Bolpur-Santiniketan: A Pastoral.
Photos by: Madhurima Mazumder, Ankana Das and Debdeep Banik.
In the late 19th Century, a man, from one of the richest and most culturally advanced aristocratic families of the British Calcutta was traveling around the rural countrysides of Bengal in the province of Birbhum, where he came across a pair of lush green Chatim trees amidst the long-stretched arid land of red-earth. This place lied within his ancestral estate and he named it Santiniketan, literally "the abode of peace". The son of this man was equally charmed with the beauty of this place and later conceptualized the foundation of a quaint school in this secluded spot, far from the clamour and claustrophobia of the modern city-life.
Time passed. That school grew into an acclaimed university Visva-Bharati and the man who had envisioned it, was none other than the famous poet, noble-laureate Rabindranath Tagore. The tiny hamlet grew, with the school, into a town which attracted national and international visitors but still retained the pastoral charm which had enticed these noted men in the first place. If you have been here, you'd know the extent to which its appeal can stretch. If you have not, I can only implore you to come here and bask in the natural beauty of the rural countryside of West Bengal and its throbbing cultural ambiance.
How to Go:
Santiniketan (The name of the Rail-Station is Bolpur) takes only 3.5 hours to reach from Kolkata by train. You can board the train either at Shealdah station or at Howrah station. From the Howrah station, the trains are more frequently available, but if you are traveling for the first time, I'd encourage you to board the morning train of Rampurhat-Ma Taara Express, which leaves Shealdah at 7.20. It will offer a view of the river Ganga from the rail-bridge and of amazing beauty of countryside once the train crosses Burdwan station and proceeds into the rural Birbhum district.
You'd notice that the colour of the earth changes gradually to a deep vermillion. Long stretches of Sonajhuri woods and Palm trees appear between paddy fields, and if it's Autumn, you'd definitely see multitudes of Kash flower bushes along the rail-track. Notice, if you can, the names of the passing stations at which the train would not stop; and you'll be amazed at the variety and novelty of their names. Finally, the train would cross the Ajay river and in a few minutes you'll reach the Bolpur station.
Hire a shared toto or a rickshaw (which costs more) from outside the station and reach a hotel or a guest house. There is no scarcity of places to stay around here, ranging from cheap budget ones to luxurious cottages. one should choose to stay near the university campus, perhaps at Shyambati or near the State Bank for greater advantages of transportation.
What to See:
The Museums and the University Campus:
One should keep an entire day for exploring the museum areas and the university campus, which is vast and beautiful. Do not forget to visit the beautiful and uniquely designed houses which were used by Rabindranath Tagore at different points of his stay at Shantiniketan, namely the Konark, the Shyamali, the Punashcho, the Udichi, the Uttarayan - -all of which have been turned into amazing little museums. See the Upasana Ghor, or the Prayer Room which is a beautiful house made of white walls and coloured glasses, and also beside it, the Tal-Gach, a Palm tree which rises through the roof of a mud-hut.
You'll also see the Melar Math which is a large ground where every winter, a huge fair called Pous Mela is held, drawing thousands of people from everywhere. Don't forget the Kala Bhavan or the Fine Arts Department of the university, where you will see beautifully designed houses, sculptures and installations by the fine-arts-students, as well as the works of the famous painters and sculptors of Santiniketan, such as Ramkinkar Baij or Nandalal Basu. Also, do not miss the Amra-Kunja or the Mango Orchard, the Ghanta Ghor or the Bell-House nearby, and the famous Chatim Tala which still holds the famous twin Chatim trees, around which has been built a small shrine.
In the mornings, you can also see the children going to the Pathshalas, or the nursery schools, where their classes are still held under the trees, and the students sit on mats on the open ground. In short, just wander around the place, sit beneath the large mango or banyan trees, admire the unique architecture of the buildings and see the large green trees, full of flowers, undulating in the warm breeze.
The Kopai River:
The Kopai river is at a short distance from Santiniketan, it is near Goalpara, the adjacent village. The river itself is not significent but it cannot be missed, mostly because of the wonderful road which leads to it. It has trees lined along large open fields on the plateau-like land and offers a beautiful view to anyone riding along it.
Daranda and the Ajay River:
Daranda is another beautiful little place,at a short distance from Shantiniketan. Again it will present amazing pastoral scenes and one can always try to organize a little picnic by the Ajay river.
Sonajhuri, Khoai and Shonibar r Haat:
I'll explain these words one by one. Sonajhuri is a kind of tree which grows in profusion in Birbhum, along with the Shaal and the Mahua. Sonajhuri is also the name of the place where you'll find one of such big woods of these trees. It is situated on a plateau, and the earth is deep red and made up of sand-pebbles. What's more, this site is also the location of the famous Khoai. Khoai is a unique formation of the earth created by the erosion of wind, rain and rivulets. It'll be impossible to describe it in words except perhaps in geological terms, so these photos must suffice.
You must get down into this Khoai and explore its structures. You can discern caves, weird natural statues or strange designs on the earth-walls.
On Saturdays (Shonibar), a quaint Haat or local bazaar of handicrafts is held here. The local people sit on the ground and sell hand-made souvenirs, show-pieces, bags, clothes, shawls, jewelry (made from tree-barks, baked earth, seeds or pebbles!) etc. It is a great sight indeed; and even if you do not intend to buy anything, you should definitely come here. Although the majority of the sellers would come on Saturday afternoons, on the other days too one can find a sufficient number of sellers and buyers.
The Deer Park:
A popular tourist attraction, it's a large wooded area, where you can see deers and birds.
Srijani Shilpo Gram:
It literally means an Art-Village.There is not much in here though. It is a walled area with some little cottages in which various handicrafts from different states are displayed.
An old and popular temple and a burning ghat.
What to Remember:
I must add that the beauty of Shantiniketan lies not in the popular tourist places but in the joy of unhindered exploring. To fully imbibe in the amazing ambiance of Shantiniketan, you must quit the main road, hire a cycle or simply walk around. Look about the nature that surrounds you, the quiet village life, the beautiful houses and large gardens, the shady lanes and the alleys.
Go and sit at some secluded spot near the Khoai and Sonajhuri, stay until the evening and watch a moon-rise through the tree leaves. Listen to the Bauls, the minstrel folk-singers who will play the music on Ek-taara( a simple one-string instrument) at the Sonajhuri Haat.
Sip teas from earthen cups at road-side thatched stalls, ; munch on chicken pakoras, and gorge on Puchkas at Ratonpolli ( near the Santiniketan Post-Office); and if possible, have your lunch at one of those huts, the small, shabby mud and bamboo shacks where the students come for cheap meals. The simple taste of fish curry, vegetable chutney and potato fries with daal, served hot with rice on a leaf-plate would blow your mind.
When to Visit:
Go there at any time you want but preferably one should avoid the Summer because then the weather becomes extremely hot. In the Spring, you can see lots of Palash, Krishnachura, Radhachura trees in full bloom—the profusion of these fiery red flowers makes an exceptional sight. Also, in the Spring, you may go there in Holi or Dol, as it is more popularly known here, to see the vibrant holi-festival organized by the university. However, during this time and during the Pous Mela or the fair in the winter, Santiniketan is flooded with people, so you'd need to book hotels at least 2-3 months prior. Also, the prices will be raised excessively.
How to Move Around:
Hire a cycle. Hire Totos. Hire your feet to walk as much as you can.
What to Eat:
Simple daily foods, Phuchkas and Chicken Pakoras from stalls at Ratonpolli; and tea, as many cups as you like.
What and Where to Shop:
There are a great many places to shop around in Shantiniketan. Apart from the Haat already mentioned, you can go to the shops near the State Bank or at the Samobay near the Post-Office. You'll find beautiful handicrafts, sarees, kurtas for men and women, shawls, dress materials, bags, jewelry, etc; and also home-made ghee, papads, chutneys and pickles. There are certain special cloth-materials and prints singular to Santiniketan, such as the Batik and Kalamkari prints, and Khesh, a kind of local cloth-material, and also special leather-art. All of these are cheap and you may buy as much as you want, but don't forget to haggle.
At the end of the day, Santiniketan is not of those typical tourist places where one can tick off items from a guide-book, but if one ever needs a quiet nook to get away from the claustrophobia of modernity and be in touch with the nature and the earth, and listen to the calm harmony of rural lives, this is the site where the search ends.