Heritage always a soft target

The Times Of India

DARJEELING/KOLKATA: The Darjeeling Hills and the Dooars were once dotted with beautiful forests and government bungalows that inspired many a story, novel and poem. The picturesque locales also served as ideal destinations for film shoots. But unfortunately, every time an agitation is launched, these structures are the first targets.

Thursday night’s torching of the forest bungalow at Takdah is the latest in the series of such picturesque properties that have fallen prey to strifes and violence. And going by the absence of well-equipped guards to protect them, the Takdah bungalow won’t be the last to be reduced to ashes.

Among the bungalows that were lost earlier were Kalijhora — where ‘Barsaat Ki Ek Raat’ starring Amitabh Bachhan and Rakhee was shot — and Majidar — where ‘Do Anjane’ starring Amitabh and Rekha — was shot. Over the past three decades, agitations have razed more than a score bungalows, each charming in architecture, and housing antique furniture that is irreplaceable. Forest and animal lovers rue the loss of such priceless heritage.

Nature Environment & Wildlife Society secretary Biswajit Roy Chowdhury was appalled when the Jayanti bungalow in Buxa forest was burnt down during the GNLF-led Gorkhaland agitation in 1984.

“The day I learnt the bungalow had been reduced to ashes, I could not hold back tears. The bungalow was architecturally extraordinary. We spent many starry nights on the stair deck that lead right down to the river bank and spotted elephant herds crossing the river,” he recounted. It was at Jayanti that he had first spotted the Collared Falconet — the smallest eagle found in India.

He vividly remembers the Bhutanghat bungalow burnt down during the Kamtapur agitation in 2002, particularly one night when he accompanied then field director Pranabesh Sanyal and Project Tiger director Arin Ghosh after midnight to see a leopard that had given birth.

“The wooden bungalow was extraordinary. Set at the forest edge, one could sight leopards and elephants from there. It was at Bhutanghat that I first saw the Ibis Bill,” said Roy Chowdhury.

Beyond the physical asset, the arson wiped out vintage records that were stored in the bungalows. Himalayan Nature & Adventure Foundation programme coordinator Animesh Bose had spent sleepless nights pouring over century-old records of British and Indian officers.

“It was a 1982 that I went to Rishum bunglow (now called Rishikum) near Lava and came across a fat register. It turned out to be the guest register where boarders recorded what they sighted during the stay. Leafing through, I discovered accounts of planters, foresters and Army officers about the flora and fauna of the place. At a later date, word spread about ghosts and it came to be known as haunted or ‘bhoot’ bungalow,” said Bose.

With the practice now dead (guests now rarely write comments beyond service quality), the records have been lost forever. Bose also pointed out that along with the bungalows, burning down of forest beat offices during agitations led to random felling in forests.

“When forest offices are burnt down, the staff have nowhere to stay. For months, the forest becomes an open treasure chest that people pilfer at will,” he said.

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