If you are in India and love Nature, culture, and education, Santiniketan in West Bengal is one place you must visit. Home to the famous Vishwa Bharati University, established by the Nobel laureate poet Rabindra Nath Tagore, it is also one of the most famous tourist attractions of West Bengal.
Getting to Santiniketan
Santiniketan is located in Birbhum district of West Bengal state. The nearest major town is Bolpur, some 150 kilometres away from Kolkata, the state capital. Kolkata is also the nearest airport and most international students and visitors prefer to rent a car from Kolkata (CCU) airport and head for Santiniketan.
By Train: From Kolkata, visitors to Bolpur may take one of the numerous local trains that ply between Sealdah Station and Rampurhat. While these trains do not typically require a reservation, for the more discerning traveler, Chair Car and AC coaches are available for reservation.
By Road: A number of state transport and private buses ply between Kolkata and Bolpur. The most preferred transport on this route, however, is the private cab or car. The road is metalled and easily navigable.
Santiniketan is a mere 3 kilometres from Bolpur and a number of rickshaws, and autos are available to get around.
Places to See in Santiniketan
Tagore’s Ashram – Established in 1863 as a Brahmo Samaj ashram and school by Debendranath Tagore, the ashram is now at the heart of the Vishwa Bharati University of Santiniketan.
Chhatimtala – Next to the Prayer Hall is Chattimtala, the meditation spot of Debendranath Tagore. Each graduate of Vishwa Bharati University is awarded a branch of the tree here to remind them of their roots.
Rabindra Bhaban Museum – Rabindra Bhaban is home to 40,000 books and 12,000 journals apart from the poet’s photographs, souvenirs, paintings and objects used by him. It is one of the most fascinating places to visit in Santiniketan.
Uttarayan Complex – The Uttarayan Complex is one of the most fascinating places in Santiniketan. One of the buildings here is the Prayer Hall where visitors meditate and contemplate. Another is a museum where Rabindra Nath Tagore’s Nobel medal is on display. Each building of the complex is built in a distinct architectural style.
Srijani Shilpa Gram – The Shilpa Gram showcases the rural life of Birbhum, the Santhal culture, and local art and culture.
Sriniketan – An important part of the Vishwa Bharati University, Sriniketan focuses on economic and rural development and is a beautiful place to explore.
Cheena Bhavan – Established by the poet in 1937 to strengthen cultural exchange and cultural ties with China, the Cheena Bhavan is an important part of the University.
Nippon Bhavan – Nippon Bhavan is an important centre of Japanese studies, and Indo-Japanese cultural exchange.
Brahma Mandir – Established in 1891, this is a Brahma temple and an important meditation spot.
Amar Kuthir – This is a showroom and shop of the best products from the cottage industries of Santiniketan. Look out for the unique leather work and kantha embroidery on fabric.
Ballavpur Wildlife Sanctuary – The Ballavpur Wildlife Sanctuary is home to hundreds of birds, Cheethals (spotted deer), blackbucks and other animals. Come winter, it is an ornithological haven with hundreds of migratory birds flocking here.
Apart from the cultural medley that forms the soul of Santiniketan, there are two Kali temples nearby that are very famous by themselves and attract thousands of devotees.
Kankalitala – About 9 kilometres from Santiniketan is the Kankalitala temple dedicated to Goddess Kali. This small peaceful temple is a famous Shaktipeeth.
Tarapith – Some 55 kilometres from Bolpur is another Shaktipeeth, Tarapith, which attracts millions of devotees each year.
Vishwa Bharati University
The Vishwa Bharati University, set up by Nobel laureate and scholar Rabindra Nath Tagore himself is at the heart of Santiniketan and its cultural environment. In the early 1900s, Rabindranath Tagore established an educational institution (school-college) outside what was then the Brahmacharya Ashram). He donated his Nobel proceeds and his book royalties to the development of this institution which was granted University status in 1951. The Vishwa Bharati University is now a multi-disciplinary university attracting the best of faculty and students from across the world. The university is known best for its radical approach towards imparting education, emphasizing on debates, workshops, open air classes, and cultural exchanges. Some famous Vishwa Bharati University alumni include the likes of Indira Gandhi, Satyajit Ray, Amartya Sen, R Siva Kumar, and Suchitra Mitra.
The Bauls of Bengal
The Bauls are a group of singing minstrels and mystic seers from Bengal. Bauls are known to not stay in a place for over three nights and sing songs with a spiritual rather than religious annotation. Similar to the Sufi seers of Islam, Bauls exercised a considerable influence on Bengali culture and society, working their way into the literary and musical heritage of the state. Santiniketan – Bolpur has been at the heart of the Baul culture in the region. It is not uncommon to see baul artists sing and dance at street corners of Santiniketan, often to a large local audience.
Each year thousands of visitors and students visit Santiniketan. Apart from being one of the best weekend getaways from Kolkata, it is also a premier cultural centre of the country. Its proximity to Nature, peaceful pristine settings, academic excellence, and emphasis on cottage industries makes Santiniketan one of the major attractions of West Bengal. This town played a very important role during India’s pre-independence years, with most free and progressive thinkers from this part of the country seeking out Tagore’s Ashram to work, write, and envision a free India. What attracts hundreds of foreign students to the Vishwa Bharati and to Santiniketan each year is the impeccable way India’s cultural heritage and cottage industries are preserved here.
In keeping with the rustic roots of Indian culture, most of the festivals celebrated in Santiniketan are connected to Nature. Apart from 25 Boisakh and 22 Srabon (Bengali calendar dates), the birth and death anniversary of Rabindranath Tagore, other important festivals celebrated here include Basanta Utsav (Holi), Barsha Mangal, Sharodotsav, and Nandan Mela.
Poush Mela, celebrated towards the end of December (Poush month according to the Bengali calendar), is the most colourful fair and festival of the region. In the initial years, this grand 3-day fair used to be commemorated by a grand firework display at the Brahmo Mandir. These days it is celebrated with a number of Bengali folk dance and music performances, poetry recitation, and such cultural activities. Cottage industries stalls are set up all over Santiniketan at this time allowing visitors to learn about and buy a variety of artifacts.