Trip Code: AITWBE
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As the cradle of the Indian Renaissance and the national freedom movement, and its historical importance as a geographic ‘jewel in the crown’, West Bengal offers the inquiring traveller a wealth of intriguing historical sites and cultural experiences.
From the steamy Ganges delta around Kolkata to the snowy peaks surrounding Darjeeling this itinerary traverses the diverse and fascinating landscapes – geographical, historical and cultural – of West Bengal. In particular, it explores the state’s varied history with visits to the Raj-era monuments of Kolkata, the ruins of ornate terracotta tiled Hindu temples at Bishnapur, the historic palaces and splendid mosques at Murshidabad and the impressive Sultanate monuments at Gaur and Pandua. It includes a stop at Shantiniketan, where Bengal’s most famous son, Rabrindanath Tagore, lived and founded his artistic university.
Day 1 Kolkata
On arrival at Kolkata you will be met and transferred to your hotel.
Located on the east bank of the Hooghly River, Kolkata was the capital of India during the British Raj. Today it is the capital of the state of West Bengal and the principal commercial, cultural, and educational centre of East India. Religiously and ethnically diverse, it is known for its rich colonial heritage as well as its wonderful mosques, temples, universities and museums.
Enjoy a guided orientation walk this evening – a wonderful introduction to India’s ‘City of Joy”.
Day 2 Kolkata
Begin your exploration of Kolkata this morning with a half-day city tour by car, rickshaw, tram and foot.
Drive across the city’s landmark Howrah Bridge and then take a short heritage walking tour around Dalhousie Square. Explore the College Street Book Market and enjoy a coffee at the famous ‘Indian Coffee House’ which has been in business since 1942.
After a traditional Bengali lunch, visit St Paul’s Cathedral, the first Episcopal Cathedral Church in an oriental country, and the Victoria Memorial, also referred to as the ‘Taj of the Raj’. This splendid white marble structure was built between 1906 and 1921 in memory of Queen Victoria and was formally inaugurated by the Prince of Wales, who later became King Edward VIII of England.
Continue on with a visit to the Mother House – the headquarters of the Missionaries of Charity – and end your tour at the interesting Kalighat Kali Temple. One of the 52 Shakti Peethas in India, devotees from all over the country come to visit this holy temple.
Day 3 Shantiniketan
After an early morning breakfast – or with a packed breakfast – begin an approximately five-hour drive to Shantiniketan, with a stop en route at Bishnupur.
Bishnupur, capital of the Mallabhumi kingdom between the 17th and mid 18th centuries, is renowned for its elaborately decorated terracotta temples. The most notable of these is the Shyama Raya Temple, built in 1643, which takes its themes from the life of Krishna and episodes from the epic Ramayana. Other temples of interest include the Rasa Mancha temple with its 108 pillars and pyramidal roof and the Keshta Raya Temple with its joined twin roof and floral motifs, scrollwork and friezes depicting scenes from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.
In addition to its temples, Bishnupur is known for its terracotta artefacts, including the famous Bankura horse, Dokhra, conch-shell and bell-metal ware, and for its silk (tussar), particularly baluchari sarees, which feature episodes from the Mahabharata woven into the borders and pallus.
Enjoy lunch in Bishnapur before continuing your journey to Shantiniketan. Check in to your hotel on arrival. You will be entertained by a Baul (Bengal Ballad Singer) over dinner this evening.
Day 4 Murshidabad
Shantiniketan, meaning ‘abode of peace’, was founded by Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore in 1921. His aim was to create an institution of learning (where teaching was to take place out of doors), which specialized in the arts and humanities and emphasized the importance of community living. Now known as Visva Bharati University – its alumni include Nobel-award winning economist Amartya Sena and globally renowned filmmaker Satyajit Ray – it attracts thousands of visitors each year.
Begin your exploration of Shantiniketan this morning with a visit to Amar Kutir,meaning ‘my cottage’. Once a place of refuge for independence movement activists, today it is a cooperative society for the promotion of village arts and crafts that produces leather goods, kantha stitched saris, bamboo crafts and batik. It also has a needlecraft unit and shola and lac crafts units as well as a hand-block printing training centre.
Continue on to the Uttarayana Complex. The home of Rabindranath Tagore, the complex comprises several buildings of varying architectural styles, including an art gallery and a museum that displays the Nobel Prize medal that was awarded to him in 1913 and a Prayer Hall constructed by his father, Maharshi Devendranath Tagore, in 1863.
End your tour at the Kala Bhavana (Institute of Fine Arts). The college has an art museum exhibiting sculptures, frescoes and murals and a library of art books.
After lunch set out for the 3.5-hour drive to Murshidabad, where you will spend the night.
Day 5 Maldah
Murshidabad, the former capital of the nawabs of Bengal, was founded in 1704 by Nawab Murshid Quli Khan, governor of the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb.
Spend this morning visiting some of its places of interest. Begin at the Hazar Duari (‘A Thousand Doors’), a three-storey palace built in 1837 by General Duncan McLeod of the Bengal Engineers for the Nawab Najim Humaun Jahand. Inspired by Italian baroque, it features a mirror-lined banquet hall and a circular Durbar Hall; it is now a museum with a portrait gallery and collections of old arms, curios, china and paintings. An immense Imambara, also in Italianate style, is situated in the palace grounds.
Also visit the temple complex built by Rani Bhabani (1714 -93) the Zamindar of Natore – another fine example of Bengal terracotta art – and the Khoshbagh cemetery (Garden of Delight) situated on the opposite bank of the Bhagirathi.
After lunch make the four-hour drive to Maldah where you will spend the night.
Day 6 New Jalpaiguri
Spend some time this morning exploring Maldah before taking a day excursion from here to visit the atmospheric ruins of Gaur and Pandua.
The abandoned city of Gaur dates to the 15th and 16th centuries (though the area itself has a much older history – beginning with the rule of the Buddhist Palas in the 8th century). Sites of interest here include the Sagar Dighi, a large tank constructed in the 12th century, the Dakhil Darwaza (the main fort gateway) built with small red bricks embossed with terracotta decorations, and a number of interesting remains of mosques – the largest being the Sona Mosque, built in 1526. Fine marble carving can still be seen on the remains of its minarets.
Pandua, the alternate seat of power to Gaur (between 1338 and 1500 when it was abandoned), also has a large concentration of Muslim monuments. The most notable are the 14th century Adina Masjid, which imitated the design of the great mosque at Damascus, and the Eklakhi Mausoleum – one of the earliest square brick tombs to be constructed in Bengal.
At the end of the day return to Maldah and transfer to the railway station to board an evening train to New Jalpaiguri. You will be met on arrival and transferred to your hotel for an overnight stay.
Day 7 Kurseong
After a leisurely breakfast, drive to Kurseong (two hours). Located at an altitude of 1,458 metres, the small hill station of Kurseong (‘Land of White Orchids’) is surrounded by lush tea gardens and orange orchards.
Check in to your hotel on arrival and remainder of the day free. You may like to take a walk (there are many trails, offering spectacular views) or call in to Cochrane Place, a restored stately British Colonial home on the outskirts of town where you can enjoy afternoon tea as you sit back and take in the views of the surrounding plantations and mountains.
Day 8 Darjeeling
This morning take a tour of the Makaibari Tea Factory and Plantation. Established in 1859, Makaibari follows a form of integrated forest management – permaculture – where the tea bush is part of a multi-tier system of trees and plants typical of a sub-tropical rainforest, as opposed to a monoculture – a farm that grows only one crop.
After lunch transfer to Kurseong Station to board the ‘Toy Train’ to Darjeeling (a scenic 30 kilometre/ three hour journey). Built between 1879 and 1881, the railway is listed as a Mountain Railways of India World Heritage Site.
Splendidly situated, Darjeeling is surrounded by hilly coniferous forests and terraced tea plantations; the views over the mountains to the snowy peaks of Kanchenjunga and down to the swollen rivers in the valleys below are magnificent. You will be met on arrival and transferred to your hotel.
Day 9 Darjeeling
Spend this morning sightseeing with a local guide including visits to the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute and the Tibetan Refugee Self Help Centre.
The first ascent of Mount Everest in 1953 by Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary sparked a keen interest in establishing mountaineering as an organized sport in India. Thus, in 1954, the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute was founded. Its first director of field training was Tenzing Norgay and the earliest Everest expeditions started their journeys from here. It contains an interesting mountaineering Museum.
The Tibetan Refugee Self-help Centre was established in 1959 as a rehabilitation centre for the thousands of Tibetan refugees who followed the Dalai Lama and escaped from Tibet. Today, its main activity is the training of artisans and craftsmen and the production of Tibetan handicrafts.
Afternoon free. Enjoy wandering the streets of Darjeeling, and sipping tea at one of the many teashops – likely to convert even the most seasoned coffee drinker to at least an understanding of tea!
Day 10 Bagdogra
Today transfer to Bagdorga Airport for a flight to Delhi or Kolkata, or transfer to Gangtok for travel in Sikkim.
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