“Abode of Peace” – a small university and culturally active town approximately 160 km north of Kolkata (train 2.5 hours, car 3.5 hours).
In 1862, Maharshi Devendranath Tagore, while on a boat journey to Raipur, came across a landscape with red soil and meadows of lush green paddy fields. Rows of chhatim trees and date palms charmed him. He stopped to look, decided to plant more saplings and built a small house. He called his home Santiniketan. It became a spiritual centre where people from all religions were invited to join for meditation and prayers. He founded an ‘Ashram’ here in 1863 and became the initiator of the Brahmo Samaj.
His son, Rabindranath Tagore started Patha Bhavana, the school of his ideals, whose central premise was that learning in a natural environment would be more enjoyable and fruitful. After he received the Nobel Prize (1913), the school was expanded into a university in 1921. By 1951, it has become one of India’s central universities.
Rabindranath Tagore was the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. His compositions were chosen by multiple South Asian nations for their national anthems: India, Bangladesh, and possibly even Sri Lanka. He was a poet, writer, painter, composer, educator, philanthropist, and political activist.
We have a family house Santinketan, so we come almost every time we come to Kolkata. My friend and her boyfriend came to visit for a couple of nights, and he was trying to figure out (before he got here) why people flock to see this university town. The answer lies in the arts and the devotion people have for Tagore, especially his songs and drama, and how it has shaped Bengali language and culture.
The owners have changed since that review was written, but it encompasses what I was going to say and what I know about the history of the place very well. My friends stayed here, in this very simple, quite affordable, amazingly located guest house. We ate lunch/dinner here quite a few times during this stay.
Banshori is located bang in the middle of Ratanpally, which is a road/marketplace area right off of the main road of Santiniketan. There are little shops and tea stalls with sitting areas lining the roads which get filled up as evening creeps in. Kalor Dokan (now called Nabadeep Sweet Shop), opposite Banshori and another shop on the main road in Ratanpally by a student and her parents. They make an amazing lemon tea, jhaal muri (spicy puffed rice – you can ask for the spicy spice not to be added), and aloo’r chop.
Before we left Ratanpally one night, we had the good fortune of seeing a road-side drama performance by the troop called “Amra Shobuj” (We Are Green).
Alcha Handicrafts + Café
Just behind the Ratanpally market area is the Alcha Handicrafts Boutique (it’s actually closer than Google Maps says it is – look out for the staircase that you can see in the above photo). They have a wide range of handicraft items – I found a couple of things I didn’t expect to find in a handicraft store in Santiniketan:
– cloth bag with leather lined bottom (ideal for carrying heavy things i.e. laptops and the bottom of the cloth bag won’t break)
– hot water bottle covers
There is also Alcha Foods which used to be connected to the boutique but has moved to ‘Ramakrishna Kutir’ Tourist Lodge Road (near water tank) – phone number and info available at Alcha Boutique. They are open in the evenings for snacks from 4:30pm to 8pm, and open for lunch food delivery.
“Abode of Welfare” – where the Institute of Rural Reconstruction was set up. Sriniketan took over the work of training in handicrafts from Santiniketan with the objective of bringing back life in its completeness to the villages and help people to solve their own problems instead of solution being imposed on them from outside. An emphasis was laid on a scientific study of the village problem before a solution was attempted.
“My cottage” – In Sriniketan – used to be a place of refuge for independence movement activists. It is now a cooperative society for the promotion of arts and crafts. They produce leather goods, kantha stitched saris, bamboo crafts and batik at a reasonable price.
I bought some leather bookmarks, an elephant piggy bank (they also had giraffe, horse, cat, and butterfly), and a few of cloth-bound folders with plastic protection. In our group though, bags, jewellery and clothes were also bought.
“Richness of Forest” – Vanalakshmi Unmesh Samiti, a Krishi Ashram and a small NGO. It was set up by Niranjan Sanyal, who set up this natural paradise on barren lands of Birbhum in 1963, with the idea that it would evolve like an ecosphere, bettering the life of people by optimum utilisation of natural resources.
There is a restaurant (order the night before or maybe even the morning of) which serves the vegetables that are grown on the property, and the meat and fish are sourced locally.
The shop sells goods that are produced on site, which includes handicraft, and also sauces, squashes, dried/smoked fruits, nuts, jams, chutneys, ghee, honey, other snacks.
Confetti – Pottery Showroom
About 500m away is a Pottery village. We arrived early for lunch so we decided to go for a look. They are closed on Wednesdays and have a half day on Tuesday (open till 1pm).They have a wide range of things, from vases and teasets or tea-for-one sets to chopstick holders shaped like chilis, cake stands and fondue pots!
Khoai Haat or Shonibarer Sonajhuri Haat (Saturday Market)
We missed this because we got in late on Saturday evening and left early on Saturday morning. It is organised by local village people and artists every Saturday in the middle of the forest. I don’t have any pictures of this because we didn’t go this time, but I went a few years ago when they had first started doing this. Read more about this in another blog about a trip to Santiniketan.
Biswa Bangla Haat (West Bengal Govt. Urban Haat)
This is run by the West Bengal Government so it is situated in these buildings. During the time that we went it wasn’t too populated, but we bought some beautiful saris and a kantha stitched bag (with leather inside for support and sturdiness) – export quality.
This is Jamila and her daughter. They have a stall in the West Bengal Govt. Haat in Santiniketan where they sell these beautiful and bright paintings and handpainted scarves, sarees, t-shirts, umbrellas…
The painting Jamila is holding is the one I bought – a smaller version of a large tapestry with which she sang us the story about a fish wedding where all the sea’s residents are invited apart from one predatory fish “bol maach” because of the fear of being eaten…..
I later found out that they are Patuas, who are an artisan community found in West Bengal. They are a Bengali speaking, strictly endogamous community and have been Hindu, Muslim and Buddhists at various points in history. They practice customs that are both Hindu and Islamic in nature. Today the majority of them are impoverished Muslims who rely on patronage from mainly Hindus, and increasingly from tourists who buy their painted scrolls.
Shakti Peeth informal summary: Shakti got too powerful, so to contain her power, her husband Shiva threw a boomerang type thing at her and broke her into 51 pieces which landed all over the Subcontinent – on one side near the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, and including a few in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Her Pelvis is said to have dropped about 10 km from Bolpur Station where this Temple is located.
It is a peaceful place, surrounded by paddy fields. It doesn’t have a commercialised feel to it, so it’s a serene and interesting place to visit.
Rabindranath Tagore Museum (Uddayan/Rabindra Bhavan)
Note/Tip: Bring a/your student ID. Foreigners: 300 INR, Students (of all nationalities): 10 INR, Others: 40 INR.
No photography allowed in the museum, but it is quite a nice place to go to read about Rabindranath Tagore and what he did and what you can see in Santiniketan, and how it was all established. The grounds are also really nice, just to wander about for a while. Since it’s rainy season, we took shelter in the tunnels that are built out of trees and leaves.
Visva Bharati + Departments + Ashram + Mandir
The café is located inside the university, so it is only accessible on foot. You need to enter through the Sangeet Bhavan entrance (the one after Kala Bhavan, which is opposite Rabindra Bhavan/the Museum) and walk straight till the road turns to the left. The café is hidden behind trees and cycles on the right.
This café is a tribute to Kimtaro Kasahara for his contribution to Santiniketan and Sriniketan.
In 1922, when Rabindranath started his Institute of Rural Reconstruction in Sriniketan, he was looking for someone who could teach woodwork. Kasahara not only taught woodwork and gardening to students in Sriniketan, his skills were utilised by the Poet’s son to work on the interiors of Udayana, the house built for Rabindranath. The Japanese-style gardens in Uttarayana were also designed by him.
It’s open all day from 10am to 9pm, got an amazing ambience, a range of seating areas under the thatched roof and options for meals, drinks and snacks.