West Bengal is a state in eastern India. It and the country of Bangladesh form Bengal. West Begal state covers 88,752 square kilometers (34,267 square miles), is home to about 91 million people and has a population density of 1,029 people per square kilometer, one of the highest density’s in India. About two thirds of the population live in rural areas. Kolkata (Calcutta) is the capital and largest city, with 4.5 million people in the city and 14 million people in the metro area.
West Bengal is located in the eastern part of India on the Bay of Bengal. The state is bordered by Sikkim and Bhutan to the north, Assam to the the northeast, Bangladesh to the east, the Bay of Bengal to the south, Odisha (Orissa) to the southwest, Jharkhand and Bihar in the west, and Nepal in the northwest.
West Bengal stretches from Darjeeling Himalayas in the north to the Gangetic Plain in the south, embracing quiet beaches, the world’s largest Delta and the Sundarbans, the world’s largest mangrove wetland and home to a large population of Royal Bengal tigers. Historical events from the from the ancient classical, medieval, colonial and independence periods took place in the state.
Sights in West Bengal include Sagar Island (130 kilometers south of Kolkata at the confluences of the Ganges and the Sea), the sight of the biggest mela in West Bengal; Murshidabad (220 kilometers north of Kolkata), a major silk weaving center; Santiniketan (168 kilometers west), the site of Nobel-laureate Rabindranath Tagore's famous open air international university; and Vishnupur (210 kilometers north), famous four its terra-coat temples. According to the Guinness Book of Records, the 2,733-foot-long platform at Hkaragpur Station in West Bengal is the world's largest.
West Bengal is the fourth-most-populous state in the India and is cultural and religiously diverse. The main religions in West Bengal are: Hinduism (70.54 percent); Islam (27.01 percent); Christianity (0.72 percent); Buddhism (0.31 percent); Jainism (0.07 percent); Sikhism (0.07 percent); Other Religions (1.03 percent); Irreligion (0.25 percent). The main languages of West Bengal are Bengali (86.22 percent); Hindi (6.96 percent); Santali (2.66 percent); Urdu (1.82 percent); Nepali (1.27 percent); Others (1.07 percent).
Among the art forms and cultural attractions found in West Bengal are superb architecture, exquisite arts and crafts, vibrant folk festivals, music-theater-drama, traditional celebrations, delicious cuisines and ethnic specialties. Bengal is particularly well-known for its literature, art and intellectual life, having developed numerous great works of poetry, art and prose and producing many legendary saints, preachers, poets, thinkers, freedom fighters, singers, sportsmen, film-makers, scientists and academicians. West Bengal produces several varieties of handloom cotton and silk. Durga Puja is the biggest, most popular and widely celebrated festival in the state. Cricket is very big in West Bengal.
See Separate Articles on KOLKATA (CALCUTTA) and DARJEELING
The Bengal region consists largely of a vast alluvial, deltaic plain built up by the Ganges and Brahmaputra Rivers. The total Bengal region covers 233,000 square kilometers. Of this 89,000 square kilometers (38 percent) is in India and 144,00 square kilometers (62 percent) is in Bangladesh. The monsoon season lasts longer here than other in other parts of South Asia. It can extend from April to mid-November.
West Bengal and Bangladesh were divided up chiefly on religious grounds with: 1) Hindus making up 77 percent and Muslims making up 22 percent of the population of the of West Bengal; and 2) Hindus making up 14 percent and Muslims making up 85 percent of the population of Bangladesh. About three quarters of the population of West Bengal lives in rural areas. Many of the urban residents live in Kolkata.
Bengal has fertile soil, abundant water, a climate favorable for agriculture and lush landscape covered with banyans, palm trees, rice paddies and sugar cane fields. The roads are full of potholes, bullock carts, bicycles, pedestrians and trucks. The villages features thatch- and metal-roofed huts organized around mosques or two- or three-story pagoda-like towers with curved eaves. Outside the villages are images of horses or men. Cows, bullocks and water buffalo are everywhere.
For many centuries Bengal was a cash cow for whoever ruled it. The Mughals grew rich on Bengali taxis; the British established their empire here and also became rich. At when India was created and partitioned after World War II Bengal was divided into West Bengal, an Indian state, and East Pakistan, which later became Bangladesh. West Bengal has traditionally been a stronghold of the Communist Party.
Bengalis are defined as speakers of the Bengali (Bangla) language and live in the Bengal region of the Indian subcontinent, which is divided between India and Bangladesh. Most live in West Bengal, a state of India, and Bangladesh. They are also known as the Bangali and used to be known as the Bengalese and Baboo. Bengali is an anglicization of Bangli, the name that the Bengali’s call themselves.[Source: Most of the information for this articles comes from the Encyclopedia of World Cultures: South Asia, edited by Paul Hockings, C.K. Hall & Company, 1992]
The Bengalis are the second largest Muslim ethnic group in the world following the Arabs. There are both Muslim and Hindu Bengalis but the vast majority are Muslims.
Bengali speakers make up 85 percent of the population of West Bengal/ . Most of the non-Bengalis are from other parts of India, living in Calcutta. Only about 56 percent of Calcutta's 11 million people are Bengalis. Most signs and advertisements are written in English and Hindi, not Bengali. There are significant numbers of tribals living on rural West Bengal.
There are around 250 million Bengalis worldwide, Most are in West Bengal (with a population of 91 million in 2011) and Bangladesh (with a population of 161 million in 2013). There are several million in Assam , Bihar and Tripura states and several hundred thousand in Orissa and Meghalaya. There are also large numbers n the United States, Canada and Britain. There are lots of Bengalis in the Jackson Heights, Queens, New York.
Bengal is mentioned as a distinct region in some of the earliest Hindu texts. Throughout the A.D. 1st millennium, it was ruled by a succession of Buddhist and Hindu rulers. Islamic armies arrived in the region on late 12th and early 13th and began a gradual campaign of conquest that culminated with Mogul rule, starting in 1586, during which time large numbers of people converted to Islam.
Calcutta, which is situated in Bengal, was an important center of the British East India Company opium trade. The beginning of British administration of India is usually dated with East India Company’s takeover of the government of Bengal, in 1757. English education had a profound influence on the region. Hindu tooks advantage of opportunities offered by the British earlier and faster. The Westernized elite was comprised mostly of Hindus.
Bengal was divided into the predominately Muslim eastern and predominately Hindu western provinces in 1905, but after a period of anarchy and violence, it was reunited in 1911 at the request of Hindus. Muslims were angered by this.
Bengali intellectuals were at the forefront of the independence movement. Hindus were very active in the Indian National Congress. Muslims were involved with the Muslim League, which was instrumental in the creation of Pakistan.
In 1947, when India and Pakistan were separated, Bengal was divided into primarily Hindu West Bengal and primarily Muslim East Pakistan. During the Bangladesh War of Liberation in 1971, hundreds of thousands of hungry refugees poured into Calcutta, West Bengal, Assam and other eastern India.
Sights Near of Kolkata include Chandernagore (40 kilometers from Kolkata), a former French settlement with an interesting waterfront; Serampore (25 kilometers from Kolkata), a former Dutch settlement famous for Serampore College; Chinsura (45 kilometers from Kolkata), a Dutch settlement with grand mansions and temples; Hooghly (50 kilometers from Kolkata), the first English settlement in south Bengal (with a magnificent Imambara from Kolkata); and Bansberia (50 kilometers from Kolkata), with its exquisite traditional-style Bengali-style temple.
The ocean resorts of Puri and Palpur lie about 480 kilometers (300 miles) southwest of Kolkata on the Bay of Bengal and may be reached by overnight train. Hotel accommodations is limited. Visitors can swim and surf there . Also on the Bay of Bengal and only 4 hours from Kolkata by road is Digha, which has limited accommodations. The temples and caves of Bhubaneswar, Puri, Konarak, and other historic towns are 440 kilometers (275 miles) southwest of Kolkata in Orissa. One of the largest populations of tigers in the world is in the Sundarbans, a huge wetlands shared by India and Bangladesh, starting bout a 100 kilometers east of Kolkata. Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal, is about 1050 kilometers (700 miles) northwest of Kolkata and is about one hour by air. The hill station town of Darjeeling is a hour's flight or an overnight train ride from Kolkata.
Bankura (200 kilometers north of Kolkata) is known for its beautiful terracotta temples, lush forests, scenic views as well as rich art and architecture. Endowed with a rugged topography of hills, Bankura also attracts hikers and trekkers. Among the popular sights aee Siddheswara Temple, Susunia Hill, Biharinath Hill and Koko Hill. A major attraction is the renowned Bankura horses that are used for both religious and decorative purposes. They are a fine example of terracotta craftsmanship and are distinguished by an erect neck and pointed ears. These horses are generally six inches to four feet in height and feature wide jaws. You can shop for these articles in Bishnupur, Nakaijuri, Kamardiha and Biboda, in West Bengal.
Bishnupur (near Bankura, five hour drive north of Kolkata) is an interesting city often bypassed tourists. Once the capital of the 17th century Malla kingdom, a small tribal kingdom, it is now a small town with "remarkable and wholly original" terra cotta shrines that merge Muslim, Hindu and animist images with unique improvisations by the artists. Some of the temples and building date back to the 1600s. Except for sharing the same building material, the temples look quite different from one another. The main attraction is the Madan Mohan Temple. During Govardhan Puja or Annakut, it draws a huge crowd . It is a spectacular sight to see hundreds gather and spread pieces of cloth to collect offerings of sanctified grain and rice thrown from the top of the temple.
Bethuadahari Wildlife Sanctuary (200 kilometers north of Kolkata, on NH 34, located 22 kilometers north of Krishna Nagar) boasts a variety of flora and fauna. Some of the common species you can spot are chital, gharial, porcupine, jackal, jungle cat and common langur. It is also richly populated with several bird species like parakeets, hawk, barbets, Indian cuckoo etc. The sanctuary is spread over an area of 70 hectare and lies adjacent to a prominent jute producing center.
Digha (190 kilometers, four hour drive, south of Kolkata) is known for its peaceful, sand beaches, with shallow seas and mild waves, around seven kilometers in length. It is also known as 'Brighton of the East'. From here, one can also visit the nearby Mandarmani. Located in East Medinipur district, towards the north of the Bay of Bengal, this 13-kilometer-long beach is noted for red crabs. The waves here are gentler than Digha and many say it is the longest drivable beach in India.
Digha Beach is one of the widest beaches in the world. The beach is clean, flat and hard. Warren Hastings, former governor-general of India, described it as the Brighton of the East. Near the beach, is the Marine Aquarium and Research Center — one of Asia's largest marine aquariums. The beach is situated right in the town of Digha. Some restaurants at the beach serve amazing seafood. Visitors can also engage in a number of fun activities like parasailing. Biswa Bangla Park is situated towards the right side of the beach. The marble borders all along the beach are reminiscent of Mumbai's Marine Drive
On the Hooghly and Ganges Rivers
You can drive on the Grand Trunk Road along the Hooghly River. Boat rides are available at Diamond Harbor (50 kilometers from Kolkata) and Kakdwip (a two-hour drive from Kolkata). Diamond Harbor is where the Hooghly-Ganges-widens as bend towards the sea). Kidderpore Docks has traditionally been important for the tea and jute trade. India grows a good portion of of the world's tea and more than half of it used to be auctioned in this ten-story building on the Hooghly River near where the tea is shipped out. The Hooghly frequently silts up so many large ocean going vessels can no longer reach Kolkata; they dock 100 kilometers downstream in Haldia.
Chandannagar (50 kilometers from Kolkata on the Ganges) has several historical buildings and a meditation center. The Chandannagar Museum houses artefacts from the British and the French rule, along with relics from the Nawab rule. Tourists also head to Patal Bari (literally meaning the underground house), a house whose its lowest floor is submerged in the Ganges. The 200-year-old, French-style Sacred Heart Church is made of white stone and glows orange during sunsets.
Mukutmanipur (260 kilometers from Kolkata) is situated at the confluence of the Kangsabati and Kumari rivers at a beautiful natural spot with a reservoir. The Kangsabati Water Reservoir is a a great picnic spot. Mukutmanipur also is home of one of the biggest earthen dams in India.
Bandel (50 kilometers from Kolkata) is a town on the Ganges with a Roman Catholic church and monastery surrounded by a high wall. The church houses the statue of "My Lady of the Happy Voyage", the only left from a Portuguese church built in 1632 and destroyed by Shah Jahan, the builder of the Taj Mahal. The statue was saved by a Christian who leapt into the Ganges with it. The Christian drowned but the statue was later found by Hindus and placed in the new church.
Bishnupur (100 kilometers northwest of Kolkata) is a cultural center of West Bengal steeped in history. From beautiful terracotta artefacts and dhokra (dokra) crafts to Baluchari saris, depicting mythological events on their borders, Bishnupur is an art-lover's delight. Speckled with ancient and unique temples, some of which no longer house idols, Bishnupur provides an ideal opportunity to experience quaint charm and explore rich history.
The origin of the Bishnupur can be traced back to as far as 694 when king Raghunath founded the Malla dynasty. But it was in 994 that it was named Bishnupur, after the Hindu god Vishnu. Along with art and heritage, this picturesque city is also home to two important centers of cultural studies – the School of Hindustani Music, which flourished under royal patronage, and the Bishnupur School of Painting.
Bishnupur was nominated to be a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1998. According to a report submitted to UNESCO: “Built in bricks and also in laterite, the temples at Bishnupur are mostly of Eka-Ratna type with a single tower upon a sloping roof and a square cell (Garbhagriha) flanked by a porch on each side with three multicusped arches (i.e. Lalji, Kalachand, Radhashyam, Jormandir and Nandalal). Besides these there are a few with multiple towers of Pancha Ratna types (Shyam Rai of A.D. 1643). The Jor Bangle temple (A.D.1655) bears a distinctive character with two Dochala structures joined together by a Charchala Sikhara at the top. The Rasmancha (A.D.1600) represents a singular architectural style with a pyramidal roof standing on a spacious laterite plinth. The sanctum is enclosed by three successive circomambulatory galleries. [Source: Archaeological Survey of India]
Getting There: By Air: The nearest airport — Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose International airport near Kolkata (Calcutta) is about four hours away. By Road: It is well connected to Kolkata and nearby towns like Asansol, Durgapur, Burdwan, Panagarh and other parts of the state. By Train: It is well connected to the Howrah Railway Station in Kolkata and one can find regular trains to reach here.
Bishnupur Arts And Crafts
Dhokra Metal Casting is one of the most popular art forms practiced by the tribal communities of Bishnupur. What makes dhokra artefacts truly unique are their charming motifs and attractive patterns. Some of the most famous dhokra artefacts include images of deities like Lord Krishna, Goddess Durga and Lord Ganesha. You can also buy animal figurines, jewelry items and other utility articles made by dhokra craftsmen. This art uses the technique of lost wax casting, which is one of the oldest methods of non-ferrous metal casting. To make the artefacts, clay is used as the core material and wax is coated over it. A coating of clay paste is applied and the model is left to dry for sometime. The wax is then replaced by molten brass during the traditional method of hollow casting. Markets in Bishnupur are lined with beautiful dhokra items like bangles, pendants, ear rings, anklets, pen stands, key holders and little boxes.
Baluchari Saris are a hallmark of the region. Known for carrying elaborate motifs on the border and pallu, they were first made in a small village called Baluchar, in Murshidabad district. The Nawab of Bengal, Murshidkuli Khan, brought the craft to Baluchar from Dhaka (now in Bangladesh) and encouraged local weavers to practice the art of weaving these saris. The industry moved to Bishnupur after a massive flood left Baluchar village submerged.
Terracotta Objects from Panchmura (22 kilometers from Bishnupur) are well-known. Panchmura village, in Bankura district, is home to around 70 families of terracotta artists, who produce a plethora of objects ranging from animal and human figurines to home decor and jewelry. Tourists can visit the Rural Craft Hub that was set up by the Government of West Bengal in association with UNESCO. While visiting the village, tourists can learn about the whole process of the art and also interact with the locals. The annual Terracotta Festival is a highlight that gives tourists an opportunity to learn the craft and shop for amazing ethnic art-ware. Visitors can also participate in various craft-making workshops at the Folk Art Center.
The artefacts made in Panchmura are believed to be one of the first successful attempts by humans at clay modelling. The art form originated as a part of the religious rituals with the Bankura horse being a sign of devotion and bravery. It is believed that the people of Panchmura have been practicing this art form ever since the 7th century, when the region was under the rule of the Malla kings of Bishnupur.
Sights in Bishnupur
Acharya Jogesh Chandra Purakriti Bhavan is a museum that focuses on art and archaeology and houses exhibits such as metal ornaments, terracotta sculptures etc., which date back to Mesolithic and Palaeolithic ages. Coins and artefacts dating to the Gupta period and the Pala kings are also kept, along with a rare collection of manuscripts, photographs, art and paintings. The museum has a section for music dedicated to the musical culture of the famous Bishnupur Gharana. Musical instruments and photographs displayed here reflect that legacy. It also houses contemporary art and paintings, manuscripts and rare photographs. Visitors can get a glimpse of the rich treasure of the Purakriti Bhavan Museum on Saturdays and Sundays. The building of the museum is also attractive, thanks to its unique architectural style.
Shyam Rai Temple is made of bricks, with square-shaped towers at the corners,. Massive in terms of its scale and embellishments, it was built by king Raghunatha Singh (1702-1712) of Mallabhum, in 1643, to honour Lord Vishnu in his form as Lord Krishna. It is built in the panchratna architectural style (in which five pillars stand on the roof) and is probably the state's oldest temple reflecting this design. One can also catch a few glimpses of the Gandhar style (Buddhist art) on the walls. The artists have displayed remarkable skill and craftsmanship in intricately engraving designs on the baked bricks to make the temple. The four sides of the temple are followed by arched gateways leading to the sanctum. The temple has figurines and floral motifs, which were the first of its kind in the state. The inner and outer walls, along with the ceiling, are adorned with terracotta sculptures depicting Krishna leela and episodes from great Indian epics like Ramayana and Mahabharata.
Dalmadal Canon defended the local rulers of Bishnupur from attacks by the Marathas. It is exhibited on the way back from the Maa Chinmasta Temple to the main town. The cannon is 3.84 meters in length and has a barrel of 28.5 centimeters. It was built under raja Gopal Singh in 1742, a Malla ruler, for protection against the Maratha invasion. Built with iron, the cannon is unaffected by rain, sun and other climatic conditions. It is also rust free. The word 'dala' means enemy and 'mardan' means to destroy. The canon stands as a fine example of the bravery and spirit of the Malla rulers, and is a must-visit. It was rediscovered by the British in 1919.
Midnapore (on the banks of Kangsabati river) and the surrounding regions are dotted with grand palaces. The Jhargram Raj Palace, situated near the Shyam Rai Temple, is a major attraction. Though it has been converted into a heritage hotel, it retains its ancient charm. Tourists can also take a detour to the nearby town of Chandrakona, which is home to the majestic forts of Ramgarh and Lalgarh, built by the Chauhan dynasty. Tourists can also head to Jora Masjid or the twin mosques that stand next to each other. During the festival of Eid, the mosques become a beacon lit up with lights and decorated with flowers. Pathra, located about 10 kilometers from the main town, boasts many heritage sites like the Vishnu Lokeshwar statue that has both Hindu and Buddhist influences.
Santiniketan (185 kilometers north-northwest of Kolkata) was nominated to be a UNESCO World Heritage site in.2010 According to a report submitted to UNESCO: Santiniketan, popularly known today as a university town, was originally an ashram built by Debendranath Tagore, where anyone, irrespective of caste and creed, could come and spend time meditating on the one Supreme God. Debendranath, who was father of the Nobel-Prize-winning Poet, Rabindranath Tagore, was also known as Maharshi (which means one who is both saint and sage) was a leading figure of the Indian Renaissance. [Source: Archaeological Survey of India]
“Founded by Rabindranath Tagore in 1901 in Bengal's rural hinterland, Santiniketan represents the distillation of Rabindranath Tagore's life, philosophy and greatest works through his lifetime and the continuing legacy of his unique model of education and internationalism through a living institution and architectural ensemble. And while many of Tagore's greatest art and literary works bear a unique association with Santiniketan, it can be argued that his model of an Indian education through the revival of the tapoban tradition and humanist ideology finds its greatest reflection in Santiniketan, thus making it Tagore's greatest work. In his last letter to Mahatma Gandhi, Tagore wrote 'Visva Bharati is like a vessel carrying the cargo of my life's best treasure and I hope it may claim special care from my countrymen for its preservation'.
“The school at Santiniketan was a sapling which grew into the widely branching tree that was Visva Bharati. Today, Santiniketan and Visva Bharati exemplify the continuation of Tagore's works, both as a living educational and cultural center as well as through the generations of outstanding alumni who excelled in the worlds of painting, literature, music, sculpture, cinema, economics and politics. The architectural and landscape setting of Santiniketan embody Tagore's vision of an eclectic architectural expression that was a blending of diverse cultural traditions in a landscape setting that formed the backdrop for a literal translation of 'Santiniketan' as an abode of peace.
The idea for the school began earlier. “In a trust deed prepared in 1888, he declared: 'Apart from worshipping the Formless, no community may worship any idol depicting god, man, or animals; neither may anyone arrange sacrificial fires or rituals in Santiniketan.... No insult to any religion or religious deity will be allowed here. The sermons given here will be such that will be appropriate to the worship of the Creator and Father and will help in ethics, benevolence and brotherhood...'
“It was in this area that the Maharshi had a spiritual realization while meditating under a glade of Chhatim trees (Alstonia scholaris), which were the only vegetation in this arid land of Birbhum. These trees still stand with a plaque that says, He is the repose of my life, the joy of my heart, the peace of my soul. Chhatimtala as it is called is the spot that symbolizes the starting point of Santiniketan, which was to become his son Rabindranath's home and base fro activity. It is considered to be a hallowed spot and prayer services are held here on very special days. Rabindranath, too, like his father before him would sit in meditation here, under the chhatim trees during sunset. [Source: Archaeological Survey of India]
According to a report submitted to UNESCO: For Rabindranath, who was essentially a poet and artist, the realization and the expression of beauty was the supreme objective in human life. His concept of beauty, according to true Indian tradition, was inseparably connected with truth and goodness. Whatever is true and noble in life, nature and art is also beautiful. Thus, aesthetic sensitiveness, in the true sense, is a fundamental aspect of spiritual education. A proper aesthetic culture should also include the perception and expression of the beautiful in human life and social conduct, as well as in art and literature. [Source: Archaeological Survey of India]
“Rabindranath stated in no uncertain terms that man's sensory encounter with the environment was as important as his mind's enquiry into its inner mystery, and any worthwhile society should provide for both. Nandalal Bose (1882-1966) took it up as a challenge. For him, with the right effort, all members of a community, whether housewives, working men or schoolchildren can be creative of sorts within their talent and potential. So he gave attention to all, inducing them to learn alpona, batik, leather-craft, picture making with simple units; besides he tried to bring cleanliness and order into the campus, considered elegance to its building and interiors, visual variety and liveliness to its festivals and dramas, a distinctive graphic image to its publications, even set standards of refinement in personal and group conduct, so that, at one time he managed to bring to the place a special aesthetic aura, the hall-mark of which was a dynamic simplicity, an artless art. The frescoes on many of the asrama buildings were created at his initiative; he would involve his students in this work. The murals on the lives of medieval saints which Benode Bihari Mukherjee (1904-80) created in Hindi Bhavana in 1946-47 was the artist's magnum opus. In 1972, even after he lost his eyesight, he made a large ceramic mural in the Kala-Bhavana campus.
“Most of the houses built after 1919 in Santiniketan and all the five houses in Uttarayana were designed by Surendranath Kar (1892-1970). Santiniketan was acutely short of funds and the asrama had to observe utmost economy in all matters. Surendranath took up the challenge and improvised a kind of architecture that was functional, inexpensive and conformed to the quiet aesthetics of the place. Its hallmark was a sense of austerity, simplicity, elegance of proportion and sparing use of detail. His attention to function, avoidance of flamboyance, a low-keyed elegance and appropriateness to the environment appealed to all.
“The landscape of Santiniketan is dotted with sculptures by Ramkinkar Baij (1906-1980), largerthan-life figures of Santals who were in reality part of the landscape. A Santal family, complete with dog, a group of workers running along at the call of the mill, their clothes flying in the air, a thresher, all situated along the main road. When Ramkinkar created Sujata, an elongated figure of one of the disciples of Buddha, he placed it just a little distance from the seated Buddha. Nandalal planted Eucalyptus saplings in the area, knowing that one day these tall trees would be a perfect setting to Ramkinkar's Sujata. It was Nandalal Bose, who created an environment where art would be a part of life and the children of Santiniketan have grown absorbing these beautiful monuments as they have the oxygen in the air.”
In December 1901, Rabindranath Tagore established his school at Santiniketan with five students (including his eldest son) and an equal number of teachers. He originally named it Brahmacharya Ashram in the tradition of ancient forest hermitages. Author Nirad C. Chaudhuri described Tagore as, "Historically, the greatest product of the interaction in India in the nineteenth century between European and Hindu life and civilization.... In one sense he may be regarded as the victim of the interchange, and in another as its prophet. His own life was caught in the conflict which the interchange brought about, and his writings stand for its achievement."
According to a report submitted to UNESCO: “ At the threshold of the 20th century in Bengal reeling under British rule and sectarian divisions, Tagore envisioned a place of learning unfettered by religious and regional barriers. From its very inception, Tagore modelled Santiniketan on principles of humanism, internationalism and a sustainable environment and the curriculum was developed to promote the free interchange of human values and cultures. Thus, over a hundred years ago, Santiniketan began in a majority Hindu region with 3 out of 5 teachers being Christian, encouraged women to join as both students and teachers, and promoted a unique blend of art and cultural interchange in its classrooms that were held in the open air, free from the confines of spatial or ideological boundaries.
In developing his holistic educational paradigm, Rabindranath sought through various means to break down existing barriers and to foster interconnectivity between provincial and regional groups: between English-medium educated elites and the common people; between urban and rural economic groups...and to reduce the gender gap.
Santiniketan revives and gives form to Tagore's interpretation of the ancient Indian concept of tapoban. Tagore revived the ancient Indian model of Tapoban, or penance in a forest, interpreting it though an educational model aimed at 'cultivation of feeling' (bodher tapasya/sadhana) as opposed to education of the senses and intellect. This aspect of education involves the realization of the individual self in relation to the universe and the essential kinship of all existence. Santiniketan combines the traditions of the gurukul mode of residential schooling with its tangible manifestation in open air classrooms arranged under the canopies of trees.
In keeping with the gurukul tradition of students learning from their guru (teacher) in a residential ashram in the bosom of nature, Sriniketan is a distinct step in the field of rural reconstruction. In 1907, Tagore sought to expand the school's relationship with its neighbouring villages of the Santhal tribal community. The school, from its conception, aimed to combine education with a sense of obligation towards the larger community.
Tagore's vision finds architectural expression in Santiniketan where the buildings of China Bhavan and Hindi Bhavan were specifically built to house institutes that explored linguistic linkages between eastern countries, as well as the eclectic architectural expression of structures such as Sinha Sadan, Udayan and Patho Bhavan that merged various cultural vocabularies to create a unique architectural synthesis.
To cultivate this interchange in the students of Santiniketan, Tagore actively solicited the presence of visitors from all over the world, in addition to devising syllabi that promoted the understanding of different cultures: Vedic, Puranic, Buddhist, Jain, Zoroastrian, and Sikh traditions; the 'precious and permanent contribution' of Islamic culture to Indian art and architecture; writings of 'our medieval saints'; special studies of China, Japan, and Tibet; as well as Western culture, for 'only then shall we able to assimilate this last contribution to our common stock'.
Noting its 'celebration of variety', Nobel laureate and long time resident of Santiniketan, Amartya Sen speaks of 'the ease with which discussions in the school could move from Indian traditional literature to contemporary as well as classical western thought and to China, Japan and elsewhere'. Tagore's poem encapsulates this vision of internationalism through his words, "He mor chitta, punya tirthe jagore dhire ei bharater maha-manaber sagoro-tire." 'On the sacred shores of the ocean of humanity of this India, Awaken, my heart!'
The architectural and landscape setting of Santiniketan embody Tagore's vision of an eclectic architectural expression that was a blending of diverse cultural traditions in a landscape setting that formed the backdrop for a literal translation of 'Santiniketan' as an abode of peace.
Ashrama Complex at Santiniketan
According to a report submitted to UNESCO: Among the structures built by the Maharshi was the Santiniketan Griha or house and the beautiful stained glass Mandir, or temple where worship is non-denominational. Both structures built in the second half of the 19th century are important in their association with the founding of Santiniketan and the universal spirit associated with the revival and reinterpretation of religious ideals in Bengal and India. A beautiful garden was laid out on all sides of the Santiniketan Bari. The top-layer of gritty dry soil was removed and filled up with rich soil brought over from outside. Rows of various fruit trees and trees with extended foliage for shade were planted. The avenue of Sal trees, so familiar to earlier asramites as being Rabindranath's favourite walk, was planted at this time. [Source: Archaeological Survey of India]
“The other important structures built at a later date, after Rabindranath moved to the site of Santiniketan are, the Patha-Bhavana, with beautiful frescoes by Nandalal Bose and his students, Natun-Bari, built in 1902 by the Poet for his family, this simple thatched cottage was offered to Mahatma Gandhi's Phoenix school boys in 1915. Mrinalinidevi, the Poet's wife died before the house was completed but her name lives on in the nursery school named after her - Mrinalini Ananda Pathsala which is housed here. Dehali was built in 1904 and Rabindranath lived here for a while. Santoshalaya, a single-storey house with a tiled roof is named after Santoshchandra Majumdar, one of the first students of the Santiniketan Vidyalaya. Santoshalaya is a hostel for young students of the school. The walls of this house have frescoes prepared by artists of the twenties. Built out of a donation by Satyendraprasanna Sinha of Raipur, Singha-Sadan has a clock tower and bell that regulates the timings of daily routine for the asrama inmates. It was in this building that Oxford University conferred its honorary doctorate on the Poet.
“Purvatoran and Paschimtoran are the two buildings on either side of Singha-Sadana. Classes are held here. Dwijaviram is a house where the Poet's eldest brother, Dwijendranath lived. Gandhiji visited him in this house. Dinantika built in 1939, is an octagonal two-storeyed structure originally used as a tea-house with the staircase on the outside; staff members of Visva-Bharati would meet in the evening for a cup of tea and relaxation. The Cha Chakra, as it was called, was instituted in the name of Dinendranath Tagore by his wife, Kamaladevi. The walls of this house have colorful frescoes by Nandalal Bose. Taladhwaj, a round mud hut with a thatched roof built around a taal tree (toddy palm) with part of its trunk and its huge palm leaves stretching out over the top, was built for Tejeschandra Sen, a treelover who would even share his lodging with one! Old Santiniketan Press: In 1917, the citizens of Lincoln, Nebraska had presented to the boys of Santiniketan, a letter-press treadle machine which saw the beginning of the Santiniketan Press, from where the Santiniketan Patrika, a newsletter was printed. Chaitya is a small structure made of mud and coal-tar in 1934 resembling a typical thatched hut of Bengal, yet it carries a Buddhist name. Planned by Nandalal Bose and Surendranath Kar, this structure has a glass-paned showcase where newlycreated works of art were on display every few days. Ghantatala, resembling a gateway to a Buddhist stupa stands at the crossroads of Salvithika and the road leading to Cheena Bhavana from the Santiniketan house. A bronze bell hanging from the structure would, at one time, regulate the classes and other events held during the day. Gour-prangan:
The open ground in front of the school building is named after Gour Gopal Ghosh, who was a student and teacher of Santiniketan. Certain ceremonies like the flag-hoisting on Independence Day and Republic Day are held here. On 23 January, the birth anniversary of Netaji is commemorated with rows of lighted lamps on the ground. Kalo Bari is a unique structure made of mud and coal-tar. Built as a hostel for Kala-Bhavana students, its walls and pillars have been decorated with relief work and is the handiwork of art-students over many years. Begun by Nandalal Bose in 1934, there are examples of Ramkinkar's works on the northern walls. Panthasala: In 1925 Hirabai, widow of Liladhar Thakkar of Mumbai donated Rs 15,200 to construct a restroom for travellers and a well and water trough to provide drinking water to travellers and beasts. The rooms now house a book-store and Railway Reservation Counter. Ratan Kuthi was erected in 1924 out of a donation by Trustees of Sir Ratan Tata to be used as a residence for scholars who stayed and worked at Santiniketan. This building symbolizes the reverence to the personality of Rabindranath by the Tatas. Malancha: Built in 1926 by Rabindranath for his youngest daughter, Mira, the genesis of the Malancha house lies in the deep sense of sorrow and guilt that Rabindranath felt at the failed marriage of his daughter. He wanted this house, along with its gardens to be a solace for the lonely woman and together, father and daughter, they planned the garden.
According to a report submitted to UNESCO: North of the ashram area described above, is the enclave of Rabindranath's own houses, built over the last three decades of his life (1919-1941). Konark, originally a mud house was the earliest dwelling that Rabindranath built for his own seclusion from activity to provide a place for his own work. It contained an east facing verandah with rows of pillars used as a stage for plays and dance-dramas composed by the Poet. Natir Puja was first staged here. Since there were no walls in the central large room, nature was an effective backdrop.
“The Konark verandah was used for poetry readings by the poet. The Mrinmoyee Patio is a beautiful cemented floor with sitting arrangements. This was built on the foundation of the other mud house when it was pulled down. Rabindranath would sit in this open patio and write. Shyamali: the construction of a mud house was an experiment. Rabindranath wanted to see if instead of a thatched roof, which was always vulnerable to fire hazards, a permanent mud roof could be built. It was to be a low-cost structure and would serve as a model house for villagers. The walls were heavily built so that the weight of the mud roofs could be borne. One of the rooms was constructed by using earthen water-pots arranged inside plaster-casings to form its roof and walls. According to Rabindranath, this would keep the rooms cool as the hot air having to pass through these earthen pots would lose some of its heat. Keeping Rabindranath's ideas in mind, Surendranath Kar prepared the architectural plan and Nandalal Bose prepared the visual perspective based on the Borobudur style.
“The entire outside wall was decorated with beautiful relief work by Kala-Bhavana students under the guidance of Nandalal Bose. The Santals on either side of the main door and on the eastern corner were by Ramkinkar Baiz. Gandhiji and Kasturba stayed as guests in this house. Punascha, meaning postscript suggests the Poet's change of mind. Another house was built on the eastern side of Shyamali. He lived in this house for a short while but it was here that he created most of his paintings. Udichi is the last house built for Rabindranath. He felt claustrophobic, he said, and wanted a room to be constructed on four pillars. However, changes were gradually made according to the owner's needs. He took poetry classes on the ground floor. The most imposing house in Uttarayana, is Udayan. Uttarayana is the area where these five houses are located in. The gardens of Uttarayana were planned and laid out by the Poet's son, Rathindranath, a horticulturist by training. He planted in Uttarayan and in the surrounding area exotic plants and trees from other lands. The African Tulip (Spathodea campanulata) from Equatorial Africa, the Sausage tree (Kigelia africana) and Rhodesian Wistaria (Balusanthus speciosus) from Tropical Africa, the Baobab tree (Adansonia digitata) from Sub-Saharan Africa and the Caribbean Trumpet tree (Tabebuia aura) from Latin America are some of the trees that have survived in Santiniketan as have the ideas and research studies done by foreign scholars who came to Santiniketan. Udayan, unlike the other houses was conceived by Rathindranath, not the poet.
“When Rabindranath came to live in Konark, Rathindranath and his wife lived in an outhouse by its side. Starting from these modest and functional rooms the elaborate structure of Udayan was gradually evolved. Udayan has many suites of rooms─ each on a different level which gives this house its individuality. Distinguished visitors who have stayed here are Stella Kramrisch, Margaret Milward, Sir Maurice Gwyer, S. Radhakrishnan (later, President of India) and Jawaharlal Nehru. Guha-ghar/Chitrabhanu stands near the lake in the Japanese-styled gardens of Uttarayana. The studio or Chitrabhanu was built for Pratima Devi at a higher level of the ground and later the space below was converted into a room to be used as a workshop for Rathindranath. The workshop is a low-ceiling room and the entrance wall has rough stones on it and creepers growing over it giving it a resemblance to a cave-dwelling or guha-ghar.
Institutes of Visva Bharati
In 1922, Visva Bharati was inaugurated as a Center for Culture with exploration into the arts, language, humanities, music and these are reflected in diverse institutes that continue in their educational programs, which are based on the founding principles of excellence in culture and culture studies. As originally intended, these serve as institutes for Hindi studies, Hindi Bhavan, Sino Asian studies, Cheena Bhavan, center for humanities, Vidya Bhavan, institute of fine arts Kala Bhavan, and music, Sangit Bhavan. The structures in these institutes constitute a myriad of architectural expressions which are as diverse as the Kalo Bari, a mud structure with coal tar finish and sculpture panels, Mastermoshai studio, a single storied structure built for the first principal of Kala Bhavan, Nandalal Bose, murals and paintings on Cheena and Hindi Bhavan, created by the illustrious artists like Benodebehari Mukhopadhyay, Nandalal Bose, Surendranath Kar, Somnath Hore with active involvement of students.
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons
Text Sources: India tourism website ( incredibleindia.org), India’s Ministry of Tourism and other government websites, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Yomiuri Shimbun and various books and other publications.
Updated in August 2020