Sunday, 2 June 2013

Bayalkanda, the forgotten border pillar and the disappearing rhododendrons

A gust of cool wind whizzes past our ears. While the Surkhet Valley is perspiring in the summer heat, we are enjoying the breeze. We are standing at a point which is the passage of wind blowing from the mountain tops in the northern horizon down to the Surkhet Valley in the south.

Might be the place, where we are standing right now, got its name from the Nepali word “Bayal” which also connotes breeze. Bayalkanda is a few minutes’ walk from Gothikanda, the erstwhile headquarters of Surkhet.

Kapil, Om and Abhijit pose for a picture at the point that is the
passage of wind blowing from mountain tops to the Surkhet Valley.

Gothikanda – the erstwhile Surkhet headquarters
To reach Gothikanda, you have two options – either walk for 20 minutes from Chheda, a small stop-over in the Surkhet-Dailkeh road corridor, or hike for one and half hour from the hospital near Radio Nepal’s Regional Office in Birendranagar of Surkhet district. The hike takes you through a dense sal (Shorea robusta) forest, a steep hill and a pine (salla) forest. We once hiked to the top but this time we took the route passing through Chheda and Gothikanda.
The valley below Gothikanda was a dense forest and infested with mosquitoes and of course, the deadly malaria. My friend Om reminisces, “It used to be considered a sin to tread into the valley after sunset; the people residing in Gothikanda used to return by the evening to their nests.” “Only the Tharus used to stay in the malarial patches as they are considered to be immune to malaria.”

It was only after the spraying of DDT in the 1950s and promotion of the valley as regional headquarters by late king Birendra, the place got rechristened as Birendranagar. Hordes of people then started pouring in from the neighbouring hilly districts in search of fertile land and easier life.

Mesmerising Surkhet Valley and Kakrevihar
If you opt for a strenuous and tiring hike up the hill, reaching the hill-top is more satisfying. To repose and recline for delicious snacks and chilled drinks after the trek, a well-known restaurant “Chalise Cottage” is the best spot. We were tired after walking for almost an hour and a sumptuous snack of fried chicken and Wai Wai sandheko (a mixture of dry instant noodles, tomato, onion, chilly and puffed rice) was the perfect treat to our empty stomachs. Few more restaurants have mushroomed up in the area to cater to the once in a while hiking enthusiasts. 

As we walked westwards from the Chalise Cottage, we came across many scenic spots. If you look below, the Surkhet Valley looks like a tiny patch of settlement. The well-planned roads form a symmetrical patchwork. Luckily, the day was bright and the cumulus clouds above the valley made the scene mesmerising.

Kakrevihar, the famous archaeological site looks like an abandoned leveller (ledko in Native Nepali) attached to a plough. A leveller is used to level the field after ploughing. Om says, “The locals say that the King Sur forgot to collect the leveller after ploughing – later, the area turned into a dense forest.” Some describe Sur as a god while others say that he was a king. Another adage says that it got the name due to its shape. It is like the shape of a cucumber seed (Cucumber is called Kakro in Nepali).

If you look south-westwards, far in the horizon is Ranighat. Recently it has earned fame as the end point of rafting session that starts from Bheri River Bridge. It takes three and half hours to raft through the river section. (Read the piece for details of rafting in Bheri).

Nearby is the probable site for paragliding. The entrepreneur group that is running the rafting is planning to launch paragliding from this site soon in the future. Test flights were done during the second mid-west small and cottage industry fair held on 5-13 March 2013 in Surkhet. It will offer a variety to the paragliding enthusiasts who are now confined to the Pokhara environs, the only place in Nepal where one can enjoy paragliding.

Wandering souls and goat herders
A gravel road passes through the hills like a serpent connecting the villages around Bayalkanda. There is a steep hillock near the site selected for paragliding. “A bus carrying a marriage group (Janti in Nepali) was swept down the hill by a sudden landslide,” said Om who belongs to the place. “The dead souls still wander in the vicinity.”

While we were talking about ghosts and dead souls, small children were herding goats at the site nonchalantly. They were unaware of the incident and whistling popular folk songs. Goats from this part of Surkhet (Kunathari and surrounding area) are famous for their meat quality.

The forgotten border pillar
As we were enjoying the scenic panorama and cool breeze, we came across a huge stone pillar. It demarcated the earlier small kingdoms (There were 22-24 small kingdoms prior to annexation into a united Nepal).  The border stone still stands tall at Gadhi. It needs attention of the Archaeological Department. Further research and excavation must be planned to conserve the historical monument.

I remember a similar pillar being trampled down by a bulldozer near one of the Shiva temples in the south west of Birendranagar. It is sad to say that during the road expansion, the driver was smiling all the way for being successful in breaking the pillar into pieces. The locals didn’t even raise a whimper to conserve the historical pillar.

After few minutes’ walk from the forgotten pillar, we came across the remnants of an old fort. Whether it was a fort or an artillery, we could not decipher the difference. We felt sorry for the state of the monument. Only the base of the fort was standing intact. The stones were scattered in the area. Besides stones, nothing was left.

Tall tower, faltering network and the disappearing rhododendrons
Spending a reasonable amount of time in Gadhi and clicking pictures, we returned to Bayalkanda. On the way was a tall Nepal Telecom tower. However, in spite of having the tower nearby, the cellular network was miserably faulty. The reception is very bad and for a continuous and clear talk with your dear ones, you need to move from one place to another in search of the cellular network.  

We had a delicious lunch at the Chalise Cottage and while we were savouring the local chicken, a dozen couples arrived with bunches of rhododendrons in their hands. We then walked till we came to the spot in Chheda where we had parked our bikes. As we were having tea, we saw hordes of bikers and pillion riders all carrying rhododendrons in their hands.

Leaving Chheda for Surkhet Valley, we met many small groups of youngsters gossiping and loitering on the road with bunches of rhododendrons. It was getting dark but they were carelessly strolling towards their destinations. Buses jam-packed with passengers carrying rhododendrons in their hands, both inside and on their tops, passed by us. They were returning from Guranse in Dailekh district which is named after the abundant rhododendron jungles.    

I was wondering, how long the rhododendrons will last if the visitors keep on plundering the site of its precious adornment. However, one of my friends was saying that it was like fetching a pail of water from an ocean. I was murmuring, “It’s not a matter of just picking the flowers, they were lopping off the branches.”

“If the concerned authorities don’t take this issue seriously and we don’t stop destroying the jungles, the rhododendrons might disappear from Guranse.”  
Thanks to Om Prasad Acharya, Kapil Dev Gyawali and Abhijit Bhattacharya who made the journey unforgettable.

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