As glorious as Kolkata can be, the city can occasionally leave you feeling claustrophobic. So go ahead, hit the coast, or do a mangrove trail, or explore Tagore's haven....
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. For instance, the 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. The pandemic would have affected several of these services so check once before making plans.
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!
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 WBTDCL (West Bengal Tourism Development Corporation Limited) runs the Shantiniketan Tourist Lodge in nearby Bolpur where you can book your stay.
Terracotta Tales Of Bishnupur
The stunning terracotta temples in muted reds glow in the middle of resplendent green fields in Bishnupur. 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 also 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.