The gentle waves of the Bay of Bengal rise and fall. The casuarina trees dotting the seashore, wave in the wind. The shimmering sands line the coast, for as far as one can see. The fishermen and women go about their daily business. And looking at them, I am reminded of Sarojini Naidu’s immortal verses, learnt in school:
“Rise, brothers, rise; the wakening skies pray to the morning light,
The wind lies asleep in the arms of the dawn like a child that has cried all night.
Come, let us gather our nets from the shore and set our catamarans free,
To capture the leaping wealth of the tide, for we are the kings of the sea! “
Its September 2015,and we are at Bakkhali.
Bakkhali,literally meaning” the home of herons” in Bengali, is the southern most sea beach of West Bengal.Secluded and far from the maddening crowd, it is the place to go if you want serenity,whistling winds and peace for company. A part of the Sundarban islands,it retains its charm as an unspoilt location, home to a former Lt Governor of Bengal (1903-1908) Sir Andrew Fraser , who made this his abode.
The road to this place is not all smooth,however. There are only two direct government buses to Bakkhali, both from Esplanade,Kolkata, at 8 am and 1 pm. Otherwise,one can opt for own transport, or take the many buses that ply upto Namkhana, on the other side of the river, cross the river,and change over .
The bus service from Esplanade is an ordinary West Bengal Surface Transport one,so if you are looking for luxuries,you will be in for a surprise. It is usually very crowded,and to get a seat,you have to reach early in the morning at the bus stand and book a seat. The rest of the journey is fairly rickety ,and if one does have his own transport,it is highly advisable to avail of it.
The road is congested till it reaches Pailan,and just when I was feeling fed up with the slow speed,traffic brawls,the heat, stench and humidity, the road easened,and we were on the way to Diamond Harbour ,a fishing hotspot and a popular picnic spot. This is where I first got to see the wide expanse of the Hooghly river just before it meets the sea.
And so on,through green fields and villages, till we reached Namkhana,where we met a quaintly named river called Hatania Duania. Namkhana is essentially a fishing harbour cum jetty,where a broad steamer transports people,cycles,two-wheelers, cars and even buses all together , to the other side of the river,which is the Bakkhali island. Since there was some time before the ferry arrived,I got down from the bus and clicked pictures. The broad expanse of the river housed floating trawlers, brightly decorated. On board these trawlers,men worked furiously,some loading giant ice slabs used to preserve fish ,waiting for the seaward journey,and others unloading fish by the cratefuls from the trawlers already back from the sea.
Fishing harbour at Namkhana
The bus reached the other side of the river,and all at once,there was some relief from the oppressive September heat and humidity . The coastal winds had started doing their magic on our tired bodies !!
It took around half an hour from this side of the river to Bakkhali,and we got down at our destination,Bay View Lodge. There followed some drama about a missing bag courtesy my ever- forgetful Mom,but I could sort it out since the bus stand was nearby and I could easily retrieve her bag. In fact, it is most advisable to stay near the bus stand,since most of the hotels,conveniences and shops are situated around this place.
Bay view lodge..highly recommended
After freshening up (and freshening up we did require,after a hot,humid and dusty journey!), a hearty lunch consisting of the Bengali staple,rice and fish,followed. And then it was time for a nice afternoon snooze.
Getting up in the late afternoon, we decided to hit the beach.I had been here many years back,and the scenery looked very much changed since then. A host of hotels and eateries dotted the place,and the sea front was much better maintained than i remembered . The Bay of Bengal lay out in front of us,in a shimmering form. The beach, the longest in this part of the country, was as inviting as ever. This being a week day,the crowd was minimal,which was a boon for us.
The shopping complex..very well maintained
An inquisitive toddler
” Massage ,babu?”a young boy walked up to me. I politely declined ,he persisted and I had to decline more firmly. Its amazingly sick and nauseous how some self-obsessed city dwellers turn these young boys into masseurs!!
All that notwithstanding, the sea beach at Bakkhali is a lovely place to rewind and relax. It had rained in the afternoon, tempering down the oppressive heat, and the sea breeze made things much better. We sat on the sea beach,where chairs can be hired for Rs. 10 per hour,and gazed out at the sea. There were a number of good eatables on offer,such as ice-cream, bhelpuri, dahi phuchka etc. The last one caught my attention and I gulped it down gleefully.
Phuchka by the sea
We sat on the sea beach till 9 in the evening, and then made it back to the hotel for dinner, reluctant to leave such a serene environment.
I got up at 4.45 the next morning,eager to catch the sunrise, and rushed to the beach ,only to find that the cloudy weather had delayed the sunrise. However,the sight that lay in front of me more than made up for all that.
Miles of expansive sea beach,lapped by gently rolling waves, lay in front of me. The casuarina trees waved on the shore,interspersed by Sundari trees, the characteristic flora of the Sundarbans region. An amazing sky , pure blue with puffy flecks of white and grey clouds, slowly moving, formed a perfect canopy.And as the Sun finally rose, the reflections on the water made sparkling patterns that simply captured the mind. I could not help but sit and meditate for sometime in this tranquil surrounding.
Walking along the sea beach, I found unlikely company in some mongrels,who hung on to me adamantly despite my best attempts to dislodge them. I had to finally brandish a stick provided by a helpful local, to get rid of them.
The mongrel brigade
Walking on, I had a chance to see a health conscious guy jogging by the sea. This is the ideal atmosphere for jogging, with the sea winds lapping your body and he calm surroundings providing you a silent kind of energy.
Jogging by the sea
Bakkhali is incomplete without its red crabs, who line the sea beach like a carpet.
By this time,Mom had come over to the beach, and we sat under one of the numerous shelters along the seashore, taking in the majestic beauty of the sea. After a while, I found myself sufficiently charged to go and have a dip in the sea, playing with the waters. After a long,long time, this was an opportunity to enjoy the sun and the surf,and I made the most of it.
Selfie by the sea
I also had the chance to click some of the local photographers (who even have their own union) , who were enthused by my camera.
Clicking the clickers
Fishing in the waters
Returning to the hotel for breakfast,I had a shower, rinsing off the fatigue,and snoozed till lunchtime.
Lunch consisted of fish and rice as usual,and then it was time for another snooze, in the time-tested Bengali tradition of post-lunch siesta.
I got up early in the afternoon, determined to make the most of the day yet. Hailing one of the numerous tour operators who take tourists around on their cycle rickshaws,I set out on a guided tour of the locality.
Joydeb , the tour guide,turned out to be a simple and helpful chap with a vast knowledge about Bakkhali,Frasergunj , Henry’s Island and the Sundarbans in general. Coming from the core Sundarbans area, and having relocated to Bakkhali after working outside for many years, he prided himself in the thoroughness of his knowledge and his dedication, which was very apparent in his way of working.
Through the dense greenery of rural Bakkhali, passing by people’s houses ,ponds and wide green fields, we made our way to Henry’s Island ,which is on the far end of the island,and has a tourist residential complex, operated by the state fisheries department.
Indeed ,Bakkhali’s growth is largely attributable to fishing, as it is for the most of the Sundarbans . You smell fish,see fish and eat fish wherever you go,an average Bengali’s love for the finned delicacy is easily understood when one comes here.
On to Henry’ s island. This was founded by some European chap named Henry ,and is the more secluded part of the isle.The cottages of the tourist department situated here , are named after the different trees such as Goran, Sundori etc. We ascended the popular watchtower,which also doubles up as a lodge, and were treated to a beautiful wide view of the Sundarbans.We could see the dense mangrove forests,the wide Hatania Doania river,the Bay of Bengal in the distance,and the different islands such as Lothian, Sajnekhali, Bado & Choto Rakkhaskhali, Kplot, Iplot, Gplot. The names , though sounding quaint, have grim associations.Bado & Choto Rakkhaskhali,for instance, are named after the crocodiles ( Rakkhas or devil ),who kill many people who wade into the waters of the Bay for fishing. The Sundarbans is a story of grim survival battle of humans against nature- in the form of crocodiles in the water, tigers in the forests, snakes on the land , all against the backdrop of a yearly saga of cyclones, floods and storms. As Joydeb recounted stories of human struggles against these elements,having lost two of his family members to crocodiles, I admired the remarkable spirit of these hardy yet simple and hospitable people.
Shells. at the isolated Henry’s Island beach
From there,again through idyllic countryside,we moved on to the Frasergunj harbour. Frasergunj is named after the erstwhile Lt Governor of India,Sir Andrew Fraser, who made this his home. Legend has it that he arrived at these shores after a shipwreck,and was saved by a local lady named Narayani.The grateful Fraser fell in love with her,only to have his love shattered by his wife who arrived from England and despatched his paramour to the Gods. I asked a few locals,and like most such legends,this found no corroboration from them.
This place is home to several fishing barons, who have made their fortunes from the fishing trade. Their prosperous houses are a testimony to the potential of this trade,and are distinguished by the mesh of fishing nets kept in their courtyards. Men and womenfolk toil about, tending to and repairing the nets, because proper care of this accessory is vital to fishing activity.
Frasergunj Harbour is controlled by the West Bengal fisheries department ( Benfish) and has fishing trawlers of all sizes. There is a a fish auction market,cold storage mechanism sand all the paraphernalia required for fishing activities. It is late afternoon,and there are many trawlers arriving with their load of fish. The crimson colours of dusk lined the length of the river,and the colourful boats and trawlers complete the scenery. It’s a photographic haven.
On from the harbour,Joydeb picked up a few passengers ( after asking me) ,and we talked of ……what else ? Fish !! Fish rates,the season’s catch and the state of Hilsa fish harvest this season dominated the discussions.
We were on the way to Fraser’ s house,on the sea beach,which he had built and where he would.have enjoyed many escapades with his lover. On the way, we passed the giant windmills of Frasergunj. This is where electricity is generated from the winds, which supplies many households and hotels in Bakkhali and Frasergunj.The giant apparitions look spectacular against the setting sun.
Fraser’s house , on the sea beach, is in a rundown condition, broken and with trees and weeds grown over,but must have been majestic in its heydey. I do not enter, aware that there might be reptiles inside. Joydeb shows me coconut trees and tells me that these have been existing since the time of Fraser,but I find it difficult to.believe him.
The remains of Frazer’s house
End of the trip,we head back to the hotel,through the idyllic countryside. A profusion of hotels ( none of who existed during my visit 14 years back ) have come up, making accommodation fairly available in this place. The evening is cool,and Joydeb’s banter makes the journey worthwhile.
Taking a brief rest at the lodge, I head back to the beach, sitting on the beach chair and savouring fish . Topshe fish ,a delicacy for Bengalis,is my choice for this evening. Later,I head over to the lodge,having the usual chicken and roti before sleeping off for the night.
The next morning,we wake up at 5 . It’s time to head back to Kolkata. I had booked the bus tickets a day back. Its drizzling,and we enjoy the rain. I head back to the beach,one last time,and take a few clicks.The saline moisture sticks to my skin,probably unwilling to bid farewell yet. I reach back to the bus,just in time.
The rest of the journey is quite uneventful,and we endure the usual heat , crowd and humidity,though better than the upward journey. It takes one hour for the crossing at Namkhana,due to traffic congestion. It takes five hours to reach back home, and I relax after two days of travel and discovery.
All in all,if you want peace, relaxation and solitude, far from the maddening crowd and the usual trappings of urban life, head to Bakkhali for a long-deserved break. It’s a guarantee that you will not be disappointed.
Shells- from Bakkali
More about Bakkhali at: http://wikitravel.org/en/Bakkhali