The train reached Bolpur station in West Bengal, India just in time for breakfast. Our Sonajhuri trip officially started. The weather was comfortably cold. The entire gang pounced on the first tea seller we came across. As for me — nothing wrong with tea — just that I feel irritated holding anything hot in my hand. Tea is generally served in minuscule cups in the roadside shacks of India. I am constantly weary the liquid may just spill over and burn my hands. Well then again, I am also one of those who feel scared of putting a switch on or off. In my mind I have gotten electrocuted a million times.
The Cycle Rickshaw Ride
A bunch of cycle-rickshaws were booked to show us around the town of Shantiniketan and finally drop us off at our resort in Sonajhuri. Shantiniketan was established by Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore. It is a hub of cultural activity in West Bengal region.
No joke here, I was stunned by the knowledge, judgmental ability and breathe taking honesty of the rickshaw pullers. Generally the rickshaw pullers that I had encountered till date are poverty stricken, live in detrimental environment and lead a hopeless life. Most of them splurge the meagre amount they earn on consuming cheap country liquor. Rarely do they care for their children’s education – not because they do not want to but because the opportunity cost of educating their child can feed their other children. Satisfying a hungry stomach is everyone’s first priority. They are trapped in this vicious circle.
The rickshaw pullers gave us a guided tour of Shantiniketan. They narrated to us the history of the place and referred to Tagore’s works whenever required. Infact I started a conversation with the one pulling my rickshaw regarding Tagore’s literary works and not for a single second I felt I was speaking to an ignorant fellow. I do not know his educational qualification but I can vouch for the interest and passion with which he discussed Tagore’s works with me.
I admired his courage and good judgement when he turned down one of our fellow traveler’s request to lie to another one of us (as a joke, ofcourse). Sure he could have lost his fare or not have been paid properly for his service but he took a stand for the truth; a feat which the ‘sophisticated office goers’ often fail to achieve.
When the rickshaw left the town of Shantiniketan and hit the dirt road I knew something great was coming up. Soon the pictures that google had shown me prior to taking this trip became a reality. Red Earth and Sonajhuri trees were visible now. So I had officially entered the ‘safest forest’ about which I read in the internet a few days back. There was no ‘road’ in the forest but a distinct trail and occasional clearings. The rickshaw skirted its way through the trees and reached a clearing in front of a beautiful rustic ‘home’, or so I thought!
The beautiful rustic ‘home’ turned out to be the resort. This was the first time in my life that I would be staying in a mud hut with hay covered ceilings. Most of the decor in the resort was bio-degradable. I instantly fell in love with the village-like setup. There were two two-storeyed buildings connected by a bamboo bridge. The staircase was also made up of bamboo. Straw dangled on top of the doors and windows. We had two rooms on the upper floor, those connected by the bamboo footbridge! Each room was huge with an attached balcony. Outside, on one side of the building was an enormous clearing and on the other side paddy fields!
Luchi-Aludam,(google this if you don’t know what it is. It’s awesome) the quintessential breakfast of West Bengal was served to us upon our arrival. Guests can choose to eat in the open dining hall or the indoor one. We chose to be in company of the trees so open dining for us!
‘Shanibarer Haat’ And ‘Baul’ Music
As the day rolled on further the ‘forest clearing’ became busy. Carpets were spread out in the ground under the shade of the Sonajhuri trees where people settled to sell souvenirs. Sarees, batic printed wrapper skirts, bags, shoes, handicraft items, paintings, earrings and what not!
I was witnessing the popular ‘Shanibarer Haat’ or Saturday Fair. Every Saturday sellers who are mostly locals of Shantiniketan gather here to sell their craft item. These crafts are unique to the place. But the Saturday fair is nothing without the music of the ‘bauls’, the singers of folklore who sing with an ‘ektara’ in hand. The ektara is a one stringed musical instrument whose melody is forever entwined in my mind with Shantiniketan. The ‘bauls’ are an integral part of the entire culture of West Bengal.
I found ‘bauls’ settle in groups at different spots of the forest clearing. They were not only singing but also dancing! I gave in to the charm they created with their musical voice and strumming of the ektaras, I ended up dancing to the rhythmic beats. Soon I was joined by my family members and slowly the strangers started streaming in too. The shy ones were standing encircling us and almost all of them carried a camera or two. Gosh I loved this popularity!
I withdrew myself from the musical crowd to check out the food stalls in the weekly market. Food options included momo, kachuri /luchi-aludam. Tea and coffee were the staple beverages being sold.
I had already overtired my shingles infested body. The pain on my left shoulder finally crossed a critical level and I could bear it no more. Quickly I retired to our room which was literally a stone’s throw away. I found joy in the attached balcony. It was like a watch tower from where I can watch the entire fair without being a part of the chaos. I placed myself comfortably in the chair and kept observing the crowd (vice-versa applies here, con of staying in a beautiful place) until nightfall. As darkness descended both the buyers and sellers dispersed and the buzzing forest clearing became silent once more.
The Starry Night
It was 8 PM and already dark. I was messing with my phone when I heard the ektara music floating in the air. From the balcony I saw a campfire and some independent groups scattered around the fire enjoying on their own. One of those groups had two bauls playing music for them. It was time for me to join the fun. While crossing the bamboo footbridge I saw the paddy fields covered under complete darkness. The sky was dark but starry. Thanks to lack of habitation the place is light pollution free.
The party mood downstairs kept on getting more and more fun! I found a group barbecuing their chicken whereas another was enjoying the swing that dangled from a tree branch. The one with bauls were already dancing. The servers of our resort assured them a continuous supply of chicken and liquor. A uniformed forest guard was roaming all the time ensuring security.
We were supposed to leave the next day. So this was my first and last night in Sonajhuri – ofcourse, until we meet again!
Trip Taken On- December 2015
Resort – Shakuntala Village Resort.
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