Neelanjan Chakravarty from Kolkata created a homestay to host tourists and adventure enthusiasts in South 24 Parganas, West Bengal. Here are some unique experiences he offers, just for the love of travel.
Neelanjan Chakravarty, a 58-year-old Kolkata resident recalls his stint at the Indian Audit & Accounts Department as one that involved a lot of travel. Here’s where he first developed a love for exploring places.
Speaking to The Better India Neelanjan says, “I have always been an avid trekker, my favourite haunt being the Himalayas. On these trips of mine, I would find warmth in the form of homestays and welcoming families. I’d enjoy the time I spent with them, promising myself that one day I too would welcome people in a homestay of my own.”
In a bid to lay the foundation of this dream, Neelanjan purchased 1.25 bigha of land in South 24 Parganas, West Bengal in 2010.
In the time to come, Neelanjan’s labour of love — the Bongheri Homestay — would welcome tourists from all over India, giving them respite from the cacophony in the city.
The land lay as is until 2017 when Neelanjan decided to launch his dream project; he opted for voluntary retirement from his job to do this.
“I could now pursue my long cherished passion,” he says.
Living life on the edge in the Sundarbans
Bongheri Homestay nestled in the Kaikhali Village in the Sundarbans is a treat to both the eyes and the mind. Life here is devoid of the usual hustle, and even the clocks seem to tick at a slower pace.
Every year this UNESCO World Heritage Site sees tourists thronging the area marvelling at the 1,40,000-hectare mangrove forest, one of the largest in the world.
The region has been acclaimed as a “labyrinth of water channels with exceptional biodiversity”, and rightly so. Anyone who braves the deep waters and thick foliage of the Sundarbans has a majestic sight awaiting — a chance to view globally endangered species in close quarters. These include the Royal Bengal Tiger, Irawadi dolphins, estuarine crocodiles, and even the critically endangered endemic river terrapin.
So when Neelanjan managed to acquire a piece of land right in the middle of this haven, he was thrilled.
“I started the homestay with the intent of giving guests an authentic rural experience,” he says adding that being right in the middle of the fascinating Sundarbans only added to the charm.
Throughout the construction of the homestay cottages, Neelanjan would shuttle between his Kolkata residence and the site of construction. The process of building was slow, and finally, Bongheri Homestay was ready to welcome its first tourists in 2018.
“Initially there were only two cottages,” recounts Neelanjan. “I equipped them with all necessary infrastructures like a kitchen, dining, a king-size bed, bedside table, wardrobe, dressing table, tea table and western-style bathrooms. During the lockdown period, I had two more rooms constructed such that today, 12 people can be accommodated at any given time.”
But while creating a home away from home for guests, Neelanjan also wanted to provide a livelihood to the local women around South 24 Parganas. And he did. So whilst you are at the homestay, everything right from the food to your sightseeing will be taken care of by the team of eight locals who tend to the place.
One may wonder, what living in the middle of one of the world’s best biodiverse regions entails.
“A lot,” says Neelanjan.
A rendezvous in the wild
The couple says that the main draw here is the property’s proximity to the Matla River, a fisher’s haven. A fishing expedition here has guests returning with nets filled with molluscs, prawns, crabs, and the native Koibol fish, which the women at the homestay will be more than happy to cook for your next meal.
Neelanjan further shares that lunches and dinners are a hearty affair here, with an array of seafood, spiced with secret Bengali recipes by the women, and accompanied by vegetables, lentils, and of course the staple rice.
Sangeeta Kar, a guest who visited the homestay in January 2021 says, “It was a very peaceful and quiet environment. The hospitality of the staff here is very welcoming and the food was delicious.”
After guests have been fed and watered well, there is a myriad of adventure activities that await. The most popular one is the boat safari through the Sundarbans. “Guests do not need to pay anything additional for these activities. While on the expedition, they can discover the mysteries of the mangrove forests, spot tigers, reptiles and other rare fauna,” says Neelanjan.
“We also organise a local fisherman’s boat ride at Matla River and nearby creeks. There is a tailor-made boat ride wherein we go along the watch towers of the Sundarbans,” he adds stating that this is more of a leisure ride and the trip is ideal for bird watching.
“Those who wish to sit back and relax can walk through Bengal’s rural fisherman villages with their tiny hamlets. Guests can also sit by the river, and the sunrise is an added bonus,” says Neelanjan.
But for him, the best part about having guests over is to watch them marvel at the place.
“It gives me immense joy and makes me feel the journey was worth it.”
Exploring the rural version of luxury
It’s fascinating, the couple says, to watch guests being looked after by the locals, who prior to this did not have any formal training in hospitality.
“I trained them myself,” says Neelanjan. He says these “good, kind and simple people” wanted to be part of the homestay, and the feeling was mutual.
“But because the place is located in a remote village in South Bengal, the lifestyle here is totally different from urban life. So, along with training them in the daily upkeep of the place, I also educated them on basic etiquette like how to behave with guests, cooking procedures, sourcing the best quality raw food materials and spices from the market, serving the guests professionally, etc.”
As the couple says, even though the area is an adventure zone, there is a kind of beauty in sitting back.
“When guests wake up in the mornings, there is so much that the place offers — the green fields, the open clear sky, a flower garden and a pond with ducks. There is also a kid’s play area with a swing and a barbeque area that has a bonfire. Guests can check on the seasonal vegetables that are grown at the homestay garden too,” says Neelanjan.
“Sundarbans is a place where everyone can be fully mindful, away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life,” he adds.
Neelanjan says the homestay welcomes around 30 guests each month, the price per couple being Rs 3,700 for a night, inclusive of food and lodging.
As the sun sets on the Sundarbans, it colours the landscape in hues of orange. A lone tiger somewhere in the distance gets its evening drink at the river, while a mangrove whistler (a common bird in this region) adds its symphony to the evening.
The magic of the Sundarbans lingers in the air.
Book your stay here.
Edited by Pranita Bhat