RADventure / Sep 2016

Kolkata – Raiganj – Mayapur – Kolkata:  924 Km

16 - 20 Sep 2016

Team: Supradip Sen, Vaishali Sen, Runa Dutta & AD 

If Birds can fly, why can’t I?
Perhaps a trick or wings to try?
Oft to their land, I set out to learn, 
Pay my gratitude in return,
See them sing, see them cry, 
See them teach the lessons of life,
See them fly and go beyond the sky,
More I see, more I realise, 
Much to learn, still I dream to fly.

……… AD, September 2016

Birds have often fascinated me. Where I live (across Rabindra Sarobar), I wake up to the clatter & chorus of birds, as they get ready with their chores before day light breaks. It is one of the most satisfying moment of the day. This is perhaps the trigger to my interest with birds, apart from the fact that I love the outdoors, wildlife & nature.

On the other hand, we have an ongoing pledge to drive across Bengal and the countryside to witness and soak in the beauty of India.

With the above twin objectives, we set out for yet another RADventure experience, a drive to Kulik Bird Sanctuary (also known as Raiganj Bird Sanctuary) over an extended weekend (Sep16-20). 

Raiganj is located at a distance of about 430 Km North of Kolkata. On our way back the plan was to drop by at Mayapur (Birth place of Sri Chaitanya and ISKCON’s Global Headquarter). Joining us (Runa & I) in this trip were my Recker-mate Supradip Sen, his wife Vaishali. We set out on 16 Sep at 0530 hrs in two cars, me at the wheels of my Fiat Linea, while Supradip drove his Volkswagon Vento (Supradip insisted that he longed for a long distance spin with his car). I later got to know that this was perhaps the longest distance Supradip had ever driven. Good that it was a later realization!

At the outset let me highlight that National Highway numbering as depicted by Google Maps and as depicted by NHAI are totally different and thus often confusing.The state highway numbering does seem to match with what is depicted on Google Maps. I have tried to refer State highways as per Google and tried my best to depict National highway numbering as per NHAI. Therefore in the route map below you may see the numbering as per Google Maps which is different than what you would see on the road!

Further, I have now realized, while driving in W. Bengal, it is better to avoid National Highway (NH), and use the State Highway (SH) instead. Condition of most sections on NH is pathetic in W. Bengal to say the least, barring a few exceptions such as NH2 & NH6. On the other hand SH, these days, are a joy to drive on, except for the super-size speed breakers, goats and other impediments that pop out of the blue. Avoiding them is a skill that you have to develop, while driving in India.

Based on the route chosen, as per Google, our estimated travel time to Raiganj Tourist Lodge was approximately 8hours 30 minutes, a distance of 430 KM.

The Route

Kolkata – Raiganj drive (via NH2, SH7, NH34)
We set out on 16 Sep at the break of dawn (05.15hrs), with a plan to meet up at Ballygunge-phari junction at 05.30hrs, my friend Supradip, not used to such struggles, made it at 6.00hrs. At that stage Google projected an ETA of 14.40hrs (subject to traffic). Those 30 minutes early in the morning are very crucial, it is like the golden hour, when roads are absolutely empty. 

We drove off towards Durgapur Expressway without any major hold ups. At Burdwan, we switched to GT Road and eventually on to SH7 after crossing the Rail Overbridge at Burdwan Station. As you leave behind Burdwan, you enter a serene land, smooth roads, lush green paddy fields, the colours of nature rekindle your senses. 

My Green Country

Country Roads - State Highway 7

Green Bangla 

It is a joyful experience young kids biking to school, ladies setting their household in order, every village getting on with their morning rituals as if everyone is in sync with tranquil music of life.

Soon were shaken out of the serenity. 

Our first setback was near Mangalkot (Burdwan district) police station. We suddenly came across a roadblock, people from nearby villages were screaming and rushing on to a dumper truck barely 50 meters away. Within moments the dumper went up in flames, it seems the dumper had crushed four local residents to death . We were stunned and shocked. The mad mob could lent out its fury on our cars as we stood standstill 50 meters away. Also realised that there were no exits that we could use and get out of the melee quickly. Thank God! some good samaritans showed us a mud (moram) road towards an adjoining village, and asked us to use it as a bypass, as the highway would remain closed till the cops cleared the bodies and the remains of the mess.  

Relieved that there was a way out we took the detour on a dirt track. The village track was just wide enough to accommodate a sedan. 

The Moram track through the paddy fields
All around us we had onlooking dwellers, some panic stricken, some anxious, while our cars were cruising through the interiors of the village. It was an eerie feeling, one mistake, and we would land in hell. We did make few navigational errors, in trying to rush, while finding our way across the winding pathway through the fields & huts. With assistance of local villagers we finally made it back on to our original route (SH7). Lost a precious hour in the process. 

It was almost 1000 hrs as we got back to our original route, and now Google projected Raiganj ETA at 1600 hrs! Phew!!

The route on SH7 until Majlishpur is smooth, and thereafter it undergoes a complete change. Between Majlishpur and Nakpur a distance of 56Km is bad. Filled with craters and fairly bad stretch. It was a big relief to get onto NH 60 (Google- NH14) at Nakpur, and then eventually on to NH34 (Google - NH12) at Morgram. 

Almost 1230 hrs as we got on to NH34 (NH12). Right at the junction of NH60 & NH34, we pulled on to Ahana Dhaba, for an early lunch & tea.

The next stretch Morgram to Malda on NH34 was a mix of satisfaction and extreme frustration. From Morgram to Farakka the stretch is partly 4 Laned and partly 2 Laned, with some patchy rough spots with couple of very rickety bridges en-route. In addition it was shocking to see the condition of the road atop Farraka barrage. Very difficult to imagine such a prestigious and important road in such a perilous condition. We crossed the barrage section without any major setback. This so far was the satisfactory part. As we got near Kaliachak we were in for severe frustration. The most grueling section was Kaliachak to Gazole. It took us a good 3 hours to clear Kaliachak – Malda – Gazole section (57 Km). Pathetic, to say the least! and it appears as if everyone has accepted that this is the way of life! In this part. Just cannot fathom how on earth everyone can allow this chaos and distress to go on like this every day.  As a result, the last 130 Km section (farakka – malda) which should have taken us 3 hours, took 6 hours instead. 

In hind sight I would advise that may be better to try out the detour through SH10 (Kaliachak - Manikchak – Samsi) instead of sitting like a dodo on NH34.  

One of the Bridges on NH34

We finally made it to Raiganj Tourist Lodge at 19.00hrs while the ETA at the start of the day was 14.00hrs.

Kulik (Raiganj) Bird Sanctuary
There is very limited information in public domain on Raiganj Bird Sanctuary. The sanctuary does not have its own website the only material available is North-Dinajpur district website. There are just about few blogs written by Bird lovers and nature lovers in addition to the district web-page. Thus armed with some skimpy information, we arrived at Kulik.

Kulik has been recommended as a RAMSAR site by the Bombay Natural History Society (Ramsar convention – is an international legislation for protection of wetlands). There is a dire need to do so and protect this beautiful paradise, which is seriously threatened by neglect, human invasion and a highly polluting National Highway (NH 34) running through it. In the same light, North-Dinajpur and South-Dinajpur districts are full of water bodies. As a matter of fact there are 6 ~ 7 large lakes in South-Dinajpur and perhaps 3  or 4 rivers & streams that flow through these districts. This, I am certain, makes a great shelter for large number of birds - domestic and migratory.

We stayed at Raiganj Tourist Lodge which is in a way within the Bird Sanctuary (16 – 18 Sep, 2016). Upon arrival, while parking our car at the Tourist Lodge, we could hear the chatter of the birds as they settled for the night. 

Next early morning, as I stepped on to the balcony, there was excitement & emotion! The tree tops around the Tourist Lodge were full of Asian Open Bill Stork nests, the birds nursing their young ones. I rushed up to the roof top and all I could see was a sea of open bill stork nests with 2 – 3 chicks sticking their necks out and gazing at me just a couple of meters away. The parents extra cautious of my presence so close, kept a close vigil on my movements. I simply sat there and watched in amusement as they repaired their nests, fed the young ones and nursed themselves. 
What a beauty!

Raiganj Bird Sanctuary Entrance

Don't Mess with me .... 

Air tactics display

Self help - Home repair

Guarding the next generation
Raiganj Bird Sanctuary hosts around 90,000 birds of 50 – 60 species (may be more). The largest population being Open Bill Stork, Cormorants, Herons & Egrets. The Storks begin to arrive in June/July and Aug – Nov is the time for nursing the young chicks till they are ready to take off in winter.
Blue-throated barbet

Black headed Oriole

Orange-headed Thrush
Indian Fruit-bat

Black Crowned Night Heron

Little Cormorant (chick)

I made numerous rounds of the sanctuary, and captured gorgeous moments in my camera.  Some of which I have shared herewith.

Nesting Amphitheatre
Asian Koel (Female)

Bengal Monitor (Goshaap)

Path through Kulik Sanctuary

Brahmachari Ashram, Bandar Kali Bari, Raiganj

The next day (Sunday) morning we visited a different kind of a sanctuary. Runa’s classmate (Mita Saha(Dr)) informed that her dad (Dr Saha) a renowned Surgeon (FRCS) had set up a Brahmachari Ashram on the banks of Kulik river. We decided to pay a visit. 

Absolutely amazed to meet Dr Saha at his ashram. A globe-trotting modern surgeon who has now given up all luxury and worldly desires. Here at the ashram he lives in utmost simplicity, serving the community amongst his plants, flowers, ashram-mates and at the mercy of Lord Krishna. 

Enjoyed the kirtan singing & aarti in the evening. A new experience. 

What a transformation! A role model.

At the Ashram Lord Krishna temple
and silently flows Kulik river by the Ashram
Runa & Vaishali with Dr Saha (center) at Brahmachari Ashram with other devotees 

Mayapur, Nadia ( The Spiritual Capital)

On Monday 19 Sep, we started our return leg from Raiganj. Instead of heading straight to Kolkata, we had decided to pay a visit to Mayapur the land of the holy saint Sri Chaitanya. Based on our recent experience, we decided to set out very early in the morning and get across the chicken-neck spots before traffic emerged on the streets. The ETD was 05.30 hrs, and we managed to stick to it. A distance of 307 Km to be covered in 7 hrs (as per google)- ETA 12.30hrs.

The first half of the drive to Mayapur was smooth, we managed to keep good time, till we reached Berhampore. Thereafter, Berhampore to Dhubulia was a treacherous stretch due to traffic and bad road patches. NH34 is a mix of single lane & double lane along this section, huge craters appear regularly add to that fierce traffic (local, long distance, toto’s, tuk tuks, what have you ... all conceivable forms of transport). On top of that, Supradip’s car started giving trouble, we therefore had to stop a couple of times to figure out what was going wrong. These days with so much electronics, it gets quite confusing, and the handbook is not of much help. The only consolation was that the car was moving, and did not get stalled. VW roadside assistance was of no help either. They insisted that the car should be brought to a service center. As if VW service centers are at every nook and corner in India. The main problem was VW display board simply got screwed up, with flashing lights and swinging speedometer needle, as if under an evil spirit! Finally the display panel died. Das auto! 

The engine fortunately was operating smoothly and the car kept moving! Perhaps VW was’nt engineered for the menace called NH34.

Nevertheless, we arrived into ISKCON Mayapur at 14.20 Hrs, way behind our scheduled arrival time. Runa & I, are not philosophical nor staunch religious as such, but both of us are keen to explore & learn. we do like the peace and calm at such centers. A visit to Mayapur had been on our agenda for quite some time to experience, what is believably so holy & pure. The Sen's (Supradip & Vaishali) are huge devotees of Lord Krishna, and for them it was a sacred visit!

The Vedic Planetarium Temple under construction

 Mayapur is also termed as the Spiritual capital of the world, and it is ISKCON's headquarter as well. Bhagwad Geeta is the principle scripture of the ISKCON movement. Sri Chaitanya, whom devotees recognize as a direct incarnation of Lord Krishna, gave a powerful impetus for a massive bhakti (devotional) movement throughout India. Under his direction hundreds of volumes on the philosophy of Krishna consciousness were compiled. 

And true to its fame, there were huge devotees from all over the world staying, visiting, studying, and practicing the Gita, at Mayapur.

Within Mayapur Campus

We attended aarati sessions, experienced the singing, dancing and kirtans by the devotees. All in all it was a nice experience full of peace and tranquility. 

Mayapur as such is a self-sufficient township, pretty huge campus, fairly structured and disciplined. 

International Guest Accomodation
Our place of stay - Gada Bhavan

I walked over to the Goushala (cowshed) next day morning, it houses over 300 well nourished cows. I was encouraged by the keepers to try and feed cows. Animal feeding is always a great feeling whether at Mayapur or anywhere else for that matter. Bought some pure ghee as well, as these days all doctors & nutritionists seem to be encouraging ghee eating! 
Long lost delicacy is now back in the dietary regime.

Mayapur Goushala

Overall a good experience at Mayapur!

The Last Leg : Mayapur to Home

We started on our last (return) leg on 20Sep at 10.00hrs after a sumptuous breakfast at Govinda. Instead of traversing on NH34 on the way back to Kolkata, which is perhaps the shortest route, we decided to cross river Hooghly and take a slightly circuitous route via Kalna – Tribeni – Kalyani Expressway.

From Mayapur we branched off on to SH8 at Krishnanagar, until we crossed Hooghly. Thereafter got on to SH6 until Tribeni, thereafter Kalyani Expressway all the way home. 
As I have maintained, state highways are good quality roads, subject to unannounced speed breakers and other impediments. In spite of the traffic and the road conditions, the scenic beauty is simply ecstatic! 
Here are some nostalgic glimpses of the country-side on the way back! 

Jute sticks line the roads ready for the market (Pat-kathi)

Papaya Farms

Pujo - Pujo feeling!
We finally arrived home at 15.24 hrs, covering a distance of 170 Km in little over 5 hours. On the way we missed few important places to visit such as Kalna, Nabadwip …. which hopefully will happen in the not to distant future.

au revoir!

Photographs: Runa Dutta / AD