On the joyous occasion of India's 71st Independence Day, we decided to leave behind the tried and tested and venture forth into offbeat, quirky, insightful and fun new destinations that you can visit from your city. Know your country better, and know what makes it special. The best way to do so? Travel.
To help you plan a quick getaway, we’ve been coming up with long weekend plans for quick getaways from your city. Today, we bring you some offbeat weekend plans out of Kolkata. If you are are inclined towards heritage, then the spectacular terracotta temples of Bankura and Bishnupur are tailor-made for you. On the other hand if all you want is peace and quiet and great culture, there's Santiniketan, or a stay at a luxurious farmhouse (bagan-bari). Here's how you can spend your long weekend.
This heritage wonderland, about 130km from Kolkata by road, is connected by road and rail with the city. Although it can be covered in a day’s road trip, at least a night’s stay is recommended. This former royal kingdom of the Malla rulers, now part of the Bankura district, is known for its ancient terracotta and laterite temples exhibiting the various styles of Bengal temple architecture. One of the most popular temple is the 17th century Jor Bangla, with its signature double roof and its walls covered with intricately carved terracotta plaques. Shyam Rai, Madanmohan, Malleshwar and Muralimohan are some of the famous terracotta temples. Kalachand, Lalji, Madangopal, Radha Madhav, Radhagovinda are some of the popular laterite temples. Nearly all temples sport fine carvings, depicting various incidents from the life of Krishna, from the epics and other religious texts as well as then contemporary life. Almost pyramidal in shape, the 16th century Raas Mancha, is a unique structure. Another must see is the Dalmadal cannon. Bishnupur is home to traditional textile and handicrafts. You can buy the famous story-telling silk Baluchari sari directly from the weavers’ co-operatives. A few families still practice the art of making patachitra or painted scrolls and the Dashavatara cards. Although this particular card game has now fallen out of favour, the individual cards are collector’s items. All over town, you will find shops selling terracotta toys, especially the typical long-eared Bankura Horse (the symbol of the Central Cottage Industries).
Depending on the time at your disposal, you may visit Panchmura, the artisans’ village, about 20km away by road. If you are visiting during the Independence Day weekend, you will find artisans preparing different kinds of animal-shaped artefacts to be used during the upcoming Manasa Puja (a festival dedicated to the Goddess of the Snakes).
Where to Stay: Basic but clean accommodation is available at Bishnupur Tourist Lodge (+91-9732100950) run by West Bengal Tourism Development Corporation (wbtdcl.com).
Forever coloured by the memories of Nobel Laureate poet Rabindranath Tagore, Santiniketan is also a popular choice for spending a few days in some tranquil resort or homestay, far from the urban chaos. Bolpur, the main town, is connected to Kolkata by road (212 km) and rail. It was Tagore’s father, Maharshi Debendranath, who chanced upon a serene piece of land in 1861 and decided to build his hermitage called Shantiniketan (Abode of Peace). So when Tagore decided to build his ‘back to nature’ ashram-style school in 1901, he chose the leafy precincts around Santiniketan. Gradually, the small school expanded to the university Viswa Bharati. Popular attractions include the Museum (closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays) and the Uttarayan complex (the five houses where Tagore stayed at different times). The Ballavpur Wildlife Sanctuary, though choked by the expanding town, is known for its resident deer and other smaller animals.
Every weekend, a local market springs up at Sonajhuri Forest on the outskirts of the town, next to the undulating ravines of the Kopai River, christened Khowai by Tagore. Locally made batik printed and ‘kantha’-stitched textiles, designer accessories such as jewelleries made of leaf, terracotta and beads, etc. sell briskly. You can also sample home-made delicacies such as ‘ghugni’, ‘pithe’ and other sweets. There are many souvenir shops in town. Amar Kutir (amarkutir.com) is a cooperative unit that produces leather goods, kantha-stitched saris, bamboo crafts, dokra, hand-loom products and batik.
Where to Stay: Plenty of options. You may either stay in and around Bolpur town, or opt for one of the resorts or homestays tucked away in the countryside. WBTDC runs Shantiniketan Tourist Lodge (tel: +91-9732100920) in Bolpur. Some of the private accommodations in and around Bolpur include Mark and Meadows (markandmeadows.com), Hotel Royal Bengal (hotelroyalbengal.com) and Rater Tara, Diner Rabi (santiniketantour.com). The Garden Bungalow (thegardenbungalow.com) and Raktokorobi Karugram (raktokorobikarugram.com), tucked away from the urban sprawl are known for their artistic ambience. The Birbhum district administration runs the Rangabitan Tourist Complex (tel: 03462-255712/255713).
Despite its nearness to Kolkata, Bawali has been able to retain its rural charm. About 35 km south of Kolkata and less than two hours’ drive away, the former landlords of Bawali, the Mandal family have converted a part of their property into a farmhouse. Spread over nine bigha of land, the farmhouse is surrounded by lush green fields and ponds. Inside there are landscaped gardens, a flower nursery, a school for underprivileged children, etc. For a spot of sightseeing, you can take a look at the ruins of the 1794 ‘navaratna’ Gopinath Jiu temple, the Radhaballav Temple and the Bawali Rajbari. The Farmhouse allows fishing in one of its ponds, based on “catch and release” policy. The ample greenery and waterbodies also offer good birdwatching opportunities.
Where to Stay The Bawali Farmhouse (bawalifarmhouse.com) offers four cottages and a treehouse with three rooms. There's no attached restaurant so all meals have to be ordered in advance. They offer typical Bengali cuisine, from regular to forgotten recipes. Another option is to stay at the Rajbari (therajbari.com) and get a taste of the Bengali rural palace life.
Ajodhya Pahar (Ajodhya Hill) in Purulia district was once popular with trekkers and as a place to train for rock climbing. But today, it is slowly finding its place on the tourism map of West Bengal. Easily accessible by road and rail from Kolkata, the forested hill has several waterfalls (Bamni, Turga, etc), and reservoirs (Khairabera, Murguma, Marble Lake) to explore. On your drive around the hill, you will come across neat tribal hamlets. If you are lucky, you may chance upon a weekly tribal village market. Purulia is one of the traditional homes of the masked Chhau dance. You can stop at Charida village to watch the mask-makers at work, and may be buy them as souvenirs
Where to Stay Recently, some luxury resorts have come up in and around Ajodhya Pahar. The Niharika complex (03252-225726) on top of the hill is a no-frills accommodation. Next to Khairabera Lake (about 70km from Purulia town) is the luxurious Ecoadventure Resort (ecoadventureresorts.net) with cottages and tent facilities. Sonkupi Banjara Resort (about six km from Bagmundi town; tel: 092315 81177) also offers luxury accommodation in a rural setting.
Located to the north of Kolkata, the Mayapur (about 130 km by road)-Nabadwip-Krishnagar circuit of Nadia district is known for its Vaishnava heritage. The famous Vaishnava preceptor Chaitanya was born in Mayapur, a temple marking the place. But today Mayapur is more popular as the headquarters of the global movement — International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) — founded by Srila Prabhupada in 1966. Although one can visit Mayapur (located on the bank of the Ganga River) on a day tour from Kolkata, a night stay at the ISKCON complex offers an opportunity to explore the complex at leisure. Some of the popular attractions include the Radha Madhav temple complex, the architecturally stylised Srila Prabhupada’s Pushpa Samadhi Mandir (open from 7.30am to 1 pm and from 3.30pm to 8:30pm), the museum galleries, souvenirs shops, etc. For boating and other activities, you may contact Mayapur Tourism (www.mayapur.com). You may also catch a regular ferry to visit the centre of Gaudiya Vaishnava learning, Nabadwip, located on the other side of the river. On one leg of the journey, you may stop at Krishnagar (about 110km from Kolkata and 25km ahead of Mayapur) to visit the clay modellers’ colony at Ghurni and pick up a few souvenirs from the sales counter of the workshops. When in Krishnagar, you cannot miss sampling the famous local sweets, shorpuriya and shorbhaja. But the sweet shops along the highway are best avoided.
Where to Stay In Mayapur, ISKCON’s guest houses are the only option. You can book online at visitmayapur.com. The complex offers several dining options. Prasadam is available for in the Gada Bhavan and the Sulabh Prasdam Halls. Govinda’s restaurant is open from 7.30am to 9pm. It serves international cuisine, as well as Bengali dishes. It also has a fresh fruit juice corner and sweets stall. In Krishnagar, Haveli Hotel (havelihotel.com) is the best option. Their restaurant is known for its traditional Bengali thali meal.