West Bengal is not just Kolkatta and theVictoria memorial. The virgin territories of Dooars, the intact mangroveforests of Sunderbans, the sylvan surroundings of Shantiniketan are only someof the vivid experiences that have the state a tourist’s haven. For centuries Calcutta had set out the pathfor the rest of India to follow in just about every aspect of life.
Ability tocome up with Nobel laureates at regular intervals, its Metro railway boasts ofcleaner and better running than tubes in London or Paris. Skirting the Bay of Bengal, lies theSunderbans – home to the famed Royal Bengal Tigers. Influence of Muslimarchitecture in the palaces of Murshidabad Nawabs and silk saris from thisplace make for collector’s items; exquisite craftsmanship in the famousterracotta temples of Kalna and Bishnupur. Take a heritage cruise down the Ganga. Even the usual circuit ofKolkatta, Dakshineshwar Temple on the bank of the Hoogly River has, along withthe presiding deity Bhavatarini Kali, 12 shrines dedicated to Shiva, along the riverfront. Belur Math – the foundation ofRamakrishna Mission, it houses a room where Swami Viveknanda lived; are worth covering. A veritable shoppers’haven, bargains are in plenty here.
Take your pick of your best Tanetar sariand Bangla mishit. Shantiniketan: Mooted by MaharishiDebendranath Tagore as an ashram and a centre for meditation, catapulted intointernational fame through open-air school and later the university founded byMaharshi’s illustrious son, poet Rabindranath Tagore. And if you manage to makethat short trip to Tagore’s Shantiniketan, you might just meet up with anotherNobel laureate, Amartya Sen, cycling down the road. Around 200km from Kolkatta is the world famousmeditation and open-air school Shantiniketan and for those who wish toexperience Poush Mela, a visit during December 22nd and 23rdis a must. Prayers, cultural programs, local crafts and folk artists make it awelcome getaway.
3 days of Poush melaare observed through prayers and cultural meets, a fair is held where localcrafts and people bring their wares to sell, folk artists perform before adiscerning crowd, and when urban and rural folk intermingle without prejudice.Visit ‘Bichitra’, the museum dedicated to Tagore, and filled with Tagorememorabilia. Mud-built houses where Tagore lived, the mural and sculptures atKala Bhavan. Shantiniktan offers a welcome weekend getaway, any time throughoutthe year and specially during its festive days. Kolkatta has the image of a laid-back city, throngingcrowds and poverty. But to me, it is one of those Indian cities that throb witha vital life force.
The city sprawls along the Hoogly River which divides itfrom Howrah situated on the west bank. Calcutta was founded by Job Charmock,who was in charge of the East India Company’s warehouse in Hoogly. Chowringhee Lane, Alipore, New Market, Loreto House,The Grand Hotel make me nostalgic. Howrah Bridges – there are two bridges now.The old bridge is a cantilevered one built of steel. It is the busiest in theworld. Victoria Memorial is the most impressive landmark, itis a magnificent monument opposite the Maidan.
Darjeeling: just like every state has itshill station tucked away, Darjeeling in the lap of the mighty Himalayas, itlies in the shade of Mt.Kanchenchunga. The Mall is the heart of this hilly townfrom where it is possible to get sweeping views of Himalayan snow peaks besidesnarrow lanes and bylanes lead to severaltourist attractions from here. A walk down Chowrasta and browse through itsshop laden with woolen garments , curios, brightly painted ‘thangkas’ .
don’tmiss Tiger Hill, Sencha Lake and Ghoom Monastery. Take back Darjeeling Tea –also referred to fondly by connoisseurs as ‘Champagne of Teas’ . the ambientclimate and loamy soil add a special effect to the flavor, making ‘ChinaHybrid’ plant unique. Art: the tradition of quilting andembroidering old fabric to make exquisite Kanthas is handed down fromgenerations in Bengal. Drawing inspiration from the gentle landscape as well asfrom the beauty and bounty of nature, the people of Bengal have for centuries,created varied artistic crafts. Out of these Kantha is as charming as it isfunctional.
Durga puja – Bengalis observe it as a 5-day annual autumnalcelebration in honour of Goddess Durga.Kali puja – Bengalis worship on the day the rest of India worshipsLakshmi on Diwali. Triveni is the confluence of 3 rivers Padma, Jolangi andHooghly. The Chinese first came to the city in the middle of the 18thcentury, bringing along with their exotic culture, customes and a deliciouscuisine.
I recall the chinese delights served at Peiping and Chung Wah. Althoughthe interiors were not fancy, food was served in real chinese porcelain. Cuisinewas either Hakka, Cantonese or Szechwan, each characterized by distinctivetastes and flavours. Unlike other indian metros where Chinese cuisine is moreof an upscale experience, in Calcutta, it has always been a middle-classaffair.
The number of chinese people living in Kolkatta may have dwindled buttheir culinary legacy lives on. Regular Bong food lays emphasis on fish, vegetables and lentilsserved with rice as a staple diet. Subtle flavours of Shorshe Ilish (Hilsa inmustard sauce), Bhapa (steamed fish) or Macher Jhol are some of theirfavourites. Luchi is a kind of puri and bhaja and singara top the snacks. Jhalmuriis another popular in-between meals crunchy.