If there is any state in India that is a true geographical representation of the country, a miniature, if that might be said, it is Bengal or West Bengal. With the Himalayas shielding it in the north to the sea kissing its feet in south, the once capital state of India demands a sensory exploration. Just like India, one part of Bengal never gives a clue about what surprises await you at the next.
The City of Joy, a name that has made the eastern jewel famous internationally, is the first step in the sensory journey of Bengal. It is a city for which you don’t require a guide map or a list of “what to see”. It’s a city that calls out to your soul to explore its culture, its living heritage, its glorious past and its contemporary global present. Just walk along and let the spirit of Kolkata soak in. But still, a landmark that you have to visit is the Victoria Memorial Hall. This grand white marble structure takes your breath away. Also, while in the city visit the holy Kalighat Temple, Mother Teresa’s tomb at Motherhouse, the Indian Museum (the oldest and the largest in the country), Jorasanko Thakurbari, Rabindranath Tagore’s ancestral home, shop at New Market, and visit its two iconic bridges on River Hoogly – the first Howrah Bridge, dating back to the Second World War, and the second, the Vidyasagar Setu, a
sleek representation of modern Kolkata. Also don’t forget to take a cruise on the river.
Door to the Dooars
Translated literally, this word stands for “the door”. But an avid traveler would instantly know it refers to a stretch of virgin natural beauty in the north of Bengal. Situated at the foothill of eastern Himalayas, this forested stretch is rich with lush green tea gardens and crisscrossed by several rivers. Several wildlife sanctuaries are also present within this region. The most popular, the Jaldapara sanctuary, is very famous for the rare one-horned rhinoceros. Situated about 124 km away from Siliguri, the 114-sq km sanctuary is home also to wild elephants, spotted deer, bison, wild pigs and innumerable species of birds.
About 90 km away is the other more popular national park, Gorumara. A must-do is the evening safari to the Jatraprasad watch tower to spot the one-horned rhino. You can also try the elephant safari to get as close to the animals as possible. The Dooars region, however, is not famous only for its wildlife parks, but also for the rolling tea gardens. Samsing, a small cluster of houses, is a good place to enjoy the peace and natural beauty of the tea estates here. The silence of the area is disturbed only by the gurgling rivers. The drive to Samsing through lush green tea plantations is equally mesmerising. It is a great spot to watch birds as well.
A date with the hills
One of the most popular hill stations of India, especially its eastern part, is Darjeeling. Often called a vision in white, this quaint town at the foothills of the Himalayas is perfect for a summer sojourn. Once a summer resort for British officers, today it’s more popular as a honeymooner’s paradise and a pilgrimage for mountaineers from across the world, who make a beeline for the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute and its museum.
While Mt Kanchenjunga and neighbouring snow-draped Himalayan peaks keep a watch over you anywhere you go in this pretty city, it’s from the nearby Tiger Hill that you get a view of one of the most spectacular sunrises of the world. On the way to Tiger Hill, stop at Ghum, the second highest railway station in the world and keep space in your camera memory to click the most astounding pictures from Batasia Loop, just outside Ghoom, where Darjeeling’s famous Toy Train descends almost 1,000 feet!
Kurseong, 32 km south of Darjeeling, is another popular hill station. A bustling hill town, it is best known for its tea estates and British Raj-era boarding schools. Go to Kurseong to do nothing. Just linger around quaint old churches and walk through charming pine forests.
Kalimpong, another popular hill station, revolves around its bustling bazaar. Like in Darjeeling, Mt Kachenjunga lords over Kalimpong too. Visit it for unparalleled Himalayan views, Buddhist monasteries, colonial-era architecture and some beautiful mountain hikes. Also don’t miss its nurseries with thousands of exotic blooms!
Lava, a small hamlet situated 34 km from Kalimpong, has become a popular winter tourist spot. It is also the entry point to the Neora Valley National Park. Lolaegaon, or Lolegaon, is another small tourist destination that has become popular in the recent years. Just 25 km from Lava, Lolegaon offers panoramic views of Mt Kanchenjunga and spectacular sunrises
The beach story
There will be very few in Bengal who haven’t spent a few days soaking up the sun and the sea at Digha, about 200 km from Kolkata and about a four-hour drive away. Thousands of people rush to this popular seaside resort town every year, making it one of the first choices for those looking for a great weekend break. It is most well known for its spectacular sunsets and sunrises, and its fresh haul of fish every day, which makes Digha’s seafood some of the best in West.
Bengal. Among your other must-dos here should be lazing on the golden sand, swimming in the calm waters of the Bay of Bengal and strolling along casuarina trees lining the beach. And that’s not all, visit New Digha for its Marine Aquarium, one of the largest in Asia.
Another beach that has blipped prominently on the tourist radar in West Bengal over the past few years is Mandarmani. About the same distance from Kolkata as Digha, about 170 km, it was a nondescript fishing village till its pristine 13-km-long beach was discovered by tourists.
Many consider it the longest drivable beach in India. Home to a variety of sea animals, especially endangered crabs, Mandarmani has also flourished as a watersports zone. Try parasailing, kayaking and even zip-lining on your next visit, but if it is peace you seek, it will take you just a walk along the sea.
About 100 km from Kolkata is the beach paradise of Bakkhali, a peaceful weekend destination with delicious seafood on offer at wallet-friendly rates! Make it a point to buy fish from the local fishermen, who set up makeshift stalls at the beach and sell fish straight from the nets!
Those who have been fortunate enough to have travelled to the misty and mysterious Sunderban mangrove forests vouch that it’s an experience of a lifetime. One of the largest such forested areas in the world, the Sunderbans (sunder, meaning beautiful in Bengali, and ban, meaning forest) lies on the delta of the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna rivers on the Bay of Bengal and is home to several species of birds and animals, including the tiger. A World Heritage Site, Sunderbans draws tourists, wildlife enthusiasts and research scholars from across the world. You can either book a houseboat for a longer trip over days or hop into one of the smaller boats that take you on a day-long cruise.
While cruising along Sunderbans, visit the Sajnekhalli Tiger Reserve. Other attractions here are the Bonobibi’s temple and the Mangrove Interpretation Center. The next stop should be the Sudhanyakhali Watch Tower, from where you could catch a glimpse of the royal Bengal tiger, arriving at the close-by fresh water pond for a drink.
Watch out for crocodiles and deer too. You can also visit the Bhagatpur Crocodile Project, which has a hatchery! You have to get a permit issued by the Sunderban Tiger Conservation Foundation Trust to visit Sunderbans.
From being the seat of power of mighty Hindu kings and Muslim rulers to being chosen as the first capital of British India and then becoming a hotbed of anti-British revolutionaries, scholars and freedom fighters, Bengal is rich in history and heritage. Three cities that reflect the most momentous eras of Bengal’s history are Malda, Murshidabad and Santiniketan.
The gateway to north Bengal, Malda is nestled at the confluence of the Mahananda and Kalindi rivers. Previously known as English Bazaar, Malda was a flourishing British settlement. Interestingly, very close is Gaur, the capital of three of Bengal’s prominent royal dynasties: the Buddhist Palas, the Hindu Senas and the Muslim nawabs. The Malda Museum has a great collection of the region’s architectural and anthropological specimens. Malda was also a prosperous cotton and silk weaving centre in the 18th century and silk from Malda is still sought-after. Among the major attractions in Malda are the Bara Sona mosque, the Dakhil Darwaza and the Eklakhi mausoleum. Located on the bank of Bhagirathi river, Murshidabad was Bengal’s capital before the Britishers shifted the capital to Kolkata. A haven for silk fabric, specially saris, Murshidabad is also known for its monuments. One of the most popular places to visit in the city is the Hazarduari Palace Museum that was built in 1837 by Duncan McLeod for Nawab Najim Humaun Jah, descendent of Mir Zafar. The palace is known for its 1,000 doors. It is now a museum and boasts a collection of nearly 3,000 artifacts, including the swords of Shiraj-ud-Daulla. The other interesting tourist attractions are the Imambara, the Nasipur Palace and the Jahankosha canon.
Santiniketan is home to Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore’s dream university, Visva Bharati. Once a small nondescript village, Santiniketan caught the eye of Tagore’s father Maharshi Devendranath Tagore in 1862. He built a small house and named it Santiniketan (abode of peace), where people from all religions were invited to pray and meditate.
In 1901, Rabindranath Tagore started a school in Santiniketan, modelled on the lines of the ancient gurukul system. Today, the verdant campus is home to thousands of students who arrive here from across the world to study arts and literature. With classes held in the open, under trees, Visva Bharati is the nesting ground for many philosophers and artists. Go around the campus, stopping by at its various departments, such as Kala Bhavan and Rabindra Bhavan, the original Chhatimtala, where the senior Tagore had first arrived, Rabindranath Tagore’s intricately decorated homes and the open-air art galleries. Don’t leave without buying handmade art and craft items.
By: Namita Kumar