A little over 100km to the south of Kolkata is Gangasagar, the confluence where the Ganga meets the Bay of Bengal. Every year, hundreds of pilgrims from all over India, sadhus and commoners alike, arrive at the confluence on the day of Makar Sankranti, driven by the belief that a dip here is enough to rid them of all sins, an idea that traces its origin to the Ramayana. The crowds and the colourful atmosphere is a great opportunity for photographers too. Reaching the Gangasagar Island is a trifle complicated, requiring travel by road or rail and then by ferry, so it is best to avail the package tours offered by West Bengal Tourism (wbtdc.gov.in) and by private tour operators, who take care of transport, stay and food. This year, Makar Sankranti falls on January 14.
If religion is not your cup of tea, then head to a small village, Kenduli, around 185km west of Kolkata for the Kenduli Mela (January 14-16). The Baul minstrels of West Bengal and Bangladesh believe that this village on the bank of the Ajay River is the birthplace of the Vaishnava poet Jayadev. So they gather here every year in his honour and hold night-long musical programmes for three days. The Baul community aren't followers of any particular religion, but that of their personal gurus and their songs talk about the philosophy of sahaja or the Innate, garbed in simple language. The performers stay put while the audience move from one akhara (group) to another, listening to the soulful music. Modernisation has influenced the traditional set-up somewhat but the music remains as mellifluous as ever. You can stay at Bolpur, about 30km from Kenduli, and attend the night-long sessions. West Bengal tourism also operates a package tour from Kolkata during the festival.