When Bankim Chandra Chatterjee composed his famous song, "Bande Mataram", over a hundred years ago in 1882, he was in many ways epitomizing the beauty of Bengal. Some things here are still eternal. Like the rich culture of the state that binds the population together through its unique unity in diversity. Like the matchless geographical variety it offers to visitors. Like the fact that even today, very few diehard Bengalis want to accept the fact that the state was divided during partition and one half of it is now a different country.
West Bengal, situated in the eastern part of the Indian peninsula, is one of the country's medium-sized states. However, in its physical form, it is a complete representation of the Indian subcontinent. Darjeeling, its northern end, lies cuddled in the arms of the mighty Himalayas and the Dooars in the foothills are rich in forest. The indomitable river Ganga flows across the state's rich alluvial plains to reach the Bay of Bengal in the south, through vast swamps that are known as the Sundarbans. The districts in the west are semi-arid and sport loamy soil: the famous red earth that appears repeatedly in Rabindranath Tagore's poems.
West Bengal extends from latitude 21°31¢-27°14¢ in the North to longitude 86°35¢-89°53¢ in the East. The tropic of cancer runs through the state. Stretching for about 300 miles from the Himalayas to the Bay of Bengal, West Bengal's geography is as diversified as its culture.
West Bengal is surrounded by the three international frontiers in the north, namely, Bhutan, Nepal and Bangladesh. On its northeast lies the green valley of Assam. The vibrating Bihar lies on the western side, while to the southwest lies the state with its golden beaches, Orissa. West Bengal has Bangladesh on its east and the deep blue Bay of Bengal on its south.
West Bengal was formerly known as Vanga and was spread over a vast area. Ruled by several dynasties from ancient times, the actual history of this region is, however, available from the Gupta period. The prosperity and the importance of the state increased largely when the British East India Company took over the place. It was a widespread Bengal province until under the terms of the Indian Independence Act, 1947, the province of Bengal ceased to exist. The Muslim-dominated districts, namely, Chittagong, Dacca and part of Presidency and Rajshahi division went to the present-day Bangladesh and the state of West Bengal came into existence in 1947. The district of Cooch Behar was merged with the state on January 1, 1950. The former Chandernogor came within the state on October 2, 1954 and the state got its present political boundary when, according to the States Reorganization Act, part of the state of Bihar was transferred to West Bengal.
Fairs & Festivals
Besides the other festivals of the Hindu solar calendar, Durga Puja is the one that gains ultimate importance and attention in West Bengal. Durga Puja is an extravaganza of almost seven days; but the preparation starts months before the actual event. New clothes are an integral part in puja for every Bengali.
Besides Durga Puja, Saraswati Puja, Lakshmi Puja, Kali Puja and Janmashtami are some other festivals that are given special attention in Bengal.
Best Time to Visit
The climate of West Bengal can be divided into a) the hot dry period that spreads from March to early June; b) the monsoons from July to September; and c) the cool winter from October to February. The southwest monsoon has a great impact on the climate of the state. The intensity of the monsoon determines, to a considerable extent, the harvesting of a large variety of agricultural products in this region.
How to Reach
BY AIR -West Bengal is very well connected with the national and international air network. The international (Netaji Subhash International Airport) and domestic airports of Calcutta are at Dumdum, located 15 km from the city center. The Bagdogra airport at Siliguri connects the state with places in and around the state. Three more airports, namely, Balurghat, Coochbehar and Malda also operate scheduled domestic flights.
BY RAIL -West Bengal runs a major railway network that connects the rest of the country. Kharagpur railway station has the longest railway platform in India. Moreover, the Howrah railway station is one of the most accessed railway heads in India. New Jalpaiguri railhead connects the rest of the country to Darjeeling by toy trains.
BY ROAD -West Bengal is also well connected by means of national as well as state highways with major places of interest in and around the state. The state transport corporation runs regular buses connecting these places. There are also private tour operators that provide luxury coaches to access the nearby places of importance.
West Bengal is one of the first destinations in a tourist's itinerary visiting the eastern part of the country. Calcutta (also Kolkata), the capital of the state, is the proud intellectual capital of the country.
The city has made outstanding contribution to the country in the field of arts, sciences, medicine, social reform and literature. The city retains some of the most striking colonial buildings of the country. It used to be the capital of the British East India Company and the evidence of the British colonization persists there in the city.
The Victoria Memorial is a grand edifice constructed in the memory of Queen Victoria. This building houses a number of rare specimens of the historical preserves of the land. Moreover, the manuscripts, the paintings and the sculptures here are outstanding. Howrah Bridge is another landmark that denotes the city of joy. This hanging bridge is an architectural marvel of the country. The second largest planetarium in Asia, the Birla Planetarium, is another site that attracts attention of all regardless of their age.
The Botanical Garden with its 250-year-old banyan tree (Ficus bengalhensis) is another attraction of the city. The Dakshineshwar Temple is an important pilgrimage center that attracts a number of tourists as well as pilgrims from all over the country. It is said that Shri Ramakrishna Paramhansa, the spiritual guru of Swami Vivekananda, used to worship Goddess Kali in this place.
The recently built Vidyasagar Setu, another architectural marvel, connects both the banks of the Hooghly River. Thakur Bari, the residence of Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore, is another site that receives a herd of visitors every year. Moreover, the Metro Railway, National Library, Shaheed Minar, Eden Garden, Fort William, Rat Park and Marble Palace are some of the other sites of the city that are worth visiting. Shantiniketan, Tagore's university township, is a must on any itinerary that plots Bengal as a stopover.
Just two and a half hours away by rail from Calcutta, this town in the Birbhum district is rich in culture and art. At Tagore's residence in the Uttarayan complex, you could visit the museum and his various homes. From Shantiniketan, you could also take a sojourn to Bakreswar, where ancient Kali and Shiva temples rise into the azure sky. The hot springs are famous for curing many chronic diseases.
For witnessing the sheer magnificence of mountains, unsullied and pristine, one should visit the hill station of Darjeeling, located 7,000 feet above sea level. Darjeeling is famous for its flavored tea all over the world. The brew is often compared to champagne and the tea gardens that dot the slopes are witness to this mammoth industry. The Himalayan Mountaineering Institute is a paradise for trekkers. The Tibetan Self-Help Center has a range of carpets for sale in their showroom, woven with dexterity on the premises by refugees who fled their land with the Dalai Lama.
One can also undertake short trips to Mirik, land of oranges, and the charming city of Kalimpong, famous for its orchids and curio shops. In the same area is Kurseong from where one can get a panoramic view of the Gangetic delta from Eagle's Crag. Upon reaching the foothills again, one may stop over at Malbazar to imbibe the magical mystery of forests and the tea-garden dotted Dooars plains. The Jaldapara Wildlife Sanctuary is known for elephants and other wild animals.
In the heartland of Bengal's rich history is Malda with the relics of Muslim culture embodied in the Bara Sona mosque. Not very far is Behrampur, another cradle of Bengal's Muslim past. The Hazarduari Palace and the Khush Bagh revive memories of days gone by.
Besides these, West Bengal has lot more to offer as a tourist destination. Digha, Siliguri, Gaur, Pandua, Murshidabad, Bishnupur, Haldia and the Sunderban Tiger Reserve are some of the few places of West Bengal that need to be mentioned here.