Itachuna Rajbari: A Weekend Getaway

Itachuna Rajbari, literally meaning brick and lime palace, was built in 1766 by the Kundu family who supposedly descended from the Bargis, the dreaded Maratha clan who invaded and looted Bengal time and again annually for a decade (1740s to 1750s). They were originally, “Kundaan” clan but since the time they settled, they embraced local culture and through word of mouth, it has become “Kundu”. In the present day, you can experience living in a heritage house.

A few steps from Kalyani across the river Ganges you will wade into the heritage Hooghly district. People from different places came and settled here. You will  find the elegeant monuments of the Portugese colonies in Bandel. Apart from that, you will find heritage of Dutch, French and Greeks. There are confluence of regional races & cultures too. Jains adored the place and even Pathans admired and left their traces here.

This heritage mansion is in thee village Itachuna, originally known as Bargi Danga. After the downfall of Mughal era, after the death of Aurangageb, Marathas became powerful. Many a times they used to attack Bengal,Bihar & Orissa. The erect watch-towers  from Singur to  Arra, Purulia witnessed the threat of Maratha warriors locally called Bargis centuries back.  Bargis used to come, loot and collect taxes. However, many of them never left Bengal and began to settle here embracing local culture. A sect entitled “Kundaan” settled in the remote village of Hooghly now known as Itachuna. They amassed  huge wealth and property by their wit and strength. Subsequently they became powerful zamidars/rajas of the locality. Over times they lost their original identity of Kundans, it turned to Bengali title Kundu.. They cultivated Bengali culture, Bengali cuisines, Bengali language and local deities. They became friend, guide and protector of local people here. They were pious and liberal. Their behaviour towards local people became a folklore even heard at the nook and corners of Itachuna. Still, people in the village put them on a pedestal.

The palace was made by ita (bricks) and lime (chun) and hence it was called Itachuna Rajbari. The majestic, splendid architecture and structure is intact  although it is about 250 years old. Currently, a part of it is being used as heritage-stay.
The Vishnu temple within the palace is  another attraction of the palace. Still now the deity is worshipped.
The caretaker of this place was guiding me to the artefacts kept for visitors. When I was exploring the huge property, its nooks and crannies and the rustic stairways at times I thought I was lost and couldn’t remember the pathways, but I was lost for a better reason, I was blissfully disconnected from the urban jungle and digital connectivity. The palace is a self-contained entity. There are rooms for royal families. There are space for amusement and dances. The visiting room has a magnificent outlook .
A night stay here will  certainly refresh your mind. If you spend seeing the village from the roof, you will stumble upon delightful oddities, when the afternoon gives way to dusk.

This place is just the perfect getaway if you are looking for a quiet, peaceful and scenic weekend. Away from everyday chaos this is the place to just be. The areas around the Rajbari is green and there are quite a few water bodies around it and one within it. It is a perfect place to rest, recuperate, and spend time enjoying nature, good food, and music! Yes, music of the flute variety! There is a person who comes in every morning and evening and he plays the flute. It was a lovely experience and somehow added to the ambience!

In the evening I was provided a tour of the Rajbari and the areas around it.
To sum up, it was a great experience to spend a weekend indulging in history and gorging on delicious Bengali food.

The rooms are pretty good. The experience of staying in a house over 300 years old with so much of  history was quite something! At present, mud huts have been built near the waterbody and people can experience night stay even there. The mud hut are each named after different flowers.

The food was excellent. They served Bengali food and the menu is fixed. You can choose between veg and non-veg food. The spread was very good. If you want to taste authentic Bengali cuisine this could be the perfect place and setting to experience it. You get to experience eating on old traditional dinnerwares and feel royal.

If you live in Kolkata and don’t know where to go next weekend, try to visit Itachuna. For more details you can visit the website of the Itachuna Rajbari: http://www.itachunarajbari.com/

Do not visit Itachuna Rajbari if you are looking for hotel-like amenities and modern comforts.
Come visit if you want to meet characters lost in a time gone by in a sleepy little town that houses a mansion full of charm for those that seek it.

Have you ever stayed in an old mansion?

Mawlynnong, The cleanest village that transformed my opinions 360 degrees about North-East


Till 2016, I considered of northeast India as poorer China, where people eat noodles and momo and lead an unhygienic lifestyle. My premonition grew from the pupils of north-east who comes down to study in urban centres, a considerable part of them living in Kolkata (that’s the closest metropolitan city to northeast India). If I wouldn’t have travelled to the north-east, which I wasn’t particularly eager upon, but ended up travelling alone, I would have never known about the jewelled beauty of our land. Now when I consider, I feel embarrassed about my subjective attitude and the way we treat north-east India as a detached body from the full country. Many other touristy places in India is not preserved well, and it doesn’t make me extremely honoured to claim, it’s often, we Indians who are culpable for causing dirt and transforming the place into a commercial hub. I was thinking the same for the North-East, but I was left dumbfounded and appalled. In my North-East trip, I explored Arunachal Pradesh which was a complete pleasure for the eyes and mind. But the place that left me to reevaluate my opinions, instilled me to explore more of real India and altered the traveller in me is Mawlynnong in Meghalaya. I was an Indian who was a touristy person and was more keen on travelling overseas. The charm of the place, the beauty of people and their drive to keep the place clean brought an upheaval in me. I commenced travelling the rural India to explore it and to understand the real country beyond cities, urbanization. This inspired me to encourage responsible travelling. A tourist transformed into a traveller. But yes this is not about me. This is about Mawlynnong, a village in East Khasi Hills district of the state of Meghalaya, India. It was awarded the “Cleanest Village in Asia” in 2003 and till date, it has retained the recognition of its award.

After spending few days in Shillong, I could not wait to reach and spend some time in this village, away from the urban jungle. I had heard a lot about the two-tier living root bridge but it takes 4 hours to trek down. My schedule was tight. I wasn’t informed, there was another single tier living root bridge at Mawlynnong. When I reached, the first thing I wanted to have breakfast. At a dead-end and there were two small huts. I was sipping water from a mineral water bottle. When I wound up, a boy turned and gently advised me of putting the bottle in a waste bin located near. I was dumbfounded by his attention and sensitivity. Then he escorted me inside the village. I walked on the cobbled road flanked with thatched Khasi huts and moved past the gardens adorned with colourful blooms. Not only is this the cleanest village but one of the prettiest that I have seen. To keep the village clean there is a bamboo basket outside every house. I was greeted warmly in the guest house made of bamboo. The best part was I was in a digital detoxification mode amidst the luxury of nature, there was no internet. After my lunch, I went out for a walk and hiked down to the most spectacular natural bridges made of roots of gigantic rubber tree. The roots make a pathway cross a stream. The hardy roots have grown to form a cantilevered and intertwined mesh helping villagers to commute. I was astounded to be face-to-face with one of the living root bridges. This place is also kept clean and I was in awe to see kids walking up and down removing fallen leaves and carrying water bottles for hikers. What took me 45 mins to hike up back to the village, took less than 30 mins for the kids. They guided me back to the village because it started raining. I realise it’s the simplicity and the warmth of the people that make Mawlynnong special. They were beaming with happiness while serving me early dinner of rice, dal, potato and red chillies.Cleanliness is a way of life here. All houses have functional washrooms, plastic bags are banned, smoking is prohibited. The rules are strictly followed and defaulters are charged heavily. The village gets its own manure which is converted from the garbage dug into a pit. People not only keep their houses clean, they step out to sweep roads and plant trees, which is a part of their lifestyle. I was surprised in a very pleasant way to know, here the children of the family get their mother’s surname and the wealth is passed down from the mother to the youngest daughter of the family. It’s a living example of women empowerment and the village has acquired 100 percent literacy rate.Since this village is on the India-Bangladesh border, we are able to view the landscapes of Bangladesh as well from the place. They have constructed an 85 feet high viewing tower, but what’s special is the tower is made of bamboo and you will be overwhelmed with breathtaking views.What we expect in an urban society, but fail to achieve, Mawlynnong has achieved it all. There is cleanliness and there is simplicity. It teaches you a way of life. It makes you think. It instils the urge in you to achieve what you dream of. The only thing that I left the place with is respect. The trip and the place lingered in my mind for days. If India is so beautiful and simple, the one that I have always craved for, I need to explore each and every part of it. This journey not only changed my mindset about North-East India but also as a person. I am not only in awe of the beauty of the place but I have become a traveller, travelling to the remotest corners of India, discovering it like never before. In my later posts, I will tell you stories about the unseen India, which is more than the crowded streets, the colourful markets and the Taj Mahal. And most importantly, the visit to this place, Mawlynnong, had given me the drive to promote responsible travelling in different parts of India. You may ask me what is responsible travelling, by responsible travelling I mean :

• Pack your bags with environmentally friendly things. Carry as little plastic as possible.
• Do not leave behind any non-biodegradable waste.
• What you wear has an impact – environmentally and culturally – dress ethically and appropriately.
• Respect the local culture and refrain from physical intimacy in public places.
• Carry a good water bottle. Purified drinking water is available at homestays and hotels for filling your bottles. Refrain from buying numerous plastic mineral water bottles.
• Local food is great. Try it as much as possible and avoid packaged food. Ask for modifications in the food according to your taste, instead of wasting it.
• Avoid excessive consumption of alcohol and refrain from drugs, especially in public places.
• Seek permission before photographing people, so their privacy is respected.
• Do not pluck any medicinal plants & flowers, and do not disturb the wildlife. It’s a broad concept. In my other stories, you will read about it more. The main concern of mine is zero-waste living and travelling.

Mawlynnong not only mesmerises you with its natural beauty but also in its endeavour to maintain one.I am sure, most European countries and other developed nations strive and achieve in doing so. But India is an overpopulated nation, still is behind in the race. But if you have a will there is a way. This place is the example for that. To those who fear of travelling to India because of its crowd, pollution and waste littering everywhere, we are working towards responsible travelling and if you want to visit the real India, life in its truest form, put your guards down and travel, I promise, you will want to visit again.

Responsible Travelling

We all love to travel, but how many of us (Indians) are responsible travellers?? Many of us, litter at places, mess up the stays where we put up at, expect the host to be at our service round the clock. Everything is not the duty of the Government. As citizens, we are equally responsible for the development of our country. Every little thing contributes to a beautiful and developed nation. Wherever you go, please be a responsible traveller. And by being a responsible traveller, I mean:


• Pack your bags with environmentally friendly things. Carry as little plastic as possible.


• Do not leave behind any non-biodegradable waste.


• What you wear has an impact – environmentally and culturally – dress ethically and appropriately.


• Respect the local culture and refrain from physical intimacy in public places.


• Carry a good water bottle. Purified drinking water is available at homestays and hotels for filling your bottles. Refrain from buying numerous plastic mineral water bottles.

• Local food is great. Try it as much as possible and avoid packaged food. Ask for modifications in the food according to your taste, instead of wasting it.


• Avoid excessive consumption of alcohol and refrain from drugs, especially in public places.


• Seek permission before photographing people, so their privacy is respected.


• Do not pluck any medicinal plants & flowers, and do not disturb the wildlife.

I have been drinking water from waterfalls and rivers, and no I do not fall sick. It’s the most natural source of water that can be found.

 

 

Sarmoli, Paradise at backdrop of Panchachuli

Everything was in the itinerary, places booked, yet I had my inhibitions before travelling to Sarmoli.  I had not seen photographs of the place we were going to put up at. I had read so much about it, I booked it but honestly, there were ifs and buts running across my mind.

A fine morning, I hopped in a cab from Almora. My agony increased, as I started throwing up during the whole journey that particular day. I started remembering my first journey in a bus from Delhi to Jaipur where I had thrown up innumerable times. Everything put together was giving me goose bumps. A long journey it was, through winding roads, crisscrossing mountains, the eroded boulders speaking of lives washed down. I made several calls and tried checking the internet results, as much as possible, before reaching the place. I called Basantiji, our host, from Birthi Falls, a 2 hours drive from Munsyari. The falls cascading through the mountains wanted me to rest and look at it for hours. But, I had miles to travel, before I could rest.

Finally, when I reached Munsyari, and went ahead a kilometre, to Sarmoli, nestled in the backdrop of Panchachuli peaks, and above the fierce Gori Ganga river, I was tired. And I was worried because our host, Basantiji and Raju Ji’s home was an uphill way from the main road. But all the agony and tiredness whisked away, when I found Rajuji, with other people from the village, waiting at the foothills, to welcome me and carry my luggage till the abode. They helped me to walk up, amidst their farms. Everything was put to ease when I met Basantiji, full of smile. Somehow, everything fell into place and my mind into rest. The next few days, I spent relaxing, waking up to the sunrise at Panchachuli peaks, leisurely walks around the village, playing with the kids, the pets, listening to stories, meeting women from the village, small treks and enjoying the local cuisine.

I am sure, many of you know about Sarmoli homestay, but I must tell you, Malika Virdi, who has helped the village women with a nature based and community owned tourism enterprise and made the people out there realise the importance of livelihood & ecology is enthusiastic and warm. I could not meet her last time, but whenever we have spoken over the phone, it has filled me with amiability. She has brought a change in the way local people view forests, wildlife, helped them reconnect with their own place and instilled pride and interest of their village within them. She works with women for economic independence and lobbies for ecological and social rights. Local people consider her nothing less than a super power and I absolutely agree with them.

There are many activities, regional cuisine fair, treks, marathons, workshops happening with contributions of volunteers, which has given the youth and women in the village, a livelihood and a channel to manifest the history and richness of their area and tribe. It’s a learning experience for both the villagers and the visitors.

I met Shivya Nath at Hawalbagh, and would have loved to hang around with her at Sarmoli, given even she was there, conducting smartphone photography workshop. But while hiking to Mesar Kund, I lost my way, which I always do.

I think, I will need another few posts to tell you about losing the way on the hike to Mesar Kund, Gori Ganga River at Madkote, where I spent an entire day, enjoying the hot springs, and my other activities at Munsyari. For now, let me get back to the village and the villagers in this one.

This homestay programme had been started by Malika Virdi, to ensure a livelihood and economic independence for the women in the village. The people of the village who are a part of this enterprise has either converted one room of their home as a traveller’s abode, or Malika Virdi has arranged to get them loans, to build an extension of their house, for visitors. The rooms are furnished with basic amenities and clean white linens. It’s an experience, to stay with the villagers and share a meal with them over conversations. You can do your bit of exploring around or give back to the village, by helping them with their daily chores at home or at their farm. So, if you want to see the real India, this place is unfiltered, real rural India, providing you with a comfortable stay, and memories worth cherishing.

I spent one morning at the women’s Sangathan (self-help group), where they spend knitting woollens, and packing dried vegetables and sell these for an earning. Conversation with them was like a new lease of life. At such a remote place, they are lobbying for their rights, trying to meet their basic needs and still always wearing a smile. I loved my leisurely days at Sarmoli, hearing from them about legends and stories. We all love the snow capped mountains in photographs but how it affects their crops, the leopard attacks, to hear it was heart-wrenching. Basantiji and Rajuji ever smiling, shared tales of events occurring in the village for their development, glued me to stories of their cows, mules, regional food. I cherished the stories over homemade millet rotis, kumaoni kappa (locally grown leafy greens), malka dal (masoor/lentil), homemade ghee, pickles, millet halwa(sweet dish). Basantiji even packed lunch for me, when I went out during the day. It was all seasoned with unadulterated love.

It was an unwinding time completely. Each time I was amazed, by the smile on faces of every person out there. The 91-year-old grandfather, without his teeth, smiled and waved at me and asked me to join him for a cup of salted tea and many stories. The lady of another village house, Binaji, was cooking on an earthen stove, invited me to join her and told me how she made the rhododendron juice and about their upcoming village programme. The uncle talking of his sons, studying away in another hill station and proudness beaming from his eyes, showed his oats plants. The little Lakshya, took me up through the trail, to the small pond near his house and we played with tadpoles. The pets Kalu and Cuto at their place, followed us around, everywhere. Everyone has their own battles, they strive to meet their daily needs, always with an alarm in the heart, that a natural calamity may wash away their abode and small farms, next minute; yet they never run out of their smile and keen enjoyment of living. I do not fathom, where do they get their optimism from. Seeing them, and rewinding it in my memory, every now and then, I am grateful for the life I have. This journey has taught me, taught me things that schools don’t teach you; taught me humanity. I learnt this Himalayan village is a paradise on earth, not only for the beauty nature offers but for the people who make you believe that humanity exists. and it exists even today.

The day I left, Rajuji accompanied me till my car, Basantiji, waved at me till the time our eyes could see each other. As I left early, she packed breakfast for me as well. In cities, where do we get such self-less love?? I do not know if I have evolved, but I have been touched, immensely that I want to go back there sooner. Now, at any point, I go through a spider-web crisis, I pause, think of my time in Sarmoli, the people, their lives and I know which road to travel.

I long to go back to this place, to give back to the community which has given me a lot of wisdom and love.

Over to you, is there any place you would like to go back someday?