A low-lying rural region where the pace of life is in stark contrast to that of Kolkata, central Bengal has a few sights to tempt tourists off the Kolkata–Darjeeling route. Shantiniketan, built on the site of Rabindranath Tagore’s father’s ashram, is a haven of peace, and a must for anyone interested in Bengali music, art and culture. The other highlights of the region include a cluster of exquisite terracotta temples in Bishnupur, the ruins of Gaur, the region’s seventh-century capital, and the palaces of Murshidabad, capital of Bengal’s last independent dynasty. With the Maoist insurgency along the borders of Jharkhand and Orissa, the southwestern districts of Bengal have become too dangerous to visit.Read More
BISHNUPUR, a sleepy backwater town 150km northwest of Kolkata, is a famous centre of Bengali learning, renowned above all for its exquisite terracotta temples. It was the capital of the Malla rajas, under whose patronage one of India’s greatest schools of music developed. Largely beyond the sphere of Muslim influence in Bengal, Bishnupur’s long tradition of temple-building had its roots in the basic form of the domestic hut. Translated into temple architecture, built of brick (as stone was rarely available) and faced with finely carved terracotta decoration often depicting scenes from the Ramayana, the temples combine striking simplicity of form with vibrant texture.
Several temples lie scattered in a wide area around Bishnupur. Raas Mancha, built in 1587 by Bir Hambir in a unique pyramidal style, is used to display the images of Krishna and Radha during the annual Raas festival. Nearby, the well-preserved Shyamarai, built in 1643, is a particularly fine example of terracotta art, while the smaller Jorbangla has fine detail. The unassuming tenth-century Mrinmoyee temple encloses the auspicious nababriksha, nine trees growing as one. To the north of town and dating from 1694, the Madan Mohan, with its domed central tower and scenes from the life of Krishna, is one of the largest.
- Shantiniketan and around
Set 219km north of Kolkata in the brilliant green landscape of rural Bengal and close to the commercial town of Behrampur, MURSHIDABAD represents the grand and final expression of independent Bengal before the arrival of the British. Several eighteenth-century monuments along the banks of the Hooghly stand as melancholic reminders of its days as the last independent capital of Bengal. Established early in the eighteenth century by the Nawab Murshid Quli Khan, Murshidabad was soon eclipsed when the forces of Siraj-ud-Daula were defeated by Robert Clive at the Battle of Plassey in 1757, as a result of which the British came to dominate Bengal from the new city of Calcutta. Clive described Murshidabad as equal to London, with several palaces and seven hundred mosques; today most of its past glory lies in ruins, though it is still renowned for cottage industries, especially silk weaving.
Murshidabad’s intriguing mixture of cultures is reflected in its architectural styles, which range from the Italianate Hazarduari, the nawab’s palace, designed by General Duncan Macleod of the Bengal Engineers, to the Katra Mosque, built by Murshid Quli Khan in the style of the mosque at Mecca. The palace, with its mirrored banqueting hall, circular durbar room, armoury and library of fine manuscripts, is now a museum; some of the paintings are in dire need of restoration, but the portrait collection is excellent. A large oxbow lake, the Moti Jheel or Pearl Lake, guards the desolate ruins of Begum Ghaseti’s palace, where Siraj-ud-Daula reigned before his defeat, and which was subsequently occupied for a while by Clive. To the south and across the river, Khushbagh, the Garden of Delight, holds the tombs of many of the nawabs, including Alivardi Khan and Siraj-ud-Daula.