A long drive away from the city, this getaway on the edge of a deciduous forest is the perfect spot to laze around for a day or two.
Around 140km down Durgapur Expressway, within minutes of the car crossing Burdwan, a billboard by the Aushgram panchayat will welcome you to Aranya Sundari Bhalkimachan. A freshly tarred road across the rice bowl of Bengal leads to Bhalkimachan, believed to be the favourite bear hunting spot of the erstwhile rajas of Burdwan.
The ruins of a tower or machan overlook a small waterhole where the unsuspecting animals were shot by the royalty. Perhaps in memory of the bears that lost their lives, the panchayat has erected a concrete model of a Indian sloth bear close to the pond.
According to a legend, a tunnel beneath the machan leads straight to a secret passage opening at the Rajbari in Burdwan, about 25km away.
To cater to the picnic crowd the waterhole has been “beautified” by the panchayat with dahlias, chrysanthemums and deodars. It has even put a couple of paddle boats in the water body for revellers and built a two-storey resort with 20 beds and a restaurant.
But the real fun lies beyond the confines of the resort amid the deep sal forest thriving with a wide variety of vascular plants. The pristine forest stretches beyond the borders of Birbhum into the Santhal Parganas in Jharkhand. A walk through the woods is very pleasant with sunlight forming patterns on the ground through the foliage.
Although the forest used to be infested with bears, now one can find just some wild cats, foxes and monkeys. A few years ago, elephants from the interconnected Dalma forests had strayed into Bhalkimachan.
If you decide to stay overnight, a resort developed by the State Fisheries Development Corporation at Jamunadighi-Amrapali (see Metro on Sunday, June 21, 2009) barely 3km from Bhalkimachan, would probably be the best option. The tourist complex is inside a fish seed farm run by the state government.
Those who run the resort cook excellent maach bhaat (fish curry and rice) with the fresh catch from the breeding ponds at Jamunadighi.
Air-conditioned rooms are available here. The embankments between rows of fish ponds have been converted to mango orchards (or amrapali) with bamboo and concrete benches strewn around. The shades are perfect for those who don’t want to miss their post-lunch siesta on weekends.
On the way back, stop by at the roadside railway station, Paraj, connecting Howrah and Asansol. Ignored by most fast moving trains, the impeccable station looks like one of the stopovers in the TV series Thomas, the Tank Engine.
It’s one of those colonial relics where the station master doubles as the ticket seller. Sit there for a few minutes and watch trains speed past before you resume your journey back to the daily grind.
Take a car or bus via the Durgapur Expressway and take a diversion near Galsi. Cycle vans and autorickshaws are available. Alternatively, take a train from Howrah, preferably the Black Diamond, and get down at Mankar station. You’ll get buses and other transport to Bhalkimachan.
The Bhalki Machan resort maintained by the panchayat (03452-212056) or the State Fisheries Development Corporation resort at Jamunadighi (03452-45300/9474787643)