“Everything is just so beautiful here, I finally feel like I’m living again.” Sudeshna Ghosh is focussed on using her new smartphone to get a photo of the boatman as the sun rises at a distance. Slightly scared at first to sit on the boat, the woman in her 50s closes her eyes taking in the fresh morning air. Out for the first time in months, a weekend trip on Lakshmi Puja with her son Ankan to Bortir Bill, has come as refreshing change. The son, in his early 20s, tries to snap a kingfisher with his DSLR, his mother takes it all in, running her hand in the water.
“With the pandemic, and my chronic diabetes I was stuck at home for months. Recently, I started using Facebook on my new phone and showed my son beautiful pictures of this place and asked if we can go,” says Ghosh. Finally, after a few days, he gave in and drove his mother to the place. It is a two-hour drive from Rashbihari in south Kolkata, but the young man says “it’s worth it”.
While most tourist destinations have had to bear the brunt of the coronavirus pandemic, this small Bengal village has become a hotspot for daytrippers. From nature lovers to photographers and couples looking for the ideal location for a pre-wedding shoot, Bortir Bill on the outskirts of Kolkata has suddenly surfaced a destination of choice for those suffocating in the city.
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Bortir Bill, a vast wetland surrounded by farmlands in 24 Parganas (North), located between Barasat and Barrackpore, has seen a huge influx of visitors in recent days. And this is visible on Instagram and Facebook, where #BortirBill photos are creating a huge buzz with everything from portfolio shoots to vlogs. There is no dearth of photos of women and children posing with bundles of saplas (water lily), boatmen rowing at dusk, and bikers cutting through stacks of jute sticks bundles.
Located in the Beraberia village in the historic area of Nilgang, the area has always had large swathes of farmlands. But it garnered wider attention after a photographer shared some stunning photos on Facebook, also detailing how to reach the spot.
“I have been working here for the last 30 years, but have never seen so many people coming in every day,” said Sanjay Rai, 54, a local resident of the area.
The locals, mostly farmers, spend their time here collecting and selling sapla and catching fish in the wetland during monsoon season. In winter, when water recedes from the adjoining fields, they sow paddy and onions. However, this year the lockdown has opened up a new avenue for them.
“With the lockdown, even going to market to sell our produce was difficult, but suddenly we started seeing a lot of outsiders coming in and requesting rides in our boats,” Rai added. The boats were originally used for picking flowers in the wetlands.
Since late August, 14-year-old Tapan Majhi learnt a new skill to get some cash and help his father. “So many people are coming to our village now, they want to ride the boats, so we learnt how to row and make some money,” said Majhi, adding that at least three trips are guaranteed every weekend now.
Charging Rs 50 – Rs 100 per head, or even higher depending on the weather and time involved for the photoshoot, the locals with boats are making a killing.
Interestingly, along with the lockdown, another adversity also helped the villagers here. The heavy rainfall due to cyclone Amphan in May, brought in more water, helping the flowers to bloom for a longer period of time. Then with travel restrictions still in place, the picturesque location so near Kolkata became the ideal gateway for the holiday crowd.
“With the cyclone in the middle of the lockdown, we were heartbroken thinking how we will survive. However, with this unforeseen income and popularity, it made it possible for us to look forward,” said Adhir Biswas who does not recollect his village ever having got such attention before.
To get to the main waterbody, one must cross stacks of path kathi (jute sticks) along a path wide enough for only two-wheelers. The waterbody is mostly used by locals for retting their jute.
“Every year before Durga Puja, we would see a handful of people coming with big cameras to shoot with the path kathi and kash phool near our fields, but they didn’t venture out in the water as it was shallow and dirty,” explained Shyamal Barui, 64. This year with more rainfall, and less pollution, the water is cleaner, making for some Instagram worthy shots.
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“Usually we don’t see so much water, and definitely not for this long. But this year we had water from May, so, once restrictions were lifted, more people started coming in and taking pictures. All we know is someone shared photos on the internet and our village became the talk of the town,” Barui said chuckling.
Sovan Sadhukhan, a wedding photographer from Barasat, who recently shot a pre-wedding shoot there, explained why he never explored it for a project before. “With all parks and outdoor locations out of the question this time owing to lockdown, we didn’t have much option for shoots. But this was open and exceptionally great for outdoor photography in a natural setting.”
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“Earlier, we had to travel by train for such rural settings and it would be very time consuming. But here without much hassle one can get an essence of rural Bengal and the serene boat ride makes it even better,” he explained.
As pandal hopping in Durga Puja was out of the question this year, the village was flooded with people during the festive season. “Everyday about 10-15 cars would come, there were more coming by motorbikes and scooty to enjoy nature at its best,” said Namita Dolui. The 34-year-old added: “They take photos of themselves, and even ask our children to pose. It was a different experience.”
As the festive season comes to an end the water starts to recede, locals are getting ready for cultivation, but hopes this inflow of people becomes an annual phenomenon.
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