A personal travel blog by Ms. Reetwika Banerjee
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Bhalki Machan is a well maintained forested area in the borders of Bardhhaman and Birbhum districts of West Bengal. Located around 150 kilometers from Kolkata, Bhalki is a perfect place for weekend leisure trip. It can be reached by train till Paraj (if you are coming from Barddhaman side) or Mankar (if your base location is in Birbhum district) and then by trekker to the forest. But we love long drives. So, keeping aside rail options, we preferred a road trip via Durgapur Expressway and it took us just three hours to reach Abhirampur. Bhalki Machan forest was just ten kilometers from there – a beautiful forest drive.
Driving Through Bhalki Machan Forest
Years back, Bhalki Machan used to be one of the beloved bear hunting spots of erstwhile Zamindars. The rich men had earthed out a huge man-made lake inside the pristine forest to attract wild animals, especially bears looking for drinking water. Five giant watchtowers were constructed surrounding it to keep a constant watch on them from top – four facing the geographical directions and a central tower in the heart of the forest, thus receiving such an interesting name for the place – Bhalki (‘Bhaluk’ meaning Bear in native language) and Machan (meaning a Watchtower).
Five giant watchtowers for Bear hunting
Lake near Bhalki Machan watchtowers
We started early by 8am in the morning. In fact, we were in a classically rejoicing mood to drive through the rustic roads. Durgapur Expressway is perhaps the best of all National Highways dissecting the state of Bengal. Hardly in an hour’s continuous drive on fifth gear, we had traversed two-third of the distance. And thanks to modern technologies, there were absolutely no hindrances in picking the first right turn off the expressway, after crossing the thickly populated Galsi bazaar area.
Way to Bhalki Machan : Road from Galsi to Paraj
Road from Paraj to Abhirampur
Till Paraj rail gate crossing, the roads were moderately drivable; but soon after, it vanished in mayhem. A robust SUV was much needed. However, “the charm of unknowns dies if you know what’s ahead of you” is our life’s philosophy and hence we were thoroughly enjoying the unpredictable dusty ride. Alongside the road amidst the paddies, we found flocks of Black Headed Ibis which is a winter visitor to the east Indian belt.
Flocks of Black Headed Ibis
We took our first tea break near Kolkol, a small village once known for its grandeur of past. There was an ancient Shiva temple which is believed to be the residing site of the Pandavas during their absconding phase.
Rustic roads from Kolkol
From the tea vendor, we came to know the story of a haunting bear at Bhalki forest and another neighboring village of lost glory, called Abhirampur. We remembered reading about this place while searching our routes online. It was supposed to be a Y-junction and the forest entry point should be less than ten kilometers from there.
Forest Drive to Bhalki Machan
After arriving at the point of intersection, we were little unsure about the correct lane. The worn-out direction boards added to our confusions. Uncharacteristically, there was nobody to ask for the route. Trusting own memory, we decided to take the road towards left and drove straight through the natural boulevard till we reached our destination.
A beautiful stretch of Khowai
All along the way from Abhirampur, a beautiful stretch of Khowai (dry gorges created by water and wind erosions, typically characterized by the iron rich reddish colour of the riverine soil) accompanied us. The very view of Khowai along the rippling Kopai River floated us to our memories of Shantiniketan tour; one of the most elegant universities of the country which was founded by Nobel Laureate Rabindra Nath Tagore himself. It was this great man who had gracefully named the naturally created picturesque ravines of this belt as Khowai.
Dried canal amidst the Khowai
Other than a few tribal settlements, we did not come across even a single human being ever since we crossed Abhirampur. Suddenly our eyes fell on a dried canal amidst the Khowai. The rusty iron wheels, seemingly lock gates, indicated water must have stopped flowing through it since ages. But there was a clear sign of human footsteps on the soft muddy patches beneath the wheels. Without spearheading much on the incongruity, we continued towards our onward journey.
Aranya Sundari guest house
After a mesmerizing drive through the Bhalki forest, we reached our lodge. However, visitors at times need to obtain a written permission from the forest Range Officer before planning their stay inside the dense woods. No private hotels to stay as such, only a subsidized private guest house named ‘Aranya Sundari’ is there for night stay within the forest. Shabby rooms, Indian toilet and substandard wooden cots characterize the budget lodging. The in-house canteen serves as the only source of food in a radius of fifteen kilometers. Ample parking space was available in front of the hotel; that being one of the best amenities of our stay.
Beautifully maintained forested garden
Our room was on first floor. The premises had a beautifully maintained forested garden surrounding the building and a realistic model of black sloth bear at the entrance enhanced the poetic touch of the place.
Model of black sloth bear at the entrance
It so happened about a century ago that an old ascetic had lost his way through the jungle. Since night was about to fall, he decided to halt for the day amidst the dense cover of emerald tranquility and resume his journey the next morning. It was midwinter time. To prevent himself from the chilly air streams, the old man wrapped a black cloth around him. Close to midnight, his throat choked in sheer thirst. Hearing bubbling echoes of water, he made his way to the lake.
Unfortunately, the gurgling sound created by the ascetic was mistaken for a bear. From above the gigantic watchtowers, the hunting eyes could not differentiate between a human and a sloth bear. The dark colour of his shawl perhaps added to the confusion. In no time, three bullets pierced his heart, killing him on the spot. Listening to a human cry, the hunters realized their fatal mistake. They came running down the towers but it was too late by then. Before dying, the holy man cursed the hunters of ill fate following soon. Since then, folklores became popular surrounding the cursed lake and the forest which even went up to spreading that the old man’s spirit never left the greens and he later came back taking the form of a sloth bear, mysteriously killing anyone visiting the forest at night.
Another school of legends says, the Zamindars used to hide their plundered jewels inside the lake. A secret underpass was constructed from each of these watchtowers to their city palace, stretching almost twenty-five kilometers a side. Only a handful of their faithful men were aware of these furtive treasures and secret pathways leading to the lake. For maintaining privacy, preventing public access inside the forest was very critical for them. To avoid any suspicion, the feudatories themselves had created those stories of haunted bears, thus deterring civic intrusions to a considerable extent.
Today there are remnants of only the red bricked watchtowers which could pass the test of time and stand as testimony to their yesteryear’s royal grandeur. However, numerous untold sagas still stay hidden behind the bricks of these broken observatories.
Nature walk inside Bhalki Machan forest
Lunch was authentic traditional Bengali style served hot and fresh by the canteen staffs. After having our meals, we decided to go for a nature walk inside the forest and also visit the watchtowers on way. The bear hunting spot was hardly hundred meters away from our hotel.
Watchtowers of Bhalki Machan
At first sight, the fortifications appeared very inglorious due to lack of proper maintenance by the governing authorities. Countless shrubs had overgrown the towers since ages and soon they would engulf the remnants too. But every drop of it still pointed to its rich past. Visitors seemed to have littered the place in every possible way – scratching their names, scribbling love messages and so many worthless illustrations had bled the venerable walls over years.
Giant brick red turrets
Remnants of the ancient watchtowers
Five giant brick red turrets stood tall in front, arranged in a rectangular fashion. Their tall crests could hardly be seen against the midday sun. The four corner towers were little thinner and taller while the middle one was much thicker in girth and comparatively shorter in height. The differential arrangement of the ancient game reserve aroused immense curiosity in our minds with no convincing answer yet.
As read in various descriptions of Bhalki Machan, there was a deep well like structure just beneath the central tower, probably a secret escape route of the Zamindars. Though the mouth was covered with a tarnished iron grill, the black waterhole appeared like a sinister, hiding loads of dark stories behind its paltry existence today.
Secret escape route beneath the watchtowers
Even today, some local people believe in the spooky folklores, however with time count of such conservatives are decreasing noticeably. The jungle still has numerous birds, hyenas, wild boars and civets. Sadly, no bears reside anymore.
A relaxing escape from the bustling city life, Bhalki Machan filled our heart with eternal contentment. The tropical climate added a mystic touch to the rain-forest. Hardly any motor vehicles pass through the forest, thus preserving the whistling ecosystem of the region. We would love to come back again to this place in search of true peace and tranquility.