I spent my teens in Kolkata amid Bengali friends whose love for Rabindranath Tagore ran deep. Our conversations were often about their visits to Shantiniketan or a distant cousin planning to study at the town’s famed art college, Kala Bhavana. My family moved cities often and our infrequent vacations usually involved an escape to the hills. In my eyes, Shantiniketan held a unique mystical charm; a charm fed by reading Tagore, listening to Rabindra Sangeet, and being surrounded by Bengalis who quoted him on every occasion.
Many years later, I was finally on my way to visit this magical place. The shriek of the engine whistle interrupted my reminiscences. The train rapidly left the Kolkata suburbs behind, making its way past villages through lush green fields tended by women in colourful saris. By contrast, the arrival at Shantiniketan was a bit of a let down. I had imagined a dreamy landscape, but was greeted by a competitive bunch of rickshaw drivers and noisy, smoke-belching vehicles. But the rickshaw I hired quickly took me away from the chaos, towards flat endless fields, cycling schoolgirls, and rows of neat homes.
For the frenetic traveller, Shantiniketan doesn’t offer many sights. But as a friend said to me before I left on my trip, “There is not much to see, yet much to comprehend.”
Tagore’s father Debendranath, who was known as Maharshi, built an ashram in the town in 1863. But Shantiniketan’s real fame came in 1901, when Rabindranath started his famous experimental school, Patha Bhavana. The school hoped to tear down barriers between students and teachers and worked on the assumption that education must go beyond the confines of the classroom. Patha Bhavana grew into the Visva Bharati University in 1921, attracting some of the most creative minds in the country.
Soaking In The Magic I rented a bicycle at my homestay and rode past beautiful sal trees to the Uttarayan Complex, to the north of the ashram. Tagore seemed omnipresent, like an ageing wizard with deep-set eyes, a flowing white beard, and long robe—and I wanted to get acquainted with his life.
The complex has the five homes that Tagore lived in at various stages of his life. Konark, Shyamali, Punascha, Udayan, and Udichi each have a distinctive architectural style. Together, they reflect Tagore’s thinking and his concept of space. Konark was the first to be built, in 1919, and was used as a venue for poetry recitations and play rehearsals. The most impressive is Udayan, which started small but was expanded by Tagore’s son Rathindranath. Shyamali was built using eco-friendly materials like mud and has earthen pots embedded in the walls. It was Tagore’s experiment in creating a model structure for villages. These houses have hosted many famous people, including Mahatma Gandhi, who stayed here in 1940. The outer walls are decorated with mud murals painted by students of Kala Bhavana in 1935 under the supervision of the famous painter Nandalal Bose.
The complex also houses Rabindra Bhavan Museum or the Bichitra, which displays several original letters, photographs, various gifts Tagore received on his travels, and some personal items. In 2004, his original Nobel medal was stolen from the premises and has since been replaced by a replica(Open Thur-Tue 10.30 a.m.-1 p.m. and 2-4.30 p.m.; entry fee ₹40).
Twilight Hours Right opposite Uttarayan Complex is the imposing two-storeyed Shantiniketan Griha. Built in the late 19th century, it was one of the earliest structures commissioned by the poet’s father Maharshi when he started the ashram. It is surrounded by manicured lawns and has a small museum, in which old furniture from the Tagore household and photographs of young “Rabi” are displayed.
Maharshi also had an Upasana Griha or prayer hall built within the complex. Marble stairs lead up to the wrought-iron structure, which has multicoloured Belgian glass windows. However, it is a temple without a deity, representing the ideas of the reformist Brahmo movement started by Maharshi and Raja Ram Mohan Roy. Visitors can attend the prayer sessions held every Wednesday morning and evening to soak in the atmosphere and enjoy moments of solitude surrounded by nature.
School With A Difference The plentiful morning light and the mild scent ofchatim (devil trees) around the campus indicate the core of Tagore’s philosophy of education in harmony with nature. Visva Bharati is one of the country’s foremost schools, offering a holistic scheme of education from the nursery to PhD level. It includes several schools of learning, including music, fine arts, education, and rural reconstruction. Classes are still held under the shade of sprawling mango trees where, as Tagore envisioned and wrote, “the mind can have its own dreams” (Open Thur-Tue; sightseeing is permitted only after classes get over at 1p.m.).
The Kala Bhavana is like an open art exhibition. The walls are covered in paintings, niches bear sculptures, and striking murals by artists such as Ram Kinkar Baij, Nandalal Bose, and Somanth Hore catch the eye.
I befriended a couple of students at a small canteen opposite the art school. Over cups of sugary tea, we discussed campus life and the joys of experimenting, something that isn’t possible within a structured curriculum. They told me more about the pieces of art scattered around, which I would have otherwise missed.
Tagore’s Inspiration Rabindranath Tagore was influenced by Shantiniketan’s landscape and people. I whiled away many a sultry hour reading under the shady trees that line the Kopai River, which shows up frequently in the poet’s work. Tagore named the area Khoai, which is a word for the laterite formations in the area that resemble undulating craters. I found great solace in my strolls, walking past running boys, Santhal women returning from work, and lovers stealing a private moment. Khaoi is a 20-minute cycle ride from the campus.
Another powerful inspiration for Tagore was indigenous Santhal art and music. To understand this, I visited the village of Boner Pukur Danga, on the periphery of Khoai. The path was made with red mud, and the houses had been freshly plastered. Murals depicting daily life, like women working in a field, covered most of the structures. Colourful designs marked the walls of houses celebrating special occasions like marriages and births.
The Art Of Craft For me, no trip is complete until I find small shops or workshops selling handmade objects and indigenous crafts. Thanks to Tagore’s legacy, Shantiniketan has managed to preserve a fast-disappearing rural crafts culture.
I started my treasure hunt at the pottery studio of long-time Shantiniketan resident Lipi Biswas. Her house—made of bamboo, mud, and stone—and her work, both are inspired by nature. I gazed covetously at her ash-glazed exhibits for a while and her studio had a wide range to choose from (Boner Pukur Danga; ₹200-3,000).
Another interesting place was the Alcha Store, located in an old bungalow. It has a lovely range of jute handbags with kantha embroidery, besides apparel, bedcovers, and curtains (Close to Ananda Mela, Ratan Pally Market; 03463-645272; www.alchashop.com; ₹550-5,000). I also visited Amar Kutir, a co-operative promoting rural crafts on the outskirts of Shantiniketan, where I browsed through leather goods, batik fabrics, and carved bamboo boxes(P.O. Sriniketan, close to Amar Kutir Eco Tourism Park; 03463-228555; www.facebook.com/AmarKutir; ₹100-1,000).
Every Saturday, the Bondangar Haat takes place near the Khoai grounds. More than the shopping, which includes wooden ektaras and terracotta jewellery, people go there for the music. Wandering Baul singers often perform at the haat, and I encountered one plucking at his ektara and singing about a lover pining to be reunited with his beloved. Watching the sun drop over the river as I listened to this melody made for a dramatic end to my trip.
Country Roads Homestay has very basic but clean accommodation, located next to the Poush Mela ground (99033 98059; doubles from ₹800).
Park Guest House is close to Ballavpur Wildlife Sanctuary, and a great option for families travelling with children (93783 21552; www.parkguesthouse.in; doubles from ₹1,450 plus tax).
Santisudha Guest House is a pleasant stay option, located away from the din of Bolpur (99033 95200; www.thesantisudha.com; doubles ₹1,800, varies as per season).
Mitali Homestay is a house full of stories and history. Built half a century ago, it has whitewashed walls, wooden shutters, and large windows. The bookshelves are laden and there are lots of lovely corners where you can spend an afternoon reading. Host Krishno Dey is great company and his partner Sukanya Roy’s home-cooked meals are excellent. Outside, a walkway draped with lush bougainvillea leads to an orchard of mango and litchi trees(943307 5853; mitalishantiniketan.com; doubles from ₹3,500).
Chutti Holiday Resort is popular with families and travelling groups. Its 22 cottage-style rooms are surrounded by gardens (94340 12872; chuttiresort.co.in; doubles from ₹1,800).
Most of the restaurants in Shantiniketan offer Bengali cuisine, as well as some North Indian fare. Visit Ratan Pally Market for the aloo chap (fried potato cake stuffed with onion, ginger, and spices) and a cup of hot tea from Kalor Dokan (₹40 for a snack and tea). The market is popular with the students and teachers of Visva Bharati and can get quite crowded in the evening, making it a great place to enjoy the vibe of this university town.
You’ve relished the gulab jamun, sunk your teeth into the cham cham, and savoured the roshogolla. But none of these is quite like the langcha, a must-have sweet available on the road between Kolkata and Shantiniketan.
Some describe the langcha as an elongated and darker gulab jamun. At most sweet shops in the country, that’s an adequate description. But the langchas of Shaktigarh (90 km/2 hours north of Kolkata) are of a mythical quality: darker, fatter and more sumptuous than any Kolkata langcha can dream of being. Letting a Shaktigarh langcha explode in the mouth can be a near spiritual experience.
Shaktigarh used to be blink-and-you-miss-it small. Now, most buses driving north of Kolkata make a stop here, and the little highway town has rows of langcha houses to accommodate the traffic. Locals argue over which sweet house serves the best version of this paneer andkhoya mixture fried in ghee and marinated in sugar syrup, but the truth is that any langcha in Shaktigarh is bound to knock your socks off. —Piyali Bhattacharya
Appeared in the June 2014 issue as “Shantiniketan By The Book”. This story has been updated in March 2016.
Shantiniketan is situated in Birbhum district in central West Bengal. It is 200 km/4 hours northwest of Kolkata.
Air The closest airport is Kolkata, which is well connected with the rest of the country.
Rail The closest railhead is Bolpur (2 km/10-15 min). Several trains ply between Kolkata and Bolpur at regular intervals though one of the quickest and most frequent is the Shantiniketan Express, which takes about 2 hours and 15 minutes. Cycle rickshaws to town are easily available from the railway station. For larger families that require taxis, it is advisable to book one via your hotel.
Road Buses to Bolpur are available from Esplanade bus terminal in Kolkata (duration about 4 hours).
To explore the town, walking or renting a bicycle (available via most hotels)are good options. Cycle rickshaws are also available.
During winter (Oct-Jan; 15°C to 20°C) and spring (Feb-March; 25°C.), the weather is pleasant, and perfect for long strolls. Summer (Apr-June) tends to get rather hot and humid, and the temperature can occasionally soar up to 40°C. The monsoon (July-Aug) is also a good time to visit. The countryside is smothered in greens of every imaginable hue. Festivals such as Poush Mela (December) and Basant Utsav (close to Holi) are filled with activity. Bengali folk musicians and Baul singers frequently perform at festive gatherings during this time of year.