Neither the Bhutan war in 1864 between British India and Bhutan nor the treaty of Sinchula seems to have had much impact on the people of Buxa who live in 13 scattered villages inside the Buxa tiger reserve in Alipur Duar in West Bengal.
Inhabitants of some of the secluded villages here continue to share many of their cultural markers—language, attires, modes of worship, and weapons—with the people of Bhutan. In addition to these people, there are also a few who live here who trace back their origins to Nepal. They are likely to have come here as laborers at the time when the Buxa fort was being converted by the British to a detention center.
Ezkiel, a private school teacher, who belongs to Rabha community dropped me at the end of the vehicular road where a group of indigenous Buxa people were busy arranging loads of tin sheets on their head. These sheets are used primarily for building houses.
They rested at many points on the four-kilometer stretch that leads to Sadar Bazar, a comparatively developed village. This road is relatively less hazardous compared to the mountain footpath that lies beyond Sadar Bazar. On that path, they have to be prepared for various contingencies ranging from the perils posed by wild, slippery creepers to the threats of landslides.
Sadar bazar, a village where around 50 families live, is a popular tourist destination among nature enthusiasts and domestic tourists from West Bengal —made up mostly of young lovers and groups of friends who are fond of walking which is the only means of transportation here. Very few from outside the state are seen in this village which is located quite deep inside the Buxa tiger reserve. Most families in this area are of Nepali origin. Some of them have converted to Christianity.
Home stays are available in the villages of Sadar and Lepchaka village, located five kilometers away from Sadar. On the way, just before Sadar, there is a makeshift food center and two other local shops. There are churches of three different Christian groups. The area is yet to be electrified despite assurances from the government. Cables have been laid in a few villages. The main source of energy is solar. Few families have Dish TV, and BSNL is the only functional mobile network.
Once I reached the homestay, Indra Shanker Thapa, its owner, took me to the outer portion of its premises and showed me three Great Indian Hornbills resting on a gigantic banyan tree. I had not seen this bird before though it is the official bird of Kerala, the state I come from. I used to joke on the stupidity of choosing an uncommon bird as the state bird, but when I saw it was instantly impressed by its great size, its endearing colors and the reverberating sound of its fluttering wings. In fact, I was so proud that I told him with a beaming voice: “that’s my state bird”.
One of the hot topics of discussion here is the raging issue of the increasing militarization of the Indo-Pak border. Lal Singh Bhujir, a man of Nepali origins and a social activist from the region of Raja Bhat Khawa which abuts the Buxa tiger reserve, tells me over lunch that the decision to deploy armed forces in Buxa (SSB-Sashastra Seema Bal, 12 battalions and 132 border posts along Indo-Bhutan border), near Lal Bangla hamlet, is a blunder. He was pretty vociferous in his condemnation of jingoistic nationalism and listed the many hostile ramifications of a possible war.
On my walk to the village of Lal Bangla, I was accompanied by Rohan Thapa, a distant relative of Indra Shanker. This village hosts a mix of Bhutanese and Nepali population. There are a few scattered shops and a school that has classes up to 8th standard. An old building which has a thick stone around it is now used as an SSB camp. And then there is the most popular building too, the one of Indian Postal Office.
The historical Buxa fort was once a resting place for traders during the time when it was under the control of the kings of Cooch Bihar and Bhutan. Later, it was occupied by the British and was modified into a stone fort which they used as a prison and a detention center during the days of freedom struggle. This fort now remains abandoned, a safe haven for the many creatures of the wild. At one point, a few Tibetan Buddhists lived here before they moved to Bylakuppe in Karnataka.
Lepchakha, a hilltop hamlet almost three kilometers from Buxa fort, provides a spectacular view of the Jayanti river and the mountains that straddle the Indo-Bhutan borders. Interestingly, compared to Sadar and Lal Bengla, this village has a predominantly Bhutanese population.
In some villages, the Bhutanese and the Nepalese intermarry.
With parceled food, water bottles and a Gorkha knife, Rohan was all set for the early morning walk to the village of Adma, 14 km from Sadar—a four-hour walk. Though the way was risky and slippery, we both were basking in that pleasure available only to those who choose to do things that most people don’t choose. All along the way, I wished I had the flexibility and walking skills of Rohan. Our journey was through dense Himalayan forests and we had to encounter giant rocks, trees that had fallen down and gorgeous streams on the way. The sight of wooden bridges over the crystal waters of the river is one of the most beautiful visuals one can hope to see. We had our breakfast on the banks of a tranquil river.
At the entrance of the village, a desolate building stands like a drowsy sentinel. This was once a single-teacher primary school with a grassy playground which was later abandoned on account of lack of sufficient students. A few meters away from the school, there are some houses raised on wooden pillars, scattered on a slightly slopped bed of a hill.
A small shop attached to a house that sells old cigarettes, packaged snacks, local beer and state approved bottled alcohol is a gathering place here. On our way, we met Hanson Dupka and his younger brother who were on their way back from a popcorn field. Kale Dupka and his wife Tahiom Dupka were drinking beer and having small talks. Dotha Dupka, a five-year-old boy was perched on a tree while his friends were playing on the ground with bows and arrows, searching for something to aim at. A few meters away there stood a little girl, accompanied by a cat, watching them as if she knew boys engaged in serious play wouldn’t prefer her company.
A bottle of local beer which had on it the sticker of Bhutan government was given to Tashiom Dupka, a fifty five-year-old woman. When I asked about this Bhutanese bottle, I was told about the journeys to the Bhutanese town of Deju during the times when rivers on the way to Santalbari overflow. On every Tuesday, a market gathering takes place at Santalbari, 15 kilometers from Adma on the Indian side.
Kale Dupka, who was the older one in terms of appearance but the youngest at heart, took us to their monastery which was located at the highest point in the village. It was a relatively medium-sized hall with a Buddha statue and fire-lights on a pedestal. The window frames are emblazoned with colorful Buddhist flags. Kale Dupka’s house was also raised on wooden pillars. Its kitchen was in a nearby shed, not raised. Pieces of dry meat were hanging from the top of the fire place. The house has three rooms, one of which is a prayer room. There is also a sit-out on whose walls are hung large photographs of two Bhutanese Kings and of a Bhutanese girl. Kale Dupka brought us some rice beer from the local shop and Tashiom Dupka boiled local hen’s eggs for us. Rohan talked a deal about these hens local hen and Kale Dupka somehow managed to catch one after repeated attempts that featured elaborate acts of trickery.