Jharkhand: Land of Forests

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ANURAG MALLICK travels 2400 km by road across Jharkhand in a Bolero over 10 days through remote tribal habitats and Naxal terrain.

“In this wilderness are found savages whose dress consists of peacock feathers and their food the flesh of buffalos; the trees are their dwelling and leaves and feather their bed.” 

This is an excerpt from Tarikh-i-Firoz Shahi, which recounts the memoirs of Firoz Shah Tughlaq when he came to Chhotanagpur in 1359-60 during his Jajnagar expedition. Over five centuries later, with minor changes in their diet and other cosmetic corrections, the description of Jharkhand and its many tribes, still rings true…

The Birhors (literally, forest people) still live in kumbas made of leaf. The Lohars still practice the dying craft of blacksmithy. The Asurs, who migrated from the Gangetic plains, are believed to be the first iron smelters of the subcontinent. Of the 30 different tribes spread over the Chhotanagpur region, the Santhals are the most predominant and the amicable Mundas, the most ancient. It is in these adi-vasis (an interesting derivative is ab-origine, both meaning ‘people from the beginning’), that lies the answer to everything.

The Chotanagpur Plateau serves as a meeting place for the Himalayan and Peninsular biospecies. Here, you find a portion of the oldest part of the earth’s crust, making it the most ancient geological formation in the country. The recent findings of hand axes and blades in Pathalgarwa and the cave paintings littered across the Northern Karnapura Valley during mining operations have further harped on the region’s antiquity.

Besides being India’s largest producer of iron ore, coal, mica, copper, bauxite and uranium, the mineral-rich Chotanagpur Plateau happens to be the greatest producer of lac in the world. Its pliable soil has fashioned many artefacts, its soft wood has created several handicrafts and its metal-tinted earth spawned a myriad paintings. Yet, such fascination is not new, as people have been seduced by its stories for centuries.

The Mughal generals under Akbar and Jehangir invaded this territory for the sake of its diamond and gold deposits. Sher Shah came all the way to fight the Raja of Jharkhand to obtain the white elephant Syama Chandra. In an obvious behavioural chink, the elephant never threw dust upon his head like the other pachyderms and Sher Shah believed that its possession would ensure him the throne of Delhi.

For years, the region has been typecast as a mining hub with little to offer except industrial centres like Bokaro, Dhanbad, Jamshedpur and religious hotspots like Deoghar, Rajrappa and Parasnath, the Jain pilgrimage centre atop the highest hill in Jharkhand. Some obvious excursions like Top Chanchi, Dimna and Dalma were omitted in this issue not out of oversight but by intention. The idea was to go beyond the obvious to uncover what lay beyond.

It resulted in a 2400 km circumabulation of the state, starting from Ranchi and the waterfalls around it. The anti-clockwise odyssey took us via Chaibasa, Kiriburu, Jamshedpur, Purulia, Panchet, Maithon, Massanjore, Dumka, Basukinath, Deoghar, Parasnath, Surajkund, Tilaiya, Hazaribagh, back to Ranchi. The last leg of the journey to Netarhat, Betla and back to the state capital via Latehar was perhaps the most leisurely.

Breakfast, usually at sweet shops, comprised freshly made poori with aloo sabzi and the customary jalebi. The rare lumps of aloo in a yellow sea of mild gravy stood out like islands of hope for our taste buds. Sometimes to break the monotony, we ate litti and dhuska, a salty pua made of rice and chana dal. Wherever possible, we glugged glasses of the local brew handiya and whether it was a line hotel or a circuit house, always insisted on a full grown desi chicken.

In the end, all we had to show for our efforts was a mystical world of unbelievable stories. The Ligirda swamp, where a mere jump on a hillock can cause the swampy earth to tremble. Barsori, a tiny hamlet off a village road between Betla and Netarhat, where a sharp clap of the hands produces a customary shower of water droplets. Duarsini, an obscure village on the far side of Jonha Falls where potatos are known to weigh at least a kilo. Littipara, where the curd is so thick that you can carry it home in a gamchcha (red flimsy towel). Legend has it that the true test of its thickness is that if you throw a lump of curd against the wall, it will stick.

And then, there were places with lyrical names like Kiriburu, Mahuadanr, Baresand, Chhipadohar, Dumberpat and the legendary Jhumri Tilaiya. In a land where people’s lives were inextricably linked to its dwindling jungles, it was easy to discern the imprint of nature and wildlife in every name. After all, this was Jharkhand, ‘The Land of forests’…

RANCHI: Divine Inspiration 

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There’s something about the Ranchi climate and its greenery that has always inspired great men to greater things. Maulana Abdul Kalam Azad started writing his famous commentary on the Quran here. Jyotindranath Tagore often spent a contemplative hour on Tagore Hill before composing his thoughts. Some contend that Rabindranath Tagore was inspired to pen down his literary classic Gitanjali right here in Ranchi. Even the wise British appointed it as the summer capital of Bihar and many officers chose to write their memoirs in its tranquil surroundings. With such an august assembly that had graced Ranchi’s past, it was difficult for an ordinary writer like me to even lift a pen. The best I could do was to at least go about discovering the land that inspired them.

On the northen periphery of Ranchi and about 5 km from the city centre is its chief attraction, Tagore Hill. Showing great real estate acumen for his time, Jyotindranath Tagore bought a large patch of land on the Morhabadi Hill and its adjoining areas and made it his home. His fourteen long years of self-imposed exile were well spent in study and his love for the arts. It’s believed that his younger brother Rabindranath often visited him from Calcutta, spending time musing on the hill. Over the years, the small hillock was simply dubbed Tagore Hill in memory of the elder brother, who lived there until his death in 1925.

As you enter through the white-washed, mural-lined main gate and climb up the steps, the city of Ranchi begins to take form. The busy lanes disappear into a green landscape interrupted by small hillocks, lakes and distant signs of habitation. Halfway up the hill, is a white building that will eventually house a museum dedicated to the life and times of the Tagore brothers. A pathway leads to the top, where an old chhatri built by the Tagores untidily lists out who loves who in Ranchi. If you can ignore the grafitti and the amorous couples, the spot still remains an inspiring perch, offering a tryst with the rising and setting sun.

Close to Tagore Hill is Kanke Dam, with a rock garden lanscaped with an amusement park and water slides at the base of the hillock. Hatia, the other waterbody, lies at the other end of town and tends to be less crowded. After you have had your share of churches, temples and relics of the Raj, escape from the busy town to Ormanjhi, a 20 km excursion on Hazaribagh road. The Birsa Munda Jaivik Udyan (Biological Garden) is a rare repository of rare herbs, plants and animals.

About 15 km ahead on the Ormanjhi–Sikidiri road, is the Crocodile breeding centre at Muta. With two crocodiles from the nearby Bhera river and three from the Madras Crocodile Bank, the project was initiated in 1987. Today, the numbers have swollen to about 50. Back in town, the Jharkhand Tribal Research Institute with its anthropological museum and library is the perfect place to understand the people and their rich culture.

Centrally located within the state, the capital is well-connected by road, rail and air and thus, the perfect place to start your explorations. You can start with the waterfalls and then plan your itinerary accordingly. As you leave the outer city limits, the trappings of a modern town slip away and the soul of the real Ranchi emerges…

The road wove past small villages with chai stalls selling samosa and kachori. Young boys sat astride painted bicycles with a glarish cluster of plastic flowers; some in school uniforms, some sporting goggles, a bright bandana and t-shirts with Dhoni’s portrait. If Tanushree Dutta had placed Jamshedpur on the Bollywood centrestage, Mahendra Singh Dhoni had hoisted Jharkhand onto the international map. Petrol pumps around Ranchi proudly flaunted ‘Dhoni was here’ signs, feeding off the dizzying fame of the bike-crazy cricketer.

At a small stream on the outskirts of Ranchi, we saw a tribal boy mending a strange basket that looked more like a lamp. On enquiry, he said that it was a fishing basket made out of bamboo and thread drawn from plastic bora (gunny sacks). We waited patiently till he finished. Meanwhile, his wiry companion blocked a section of the river with broad leaves, stone and soil. They diverted the stream and placed the basket at one end. Its unique valve mechanism ensured that once the fish entered, it couldn’t escape. After a while the trapdoor floor was opened into a basket to store a silvery mass. The overjoyed kid pointed out all the varieties of fish – that’s Magur, that white-coloured one is the Ponthi and the finger-sized one is Kusma. In one magical moment, that little boy scarcely 3 feet high from the ground, instantly rose in my eyes to the stature of a giant.

This was the land of a myriad tribes, whose heart beats with the song of the river, the crash of a cascade and women with baskets on their heads and children strapped to their backs singing an unknown tune. The popular couplet still rings true: ‘Peeth par chhowa, maath par khanchi; Jab dekho to samjho Ranchi’… (A cloth backpack behind, a basket on the head, if you see it, it means you’re in Ranchi)

Where to Stay

JTDC Birsa Vihar, Main Road, Ranchi 834 001 Ph: 0651-2331828

For more information, contact

Tourist Information Centre, Directorate of Tourism, Birsa Vihar Complex, Main Road, Ranchi 834 001 Ph: 0651-2300646, 2310230 E-mail: rch_tourismj@sancharnet.in

WATERFALLS: Around Ranchi

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Ranchi is surrounded by several waterfalls, though they are all scattered in different directions. Jonha and Sita along with Hundru form one cluster on NH-32 to Purulia and can be covered along with Dassam, on the Ranchi-Tata route (NH-33). If you start early, you can cover all these in a day. The Panchghagh and the far-flung Hirni lie on the route to Chaibasa. From Dassam, you can also cover Panchghagh, by continuing on the diversion from Taimara to Khunti. Sadni, Lodh, Sugabandh and Mirchaiya are best covered if you are travelling between Netarhat and Betla.

Jonha Falls

Named after the nearest village, Jonha is also known as Gautam Dhara as Lord Buddha is believed to have bathed here. A temple and ashram dedicated to Buddha was built atop Gautam Pahar by the sons of Raja Baldevdas Birla. A sign clearly proclaims that the ashram was originally meant for people of the Hindu faith as well as all branches of arya dharm (Buddhists, Jains, Sikhs, Sanatani, Aryasamajis). Locals also call Jonha the Gunga Nala because the stream apparently comes from Ganga ghat. 453 steps take you down to the waterfall and to the farflung villages of Konardih and Duarsini on the other side of the stream. Across the bridge is a basic guest house run by the same Kurmi mahto caretakers of Jiling Siring village (literally, Long Boulder) who maintain the Kisan Bhavan Atithishala & Jalpangrih at the car park. They can rustle up a good meal of rice and desi murgi curry while you come back from your trip. (Parking Rs.10)

Sita Dhara

Named after Sita who is believed to have bathed here during her years of exile, Sita Dhara is less visited and hence more difficult to access. The steps leading down often get obscured by foliage. Those who take the trouble to go down to the bottom of the fall will be rewarded by sight of a pair of footprints, which are believed to belong to Sita.

Hundru Falls

Located about 45 km from Ranchi, the spectacular Hundru falls are created by the Swarnarekha river falling from a height of over 320 feet. About 700 steps take you down to the base of the waterfall, an exercise that is sure to drench you when the torrential waterfall is at its prime.

Getting there: From Ranchi take the NH-32 to Purulia and come to Angarha. From there a left turn takes you 22 km to Hundru, whereas the straight road takes you to Jonha and Sita. 16 km from Angarha you’ll reach the gateway at Amrutbagan Chowk, from where a 5 km drive will take you to Jonha. 1 km short of Jonha is a diversion, from where a 5 km drive will take you to Sita. For Hundru, take the left from Angarha and drive 22 km.

Dassam Falls

Erroneously thought to mean ‘ten’ after the number of rivulets, Dassam actually means ‘falls’ in the local Mundari language. The Kanchi river plummets from a height of about 144 feet and you can see the waterfall from platforms at different elevations.

Getting there: Situated about 40 km from Ranchi off the Ranchi Tata highway, you take a right turn from NH-33 at Taimara. 3 km after crossing Taimara, there’s a diversion from where a left takes you to Dassam and the right, to Khunti. 

Panchghagh

Panchghagh is the collective name for a group of five waterfalls (panch ghagh in the dehati tongue) formed in a row due to the breaking up of the Banai river. Cemented walkways connect the different cataracts, of which stream 2 is the most popular while 5 is the biggest, though a bit inaccessible. You can walk down from the tourist shelter to the base of stream 2. Further downstream is a forest patch with a clearing that’s a very popular haunt for picknickers.

Getting there: From Ranchi, head south on the road to Chaibasa, drive past Khunti and 4 km after Murhu, turn right from Panchghagh mod and drive 1 1/2 km to the car park, a total distance of 55 km from Ranchi. Parking Rs.10

Hirni Falls

The Ramgarha river which travels 12 km through dense jungles, plunges down in a broad torrent as Hirni. From the car park, a walkway to the left takes you to the other side of the river to a tourist hut whereas steps to the right lead up to the top of the hill. From an observation tower at the top you can see the mighty fall and the jungles that lie beyond. A little further up there’s a bridge spanning the river and a shed. A tourist complex with a restaurant and lodging facility is currently under construction near the car park. The caretaker Lemsa Purti recounts how his ancestors migrated from further upstream after they saw a rat afloat on a piece of wood. Which is why, of all the totemic clans, the Chutia (rat in their language) Purtis revere the rat and do not harm it. Lemsa conjectured that the name Hirni perhaps comes from the profusion of deer in the area. Even today, the limestone kohs (caves) deep inside the jungles above, are home to beasts like tigers, bear and porcupine.

Getting there: About 75 km from Ranchi on the road to Chaibasa, Hirni is 22 km further from Panchghagh. 

KIRIBURU: High above the Saranda 

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A dry leaf in the Saranda forest slowly falls to the thick carpet of leaves. You don’t even notice its abnormal descent, which is not in slow swinging arcs, but straight down like some dead weight. Halfway down its trajectory, and you realize, that what you have mistaken to be a leaf is actually a Flying Lizard pirouetting down to the jungle floor. It’s a rare sight of the endangered reptile, but that’s the kind of magic Saranda wields. Spread over an area of 820 sq km, Saranda is home not just to the largest sal forest in Asia but also the densest you would have ever seen. Legend has it that the foliage is so thick that sunlight rarely creeps down to the forest floor and you often have to switch on headlights during the day. Even the intrepid British, lured here by the rich mining prospects, referred to this remote, inaccessible region as ‘The Tibet of India’.

While Baraiburu acts as the gateway to Saranda, the twin mining settlements of Kiriburu and Meghatuburu act like its watchtowers. Like sentinels, they peer down from a height of 2800 ft, straddling the boundary between Jharkhand and Orissa. Contigious with the Simlipal forest reserve in bordering Orissa, this entire stretch once formed a great migratory corridor for elephants. It’s not for nothing the Santhals called the place Kiriburu or the Abode of Elephants (Kiri in Santhali means elephant and Buru, their mountainous home). However, because of widespread mining and shafts that go down hundreds of meters into the bowels of the earth, the pachyderms have now migrated further inward into the jungles of Saranda. The old dak bungalow built by the British at Tholkobad in 1905 is no longer there, but Kiriburu still manages to captivate every visitor with its legendary sunrise and sunsets. That’s if you are willing to take the trouble of bending down to touch the very toes of Jharkhand…

Chakradharpur, a stop on the Eastern Railway network, was a popular stop by road too. We were halted abruptly at the railway crossing as if being forced to acknowledge its significance. A goods train, laden with coal, painfully inched past like it was inspecting our parade – dusty trucks carrying cement, autos, bicycles and a motley bunch sweltering like giddy schoolchildren in the hot afternoon sun. Jeeps crammed with people seemed to compete in some perverse attempt at a world record. Most of the vehicles had speakers on their roofs, facing outside! I realized why, as they shot through the thickly wooded road, screaming like Banshees, the blaring speakers serving as the only warning.

The en-route stop at Jagganathpur for its weekly haat was a colourful affair. Thousands milled about in the rural mart with makeshift shops selling clothes, earthen pots, vegetables, agro seeds, ducks, poultry, dried fish and white balls of ranu for making handiya. There were stalls after stalls selling handiya in large pots. The busy female bartenders were dishing out the local brew in broad sal leaves folded into improvised bowls. Tired after their shopping spree, the women drank themselves silly and meandered back to their villages with their haul of goods. Long after we had crossed Jagganathpur we were still seeing people dropping off like flies by the roadside.

Leaving the tricky Noamundi route, we took a bypass from Kotoghar and emerged through the jungles at Bada Jamda. It was dusk by the time we reached Hathi Chowk, from where the tar road climbed around the mountainside to Kiriburu. It seemed that the stars had descended on earth that night, till we realized that the twinkling lights were actually from the mines.

The hilltop SAIL Guest House was a welcome respite after the arduous journey. Over dinner, the caretaker Narad Bodra, outlined Kiriburu’s history. It was the British who had laid the foundations of the mining industry since the time of pre-independence. Later, the Japanese developed the mines and constructed factories. In 1964, SAIL began its operations at Kiriburu, which spread to Meghatuburu and Noamundi. Soon, the rich manganese and iron ore deposits drew many others. Even today, the water from the Ghagharati waterfall inside the mines is sourced to wash the iron ore. We retired early to catch the sunrise.

The Sunrise Point, located a short walk behind the SAIL Guest House on Hill Top, was bathed in the serene early morning glow. Slowly the mist cleared and the green landscape began to take shape. A greater part of the day was spent exploring the neighbouring areas of Saranda and we were fortunate to meet the Saranda Queen. With a perimeter that measured nearly 9 m, the Saranda Queen was the oldest sal tree in the Saranda forests. On the way back, we saw Ho tribal women artfully balancing piles of firewood with children slung to their back. Thankfully, we were just in time for some tea and sunset.

The clouds hung low over Meghatuburu, 6 km from Hill Top. We drove past the Kendriya Vidyalaya to Bhagwan Par, a tranquil spot chosen by a local SAIL GM as the site of a guest house, and hence named after him. The Meghalaya Guest House was no longer in use and the road wound past it, stopping at a cement wall. From there a short walk to the left ended at Sunset Point. The skies changed colour every instant and blue-tinted hills with lush forests stretched into the distance for miles. It was at that precise moment you acknowledged the wisdom of the local Ho tribals, who were the custodians of the forests. In their language, Saranda meant ‘The Land of Seven Hundred Hills’. We counted till thirty-five till the light went out. Soon, we were enveloped in darkness with nothing but stars above and stars below…

Getting there

By Road: There’s a daily bus from Ranchi to Kiriburu which goes via Chaibasa. If you are driving down, it’s a 140 km ride to Chaibasa via Khunti, Bandgaon and Chakradharpur. From there, take the Jhinkpani, Hat Gamhariya, Jagganathpur route to Baraiburu, 80 km away. Because of the frenetic mining activity, avoid the dumper-infested road via Noamundi. Instead, take a bypass through the jungle after Jagganathpur at Kotoghar to emerge at Bada Jamda. From there, cross the railway track and take the left from Hathi Chowk for the final 30 km climb to Kiriburu.

By Rail: The smarter thing to do is to take a train. From Jamshedpur, take the Tata Gua Passenger at 8:15 am which reaches Bada Jamda at 12:30 pm. From Calcutta, the Howrah Barbil Jan Shatabdi Express (2021) leaves at 6 am and reaches Barbil (20 km away from Kiriburu in Orissa) at 1 pm via Kharagpur, Tatanagar and Jamda. Alight at Bada Jamda and take a cab, which are also available on share basis. To get back you can take the return Barbil Howrah Express (2022) at 1:30 pm.

Where to Stay

SAIL Atithi Bhavan (7 rooms), K.T.I. HRDC Guest House, Hill Top Kiriburu

For bookings, contact Mr Ojha, Jr Manager Ph: 06596-244380, 245279,  Raw Material Division, SAIL, Calcutta

Officer’s Bachelor Hostel (12 rooms), SAIL Guest House No.2, Near Bank Mod, Meghatuburu

Kiriburu Excursions:

Tholkobad

30 km from Kiriburu and about 46 km south of Manoharpur is Tholkobad, a village that lies at an altitude of 1800 ft. Once the favoured haunt of the British, this was where they built an isolated dak bungalow in 1905. It is no longer operational but Tholkobad still offers pine forests, sloping hills and excursions into the lush Karampada jungle. Located 10 km from Tholkobad is Loyall’s View, a vantage point that offers a closer look at the hillocks of Saranda Forest.

Ligirda Swamp

A natural wetland spread over 7-8 acres, the Ligirda swamp is a narrow patch created by the perennial Ligirda Lor river. It is located about 4 km from Tholkobad. Locals say that if you stand on a particular hillock and jump, you can see the marshy earth tremble all around. Because of the obvious dangers involved, it’s best to go along with a local guide.

Toybo Fall

20 km from Tholkobad, the Koel and Karo rivers merge near Manoharpur to jump 100 feet as the Toybo Fall. This area is still home to the wild elephants of Saranda.

MASSANJORE: Quiet flows the Mayurakshi

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“The great country that’s India has its capital in Delhi, within India lies the beautiful state of Jharkhand, in one corner of the state is the district of Dumka, within the district is the tiny village of Saltalla, that’s where we are from, that’s where we are from, we, the Santhals of Saltalla”

…so trailed the mellifluous voices of the beautiful Santhali girls. There was little one could make out barring the names of different places. It was a customary introduction performed by the Sidho Kanhu Santhali Sanskritik Kendra. And as the Mayurakshi flowed silently behind, the girls swayed in their green saris, the mandhar (tribal drum) tapped a primal beat, while the Santhal boys trembled with ghungroos tied to their feet. They sang about the brave Sidho Kanhu, who had been imprisoned by the British for rebelling against the unjust tax imposed on tribal forest land. Meanwhile, their brothers Chand and Bhairon wistfully watched from afar, astride their horses. Sidho Kanhu were hanged from a banyan tree at Bhognadih near Baghdaha More. There was so much sadness, that even the horse had cried…

The Santhals love to recount the legendary saga of their folklore heroes as it reminds them not only of the sacrifices made by their ancestors but also of the beautiful land they rose to defend. Clothed in green and right at the border of Bengal, Massanjore is perhaps one of the least explored parts of Jharkhand. Its rural life, steeped in tribal traditions, was to give rise to yet another hero. A lanky lad with curly hair faced the camera for the first time, winning a National Award in his very first celluloid adventure. That lad was Mithun Chakraborty, whose Mrigya was shot on location near Massanjore in the nondescript village of Taldangal. It is the first of the many discoveries you’ll make in the area.

Massanjore’s chief attraction is the 2100 ft long dam, built with Canadian co-operation across the Mayurakshi river. The foundation stone was laid by Dr. Rajendra Prasad in 1951 and the sluices were opened four years later by Lester Pearson, the External Affairs Minister of Canada. In a fitting tribute to its partners, the concrete structure was called Canada Dam. Though the dam lies in Jharkhand, the beneficiary state is West Bengal. For permission to see the Power House and Operation Gallery of Canada Dam, contact the Supintending Engineer, Mayurakshi Canal Circle at Seuri, 40 km away.

The muddy brown waters of the reservoir are a stark contrast against the green hills. At two vantage points, are located the two Inspection Bungalows of West Bengal & Jharkhand. When LK Advani’s famous ratha yatra entered Bihar, Lalu challenged him, halting the progress of the proverbial Ashwamedha horse and lodging Mr Advani temporarily not in any prison, but in the remote Jharkhand IB of Massanjore! From the Jharkhand bungalow you can see the Mayurakshi escaping through the sluices in a gushing arc. The West Bengal IB is perched atop a hillock and offers a stunning view of the reservoir. Though boating has been stopped of late, forest walks and a trip to the garden at the foot of the dam are some activities you can indulge in. You can sit for hours just gazing at the beautiful Mayurakshi though it is the magical sunset that enthrals most visitors.

To get a whiff of tribal culture, you can visit Saltalla to see the Santhal tribals in their element. They have various dances and are willing to oblige interested visitors for a small sum. Starting off with Karamneer, the ritualistic welcome of the guest, they perform Dong, usually danced during marriages, Lagne, a magha pooja celebration and the famous Karam nritya, where boys and girls form circles as tribute to the creator. At the start of the Dussehra puja, they perform the Dasain, marking the end of the puja with Bungarum (propitiating the goddess). The dancers become so engrossed in the dance that they squat on the ground like chickens and emerge from the trance like state only after receiving the goddess’ blessings.

For Santhali dance performances, contact 

Manik Sen Hemrom, Sidho Kanhu Santhali Sanskritik Kendra, Gram Saltala, Post Bagnol, Massanjore (Outpost), Dumka Ph: 06434-242234

Getting there:

Massanjore is 31 km from Dumka. Drive 16 km on Rampurhat Road, turn right from Pattabari More and drive for 15 km on the road to Seuri in West Bengal. If you are driving to Dumka from Maithon, go via Jamtada, Palajori and remember to turn right at the Sidho Kanhu memorial at Baghdaha More. Further ahead if you take the Ranighaghar Nischintpur route, you’ll save at least 25-30 km.

Where to Stay

Jharkhand Inspection Bungalow (4 rooms)

For bookings, contact District Commissioner, Dumka Ph: 06434-222502

Mayurakshi Bhavan (6 rooms)

For bookings, contact Executive Engineer, Mayurakshi Head Quarters Division, PO Seuri, Dist Birbhum Ph: 03462-255229 (Tariff: Rs.300, 600, 1000 for 1, 2 or 3-bed rooms) or Irrigation & Waterways Department, Jalasampad Bhavan, Western Block, 3rd Floor, Salt Lake City, Kolkata 91

Bengal Youth Hostel (38 rooms)

For bookings, contact Assistant Director, Directorate of Youth Services, Calcutta 1

Circuit House 

Opposite Bus Stand, Dumka Ph: 06434-222236. For bookings, contact DC, Dumka Ph: 06434-222502

Massanjore Excursions:

Maithon

Before it was transformed into a buzzing powerhouse of hydroelectric activity, it was the peaceful abode of Maa Kalyaneshwari. The name is a corruption of Mai-ka-sthan; Mai’than perhaps being the Bangla way of saying it. The temple at Kalyaneshwari, scarcely 4 km from the dam site, is tucked away in quietude whereas all the action seems centred around the lake. Spread over an area of 65 sq km, it is Damodar Valley Corporation’s largest reservoir in the state. Though the dam was designed for flood control across the Barakar river, it has inundated several lesser known Jain shrines in the process. Maithon has a unique underground power station, believed to be the first of its kind in South East Asia. DVC has 14 power plants Close by, a deer park and a bird sanctuary have been established. On an island in the lake is a rest house which offers accommodation. Boating and fishing facilities are available.

Getting there: Maithon is 52 km from Dhanbad. If you are coming from Jamshedpur or South Jharkhand, you can bypass the coal belt of Chas, Bokaro and Dhanbad and drive through West Bengal. Take the route via Purulia and drive down Barakar Road via Raghunathpur, Barakar and Chirkunda. From Maithon, you can drive further to Dumka/Massanjore via Chittaranjan, Jamtada and Palajori. 

HAZARIBAGH: The Land of a thousand Tigers

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Ask anyone from Hazaribagh and most often than not, he’ll tend to describe his town as a hill-station. One cursory look and you feel that the moniker doesn’t quite fit into our modern day definition of a mountain retreat, but Hazaribagh is all that, and much more…

Theories abound whether the name comes from a thousand gardens or a thousand tigers, though the lush forests are indication enough that both existed in equal measure. The most famous ‘bagh’ was a mango grove where troops, travellers and saints camped while taking the old road from Kolkata to Varanasi. Lord Buddha passed this way, Chaitanya passed this way, the British passed this way, though some, like the buddhajibis (intellectuals) of Bengal, could not tear themselves away from the greenery and settled down in its wonderful climate. In Hazaribagh it’s not uncommon to find old houses with quaint names like Dutta Manor.

Despite its allure, travelling to Hazaribagh wasn’t easy. Thanks to its topography, there was no railway connection then; there’s no railway connection now. In the olden days, people got here by taking a train to Giridih and then travelled in a push-push, a sort of palanquin on wheels that was literally pushed and pulled by coolies. The perilous journey had to pass through dense forests full of bandits, beasts and unknown dangers. Yet, it was the same taste of adventure that inspired Rabindranath Tagore to travel along this route in a push-push in 1885. He penned down the memoirs of this incredible voyage in an essay titled ‘Chotanagpur’. Today, travelling along this hilly tract dotted by lakes, streams, forests and ravines still remains a surreal experience, minus the dangers of old.

Perhaps the best place to soak in Hazaribagh’s natural beauty is from Canary Hill, which affords not only a bird’s eye view of the town and the lakes but also the dense foliage that surrounds it. A 6 km dirt track from the main road takes you to the top, where you can stay at the Kanheri Hill Guest House. The name of the guest house and the road that leads to it, are most probably a corruption of the British appellation ‘Canary’. On another hill nearby, 575 steps lead you to the old observation tower built by the British. It earlier had a canteen and a searchlight, but both are not in use anymore.

Locals rue that ever since Betla cornered the wildlife market, Hazaribagh National Park is not what it used to be. The number of beasts in the jungles might have dwindled, but of late, the thick forests are eliciting a different kind of interest. The entire Hazaribagh district has been found to be rich in Palaeolithic deposits – dolmens, Neolithic sites and far flung stone shelters replete with Mesolithic rock art. Interestingly, it is these ancient rock paintings of the Karanpura Valley that serve as the prototype of the existing art forms of the Kurmis, Oraons, Santhals and other tribes.

For a deeper understanding of this unusual heritage, take a detour from Canary Hill to meet Bulu Imam, the local convenor of INTACH and a vociferous champion of the endangered sites. In a quiet grove called Sanskriti, Bulu set up the Tribal Women Artists Co-operative to nurture sacred traditions like the Khovar painting (decoration of the bridal room during marriages) and Sohrai art (ritualistic painting of the house during the harvest season). Putli and other state-level artists have found a refuge and a new meaning. The different tribal styles have been neatly represented in a museum that also houses interesting archaeological finds. Bulu is a busy man and is helped in this endeavour by his sons Justin, Gustav and his extended family. Apart from hundreds of articles, he spends much of his time collaborating with specialists who can help him promote the rich cultural heritage of the region. “More international visitors have come to this tiny nook than the whole of Hazaribagh district”, he says with a twinkle in his eye.

For more information, contact

Bulu Imam, Sanskriti, ‘The Grove’, Dipugarha, Hazaribagh 825 301 Ph: 06546-264820 www.geocities.com/buluimam

Where to Stay

Kanheri Hill Rest House, Canary Hill, Hazaribagh. For bookings, contact DFO (Divisional Forest Officer), Van Bhavan, Forest Division, Hazaribagh (West) Ph: 06546-222339

Hazaribagh: Excursions

Surajkund

According to legend during the treta yuga, this area was the tapobhumi of Sarvangi rishi. Despite his austerities the sage suffered from painful body sores. When the banished trio of Rama, Lakshmana and Sita came here during their exile, they were greatly disturbed by the sage’s condition. Lord Rama then propitiated the sun god Surya, the giver of all life, and created a hot spring. He then made Sarvangi rishi bathe in its miraculous waters and the sage was healed in no time. The hot springs remained hidden in dense forests for centuries until the Maharaja of Patiala cleared a road, tiled the floors and made steps for the kund in 1218. Even today people suffering from skin ailments and rheumatism come from afar to Surajkund to consecrate the holy amla (gooseberry) fruit. It is said that if your prayers are to be fulfilled, the amla you place inside the kund will float to the top in under a minute, otherwise you may sit for a whole day and the fruit will remain immersed at the bottom.

What’s even more amazing is that despite being in the same vicinity, the different kunds have variable temperatures. Surya kund’s scalding water measures at 88.5 C, Ram Kund is 55 C, Lakshmana and Brahma are 45 C while Sita is a mild 5 C. At noon, the water level in all the tanks decreases and regains its original level only when the sun has sunk a little.

Pandit Vijay Pandey elaborated that the boiling water of Surya Kund becomes cool only during a solar eclipse! Nearby is a tank where water from all the five kunds merge into one where devotees can have a therapeutic bath. Not far from the kund are some old temples dedicated to Surya, Shiva, Hanuman, Radha Krishna and Durga. Though visitors to Surajkund are few, the place comes alive every year during Makar Sankranti when the Surajkund Mela is held with great fanfare between 14-30 Jan.

Getting there: Surajkund is 72 km from Hazaribagh, located half way between Barhi and Bagodar on GT Road (NH-2). It is a 2 km diversion off the highway from Belkappi, near Barakattha.

Tilaiya Dam

Propelled into limelight because of repeated song requests on Vividh Bharti, the famous Jhumri Tilaiya is actually not one place, but two. Jhumri is a small village 3 km from the more famous Tilaiya, home to the legendary Sainik School and the Tilaiya Dam. The road climbs the ghats after Barhi, offering a glimpse of the dam from afar, before it swoops down to neatly bifurcate the reservoir. Built across the Barakar River, the Tilaiya Dam and DVC-run Hydel Station are dedicated to the people of India. The foundation stone was laid by Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and a scenic park was made on Nehru Island to commemorate his visit. Local boatmen offer rides in large boats that can easily seat about 20 people. The boat won’t move an inch till at least 10-12 people are on board at the cost of Rs.10/head. A slightly longer foray to Nehru Island costs Rs.200, plus waiting charges.

Where to Stay: Urwan Tourist Complex & Jheel Restaurant (20 rooms), NH-31, Urwan, Ph: 06534-235178

Getting there: From Hazaribagh it’s a 36 km drive till Barhi, where the Ranchi-Patna highway (NH-31) is intersected by the GT Road (NH-2). It’s a 23 km drive from Barhi Chowk to Tilaiya. From Urwan, take a right turn and a 6 km ride past the Sainik school will deposit you at Tilaiya Dam.

Itkhori

According to legend Lord Buddha once sat in meditation in the quiet environs of this place. His aunt tried in vain to distract him and she gave up, muttering Iti Khoyi, literally ‘Lost Here’. Over the years the name was phonetically corrupted to Itkhori, a place that has become the latest attraction on the Buddhist circuit. However, Itkhori is a fine example of religious tolerance as you can find several Jain and Hindu shrines next to the Buddhist relics. Apart from the 9th century Maa Bhadrakali temple complex, a Shiva linga with 1008 lingams carved onto its surface, the beautiful images of 104 bodhisattvas sculpted on a stupa and the foot impressions of the 10th Jain tirthankara Sheetalnath, there are several Buddhist sculptures of great antiquity.

Getting there: 20 km from Hazaribagh on the road to Barhi is a diversion to the right called Itkhori More, from where Itkhori is 30 km away, 16 km west of Chouparan. 

NETARHAT: Guv’nor Sahib’s Summer Retreat 

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The beautiful Koel murmured like a tropical birdsong. Left of the bridge at Banari, it was a wide shallow stream and to the right it gurgled through a bed of rocks. Immediately after Banari, the ghat road began its final 22 km ascent to Netarhat. Lined with sal trees and a profusion of bamboo, the mountain road slowly climbed through the sun-dappled forest. Through gaps in the dense foliage, you could see the plains below merge into sloping mountains in the distance. The British had described Netarhat as ‘a plateau that lay across the seven hills west of Ranchi’, lending it an aura of a mythical land that existed only in their imaginations. Perched like a shimmering crown on the crest of Chhotanagpur at 3800 feet, it was the highest point on the plateau. Little wonder they had endearingly called it the ‘Queen of the Chhotanagpur’.

A little over a century ago, the British had set up a military camp at Netarhat. Because of lack of good water in the immediate vicinity, the cantonment soon closed down. On a chance visit to the area, Sir Edward Gait, Lt. Governor of Bihar and Orissa grasped the true potential of this four mile long, two and a half mile broad plateau. The British soon created an artificial dam solving the water problem. After Sir Edward, many successors emulated his holidaying ways and soon Netarhat became a permanent summer retreat of the Governor.

Inspired by its bracing climate and green hillocks, the homesick British, in their quintessential wry humour, corrupted the name from Netarhat to ‘Near the Heart’. Contrary to popular belief, that’s not how the place was named. It was in fact, a corruption of the local adivasi name Netar Paat or ‘Hillock of Bamboo’. Even today, the hills (or paats) of Netarpaat, Paseripaat, Doomerpaat, Sobhipaat, Dasvanpaat and Jamedoorapaat abound in a profusion of bamboo and several tribes, primarily the Kisan, Birjia, Korwan and Paharia.

The erstwhile British Governor’s Chalet, a beautiful wooden structure, is the stuff legends are made of. Story has it that once upon a time the governor’s beautiful daughter fell in love with an adivasi boy who worked in their household. Love in the lonesome hill retreat blossomed like a forest flower bursting into bloom. Sure enough, with time, the governor’s daughter realized that their mismatched love was futile. Some whisperers say she was carrying a child. Despite being a high ranking officer’s daughter, she knew that the strict British authority would neither spare her, nor the tribal boy. So she spoke to the local villagers and chose the most beautiful spot in town; where the sloping Netarhat plateau ended in a deep chasm. Legend has it that she came bounding in her horse and leapt to her death, dashing against the rocks below. Several days later, the soldiers found her body and interred her with honour. The governor named the spot Magnolia Point after his daughter. The adivasi boy was shot and the two lovers were finally united in death. A plaque summarises the immortal love story of Magnolia and as you watch the magical sunset, your heart wells up with a thousand emotions.

From Magnolia Point you can see the villages of Saniadera, Korgi and Aadhe, which stand out like green patches against the blue green hills. Some British officers rode horseback through the shortcut from Betla to Netarhat, often braving the perils of the forest. “Akhir ghoda bagh ka lahsun hai, saheb (The horse is like garlic or spice to the tiger),” quipped Sudh Ram Birjia, the local caretaker, bringing chai and the tastiest pakodas on earth. Even now you can trek down to the villages through the forest trail, though it’s best to take along a local guide.

Enroute to Magnolia Point, a 10 km drive via Batuatoli, you can find the other attraction in town – the Netarhat Public School. Set up in 1954 with the credo of ‘Atta Deepa Vihrath’ (Be thou thine light), the residential school follows the traditional gurukul system. Students call their teachers Shrimanji, the female teachers are addressed as Ma, the hostels are Ashrams and equal stress is laid on Sanskrit, Hindi and English. A 3 phase entrance exam has ensured admission on merit, with a long line of illustrious alumni. The main square has a beautiful statue of a local tribal woman with a child balancing a pot on her head.

The beauty of Netarhat is that it has the quiet aura of a meditative mountain retreat, minus the touristy trappings of a hill station. The pace of things at the cluster of shops in the town square seems unhurried. Make sure to eat the delectable samosa-ghughni before you start your explorations around town. The Netarhat dam, 1 1/2 km from the main chowk, is a tranquil spot and Koel View Point, 3 km away, affords spectacular views of the Koel river meandering below. On moonlit nights the Koel is transformed into a magical silvery stream. The excess water of the Netarhat dam drains out into a valley to form a picturesque waterfall called the Upper Ghaghri, 4 km away. The Lower Ghaghri, 12 km from Netarhat, is also worth a look for its 320 feet cataract.

For a slighter longer excursion you can take a 10 km hike to Banari through a forest shortcut. Though Netarhat’s peak tourist season is from October to March, monsoons tend to be contemplative, the clouds are beautiful in November-December, whereas in June-July you’ll find the nashpati orchards laden with ripe juicy pears. Visit it anytime round the year and each time you’ll realize that it truly is ‘Near-the-heart’.

Getting there:

Netarhat is 155 km from Ranchi and a 4 1/2 hr journey. Get onto Ratu road and drive down via Mandar to Kuru, where you leave the NH-75 and head to Lohardaga, Ghaghra and Banari, from where a 22 km ascent takes you to Netarhat. At Dumberpat, or Netarhat Mod, it’s just a 7 km ride to the right through the archway while the left takes you to Mahuadanr and Betla.

Where to Stay

Prabhat Vihar

The JTDC-run hotel is the most popular place in town and offers the best view of the fabled Netarhat sunrise. There are two complexes at different elevations, with the cafeteria in between. The older structure on higher ground affords a view from the comfort of your room. For bookings, contact the Manager Abdul Wahab on 94315-28751. Tariff: Rs.350

Palamau Dak Dungalow For bookings, contact DDC (District Development Commissioner), Latehar or Administrator, District Board, Daltonganj

Palamau Forest Rest House For bookings, contact DFO, Ranchi (West) Forest Division

PWD Inspection Bungalow For bookings, contact Executive Engineer, PWD, Doranda, Ranchi

NETARHAT Excursions:

Lodh Falls

The waters of the Burha river flow from Chhattisgarh and fall into Jharkhand from a height of 468 feet, making it the highest cataract in the state. Earlier known as Burha Ghagh, the waterfall dashes down the rocks from three sides, its white waters glinting in the sun. From the car park, there’s a forest trail interspersed by 255 steps though you can hear the sound crashing waters from afar.

Getting there: From Netarhat, drive 40 km to Mahuadanr, from where Lodh is a 19 km diversion. Drive straight from Shastri Chowk and turn left from the pond at Pandridippa.  

BETLA: The Heart of Palamau

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Betla has the unique distinction of being the site for the first tiger census in the world. The study was conducted in 1932, which soon paved way for the Palamau forests to be notified as a wildlife preserve. By 1974, the park became one of India’s earliest tiger reserves under Project Tiger. Littered with the forts and monuments of the local Chero kings and blessed with a dense profusion of sal, Betla is like a marriage between the two famous parks of north India, Ranthambhore and Corbett.

The drive from Netarhat to Betla cuts through the fields of paddy like a scythe in long sweeping arcs. In some empty patches, villagers plough the red earth with bullocks, till you slowly descend into a dense forest patch. Just before the forest check-post at Baresand, a 2 km diversion off the main road, leads to the scenic Sugabandh falls. After Maromar, you cross the bridge at Garu, where the Koel river runs alongside the road for about half a kilometer as if racing you, till it loses interest and swerves off into the jungle. Then without warning, it appears again, cutting across the road in the form of a nullah, like an aquatic speedbreaker. The vehicle cruises through, throwing a fine spray, much to the delight of squealing school children. And again..and again.

Scarcely 3 km from Garu is Mirchaiya, a 100 ft waterfall perhaps named after its slender shape, which can be seen right from the road. Before long, you penetrate the deep jungles and enter Betla.

After registering our vehicles at the barrier, we came to the park entrance. A signboard proclaimed ‘B for Bison, E for Elephant, T for Tiger, L for Leopard, A for Antelope’, clearly spelling out what Betla had in store for its visitors. However, it wasn’t the only witticism Betla had to offer. Over tea, a local forest guard recited a funny couplet that traced the advent of the British along that route. “Garu mein daru piya, Bhorbandha mein ghoda bandha, Chhipadohar mein chhip gaya aur Baresand mein saand hua.” We doubled over with laughter and entered through the park gate.

Apart from jeep safaris, you can also hitch a ride with Juhi or Anarkali, the resident elephants. It ensures a deeper foray into the dense jungle and you can easily sight bison and lots of ungulates. The watchtowers at Chaturbathwa, Hathbajhwa and Madhuchuan give you a better chance to sight a tiger. Evenings are considered more conducive for sighting. Early mornings are more suited for birdwatchers, who can see several of the 175 species of birds found inside the park. There is also a Nature Interpretation Center (Timings: 10 am to 5 pm) at Betla with displays of animal figurines, a museum, library and an auditorium that screens wildlife films. A fee of Rs.100 entitles you entry into the park between 5 am to 5 pm and also an excursion to the Palamau fort.

The Palamau Kila, as the local Cheros call it, is located 5 km from Kutumu More, north of the park entrance. Raja Medini Rai, the most famous king in the adivasi Chero line, defeated the Maharaja of Chhotanagpur in his capital city of Doisa and with the spoils of war, built the lower Palamau Fort. The whole area abounds with the legends of the generous Medini Rai, under whose reign, the kingdom prospered. The king often moved incognito from house to house to see if anyone was without a cow or a buffalo. According to a Chero saying ‘In the reign of Raja Medini Rai, no house was without a churner and butter’. Neither did the king levy any tax on the income of his subjects. Once he thought of asking each headman to offer at least one shell as his tribute. To his surprise he found that he was presented by a gold shell instead!

Though the lore of Medini Rai lives on, his legacy seems to be fast crumbling to ruin. Within the old fort you can find the remains of stables, the royal area and an unprotected well with an underground chamber used by royals to privately draw out water. The impressive main gateway once had square amethyst and lapis lazuli tiles that shone like gems in the afternoon sun and moonlit nights. Through a narrow staircase with half-eroded steps you can climb onto the 40 feet high walls that had resisted invaders for over two centuries. However, one section of the fort wall was breached when the British fired a cannon at the weakest spot, demolishing the kachcha wall.

A section of the fort was completed by Medini Rai’s son Pratap Rai while his father was busy in battle. Pratap Rai also constructed a newer fort on an elevated patch, which is in much better condition. The fort has three main gates, notable among which are the Singh Dwar (Lion Gate), the largest of the three, and the Nagpuri Gate, which has inscriptions in Sanskrit and Persian. 2 km from the fort is the Kamal Dah jheel, where the royal family used to bathe. Legend has it that Medini Rai’s queen was so delicate and sweet-natured, that when she bathed in the lotus pond, the lotus never sank! Unbelievable? Visit this magical outpost of the Cheros and you’ll be a believer for life.

For more information, contact

Field Director, Project Tiger, Jail Compound, Betla, P.O. Daltonganj Ph: 06562-222650

Getting there:

By Road: If you are coming from Netarhat, the 120 km drive takes you to Betla via Mahuadanr. While coming from Ranchi, get onto Ratu Road and instead of turning from Kuru to Lohardaga and Netarhat, continue straight on NH-75 via Chandwa and Latehar towards Daltonganj. 10 km before Daltonganj, you take a left from Dubiya More to Betla 15 km away.

By Rail: The tri-weekly Hatia-Delhi Swarna Jayanti Express (8603) runs on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday, stopping at Daltonganj and Barwadih, the nearest railway station, 14 km away. However, it’s easier to get a cab to Betla from Daltonganj (25 km).

Where to Stay

Van Vihar

The JTDC-run hotel is the best place to stay in town and has a variety of a/c, non a/c, deluxe rooms, dormitory and a beautiful tree house. Apart from jungle safaris, guides and  nearby excursions they can also arrange for a pick up and drop from Daltonganj station with prior information. Ph: 06567-226513

Betla Forest Rest House

Located close to Kechki Sangam, the new improved Forest Rest House is located in the vee where the North Koel joins the Auranga. The undoubted advantage is its remote location and scenic view. For booking, contact DFO (Divisional Forest Officer), Wildlife Division, Daltonganj Ph: 06562-222650

BETLA Excursions:

Maromar

Maromar has a Forest Rest House built in 1947 with two canary yellow rooms, but its chief attraction is the Kusumi tree house that was added in 1993. Built around a kusum tree, the twin-roomed wooden structure is accessible by a flight of stairs. The balcony opens out to a forest patch that offers you the luxury of birdwatching without moving a muscle. The forest slopes upward to the Hulukpahad mountain that dominates the landscape. On the far side atop the mountain is a watchtower that affords magnificent views of the forests of Betla. To get there, drive 4 km from Maromar to Bhorbandha, from where the ‘Atthais Turning’ forest road, named after the 28 winding turns, curves upward to the mountain top. Alternately, from Netarhat, you can get there from Daldaliya.

For bookings, contact Chief Conservator of Forests, Daltonganj (South), Forest Division, Daltonganj Ph: 06562-222422. You can also book the FRH at Aksi and Garu from here.

Author: Anurag Mallick. This appeared as a special 20-page supplement in the November 2006 issue of Outlook Traveller magazine.

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3 responses »

  1. I had the privilege of traveling through all the fascinating nature spots described you years ago in the company of my sweetheart who incidentally was also a nature lover like me in my ramshackle Mercury built in 1940. However, things have undergone a sea change in course of the last few years. Hazaribagh National Park has turned into a horrid picnic arena while Betla became a haunt of deadly insurgents that not even spared my good friend and a real friend of the Palamau Tiger Reserve, Mr. S.E.H. Kazmi. Same was true for Saranda where we lost track one night and encountered a tet-a-tet with a wild tusker. Bewitching Netarhat also suffers from the same misfortune where people fear to go and the lovely forest rest house atop the charming Canary Hill is now in ruins.

  2. I happened to read your nice article now and would like to appreciate your efforts in bringing out the beauty of the region.
    About 46 years ago when I was a kid , I remember we had been for a pic nic to a dak bungalow atop a hill at Hindegir, as my father who was in the railways, was posted at Patratu at that time, and later on at Patherdih and Dhanbad. I have faint memories of Barkakana too. From the Hindegir dak bungalow one had a good view of the long , winding railway line upto quite a distance , through the forests and the occasional goods trains carrying coal.

    As I had spent few years of my schooling in Hazaribagh and Ranchi , I am familiar with all these places , the people and their lifestyles.

    Living in Kolkata for the last 30 years, I was recollecting the memories of those beautiful places in your writing.

    The Chhotanagpur belt with its adjoining areas, is uniquely beautiful and so close to our heart !

    Thanks once again.

    B. Pakrashi

    • Thank you for sharing your experiences Mr. Biswajit. Chhotanagpur is indeed a beautiful area. Hoping to do Maluti, Itkhori and Mcluskieganj on our next trip. Do catch our exclusive 9-page feature in Outlook Magazine’s Jharkhand special and the upcoming 3 page feature on rural eco-tourism trails. Cheers, Anurag/Priya

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