Durga Puja in Bengal is a unique experience. While the city never sleeps and its people rejoice all night, this is the best time to explore the passionate creativity Kolkata offers in terms of beautiful pandals and gorgeous idols. Kolkata will leave you mesmerised, but it’s best to keep some days in hand to truly explore Bengal. Visit old colonial towns with unique architecture, experience culture and arts at a university town and enjoy the natural beauty the state offers!
TAGORE’S VISION IN SHANTINIKETAN
Just a three-hour train ride away, Shantiniketan was envisaged as a university town with an alternative view of education by Nobel laureate, poet and artist Rabindranath Tagore. Today, the Visva Bharati University attracts students from all over India and abroad. Spend some time in the campus exploring Tagore’s vision. Start with the Uttarayan compound which houses the five homes, each with distinctive architectural styles, that Tagore lived in at various stages of his life. Many famous people have stayed here, including Mahatma Gandhi. At the Rabindra Bhavan Museum or Bichitra, you can browse through original letters, photographs, personal items and gifts that were given to Tagore on his travels. The delicate Upasana Griha (the prayer hall inside Uttarayan) is a wrought-iron structure with gorgeous Belgian glass windows. At the art college or Kala Bhavan, spend some time admiring the paintings, murals and sculptures done by well-known artists such as Nandalal Bose, Somnath Hore and Ram Kinkar Baij. The Kalo Bari is an interesting structure made of mud and coal tar with black murals on its walls.
True to Tagore’s vision of preserving local handicrafts, Shantiniketan hosts weekly markets where you can pick up pottery, the distinctive leather goods of the town, traditional textiles with kantha and batik work, terracotta items, and lovely dokra (traditional wax casting technique using an alloy) jewellery. Don’t fret if you miss the markets, there are many shops about town you can visit, Amar Kutir the most well-known among them.
The WBTDC runs the Shantiniketan Tourist Lodge in nearby Bolpur where you can book your stay.
CALL OF THE WILD AT SUNDERBANS
Declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1997, the Sunderbans stretch across 4,000sq km in India and another 6,000sq km in Bangladesh, making it the largest mangrove forest in the world. The vegetation here is a unique mix of trees and shrubs that have adapted to their saline coastal habitats like the pneumatophores which have modified roots that grow out of the water’s surface so they can breathe. Look out for the iridescent fiddler crabs, amphibious fish like mudskippers, water monitors, the alligators, deer, wild boar and the lovely Irrawady dolphins. The delta is a paradise for birdwatchers who delight in spotting egrets, sandpipers, plovers, kingfishers, herons. Some can even get a rare chance to spot the migratory Asian Dowitcher! But the most famous resident of the area is the Royal Bengal Tiger. The tigers have adapted to the surroundings and can survive on saline water, swim and eat fish and other seafood.
The best way to explore the area is with one of the cruises run by WBTDC. The WBTDC runs cruises on two launches, MV Chitralekha and MV Sarbajaya which provide on-board stay with meals. The four-decked luxury cruise vessel, MV Paramhansa stops at several sites like Lothian Island, the Bhagabatpur Crocodile Park, Burirdabri, and the Sajnekhali Forest Range.
SUNSET ON THE BEACHES
West Bengal has several beautiful beaches along its coast where you can enjoy the sea and sand, water sports, and stories around bonfires. There is Mandarmoni in East Midnapore district with a 13-km beach and big, red crabs. Tajpur Beach has a dense forest of casuarinas trees while Shankarpur Beach is a regular fishing harbour. The most famous beach is of course Digha where family holidays are a regular affair for Kolkatans!
TERRACOTTA TALES OF BISHNUPUR
This is the perfect time to visit Bishnupur - the rains would have washed the stunning terracotta temples making the muted reds glow in the middle of resplendent green fields. The temples, dating back to 17th and 18th centuries, were made with the local laterite soil by Vaishnavite Malla kings to honour Krishna and his love, Radha. The detailed terracotta work on temples, the intricate carvings and the stuccos are unique, depicting dancers, Hindu myths, and motifs from nature. The curved roofs which give them a 2D look sometimes, dramatic arches, and moulded brickwork are a blend of Bengali, Islamic, and Oriya architecture. One of the most popular is the Jor Bangla temple with the signature curved double and work depicting scenes from the Ramayana and Mahabharata. Before you leave, do see the 12.5ft Dalmadal cannon which was used in 1742 against the Maratha invaders from western India!
Bishnupur is known to be a hub of several well-known handicrafts like the Dashavatara playing cards and terracotta toys, Among the toys, the most famous is the long-eared Bankura horse which is also the symbol of the Central Cottage Industries in India. Another famous handcrafted product is the regal Baluchari silk saree. It draws inspiration from the temples, with intricate borders that have stories woven into them. You can buy Baluchari sarees in Kolkata at the state-run Biswa Bangla stores.
A great way to visit Bishnupur now is on WBTDC’s Bijoya Tour that starts on September 30.
EXPLORE THE COLONIAL HERITAGE OF BENGAL
All along the Hooghly river are ports that were once used by the Dutch, English, Portuguese, and French as centres of a thriving trade. One of the best ways to explore some of these colonial settlements is through one of the cruises run by the state tourism department. For instance, the Hoogly Heritage Cruise is in a luxury vessel with 20 air-conditioned luxury suites, a bar, restaurant and even a gym! A joint initiative of the West Bengal government, INTACH and Vivida Inland Waterways, it explores the former British colony of Howrah, the Danish education centre at Serampore (Sreerampur), the French colony of Chandannagar (erstwhile Chandernagore), and the Portuguese trading port of Bandel.
A Touch Of France In Chandannagar
You will find traces of a FranÃ§ais past in Chandannagar in the strangest of things - like the four-poster bed that governor Joseph FranÃ§ois Dupleix left behind! When you take a stroll down the Strand, you will find it the riverfront studded with colonial buildings. The Chandannagar Museum and Indo-French Institute, which used to be Dupleix’s mansion, houses an interesting collection of French artefacts and a French language school. In front of the museum is an elegant mansion called the Patal Bari (underground house), named so because a part of the house lies under the river! Did you know that Chandannagar is also known as the city of lights? The light makers here are famous for the illuminated panels that you see on the streets of Kolkata during Durga Puja. Artists stitch thousands of multi-coloured bulbs on wire frames, creating a tableau of images - from moving vehicles to fire-spitting dragons and even celebrities! These artists have been invited to display their art world over and at the Thames Festival in London (2003), the talk of the city was the giant, brilliantly lit, peacock-shaped boat they made using over 120,000 micro bulbs!
The Portuguese in Bandel
About 49 km north of Kolkata, Bandel was a Portuguese and Dutch outpost. The brown-and-white Bandel Basilica was built in 1599 by Portuguese captain Pedro Tavares, but it was burnt down by the Moors in 1632. You can see the past more strongly in the Victorian Imambara. Built in 1863, it has thousand arches that surround its old courtyard. The Hanseshwari Temple is weird yet a wonderful mÃ©lange of Russian and local architectural styles with a dome that looks distinctly Kremlin-like! Bandel has a famous cheese named after the town. Introduced by the Portuguese, it is crumbly, smoky and quite salty. The small discs go well with green salads and pastas.
The Moors in Murshidabad
Murshidabad was once the capital of Bengal under Siraj-ud- daula, the nawab of Bengal, who was assassinated here after a defeat by Robert Clive at Plassey (Palashi) in 1757. The spectacular old structures reflect those days of glory. Probably the most jaw-dropping is Hazarduari, named after its 1,000 doors. Built in 1837, it was home to the nawabs of Murshidabad. Today it is a museum, housing an interesting collection of antiquities. The armoury galleries on the ground floor stock a variety of firearms and swords from that era, and an ivory sedan chair which was used by emperor Shah Jahan!
The library has more than 10,000 books and thousands of old manuscripts, including an early copy of the legendary Ain-i- Akbari! Don’t leave without seeing the Katra Masjid, the tomb of Murshid Quli Khan after whom Murshidabad is named. This remarkable man lies buried in the basement under the stairs. He was born a Deccan Brahmin, was sold to a Muslim merchant, and subsequently became the governor of Bengal and founded Murshidabad.
The Dutch In Sreerampur
This town was known as Frederiksnagore after King Fredric VI of Denmark. The Danes came here in 1616, and later the East India Company took over. Recently, a joint initiative by the West Bengal Heritage Commission and the the National Museum of Denmark restored the 215-year-old St Olav’s Church which has a royal monogram of Danish king Christian VII. The first printing press in Bengal was set up here (by Baptist missionary William Carey in 1800). The Serampore Mission Press produced 212,000 books between 1800 and 1832! It served print markets in the South and South-East Asia as well as those outside Europe in the 19th century publishing many religious Christian texts, literary works from India, translations of the Bible and vernacular textbooks on grammar, dictionaries, history, legends and moral tales for the Fort William College and the Calcutta School Book Society. It was from here that the first Bengali newspaper and magazine was published in 1818.
The 500-year-old town used to be a river port in the 15th century. It is located on the west bank of the Hooghly River, about 40 km north of Kolkata. The medieval kingdom of Bhurshut or Bhurisrestha was spread across the Hooghly district (and Howrah). It was also the first European settlement in Bengal. The first to reach this place were the Portuguese, and within a few decades this became the largest port in Bengal. Hooghly’s multi-cultured heritage is reflected in its monuments and structures.
The Hooghly Imambara (dating back to 1861) on the bank of the river has an imposing entrance with a clock tower flanked by 80 ft tall towers. Inside, texts from the Quran decorate the walls. The Taraknath temple, built in 1729, is a popular pilgrimage spot dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva. Incidentally, the district headquarters Chinsurah is where the national song Vande Mataram was composed by Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay! The Armenian Church in Chinsurah is the second-oldest church in Bengal. There’s even a Dutch cemetery with interesting plaques, graves and obelisks. Look out for the remnants of Fort Gustavson built in 1628.