Santiniketan is a small town near Bolpur in the Birbhum district of West Bengal. Its red soil, meandering Kopai River, and lush of greeneries is ample view to the impeccable and serene beauty of nature. It is famed for Baul singers, the wandering minstrels of Bengal who sing songs of love and devotion on the ektara and also as the birth place of the literary classics of Rabindranath Tagore. This place is regarded by many Bengalis as the Mecca of their very existence, a place where a visit once a year is a must!
Once upon a time today’s Shantiniketan was known as Bhuban Danga, which was the den of a local dacoit named Bhuban Dakat. “Danga” means a vast unfertile plane land. The land was owned by the Tagore family. Rabindranath Tagore’s father, Maharshi Debendranath Tagore, renamed it as Shantiniketan, which means abode (niketan) of peace (shanti).
On December 22 1901, Devendranath’s son, Rabindranath Tagore started a school at Santiniketan named Brahmacharyasrama modelled on the lines of the ancient gurukul system. Later it was renamed Visva Bharati, the symbolic meaning being defined by Tagore as “where the world makes a home in a nest”.
First things first…. How to get there?
Santiniketan is about 164 Km from Kolkata. From Kolkata one can reach there by car, by bus and by train.
This city is served by the Bolpur railway station which is 2 kms away. By train the best options available for tourists are the New Jalpaiguri Shatabdi, Vishwa-Bharti,Kaviguru ,Ganadevta,and Shantiniketan Express. Apart from these there are many express trains at a regular interval of an Hour or two.
It takes about 4 hours for one to reach Shantiniketan by car via the GT road. Recently, a chopper service has been started which allows one to travel from Kolkata to Shantiniketan in a matter of around 1 hour!
However, I’d still suggest the train journey, give the fact that it has its own charm with one crossing through varying landscape starting with black soil which finally turns into the beautiful colour of burnt red (of the terracotta soil), something that the region is famed for.
For the ISM Junta, the most convenient mode of transport is availing the once-a-day bus service from Dhanbad to Bolpur. Another option one might go for is to take a train upto Durgapur and board one of the numerous buses that leave for Bolpur every 20 minutes or so.
Stay and Accommodation
Santiniketan has good number of options for stay. One can opt for budget hotels, luxury cottages or the Govt. Tourist Lodge, where room rates are reasonable and traditional Bengali Food is served!. It’s a small place so you don’t have to think about the proximity of your stay from the tourist places.
In this age of motor vehicle most residents of Santiniketan still actually travel by bicycles making it a pollution free town and providing much needed respite from the smoke and honking one is harassed by every moment of the day in big cities. Also the streets are extremely clean and you won’t find garbage lying scattered in the middle of the road or even besides it.
Places of Interest
A Google search about “Places of Interest at Santiniketan “on the net will get you a scattered few results, with most suggesting the Visva Bharati University and the Kopai river. But apart from these there are many more places to be explored in and around this city. Also regular festivals take place over here so you will never ever have a dull time over here!
Viswa Bharati University:
Perhaps the most famous of these places is the Viswa Bharati University, which was founded by none other than India’s first Noble laureate, Rabindranath Tagore!
This huge campus is amidst verdant green. School students in orange uniforms can be seen studying under the cool shade of trees with formal classes being held outdoors, just as Tagore had intended it to be. Tagore had dropped out from school, as he felt claustrophobic within the four walls of the classroom. He felt that students should be close to nature. Tagore was no dreamer; he was a visionary with the will power to translate them to reality. Visva Bharati University is proof of that.
This University holds distinction as perhaps the only university where a student may take entry in Class 1 and pass out after completing a Doctoral degree from the same campus.
It is widely regarded as the best place to study fine arts and literature and students flock to this institute even from nearby South and East Asian countries. This institute also boasts of high profile alumni like Indira Gandhi, Amartya Sen and Satyajit Ray, all of whom have been pioneers and visionaries in their respective fields.
Viswa Bharati Campus:
The notable places of historical and cultural interest are Santiniketan Griha – the building where most poems of Gitanjali were composed, the Upasana Griha – a Belgium glass temple, the Amra Kunja (mangrove) where spring festivals are held.
Art freaks will enjoy the Kala Bhavan Art Gallery where works of famous Indian artists like Rabindranath, Abanindranath as well as foreign painters are on display.
Linguists can visit the China Bhavan and Hindi Bhavan. Visva Bharati in fact offers degree courses in modern Indian, European, Asian languages and classical language.
Rabindra Museum a.k.a Bichitra:
The Rabindra Museum, inaugurated by Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru in 1961 has numerous numbers of manuscripts, letters, paintings and gifts presented by various dignitaries of foreign countries. It contains Tagore’s hand written letter refusing to accept Knighthood, his Nobel Prize medallion and citation, and personal effects of the poet. This museum is half open on Tuesday and full off on Wednesday in keeping with Tagore’s prayer day of Wednesday. Wednesday is also the weekly off day at the University.
Khoai Hat is a market place where one can find good quality local hand crafted showpieces, jewelry (made of clay and beads) and fabrics.
Amar Kutir as well as Srijan Shiplagram (a Govt. of WB initiative), both being about five kilometres away from Santiniketa are places dedicated to rural upliftment and promotion of ethnic good ranging from a variety of leather goods to handloom and batik handicrafts. Besides encouraging the making of handicrafts, the Amar Kutir Society has opened medical clinics and looks after forestation.
Sriniketan, also renowned for is handicrafts and craftsmanship skill is located within the Viswa Bharati campus around 2 km away from Santiniketan
Kopai River and Kankalitala:
Next comes the Kopai , a narrow meandering river which has played an intricate part and inspired a numerous number of poems written by Tagore.
Kankalitala is 9 kms away from Santiniketan, on the bank of the River Kopai. Here a midriff bone of Mata Sati fell, and it one of the 51 Shakti Peeths, with a cremation ground and a Kali temple. Unlike usual Hindu pilgrimage site it is mostly serene and uncrowded.
The Geetanjali Museum is located bang opposite the railway Station, as a tribute from Indian Railways to Gurudev (as Tagore is fondly referred to) for his extraordinary contribution to Indian poety and to an extent, culture.
Fairs and festivals are intrinsic to Santiniketani life. Rabindranath’s birth anniversary is observed on the Bengali New Year. Brikshropan Utsav is observed on the day of Tagore’s death by the planting of saplings. Maghotsav during the month of Magh, in January, is the celebration of the anniversary of the foundation of Brahmo Samaj. Sarodotsav is an autumnal festival celebrated just before the University closes for the Puja vacation; songs, dances and plays accompany it.
The most well known fairs of Santiniketan are Pous Utsav and Vasanta Utsav.
Pous Utsav coincides with the foundation day of Visva Bharati. This festival takes place generally between the 23rd to the 27th of December of each year.
The first day involves a stupendous display of fireworks along with Tagore hymns and dramas. Tribal songs, dances and folk songs are put up. Baul singers are also present and in the evening they can be heard rolling out Tagore numbers to their hearts content and peoples delight!
Vasanta Utsav (the advent of spring) is celebrated at the time of Holi. Students don colourful costumes and hold a variety of open air programmes within the university campus ranging from Dance to Music to Dramas. People here celebrate Holi by playing with dry colours (Gulal) and the use of water is generally avoided.
The city is packed to the hilt during these two festivals and it is nearly impossible to get on or off trains without having a Reserved Ticket (trust me, personal experience J).’ It is almost as if the whole of West Bengal (and people from other states) converge onto this place, hoping to have a gala time.
This is one place that has retained the sanctity of an ashram without being isolated from the world, a seemingly marvellous feat in the 21st Century!
In short, if you are looking for a weekend getaway, with a tinge of retro, a touch of nature and a dash of calm and tranquillity and wish to spend it with peace too then Santiniketan is the place for you to visit!
Indeed, this place is visited all year round by tourists from India as well as abroad- seemingly, the world reaches out to it!
Best Time to Visit:
All throughout the year, but visiting during either the Poush Mela or Vasanta Utsav has an added charm to it.