On World Turtle Day, the story of a North Bengal town that blocks roads to save a turtle

Ananya Bhattacharya
Ananya BhattacharyaMay 23, 2023 | 16:49

On World Turtle Day, the story of a North Bengal town that blocks roads to save a turtle

The temple town of Baneswar in Cooch Behar, North Bengal, regularly goes on 'strikes' to save its beloved Mohan, the black softshelled turtle. Image: DailyO

Once upon a time in a nondescript little by-the-way town called Baneswar near Cooch Behar, in North Bengal, the townfolk all assembled on the streets stopping traffic. They wanted answers. The town is home to a near-extinct species of the black softshell turtle. The locals lovingly call these turtles 'Mohan'. There are many of these Mohans in a pond inside the premises of the Baneswar Shiv Mandir, the main attraction of this small town.


So, the Trust that manages this temple, had cemented all sides of this pond. Turtles, as is common knowledge, lay their eggs on land. After the mating season was over, the pregnant female turtles tried hard to get on ground. But there was cement. These Mohans struggled and went back to water, unable to find a path to land to lay their eggs.

Eventually, they began dying. One after the other, bodies of the turtles began floating up in the temple pond. People realised something was amiss. The main road was blocked. Answers were demanded of the government. And soon enough, the cemented banks were removed.

The Mohans could breathe once again.

No one quite knows when the Baneswar Shiv Mandir was built. There are several legends like it is with any small town, but historians agree on one fact: Maharaja Pran Narayan of Cooch Behar restored the temple during his reign (1632-1666) after it was destroyed. A white board at the entry gates now has this written in big black letters. However, still, there's no consensus on when the original ancient Baneswar Shiv Mandir was built.

The board at the Baneswar Shiv Mandir gates. Photo: Google Maps
The board at the Baneswar Shiv Mandir gates. Photo: Dhrupad Roy Burman/Google Maps

Similarly, no one can quite tell when the black softshell turtles began calling this pond their home. The locals love them more than their family members. They are banned from feeding the turtles but some people find a way.

The board asking visitors to not feed the 'tortoises'. Photo: Google Maps
The board asking visitors to not feed the 'tortoises'. Photo: Shouvik Dutta/Google Maps

The turtles, while being much loved by people, have various threats to get by every day. There are less than 50 of them in the Baneswar Mandir pond today, says Parimal Barman, president of the local turtle protection committee. 20 years ago, that number was 780. In the Baneswar area, there are about 3,000 of these softshell turtles. The turtles are poached day in and day out. Just last week, two of them were rescued, with fishing hooks attached to their mouth.

The black softshell turtle, Nilssonia nigricans, is a freshwater turtle. While the turtles are originally native to the lower Brahmaputra river, most of them are found in temples around the North East and Bangladesh, with one population in the Baneswar Shiv Mandir pond. Some narratives say the softshell turtle was first brought to Chittagong in Bangladesh from Iran by a Persian Sufi, Hazrat Bayezid Bostami. This was sometime in the 1800s. However, the locals in Baneswar would beg to differ. Mohan has been part of their conscience as long as the Shiv Mandir has been around. And that, is a long long time.


On Mondays, the railway crossing teems with Shivbhakts. The temple lies just off the State Highway. There are roadsigns on the highway that say 'Turtle Crossing'. On the left is a fancy sweet store now, which has rows upon rows of mithai stacked, with their expiry dates written on them. You get off the main road and take a right, and the hordes of devotees will lead you to the temple.

The pond inside the temple premises has a board asking visitors to refrain from touching or feeding the 'tortoises'. In Bangla, the word 'kochhop' is used interchangeably for both turtles and tortoises. The English translation here says 'tortoise' instead of 'turtle' and differences between the two are for Biology books. Here they are just Mohan. As much a part of the town's identity as its residents'. A hundred more roadblocks to save Mohan, in a breath.

Last updated: May 23, 2023 | 18:44
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