Cooch Behar

Distance from Kolkata: 779 km
Driving time: 18 hours
Road Trip: 5-6 days

In a recent route survey, Team WHEELS drove to six tourist destinations from Kolkata including Cooch Behar in North Bengal. In this issue, Team WHEELS explores another royal treasure of the state

Route Description: To reach Cooch Behar, you have to first travel to Siliguri from Kolkata by the recently renovated NH-34 followed by NH-31. From Siliguri, there are two routes to Cooch Behar – the first one via Dooars and the second one through Jalpaiguri.We preferred the first one which goes through NH-31 and NH-31C passing through Sevoke and the beautiful Dooars–Malbazar, Chalsa and Jaldapara.

The second route from Siliguri is via Jalpaiguri and Falakata. Although the second route is shorter, it loses on the scenic beauty and remains congested due to heavy traffic and bad road condition.

Now the details of the first route; turn right from VIP Road at the intersection with Jessore Road (adjacent to Kolkata airport) and proceed straight to Barasat. From Barasat just follow the NH-34 which goes straight through Krishnanagar (101 km), Baharampore/Murshidabad (191 km), Farakka Barrage (292 km), Malda (326 km), Raiganj (406 km) and Dalkhola (451 km). At Dalkhola, hit a ‘T’ junction with NH-31 coming from Bihar on the left. Turn right from Dalkhola (interestingly, the first right after Kolkata’s VIP Road) and get into NH-31 – a 6-lane expressway going straight to Bagdogra (574 km) followed by Siliguri (588 km).

From Siliguri, follow the same NH-31 and proceed towards Coronation Bridge. Once you cross the bridge, turn right to enter the Dooars region. Keep on following NH-31 passing through Damdim, Odlabari, Malbazar to reach Chalsa Morh. NH-31 turns right from Chalsa Morh towards Gorumara but you have to continue straight towards Jaldapara (66 km) from Chalsa Morh. NH-31 after Chalsa Morh becomes NH-31C and continues straight through Nagrakata, Banarhat, Binnaguri, Birpara to pass through Jaldapara (locally called Madarihat) with just one left turn at Telipara ‘T’ junction – 24 km after Chalsa Morh.

Cooch Behar from Jaldapara has two routes. The first one is through the forests of Chilapata and the second one is via Falakata. We prefered the first one.

For the first route, proceed towards Hashimara from Jaldapara by the NH-31C. At the Gurudwara/BSF camp at Hashimara – NH-31C has a ‘Y’ fork. NH-31C on left goes to Alipurdur and the right – a narrower Cooch Behar Road goes through the Chilapata forest to Cooch Behar. The scenic beauty while traversing through the zigzagging road across Chilapata is awe-inspiring. It is adventurous too, passing through the dense forest cover on sides, incessant cricket calls and very few passer-byes. We pulled up for a while, got out of our car just to soak in the ambience and enjoy a one on one moment with nature. However, it is not advisable to opt for this road after sun down.

The forest will abruptly open into tea gardens. The road thereafter, goes through green paddy fields and villages leading ultimately to Cooch Behar. For further details, follow the route map surveyed by Team WHEELS – given in the following pages to reach the palace of Koch kings.

Road Condition
In April 2014, the road condition from Kolkata to Baharampore (Murshidabad) through the NH-34 was quite satisfactory with all the required patch works done, offering normal driving comfort. After Baharampore, once you cross the bridge over River Bhagirathi, you enter a brand new 6-lane expressway stretching for 88 km almost up to Farakka Barrage. You can cruise through this modern expressway which has wide medians, proper lane markings, overhead traffic signage and solar traffic signals. Fly through this expressway to once again meander through an average road leading to Farakka Barrage. Cross over the bridge to enter the renovated NH-34 once again to reach Kaliachowk. The road and traffic condition deteriorates here after and continues up to Malda town. (NH-34 will be actually bypassing Kaliachowk and Malda town after full completion and hence the stretch has not been renovated).

For night halt, we advise you to stay at Malda (or Raiganj). Malda Tourist Lodge under West Bengal Tourism is a convenient location at Rathbari Morh which offers all standard amenities.

Presently, several road diversions connecting the renovated highway, on and off, have to be carefully negotiated.

After Malda, the NH-34, up to Dalkhola via Raiganj offers quite a smooth rode. Dalkhola is perennially busy with rough road condition and a railway crossing lying across the main town thereby creating heavy traffic congestion. After crossing the railway tracks, continue a little before taking a right turn into NH-31 from NH-34 immediately after passing below a flyover in Dalkhola. NH-31 is an old 6-lane expressway with a fair surface condition for most of the way. After Islampur, it’s butter-smooth upto Siliguri via Bagdogra.

After Siliguri, the highway from Sevoke passes through a beautiful stretch through the cantonment and forest area. Then it crosses the Coronation Bridge over River Teesta to enter Dooars. From there, initially the road goes through hilly undulations for a few kilometers with several twists and turns.

In Dooars, the NH-31 runs along River Teesta on one side and verdant greenery – mostly tea gardens, on the other. Here, the road condition is at its best with a silk-smooth surface devoid of any inclination. This part, by-and-large, is the most pleasant to drive in the whole route continuing upto Jaldapara. After Hashimara, the road condition is moderate passing through Chilapata forest followed by small villages.

Cooch Behar
Cooch Behar, a modest district and town in North Bengal, used to be the seat of royalty. Even a few years before independence, the princes loitered across beautiful marble floors as the servants wearing heavy silver insignia waited on them. The grandeur of the Cooch Behar’s reigning Narayan-Koch Kings lasted till India’s independence in 1947 when the princely states were merged with the Indian Union and the zamindari system got abolished soon after.

It’s easy to explore the town since it was originally planned with the roads intersecting each other at right angles. This neat little imperial legacy has architectural splendours scattered all over, interceded by 22 massive tanks.

Deep red brick structures highlighted by pale arches, cornices and Corinthian columns lay all over, particularly around Sagar Dighi – a massive rectangular pond that marks the town’s epicenter. A cluster of restored colonial structures form the hub of the city’s administrative block around Sagar Dighi.

Home to peace-loving, friendly people known for their scholarly and artistic pursuits, it has a noticeably high number of music, dance and academic institution. Spiritualism evidently overflows with a large number of temples dotting the town too – almost one on every road. The burnt red bricked colonial structures punctuated by the temples painted in stark white are striking.

Biswa Singha Road (BS Road) runs north-south, cutting Cooch Behar town through the middle. If you draw a straight line from Sagar Dighi to the East, you will arrive at Madan Mohan Temple on BS Road. The major hotels and shops are located along the ‘L’ formed by BS Road and Rupnarayan Road, which leads towards the private taxi stand and old bus terminus in the east. A clock tower stands at the centre of the city.

The history of Cooch Behar has roots in Assam. In early times, the territory was known as Pragjyotisha – mentioned in the Ramayana and Mahabharata. Later, the western part of Pragjyotisha came to be known as Kamarupa. Kamarupa remained under the sovereignty of the Guptas and Palas for some time. Here after, it was conquered by the Muslim army in 1498 AD which could not keep it for long. After the defeat of the Muslim army, there was anarchy in the region. During that period, the Koch kings came to the forefront.

King Viswasimha assumed the title of Kamteshwar. He died in about 1533 and was succeeded by his second son Naranarayan, who was also known as Malla Narayan following a civil war with Nar Singh who fled to Morung and then to Bhutan. Narnarayan died in 1584 and was succeeded by his son Lakshmi Narayan. After a series of other rulers during the reign of Modnarayan the influence of Bhutan on Cooch Behar began. He died in 1680 without a male heir. Bhutiyas became king makers. In 1765 Dhairyendra Narayan was placed on throne. The influence of the Bhutias had by then increased so much that an officer of Bhutan was permanently stationed at Cooch Behar with an army. In later years Dhairyendra Narayan was kept confined in Bhutan. His son Dharendra Narayan was installed on the throne. The East India Company was watching with concern the growing power of Bhutias close to their borders. An appeal for help by Nazir led to the treaty between the young Maharaja Dharendra Narayan and the East India Company in 1773. Thereafter, peace was concluded between Bhutan and East India Company on April 25, 1774. Consequently, Dhairyendra Narayan was released from captivity. The modern phase of Cooch Behar began when only one year-old Nripendra Narayan ascended the throne in 1863. Since he was a minor, the administration was run by a Commissioner, Colonel J.C. Haughton, appointed by the English Governor. During this regime, the administration of Cooch Behar entered into a modern phase.

During the regime of Nripendra Narayan the town developed its own power house for generation of electricity which can still be seen. Water supply began during this era. Roads were planned and laid crisscrossing one another at right angles with water tanks dug up to beautify the town.

On March 6, 1878, Maharaja Nripendra Narayan was married to Sunity Devi, daughter of Keshab Chandra Sen, the Brahma reformer. In 1887, the construction of the new palace was completed. Maharaja Nripendra Narayan died in 1911 and was succeeded by his eldest son Raja Rajendra Narayan. He died in 1913 and was succeeded by his brother Jitendra Narayan who married Indira Devi, daughter of Gaekwad of Baroda. He died in 1921 and was succeeded by his minor son Jagaddipendra Narayan in 1922. He was the last Maharaja of the Cooch Behar.

Here after, the Instrument of Accession was signed by Jagaddipendra Narayan and as a result Cooch Behar joined the Indian Union. The transfer of administration to the Government of India took place on September 12,1949. Cooch Behar was merged with West Bengal on 1st January 1950. Since then, Cooch Behar is a district of West Bengal.

Gayatri Devi (1919 − 2009), wife of HH Maharaja Sawai Man Singh II and Maharani of  Jaipur who was included by the Vogue magazine in its list of ten most beautiful women in the world, also belonged to this Koch dynasty and was the daughter of Jitendra Narayan of Cooch Behar.

Cooch Behar Royal Palace
The biggest attraction of Cooch Behar is undoubtedly the Cooch Behar Rajbari (Royal Palace). Designed by an English architect F Berkley, the Cooch Behar Royal Palace was built on classical Italian lines. Its construction began during the reign of Maharaja Nripendra Narayan and was completed in 1887. The artworks on the ceiling and walls, a lesser imitation of Venetian and Florentine are still quite vivid.

Located in the middle of a huge manicured garden, this is a grand two-storied structure whose arched corridors and ornamental gateways have the aura of a majestic English home. The giant metallic dome on top, beautifully illustrated on the inner surface is modeled after the one in St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, or perhaps St. Peter’s in Rome. Underneath the dome, on the marble floor of the Durbar Hall, lies a giant image of Narayan dynasty’s Court-of-Arms, the Lion and Unicorn on the Royal Court of Arms of the United Kingdom, later replaced by an elephant and a monkey was added to the top.

The Cooch Behar Palace, 395 ft in length and 296 ft in breadth, has more than 60 rooms and halls of varied dimensions. The 400 mt long surki pathway from the main entrance to the palace passes through a garden of 64 acre, immaculately maintained with a huge pool.

Noted for its elegance and grandeur, the property is presently protected by the Archaeological Survey of India. The palace’s facade has a series of arcaded verandahs both in the ground and first floor. At the centre of the Palace is a projected porch to provide the main visitors entrance to the palace through the Durbar Hall.

The palace comprises various halls and rooms that include the dressing room, bed room, drawing room, dining hall, billiard room, library, toshakhana,

thakurghar, naachghar and ladies gallery. The heavy mahogany doors with illustrated frosted glass, imported oil paintings and exquisite chandeliers exude the richness of the lost glory. Unfortunately, most of the royal articles and precious objects of the palace were stolen or sold off before the ASI handover.

A part of the palace – 7 rooms precisely, has been turned into a museum. The exhibits in the museum include royal furniture, medals, arms, royal seals, cutleries and antiquities unearthed from the excavation site at Gosaimari. In the tribal gallery one might get an insight into the lifestyle of Cooch Behar’s indigenous people – Rajbanshi, Toto, Gorkha, Mech, Rabha, Lepcha and Bhutia. Laterite and sandstone sculptures from 7th century are also on display although few are intact.

Madan Mohan Temple: The dazzling white single-storied temple of Madan Mohan (Lord Krishna) is the second biggest attraction of the town. It has a fine blend of Hindu (low, sprawling porch in front), Islamic (scalloped arches and rounded pillars) and central-Asian (dome with tapered peak) architectural traditions.

Although named after Madan Mohan – the household deity of the locals, the temple complex also has idols of Joty Tara and Ananda Moyee Kali housed individually in two separate but adjoining temples. However, the brass idol of the flute-playing Madan Mohan wearing an oversized crown is the top draw.

The entrance from the main road is through the office building of the temple trust under the control of  Dept. of Tourism, Govt. of West Bengal. The temple is beautifully lit up in the evening and is a wonderful sight after dark. A visit during the sandhyaaraati is memorable.

It was at the behest of Maharaja Nripendra Narayan, the temple of Madan Mohan was built, opened in 1890. It was visualised as a meeting place of people from different faiths. A family of Muslim carpenters was traditionally engaged to curve the elaborate Rasha Chakra (wheel with embellishments) which forms the focal point of the tableaus put up at the annual Rasha Utsav in October-November.

Sagar Dighi: There are 22 artificial tanks all over Cooch Behar town acting as useful landmarks. The most spectacular among these is indisputably Sagar Dighi- located at the heart of the city. It is surrounded by grand colonial structures all around it, at present housing most of the government offices of Cooch Behar, right from the District Court to District Library. The buildings, built mostly between the 1880s and 1920s, have now been turned into offices of the district administration.

To its north, a majestic marble sculpture of Maharaja Nripendra Narayan, stands in front of the District Court. To the south is a war memorial, complete with a tank used in battle. Sagar Dighi, a popular hangout in the evenings and lazy afternoons, is also used by the devotees of the Hiranyagarbha Shiv Mandir which lies on its bank for bathing.

Debibari: Also known as Barodebi Mandir, this is a temple which looks like a deserted mansion located inside a field. The beautiful red and white structure has scalloped domes and pillars on the outer side. The uniqueness of this temple is that it has no idol. During Durga Puja, a single idol of Durga or Bhabani is worshipped. In continuation of an earlier tradition of Naraboli (slaughtering of human beings), a local, Ponchu Bakshi still carries on with the tradition and sacrifices blood during the puja from his hand. A buffalo is still slaughtered during the festival.

Rani Bagh: It is a beautifully maintained garden adjacent to the River Torsa separated by an earthen barrage located at one corner of the town. It is the royal cemetery of Koch kings. The main marble tombs belong to Maharaja Nripendra Narayan, Rajendra Narayan and Jagaddipendra Narayan placed together under a huge shade and look quite impressive.

In one corner of the garden is a small museum, housed inside a beautiful single-roomed cottage. The museum has photographs of the Koch kings and queens including the photos of the royal insignia, coins and old relics. The garden is maintained by Dept. of Tourism, Government of West Bengal.

Gosaimari Excavation Site: The mound at Gosaimari, 35 km for the Cooch Behar town, reveal bases of pillars of a palace that once stood here, built by the Koch kings, amidst rows of vivid green.

Said to be the seat of the Kamtapur kingdom till 1498, when Sultan Hussain Shah of Bengal defeated Khen king Nilambar, Gosaimari now is just a deserted mound in the middle of nowhere. It’s not difficult to recognise the channel, overgrown with weeds, running round the entire mound was once actually the protective moat. The relics found among the ruins are partially displayed in the Cooch Behar Palace.

Baneshwar Shiv Temple: The Baneswar Shiv Temple, 12 km from Cooch Behar town on way to Alipurduar, has an interesting roof, built in the Bengali Do-chala (parted on top and slanting on either side) style. Built at the time of Maharaja Prannarayan, between 1635 and 1650, the Baneswar Shiva temple has its sanctum in its basement. A short flight of stairs leads to the sanctum with a Shivling curved out in black marble. A metallic statute with the face of a monkey stands on the side. To the right of the raised platform on which the temple stands, is a vermillion smeared sculpture of Nandi (Lord Shiva’s bahan), half covered with marigold garlands.

Sacrifice to the God includes pigeon or duck which will cost you Rs 15 and goat for Rs 20. Presently it is managed by a trust under the Tourism Department, Govt. of West Bengal. The charge for Anna Bhog is Rs 15 per head.

Don’t miss the numerous black soft shell turtles, living in the tank adjacent to the main temple. If you want to watch them stick their neck out, you may offer sweetened puffed rice available in the stalls at the entrance. Don’t go overboard to feed the turtles – they bite.

Team WHEELS put up at Hotel Ellora – one of the best in town. With a nominal tariff, the rooms here are comparatively larger with all standard amenities. The best part is room service – one of the fastest we have ever experienced.

The massive restaurant of Hotel Ellora on the first floor has an elaborate menu and serves a whole array of fishes and other veg and non-veg items along with a bar. With very little car parking space on the main roads, the advantage of Hotel Ellora is the car park on the ground floor at the back side of the building.

Baneswar Shiv Mandir
Location: 12 km from Cooch Behar
Open: 7 am – 8.30 pm

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