South 24 Parganas is the largest district of the State of West Bengal. It is also among the most difficult to travel in. The river Hoogli is everywhere crisscrossing the district and forming innumerable islands. We decide to visit the southern-most town located on the Bay of Bengal called Bakkhali.
We drive easily from Diamond Harbour up to a place called Namkhana. Our ordeal starts here. It is a river crossing and there is no bridge. Construction of a bridge has just started. The traffic is heavy and to make things difficult for us, one of the two ferries have broken down. They have to manage with one ferry. The que is endless. Calculating the number of vehicles in front of us and the number carried per trip in the ferry and the time taken by the ferry for the round trip I make an estimate of around 3 hours to get to the other side of Hoogly. In the event, my calculations are way off the mark. I had not considered the time taken by the crew for the lunch and the large number of ‘priority’ vehicles like those of the Government departments and the VIPs who are allowed to jump the que. The actual time taken was five and half hours.
Namkhana is the only place where the crossing to the southern part of the district is possible unless you use a boat. The name applies to the land on the both banks of the river. Namkahana Post Office is on the north bank and Namkhana Police Station is on the south side. The place services, by ferries and country boats, not only the Bakkhali but also several other islands including the large Sagar island which is approached from here as well as Kakdwip.
Fishing appears to be a major occupation. We could see some large fishes being hauled from the river.
The ferry crossing points on both sides have sizable local markets. The views are interesting and keep our cameras busy whilst crossing to and from Bakkhali. Here is a selection:
This ancient musical instrument is still in use in this part of the world:
This variety of potato is not required to be cooked. One can eat it raw. It is sweet but is not the Sweet Potato.
These fans are still in use to beat the heat:
So are the earthen cooking pots:
So are the locally made kitchen tools:
Mishti Doi, the sweet curd, sold in the traditional way:
The passenger transport system to and from the river crossing:
Here is a load of stems of Jute plants probably meant for use in the Paan plantation.
Amidst the chaos of the town on both sides of the river, Karl Marx is remembered.
To reach Bakkhali one has to pass through Frasergunj. This town has been named after Andrew Fraser who was the Lt. Governor of Bengal from 1903 to 1908. The beach, among the few in West Bengal stretches from Frasergunj to Bakkhali.
Bakkhali beach is quite popular, being the beach nearest to Kolkata city although not connected by railway like Digha. The beach is extensive and has a forested area not far away.
The Kingfishers feeding on varieties of crabs on the beach is interesting to watch.
This crab species has evolved a colour to match that of the sand on the beach to beat the predating kingfishers.
One can see several islands off the coast in the Bay of Bengal. Inquiries reveal that a few of them can be visited by boat. The boats start from the fishing jetty. It is a well-organized operation and the island most visited is called Jambudwip.
After we reach the island we realize that the deal does not include landing on the island. One can ‘view’ the island from on board the boat and take pictures. Landing, we are informed, is not allowed as the island was found in the past to be harboring a Terrorist training camp.
The visit to the Jambudwip turns out to be a non-event. The boat ride to and fro the island however gives some idea of the hardships faced by the people living by the riversides.
Whilst at Bakkhali we get to see, for the first time for us, the plant called Sundari. This is the plant which gives the name to Sundarbans, the world’s largest mangrove forest shared by India and Bangladesh. The plant it true to its name.
We return to the shore after the island ride and try to explore the areas around Frasergunj. One of the occupations practiced in the area is Prawn Culture. One can see the ponds everywhere. And then there are the local people looking the prawn eggs in the seawater.
It is time for us to return to the mainland and start our journey to the great Sundarbans which is last part of this coastal drive. We then realize that we had missed on something which was part of our ‘things-to-see’ list. It is an old abandoned lighthouse on the banks of Hoogli at a place called Kulpi. Located about 10 Kms from Diamond Harbour. Kulpi was a port during the British rule. Not much is known about the place and much less has survived. The only prominent surviving landmark is the old lighthouse which now is quite far from the river but was probably located closer when built. The area along the river and the parallel road called ‘Military road’ is quite interesting. It probably had some military establishments which explains the name. The stretch is used extensively by brick kilns. One can see a number of them along the river.
One can also see the industrial units across the river, closer to Haldia.
And here is the antique Lighthouse.
Text by Suryakiran Naik
Pictures by Suryakiran Naik & Veena Naik