Next weekend you can be at ...Santiniketan

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  • Published 4.07.08

Every weekend I feel like escaping to the Irish countryside. Or I wish I would take a walk on the banks of the Volga or enjoy a glass of French champagne. But I somehow manage to remain strangulated in my beloved city.

But help is not too far away. It takes just a car or train ride from Calcutta to reach a destination that is a favourite haunt of millions like myself .

Welcome to Bolpur, aka Santiniketan.

While the sylvan environs is home to the renowned Visva Bharati founded by Rabin-dranath Tagore, it is the perfect destination if you want to escape the hustle-bustle of city life.

So what can you do here? Take a walk down the serene campus of the university amidst the tall chhatim trees. Sit on the green grass and listen to crickets sing. Watch the Kopai flow by in a slow but steady manner. This is Santiniketan for you.

I am one of the lucky few to have a place to stay in at this beautiful little town. So every three months I pack my bags and catch the first train available from Howrah station to Santiniketan. If you are an adrenaline junkie, you can always try those rooftop seats of the tourist buses from Esplanade. It’s worth it.

The best mode of transportation to move around in Santiniketan is the cycle rickshaw. They might charge you a fortune but somehow you can enjoy the essence of this place. But if you want an insider’s tip, I’ll say walk.

With the number of tourists increasing day by day, there are many hotels and tourist lodges, which cater to budget travellers as well as the luxurious ones. There are a few youth hostels, too, and if you are really lucky, you can stay at one of the two Visva Bharati guesthouses. These are cocoons of comfort and one really gets to relish those vintage rooms with exquisite architecture and elegant furniture.

Take a walk to Sriniketan, a small hamlet just a couple of kilometres away. You will have some wonderful time when you take a stroll along the green path surrounded by mango and eucalyptus trees.

And if you walk the extra mile, there are tribal villages to captivate every tourist. It is amazing how these people have managed to cling on to their traditions. I still remember once I had the opportunity to accompany Bishtu Bauri, a potter, on his hunting expedition. For two hours, we roamed around the forest (mainly bamboo groves). Though I was expecting something deadlier, we managed to get three wild hens. Bishtu did the hunting and I, the teenager, carried the hens.

Back in their hut, Bishtu’s wife Shyama cooked some hot and spicy chicken. My stomach didn’t enjoy it much but I just loved it. If you want to be a bit more adventurous, try the mohua, the country liquor prepared with mohua flowers. It gives you a great kick but it can knock you out too. And if you go on an auspicious day, you might be lucky enough to watch a tribal dance.

Secondly, visit Khowai. Birbhum is often known as the red soil country. Over the years, bards have written numerous songs commenting on its beauty. In Khowai, within the wide landscape full of tall trees and red soil, you will find the famous Kopai river. It is a tributary of the Mayurakshi and is in full swing and vigour during the monsoon. At any other time of the year, it’s just another harmless rivulet.

Thirdly, spend some time at Prantik. It is another village barely a few minutes walk from Santiniketan. If you are a lover of folk art, you must head for the weekly haat, a local village market, where you can find the bauls. These singers are the torchbearers of the nearly extinct Bengali folk music. They sit with their ektaaras and dubkis and sing breathtakingly poignant songs with the sole theme of rejoicing in life and glory to the powerful one. A few minutes of such a warm musical session is enough to give one a high. There are souvenirs available at the haat to remember this bright side of rural Bengal.

Then there is the sprawling deer park. Just take a brisk walk on Sriniketan Road. You will find the house of another Nobel laureate, Amartya Sen. Walk ahead and to your right you will find a signboard welcoming you to the Deer Park. It is a protected forest area of around a couple of square kilometres. You can sit on top of the watchtower and indulge in some birdwatching. There are numerous species of birds flying in every year in the park during winter. The sad part is that photography is banned.

Natural splendours apart, in every corner of this tiny town you can feel Tagore’s presence. On the Visva Bharati campus, at the chhatimtola or the Kaanch Mondir, they sing his songs, recite his poems, dance to his tunes and stand tall like his values. You can visit the museums and learn about the man who shunned knighthood for the pride of his motherland. Wake up early and visit Patha Bhavan. It is the secondary school of the university where you can see the students attending open-air classes under trees.

Finally, shopping. A wide variety of leather handbags, clay sculptures, jewellery, paintings, kurtas, sarees, and the list that moves on and on.

So next time you have a weekend to spare and the wish to escape from the city, you know the place to head for.