A Week in Sagar Island and Bakkhali during Gangasagar Mela
After days in Calcutta, we really want to rest at the beach. We decide on Bakkhali, a small seaside resort at the southwestern end of the Sundarbans. Today we plan our departure for Sagar Island and the Sundarbans. For now we inquire about the price of a taxi to Kakdwip and Hartwood Point, the pier for Sagar.
At 10 am we leave the city for a dive into rural India. The countryside of Bengal is generous and green, with water galore, banana trees and bright green rice fields. At 1 o'clock our taxi leaves us four kilometers from the pier for the Sagar island. We walk on foot with luggage, then a van rickshaw and the last mile with the crowd of pilgrims who are starting to arrive.
We board a boat. On board the groups sing, throw offerings to the river. In the distance the Sagar island emerges. After disembarking we walk to the sound of the speakers that broadcast music and announcements in Bengali. On all faces there is joy and smile. Pilgrims piled in buses travel the last 25 kilometers through a beautiful landscape with small farms sheltered by trees, each with a small pond full of fish.
Before two days of the sacred bath the place of the Gangasagar Mela is already well populated and it will be difficult to find accommodation. The hotel that we booked through the internet is of course requisitioned by the senior officers of the army, and the hostel too. Most pilgrims will sleep on the beach in tents of fortune made of plastic or in large tents installed by ashrams, sects, associations or religious groups.
It is in one of them that we find a space of four walls in tarpaulin with a mattress of jute enclosing straw on the ground. We are offered a badge with the room number and a meal voucher in exchange for a deposit of hundred rupees. Sitting at a table behind a plate of braided tree leaves, the volunteers hurry to feed us. Here the luggage is safe, as the surveillance is well done. Our hosts are extremely nice and worry constantly that we do not miss anything.
To reach the seaside just before the night we have to walk another 2 kms in a crowd that grows by the hour. In a soft and unreal light from a light mist, some pilgrims bathe, others do the aarti, the evening prayer by lighting small oil lamps. At 7 we settle in our little nest. There is no switch to turn off the neon lights and the speakers continue to scream religious texts.
The loudspeakers shut down around 1 in the morning. The generator and the neon light as expected did not stop. We slept intermittently. At dawn the diesel generator go silent but the amplified music to the limit of saturation returns.
We resume our pilgrimage in the crowd. The paths leading to the sea begin to fill up. The anthill moves with a smile hanging on the ears! Strong emotions overwhelm us by bathing in this multitude of people. Near the Kapil muni ashram temple volunteers manages the long line of devotees. The small temple is colored with bright and acid tints.
We go back to the sea, and take a stop at the chai shop for lunch. The sea is high at this time. The pilgrims splash and immerse themselves three times then they dry their saris in the warm wind. The group of sadhus cross each other, greet each other, plant their tridents in the sand, sing but hide to smoke the ganja. They let themselves be photographed.
We see a couple of German photographers with heavy cameras and prying zooms. I feel better with my old dslr. We go back to the two-way street. Back at our lodging, we are offered a meal again. In the tent temple a ceremony is held and where three musicians play and sing the epic of Ramayana.
At the tent our companions take a nap despite the ambient din. I take the opportunity to find a bucket that I fill with water from a pond and wash and rinse completely with happiness. We go to the village to try to find some peace because around our accommodation there are few other ashrams including ISKCON that all compete to attract the pilgrims.
Since the beginning of the afternoon the Sangam is constantly filled. People from rural Bengal fill the place. We arrive at the south-east end of the beach and we see a panoramic view of the landscape. Here the speakers are far and we find ourselves in a quiet atmosphere with the approaching evening.
Going towards the center of Sangam we realize that pilgrims settle to sleep under the stars on the dry sand. With the mauve night that comes the lamps of the Ganga Aarti light up here and there. Groups continue to flock to prepare for the holy bath that officially begins tomorrow from precisely when the sun goes into makara or capricorn.
We go together with the human tide. At the ashram a Shiva devotee constantly sings accompanied by a cymbal. Entering our room we find that some luggage has come to occupy a little surface. A cheerful volunteer organizer tells us that this room is for seven people. In these nine square meters it will not be cold tonight.
An obese couple burst into the room. We go to the kitchen of the ashram. People cook vegetables and rice in large pots. The atmosphere is nice. At the time of going to bed the sound continues screaming the Ramayana and it will last all night on a background of diesel generators.
Around 7 o'clock we go out of our tent. Yesterday, we spoke of human tide but this morning nobody can imagine the size of the mass. We get the impression that people from entire India has come for this great rendezvous with the Sun and the Ganges.
It takes us an hour and a half to reach the sea. At the top of the beach we do not believe our eyes as the sand has disappeared to make room for the crowd. The fervor is enormous. Moving away to the southeast of the beach, we find a slightly less populated lane that allows us to climb gently towards the ashram.
At noon it's time for us to leave the sangam. The incessant noise make us not to stay longer. We aspire a little calmness and we refuse to spend another night in this noise. With our bag on the back, we leave. It may not be the right time. It would probably have been better to wait a day or two after the departure of the pilgrims but the decision is made to go to Namkhana.
We climb a crowded bus. To go the last kilometer separating us from the ferries it take us four hours of trampling. The mass increases. Fortunately every hundred meters the security aided by the army imposes a bar to manage the mass. Finally we arrive at the last barrier. It becomes really dangerous.
Once on board we breathe easy. The ferry enters a long channel edged with mud and enters the wide estuary. At night we disembark at Namkhana. The small town also lives to the rhythm of the town. The first hotel is a 10 minutes walk but is full. The young receptionist sends us to three other guest houses. We take a rickshaw van.
The second hotel is also full and this time the young receptionist offers to help us find a cottage. Three steps away a hotel offers us its so-called single room. We have no choice nor the courage to go back in search of a hypothetical good room. We go back to the street to eat a pancake with a fried egg and a few small sweet bananas. We buy shampoo, a candle and mineral water.
A shower with a little cold relaxes the fatigue. The calmness is finally here. At 11 o'clock a good rain falls on Namkhana. We think of our friends under the tent of the ashram, and all the pilgrims on the road and think that we finally got well out.
The hotel manager suggests us to go to Bakkhali further south by providing us with a list of hotels with their phone numbers. We have our brunch with chicken curry and rice. We go for a walk to the place called Namdabanga, and find the brick-paved path coming out of the city center to the northwest. For a good hour the ride is superb. First the suburbs pass through a fishing village where we find women seated under the veranda of small mud houses, fiddling the nets.
We meet the locals whose smile freezes when they see us. It is clear that tourists do not often come to Namkhana. Through the continuous path in the shade of tall palm trees and coconut trees we see glimpses of the river. Small farms in soft and rounded land mark out the course. The end of the path opens on the bright and blazing estuary. A bamboo tag with a green cloth marks the entrance to the channel.
On the way back we take photographs. Children have fun to see their faces on the screen of the digital camera. We stop to see this moment of simple happiness. Once in town we see that a good part of the mela landed in Namkhana.
In the afternoon we take the path to the south which is actually a dam to protect tides. Most of the cultivable areas are below sea level. These dikes are well maintained and it would be a disaster for the peasants if the salt water penetrated.
We depart for Bakkhali. We take a boat to cross the channel, with about twenty passengers sitting on the plating. After venting from shore, the pilot starts an ancestral diesel single cylinder without clutch. The boarding maneuver on the other side is done with finesse thanks to a string that stifles the engine to the limit of extinction.
We climb in a mini bus painted as tiger skin to cross the 20 kilometers that separates us from Bakkhali. On the outskirts of the village we see some big hotels for rich tourists. On arrival we discuss with the driver around a tea. A sign indicates a Bengal Tourism Bungalow. The manager greets us in the big hall that sounds and announces that it only accepts customers who booked at the tourist office located at BBD Bagh. He makes us visit a small guest house rather basic and dark.
Towards the beach a restaurant attracts us. We have chicken, rice, vegetables, kingfish, shrimp and the grilled pomfret. This little exotic fish is succulent. Walking on the big beach, the air is wet facing the Bay of Bengal. We go for a dip in the refreshing water, very salty. We approach, at the end of the beach. There is a hamlet, fish driers, women sorting shrimp and fishermen unloading their nets.
Back to the village, a huge structure of bamboo as a cathedral is installed on the sand. A man and his son offer tourists a shooting range, a wooden horse ride and a rudimentary big wheel with four wooden pods, all operated by hand with many squeaks. The sun forms a beautiful red ball that sinks into the misty horizon. After a meal in the room, we go to bed at 11:15 pm.
We go into the countryside. When we turn around a rickshaw man offers us a two-hour tour with a visit to a government tiger shrimp farm and the Frasergunj port. Sitting on the tricycle, we shake like a plum tree because the road is paved with bricks. We admire the rural landscape that we have often seen through the window of a train or a bus with the frustration of not being able to stop.
The shrimp farm consists of about thirty large pools like a football field, located in the middle of the mangrove! We go on the road for half an hour through the rice fields and small hamlets. The Frasergunj port with a concrete jetty houses a flotilla of about twenty fishing boats ranging from the sailing canoe to the small trawler, an ice factory and warehouses.
Fishermen near their boats unravel small fish that will be frozen or dried to go to Calcutta or exported. We go back to Bakkhali where we ordered chingri malaikari for lunch. They are cooked in coconut milk, and it's a treat. Around 4 o'clock, we take a walk on the beach. One of the great bamboo cathedrals was completely dismantled and loaded into tipper trucks bound for Calcutta.
At sunset we sip tea before the sun diving in the Bay of Bengal. Life is beautiful! Tomorrow a bus day awaits you with three or four changes to reach the village of Sona to the north half way to Calcutta.