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 Odisha, the southwestern districts of Bengal have become too dangerous to visit.
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Despite rapid growth and encroachment into the tribal Santhal habitat, the peaceful haven of Shantiniketan, 136km northwest of Kolkata, remains a world away from the clamour and grime of the city. Founded by Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore in 1921 on the site of his father’s ashram, both the settlement and its liberal arts university Vishwa Bharati were designed to promote the best of Bengali culture. Towards the end of the Bengali Renaissance, Tagore’s vision and immense talent inspired a whole way of life and art; the university and school still operate under this momentum.
Centred around the Uttarayan complex of buildings, designed by Tagore, the university is very much in harmony with its surroundings, despite its recent growth as Kolkatans have settled or built holiday homes nearby. Well-known graduates include Indira Gandhi and Satyajit Ray, and departments such as Kala Bhavan (art) and Sangeet Bhavan (music) still attract students from all over the world.
The renowned Bauls, Bengal’s wandering minstrels, who play a unique style of folk music, gather during the afternoon at the informal shanibarer haat (Saturday market) held under the trees by Shriniketan’s canal, where Shantal tribals also gather to sell their crafts. The large fair of Poush Mela, between December 22 and 25, attracts numerous Bauls each year.
One of the most important centres of Tantric Hinduism, Tarapith is easily visited on a day-trip and features in William Dalrymple’s recent book Nine Lives. The temple and the cremation ground, in a grove beside the river littered with shrines 50km north of Shantiniketan, are popular with Tantric sadhus, and it’s not uncommon to witness rituals involving skulls and cremation ashes. The temple, in a perpetually busy courtyard, is dedicated to the mysterious and feared goddess Tara, who appears here with a silver face and large eyes. The lanes leading to the temple are a hive of activity where pilgrims procure offerings and liaise with temple priests (panda) to officiate in deeply personal ceremonies.
Set in the brilliant green landscape of rural Bengal and close to the commercial town of Behrampur, Murshidabad, 219km north of Kolkata, 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, Mzurshidabad 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 columned Hazarduari to the Katra Mosque, built by Murshid Quli Khan in the style of the mosque at Mecca. 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.