West – the foundation of Ramakrishna Mission,

West Bengal is not just Kolkatta and the
Victoria memorial. The virgin territories of Dooars, the intact mangrove
forests of Sunderbans, the sylvan surroundings of Shantiniketan are only some
of the vivid experiences that have the state a tourist’s haven.  For centuries Calcutta had set out the path
for the rest of India to follow in just about every aspect of life. Ability to
come up with Nobel laureates at regular intervals, its Metro railway boasts of
cleaner and better running than tubes in London or Paris.

 

 

Skirting the Bay of Bengal, lies the
Sunderbans – home to the famed Royal Bengal Tigers. Influence of Muslim
architecture in the palaces of Murshidabad Nawabs and silk saris from this
place make for collector’s items; exquisite craftsmanship in the famous
terracotta temples of Kalna and Bishnupur. 
Take a heritage cruise down the Ganga. Even the usual circuit of
Kolkatta, Dakshineshwar Temple on the bank of the Hoogly River has, along with
the presiding deity Bhavatarini Kali, 12 shrines dedicated to Shiva, along the river
front.  Belur Math – the foundation of
Ramakrishna 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 sari
and Bangla mishit.

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Shantiniketan: Mooted by Maharishi
Debendranath Tagore as an ashram and a centre for meditation, catapulted into
international fame through open-air school and later the university founded by
Maharshi’s illustrious son, poet Rabindranath Tagore. And if you manage to make
that short trip to Tagore’s Shantiniketan, you might just meet up with another
Nobel laureate, Amartya Sen, cycling down the road.  

Around 200km from Kolkatta is the world famous
meditation and open-air school Shantiniketan and for those who wish to
experience Poush Mela, a visit during December 22nd and 23rd
is a must. Prayers, cultural programs, local crafts and folk artists make it a
welcome getaway.  3 days of Poush mela
are observed through prayers and cultural meets, a fair is held where local
crafts and people bring their wares to sell, folk artists perform before a
discerning crowd, and when urban and rural folk intermingle without prejudice.
Visit ‘Bichitra’, the museum dedicated to Tagore, and filled with Tagore
memorabilia. Mud-built houses where Tagore lived, the mural and sculptures at
Kala Bhavan. Shantiniktan offers a welcome weekend getaway, any time throughout
the year and specially during its festive days.

 

Kolkatta has the image of a laid-back city, thronging
crowds and poverty. But to me, it is one of those Indian cities that throb with
a vital life force. The city sprawls along the Hoogly River which divides it
from 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 the
world.

Victoria Memorial is the most impressive landmark, it
is a magnificent monument opposite the Maidan.

 

Darjeeling: just like every state has its
hill station tucked away, Darjeeling in the lap of the mighty Himalayas, it
lies in the shade of Mt.Kanchenchunga. The Mall is the heart of this hilly town
from where it is possible to get sweeping views of Himalayan snow peaks besides
narrow lanes and bylanes  lead to several
tourist attractions from here. A walk down Chowrasta and browse through its
shop laden with woolen garments , curios, brightly painted ‘thangkas’ . don’t
miss Tiger Hill, Sencha Lake and Ghoom Monastery. Take back Darjeeling Tea –
also referred to fondly by connoisseurs as ‘Champagne of Teas’ . the ambient
climate and loamy soil add a special effect to the flavor, making ‘China
Hybrid’ plant unique.

 

Art: the tradition of quilting and
embroidering old fabric to make exquisite Kanthas is handed down from
generations in Bengal. Drawing inspiration from the gentle landscape as well as
from 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 is
functional.

Durga puja – Bengalis observe it as a 5-day annual autumnal
celebration in honour of Goddess Durga.

Kali puja – Bengalis worship on the day the rest of India worships
Lakshmi on Diwali. Triveni is the confluence of 3 rivers Padma, Jolangi and
Hooghly.

The Chinese first came to the city in the middle of the 18th
century, bringing along with their exotic culture, customes and a delicious
cuisine. I recall the chinese delights served at Peiping and Chung Wah. Although
the interiors were not fancy, food was served in real chinese porcelain. Cuisine
was either Hakka, Cantonese or Szechwan, each characterized by distinctive
tastes and flavours. Unlike other indian metros where Chinese cuisine is more
of an upscale experience, in Calcutta, it has always been a middle-class
affair. The number of chinese people living in Kolkatta may have dwindled but
their culinary legacy lives on.

Regular Bong food lays emphasis on fish, vegetables and lentils
served with rice as a staple diet. Subtle flavours of Shorshe Ilish (Hilsa in
mustard sauce), Bhapa (steamed fish) or Macher Jhol are some of their
favourites. Luchi is a kind of puri and bhaja and singara top the snacks. Jhalmuri
is another popular in-between meals crunchy.