Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Travel Through the Land of West Bengal

We travel to West Bengal that offers the traveler a remarkable variety of destinations and experiences. A wealth of landscapes from green rice fields, sweet-smelling tea gardens, lively shopping towns, small villages in terracotta is often overshadowed by its capital city of Kolkata.

In the tropical South, the seaside village of Mandarmani is worth a visit, as are the terracotta temples in Bishnupur. They are built according to the canons of Bengali architecture among which are the Rasmancha, the Shamroy Mandir and Mandan Gopal with five towers. You may be lucky enough to spot a tiger while sailing on the muddy streams of the Sundarbans. In the cool northern mountains, the toy train is a small tourist train that climbs to Darjeeling, a charming hill town, popular for its view of the imposing Khangchendzonga.

Bengal, crossed by the River Ganges stretches from the Himalayan foothills covered with teak in the north to the lush mangroves of Bay of Bengal in the south. It is an important economic and commercial center in eastern India. Vestiges of the maritime golden age of Bengal and some ghost towns of European style border the banks of the Hooghly river.

Due to the different altitude zones in this region, from the Himalayan area to the sea in the Bay of Bengal area, the diversity of flora and fauna is extremely varied. You can find forests of oaks, conifers or rhododendrons in the north and to the south, you can find some of the largest mangroves in the world.

There are 15 wildlife sanctuaries and 5 protected nature parks throughout the region, and there are reserves to protect the endangered Bengal tiger like the Sundarbans National Park, Buxa Tiger Reserve, the Gorumara National Park, the Neora Valley National Park and Singalila National Park. Within this category, we also find the Ganges river dolphin and a number of other species. In addition, the wildlife includes the Indian rhinoceros, elephant, deer, bison, leopard, and crocodile. This region is also very rich in birds, which migrate to these lands during the winter.

The other points of interest include the Shiva temple of Tarakeshwar, with a black stone lingam; Kamarkupur, the birthplace of Ramakrishna Paramhansa Dev, Shantiniketan, the place chosen by Tagore to found an educational institution, Joydev Kenduli, where in mid-January the Bauls recite their works and Bakreshwar, with sulphurous hot springs and Tarapith.

1. Kolkata

Calcutta, the largest city in India has undergone a major transformation over the past decade. It is no longer identified with slums, poverty, The City of Joy by Dominique Lapierre and Mother Teresa, but has become the cultural and the intellectual capital of India. Calcutta is a fascinating and lively place, but intimate with a catchy soul. Also, Kolkata is the only city in India to have a network of the tram car, which adds to its charm. You can see everything in its intricate streets and its inhabitants are very friendly and cordial.

The Fort William is at the center of the city. This construction, completed in 1781, is surrounded by solid walls and deep moats. You cannot visit the interior unless you have a special permit. The area around the fort is known as the Maidan and is the green lungs of the city. This three-kilometer long expanse has sports facilities, lakes, trees, and the most picturesque walkers. You can also see numerous performances of different types of the musical fountains.

Nearby is the Eden Gardens stadium that also has a Burmese pagoda inside located in the middle of a lake and the Victoria Memorial, the most spectacular building of the British Raj. This huge white marble museum has portraits, sculptures, and busts of the protagonists of the history of British India that can be seen alongside paintings of old Calcutta, miniatures and ancient manuscripts.

To the west is the Strand Road and the River Hooghly, a tributary of the River Ganges and the Hippodrome, with its Calcutta Polo Club. The Calcutta Polo Club is considered the oldest polo club in the world. Not far away is located the Presidency General Hospital, where in 1898 was discovered that the anopheles mosquito was the carrier of malaria.

In Cathedral Road rises the St. Paul's Cathedral, built in the neo-gothic style and is one of the most important churches of the country. Nearby is the Academy of Fine Arts, with an excellent display of modern art and Rabindra Sadan, a concert hall where cultural performances are held throughout the year. Also nearby is the Birla Planetarium, one of the largest in the world and the Children's Museum, which features two dioramas that tell the Ramayana and Mahabharata in 61 scenes.

To the north of the Maidan rise the 48 mt high Sahid Minar or Ochterlony Monument, built in honor of Sir David Ochterlony who was credited with the victory of the war in Nepal. In the surroundings are the Oberoi Grand and the excellent Indian Museum, in which you can see meteorites, fossils, and art from different eras.

Along the river are various official British buildings such as Raj Bhavan, the residence of the Governor of Bengal, the Town Hall, built in Doric style, High Court, and the Assembly. Walking to the right stands the Church of St. John and the Writers Building, the seat of the government of West Bengal or Paschimbanga.

If you want to make any kind of shopping, Calcutta offers a great variety of bazaars. Bentinck Street is dotted with Chinese shoe shops, Muslim tailors and candy shops along with tea sellers. A little further on is the Tiretta Market, reputed for perishable products such as meat, fish, and vegetables featuring a small Chinatown.

In the Old Chinese Bazaar, in addition to being able to make the most varied purchases, you can admire the Fire Temple of the Parsis, the Mosque of the Ismailis, the Jain Temple, and three synagogues. In the surroundings, you can visit the Armenian Church of Our Lady of Nazareth.

The Nakhoda Mosque is the main center of Muslim worship with a capacity for 10,000 people. Built in red sandstone has two minarets of 46 mt height and a dome of vivid colors.

Other places of interest are Jorasanko, full of houses and palaces of great charm among which stands out the home of Tagore that seems out of a story. Nearby is the Tagore House where the wonderful poet was born and died.

Kumartuli is famous for being the neighborhood, where clay model images of different gods seen at festivals are crafted by artisans.

Among the temples are the Sithambara Jain Temple, decorated with mirrors, colored stones, and glass mosaics along with the Radha Govinda Temple of Iskcon and the 500-year-old Kali Temple at Kalighat, where animals are always sacrificed.

To the south of the city is the National Library, the Alipore Zoo, with 16 hectares of the surface that counts on species as strange as a mixture of Asian lioness and tiger. This is the area where the bourgeoisie of Calcutta resides and has the most varied clubs nestled in ancient colonial residences.

The Botanical Garden, created in 1786, with 109 hectares of the surface has the banyan tree with 200 years of antiquity and 400 mt perimeters.

You cannot visit Calcutta without visiting its exotic Ghats of the Ganges, where you can see a unique spectacle in the world as pilgrims from all over the country prepare to purify themselves in the sacred river, funeral pyres, gurus, pariahs, women in saris, old men, sellers, beggars, and in short is a strange and fascinating world in the eyes of visitors, not to forget the extraordinary Mullickghat flower market, housed below the famous Howrah Bridge.

In the vicinity of Calcutta are the Bhavatarini Kali Temple in Dakshineshwar and the Ramakrishna Mission in Belur Math.

The visitor at the end of the day can immerse in the Indian Coffee House in the literary hub of College Street and enjoy the nightlife in the buzzing Park Street.

2. Sundarbans National Park

Sunderbans, the UNESCO World Heritage site is one of the first national parks in India, which is a magnificent tangle of mangrove jungles that is the only one of its kind in the world, distributed over 102 islands (54 of which are inhabited) and extends into neighboring Bangladesh. The Sundarbans is only accessible by boat and exploring in this way is a unique experience that should not be missed. Tigers are very shy and usually remain well hidden in the reserve.

We drive to Godkhali, embark in a boat and continue to Sajnekhali to see the wildlife. This reserve, in the largest delta in the world, houses in its canals the largest population of royal Bengal tigers on the planet. Weather permitting, you can also go for bird watching at the Netidhopani watchtower. Lunch is served onboard. In the evening the villagers provide an unforgettable cultural experience. The show, which mixes theater, songs, and dances, tells the story of Dakshin Rai, the Tiger God and Bonbibi, the Goddess of the forest, and fishermen and honey collectors.

3. Darjeeling

Following the traditional tea route, we rise more than two thousand meters to reach Darjeeling, where is located the world's most famous tea plantations after about 2 hours of driving. Darjeeling, famous for its lush tea gardens, is one of the best (if not the best) hill stations in India and is blessed with a breathtaking view of Mount Kanchenjunga, the third highest peak in the world.

To get there, you can also travel on the famous Darjeeling toy train. Some of the most popular attractions of Darjeeling include monasteries, botanical garden, a zoo with animals like yaks, snow leopard, and red pandas, and the cable car drive through Rangeet Valley, the longest cable car in Asia. Interesting is also the Himalayan Institute of Mountaineering and the Planter Club, where tea planters meet.

Darjeeling is a wonderful place to walk and explore the tea plantations, villages, and markets. Early in the morning we witness the sunrise from the Tiger Hill on the Himalayan range dominated by the third highest peak in the world, the Kangchenjunga from where we contemplate a wonderful landscape and the whole mountain range with the Kanchenjunga (8598 mt), Kabru (7338 mt), Pandim (6691 mt), Mt Everest (8842 mt), Makalu (8482 mt) and Lhotse (8500 mt).

In this town, we visit the Observatory Hill, a Buddhist monastery of Ghoom, Birch Hill, which was the summer residence of the Viceroys of India, when Calcutta was its capital and the Mall. The lively bazaar in the Mall allows us to encounter the main ethnic groups of this part of the Himalayas with Lepchas, the oldest inhabitants of the region, Bhotias from Tibet, Nepalese, Bengalis and Tibetan refugees.

Mountain excursions can be made to Sandakphu and from there to Mirik.

4. Kalimpong

If you prefer to be away from the crowds, Kalimpong is an alternative, which is 2 hours from Darjeeling. The road passes through rolling hills where Rhododendrons and green and black cardamom grow. The town sits on a ridge overlooking the Teesta River, which separates it from Sikkim. It was ruled by the Sikkimese until the early 1700s when it was taken over by the King of Bhutan. The British won again in 1865. Attractions include Buddhist monasteries, adventure activities, hiking, and nature walks. There are a lot of hills and villages to explore nearby. It is not possible to cross the border of Nepal, which you have to go through Darjeeling.

5. Bishnupur

About 4 hours west of Calcutta, Bishnupur is renowned for its remarkable temples in terracotta, terracotta pottery, and silk saris. The temples were built mainly during the 17th and 18th centuries by the rulers of the Malla dynasty. During this period, there has been a resurgence of Hinduism with devotion to Krishna, after an extended period of Islamic domination.

The result has been unusual temple architecture that blended in Bengali curved roof style with domes and Islamic arches, and the duel in Oriya style sanctum. Detailed sculptures on terracotta tiles of the temples are scenes from the life of Krishna, as well as the Hindu epics Ramayana and Mahabharata.

We visit the five-tower Shyama Raya temple, the astonishing Rasmancha temple, the double temple of Jorbangla, the Keshta Raya temple that mixes Bengali and Muslim influences and the Krishna Roy temple with its rich wall decoration. The temple of Sarbamangala is surrounded by four original temples dedicated to various aspects of Shiva.

The temples covered with ornamentation presenting the life of the gods reflect the imprint of this still strong region of its original craftsmanship. Immerse yourself in a village of potters. On the way visit Chandernagor, a little further north, which is an old French colony that preserves a beautiful church and a remarkable cultural institute.

6. Dooars Region and Jaldapara National Park

If you cannot go all the way up to the Kaziranga National Park in Assam to see the rare one-horned rhinoceros in the wild, do not despair. Jaldapara National Park has about 50 of these creatures, and you can view them close on an elephant safari. The sanctuary is the best-known forest of Dooars region at the foot of the western Himalayan Bengal near Bhutan.

If you stay at the Forest Department Tourist Lodge deep inside the national park, you will be blessed with the sight of animals that roam the nearby creek and Salt Lick, including rhinos! The sanctuary is open from October to May. The best months of watching rhino are March and April when the new grass comes up. In the Jaldapara Nature Reserve, you can see rhinoceroses unicorns, elephants, buffaloes, and deer.

7. Cruise along the Hooghly River

A cruise along the river Hoogly also known as the Hugli, a lower outlet channel of the Ganges River, offers a memorable glimpse into village life. The cruises from Kolkata to Farakka is more interesting for its Dutch, British, French, Portuguese and Danish heritage as all these countries set up colonies during the 18th-century trade and you get to see the remains of them, as well as markets, old temples and mosques.

8. Mandarmani Beach

Avoid the overcrowded Digha Beach and head to Mandarmani Beach, about three hours south of Kolkata. Although it is not far from Digha, this fishing village with a super long stretch of beach is much quieter and unspoiled. There are beach resorts to stay right on the beach.

9. Shantiniketan

During our drive to Shantiniketan, on the way, we stop at Bankura, the village famous for its pottery, specializing in the manufacture of statues of votive horses. After crossing Durgapur, a booming industrial city, we arrive in Santiniketan. We visit the university and ashram founded by Rabindranath Tagore, who was always sensitive to the charm of rustic life and wanted to diffuse his ideas in the heart of the quiet Bengali countryside rather than in town. The best time to visit Shantiniketan is during Holi. Here the Basanta Utsav is celebrated.

10. Serampore

Serampore was the enclave of the Danish until 1845, that passed to British hands. During Danish rule, this city was an important cultural center as can still be seen visiting the Serampore School, the first modern university in Asia and the Church of San Olaf, built in 1747.

11. Chandernagor

Chandernagor still conserves vestiges of the French that populated it from 1673 to 1952, like the Church of the Sacred Heart with a statue of Joan of Arc. The Dutch left their mark in Chinsurah and the Portuguese achieved the consecration in 1599 of the Church of Our Lady of Bandel. To the northwest are several important temples such as the Nandadulal Temple in Lal Bagan dedicated to Krishna, Vasudeva, and Hanseswari, with 13 towers, both in Bansberia, Beni Madhava Temple in Triveni and the Darya Zafar Khan Monument built in the thirteenth century.

12. Nabadwip and Mayapur

Towards the north from Calcutta, 200 Km away, are the nine Ganges Islands that make up Nabadwip in Nadia. In March thousands of pilgrims come to this place for the parikrama, a 50-kilometer journey through sacred sites. Nearby is Mayapur, home of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness.

13. Murshidabad

Murshidabad was the capital of independent Bengal in the 18th century. You can see the Hazarduari Palace, built by an English architect in 1837, with paintings, porcelain, and armor collections, as well as the ruins of the Katra Mosque, built in 1724, which houses the tomb of Nawab Murshid Quli Khan. Then visit the palaces of Nashipara and Katgola, built by wealthy Georgian merchants.

Murshidabad is famous for its silks and ivory sculptures, and you can admire interesting monuments such as Jafarganj Deorhi Palace, Katra Mosque or Murshid Kuli Khan Mausoleum. From Jangipur, take a full-day excursion to the ruins of Gaur. Gaur was once one of the largest cities on the Indian subcontinent. You will see the most interesting remains of mosques, palaces, and gates, before returning after a long day of sightseeing on some adventurous roads built in 1974 along the Farakka Dam.

14. Malda

In Pandua, you can see curious buildings built with materials from Hindu temples such as the baroque Mosque of Baroduari, the 26 mt high Feroze Minar and the Chika Mosque, whose doors are adorned with Hindu idols.

15. Tamluk, Diamond Harbor and Sagardwip

South of Calcutta you can make a trip through Tamluk, an important Buddhist center; Diamond Harbor, a tourist center that was a site of the Portuguese pirates; and Sagardwip, a sacred island that receives every year in mid-January thousands of pilgrims celebrating the Gangasagar Mela.

16. Tarapith

Tarapith in Birbhum is a place about four hours by train north of Calcutta that leaves a deep imprint of all the people who go there on a pilgrimage. The quality of this print may change depending on the experience that has been lived in the place, but the intensity of the place is such that you cannot remain indifferent. Pitha means altar or sacred place. There are 51 Pithas as per the mythology of Sati and each of these places has a particular energy.

Tarapith, in particular, has been the subject of worship for centuries. Vasistha performed the sadhana here. Historically little is known about him even though many traditions of yoga refer to his teaching. The story of Vasistha related to Tarapith says that after many years in which the sage was meditating at the temple of Kamakhya, he felt it was necessary for him to practice and worship with an unconventional use of prohibited substances and behaviors to reach the absolute liberation.

Vasistha traveled to Tarapith and for years kept the worship of Tara following the Tantra of Vama Marga (left hand) using the 5 elements prohibited as this path prescribes for his sadhana. In addition, the daily procession of the faithful to the cult of Shakti, who daily throng Tarapith like other Pithas further raise the energy level of the place.

The nearest train station about eight kilometers from Tarapith is Rampurhat. At first glance, Tarapith looks like an India, where instead of the sea and discos, there is a temple. Two different entrances are provided, one for people who simply wanted to get into the courtyard and one for people who wanted darshan and in this case it is the passage in front of the statue of Tara.

The queue for darshan was already very long, a few hundred meters outside the temple. They prepared the basket with offerings to the gods filling them with flowers, incense, sweet and colorful cloths all done with care and dedication.

After about an hour I stood before the point where the sacrifices of goat are done through beheading. Tara exists both in the Hindu tradition as in the Buddhist. In the Hindu tradition, she has a terrifying appearance, lives in cemeteries where the bodies are burned. The Tibetan Tara instead has a benign appearance and is considered a compassionate mother to her followers.


West Bengal and the Bengali language enjoy a rich literary heritage, with rhythmic works of writers such as Charyapada, Mangal Kavya, Shreekrishna Kirtana, Thakurmar Jhuli and stories related to Gopal Bhar. As for music, the Baul is a traditional Bengali folk music, which has also been influenced by regional musical traditions. Other forms of folk music are Gombhira and Bhawaiya. Folk music in Bengal is often accompanied by ektara.

Unlike many states in India, Bengal is known for its passion for football, as Calcutta hosts national clubs such as East Bengal and the Mohun Bagan. As everywhere in India, many festivals are celebrated in Bengal. Here there is a proverb Baro Mase Tero Parbon, meaning 13 festivals in 12 months, which testifies to the abundance of festivities in this state.

Among all the festivals, the Durga Puja in October is the most popular in Bengal. In Calcutta, around two thousand pandals, temporary bamboo structures are built to venerate the goddess Durga and are built every year for the occasion. Another typical festival is the Pohela Baishakh, the Bengali New Year, which is celebrated on 14 or 15 April. Buddha Purnima marks the birth of Gautama Buddha, is one of the most important Buddhist festivals along with Christmas.

Bengali Cuisine

In Bengali, the saying "Machhe Bhate Bangali" means rice and fish make a Bengali. In other words, rice and fish are the preferred foods of Bengalis. The cuisine of West Bengal has the reputation of having one of the least spicy and varied cuisines in the country, with an astonishing delicacy and variety. The number of fruits and vegetables that the region offers is also incredible. The Panta Bhat, rice soaked overnight in water with onion and green pepper is a traditional dish consumed in rural areas.

When to go to Bengal

During October to December and March to May for the view of the mountains, trekking and spring flowers in North Bengal. October to March is the ideal time to escape the heat of the plains in South Bengal.

Monsoons bring a lot of rain and usually occur between June and September and West Bengal is often affected by floods. The Ganges and its tributaries often overflow during this period so that one of the tributaries, the Damodar, was once called the sorrow of Bengal. During the summer there is a lot of humidity in the area of the Ganges delta, while in the upper part it is a quite dry season.

West Bengal Travel Tips

Do not miss -

The perfume of the rhododendrons and the panorama of Nepal, Sikkim and West Bengal from the ridges during the Singalila Ridge trek

A trip by toy train, a small tourist train between Kurseong and Darjeeling, in the country of tea.

The winding course of the Hooghly to the discovery of the colonial and Mughal ruins of Serampore, Chandernagore, and Hooghly. Visit the French Museum and village, bicycle rink to the Dutch Cemetery & Imambara.

Tea plantations and the fabulous perspectives of the colonial hill station of Darjeeling.

Sunrise on the Khangchendzonga, the third highest peak in the world from Tiger Hill.

The terracotta fa├žades recounting the Hindu epics on the temples of Bishnupur.

You can reach the small town of Kalna and take a bicycle ride to Bengal's most beautiful terracotta temples dating from the 17th and 18th century. In the morning you can visit the Matiari village, famous for its traditional brass work. You can see how old-fashioned water pots and other brass vessels are hammered.

Take a jeep tour to the monument of the Battle of Plassey.

Baranagar was once the center of jute trade. Walk to a picturesque complex of three miniature terracotta temples, one of the most beautiful examples of Bengal terracotta art. Enjoy the particularly idyllic atmosphere of rural India before you continue your river cruise up the Hugli River and cross along the banks of saddle and mango trees.

Navigation on the channels of the Sundarbans, largest mangrove area of the planet and the famous Royal Bengal tiger, kingfishers and chital.

The bohemian atmosphere of the university town of Shantiniketan and the beautiful surrounding countryside. The Santals present in West Bengal are renowned for their rich oral culture. Cow dung turned into cakes, which will serve as fuel, dry on the trunks of trees and on the walls of houses. It emanates a certain joy of living from the villagers of Bishnubati.

This cohesion is supposed to be assured by five men, who occupy in each village functions ranging from village chief to priest. When a problem occurs in the village, it is submitted to this group of men, who can call all the inhabitants of the village to gather in the center of the village. Decisions are taken by consensus and validated by the village chief.

When two families wish to marry their children, the chiefs and priests of the two villages meet to decide whether the marriage can take place. Marriage is the alliance of two families, two villages, far more than two individuals. No dowry is paid by the girl's family. During the ceremony, the woman sits in a large basket, her fiance on the shoulders of her father's sister's husband. Women can speak freely to men other than their husbands, even in the absence of the husband. The separation of a couple and the remarriage of women are not stigmatized by the community.

A man and a woman can also simply decide to live together and hand over a certain amount of rice beer to the village officials. It is a practical method for the poorest because it's inexpensive! If a man wants to marry a woman of a superior clan to his own, he can practice marriage by elopement. At the turn of a road, he applies the sindoor on the forehead of the coveted woman. If the latter does not agree, it will be up to the village council to decide on the future of their union.

The Santals do not have food bans. I saw in the village men busy chasing the mice, which ended up on their plates. They have trap systems designed to catch fish, birds, and rodents.

Never close your eyes in Calcutta with its ubiquitous crowd, its colonial architecture and its scenes of life. You can hear the whistling of a steam train that takes you to the serrated summits of the Himalayan foothills. It's normal, you're on the Toy Train. You face a giant silhouette culminating at 8585 meters above sea level. Here is Mount Khangchendzonga.

Your gaze flares up tea plantations spread out as far as the eye can see. You are in the town of Darjeeling. Open the other eye. Here is the tiger of Bengal standing there in front of you, as its yellow eyes scrutinize you. You are in the Sundarbans reserve. Thus goes West Bengal, like a sweet awakened dream filled with charm and poetry.