We woke up in Cooch Behar to a kind of dream. The British Raj has been history for seventy years. The homonymous Principesque State, its rajas and maharajas are two less. The battalion of majestic and red buildings that welcomed them for centuries remains detached from the overcrowded and frenzied chaos of the district to which the Principality was demoted.
The Circuit House we had spent the night in, now one of the many inns run by the Indian government, was part of it. We leave at nine in the morning, after a breakfast that the hosts strive to prepare as Western as possible – consisting of tea, coffee garnished with toast and biscuits style “Maria” – and serve us in the bedroom.
We got into the car. We salute Raney. The Gurkha driver pulls out into the road turmoil that had seized the city a few hours earlier.
A Journey through the former Kingdom of Cooch Behar
Inaugurates your day of honking, swerving and forced squeezes from rival drivers that allow you to flow in the exuberant flurry of Tata and Ashok Leyland folk trucks, the countless mini-cars that have replaced the old pedestrian Ambassadors, motorized rickshaws and pedals. From carts drawn by cows and wandering cows, something more sacred than the motives.
Twenty minutes later, we sighted the target of the early morning trip. We pass a rickshaw square wala (those powered by cyclists) and an even greater streak of street businesses. Unexpectedly, to the left of this confusion, an elegant fence does little or nothing to disturb the far-off and gaudy view of Cooch Behar's palace.
We left the car, to the astonishment and delight of the passersby who walked there, not very used to the presence of foreigners in those parts of the subcontinent less famous than so many others.
We point to a lacy portico, fixed to two red, yellow and white columns. Includes capitals crowned by statues of the elephant and lion duo, an Indian symbol of royalty. Once the ticket office bureaucracy has been resolved, we make our way to the long lane that leads to the monument, pursued by the first families of national tourists who used to take advantage of the sabbatical break in a way of cultural delight.
At the entrance to the palace itself, an anticipated group of visitors would perform a ritual centered on sharing an esoteric chant. We watched the ceremony close. Then we followed them into the court.
Authorities prohibit photography inside the palace. Thus, we focus on enriching our imaginations of what the lofty and sumptuous life of its owners must have been.
Cooch Behar's Political and Diplomatic Resilience
The state of Cooch Behar originated almost a century after Vasco da Gama arrived at Calicut. From 1680 to 1772, he was beset by the unexpected expansionism of the Kingdom of Bhutan, supported by Tibetan forces. Fearful of new and more powerful incursions from the Himalayas, Cooch Behar's court took the radical step of calling for British intervention.
Since 1600, the British East India Company has spread its domain in the India. At the turn of the XNUMXth century, it was already feared. Dharendra Narayan, the then Maharaja of Cooch Behar, agreed to pay him a tribute to drive the Bhutanese to their usual territory on the slopes of the Himalayas.
The British sent a regiment from Calcutta who joined Cooch's army. After a series of clashes, this coalition triumphed. The British refused to pursue the Bhutanese across the troubled terrain of the Himalayas above. They preferred to leave a garrison at Behar and declare the Princely State of Cooch Behar a subject. This unwanted submission would haunt Dharendra Narayan for the rest of his life.
In this period, the British East India Company was replaced by the direct administration of the British government, the British Raj who established Calcutta as the main entrepot. Though tiny, the Princely State of Cooch Behar was situated just a short distance from the capital.
The Palace demoted by the Indian Union
Over the years, the intense contact of the royalty of Maharajas, Maranis, descendants and relatives with the universe of settlers dictated their westernization, an unlikely prominence in the British social sphere of India, shortly thereafter, in London, Oxford, Cambridge and different cities of Old Anglia and continental Europe.
We toured the palace's airy and refined rooms and halls, attentive to photographs and other records and artefacts that attested to the social, cultural and even ethnic duplicity, to the sophistication and luxury in which the successive dynasties and courts of Cooch Behar prospered until, in 1949 , when the British handed over their Crown Jewel, the state agreed to join the India, part of the province of West Bengal.
Not all subjects were or feel satisfied with the new demotion. An association with the acronym GCPA (The Greater Cooch Behar People Association) is supported by Ananta Rai, the rajless Maharaja of Cooch Behar. GCPA gained notoriety around 2005.
It gained ascendancy around the demand for a new homonymous territory much wider than the current one and with a degree of autonomy C (from A to D, with A's being the main States of India). Or, alternatively, an Indian Union Territory such as Delhi or Daman and Diu, which is politically distinct from the state of Gujarat that surrounds it.
A few days later, in loco, we learned that the land of the famous tea had emerged from a three-month period of strikes and protests over the demand to abandon the province of West Bengal itself and to create a Ghurkaland state that better represented the ethnicity. predominant Ghurka.
Travel through the foothills of the Indian Himalayas
We leave Cooch Behar to his strife and nostalgia for real times. We aim to the north and the Himalayas. That same afternoon, we crossed the jungle of PN Bruxa, notorious for its resident tigers, and reached the Jayanti River.
Instead of a real stream, we are faced with a vast sea of white pebbles furrowed by small streams. Several Indian families enjoy contemplating the extraterrestrial scene and refreshing their feet in fluid puddles. Raney can get us a better program. "Sir, madam: eat. I got us a jeep, there's a waterfall you have to see!"
In front of the river sample, the suggestion of a waterfall leaves us standing back, but with nothing to lose, we welcome his enthusiasm and climb aboard the little Maruti Gypsi. A local guide leads us upriver, subject to several stream crossings of the Jayanti.
Even the sea of stones funnels into a canyon in the lower Himalayas. "Do you see that stain from the debacle?" asks us Raney. From there it's Bhutan. Shall we go there?”
Once again, it took us a while to take him seriously. Among what we knew of Bhutan was that it had invaded and worried the former rival kingdom of Cooch Behar for years. And that, at present, it charged almost all foreigners more than two hundred euros for each day of discovery of its territory.
A Brief Incursion into the Kingdom of Bhutan
In jest, a little apprehensively, we warned Raney that if there was a problem, he would be responsible for the expense. We continued to follow him, the guide and a platoon of Indians who knew in advance that, like the Nepalese, they could cross the border free of charge.
We crossed the already more dignified Jayanti by a log bridge. On the opposite bank, we officially step into Bhutan. And we are blessed by a Hindu hermit who had installed his home and sanctuary on a lush slab of hillside. The waterfall proved even more commonplace than we expected.
In any case, from that moment on, we could say that we had been in mysterious Bhutan. All in all, the feat was extraordinary.
From Jayanti, we travel west. We cross the Torsha, another of the rivers that irrigate the Dooars. We enter the PN Jaldapara where we sleep and get up early to participate in one of the elephant safaris, taking place from five to nine in the morning, along trails in the local jungle.
From the top of the tamed pachyderm we spot peacocks, wild boar, buffalo, sambar deer and the park's star creature, the peculiar unicorn rhinoceros native to the subcontinent that, against all odds, the authorities of the India and Nepal they managed to proliferate from 1900 in the early 90s to 3550 in 2015.
The Dammed Lake of Gajoldoba, a Pseudo-Ecological Trump of Dooars
In the late morning, we proceeded towards the western threshold of West Bengal. Once again, on this stretch, another river stops us. We reach Gajoldoba and the bridge formed by the extension of the Teesta dam crest.
We snake through an Indian crowd engaged in exuberant weekend get-togethers.
From there, to the north, almost to the base of the ubiquitous supreme mountain range, stretches a prolific lake dotted with floating vegetation.
It is a resting place and habitat for dozens of species of migratory birds: ducks, larks, plovers, loons, herons, storks, harriers, among many others. A real delight for the most obsessed bird watchers.
The Calcutta-based authorities have an ecotourism project for West Bengal in the pipeline. His chief minister named him “morning glow” in an allusion to the intense reflection generated by the little stirred waters and which, even at that late hour, against the setting sun, we had difficulty confronting.
We couldn't wait for the next day, let alone for the project to be completed. Accordingly, we boarded one of the wooden boats powered by local gondoliers and set sail immediately.
At this hour, just us, another pair of wildlife photographers, and three fishermen were plying the huge lake and disturbing the peace of the countless roasted specimens.
The tour was an invigorating escape for us. To the dismay of the boatman, we extended it until sunset was golden and then rose that mirrored setting of Dooars, the fascinating Indian gateway to the Himalayas.
The authors would like to thank the following entities for supporting this article: Embassy of India in Lisbon; Ministry of Tourism, Government of India; Department of Tourism, Government of West Bengal.