Whenever the word “Canyon” is used about a destination in India, the first name which pops into mind is that of the hill station of Mahabaleswar. Yet, in the most unusual place in India lies a full-fledged gorge which at first look resembles a miniature version of Grand Canyon of Arizona, USA.
Welcome to the “Grand Canyon” of West Bengal – Gongoni. Located in the small town of Garbeta, this fascinating wide gorge of red soil stands on the banks of river Silabati. Locally known as “Gongoni Danga” or “Gongoni Khola”, the gorge is a handiwork of Mother Nature through years of soil erosion coupled with some assistance from the river. The water body flows through the gorge during monsoon.
In the plain lands of Bengal such a landscape is uncommon and exceptional, which is why this gorge is often referred to as Grand Canyon of Bengal. Recently a Stair case has been built by the West Bengal Government, so that one can easily walk down into the Canyon.
The usual way of reaching Garbeta is to board the Rupasi Bangla Express from Santragachi Station at 06:25 and reach Garhbeta Railway Station at around 09:20. Cycle Vans are available at the station, which is the common way of transportation to the Gorge. The station is located at Amlagora area. The Town of Garhbeta is around 5 km from the Station.
Just after crossing the Garhbeta College on you right, the Cycle van takes a left turn and enters a village road of red soil. Driving through this road with several trees in the vicinity, you reach a crossing where a sign board gives you the rate for parking vehicles for picnic in the area. You turn right and soon you reach atop the Gongoni Canyon.
I visited Gongoni first in 2005. I had reached the Gorge on a January Sunday morning and was much irritated to find a picnic party occupying the area, littering around and playing loud music. Worse thing was the light. There is always a haze in the winter. Plus it was almost 10 when I reached there. The light was dull, and the photographs turned out a tad overexposed and flat. Charmed with the enormous area but disappointed with the cattle class humans around (and not getting desired photographs), I had vowed to return later.
It took me another 8 years to come back to Gongoni in this month of March, after I discovered that my Trek companion Nishesh Singh has his maternal uncle’s residence at Garhbeta. Without much ado, I immediately booked tickets and boarded the Purulia Express which leaves Howrah at 16:50 and reached Garhbeta at 19:48.
Nishesh was at the station with a bike to receive me. It was since long we have met. The poor fellow had a massive bike accident sometimes back and stitches sign was still visible on his nose.
We rode through a dark road for over 5 kms to reach his relative’s house. The idea was to get up early in the morning and reach the Canyon to get some descent photographs. I also planned to check some of the historical temples of the area. Next morning we left for the Canyon just about 07:00. Despite it beginning of March, nevertheless a chilly wind was blowing. Nishesh’s Maternal Uncle’s families were descendents of the Singha Family of the area. Their locality is known as Singhapara.
The sunlight was just about mellow as we reached at the top of the Gorge. This was my second visit, but the light made a huge difference. I felt I was visiting the gorge for the first time. The top portion of the Gorge was comprised of Red Soil, while it was getting yellow as it sloped down the bottom. The mellow sunlight made it glow like gold. My memories of McKenna’s Gold and similar other Western Movies came back. I would not have been surprised if a cowboy riding on a horse back appeared from somewhere.
Down the canyon I could see a band of what looked like small green people crossing the river. On closer look with my zoom lens I saw they were students of schools in green uniform. The water was just ankle deep at this time of the year. As mentioned earlier the river enters the gorge to some extent during Monsoon. At that time fishermen with their fishing net spread out makes a pretty picture.
We walked down the stairs into the gorge, as the students marched up. For a moment I was mentally carried way to Arizona. At times when you think Gongoni is in actually in the low lands of West Bengal instead of being near a desert, it becomes harder to believe. No character from Wild West appeared. Instead, A local farmer passed by us.
There was an absolute silence in the area like a lull before the storm.Far away I could see the Railway Bridge over the Silabati River. Soon a train chugged over and the silence was broken.
There is a local folklore that Pandava prince Bheem slayed here the demon Bakasura who lived in this Canyon, during the exile of the Pandavas.
However, the story is debatable. As per Hindu Epic Mahabharata, Pandavas stayed at a place called Ekachakrapura during this incident. The demon Bakasura lived in a nearby hill. There is a place called Ekachakra near Rampurhat which is believed to be the Ekachakrapura of Mahabaharata. It even has a pond surrounded by trees named as Panadav Tala, where Pandavas were supposed to have stayed during their exile.
Only one technical problem is there. There is no nearby hill at Ekchakra. Also Gongoni is around 207 km from Ekachakra. I have no idea about the superhuman capacity of Bheem as to whether he walked over 200 km to meet Bakasura. Also, whether 200 plus kilometre can be considered as “Nearby” as per Mahabharata Standard is difficult to tell.
Other than the various conical shaped earthen structure of the canyon, one shape looks like huge temple with a small cave at its bottom. Standing in front of this natural mass of earth, it was hard to believe that this is a natural rock formation. Locals say this was the cave where Bakasura stayed and it is where the fight took place. The structure is awesome and I did not find much change in it during the last eight years.
Ancient Stone Temples at Garhbeta
In the ancient age, Garhbeta was the kingdom of the Bagdi Kings. Once upon a time there was a huge fort in this area with four huge gates. Sadly , there is no trace of it in the present township.
Garhbeta has a huge number of old temples and ruined ancient structures. In front of my host’s house at Singhapara is a small Brick Pancha Ratna Structure of around 30 feet besides a pond. Nishesh’s maternal uncle informed me that it is actually a “Smriti Mandir” (Memorial Temple) of one Radhanath Singha, who was a very powerful man in the area during the British Rule. There are statue of Two Dwarpal (Gaurds) on either side of the door. Later I got reference of the same in Pranab Roy’s book on Heritage of Medinipur – “Medinipur Jelar Pratna Sampad”. Locally people call this structure as “MatukGara”.
There was a ruined flat roofed structure near the Memorial Temple; Nishesh informed that once upon a time it used to be the Baithak Khana (Conference Area) of the Singh Family.
Perhaps the most famous old temple is that of Sarbamangala Deul Temple made of Laterite Stone. Designed in style of Orissa Rekh Deul, the temple is divided into four parts. The Vimana alias the Main Temple which contains the Shrine is a 60 feet high Three Ratha Deul. Ratha here means squarish projection from the base of the temple.
The Jagamohan or the adjoining Hall with a pyramid shaped roof (Known as Pidha) is rather attractive with small stucco statues of 64 Yoginis and Snake woman on its walls, just like Orissa Deul Temples. The capping element of the Jagmohan consists of an attractive Ribbed Circular Amlaka and an elongated Kalasha, very much like Orissa Deul. There is along Charchala NatMandir in front of the temple, which historians have said to be a structure developed at later stage.
Sarbamangala temple is assumed to be of 16th century. It is said that the temple was built by famous Bagri king Nripati Singha. The deity is a ten armed Mahishashur Mardini Durga (Goddess Durga slaying Mahishashur Demon) idol carved on a basalt stone. Photography inside the temple is strictly prohibited.
Near the Sarbamangala Temple is a dilapidated Mansion. On its wall facing the road there was a sculpture of a woman standing against the door. These types of sculptures are pretty common in old Mansions of Bengal, especially in Midnapore area. Other prominent Temples which I visited at Garhbeta include the Kongareshwar Shiva’s Pidha Deul Temple and Aatchala Radhaballabh Temple.
Kongareshwar Shiva Temple has a Swambhu Shivalingam. It means that the Shivalingam was naturally created stone and not manmade. It is locally known as “Bura Shiva Temple”. The temple gate is unique shaped, but I am not sure whether the two elephant heads besides the door is a later addition. Just above the entrance of the temple, there is Ganesh Statue made of stone. The statue has been painted crudely with black paint and is smeared with vermillion. Constant rubbing of vermillion on this statue may soon erode all feature of the idol. In the premises of the temple there is a stone idol. The features have eroded severely. I thought it might be a Vishnu idol.
The Aarchala Radhaballabh Temple has a triple entrance, with some decoration on each door. Interestingly the temple still has its Prathisthafalak Intact, which on the top right wall of the temple. Despite being painted in pink, it is clearly legible. The temple was created by Malla King Durjan Singh in 992 Malla Calender ; the year 1686.
The other temple I visited was an Ekratna temple along with twelve Deul Shiva temple inside a complex near a market place. The temple complex has been heavily modified with a huge decorated gate. The ekratna temple has been painted in multi colours and many statues in it seem to be an addition in recent times. I saw later more terracotta temples at Chandrakona which were heavily multicolored in the name of conservation. It made them look like South Indian Temples.
Some Points about restoration of Stone Temples
Sadly, all the stone temples of Garhbeta have been painted in pink to make it attractive to the visitors. This has not only made the sculptures on the temple lose their originality and details, but the painting itself can cause serious damage to the temple.
Stone Deuls are not supposed to be painted in any way – be it plain lime paint or plastic paint. Laterite stone temple is made of porous material, which needs air to pass through them. Painting on the surface results in closing of these pores, resulting in damage to the temple structure.
However, how do I blame villagers for such practice, when recently the Heritage Commission of Bengal did the blunder of painting the huge stone Deul temple of Dharapat at Bankura into a shocking Pink? Also there has been accusation of one of the decorations just at the entrance of this temple which have been totally modified. Imagine if all stone temples of Orissa were painted with multiple colours!
Here is the link to the news of the temple at Dharapat. Though it is Bengali, one can easily see the difference made by coluring the temple.
Thankfully I am one of the fortunate ones to have photograph of the temple at Dharapat in its original shape and colour along with all its intricate designs. That is the only consolation I have.
How to Go
As mentioned, the best way to go is take the Santragachi Purulia Express from Santragachi Station at 06:25 am and reach Garhbeta around 09:20 am. However, if you are interested in visiting the canyon in early morning light there are more options. I get it you may not have a friend’s house at Garhbeta.
One is to drive from Kolkata for 133 km via Santragachi, Arambagh, Goghat and Kamarpur to reach Garhbeta. You have to cross the second Hooghly bridge, take the Kona Expressway, cross Santragachi and then take a right turn and then again take a left turn into Ahilyabai Holkar Road. Drive straight and you will reach Arambagh. From Arambagh, you have to go left into Arambagh Kamarpukur Road. Driving on this road will eventually take you to Garhbeta Kamarpur Road. Driving through this road you will reach a highway, from which you turn left and you will eventually reach Garhbeta. Gongoni is just after that.
The only problem with this problem of this plan is you have to start real early( say around 04:00) and drive for over four hours. But I said there were other options. If you couple your tour with a visit to Bishnupur, you can easily drive from there to reach Gongoni early morning . It is only 37 kms.
Last, but in my opinion the best option is to stay at Garhbeta itself. You reach Garhbeta around 8 pm by Purulia Express. Check into lodge and stay overnight. Fix a hired car for next day. Reach the gorge early in the morning, around 7 a.m. Check out the gorge for two hours. Come back by 9:30 a.m. Have breakfast and explore Garhbeta to check out its temples. If you are hungry for more, drive to nearby Chandrakona Town (26 km) to see its temples. Come back for lunch, and after an afternoon siesta, go back to the gorge for sunset. Or , if you love variety check out the jungle nearby which has an elephant corridor. If you are in a hurry to leave, catch Afternoon Purulia Howrah Special in the afternoon 17:33 and reach Howrah at 21:15. Or spend the night at Garhbeta and catch the next Morning Purulia Howrah Special at 07:28 and reach Howrah at 11:25.
Where to Stay and Eat
Earlier there were only some spartan lodging facilities at Garhbeta. Now a descent guest house has come within 4 km south of the canyon. Many eateries have come up too. Earlier Bishnupur was the only descent option for staying as it has many lodging facilities including the West Bengal Government Tourist Lodge.