Santiniketan: Where Every Trip Offers A New Perspective

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Amartya Sen's ancestral house
Amartya Sen's ancestral house

My first trip to Santiniketan in the Birbhum district of West Bengal is a blur in terms of the year, but I remember it vividly. I was just a kid in primary school, and my brother was barely able to walk. It was a family outing, captured in faded photos taken with our prized Kodak KB 10 camera. Looking back, I can feel how hot and sticky it was – we were constantly covered in talcum powder to beat the heat, a common practice back in the late 90s. The clearest memory I have is of the Upasna Ghar, the prayer hall at Visva-Bharati. Built by Debendranath Tagore, Rabindranath Tagore’s father, in 1863, it’s a beautiful structure with marble steps and colourful Belgian glass.

Inside the Visva-Bharati campus
Inside the Visva-Bharati campus

In 2007, I revisited Santiniketan with my family and my closest friend. My mother urged me to take the entrance exam at Visva-Bharati University, founded by Rabindranath Tagore. While we didn’t have time to explore Santiniketan, we did spend a day wandering around the university campus.

In 2012, I returned to Santiniketan with my office colleagues for a brief day-trip, leaving little time for exploration. Then, in 2015, just before the renowned Poush Mela, I revisited Santiniketan with the close friend, who had previously accompanied me for the Visva-Bharati entrance exam.

The Shonajhuri forest
The Shonajhuri forest

The Poush Mela, an iconic annual fair held in Santiniketan, has become a cherished tradition for Bengalis worldwide. With Tagore at its heart, the fair has evolved into a vibrant celebration of spring. Initiated by Debendranath Tagore, the fair has garnered immense popularity over the years, attracting tourists both from India and abroad. From delectable local cuisine to exquisite handicrafts and terracotta art, the mela offers a rich experience.

However, despite its cultural significance, the Poush Mela has taken a backseat in recent years due to changes at Visva-Bharati. Despite calls to reinstate the fair, the last one was held in 2019, leaving its vibrant spirit and colours suspended in time.

In 2021, during one of my visits to Santiniketan, recognized as India’s 41st World Heritage Site by UNESCO, I noticed significant changes, particularly in the Shonajhuri Haat. Also known as the Khoai Mela or Shonibarer Haat, this weekly Saturday afternoon bazaar, organized by local artisans in the Shonajhuri area of Santiniketan, had become an integral part of Bengali culture for over two decades. However, when I returned in November 2023 to celebrate my parents’ 40th wedding anniversary with my brother, I was disheartened to find that the Shonajhuri Haat had undergone a drastic transformation. As someone who has repeatedly returned to Santiniketan, I found that the charm of the haat had reduced significantly.

Once a vibrant weekly affair, the Shonajhuri Haat is a place where local artisans showcase their crafts. From home decor to traditional attire and mouthwatering ‘pithe puli’ treats, it’s a haven for shopaholics. The atmosphere was enriched with folk dances and music performances. However, with the haat now operating daily from the morning, it has lost some of its original charm. Despite still attracting tourists from Kolkata and beyond, it’s now more focused on business than preserving its cultural essence. Nevertheless, visiting Shonajhuri Haat remains a must during a trip to Santiniketan, even if it’s changed over the years.

A Baul performance at the Shonajhuri Haat
A Baul performance at the Shonajhuri Haat

What I enjoy most is strolling through the Shonajhuri forest, whose name translates to “droplets of gold” in English. Despite the gradual thinning of the forest over the years, the attraction of Shonajhuri remains irresistible. Surrounded by the serene flow of the Kopai river, small red canyons, and the distinct red laterite soil, Shonajhuri has a charm hard to resist. In Santiniketan, it stands out as one of the most picturesque spots.

Traveling from Kolkata to Bolpur, where Santiniketan is located, is easy with multiple train options and road routes available. As for accommodation, Santiniketan has hotels to suit every budget. However, it’s wise to book in advance, especially during the busy spring and winter seasons.

Shonibarer Haat (The Saturday Bazaar)
Shonibarer Haat (The Saturday Bazaar)

In Santiniketan, the essence of Tagore permeates the air, especially when you wander through Visva-Bharati. Though the rules for visitors are now stricter, one place not to miss is the Tagore Memorial Museum, also known as Rabindra Bhavan. Here, you’ll get to see the personal collections of Tagore, including his renowned personal library. The museum features a general section where you can explore a rich array of his artwork, photographs, and letters.

Do you know Satyajit Ray after completing his graduation from Presidency College in Kolkata joined Kala Bhavan? For art lovers, Kala Bhavan is like a sacred place, known worldwide for its dedication to art, initiated by Tagore and continued by artists like Nandalal Bose, Ramkinkar Baij, and Benodebehari Mukhopadhyay. Don’t miss the iconic sculptures of Ramkinkar, especially ‘The Santhal Family.’

Srijani Shilpagram
Srijani Shilpagram

While many places such as Nobel laureate Amartya Sen’s ancestral home, Pratichi, Chhatimtala, Patha Bhavan, Sangeet Bhavana, and the Uttarayan complex, may now have restricted tourist access, a leisurely walk or drive within the Visva-Bharati campus offers an opportunity to immerse oneself in the everlasting legacy of Tagore.

 

We also made a visit to Kankalitala, one of the ‘shakti peethas’ where the waist (or ‘kankol’ in Bengali) of Sati fell. It’s been a ritual for me whenever I visit Bolpur.

Situated around 6-7 kilometers from Santiniketan, this temple is a must-visit for many tourists. For those seeking more after exploring Shonajhuri Haat, there are other options to consider. Amar Kutir showcases local artisans’ works, while Srijani Shilpagram, managed by the Eastern Zonal Cultural Centre, houses over 1000 artifacts, each over 25 years old. In Srijani Shilpagram, visitors can also find ‘Adi Bimb’, an art gallery featuring folk paintings, and ‘Adi Kranti’, a pavilion dedicated to the tribal heroes of eastern India.

The Uttarayan complex
The Uttarayan complex

If you appreciate historic buildings, don’t miss Surul Sarkar Bari. Built in the 1750s, it’s remarkably well-preserved and often used for filming movies and documentaries. It’s especially famous for its Durga Puja celebrations, making that time ideal for a visit.

If you’re in Bolpur during spring, you can drop in at Shayor Bithi, a park near Prantik, about 3-5 kilometers from Santiniketan. It will surely delight the nature lovers, with lush surroundings and a large waterbody offering boating facilities.

Santiniketan holds a special place in my heart, having visited it several times over the years. Each visit feels like a new experience, offering a fresh perspective. It’s a place that resonates deeply with me, perhaps because of the way Tagore is intertwined with its surroundings. I hope to go back soon. 

All images are by the author .

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