Shantiniketan could have easily been just another charming hamlet in eastern India. It is due to the immense contribution of Asia’s first Nobel laureate, Rabindranath Tagore, and the rest of the Tagore family, a leading Indian family at the forefront of the Bengali Renaissance, that the small town in the Birbhum district of West Bengal is today an eminent center of art, literature, culture, and education. Add to that the surrounding nature- the rustic red soil that the town stands on, the verdant woods that lace the region, the serenity that pulsates in the air, and you have a must-visit place waiting to be your next weekend getaway! Here is a list of the experiences that you must not lose out on during your trip to Shantiniketan.
Rabindranath Tagore was a man of many colors. He was a poet, a musician, a novelist, a dramatist, an artist, an educationist, and so much more. Rabindranath was against the concept of formal education, far away from the myriad happenings of the outside world and the wonders of mother nature. So, he established an open-air children’s school in 1901 that expanded over the years to become a full-fledged university. It was named Visva Bharati, meaning India’s communion with the world. In 1951, Visva Bharati was granted the status of a central public university and an Institute of National Importance (INI). The university boasts the likes of Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, filmmaker Satyajit Ray, sculptor Ramkinkar Baij, artist Benode Behari Mukherjee, Indira Gandhi, India’s only female Prime Minister, and many others in its list of illustrious alumni.
Inside the campus, you will see classes being conducted out in the open under gigantic mango trees, old buildings with thatched roofs being used as different departmental quarters, and artists engrossed in shaping up masterpieces. The art wing of the university, the Kala Bhavan, is a must-visit. The departmental building is adorned with striking black and white visuals that will captivate you. Even though the university offers a wide array of courses, it is most famous for its art wing and the music wing, the Sangeet Bhavan. Kalo Bari (the black house) is a unique building that serves as a hostel for the Kala Bhavan students. It is made of mud and coal tar, and its walls are decked with relief art created by the students themselves. The tradition was started by Nandalal Bose, one of the trailblazers of modern Indian painting and the first principal of Kala Bhavan.
Wandering through the dusty trails surrounded by the expansive green orchards, you should next visit the Rabindra Bhavan, which is home to many Rabindranath’s personal belongings such as his letters, manuscripts, photographs, paintings, books, mirrors, brooches, and others. The Nobel prize medal received by Rabindranath also used to be showcased here. Unfortunately, it was stolen in 2004. Now, two replicas of the medal, presented by the Swedish Government, are exhibited at the Rabindra Bhavan.
You must visit Chhatimtola, the spot where Rabindranath’s father Maharshi Debendranath Tagore, a great philosopher and a proponent of the Brahmo creed, used to meditate. You will be fascinated to know that every student graduating from here is gifted a branch of the Saptaparni tree (locally called Chhatim tree) from Chhatimtola. Today, people from all walks of life visit the place to immerse themselves in meditation and introspection. It is one of the most peaceful places you will ever visit in your life. About 250 meters away from Chhatimtola is the stunning Upasana Griha (prayer hall) made of Belgian glass and white marble. The Upasana Griha was commissioned by Maharshi Debendranath Tagore and it opened its doors in 1891. It is commonly known as the Kanch Ghar (kanch- glass, ghar- house) and is arguably the most beautiful structure in all of Shantiniketan. The gates of the campus open for visitors at 1 PM. While there are no official tour guides here, you can get one of the students to give you a tour of the place for a token amount.
Located adjacent to the university campus, the Uttarayan Complex houses five of Rabindranath Tagore’s houses, namely Punascha, Shyamali, Konarka, Udichi, and Udayan. Udayan is where the great bard lived and penned many of his immortal literary works. The sixth house of the complex, Bichitra, was built by Rabindranath’s son, Rathindranath Tagore. Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister, inaugurated Bichitra, which serves as a very well-curated museum housing Rabindranath’s manuscripts, photographs, paintings, title deeds, letters, and awards. In front of Bichitra, the grand black Humber, driven by Rabindranath, occupies pride of place. All the buildings in the Uttarayan complex are exceptional instances of the Bengal school of architecture.
The Shonajhurir Haat is a vibrant market held every Saturday from around 3 PM in the Khoai region of Shantiniketan. This haat (rural market) is my favorite thing about the town. Local artisans and craftsmen gather here to sell handmade jewelry, homemade sweetmeats, beautiful sarees, local artwork called batik, and whatnot. You will also find the famous terracotta figurines of Bishnupur here. The Bauls (mystic minstrels of Bengal) of the region come to the market with their ektaras (one-stringed musical instruments), and the traditional music surging through the air only enhances the already lively atmosphere! The Khoai is also the most picturesque part of the town. Once you start taking a walk along the deep red trails coursing through the lush green eucalyptus forests, with the Ajoy River for company, you will want never to leave this place! It is blissful.
Amar Kutir is a co-operative society that works towards rural development by employing indigenous communities. Here is where you can catch a glimpse of the painstaking labor that goes behind Shantiniketan’s painted leather handbags, batik paintwork, and handsewn Kantha embroidery on apparel. The Amar Kutir complex also has a showroom from where you can buy beautiful souvenirs that will remind you of the place for years to come.
The easiest way to get to Shantiniketan is by train. The nearest railway station from the town is the Bolpur Shantiniketan Station. You can board any Shantiniketan-bound train from the Sealdah Junction or the Howrah Junction in Kolkata, and you will reach your destination in about three hours. The distance between Shantiniketan and Kolkata, the City of Joy, is 163 kilometres. If you wish, you can hire a private cab to travel the distance. This way, you will get to experience the beauty of rural Bengal from up close. The best time to visit Shantiniketan is between July and March, as the summer months of April-June get extremely hot and humid. In December, the town hosts the famous winter carnival called Poush Mela, which is an experience of a lifetime.
This little picture-postcard town will soothe your soul. So, it is only fitting that the place is called Shantiniketan, which literally means the abode of peace! The small town has an enviable cultural legacy and an abundance of the grace of nature. I cannot think of any better place for you to get introduced to the rich culture of Bengal. So, what are you waiting for? Pack your bags for the perfect weekend getaway.
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