Unique among Indian states in stretching all the way from the Himalayas to the sea, West Bengal is nonetheless explored in depth by few travellers. That may have something to do with the exaggerated reputation of its capital, Kolkata (Calcutta), a sophisticated and friendly city that belies its popular image as poverty-stricken and chaotic. The rest of Bengal holds an extraordinary assortment of landscapes and cultures, ranging from the dramatic hill station of Darjeeling, within sight of the highest mountains in the world, to the vast mangrove swamps of the Sundarbans, prowled by man-eating Royal Bengal tigers. The narrow central band of the state is cut across by the huge River Ganges as it pours from Bihar into Bangladesh and here the Farrakha Barrage controls the movement of south-flowing channels such as the River Hooghly, the lifeline of Kolkata.
At the height of British rule, in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Bengal flourished both culturally and materially, nurturing a uniquely creative blend of West and East. The Bengali Renaissance produced thinkers, writers and artists such as Bankim Chandra Chatterjee and Rabindranath Tagore, whose collective influence still permeates Bengali society more than a century later.
Not all of Bengal is Bengali; the current Nepalese-led separatist movement for the creation of an autonomous “Gurkhaland” in the Darjeeling area has focused on sharp differences in culture. Here, the Hindu Nepalese migration eastward from the nineteenth century onwards has largely displaced the indigenous tribal groups of the north, though Lamaist Tibetan Buddhism continues to flourish. In the southwest, on the other hand, tribal groups such as the Santhals and the Mundas still maintain a presence, and itinerant Baul musicians continue the region’s traditions of song and dance, most often heard around Tagore’s university at Shantiniketan; Tagore’s own musical form, Rabindra Sangeet, is a popular amalgam of influences including folk and classical. Other historical specialities of Bengal include its ornate terracotta temples, as seen at Bishnupur, and its silk production, concentrated around Murshidabad, the state’s last independent capital.
Bengal’s own brand of Hinduism emphasizes the mother goddess, who appears in such guises as the fearsome Kali and Durga, the benign Saraswati, goddess of learning, and Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth. The most mysterious of all is Tara, an echo of medieval links with Buddhism; her temple at Tarapith is perhaps the greatest centre of Tantrism in the entire country.