Few months back, when I was looking for flower peckers and Yuhinas in the Darjeeling hills, our guide had enquired whether I had visited the wetlands of Purbasthali. He was amazed to know that I had not because Purbasthali was only about 100 kilometres from my home !!
So, this November, when a certain chill in the morning air seemed quite pleasing and an old friend came along for a visit, I felt it was time for me to explore the wetlands of Chupi.
The Sun was yet to rise and our otherwise cramped G.T.Road lay deserted except for a few speeding trucks. I picked up my friend from his house and embarked on this 100 -110 km journey. Soon, we had left the G.T.Road and were speeding on the old Delhi Road, away from the urbane cosmos i.e Kolkata. The vast expansive cultivated fields opened up on both sides, and the air seemed fresh. We stopped for a pee & tea break at a typical shack by the road. The teenage boy was still shaking off his slumber, but he did serve us some tea. Our hearts felt light......the sight of our country side in winters, especially at dawn and dusk, is surreal...the layer of fog hangs precariously on the fields ...all hazy and dim....the haze hides the bushy heads of trees and sometimes intrudes upon the roads. Except for a few diversions and rough patches here and there, our road journey was pretty smooth and we were soon in Zila Nadia, the place famous for one Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. He was a Hindu saint, who was believed to be an incarnation of Lord Krishna himself. The practice of holding kirtan or sankirtan as a community celebration of Krishna, was propogated by him. As much as I find the songs (of kirtans) not-so-appealing, they definitely form an integral part of rural Bengal......among many old rituals, habits and ways, that are quickly getting lost in the age of consumerism and urbanism.
The small locality of Purbasthali was behind us and we were at a village by the name Kasthashali. The localites informed us that now the wetland was called Kasthashalir Char !!!! Near the bank , there are a few staying options - a nice guest house and a few cottages. We hired a manually propelled boat, and were soon afloat on the oxbow lake.
As a river flows into the plains, it loses momentum and its path is determined by local gradient and soil resistance. Thus, it tends to progress in a serpentine fashion. This leads to erosion and over centuries, a part of the river is cut off. Thus, an oxbow lake is formed, it's name well deserved given its shape - like an O with a cut. A safe haven for fishes, birds -both indigenous and migrants, reptiles and a source of income for local folks - these wetlands are much more than an essential ecosystem, which it already is. It's clear freshwater and the vegetation, both under and above the water, support myriad life forms.
Our boatman cum guide kept identifying species ...that one is the Bronze winged Jacana....that a Pheasant tailed Jacana.....the red one is Little Grebe.....!!! The boat slowly moved across the lake, through dense under-water vegetation....every now and then the boat would get caught in the tangle below!!! A common Kingfisher was spotted perched on a dry piece of stick....its plumage the perfect turquoise blue with orangish underside!! This was one little beauty I had wanted to see....at last !!! Chalk white Egrets jumped from point to point.....taking short flights....numerous Drongos flew around.....sand pipers and plovers hopped around on the shores, picking their meals.........Black headed Ibises and Asian Openbills foraged for food in the drier parts, alongwith lapwings. I never knew that there were Lapwings other than the one with the Red beak.....Here I saw the Yellow wattled Lapwing, River Lapwing and Grey headed Lapwing !!!! Little green islands of mush amidst the lake provided ideal resting spots for big flocks of Lesser Whistling Ducks....their tail ends rusty in color. They took to flights everytime we got close, raising a public outrage and swerved around in circles, before settling some distance away. I could hear Orioles calling from the trees by the lake side. Suddenly, Kousik -my friend noticed the grayish form of a structure emerging at the horizon....a structure with domes like the Taj Mahal !!!! Our boatman identified as the temple of Mayapur!!
Eventually, our boat entered a hardly 3m wide channel, with the Kans grass forming our canopy!!! It seemed like some scene from Hollywood!!! Dense grass of the iconic Kans surrounded this stretch ...and then the channel opened up to the Ganges. In this place, the Ganga divides up into a few branches, with little islands in between, before reuniting again after a few kilometres. Thus, this place is a unique maze of islands, with weak and strong water ways. It felt scary to imagine the face of this place in the peak of monsoon.
We did a complete round trip of the oxbow lake, which took us about 5 hours. Though we did not find the prized Osprey, the visit was fulfilling. As winter intensifies, multitudes of migrant birds would fly into these marshes. Flocks of Shelducks and Pochards would bring alive this place. Birders and picnic parties shall arrive in herds and Purbasthali would come lively. Summer and monsoon see this place rejuvenating on its own.....left alone to its kingfishers and fishes. It is good that the authorities have mostly left this place alone and the localites understand the importance of this ecosystem. From one's seat on the boat, one can decipher contours of high-rise buildings coming up at Mayapur......one can only wish that this insane drive of development gives Purbasthali a miss...because we, as a nation, have not been able to develop sustainably.......we fill up marshlands and build tall, unsafe buildings, narrow lanes.....and then keep beautifying a little park in the name of development ..... And after some years, citizens make a garbage dumping spot out of that park.
How to reach :
1. From Howrah : get on board a Katwa local and get down at Purbasthali, then take a rickshaw to the place.
2. By car : Its a good drive of 100-120 kms from Kolkata and shall take upto about 3 hours.
Tip: It is best to visit during late December till March, when the migratory birds visit the lake. And one should come as early as possible to get best views. There are a few staying options just beside the lake e.g. http://purbasthali.com/purbasthali-accommodation/
Avid birders may choose to stay overnight and go on multiple boat journeys.