Being born and brought up in Jharkhand, all that I could see around me were the grand coal mines spread across the region and the horribly polluted ecosystem which came as an obvious consequence. Tourism was hardly a word one would associate with this state where the Naxal movement and lawlessness were at their peak. It was not until Mahendra Singh Dhoni became Indian cricket’s greatest captain that Jharkhand managed to get some recognition in popular culture. However, when it comes to a destination to visit, Jharkhand is still off the radar for most people. My own indifferent attitude towards this state of affairs changed when my family decided to go on a road trip to the undiscovered landscapes of Jharkhand – the most famous of the pitstops being Netarhat.
Netarhat is a small township located 160 KM west of Ranchi, the state capital. Despite it being a hill station, etched with historical (and colonial) memories, few dared to venture into the place for fear of the infamous Naxalites who had made the surrounding jungles their hub of activity. However, some radical and commendable measures taken by the state government in times of desperation led to a systematic dissolution of these forces and this has been a boon for the tourism industry in the region. We also decided to become a part of the crowd which had suddenly started to flood the town of Netarhat and were not disappointed even once.
Netarhat’s lasting legacy is the Netarhat Vidyalaya, fondly called as the “last gurukul”, known for producing some of the best bureaucrats and technocrats in the country. However, what makes the place such an adored spot is its plesasant and fresh climate, offering respite from the uncontrolled pollution and breathlessness of Jharkhand’s urban industrial townships. Our first glimpse of its unprecedented beauty manifested at a place christened ‘Magnolia point’, which had a story which is as exotic as the place itself. Legend has it that Magnolia was an English maiden who fell in love with a shepherd boy, apparently a local tribal lad, but failed to convince her aristocratic parents of their union. Heartbroken, she jumped off the cliff with her horse. The place immortalised her love. And the sun setting across the Vindhya mountains reminds one of her painful loss.
A few kilometers from the spot is the historical Dak Bungalow, the kind of dwelling made famous in old Indian ghost stories and TV serials, which also happened to be our home for a night in Netarhat. The cool nights were filled with strange noises and calls of the wild, often making you wonder whether there indeed was an element of horror in those dear old homestays. In the morning hours, sipping tea at the small dining space of the bungalow was reminiscent of the English luxury and aristocracy, so ironically placed amidst the vast expanse of wilderness, inhabited by some of the country’s oldest tribal communities.
The sunrise point is another popular spot with the tourists, located inside the sprawling campus of Hotel Prabhat Vihar, Netahat’s only star hotel which also provides a unique tent accommodation in Swiss style for those who can afford. Witnessing the rising sun spreading its red fluorescence across the sky was mesmerising for any urban dweller who hardly gets to see dawn in its full glory.
Driving through the winding roads of the small township, we were greeted with the famous pine forests which look so oddly befitting despite the fact of their distant foreign origin. The French Chalet house is yet another exotic spectacle that meets the eye as one is traveling down the hilly roads.
For anyone interested in anthropology, Netarhat is a perfect field for study. The Birhor villages are clustered within the township, offering a strange perspective of human evolution for those who can appreciate it. The Birhors are regarded as one of the oldest communities of people, not only in the Indian subcontinent, but also in Asia as a whole. Although most of them have adopted contemporary lifestyles and culture, one can still sense the history that they carry with them. One must not miss a chance to interact with the elders of these villages who hold a treasure of old folklores and stories of our ancient past.
Netarhat is indeed a hidden gem of Jharkhand, rightly called as the “Queen of Chotanagpur”. For anyone who craves natural beauty and prehistory in a land of undiscovered territories, Netarhat must not be forsaken. Do visit it during the months of October-February when the state government organizes the “Sharad Mahotsav”, complete with cultural festivals and guided tours of the region.
(The name ‘Netarhat’ is a local adaptation of the phrase “Nature’s heart”, which is what the old English dwellers of the place had found it to be.)