Hey guys, hope you’re doing good
Last October-end, I went on a weeklong trip to the neighbouring states of Jharkhand and Bihar in East-Central India. I have already shared my travel experience in Bihar. If you have missed it, click here: My Bodh Gaya Experience
In Jharkhand, I travelled to the state capital Ranchi, and then to Jamshedpur (also known as Tatanagar), home to India’s first iron and steel company TISCO – Tata Iron and Steel Company Limited (now Tata Steel) which was set up in 1907.
So, let me start with my Ranchi story. But before that, read a bit about Jharkhand…
Jharkhand means “land of forests”. Around 30% of the state’s geographical area is covered with forests abounding with a wide variety of flora and fauna, resulting in two national parks and ten wildlife sanctuaries. This rich habitat rests in one of the world’s oldest landmasses – the Chottanagpur plateau, which dates to over 540 million years. While the plateau extends into Chhattisgarh and Odisha, it is the wondrous dense forests of Jharkhand that recount rich legends of aboriginal tribes that have inhabited them since pre-Dravidian times.
Jharkhand is one of the country’s most recently formed states. It was part of neighbouring Bihar till 15 November, 2000 when it attained statehood, and Ranchi became its capital. The state is bordered by Bihar, West Bengal, Odisha and Chhattisgarh.
Like Bihar, Jharkhand too ranks at the bottom of the country’s states in terms of development. Going back in history, the British arrived to this primeval land in the eighteenth century. This was after the Mughal emperor granted the Diwani of Bengal, Odisha and Bihar (which included the Chhotanagpur plateau) to the East India Company in 1765. The British set about developing Jharkhand. Traders and farmers were invited to settle in vast tracts of empty land, while forests were cut down to make way for roads and railways. Adivasis, the native people of Jharkhand, for whom the forests were home for countless generations rebelled against their land and authority being taken away and transferred in the hands of strangers. The many tribal rebellions which took place were brutally crushed by the British.
Today, there are more than 32 tribal groups in the state, the most prominent among them being the Santhal, Oraan, Baiga, Gond, Ho, Asura, Munda, Paharia, Chero and Birjea. Santhals are the most widespread. Music and dance is integral to the tribal communities. The most popular folk dance is Chhau, which is performed as a ritual to beseech the blessings of Lord Shiva for a bountiful harvest. It is characterized by brightly coloured and decorative masks or heavily-painted faces. The traditional tribal crafts include Dokra metal-craft, terracotta, scroll paintings called “Pyatkar”, weaving, bamboo craft, stone carving, wood carving and sericulture.
Even as age-old tribes inhabit the lush dense forests, the state is home to some of the country’s foremost hubs of industry, commerce and education. It is a treasure-trove of minerals, home to nearly 40 percent of the country’s mineral wealth, ranking first in the production of coal, mica and iron. From Ranchi, the mining town of Dhanbad – the coal capital of India is 175 kms and the planned industrial city of Jamshedpur 140 kms. The country’s largest steel manufacturing plant, Bokaro Steel City is 50 kms west of Dhanbad.
One of the most scenic places in the state is Netarhat, 160 kms to the west of Ranchi. According to various old stories, British soldiers were so moved by the luxuriant forests, winding hilly roads, invigorating breezes and gurgling streams, all so reminiscent of the Scottish highlands that they named the place “Nature’s Heart” which eventually changed to Netarhat. McCluskieganj, a small town about 60kms northwest of Ranchi, is an interesting place to stop by. Originally an Anglo-Indian settlement, the town’s architecture is the main highlight.
For the religious, there are some important places around Ranchi – the temple town of Deogarh (260 kms), which is the spiritual centre of the state, the temple town of Rajrappa (78 kms), the heritage village of Maluti (359 kms) which has 72 exquisite terracotta temples within a small area, and one of the most sacred Jain pilgrimages in the country – Parasnath Hill, which at 1366m is Jharkhand’s highest point. The entry for this hill is through Madhuban village, 160 kms from Ranchi.
For history buffs, the region surrounding Hazaribagh, 91 kms from Ranchi, has revealed palaeo-archaeological remains in the form of 10,000 year old Rock Art and Stone Age tools. The tribes inhabiting the area continue their unique traditions of ritual art, providing links to the prehistoric rock-art of the region. Rajmahal, 317 kms from Ranchi, has several monuments from the Mughal period.
The state cuisine largely comprises of rice and vegetables. Litti-chokha is the staple diet of the people. Litti is a baked or deep fried wheat cake filled with roasted black gram powder called “sattu” and chokha is mashed potato seasoned with green chillies, onion, tomato and ginger.
And now my travel story (28 October – 3 November, 2015)
Birsa Munda. The name is new to me, but it belongs to a very popular figure – a tribal hero, who rose against the British Rule in modern-day Bihar and Jharkhand. Birsa Munda (1875–1900) was a tribal freedom fighter, a religious leader and a folk hero who gathered massive popular support throughout the tribal belt of the country. Captured by the British, he died in Ranchi jail under mysterious circumstances at the young age of 25.
So, here I’m at the Birsa Munda airport in Ranchi. The flight journey from Mumbai to Ranchi usually takes around two and a half hours but my Indigo flight from Mumbai is via Patna (the state capital of Bihar) so it takes some four hours before landing at 4:15pm.
Now there is something about Ranchi that not many are aware of… it’s located in the heart of the Chhotanagpur plateau, one of the oldest land formations in the world. At an altitude of 650m, surrounded by dense forests, hills and waterfalls, the city enjoys a pleasant climate. No wonder it used to be the summer capital of Bihar under the British administration. Today, besides being the state capital, it is Jharkhand’s third populous city after Jamshedpur and Dhanbad.
The airport taxi fare to my hotel in the city centre area is 500 rupees. I have opted for Hotel Rajdhani Plaza after reading some good reviews on Trip Advisor. The brief expression of surprise on the face of the guy at the taxi service counter as well as the taxi driver when I mention the hotel name makes me wonder if I have made the right choice. Anyway, tomorrow morning I’m proceeding to Bodh Gaya. So it’s just a one-night stay.
Within half an hour, I’m at MG Road, also called Main Road, well-known for its malls. The hotel address is mentioned as “Church Road, somewhere between Firayalal Chowk and the Gossner Evangelical Lutheran Church (GEL Church).” Firayalal Chowk has been the city’s hub of activity for years. The busy roundabout is renamed “Albert Ekka Chowk” after the Indian Army soldier Albert Ekka, who was martyred in the 1971 war with Pakistan and bestowed with the Param Vir Chakra for gallantry in service. But the old name is still popular. A statue of the war hero stands at the centre amidst heavy vehicular activity. The Gossner Evangelical Lutheran Church (GEL Church) is further down the Main Road. It was established by four German missionaries in 1845. Close to the church is the GEL Church Market which is a favoured destination for shopping.
I’m mighty pleased with the location, but only for a short while. The car leaves the buzzing Main Road behind and drives through a narrow lane in an old and congested area. I groan in disappointment. And the hotel, it’s just as old and dilapidated as everything else around. Boohoo… The driver offers to show me a nice hotel near the station which is two kilometres away, but I prefer staying close to the Main Road. I get a discounted tariff of 800 rupees including taxes for the room that I half-heartedly chose from the three rooms shown to me. There are other hotel guests too, but none on my floor. The hotel kitchen is at the end of the passage. This is where all the hotel meals, vegetarian and non-vegetarian, are prepared. And it isn’t even a room! My room is clean, but lacking in fresh paint and decor. The room boy places half a piece of soap bar and a towel on the side table. Half a piece of soap bar! I don’t know whether to laugh or to cry. It’s good that I have carried my stuff with me. As expected the bed linen looks shabby. The boy insists that it is fresh, but I send him off for a change anyway. The room has a balcony which is nice. But the view is not nice. Sigh. The television set looks like it belongs to the mid-80s. I don’t even bother to turn it on. The bed is hard, and so are the two small pillows. Nevertheless I plonk myself on the hard surface for a few minutes of rest.
Ten minutes later, I’m out on the road looking for a cycle-rickshaw to take me to the Khadgarha Bus Stand to book a bus ticket for tomorrow to Bodh Gaya. It’s 5:30pm. Walking down the road, I reach a place called Bahu Bazaar. By now, it’s become dark. But the street lights are off. Electric supply is very poor throughout the state. Power cuts are a daily occurrence making generators absolutely “must-haves”. Fortunately, I find a cycle-rickshaw to the bus stand. It costs 30 rupees. I pass a few churches on the way. I guess the Church Road gets its name from them. Still, there are plenty more churches in the city. And Christian institutes too, including St Albert’s College, the largest theological college of the Roman Catholic Church in India.
Ranchi is also one of the country’s noted hubs of higher learning with a number of reputed educational institutes like the Indian Institute of Management, Birla Institute of Technology, Xavier Institute of Social Service, Birsa Agricultural University, etc. Hence the growing presence of international brands and food-food chains for the youth population.
The entire stretch of Church Road is lined with vendors sitting by lighted candles alongside the road. This market is held every Wednesday and Sunday. And today is Wednesday. Even the Khadgarha Bus Stand area is hit by power outage. It’s not even a proper bus stand. Tourist buses are parked on both sides of a rough, pot-holed road. I walk in the dark enquiring for buses to Bodh Gaya till I reach a place with a few lights. I soon learn that all luxury buses leave for Gaya at night. But there’s a standard bus leaving in the morning at 9:30am. The ticket costs 160 rupees. I collect my ticket for the single seat in the front and leave for the Main Road. I love cycle-rickshaw rides but I don’t see any around. So I hop into an auto-rickshaw instead. The negotiated fare is 80 rupees, but I think that too is a little more than the normal fare. The Main Road is hardly two kilometres away.
It’s around 7:00pm. Famished, I head towards a South Indian restaurant located inside a shopping complex. After a masala dosa and a steaming hot cup of filter coffee, I’m back on the road. I have to find a nice hotel to stay on my next visit to the city, that’s after two days. Hotel Capitol Hill is a very nice-looking hotel alongside the Main Road. But the tariff for their standard single room is 5500 rupees. Hmmm. After all, this is a prime location. The desk clerk tells me that they have another hotel on the Station Road where the tariff is a bit lower at 3500 rupees for a superior single room. So I think it’s best to stay at one of the good hotels in that area on my next visit.
On the crowded Main Road, walking amidst heavy vehicular traffic is tiring. The lanes and bylanes are covered in dark. Worse, there’s trash everywhere. I’m back at my hotel at around 8:00pm. My phone calls to Hotel Birsa Vihar (JTDC) which is also on the Main Road go unanswered. But I’m able to get through Hotel Green Horizon on the Station Road. And they are willing to offer me a discounted tariff of 2500 rupees (including taxes and breakfast) for their standard room. I feel relieved after fixing my accommodation for the next visit. My stay in Bodh Gaya has already been booked. So I get my hotel booking for Jamshedpur done too. And then, I’m off to sleep.
Next morning, I leave the hotel at around 8:30am. There’s a cycle-rickshaw waiting outside. The ride to the bus stand costs 50 rupees.
At the bus stand, there’s still half an hour more for the bus to leave. It’s parked near a food stall. From my window seat, I can see the cook rustling up some hot breakfast: puris, potato curry, and jalebis. There’s a steady flow of customers, some of them regulars. What provokes my curiosity is the powdered stuffing that the cook tucks inside the puri balls before rolling them out quickly one by one. What can it be? I get the answer two days later on my return bus journey from Bodh Gaya when the bus makes a halt at Hazaribagh bus stand, 91 kms from Ranchi. At a nearby hand-cart, I see people quenching their thirst with something that looks like a local drink. I enquire about it from a guy seated nearby. It’s sattu (roasted black gram powder). Very cool and refreshing and just perfect for this very hot weather, he says. Maybe I should try it. He insists that I do so. Before I can even stop him, he yells out to the vendor to prepare a glass of it for me. Two days ago, on my way to Bodh Gaya, when my bus stopped for a while in the cantonment town of Ramgarh, I was tempted to try tea served in traditional kulharis. But I didn’t. This time, I decide to set aside my doubts. By the time I climb down from the bus and reach the cart, my drink is already ready. The vendor shows me the packets of sattu, which he says has tremendous health benefits. It’s used in making wholesome puris and parathas, and this cool drink. When I ask him whether he has used bottled mineral water, he drops the bomb. Tap water! OH. MY. GOD. Diarrhoea, typhoid, hepatitis… the names flash before me in seconds. And the guy is proudly proclaiming that their tap water is better than bottled mineral water! Worse, now I’m beginning to doubt bottled mineral water too. I can only hope that I don’t end up with any stomach ailment or water-borne disease. At least sattu is said to cure stomach ailments. The drink is indeed very refreshing. The water is stored in a matka (earthern pot) so it’s cool. And it’s very easy to prepare. After briskly whisking sattu in cold water, it’s poured into a glass to which a bit of chopped onions, green chillies, fresh coriander, cumin powder, black salt, salt and lemon are added. I buy a packet of the flour and return to my bus.
The road journey ends at the bus depot near Ranchi station, which is where I have to go. The entire road facing the station is lined with good hotels and restaurants. Walking the entire stretch, I discover that Hotel Chanakya BNR is the best among them all. In fact, the best place to stay in the city. I would have preferred staying here but even after a good discount, their single room tariff is 2900 rupees plus taxes. And at Hotel Green Horizon my room is booked for 2500 rupees including taxes and breakfast. It’s 3:00pm when I check into the hotel. It’s quite good and my room is excellent too.
There’s no time to go sight-seeing. Neither are there any places good enough for it. One of the guys at the hotel desk puts it straight to me. Ranchi Lake is not an enjoyable place. The rock garden has just a couple of rocks and is a haunt for couples, not good for me. The waterfalls -Dasham, Hundru, Jonha, Panch Gagh and Hirni Falls – are good but far, although within a radius of 60km of the city. But this isn’t the right time to visit them. They are mostly deserted and attract couples only. Right, of course! People visit waterfalls during the monsoon season and a little after that. The State Museum and the Tribal Research Institute and Museum are two excellent places to gain knowledge on the tribal culture of the state. But again, it would be closing time by the time I reach. So I decide to just wander around the nearby areas and then head for the Main Road. There’s a handloom house around the GEL Church Complex, where I spend some time and buy two saris for my mom.
On the way back, I take a cycle-rickshaw. They run on share basis too, but I prefer travelling alone. It costs 30 rupees. Back at the hotel, a large group of Americans make an entrance at the same time as I do. One of the older women in her late-50s gets a room next to mine and she’s very happy about it. “We are next door neighbours!” In that case, enjoy the high volume English pop music courtesy my room television…
All the tables in the hotel restaurant are vacant when I walk in for dinner. I decide upon chicken soup, chicken Hakka noodles and gulab jamun. After a while, a few mosquitoes join me underneath the table. My bare legs offer them a delightful feast till I decide to put an end to it. An attendant comes over armed with a mosquito swatter. He crawls on his knees and closes on one of the blood-suckers pointed by me. Ufff…. He’s not quick enough. I decide to have the rest of the meal in my room.
Next morning, once again I’m the only guest at the breakfast buffet. A little later, my “next door neighbour” joins me at my table. She’s chatty. The group is from California and they are here to attend a yoga convention at the 98-year-old Yogoda Ashram established by their spiritual guru, Paramhansa Yogananda. The group has been travelling in the country for nearly three weeks. They have been to the north around New Delhi and to Puri in the east visiting some of the ashrams of the renowned yogi, who introduced the world to ancient Indian yoga techniques and the tradition of meditation. Ranchi is their last stop before they return home. I never knew that the Yogoda Ashram attracted visitors from abroad too. The woman is dressed in white like most of her group now slowly trickling in. One of them, a man in his 50s, joins us. He’s been to Mexico, to the border town of Tijuana and a few nearby places. But like many Americans who have visited just that region, he doesn’t think much of the country. I try my bit in enlightening him about the rich ancient Mexican cultural heritage existing in other parts of the country. It evokes keen interest among them. But when it comes to Indian food, except for papads, they aren’t happy with the meals served to them during the tour. In fact, all of them are dissatisfied. I guess it’s the mistake of the tour organizers. They should have served them traditional food in a traditional style. Hotel food can be bad. Even I have experienced it at times. I didn’t like last night’s food. Still, breakfast is basic continental-style with the only Indian items being idli and medu vada. Whatever, it’s bad that they look disgruntled despite being on a spiritual trip.
I checkout from the hotel at around 8:45am. Buses for Jamshedpur leave from Kantatoli Bus Stand. The cycle-rickshaw ride costs 50 rupees. The bus frequency is quite good. There’s one waiting to leave in a couple of minutes. The front row seat is available. The ticket costs 120 rupees for the three-hour journey. Soon after, the bus departs for Tatanagar, as Jamshedpur is popularly called.
Coming soon: Jamshedpur – The Steel City of India
Two days later, I’m on my way from Jamshedpur to Ranchi to catch my flight home to Mumbai. Nearing the city, I see a signboard showing the way to the airport and quickly stop the bus to disembark. The auto-rickshaw ride from here costs me 220 rupees. Perhaps the ride from the bus stand would have been cheaper? Whatever, the driver tells me that the airport is closer from here. He points out a few buildings and institutions on the way. We pass the Hotel Ranchi Ashok (ITDC) which is near the High Court in Doranda. Ranchi’s most famous citizen is Mahendra Singh Dhoni, ace cricketer and the current captain of the Indian Cricket team in limited-overs formats. I can’t help enquiring if his home is close by. It isn’t.
My Indigo flight departure is at 4:45pm. So I spend the next two hours at the airport’s restaurant, mostly occupied by business visitors. Frankly speaking, Ranchi isn’t a tourist destination. But its waterfalls attract plenty of tourists from nearby places…and I didn’t even visit them!
So guys, if you’re around Ranchi during the monsoons, check this city for its popular waterfalls. They are said to be awesome. Enjoy