Monday, May 2, 2011

Passage through Panchalingeshwar

In the month of April, there were a couple of back to back long weekends and we decided to benefit from the opportunity and treat ourselves with a weekend trip. The gang was supposed to be the same as our previous endeavour in Maharashtra, but Santu dropped out after some dilly-dallying. The substitute we worked out for him also backed out at a later stage and ultimately the team comprised the troika of Srimanta, Anirban and I. Initially, we planned to stay one night each at Panchalingeshwar and Chandipur, but were told at the OTDC office at Lenin Sarani that we need to book at least two nights at any place which in effect meant that we had to stay at one place only and we chose Panchalingeshwar over Chandipur, which is more popular between the two by the way.

On the morning of Poila Baisakh (15th April), the first day of the Bengali new year, we started our journey by boarding the Falaknuma Express which leaves Howrah at 7:25 AM. Dhauli Express which leaves at 6 o’clock would have been a better choice in terms of saving some more time but then none of us are early risers and that option was struck off as impracticable. We reached Balasore at around 11 o’clock and hired an auto-rickshaw to take us to the OTDC Panthanivas at Panchalingeshwar. After some bargaining, we struck a deal at 300 rupees but it still seemed a bit over priced.

After an hour or so, we were at the door steps of the Panthanivas, which is located at a distance of 35 Kms from the railway station. The road was good for most part of the journey, sparing a few bumpy stretches near the culverts. The last mile was off the highway and was an ill-maintained narrow stretch. The place turned out to be more remote than we had imagined and barring a shop-cum-eatery just opposite the OTDC hotel, we found no other sign of civilization in the vicinity.

After we checked in, we soon headed to the restaurant for lunch, as we planned to go out in the afternoon to explore the place. Contrary to our expectation, the hotel was bustling with tourists and probably all of them were Bengalis. Many of the groups had come in their own vehicle, by road, and the parking was full with all kinds of cars. The lunch was okay and we decided to take rest for a while before going out. Slowly, the sky grew dark with clouds and just when we were to leave, it started showering. Over time, the intensity of the rain increased with thunderous lightning. After some more time the hails started pouring in and the lush green lawn in front of the reception area was covered with a white sheet of hails. I had never in my life witnessed such a hail storm from so much proximity and the kids were ecstatic and started collecting the hail balls drenching themselves in the process, much to the annoyance of their parents.

Finally when the rain stopped after more than an hour, we stepped out and headed for the temple. A few minutes’ walk later (around a kilometre and a half) we reached the temple. Some temporary shops were put up on the way, probably dealing in Puja offerings for the devotees, but most of them were closed at the time we visited. The reason might be the heavy showers which had just stopped or simply because it was an odd time for temple visit. One has to take more than a couple of hundred steps to reach the temple of Lord Shiva. Actually, there is not much of a temple to comment on as the five Shiva lingas are enshrined within a rock and a stream flows on the top of it. So one has to feel the pancha-linga rather than see them. A man helped us by showing where to keep our feet and where to put our hands to reach out and feel the five lingas. From him we came to know that only in the heat of the summers, when the stream dries up, one can actually see the pancha-linga. After much hardship and after drenching much of our clothing in the water of the stream, which was flowing with greater vigour after the shower, we could feel two or three of the lingas and restrained from overstretching ourselves.

An amusing spectacle that we noticed on the way was a video shooting taking place just where the steps to the temple started. Not sure whether it was for a small budget Oriya film or for television, but the cast was not inspiring at all. One of the male leads, who was giving shot puffing away a cigarette in style and then romancing a girl, was so average looking that Srimanta insisted that he should give it a chance by volunteering himself in place of him.

After the temple visit we thought of visiting a nearby lake which I had read about in one of the travel sites. The staff at the hotel reception had told us that we would need to walk for a couple of kilometres to reach the lake and gave us a rough direction but we were kind of lost after a while and after inquiring some of the locals, the path that they showed looked ominously narrow to take us anywhere. In the process, we came across The Roopark Village Resort, which is the other alternative to stay at Panchalingeshwar. It comprises some mud huts which bring an earthly impact and the resort is located in the middle of a tribal village. However, we were wondering, whether any car can go that far or the tourists need to walk for some time (with their luggage) to reach the resort. The caretaker of the resort showed us the way to the lake but since it was already evening we could not have come back before dark. Hence we shelved the plan to visit the lake on that day and returned to our hotel.

There was nothing much to do back in the hotel after having a cup of tea with lovely pakoras, apart from idle gossips. One can sit back in the garden chairs in the lawn and enjoy the surroundings. The OTDC Panthanivas is located at a wonderful spot just beneath the Nilgiri hills and there are some weird shaped rocks and their jagged protuberance adds to the beauty of the place. I had lost signal in my cell phone as soon as we reached Panchalingeshwar and only in the night, the towers came back and along with it came back the routine of work life as I had to make a few important calls pertaining to my office work.

Next day we planned to visit Chandipur. A local agent in the hotel tried to convince us to go to a jungle trip instead, with him in the Kuldiha forests but we stuck to our original plan. Additionally, we decided to pay a visit to the Jagannath Temple and Palace in Nilgiri. Since the town of Nilgiri is within 10 Kms from Panchalingeshwar, we did not book any car and decided to avail ourselves of local conveyance. The reception clerk informed us that we would get trekkers (shared jeeps) from the main road but he seemed a bit skeptical about the idea. After a sumptuous breakfast with puri-bhaji we strolled to the main road (about a kilometre and half away from the hotel) and in no time a trekker arrived. However, it was already full and we were contemplating waiting for the next one and overhearing our conversation, a local shop owner advised us not to let go that one as the trekkers were few and infrequent. But the question was how we would fit in, in an already crowded jeep. The answer was simple; we had the entire top to suit ourselves. This was a one of its kind experience for me. I had never sat on the top of a moving vehicle and although the iron frame of the carrier acted as a support it was still unnerving. Thankfully, the trekker was moving in a slow pace and Anirban (he could see the front and I was facing the back) was alerting me when we reached the bumpy stretches or the turns. After some time a policeman stopped the trekker and had a chat with the driver and noted down some thing in his pocket notebook. Not sure what transpired in their conversation but we were asked to come down and travel the remaining part by hanging on to the iron bars at the back of the jeep and balancing ourselves on the iron frame that acted as the foot step.

When we reached Nilgiri, the temple was still closed and hence we decided to visit the palace first. In a travel blog I had read about the Nilgiri Palace but no one near the temple complex (including the police constables) could tell where it was located. There was an old building in dilapidated state just beside the temple which seemed to belong to some erstwhile feudal kings and it actually turned out to be the Niligiri palace. We did not consider the Nilgiri kings and the palace to be much awe inspiring but neither did we expect it to be in ramshackle. And sadly, there is no attempt of any conservation. The palace was built in 1898 by Raja Shyam C.M. Harichandan. Part of the palace building which is in relatively better condition is being used as a school.

After exploring the palace, we came back to visit the temple which had opened by then. Although it is not a large temple, it must be a popular one is what the impression we got from the crowd presence. There were huge idols of Jagannath, Subhadra and Balaram inside the garva-griha and mural paintings decorating the walls of the temple. In fact I found another temple nearby which also bear rich ornamentation of beautiful paintings. The paintings may not be strictly professional but possess adequate artistic qualities. And then there were the even smaller roadside temples or the village temples and most of them were adorned with either paintings or figures of animals such as lions.

The town of Nilgiri is probably one of the bigger towns in the district as we found a Hospital, offices of bureaucrats and even Lok Adalat. From the marketplace we booked a car for the rest of the day and drove down to Chandipur which is located about 40Kms further away from Nilgiri. It cost us Rs. 650.

We reached Chandipur at around 2 o’clock and had our lunch at the OTDC Panthanivas in Chandipur. The Pomfret fish served at the lunch was huge but the preparation and the fish itself did not taste that good. The hotel is situated at an exquisite location just beside the sea shore. It is said that during high tide the sea comes right at the doorstep of the hotel. But right then the sea had retreated a few kilometres. This is the curious characteristic of Chandipur Sea. Since I was in shorts and slippers it was easier for me to walk along the shore and into the sea as the water level was only ankle high. Others had to pull up their trousers to avoid being wet. There were conches of different sizes lying around and all kinds of sea shells on the way and we looked with childish excitement if we could find any pearl. We even came across some star fishes which were trying to hide in the sand as we approached them. After the long walk we finally came to the place where we could see the actual sea. From the distance the muddy and dirty sea waves actually looked like a sand bank. And there was a fence of a kind with bamboo sticks, so we did not proceed any further and started to return towards the shore. After resting for a while on the cement benches on the bank and enjoying coconut water it was time to go back to our hotel at Panchalingeshwar.

In the morning of the last day of our trip, we decided to have another go at the lake that we could not locate on the first day. We should have started real early but got delayed and set out after nine. The lake is known as Khumkote and it used to be the place where the Nilgiri kings used to hunt. This time we were sure of the way up to a point and then found out the rest part by asking the locals. In the process we passed by a good many tribal huts and it was interesting to find someone listen to a Bengali song in radio sung by the nightingale Sandhya Mukherjee. Unlike the earlier day, when we were being continuously followed by stray dogs, we did not see any one of them that day. Perhaps on the other day, they were hoping that there was food in the bag that we were carrying. After two days of rain, the sun was shining brightly and we started to sweat heavily. The head gears supplied from Srimanta’s collection of hats were of some help and when we found a tube well on the way, we drenched our handkerchiefs and put the wet handkerchiefs around our necks. It was a very long walk and it did not seem to come to any end. I think we walked for at least three and a half kilometres before we finally reached the lake, and what a disappointment it was. It was a small water body with a structure of a watch tower and perhaps a temple engulfed in the water. There was no great view. It’s a different matter that after so much exhaustion our expectation level was much higher. In short, it was not that impressive and not worth the trouble. If someone attempts to go, one should start in the early morning so that the sun is not so hot and the journey does not become so much tiring.

After taking some rest in the cool shade of a bamboo tree with a mild breeze caressing our worn out bodies, we turned back as the time to check out of the hotel was approaching. When we reached our hotel, our T-shirts were completely drenched in our sweat and the thought of lying down on the bed for a while away from sun under the fan kept driving us.

It was time to return to Balasore and take the Falaknuma Express back to Kolkata. The small weekend trip was not perhaps overwhelming but it provided us a fulfilling break from the stress and strain of everyday life of the week days.