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Ride on Bharat-Nepal Maetri Rajmarg

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By COL PREM BAHADUR THAPA (RETD)

We all need a break, more so in times such as now (when nothing seems to be going right on Mother Earth) and if you are thinking of going away for a while, though not too far or cumbersome, and also not too heavy on your wallet, then you may consider what many amongst us often do, more so because it needs no special preparation. Its remunerations are greater than what you may spend.

While travelling in Nepal, recently, to record a journalistic event, we took a comfortable four wheeler which was more convenient in comparison to other modes of travel. Since the destination was right alongside the East-West Highway on a little detour, one decided to fulfill a desire to travel from one end to the other on a leisurely tour and see its mighty plains – the Tarai Region (Madhesh) that was once the hunting circuit of the Royals, only, in the not too distant past. It is named the Mahendra Rajmarg and was built by aid provided by many nations including us; also called Bharat-Nepal Maetri Marg at many places.

The Highway flies out due East from its western most border town of Mahendernagar, in a more or less straight trajectory, till it reaches its easternmost town of Kakarvhitta touching West Bengal.  It clocks approximately 1100 kms. It is not exactly a four lane wonder but in fairly good driving condition. However, it is not the road that matters … it is the still surviving natural geography and its ancient inhabitants that you encounter on the way, which makes it worth-the-while. Surprisingly, the traffic is not too heavy and supervised by Nepal Prahari (Police) with frequent checkpoints on its way …and thus perhaps accidents are seldom reported.

The first encounter is the exchange of formalities on the border which perhaps is the simplest compared to any other country in the world and, if you are an Indian (which they can recognise before we even open our mouth) they just let you go as if you are entering Delhi while coming from Dehradun. All that you need to carry for your own sake is some identity in your pocket (Aadhar Card is now ‘Pass’). And if you are taking your vehicle across, the fee is approximately NR 400 per day and you collect the registration slip from the in-situ RTO office. No other hassles and it does not take more than a half hour at the most. But, yes, besides complete vehicle documents, Corona vaccination certificates are a must.

Now halt at Mahendra Nagar and stay in one of the hotels according to your budget and enjoy the first feel of a ‘foreign country’. But it may be more in the mind because it’s like any other town on our own side, except that it is dominated by their language which is mixed with Hindi and Tarai region’s local dialect. In fact that makes it better because communication is no hassle. The other comfort is money, because our Rs 100 begets their NR 160 … and if you exchange Rs 10,000… it becomes a swollen bagful of NR 16,000. Even, then, the Indian rupee is more preferred by the roadside traders and one need not exchange all the while. Now, one is ready for the journey ahead and Tally-ho.

The intention here-in is to introduce very briefly to interested readers some glimpses  of that country  from the road side, alone, that goes right along our border  and almost touching it at places. The people living on either side of it love going back and forth  as if the border didn’t exist, unless of course some individual land dispute erupts into scuffles or some drug peddler/smuggler is hunted and chased, with the police from both sides routinely ‘clearing the air’ before the Media reaches and blows it out of proportion. Now that is rare but also never fully settled … to no greater concern, either, because the people living on either side are of the same ethnicity and, many times, their own relations to add. They are mostly tribal who have inhabited this region for centuries and find mention in the Mahabharata, also, and are called ‘Tharu’. It stretches from the East to the West, covering the entire ‘Madhesh’ except for some odd places in between. It was the most neglected region and its people are still poor. Most of them are losing their land to other settlers.

My journey had begun and, after travelling 4-5 hours, we were at Chisapani astride Karnali Khola, one of Nepal’s mighty rivers and on which a mega – hydel project has been constructed by an European firm.  The river is wide and the bridge is very well designed to look at, making it a very popular tourist destination. Travelers often compulsorily halt here to enjoy the fish curry, fresh from its river, with their local Tarkari-Bhat and Rakshi (wine). Since one had been advised accordingly, we decided to camp here for a night to enjoy their simple hospitality a little better. It is as good as the saying goes when it was helped with their homemade wine, though other wines, both, Nepali and Indian … even foreign ones were readily available. One thing that distinguishes that country is the open-minded attitude towards liquor and drinking. It is a part of their meal and can be found even in tea shops. Nobody breaks a leg …and nobody knows what ‘prohibition’ means.

                                                                                        Next on the way is Kohalpur, which is a fairly big and well developed township. It is the major road junction for people travelling up North and thence to elsewhere, also, Surkhet being the bigger destination. This is the area that encompasses the famous districts of Rolpa-Dolpa, from where the Maoist uprising mainly emerged … and we will leave it at that. To reach here, the road passes through two of its best kept reserved forests … namely Kailai and Bardia. Its thick jungle is quite a sight and rare animals may also be sighted besides the horde of Sambar deer and jungle fowls that are easily seen all along. The journey through the forest, which is fairly long, is a traveler’s delight. It is their prized wealth and, for a change, regular Army units are deployed to protect it, in the place of forest rangers or the police.

You may halt here at a Tharu village Home Stay and enjoy their cultural welcome or at Dang/Tulsipur (further ahead a little up North), which is wonderfully and absolutely similar to Dehradun.  The valley is fairly well developed and boasts of a university, also, besides other developments and is home to Nepal’s famous shrine of Devi Ambikaswari. It is wide and indeed very scenic, and dotted with old world villages on its fringes to remind one of its historic past and ancient culture;  more so because it is the home  of Gurungs and Magars, who are the more renowned sword bearers  of that country. It was once the Maoist government’s desire to make it the new Capital, which of course got lost in the quagmire of politics in which they proved as determined and futile as others before or after.

The next day, we rode through another mighty forest of Banke District, and equally delightful, and reached Nepal’s centrally located and folk-lore like famous town of Butwal-Bhairawa. It needs no introduction. It is the most busy corridor between India and Nepal and the traffic that passes through it has made this place not only important but very prosperous. It has transformed from a simple transit point of mud huts to the five star kind of dwellings that have come up now. In the days of yore,  Butwal was only a trading point where villagers from up North came to barter their home made Ghee (butter) for ‘Salt’ … and this is the way  the Gorkha lahures (soldiers) came to enroll  in the Indian Army. The railway station at Sunaoli still stands with its meter gauge rails to remind us of its past services, still as much now as it did earlier.  Nearby is Lumbini, the historic birthplace of Mahatma Buddha (and our destination, too), which is a must visit to savour its religious importance, serenity and architectural wonders that almost all Buddhist countries of the world have created. My pen may be inadequate to describe these fully. It is now connected with an international airport to boost the religious tourism that flocks here regularly in large numbers.          

We are now half way to Kakarvhitta and the journey ahead will pass through the world wide famous wildlife sanctuary of Chitwan, and thence on to the home of the famed Krantis (another sword bearing clan) of Eastern Nepal. More about it when we meet again!

The above journey is a contrast of scenic wonders and the more obvious one is the continuous accompaniment of green hills on our left and the mighty plains to our right. It is covered with some of the densest forests, to vast open fields that have been converted to agriculture, which at places can be seen stretching as far as the eye can go. New settlers, mostly from up north, are changing the landscape, while its ‘Tharus’ still live in shanty villages. Therefore, go at leisurely pace; halt often to enjoy the company of countryside wayfarers in their past and present ways of living, and their visible love of clinging to their ancient culture.   Joining them at their simple food/tea joints can be a lot of educative fun… while staying the nights in some of their cozy home-stays; or some of the most modern motels/hotels that the journey provides at almost all important townships on the long highway.