Bishnupur to spruce up for world heritage status

10 Sep 2015,Hindustan Times (Kolkata)

The Bankura administration is seeking the help of the state tourism and archaeological departments to ensure that Bishnupur finds a place on the world heritage sites’ map. Besides repairing the roads and the drainage system, the administration is also planning to beautify the heritage town.

Bishnupur is famous for its terracotta temples which were constructed in the 17th and 18th centuries.

“There are many temples with terracotta artwork, constructed during the reign of the Malla dynasty, which are an attraction not just for the residents of other states but also for tourists from foreign countries. We want the heritage town to get a place on the world heritage sites’ map. A team will visit the district this week,” Arup Chakraborty, the sabhadhipati of Bankura Zilla Parishad, told Hindustan Times.

He added that they would try to beautify the town and repair the roads and drainage system.

Sources in the district administration said that Bishnupur, which is about 150 km from Kolkata, is famous for its terracotta temples which were constructed in the 17th and 18th centuries. But it is a small and unplanned town. The administration and the tourism department are now planning to develop the town and its outskirts so that it could be declared a heritage city.

Bishnupur is also famous for its Baluchari sari and music.

The state government had also sent a proposal to the Centre recommending that the town be declared a heritage city.

“With support from the state tourism and urban development departments, we are planning a massive integrated project to develop infrastructure such as improved road connectivity, museums, parks, hotels and so on so that more tourists from other countries come here,” said Shyam Mukherjee, textiles minister and the chairman of Bishnupur municipality.

Sources said the Archaeological Survey of India has also extended its helping hand in the project so that Bishnupur can find a place in the world heritage sites’ map. There are also plans to ensure that important sculptures and places like Rashmancha can be located on Google’s maps so that tourists can get a ‘virtual tour’.

The administration also said that as the temples and sculptures are located in a 2 square kilometre area, they would arrange for eco-friendly vehicles so that the tourists aren’t inconvenienced.

“As many of the sculptures and artwork are more than 200 years old, we hope that the administration and the tourism department will make necessary arrangements to protect them. Also, we request them to take necessary steps so that people learn about Bishnupur’s music. We also want to popularise the dashabatar card which was designed during the rule of the Malla dynasty,” said Arabinda Chatterjee, a professor of Bankura Christian College and a researcher on the district. 

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CHASING ELEPHANTS - In The Hula Hoop 

 Sep 12 2015 : The Times of India (Kolkata)

For countless villagers in south Bengal, elephant intrusion is an everyday concern, a price they pay for straying into the otherwise peace-loving jumbos' territory.

Avik Das walks through the forest with a special `hula' team to drive away a herd in Bankura and comes face-to-face with a tusker... and lives to tell a thrilling tale 

The tusker stands before us, about the length of a cricket pitch away, observing us silently ... a fuming, angry fast bowler daring us to step out of the crease and try our best shot.About 3000kg of pure muscle, he is partly hidden in dense foliage. Behind him stands the rest of the herd, whom we can neither see nor hear. But they are hearing every breath we take, seeing every move we make.

It's a moment of pure terror.

And, to think, just about three and a half hours ago, I was worried about my sneakers getting dirty .

Three hours ago, I am standing among 20 village youths as Sonamukhi forest ranger Subhash Sarkar assigns them the task of driving away a herd of 30 elephants. Rameshwar Hansda, a former hula party (see box on extreme right) leader whose legs were crushed by an elephant last year, instructs them on how to go about it. The team gets on to the job right away . No ceremonious farewell, no goodbyes. I follow silently .

I face a hurdle with the very first step.My comrades jump into a paddy field. The forest starts from the other side. I'm wearing sneakers, and I don't know what to do.Should I take them off ? I look up as I ponder over my shoes. The team is already on the other side. No time to think, I jump into the mud. By the time I catch up with them, they have stopped at the forest periphery. What for, I wonder. As I inch closer, I am handed two crackers. “Keep them for safety . But don't use them unless you are told to.“ I have been warned.

I enter the forest, hula in one hand, a camera in the other. The real adventure begins now. I realize that it's an “adventure“ to me, but a matter of survival for the others. These people are not trained hula party members. They are mostly farmers, who have acquired the skills to save their home and hearth, their crop...and their lives. We walk past a narrow hillock -a waterbody on one side and dense, prickly shrubbery on the other. Almost impenetrable woods follow. It seems that trees like Sal, Kurchi, Ashon, Bohora have put up a natural barrier. I look up. Things are not looking bright. Thick clouds have shrouded the entire area.

We trudge for about 1.5km, but there's no sign of the herd. The team members are trying to guess where it could have headed, by reading forest signs -broken branches, footprints, scat... but with no luck. Some, including me, are growing restless. I am also seized by sudden panic: What if a jumbo pulls me with its trunk?

I can't even see clearly even a foot away on either side, and I can feel an incipient terror. Is the team carrying a tranquillizer?

“Stop!“ warns Netai Mohanto, the hula leader. “Can you hear something?“ “Hati?“ I wonder aloud. But no, it's something much, much smaller.

“Can't you hear the hissing sound?

There must be a snake around. Don't move.“ Netai-da and his team look around as I turn pale. “Walk very slowly ,“ he orders. Barely a few feet in front, a snake slithers away . I decide it's safest to follow Netai-da for the rest of the day .

Another 20 minutes pass, but there are no elephants to be found. But the team seems upbeat. We reach a crossroads, and the team stops for a while. “We'll reach Masterdanga if we go straight. The left track goes to Dhartidanga and you reach Rani if you go right,“ Aashish Mondal guides me. “We go right,“ Netai-da decides.

The forest starts looking different.Vegetation is sparse here, and I can see at least 200 metres on all sides. Suddenly, I hear a low rumbling noise. “Did you hear that, Netai-da?“ I ask. “That's not what you think it is. It's the sound of thunder,“ he replies, dousing my enthusiasm. Even the team members start looking confused. We have been walking a long time, and many are tired. “We are going the wrong way ,“ Sudan Ghosh says.Some sit down, panting. A few light biris.Netai-da walks alone towards Rani. The rest talk in a dialect I can't understand. I stand clueless, wondering what to do, when Netai-da emerges from the bushes.“Kota edike gechhe, kota odike gechhe (Some elephants have gone this way , some the other way). Let's go towards Anantapati,“ he says, and starts walking back.

Team members start tracing the herd route in their own unique way. We get scattered in the process. I stick to Netaida, but it is tough to keep up with him. At times, I am left all by myself.

“Periye gechhe (They have crossed),“ someone says with conviction from some where. We backtrack again, this time towards Dhatkidanga. I look at my watch.It's 2.30pm, two-and-a-half hours since we left Inkata village. Will I be lucky enough to trace the herd?

“Stay closer. See that,“ Jogin Koura points at something. I see elephant droppings, the nearest that we have come to a real elephant so far. The team paces faster. I stumble, huff and puff, but manage to match step. “We don't think you are cut out for a hula drive,“ Bidyut Ghosh had said (and others agreed) at the start. That actually spurs me to keep going.

We reach Thamura Bottol in another 30 minutes. There's a giant banyan tree with a relatively open space all around.It seems it is a meeting place of sorts in the middle of the jungle. The enthusiasm suddenly evaporates. What happened?

“This is the place where we always find at least one elephant. I don't know why there isn't any today ,“ Sudan explains. We take a break. We will now return to Inkata, it is decided. My heart sinks.

My watch already shows 3.15pm. We get on to the last lap of the drive. “Stop!“ Netai-da jumps up. “Tusker-er gondho lagche (I smell a tusker). It should be towards Dhatkidanga. No. We came from that side. Then, it must be...“

A spine-chilling noise breaks the silence of dusk in the forest. Another follows. Yet another. “The herd has sensed our presence. Make it fast,“ Netai-da commands. “They are not more than 200 metres away . Don't let them move towards the village,“ Netai-da orders.

“Light the hulas,“ says Ajoy Kaura.Then, there are scattered instructions. In the excitement of the moment, it's impossible to know who's issuing them.

“Ten of you go that way .“

“The herd might make a U-turn; don't go too close.“

“Where are the crackers? Keep them handy .“

And, suddenly , I am running. I am with Netai-da's group, to the herd's right. I can see trees break. I can hear trumpeting, shrubs being crushed. But it's so dense that the herd is still not visible. “Oooo! Hui! Hoo! Haat!“ the forest fills up with loud shrieks of the team. I pant, fall back. “Run! Run for your life. If they return, we'll be pulped,“ Netai-da holds my hand and shouts. I start running. I trip, Jogin-da pulls me up. I continue running. My body protests, but I don't stop. Then we come to a halt as suddenly as we had started to run.

Silence has once again engulfed the forest. There's no sound from the other team. Nobody in our team has a clue as to where they are. “The herd has not backtracked. They won't go straight as there is an electrified fence just ahead. They have not charged towards us. That leaves them with just one direction....“ Just as Netai-da makes out the direction in which the herd has gone, I hear the sound of crackers going off. It's the other team.“Run. Keep to your left,“ Netai-da starts running even before others could react. I understand that the herd has charged towards the other team. I start running.

Five hundred metres ahead, we meet Bidyut-da, leader of the other team. “The herd charged towards us. They swerved left as we burst crackers. But there are 10-12 elephants, not as many as we thought,“ he says.

“So they entered the Rani area?“ Netai-da asks.

“I think so.“

“Let's go.“

We team up and head towards Rani.Another kilometre takes us to the herd.There it is, the tusker. Standing tall and quiet. “The herd is behind him,“ Netai-da says. “The hula party of Rani will take over. We return from here.“

As the intruders push back to the forest, we prepare to return. Daylight starts to fade as we walk back to Inkata. There's a sense of accomplishment, and I can't thank the team enough for letting me tag along.

A big adventure for me, a “small matter“ of cheating death for the others.