We are heading to Bengal’s Grand Canyon. It’s a little after 6 a.m. on an uninspiring morning as my family sets out from the small West Bengal town of Chandrakona. The West Midnapore landscape we drive through is wilted and dreary. The tiny town of Chandrakona was once prominent under its 16th-century Rajput rulers. It even finds mention in Ain-e-Akbari, the record of Mughal Emperor Akbar’s administration. Not much of the old glory remains however, except for some crumbling mansions and a handful of terracotta temples on the forest-covered fringes of town. But the settlement is a convenient base for exploring the ravines and gorges of Gongoni Danda, a place often described as the Grand Canyon of Bengal.
After driving for about 30 minutes, we swerve right off the road to follow a dirt track flanked by sporadic clusters of cashew and acacia trees. A little later, the car heaves to a halt at a clearing and we spill out.
It is as if we have been magically transported from dull West Midnapore to the Wild West. In front of us, red rocky land leads to a precarious drop to a valley below. A row of jagged cliffs of laterite, their crimson contours blushing in the morning sun, fill the horizon. Far below to our right, the crystal clear Silabati River threads its way across the canyon floor. It is peppered by flour-white sandbanks, forming beautiful patterns.
The Silabati River is central to the story of Gongoni canyon. Years of denudation of the region’s characteristic red soil created the deep gorges that draw visitors from around India. Photo: Sugato Mukherjee
Our driver, Sadhan, doubles as our guide. He leads the way to a staircase built by the local municipality, which winds down partly into Gongoni. “In these dry months, the water is mostly knee-deep,” he says. “But in the monsoon the river often overflows into the recesses of the gorge.”
If the canyon looked magical from above, from close quarters its myriad textures look surreal. Wind and water have collaborated over millions of years to carve and chisel a craggy ravine-filled landscape of forbidding splendour.
As we descend to the lower depths of Gongoni, the colours begin to change. The rusty red gives way to various yellows, ranging from a grainy pallid shade to a brilliant golden. The mid-morning sun filters into nooks and corners, exposing bizarre shapes and designs on furrowed rock faces.
We explore a meandering trail along a route the river once took, carving out a gorge several storeys deep. Arriving at the edge of the Silabati River, we see a group of fishermen wading in the ankle-deep water and casting handheld nets. “The nearby towns and villages get their fish from this river,” Sadhan says. “They fish in small groups using these traditional nets.”
Today, community fishing in the Silabati is the chief source of livelihood for the people from the surrounding villages. Photo: Sugato Mukherjee
We retrace our path up the slope, which is dotted with oddly-shaped rock pillars and pockmarked with caves. We have been out for nearly three hours, and it is time to unpack our breakfast boxes. Sadhan points to a rather sinister-looking cave with carved pillars at its entrance, a little further along on a ridge. As we spread out on the ledge in front of the cliffside chamber, we listen to him tell the story of Bakasura’s cave.
This story from the Mahabharata takes place during the period of the Pandavas’ exile and according to local lore it unfolded right here. The five brothers are said to have arrived at this spot with their mother Kunti, to find a land terrorised by Bakasura. This fearsome demon followed a simple diet. Each day, one person from a nearby village had to go to the demon’s cave (in front of which we are having a leisurely breakfast!) as the monster’s daily dose of meat. The Pandavas were staying with a Brahmin family, whose turn it was to offer up a sacrifice.
At Kunti’s behest, Bhima agreed to go instead. A pitched battle between the monster and the legendary hero ensued, lasting several days until Bakasura was killed. “And that earth-rattling battle left the land all wrinkled and crumpled,” Sadhan explained, waving at the terrain around us. This explanation seemed far more fitting than anything science or geography offered up for the unique topography we were surrounded by.
Appeared in the March 2017 issue as “Clawed by Demons”.
Getting There Chandrakona is 133 km/4 hr from Kolkata. Gongoni is another 34 km/40 min drive ahead.
When Visit the canyon in the morning or late afternoon to enjoy it in mellow sunlight. Gongoni can be crowded with picnickers on weekends.
Stay There are no nearby hotels. In Chandrakona, Parimal Kanan Eco Tourism Centre run by West Bengal State Forest Development Agency is a good option (wbsfda.gov.in; doubles ₹1,000).
is a photographer and writer. He has contributed to publications such as The Globe and Mail and Al Jazeera, and has received UNESCO's Humanity Photo Award. He is the author of "An Antique Land: A Visual Memoir of Ladakh" (2013).
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