East Himalaya

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Atreyi River, Journeys from past to present

Once upon a time there were 03 major rivers in the present area of North of West Bengal; Karotoya, Mahananda and Atreyi or Mahananda often alternated with Punarbhava. Waterways were then the way to civilization and the connection to the world. The rivers here were time and again related to the legendary river Teesta of this region. Teesta has always portrayed herself as an young and dynamic even in her short span and never wants to grow old by flowing in the same course. According to documentation in the several Gazettears and other historical documents of the last two and a half centuries, Teesta (Tista) has been shown parallel to River Ganga in the map and finally meeting Ganga through the 03 channels Karotoya, Punarbhava and Atreyi through Mahananda at Hoorsagar near Gwalandar till 1787, when the great flood changed the complete river map, where it falls in the Brahmaputra (Jamuna In Bangladesh) now. Teesta has created havoc with her floods in 1922-23, 1948, 1950, 1952, 1954 and 1968, the last that I very well remember of and deal with later. Atreyi today flows in and out of India and Bangladesh in a very interesting manner along with several rivers of the area Nagor, Sudhani, Kulik, Bina, Tangon etc which were all navigable rivers of the then undivided Dinajpur Kingdom/Estate.

Basanti Paul, my grandmother (mother’s mother) was born in Thakurgaon (the place from where Punarbhava originates now from the Brahmabill or Brahman pukur). The first journey she took was for her marriage on this Punarbhava River from her father’s house at the age of 11 and went through Gangarampur, on the River Atreyi, then she followed to her in-law’s place in Jalpaiguri town. Travelling through the Teesta River, she finally entered Jalpaiguri through the River Karala. At Jalpaiguri I spent most of my childhood listening to her river journeys and also the stories of the river journeys that she heard from her Father about the traders. These rivers stories created something inside me which always attracted me to visit the lands she talked about.

I recently had an opportunity to visit the Indian side of Dinajpur with my friend Samarjit, who was born here in his maternal grandfather’s place sometimes in 1950. He had fresh memories from atleast 50 years ago. His grandfather, Dr.Jagadish Chandra Sengupta was the Doctor of the Dinajpur State Dispensary at Raiganj. He enthusiastically showed me his childhood place and all other places which he very fondly remembers. Raiganj then had a port on Kulik River which brought in traders from different parts of the subcontinent. He showed me the Bandar (port) Kali Temple and remembers the priest of that time. He asked for his sons and also asked the neighbours of the temple if the sons still continue to be priests in the same temple as their father.
He then took me to his best friend of his childhood days, Babloo Deshmukhaya, who runs the same grocery shop which his father ran. They talked for hours about the good old days, their love life, their small adventures and so much more. He gifted us with the local variety of rice, Tulaipanji, several kinds of pickle (some of which Samarjit loved in his childhood days) and lot of memories from the past. Here they discussed about the Bhopalpur Rajbari (Palace) and knowing my interest in heritage told me about them.

I knew I had some family connectivity with them, caught hold of the number of the present Prince, Partha Roychowdhury and managed a breakfast with the family at the palace for next day. The whole family greeted Samarjit and me as special guests. Though the present democratic status of India does not recognize the royalty, yet the existing palace building, the interiors, the estate and the hospitality reflected the heritage, the royalty. The exact date I have not noted, but it was Partha’s Great Grandmother Rani Durgamoi, who with her son, Partha’s grandfather, the then very young Bhopal Chandra, then shifted from the family at Churamoni Estate to this place under Birghoi Gram Panchayat. Bhopal Chandra, as he grew up, his capability to keep up with the then British Raj, his services to his subjects (praja), his connections with the Congress party and his intelligence gradually made him the people’s king. The palace became the Bhopalpur Rajbari, presently 11kms from the town of Raiganj. Partha’s father, King Shibaprashad, who is now a simple man, tells stories about the Royalty.
Almost around the years after Independence, when the Royalty was already gone, the King of Dinajpur had visited Raiganj, he called on young Shibaprashad as Bhopal Chandra had already left this world and told him that he wants Shibaprashad to buy his car at 1 Rupee 25 paisa, as he would not give it free to a Royal family and he also would not sell it beyond the royal families at any price because it will down show the royalty of the car. Inspite of inheriting his father’s 04 cars he was forced to take ownership of the 5th car. He told about how he killed the huge leopard in front of the palace gate. He also told about how he helped the District Collector in his hunting trips.

The forests of South and North Dinajpur Districts in the state of West Bengal in India are almost gone. Hardly there is 8% of weak forest cover, which is very less compared to other North Bengal Districts like Darjeeling and Jalpaiguri. Still some activists like Tuhin Subhra Mondal, a school teacher at Balurghat continue to help conserve these last patches. Samarjit and I were staying at the Government Tourist Lodge beside the Kulik Bird Sanctuary in Raiganj. The open bill storks had already started with their courtship. The birds were carrying fresh twigs to build nests. Next few months will be really busy here for the birds, their children, their care and the noise. When Tuhin heard that I was here, he made it a point to show me his favourite places. We visited the Sarengbari Eco-Park, Dogachi Reserve Forest, Danga Reserve Forest (Raghunathpur), Bangarh Ruins and some rivers.

The sight of the Bangarh ruins immediately took me to my days following the Karotoya River in Bangladesh and finding the most interesting Mahasthangarh, the ruins of the great kingdom. Not very far away was the World Heritage Site, Paharpur (Sompur Mahavihara), one of the most important Buddhist Universities which was directly linked to Tibet. I almost forced Tuhin to take me to the border town of Hili (about 25kms from the learned people’s town of Balurghat), the Paharpur site being hardly half an hour driving distance from here. It is unfortunate that I could not cross across without a visa and make a short visit to Paharpur. The border had divided families, people from 02 countries were standing across the fence, asking about the friends and relatives, sometimes just clicking each others’ photograph on their mobile phones to take back to their families. Only if there was a visa at border.  

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The Teesta Herders

In the Indian subcontinent cattle herding (mainly cow/ buffalo/ sheep/ goat/ yak) has been popular and rivers have been the life line for the herders. Herding is such an important livelihood and culture that Lord Krishna has been depicted as a herder, who spent a major part of his youth beside River Jamuna. Agriculture comparatively has been attached with less glamour and was put on to his brother Balaram (often referred to as Haladhar, the bearer of the plough). As we culture the life and legends of Lord Krishna, we will come across thousands of stories through religious talks, songs and descriptions of the herding life of the Great God, who is the reincarnation of Lord Vishnu in Hinduism.
Teesta has been no exception. The lower stretches of Teesta (in the plains) and also the areas of River Brahmaputra were known for their ‘BATHANS’. The herders had to camp in the river islands, often far away from their home. In isolation, a small group of herders reared their cattle and made all possible products from their milk. They came back home to their families for a small period in the monsoons, when there was enough fodder for the cattle in the village and also that the river island would have drowned. Some of them were days away and some just a day out. It was always the more daring, exploring and bohemian youths of the village who would take to herding and the entire village or landlord or king would leave their cattle to them. There were all kinds of stories which built up with the herders during their journeys; adventurous, legendary, sad, romantic and happy. They had their own stories from the grazing/pasture lands. They were talented with their song and music, many of them which they composed and many more which they collected from faraway lands. Even the village had their own songs and music for them on their arrivals and mainly departures. A whole school of song and music grew up around them, often referred to as Goalparia and Bhawaiya in the Teesta and Brahmaputra plains, the songs of the ‘Mahishal’ and many more.
The present situation is fast changing, the pastures are becoming permanent human habitat, some develop into forests being designated as state or central Government Protected Areas which are often out of bounds for adjoining villagers, the present situation do not allow the herders to venture faraway, they prefer to day herding from their villages. During my visit beyond Mekhliganj, the last border post of the BSF towards Neelphamari-Bangladesh, there are a few villages and in the river is the ‘Charland’ (river island), where again there is a BSF post now (a well established security system which has stopped crossing over across the borders). The herders from Bangladesh used to frequent this area in the recent past for the good quality fodder grass for their cattle. Now this is exclusively daily used by the herders from Raipara. Every morning the herding lot of the village get their cattle counted by the BSF men and return with the same before sunset. Most of the residents of this village have lost their fertile agriculture lands in the River Teesta, some of them still continue to be herders, swimming to the grasslands in the river islands everyday with their cattle. 52 years Dinesh Rai, one of the most elderly herders, who has about 07 cows of his own, but herds the cows of his neighbours on a verbal contract basis along with 35 years old Shibkumar Rai and a handful of still younger herders herds about a hundred animals every day, simply by swimming across the river. They cross miles in the river with these animals. This is an unbelievable sight for anyone to witness.
They all have a hard life. Other youths whose families have lost their agriculture lands in the River and many who cannot take the challenge of herding have migrated to nearby urban areas, mostly to Siliguri as rickshaw pullers, carpenter helpers etc, and are seen to be economically doing better than their adventurous and enterprising counterparts in the village. The livelihood and romance of herders still continue, the songs are still sung and Teesta is still prayed and respected as the Teesta Buri (The eternal mother) of the Teesta communities. 

The story of the Teesta herders are not only in the lower stretches, but also in the high Himalaya, the areas which form the headwaters also witness the culture of the herders, here they are known as ‘GOTH’ and the herders as ‘GOTHALA’, very respected in the Himalayan society. In these highlands it is mostly the yak and sheep. Again the borders and the imperialistic forest and wildlife management institutions are bringing about a slow death to this culture. Most of the trade routes of the past were based on these herding trails, many of which are today trek routes of tourism importance. At Mangan, the headquarters of North Sikkim the legend of the 16 year old Lakpa Lepcha warms the place.
Gurung Daju, the famous herder from Naga village has adopted the 02 years old Lakpa and carried him along the ‘Gothala Route’, a route which is followed in the high Himalaya depending on the season, snow and available fodder with few camps along the route. The Gothala Route from Mangan starts from the nearest camp at Gurung Daju’s village, Naga Gumpha, Naga Tar, Kukhre Orale, Borsardam, Toshar Lake. Lakpa Lepcha, who has inherited this route, at 16 years he sometimes is all alone with the animals. He has this magical power of getting together his yaks with his songs. Lakpa tells the stories of the flowering valleys of July-August, the snow fairies of November and the water Goddess of April. All herders along the Teesta River have their experiences with Nature God, the emotion of born traveller and the spirit of the true adventurer.      

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Teesta, the Grandmother's Story

Kamalika, an energetic and young journalist from Kolkata, India set out to find the story of Teesta. There are few people who are biased about Teesta and she is one of them, grieved with the loss of her beauty due to ecological disturbances.When she reached home, she found out that there were more stories at home from her 86 years old grandmother. 
Kamalika's email: kamalikasengupta90@gmail.com

Thakumar Jhuli Part I
86 years old Bina Sengupta sitting in her dingy south Kolkata residence still remembers her childhood days in Rangpur, Bangladesh. She still believes that Rangpur is the best place on this earth. From Elephant and horse rally in Tajhat, a palace in Rangpur which was then British administrative office, everything became alive as this Octogenarian narrated her story. Bina was fondly called Binu and she had two sisters and two brothers. She was the youngest and that is why she was notorious and the most loved in the family. Binu’s father was Station Master in Kokrajhar Railway Station in Assam. Binu says “It was only three hour journey from Rangpur and we use to enjoy our weekends sometimes in Rangpur and sometimes in Kokrajhar. But partition broke everything; my father left his job and came to Kolkata”. Her eyes filled with tears and the pain of the partition changed her mood. She said “nobody asked my father and mother or us that, were we interested to go to Kolkata? but we were forced. Sitting here in 2012 you will not understand, how in one day it was ordered that the place where we were staying for ages, it was told that place is not ours rather that is now a different country”, everything seem standstill. It seems that agony of partition was still there in her. 
Picture of Binu at her young age when she had to leave her favourite River Teesta...

She again started again after holding for few minutes, Rangpur, is known for many Swadeshi Movement, she boosted that she was somehow related to famous freedom fighter Fhani majumder. Her Brother who is also her best friend, Bulu was a revolutionary. She laughed and told me that she was very much afraid when she came to know that Bulu is involved in revolutionary activities. All the secrets meetings of the revolutionaries, they use to hold in Newsenpara of Rangpur. But as Binu’s father made her understand that Bulu was not doing anything wrong, she was convinced. That is why when Bulu was arrested by British police, she was not afraid...rather she was happy…
How Binu use to celebrate Tajhut Elephant rally…what happened in Rangpur during her marriage….continued in next series… 

Teesta, the story of a river from East Himalaya

The Coronation Bridge (Baghpool) on River Teesta is a popular photo-spot about 25kms from Siliguri, Teesta enters the foothills here

This is the story of a small mountain river from the East Himalaya which recently came into global highlight with the Chief Minister of the State of West Bengal in Northeast India saying ‘no’ to the sharing of the Teesta River waters with the neighbouring country of Bangladesh. This like a mother in dilemma who had to say ‘no’ to provide water to her own children (people living in the North of West Bengal) at the cost of a global mother image, where she could have easily said ‘yes’ with the rest of the country, the heads, who fail to understand the plight of the local people living around the Teesta River. The matter has reached so far that even the US official mission to the Indian subcontinent  led by Hillary Clinton made it a point to visit the Chief Minister of West Bengal first, on her way from Dhaka, Bangladesh to New Delhi, India, while the usual trend is that in such official visits the country capital is touched upon first.  While building the dams for hydroelectric power, no one is consulted, whereas as in principle, all the stakeholders living along the rivers should be made part of it. The economic part of the river is mostly highlighted on; the ecological part is almost forgotten.

As per the global data, 24% of land resource is in the mountains, 12% of the total world human population lives in mountains and 40% of the total world human population directly or indirectly depend on mountain river water. The mountain river water is mainly used by the human population in general in their diet, urbanization, agriculture, energy etc. Forest cover and mountain rivers have a symbiotic relation, hence healthy forest covers are a must to confirm healthy mountain rivers. It is the lack of balance between human population needs, forest covers and Mountain Rivers that we are losing our chances to ‘Climate Change’. Studies suggest that the demand for water from Mountain Rivers will double by 2050.

We have divided land politically, now we are dividing water, with our so called development we will probably divide our skies, but who is going to listen to the life and stories of people who live beyond the politics of the world. This is an effort to listen to the people who live or lived along the wonderful river Teesta landscape, which originates from the glaciers of Sikkim and flows down about 315 kms to meet the River Brahmaputra (Jamuna in Bangladesh). Several river and stream networks meet the River Teesta at different parts of her journey. These are the roots of human life through ages. Please follow the Teesta in this blog.