.