Siliguri Again

The River

I landed in Bagdogra airport on the 13th of October at around 3PM. As I stepped out of the airport and walked towards the gate, I was approached by a taxi driver asking if I wanted to share a ride till town for Rs300. Considering it to be a fair deal, I agreed. In the car, there were two other passengers – A young boy from Sikkim and a lady from Siliguri. They and the taxi drivers spoke the Nepali language. We needed one more passenger to start the journey. Our driver went back to find another client. After a while, the passengers began to get irritated by the delay and questioned the driver. He had waited all day and he could not drive back to the city for Rs900. He expected at least Rs1200. So, we were moved to another car, the driver of which agreed to drive us. But luckily for him we found another passenger at the gate.

I was the last one to be dropped at Sevoke More. When I told the driver that I was going to stay at Hotel Saluja, he argued with me that the hotel was not close to the More (Circle). He would not even listen to me when I told him that I have been there before. Finally, we came to a consensus that it was about 150-200 meters from the junction. To me that was an easy walk.  

Siliguri was noisy as ever. Everybody here honks all the time – with or without reason. I checked into my hostel room. During our Goechala trek last year, my friend Divyesh had found this place and it has since become my go-to place in Siliguri. It is descent, fairly clean and affordable. 

I freshened up and took a walk around the city. Several Pandals were being set up for the 10-day Durga pooja that was to begin in two days. 

I also visited the Vega circle mall. Divyesh and I used to often go there for food. By the street, Durga idols were displayed for sale indicating towards a festive season ahead. 

Next morning, I took an early morning walk around the hotel. Siliguri takes me back in time. While, there are developments, the old charm still exists. 

I chanced upon a relatively peaceful place in Siliguri – Surya Sen park. I took a short walk around this small park that appeared to have been unattended to for a long time. 

I then walked towards the river Mahananda. A lot of people had gathered near the river. It took me a while to realise that it was Mahalya Amavasya. On this day, the Hindus offer food and prayers to their ancestors. 

This place was chaotic. There were traffic jams in the narrow streets adjoining the river bank, youngsters carelessly walked taking selfies, men and women were busy taking a dip in the river or performing some complicated rituals.

I continued my walk up to the ghat. Kids from a local school had gathered there in big numbers. They were displaying posters and campaigning to save river Mahananda and the planet. I think this frame displays the contradiction that exists in India. On one side, the children and the teachers are campaigning to save the river and nature, on the other, the elders are performing rituals and offering food to their dead ancestors. 

However, I find the phrases – “Save Earth”, “Save Nature”, “Save River” etc very stupid. The earth has existed even before humans and it will continue to exist even after us. So, We got to save ourselves and not the planet. 

I walked back to my hotel. On the main street, the branches of the trees were being cut for the processions to be held on the last day of Dusshera. The cut branches lay carelessly by the road side, waiting to be picked up eventually. 

I got ready and took a shared taxi to Salugara. My first stop - Salugara monastery. The little monks were busy cleaning the place. A peaceful looking Buddha idol sat inside the main hall.

I negotiated a deal with a tuk-tuk driver to take me to Ewam monastery for Rs100. I must tell you that the people of Siliguri are honest. They do not charge an exuberant price to tourists. The fare might be sometimes Rs10-20 more than usual. Also, if you deny a ride, the rickshaw drivers do not pester you. They let you be, unlike in many major cities in India. I wonder if this has anything to do with the communist background of the state. 

The road to Ewam monastery passes by Bengal safari – A zoo located close to the army camp. Lately, I have started hating the idea of visiting zoos. Watching the wild animals in their natural habitat is one thing, but watching them in a prison (that man smartly calls – Protected environment) for your pleasure is another. 

This Tibetan monastery is huge and is located in the outskirts of the city. At one end of the main hall, there is a Buddha idol in a mediating pose.

I walked to the river that flows behind the monastery. It was an idyllic setup out there. Villagers were taking a herd of cows to graze. They crossed the river one by one as the bells around their neck rang in unison, creating a pleasant music. 

I then took a rickshaw to the main road and another shared taxi to Iskon More. Then, I walked a kilometre to reach the temple. It was time for the Maha pooja (Main prayers). Since it was a holiday, the temple was slightly more crowded than how it was during my visit last year.

It was already lunch time. So, I headed to Charulatha restaurant to try a Benagli thali. Their vegetarian thali is a delight. I particularly loved - Gondhoraj Lebu Fiye Ghol, a tasty welcome drink, Begun Bhaja (Aubergine), Suktoni and the jackfruit sabji

Post lunch, I came back to the hotel and took a nap. In the evening, I headed back to the river. A lot of people had gathered there. On both sides of the bank, several women had assembled. They had lit hundreds of lamps. Few men were seated on a pandal. One by one, they gave speeches. They spoke of the “Mahananda bachao Abyan” (Save Mahananda river initiative) and informed people of how important it was to keep the river clean and allow it to flourish. It was interesting to note that the men spoke in Hindi and not Bengali.

On the other side of the river, some of the locals had arranged the lamp to read – “Pray for Sikkim”. Recently a glacial lake outburst flood had killed several people in the neighbouring state of Sikkim.  

Until the speeches got over, the women waited patiently. They took selfies and asked their husbands or children to take pictures of them holding lamps. Occasionally, a few plastic covers or some other trash came floating along the river. Once they announced the time for arti, everyone stood up. Arti continued for several minutes as they played a bhajan on the speakers. It was time for me to go back to the hotel. I longed for a good sleep after this long eventful day. 

Next morning, I went back to the river bank. There was no one there. The men and women who had applauded the speeches had gone back to their respective homes, leaving behind a lot of trash by the river. The lamps, the flowers, the plastic covers, waited there for someone from a different class of the society to come and clean.

I looked forward to continue my journey in few hours; towards the mountains – Where the rivers originate and are thankfully untouched and unaltered by the most idiotic species on this planet, called humans.