Unique among Indian states in stretching all the way from the Himalayas to the sea, West Bengal is nonetheless explored in depth by few foreign travellers. That may have something to do with the exaggerated reputation of its capital, Kolkata (Calcutta), an enthralling, 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 Farakka Barrage controls the movement of south-flowing channels such as the River Hooghly, the lifeline of Kolkata.
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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, though; 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.
Although Bengal was part of the Mauryan Empire during the third century BC, it first came to prominence in its own right under the Guptas in the fourth century AD. So dependent was it on trade with the Mediterranean that the fall of Rome caused a sharp decline, only reversed with the rise of the Pala dynasty in the eighth century.
After a short-lived period of rule by the highly cultured Senas, based at Gaur, Bengal was brought under Muslim rule at the end of the twelfth century by the first Sultan of Delhi, Qutb-ud-din-Aibak. Sher Shah Suri, who briefly usurped power from the Mughals in the mid-sixteenth century, developed the infrastructure and built the Grand Trunk Road, running all the way to the Northwest Province on the borders of his native Afghanistan. Akbar reconquered the territory in 1574, before the advent of the Europeans in the eighteenth century.
The arrival of the Europeans
The Portuguese, who were the first to set up a trading community beside the Hooghly, were soon joined by the British, Dutch, French and many others. Rivalry between them eventually resulted in the ascendancy of the British, with the only serious indigenous resistance coming from the tutelary kingdom of Murshidabad, led by the young Siraj-ud-Daula. His attack on the fledgling British community of Calcutta in 1756 culminated in the infamous Black Hole incident, when British prisoners suffocated to death. Vengeance, in the form of a British army from Madras under Robert Clive, arrived a year later. The defeat of Siraj-ud-Daula at the Battle of Plassey paved the way for British domination of the entire Subcontinent. Bengal became the linchpin of the British East India Company and its lucrative trading empire, until the company handed over control to the Crown in 1858.
Up to 1905, Bengal encompassed Orissa (now Odisha) and Bihar; it was then split down the middle by Lord Curzon, leaving East Bengal and Assam on one side and Orissa, Bihar and West Bengal on the other. The move aroused bitter resentment, and the rift it created between Hindus and Muslims was a direct cause of the second Partition, in 1947, when East Bengal became East Pakistan. During the war with Pakistan in the early 1970s that resulted in the creation of an independent Bangladesh, up to ten million refugees fled into West Bengal. Shorn of its provinces, and with the capital moved from Calcutta to Delhi in 1911, the story of West Bengal in the twentieth century was largely a chronicle of decline.
The state’s political life has been dominated by a protracted – and sometimes violent – struggle between the Congress and, more recently, the breakaway Trinamool Congress, against the major left-wing parties: the Marxist Communist Party of India, or CPI(M), and the Marxist-Leninist Naxalites (Communist Party of India (ML)). In the 1960s and 1970s, the latter launched an abortive but bloody attempt at revolution. Bolstered by a strong rural base, the CPI(M) and allies emerged victorious in 1977 under the enigmatic Jyoti Basu (d.2010), weathering the collapse of world communism, and heralding the decades-long dominance by the Left Front.
This long dominance by the CPI(M) came to a dramatic end in 2011, when the firebrand politician, Mamata Banerjee, who had honed her political skills supporting the oppressed poor in two notorious campaigns against industrialization, swept to power. While she inherited a state of political and industrial turmoil, Didi, or “Sister” as she is commonly known, has yet to redress the imbalance in the infrastructure and there are many who feel that she has been neither able to transcend the grassroots struggle that brought her to prominence, nor to comprehend the complexities of what was once, and still is, a dynamic industrial powerhouse.
In Kolkata – booming with expatriate wealth and a surge in business confidence, though nothing like in Delhi or Mumbai – political turmoil can seem a world away. Meanwhile in the north of the state, ethnic political groups are calling for autonomy from Bengal. The fabric and future shape of the current state is by no means certain.
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.
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 Visva-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 Shantiniketan’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.
The Bengali poet and literary giant Rabindranath Tagore (1861–1941) has inspired generations of artists, poets and musicians. He developed an early interest in theatre, and set his poems to music – this was to become, as Rabindra Sangeet, one of the most popular musical traditions in Bengal. Introduced to England and the West by the painter William Rothenstein and the poet W.B. Yeats, Tagore had his collection of poems, Gitanjali, first published in translation in 1912, and the following year was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Though he preferred to write in Bengali, and encouraged authors in other Indian languages, he was also a master of English prose. Not until he was in his 70s did his talent as an artist and painter emerge, developed from scribblings on the borders of his manuscripts. Tagore was an enormous inspiration to many, including his students, the illustrious painter Nandalal Bose, and later the film-maker Satyajit Ray, who based several of his films on the works of the master.
One of the most important centres of Tantric Hinduism, Tarapith is easily visited on a day-trip and features in William Dalrymple’s 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, 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 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.
A sleepy backwater town 150km northwest of Kolkata, Bishnupur 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. The roots of Bishnupur’s long tradition of temple building are in the basic form of the domestic hut translated into temple architecture. Built of brick and faced with finely carved terracotta decoration, the temples combine striking simplicity of form with vibrant texture.
Best time to visit Kolkata and West Bengal
The climate of Kolkata – and much of west and lowland north Bengal – is at its best during the short winter (Nov–Feb), when the daily maximum temperature hovers around 27°C, and the markets are filled with fresh vegetables and flowers. Before the monsoons, however, the heat hangs unbearably heavily; the arrival of the rains in late June brings relief, but usually also floods that turn the streets into a quagmire. After a brief period of post-monsoon high temperatures, October and November are quite pleasant; this is the time of the city’s biggest festival, Durga Puja.
The best seasons to visit Darjeeling and the mountainous areas of north Bengal are after the monsoons and before winter (late Sept to late Nov), and spring (mid-Feb to May).
Festivals in Kolkata and West Bengal
Most of Bengal’s Hindu festivals are devoted to forms of the mother goddess, Shakti.
Jaidev Mela (early Jan). Baul minstrels gather to commemorate Joydeb, the revered author of the Gita Govinda, held in the village of Kendubilwa (Kenduli), near Shantiniketan.
Ganga Sagar Mela (mid-Jan). During the winter solstice of Makar Sankranti, thousands of Hindu pilgrims and sadhus gather for a three-day festival at Sagardwip, 150km south where the Ganges meets the sea.
Dover Lane Music Festival (Jan/Feb). A week-long festival in south Kolkata, attracting many of the country’s best musicians.
Saraswati Puja (Jan/Feb). Popular and important festival, dedicated to the goddess of learning and staged throughout Bengal.
Chinese New Year (Jan/Feb). Celebrated with a week-long festival of dragon dances, firecrackers and fine food, concentrated around Chinatown and the suburb of Tangra.
Muharram (dates determined by the lunar calendar; see when-is.com). Shi’ite Muslims mark the anniversary of the martyrdom of Hussein by severe penance.
Durga Puja (Sept/Oct). At the onset of winter, Durga Puja (known elsewhere as Dasara or Dussehra) is the Bengali equivalent of Christmas. It climaxes on Mahadashami, the tenth day, when the images of goddess Durga are immersed in the river.
Lakshmi Puja (Oct/Nov). Held five days after Mahadashami on the full moon, to honour the goddess of wealth.
Christmas (Dec 25). Park Street and New Market are adorned with fairy lights and the odd Christmas tree.
Poush Mela (late Dec). Held in Shantiniketan, the mela brings in Bauls, the wandering minstrels who attract large audiences.