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West Bengal, so near yet so far

Abdullah M. Hasan | December 11, 2018 00:00:00

Firoz Minar, located close to Kadam Rasul Mosque in West Bengal

Cruise vessels are expected to start plying the Guwahati-Dhaka-Kolkata route from March 25 next year following the recent signing of the Inland Water Transit and Trade Protocol in New Delhi. Cruises are costly and are likely to be patronised by the richer sections of peoples of the two countries.

Airline fares have come down somewhat due to the competition among airlines connecting Dhaka with West Bengal's capital Kolkata.

Train travel between the two cities is picking up as related formalities are being done at both ends instead of on Bangladesh-India border, as was done earlier.

But most of the people undertake the journey by road. Kolkata and Shantiniketan are the two places they travel to -- the former for consultation with doctors or for shopping and the latter is a favourite rendezvous of Tagore lovers.

But there are so many other places to visit in West Bengal. Gaur, also known as Lakhnauti and Jannatabad, could be a destination for those who love archaeology.

It is the place where Ikhtiar-ud-din Mohammad bin Bakhtiar Khalji defeated the last Sena ruler in a surprise attack. The city was then on the eastern bank of the Ganges, which now flows away from the ruins of the city.

The finest ruin in Gaur is that of the Great Golden Mosque (Baro Sona Masjid). With twelve doors, it is also called Baro Darwaza. An arched corridor running along the front of the mosque still stands.

The citadel, of the Muslim period, was strongly fortified and could be entered through Dakhil Darwaza, a magnificent gateway. Also known as "Salami Darwaza," a part of it still stands. Inner gateways Chand Darwaza and Nim Darwaza do not exist any more. The royal tombs were nearby.

Within the citadel is the Kadam Rasul mosque, which is still used, and close to it is the Firoz Minar, a tall tower perhaps signifying victory.

Adina Mosque at Hazrat Pandua or Firuzabad, in Malda district of West Bengal, was the largest mosque in medieval times not only in Bengal but also in the whole of the subcontinent.

Covering an area of three aisles depth, on the northern side of the nave and adjacent to the qibla wall, with seven heavy columns at a row, is an upper storey stone platform. This is likely to be the royal gallery (maqsura), where the sultan and his entourage prayed.

Traces of intricate mina work in blue, green, yellow, violet and white on the enamelled bricks lining the outer and inner walls of Lattan Mosque are still visible. The splendour of colours has also led to the mosque being called the Painted Mosque. Another interesting feature of this mosque is its arched roof, supported by octagonal pillars.

During the 13th-14th centuries, Bengal's rulers maintained a certain independence from the rulers in Delhi. It was also the period of founding of the Bengali language and the Bengali identity. The Iliyas Shah dynasty ruling from Gaur played a big role in that development, historians say.

Plassey, locally called Palashi, is the place where the troops of British East India Company -- joining hands with Mir Jafar Ali Khan -- defeated Nawab Siraj Ud Daulah, the last independent ruler of Bengal on June 23, 1757. From that the name Mir Jafar has become synonymous with betrayal.

A gold coloured statue of Nawab Siraj Ud Daulah lies next to the Palashi Monument. Memorials to the fallen generals and soldiers mark the ground where the battle was fought, specially of Bakshi Mir Madan, chief of Nawab's artillery, Bahadur Ali Khan, commander of musketeers, and Nauwe Singh Hazari, captain of artillery.

Murshidabad is another place not to be missed. Named after Nawab Murshid Quli Khan, it was famous for its silk. Katra Masjid - built by Nawab Murshid Quli Khan, Hazarduari Palace and Nizamat Imambara can be worth a visit. Hazarduari Palace is the biggest "site museum" of Archaeological Survey of India.

Jora Masjid -- twin mosques -- in Midnapore are two mosques built side by side with white marble.

There are several mosques in Kolkata. Nakhoda Masjid in Kolkata has the capacity to accommodate 10,000 devotees (musallies) at a time, while the mosque built by Prince Ghulam Muhammad, youngest son of Tipu Sultan, has a capacity for 1,000 devotees.

Not to be missed, too, is Asansol, Paschim Bardhaman district where National Poet Kazi Nazrul Islam was born on May 24, 1899.

At Karnasubarna, about 10 kilometres from Berhampore, lies the ruins of 7th century king Shashanka's capital.

Kolkata is full of different attractions. Besides, experts say, Kolkata has one of the four "adi" Shaktipeethas. Among the other Shaktipeethas, some are located in West Bengal, they say.

The notable Hindu temples include Kalighat Kali Temple, Tarapith, Belur Math, Mayapur ISKCON Temple, Hangseshwari Temple, Tarakeshwar Temple, Thakurnagar Thakur Bari Temple and Dakshineswar Kali Temple.

Mayapur is a popular pilgrimage place for the followers of Vaishnavism. They believe that Lord Krishna's incarnate Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu was born here.

Bishnupur is famous for its terracotta temples.

Other pilgrim destinations include Gurdwaras for Sikhs and churches like the Basilica of the Holy Rosary in Bandel, St John's Church, St James' Church, St Paul's Cathedral and Church of the Lord Jesus.

Buddhist monasteries in West Bengal are located in the hilly regions like Ghoom monastery, Bhutia Busty Monastery, Mag-Dhog Yolmowa Monastery, Tharpa Choling Monastery, Zang Dhok Palri Phodang.

Siliguri is a tiny hill station nestled between the Himalayan foothills and the Dooar region of West Bengal. Known as the Gateway to North East India, Siliguri serves mainly as a base for tourists to camp in before moving out to explore nearby tourist attractions including Darjeeling.

The Jaldapara National Park, situated on the banks of the Torsa river is a prime attraction of Siliguri. Earlier known as the Jaldapara Wildlife Sanctuary, the park is spread over an area of around 215 kilometres, and comprises riverine forests as well as grasslands.

The park is famous for its impressive population of Royal Bengal Tigers, elephants, one-horned rhinoceros, and various other species of deer.

Another wildlife park that nature lovers should consider visiting is the North Bengal Wild Animals Park. This park is an integral part of the Mahanadi Wildlife Sanctuary and spread out over an area of 300 hectares, this park contains a wide variety of flora and fauna.

When visiting Siliguri, a close-by tourist attraction that most people visit is Mirik. Around 50 kilometres from Siliguri, Mirik is famed for its picturesque beauty, its pristine Sumedu Lake, and its monastery.

Not to be missed is the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway (DHR) or Toy Train. It is a two-feet (610 mm) narrow-gauge railway based on zig zag and loop-line technology which runs between New Jalpaiguri and Darjeeling.

The West Bengal tourism authority allows visitors into their portion of the Sundarbans biosphere. They control the number of tourists going into the largest mangrove forest strictly. In Bangladesh's portion of the Sundarbans, boatloads of picnickers blaring music on loudspeakers are not only allowed but also cargo vessels are allowed to ply through its channels.

West Bengal tourism department changed its brand identity from 'Beautiful Bengal' to 'Experience Bengal', with the tagline 'The Sweetest Part of India' in 2015 and in 2016 its government announced West Bengal Tourism Policy.

West Bengal plans to increase the availability of branded hotel accommodation rooms in West Bengal to 10,000 by 2020. The policy says investment will be encouraged in different segments of tourism like wellness tourism, adventure tourism, medical tourism, sports tourism (IPL, ISL), eco-tourism, rural tourism, specially through homestay, and business tourism through increasing MICE (meetings, incentives, conferences, and exhibitions) venues.

At Monchasa eco-resort, not far from Kolkata, visitors love to stay at cottages made from straw, bamboo, palm and "hogla" leaves. Though there is a generator, tourists prefer use of solar panels installed there. The beds are made of bamboo as are the tables.

The food served is Bengali food with vegetables cultivated organically. There is a traditional boat in the water body nearby which the tourists love to ride.

The West Bengal tourism authority is improving wayside amenities, set up tourist facilitation centres, craft outlets at airports, major railway and road hubs - providing incentives to those who set these up; as well as motivating hotels to improve waste disposal system.

They are providing skill-based vocation courses to youths to encourage them to take up this sector as their preferred career.

Recognising the potential of tourists from China they are trying to develop an adequate number of Chinese speaking guides.

The point in mentioning West Bengal's tourism policy is why the tourism policymakers and stakeholders of Bangladesh are failing to capitalise on the archaeological, natural and diverse other attractions that Bangladesh has.

The tour operators of Bangladesh and West Bengal attend each other's tourism fairs in Dhaka and Kolkata to promote their products, but it is time they spread to towns in Bangladesh and West Bengal and tell people about attractions on both sides of the border.

Coming back to Benapole, it is through this land port that most of the travellers enter India or Indians come to Bangladesh. The condition of Benapole needs real improvement, not to talk of facilities at other land ports.

At present all the passengers, be they sick, elderly, have to disembark from buses at Benapole, get immigration and customs formalities done on Bangladesh side, cross the gate on foot and complete the same procedure on the other side of the border, before boarding the buses again.

During the rainy season the travellers as well as their belongings get wet, and during summer they have to perspire. There are no ambulances on either side of Benapole nor are any clinics/hospitals located nearby.

There is a project to automate freight handling, but it is not known whether the project has a passenger component.

An integrated terminal needs to be built so that the travellers would be able to get down under a canopy, get their formalities done in air-conditioned comfort and go into each other's territory passing through a glass door.

Given the number of travellers using the land port, perhaps time has come to construct such a terminal, at least at Benapole.

The writer is News Editor of The Financial Express.


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