|(From top): Devotees throng the temple at Mayapur; a view of the Coochbehar Palace
So you think you’ve covered just about every place in West Bengal worth seeing' You’ve done Darjeeling, trawled the beaches of Shankarpur and lost count of the number of times you’ve been to Digha. In between, you’ve even managed to squeeze in trips to Shantiniketan, the Dooars and the Sundarbans. What’s left, you ask' Plenty, actually, especially if you consider hitting the heritage trail.
While destinations like the Taj Mahal and Ajanta-Ellora have always enjoyed huge popularity, there are several heritage spots right in our own backyard that we often tend to overlook. The West Bengal Tourism department is doing its bit to promote these offbeat destinations, but their efforts so far have met with little success. Says Amitabha Dutta, deputy general manager, West Bengal Tourism, “We’ve been more or less successful in promoting places like Murshidabad and Coochbehar, but are handicapped by the herd mentality of travellers who tend to throng the same set of places. Nevertheless, we are trying our best by promoting local fairs and festivals, while places like Gaur and Pandua near Malda are also doing quite well.”
From Murshidabad to Coochbehar to Nadia, each heritage spot in West Bengal is more fascinating than the other. And these off-the-beaten-track getaways may be just what the doctor ordered for a refreshing ' yet enriching ' weekend break.
Murshidabad, the last capital city of independent Bengal, is situated 221km north of Calcutta on the banks of the river Bhagirathi. This town, as every shopper will know, is famous for its raw silk, as also its stunning ivory carvings, brassware and handicrafts. The glory of its days as a flourishing trading town is now a thing of the past, but several landmarks still stand testimony to the days gone by.
Murshidabad’s main draw is the Hazarduari Palace, or the palace with a thousand doors that was built for the Nawab Najim Humaun Jah. This palace, which spans a good 41 acres, is now a museum that houses a fantastic collection of armoury, paintings, art works and other valuables. Other local attractions not to be missed are the Nimak Haram Deohri (Traitor’s Gate) where Siraj-ud-daula was assassinated after the Battle of Plassey, the Cossimbazar Rajbari, the Great Imambara, Moti Jhil (Pearl Lake) and the ruins of the Katra and Medina mosques. Parna Samui, who went there with her husband came away mighty impressed by the amazing showpieces in the Hazarduari Palace. “There’s a vessel dating back to Siraj-ud-Daulah’s time which cracks whenever any poisonous substance is put into it. And there’s even a mirror, positioned in such a way that no matter where you stand, nobody else can see your reflection in it.”
Coochbehar town, a former princely town, today serves as the administrative headquarters of Coochbehar district. It’s centred around a lake called Sagardighi, with its chief attraction being the maharajah’s palace. The Koch maharajas ruled Coochbehar for 400 years ' and their Coochbehar Palace has been developed into a museum. Says Ankur Biswas, who went to Coochbehar with his family, “The palace is beautiful, and it’s fascinating to know that this was the place where Maharani Gayatri Devi spent her early years as princess.”
Queuing up with other visitors to view the palace, however, is not the only thing to do in Coochbehar. Temples and waterbodies are the other local attractions ' check out the Gosanimari Temple, the Baneswar Temple, famous for its giant turtles or even the Madanmohan Temple, seat of the traditional Rass Jatra festival. Or better still, take your kids to Sagardighi or Rasik Bill, both waterbodies which attract migratory birds by the droves.
Hooghly district, 47 km north of Calcutta abounds in relics of foreign settlers ' the British and Portuguese at Hooghly, the Dutch at Chinsurah, the French at Chandannagore and the Germans and Austrians at Bhadreswar. The area is choc-a-bloc with places of interest. Like Antpur, with its numerous temples built mostly by Krishnaram Mitra, a local zamindar during the 18th century. Or Bandel with its imposing church, Chandernagore with its lovely promenade; Kamarpukur, Jairambati, the native village of Sri Ramkrishna and Tarakeswar, one of the country’s best-known pilgrimage spots. And of course, there is the famous Imambara, Belur Math and the Dakshineswar Kali Temple, where devotees throng throughout the year.
Think Malda and probably the first things that comes to mind are its lip-smacking Fajli mangoes. But hold on, there’s far more to this district than just that. Malda is a base for visiting Gaur and Pandua. The former served as capital to three dynasties of ancient Bengal while Pandua has the third largest concentration of Muslim monuments in Bengal.
While Malda has a museum that houses the archaeological finds at Gaur and Pandua, it’s best to visit the places themselves for a better idea of their past glory. Gaur abounds in historical relics of 14th and 15th century Bengal like the Bara Sona Mosque and the Lattan Mosque. Pandua’s biggest draw is the Adina Mosque built in 1369 by Sikander Shah. Nearby is the Eklakhi mausoleum (built at a princely cost of Rs 1 lakh) and several smaller mosques.
For people of a more devout bent of mind, Nadia is THE place to go, being as it is home to Nabadwip and Mayapur, two destinations high on the must-visit lists of most Hindus. Mayapur, of course, is the headquarters of ISKCON (International Society for Krishna Consciousness), while Nabadwip with its distinction of being the birthplace of Sri Chaitanya, is the seat of the Vaishnava culture in Bengal. These apart, there’s also the Chandroday Temple and Sonargouranga, the temple with the golden statue of Sri Chaitanya.
When you’ve had your fill of all these, Krishnanagar is definitely worth a visit. The clay models and figurines of the region grace many a home, but besides shopping for these, do make time to drop in at the Roman Catholic Church and check out the Rajbari (Royal Palace). Every year, the famous Jhulan Mela is celebrated around the Rajbari in July-August, while March-April sees Baro Dol being celebrated with much pomp and festivity.
My favourite holiday
Right now, the Middle-East is my favourite holiday spot. In fact, I returned from Dubai just yesterday after a hectic tour. I’ve been going there on work for some time now, and I always enjoy myself immensely there, whether it’s Dubai, Abu Dhabi or Kuwait. I’m a complete workaholic and meeting new people and getting a taste of new cultures is always exciting for me. I also love the architecture and the design aesthetics of the Middle-East. It’s a source of inspiration and a wonder to watch.
Usually, my schedule there goes something like this: work in the morning, then meet friends for lunch, followed by some more work and meetings, and then heading for a pub or eatery in the evenings with some great Lebanese food. Most of these places are completely cosmopolitan and of course, great for shopping. Egypt and Turkey are two places I’m dying to visit, and will surely plan a working holiday there sometime soon.
The wedding season has unleashed some swell packages to woo vacationers. Honeymooners can enjoy a Colombo vacation courtesy Sri Lanka Tourism over 3 nights and 4 days. On a Bed & Breakfast basis, the package costs upwards of Rs 20,000 (depending on the hotel). This includes airfare on SriLankan Airlines and airport transfers. Tourism Malaysia is offering honeymoon packages to Malaysia starting from Rs 32,000 which includes airfare, accommodation with meals, airport transfers and sightseeing. Another 6 night-7 day package to Mauritius, that starts from Rs 58,000, includes airfare and airport transfers, stay with breakfast and dinner and three full days sightseeing tour. Honeymoon packages for Kenya can also be customised but expect to pay upwards of Rs 68,000. Cost of package is on per head basis. Call: TRAC Representations on 011-23312294.
Just when you thought that Malaysia could not be promoted any further, the country’s ever-enterprising Tourism Board and a handful of agencies in the city have come up with yet another winner. This one is being pegged as the ‘no catch package’ to Langkawi. Now consider that the cost of an air-ticket from Calcutta to Kuala Lumpur to Langkawi and all the way back is Rs 12,999. The new package also comes for Rs 12,999. Where then is the bait' Try a free 3 night-4 day stay in Langkawi, in a three-star or three-star deluxe hotel. Breakfasts are included, as are return transfers and a half-day city tour. What’s not included are the visa charge and the taxes amounting to about another Rs 5,000. Nevertheless a free stay is always a huge draw! Call Vensimal Travels at 22253230/3435.