Cooch Behar – I first heard about this place when I was reading a story on Maharani Gayatri Devi of Jaipur. She came from Cooch Behar. This was pre-google days, and I assumed it to be a part of modern-day Bihar. Well, I was not too off the mark, Cooch Behar belongs to West Bengal at the edge where it touches Assam. The chicken’s neck that connects North East India to rest of India is Cooch Behar district. Unless you are flying, you can not reach North East India, without passing through Cooch Behar.
I also heard tales of kings of Cooch Behar who would bet their lands in the game of dice. Does that remind you of Mahabharat – it reminded me of it. So, during out Sikkim Bengal trip earlier this year we headed to Cooch Behar. We wanted to explore this land of beautiful women, a land sandwiched between Bhutan and Bangladesh and a city known for its lovely palace.
Places to visit in Cooch Behar
History of Cooch Behar
History of Cooch Behar region goes back to pre-historic days. It has references in epics like Ramayan and Mahabharat. It was then a part of Kamarupa region of Pragjyotisha kingdom that extends up to the current day Guwahati. Gupta Era pillars mention about Kamrup in 4th CE. It was ruled by Guptas and Palas in the known history till it briefly came under Muslims towards the end of 15th CE. It was called Kamta then. Post this the Rajbongshi or Koch dynasty starting establishing itself in the region and various kings of this dynasty can be traced till Indian independence.
After an attack by the Bhutan, a treaty was signed with East India Company in mid 18th CE. Peace prevailed after this. In 1949, the princely state of Coch Behar merged with India and became a district of the state of West Bengal in 1850. In 1863, king Nripendra Narayan ascended the throne while still an infant. It was during his time that the Cooch Behar as it stands today would take shape. His most famous legacy would be Cooch Behar Palace that is probably the most majestic of Indian palaces though entirely European in character.
Maharani Gayatri Devi was the grand daughter of Nripendra Narayana.
For Detailed history and dynasty chart refer to NIC Website on Cooch Behar.
Cooch Behar Palace or Rajbari
Built in 1887 this lovely palace is red locally called Rajbari or simply the home of the royal family. It is a must see in Cooch Behar. Elegance is the first word that comes to my mind when I think of vast sprawling lawns surrounding the spread out structure in red. You realize it’s almost 400 feet length only when you walk towards it. It looks small from the entrance gate but when you take that long walk through the lawns, passing by the small lakes that you realize its real size.
Cooch Behar Palace is also called Victor Jubilee Palace.
The right side of the palace building is broader than its left side – giving symmetry an obvious miss. A metal dome sits proudly above the building. If you look at the drum on which it stands, you will see the arched windows on it. This dome is visible from anywhere in the city. You can never get lost – just look for the towering dome. The palace has two storeys but it looks taller, probably because of the tall dome.
Cooch Behar Palace was modelled on Buchingham palace of England
There is a museum inside the palace, which is closed on Fridays. As luck would have it, I was there on a Friday so missed the museum. I was told that most of that most of the items of the palace were stolen and are lost forever. My friends who visited this palace in their childhood were surprised to see the beautiful avatar of the palace when I posted the picture on my social media. Guess, some credit goes to ASI for maintaining the palace.
Since I could not enter the museum, I saw this beautiful doorknob in brass. I just tried to visualize the interiors.
We walked around the palace and the backside of the palace was as beautiful if not more.
A chatwala has very creatively placed his shop across the wall of the palace. By the time you walk around the palace you are thirsty and probably craving for a snack. He is perfectly positioned to serve you at this moment. Talk about grassroots innovations.
Temples of Cooch Behar
Any ancient town in India can not be without temples that hold its cultural past intact. Cooch Behar has many temples, but these are the ones I visited :
Madan Mohan Bari
Madan Mohan Temple in pristine white has a unique architecture. It has a circular dome in the middle and three different rooms in straight line housing three different temples. The temple stands in the middle of manicured lawns. When you walk around the lawns you see the variety of sculptures scattered around. The entrance to the temple is built like a fort entrance with a naqarkhana like structure on top. Being in white it looks beautiful.
The main deity at Madan Mohan temple is Krishna. A brass idol of Krishna playing the flute dressed in yellow clothes and surrounded by yellow marigolds is the center of attraction. The royal family of Cooch Behar used to preside over all the rituals of this temple. Now, I am told the district commissioner performs this duty as none of the royal family members live here anymore.
I was at the temple around mid morning and we could see devotees sitting in the corridor and singing bhajans or devotional songs.
The temple on the right belongs to Kali – the fierce goddess that I so associate with Bengal. The third temple has two images of Bhavani Devi & Tara devi. There is another smaller temple dedicated to Mahishasurmardini.
Opposite the temple is a small tank with arched pavilion around it.
Madan Mohan temple was also built by King Nripendra Narayana.
Ras yatra is a festival that is celebrated with fervor in this temple on Kartik Purnima i.e. 15 days after the festival of Diwali. This means that it coincides with the festival of Dev Deepawali or Tripurari Purnima that is celebrated across the country.
Baneswar Shiva Temple
Situated a bit to the north of Cooch Behar town, Baneswar Shiva temple is situated next to a pond.
A simple temple in white houses the ancient Shivalinga. The peculiarity of this temple is that the Shivalinga is located about 10-12 feet below the ground level. So, when you enter the temple, you have to go down a few steps to see the Shivalinga. I assume the level of the rest of the town may have gone up with layers of buildings, while the linga remained where it was installed.
The pond next to the Baneswar temple has a large number of the tortoise. In fact, not too far from the temple, we saw some tortoise taking a leisurely walk on the road.
Sagar Dighi is a large tank in the middle of the town. We walked around this tank to get a feel of the town. This is what we saw:
A few colonial-era buildings are now converted into government offices. Most of them are in red colors almost like the Colonial Calcutta ones.
At regular intervals there are statues of Bengali men – the names are all written in Bengali so I could not make out much. Of course, there was Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore.
Statue of the architect of modern Cooch Behar – Raja Nripendra Narayana is seen on one edge of the Sagar Dighi.
Sagar Dighi – the quite square lake with ghat like stairs was quite and serene. It looks like the city of Cooch Behar revolves around her and she is a silent witness to everything that happens here. Birds flew across, ducks swam at the corners and trees provided the much-needed shade.
We saw wall murals made with mini ceramic tiles or mosaic. Look at this mural that depicts all elements of the city with such elegance. Another one depicted the Baul singers of Bengal.
Travel Tips for Cooch Behar
Cooch Behar is well linked through Indian Railways from most major stations.
There is a ticket to visit the Madan Mohan temple and the ticket for the camera. Priests are rude and very unwelcoming.
You can hire a rickshaw to go around the city. We took a Taxi from Jaldapara and did a morning evening trip to Cooch Behar.
You can easily do the major parts of the city in a day.
On the way back you can drive through the thick Chilapata forest.
I found Cooch Behar a perfect mix of nature, culture, heritage, and spirituality.
Recommend you read following travel blog posts on places to visit in Bengal.