West Bengal, as one of the most populous states of India, has long been a center of culture, trade, agriculture and, yes, tourism, attracting millions to its many beautiful sites. West Bengal is an emerging economic power in the country and the brilliant and sophisticated history of the Bengali language contributes to the attractiveness of the state.
Former capital of the British Raj, center of Bengali culture and the third largest city of India, Kolkata has an immense presence on the national scene. Laden with architecture from the British era, the city is a cosmopolitan town famous for its art, literature, religion and politics, but also for its pervasive poverty.
Commissioned by Lord Curzon, the Victoria Memorial is dedicated to the titular “Empress of India” and is a major tourist attraction in the city. It was built to blend the styles of the Taj Mahal and of Italian Renaissance palaces. It is at the end of the large central park of Kolkata, the Maidan.
The Maidan was the former stomping ground for British troops and has evolved into a magnificent park replete with many statues of famous British rulers but also many famous Indians such as Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and Subhas Chandra Bose. It is an excellent place for picnicking.
Dakshineswar Kali Temple
A beautiful and iconic temple on the Hooghly river, the Dakshineswar Kali Temple is the most important temple in Kolkata dedicated to Shiva and Kali. The temple complex has ghats on the river, a local bookstore, and an adjoining Krishna temple. On some days literally hundreds of thousands of people are around the premises.
Tipu Sultan Mosque
Named after the famous “Tiger of Mysore” Tip Sultan, who resisted the British so vehemently in what is now Karnataka, this mosque is the most prominent of the city and is a truly beautiful structure. It is open for public visit and many tourists visiting the city stop by to see it.
The largest museum in the country and one of the oldest museums in the world, the Indian Museum is located in a beautiful palace and has a remarkable amount of artifacts, including the Buddha’s ashes, an Egyptian mummy, the Ashoka pillar, many Mughal paintings, and many items important to natural history.
One of the most beautiful of the palaces in a city known for them, the Marble Palace is, true to its name, made almost entirely of marble. THe building has two paintings by Peter Paul Rubens. Permission to view the palace is granted by the local tourism office, as a family still resides there.
A famous train station, Howrah Station is among the busiest in India, indeed the world, and an iconic symbol of Kolkata, with its red towers and ever-present fleet of yellows Kolkatan cabs. It is well-known throughout the area. Nearby is the famous Howrah Bridge.
Known as the “Summer Capital” during the British Raj because of the cool weather, it was and remains a popular hill station. Darjeeling became the center of the British elite during the summer, who escaped the summer heat here. It is famous world-wide for the tea grown on the surrounding slopes, considered by many connoisseurs to be among the best.
Darjeeling Himalayan Railway
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway is one of the only steam trains left in the country connecting Darjeeling to Kolkata. It was frequented by British and Indian elites escaping the sweltering heat of a Bengal summer. The railway is a major engineering feat, built into the side of steep mountains and featuring some hairpin turns rare for a train track.
The third highest mountain in the world, it is visible from Darjeeling and can be reached through Sikkim for hiking. Special permission is needed for ascension and can be granted from the local tourism office. On a clear day, it dominates the Darjeeling sky.
Happy Valley Tea Estate
A famous tea garden in Darjeeling, Happy Valley Tea Estate, uses a minimum age of 80 years for its plants, with some tea bushes as old as 150 years. The result? Some of the best tasting tea anywhere, and for this it is a popular tourist attraction among tea enthusiasts.
A city of palaces, the former Nawabs of Bengal once ruled the area from here, before the British dominated the region. Now a sleepy provincial town, it is nevertheless still frequented by tourists seeking a glimpse of the majesty of the former Bengali rulers.
The Koch Dynasty, rulers of the princely state Koch Bihar, built many palaces in this city during their reign under the British Raj, and the city is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the state. The city also lies on the beautiful Torsa river, which has a charming forest around it.
Known as Sharifabad during the Mughal era, Bardhaman has many gorgeous architectural wonders from its illustrious past. In particular, the Sarbamangala Temple, alleged to hold the remains of Sati, is a major pilgrimage attraction. The Curzon Gate, built for Lord Curzon’s visit to the city, is another impressive structure in the city renowned for the intricate sculptures dressing it.
A center of the Bengal renaissance, the town of Hooghly, now joined with neighboring Chinsurah, has a beautiful city center replete with charming temples, churches, cemetaries and mosques. It is a great getaway from the hustle-bustle of Kolkata, and is a major college town in the state.
Located in the Gangetic delta, the Sundarbans are the world’s largest mangrove forest and are an amazingly dense jungle full of tigers, elephants, deer, crocodiles, snakes, countless birds and insects, as well as many, many flowering plants. It is extremely dense forest and is protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
West Bengal History and Culture
There are signs of civilization in the Bengal region, historically comprising of both West Bengal and Bangladesh, going back at least 4,000 years. It was part of the kingdom of Magadha, one of the major kingdoms of India in the time of Buddha. Later, the Mauryan emprie ruled the area, spreading Buddhism throughout the area. Bengal became a major center of Buddhist thought and culture under the Pala dynasty.
The Senas ruled the area after the Palas, re-introducing Hindu rule to the area. Islam entered the area in the 1100’s through Sufi mystics, and Muslim invasions eventually established a strong Islamic presence in the area under the Delhi Sultanate and Mughal Empire. When the Mughals collapsed, the Bengali Nawabs in Murshidabad ruled the area.
Europeans first arrive in the 1400’s, and they gradually gained clout in the Gangetic delta region. The British were the first to truly assert control of the area, the first major foray into Indian affairs being the Battle of Plassey in 1757. This battle effectively ended the independence of Bengali rulers, leading to the accession of the Bengal Presidency some ten years later.
British rule saw some of its greatest failures in Bengal, with the famine of 1770 killing millions. This would not be the first time it would happen; in 1943, it happened once again, with over three million dying. Bengal consequently was a hotbed of the Indian Independence Movement and many of its natives, such as Subhash Chandra Bose, came to define a certain kind of revolutionary politics that is now synonymous with West Bengal. The Indian Rebellion of 1857 started in near Kolkata, and the region was consumed in violence.
Indian Independence led to tragedy in Bengal. The state was partitioned along religious lines, leading to the death of millions of Indians and Hindus and Muslims fled into West Bengal and East Pakistan (Bangladesh) respectively. Violence would characterize West Bengal for years, as communist rebels damaged much of the state’s transportation system and energy grid. A horrible smallpox epidemic ravaged the area in the 1970’s, and Bangladesh’s war for independence from West Pakistan led to more death too, as well as the fleeing of millions of refugees from the state. However, the Green Revolution in the seventies and eighties led to the end of famine in the state, and since then West Bengal has seen some progress economically and politically.
West Bengal is defined by the Ganges delta, the most prominent feature in the state. The far west and north feature mountains, especially around Darjeeling near the Himalayas. West Bengal suffers from chronic pollution and poverty, but is seeing some progress in these areas.
Most Bengalis are Hindu, a result of the widespread population transfer with Bangladesh that made most Muslims flee, but a sizable minority of Muslims still resides in the state. In the north, other languages than Bengali are spoken, but the vast majority of the state speak the namesake tongue. Culturally, the Bengali language has an extremely rich past, with luminaries such as Rabindranath Tagore writing in it.
West Bengal is a study of contrasts, a land of extreme poverty and burgeoning opportunity, of ancient monuments and new IT parks. For the intrepid tourist or just someone looking for something new, it is one of the best places in India to visit. You won’t be disappointed!