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The Jewel Of India, West Bengal

Oct/28/2021 / by SWARNENDU BISWAS

West Bengal is a state of India, located on the country’s eastern side. It is located between two natural splendors — the Himalayas and the Bay of Bengal. No wonder, the state is replete with awesome tourism attractions of enchanting natural beauty. 

The tourism attractions of West Bengal are not only wonderful, but also diverse. Let us explore some offbeat and enchanting tourist destinations of West Bengal that do not often figure on tourists’ itinerary.

Wild Serenity 

Located in the foothills of the eastern Himalayas, close to Bhutan, the Dooars region is characterized by rolling hill slopes, lush green tea gardens demarcated   by white river streams, vast meadows, forests teeming with wildlife, and tribal villages. The name Dooars is derived from “door,” because the region is the gateway to Bhutan from India. 

Dooars is dotted with several wildlife sanctuaries and national parks, which include  Jaldapara Wildlife Sanctuary,  Chapramari Wildlife Sanctuary,  Gorumara National Park,  Buxa Tiger Reserve, Singalila National Park, Chilapata Forests,  Neora Valley National Park, and the Mahananda Wildlife Sanctuary.

Jaldapara Wildlife Sanctuary is the habitat of the rare one-horned rhinoceros. There you can also find bison, spotted deer, sambar, hog beer, huge tuskers, and rare variety of birds, among other wild creatures.  In fact, in all of these wild havens in Dooars you can find a wide variety of colorful wildlife, such as deer, bison, wolf, giant squirrels, hog deer, wild boar and sloth bear. 

Bengal tiger drinking water at a stream in the Sundarbans forest

The Sundarbans is another offbeat tourist attraction in West Bengal.  It is the world’s largest tidal delta and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, located just 68 miles (about 110 km) from Kolkata. It is formed by the confluence of the three mighty rivers — the Ganga, the Brahmaputra and the Meghna — in the Bay of Bengal.

The dense green forests of the Sundarbans is home to the royal Bengal tiger. Almost 260 varieties of birds, chital deer, rhesus monkey, Ridley sea turtle, salt water crocodile, barking deer, hermit crabs and many other land and aqua species can also be seen across the Sundarbans.

Besides marveling at the rich and varied wildlife, preferably while cruising through Sundarbans’ intricate waterways network, one can also explore several tourist worthy destinations in the Sundarbans region, including Henry’s Island, Bakkhali, and Haliday Island Wildlife Sanctuary.

Talking to the Hills

Kurseong is a charming hill station located 15,958 feet (4864 m) above sea level. Not many tourists outside West Bengal know of it. Barely 20 miles (32 km) from the world-renowned hill station of Darjeeling, it stands quietly with its pine forests, white orchids (Kurseong literally means the place of white orchids) and quality schools showcasing majestic Victorian architecture. It is nestled in the hills, and often hidden in a thin film of cloud and mist.

Trekking through the hills at Kureong can also be a nice option, giving you views of the mighty Kanchenjunga, Nathu-la Pass, and Jelep-la Pass on bright sunny mornings. White water rafting on the Teesta, visiting tea estates, and climbing the Dow Hill are among other wonderful tourism options to explore at Kurseong.

Don’t forget to board the toy train, running alongside the road, to get a picturesque view of the hills and a kaleidoscopic view of the day-to-day lives of simple hill people. The experience is likely to chug into your future memories every now and then.

Suntalekhola (Samsing) bridge over Jhalong River, Kalimpong. Located near Neora Valley National Park, this area is popular for nature walks, trekking and wilderness resorts

Village by the Sea

Mandarmani is a seaside village, located just 112 miles (180 km) from the airport in Kolkata. It is better to travel there by road, because the village by the sea doesn’t have a rail service or an airport. The nearest railway stations are Contai and Digha.  Mandarmani, which is gaining prominence in the tourism map of West Bengal in recent years, is believed to have the longest driveable beach in India. 

Red crabs crawling on the beach which is 8 miles (13 km) long with foaming waters crashing on the shore can give you a wonderful experience. Watching the crimson sunset in the sparsely crowded beach, amidst the roaring waves, can give you an ethereal feeling. You can complement the solitude at Mandarmani with some fun water sports, such as jet skiing, parasailing, paragliding, water scooter, banana boat rides among others.

Festive Devotion 

In West Bengal, the year is dotted with colorful fairs and festivities. The state celebrates a number of festivals besides the world-renowned Durga Puja, which connoisseurs of cultural tourism might love to explore.

Religious tourists visiting West Bengal should not forget to include Gangasagar Mela in their itinerary. Every year, on the auspicious occasion of Makar Sankranti (January 14), hundreds of thousands of pilgrims from India and abroad congregate at the Sagar Island – a large island on the Ganges delta, spread across 224.3 sq.km. They take a holy dip at the confluence of the river Ganga and the Bay of Bengal and offer prayers in the Kapil Muni Temple or Ashram, which is located on the Gangasagar island itself. 

On this occasion a huge fair also takes place in Gangasagar or Sagar Island. Naga sadhus are one of the chief attractions of the Gangasagar Mela. They perform various rituals and different types of yoga. Gangasagar pilgrimage and the associated fair account for the second largest congregation of mankind in the world after the Kumbha Mela.

Weaving Art 

However, West Bengal is not just a state of several fascinating offbeat tourism attractions. It is a one whose essentially cosmopolitan culture is thriving on a rich cultural heritage that has been flowing seamlessly from tradition to post-modernity. 

Kantha artisans

One important facet of the rich cultural heritage of West Bengal is its textiles and embroidery work. Non-resident Indian tourists visiting this state must include some of the state’s wonderful weaves in their collection. The exquisite tradition of handloom weaving in the state is manifest in Jamdani, Baluchari and traditional Taant sarees, all of which can present a touch of classiness and elegance in ladies’ fashion statements.

The silks of Bengal have been acclaimed the world over since ancient times. The most well known Bengal silk saree which carry its popular name is Baluchari saree. 

According to the Directorate of Textiles, Government of West Bengal, Baluchari saree is a production of exclusive design and fabulous weaving technique. A revival in recent times of both the Baluchari and another outstanding traditional Bengal saree, the “Daccai,” has earned nationwide and worldwide popularity and a renewed interest in Bengal silks.

As far as embroidery goes, kantha art works from West Bengal deserve not only special mention but global recognition. In this regard, an exemplary mother-daughter duo is making a huge difference by trying to globalize this exquisite tradition and giving kantha artists much-needed economic independence and dignity.

Promoting Kantha Tradition 

According to Malika Dudeja Verma, the co-founder of Malika’s Kantha Collection and Trading Pvt. Ltd. (MKC), which is engaged in promoting and marketing exquisite kanthas, “Kantha is an ancient hand embroidery of Bengal. Kantha is referred to a simple, humble running stitch that holds together layers of old fabric.” 

However, in popular parlance, kantha refers to both the running stitch and the finished fabric. The fabric can be used as a quilt to protect from the cold and also to tell stories — to record and narrate scenes and events (through aesthetic depictions on them), and above all to help the ladies of the house to recycle old fabrics.

“Kantha’s origin is not authentically chronicled, but it is believed to date back to the 16th century. The word originates from the Sanskrit word for rags. The tradition is born out of necessity and thrift; traditionally, in rural Bengal women in the family would put together used saris, dhotis and other fabrics and join the layers with kantha stitches.”

– Malika Dudeja Verma

According to her, MKC has been reviving kantha art for over three decades. 

“We have presence all over India, in all states, especially on many online platforms,” she asserted. All the handcrafted products of MKC are made in kantha, which include sarees, dupattas, stoles, jackets, other dresses, lehengas, wall hangings, home décor items such as bedcovers and cushion covers, and table linen, among others.  

SHE is Humane

However, for Malika and her mother, Shamlu Dudeja, kantha means much more than business. The non-profit SHE Foundation, founded by Shamlu Dudeja, is known for the welfare work that it does for over 1,000 kantha artisans. 

“My involvement in kantha is not a ‘business,’ it is social entrepreneurship,” says Dudeja. “Malika and I wanted to give these rural women artisans more and more work, so that they can feel empowered. Over and above the payment for their stitchery, SHE Foundation helps them in different ways.”

Dudeja’s experience at the Santiniketan Craft Mela, held at the Information Centre in what was then Calcutta 35 years ago, inspired her to revive kantha art and to give it its much deserved global recognition.

“The SHE Foundation has taken kantha exhibitions to several cities in India, and several countries like the US, the UK, France, Australia, Japan, and Germany,” Dudeja said.  “Our French friends started marketing kantha textiles in Paris, many years ago, and they started a not-for-profit organization called SHE France.”

Both Verma and Dudeja have played huge roles in kantha evolving from utilitarian household purposes into an exquisite and intricate fashion statement, one respected by millions worldwide.

Tastes of Bengal 

West Bengal’s vibrant cultural kaleidoscope also finds expression in its culinary heritage. From its sublime sweets, such as sandesh, rasagolla, rajbhog and chamcham (K.C. Das’s Rossogolla is no less than a work of art), to its timeless street delicacies like phucka (similar to golgappa in north India and panipuri in west India, the dish is a way of life in Kolkata) , aloor chop and jalmoori (a wonderful combination of roasted peanuts, slices of tomato, boiled potato, onion, coconut, cucumber, chanachur and spiced powder, in an environment of puffed rice) the taste of the state can also entice travelers back to West Bengal again and again.Other culinary delights are Kosha mangsho (a typical spicy meat curry of West Bengal), prawn curry in coconut milk sauce, and doi ilish (a Hilsa fish dish steamed in yogurt-mustard sauce). Their perennial appeal cannot be eroded by the march of global fast food chains. When in West Bengal, no non-vegetarian should miss on their timeless taste, aroma, and flavors.