Ideal destination

Print edition : March 26, 2010

The toy train, Himalayan Princess, chugs along in the Darjeeling hills;-SUSHANTA PATRONOBISH

THE West Bengal government has been taking several innovative steps to promote tourism. The State has all that is required to make it the most complete tourist destination in India. The snow-capped Eastern Himalayas in the north, the Bay of Bengal and the Sunderbans delta in the south, the verdant plains, the majestic Ganges, the loping hills of Purulia, the red soil in its western districts, forests and wildlife no other State has such a varied topography as West Bengal. Apart from this geographical diversity, the State has a rich and ancient cultural tradition and a rich historical heritage.

Our USP [unique selling proposition] is scenic beauty, but at the same time there is a huge potential to attract tourists interested in history, and for that reason we want to place historical sites such as Bishnupur, Malda, Murshidabad, Bankura and Kolkata at the forefront of the tourist map of the State, Rupen Chowdhury, Director of Tourism, told Frontline. The Left Front government is also trying to develop river tourism in a big way. At the same time, the State government takes care to protect the environment. The most attractive tourist destinations such as the Doars forests and the Sunderbans are also extremely eco-fragile zones. Our biggest challenge is maintaining the environment in those regions and at the same time promoting tourism there, he said.

The most popular destination in West Bengal, particularly among foreign tourists, is Darjeeling. Located at an altitude of 2,134 metres, under the gaze of the majestic Kanchenjunga, Darjeeling has traditionally been referred to as the Queen of the Hills. There are several places a tourist can visit in and around the region Tiger Hill, famous for its view of sunrise, and Senchal Lake, located just 10 km south-east of Darjeeling town at an altitude of 2,490 m. Another chief attraction of Darjeeling is the journey up the mountain from New Jalpaiguri on the Toy Train run by the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway (DHR). In 1999, UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) declared the DHR a World Cultural Heritage Site. Darjeeling tea is one of the most famous products of this region.

A tigress crosses the Sundarikati river at the Sunderbans.-DIPTENDU DUTTA/AFP

Just below the Darjeeling hills, the Doars stretch out an undulating green expanse of forests and tea gardens, washed by lively rivers and streams. The Doars valley is particularly famous for its wildlife sanctuaries, which include the Gorumara National Park, the Chapramari Wildlife Sanctuary, the Jaldapara Wildlife Sanctuary and the Buxa Tiger Reserve.

The wildlife sanctuaries are the habitats of many rare species of animals, including the one-horned rhinoceros, the bison and the hog deer. The Buxa Tiger Reserve, set up in 1983 to protect the Royal Bengal tiger, is considered the crown gem of the Doars. It is spread over 759 sq km, with the serene Himalayan range around it and the Jainti flowing through the forest.

But the most famous habitat of the Royal Bengal tiger is in the Sunderbans in south Bengal. Located a little over 100 km from Kolkata, it is one of the largest tidal deltas in the world, stretching over 9,630 sq km (of which 4,265 sq km fall within West Bengal and the rest in Bangladesh). Thousands of islands of various shapes and sizes form this delta, which also contains the largest mangrove forest in the world. The region has been declared a World Heritage Site by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

For tourists interested in history and culture, West Bengal is an ideal destination. From Malda and Coochbehar in the north down to the city of Kolkata in the south, West Bengal presents a fascinating range of ancient and diverse traditions.

Located in the plains of north Bengal, Coochbehar was part of the Kamrup empire between the 4th and 13th centuries A.D. The main attraction in Coochbehar is the palace of the Koch King Maharaja Nripendra Narayan . The palace, built in 1887 on a 1.5-metre platform and covering an area of 4,768 sq m, was modelled on the St. Peters Basilica in Rome. Coochbehar is also known for its large waterbodies and for its temples.

The Coochbehar Palace, built in 1887.-PTI

Another famous historical site in north Bengal is Malda. Although most famous today for its mangoes and green orchards, Malda has a history that dates back to the 7th century A.D., when Gopala of the Pala dynasty made Gaur (in Malda) the capital of his kingdom. Subsequently, in 1198 Muslims made it their seat of power. Historical relics and Islamic monuments from 14th and 15th century Bengal, including the Chhota Sona Mosque, the Bara Sona Mosque, the Qadam Rasul Mosque, Adina Mosque, Firoz Minar and Lukochuri Darwaza, make Malda a fascinating place.

Further down south is Murshidabad, the last capital city of independent Bengal. It was for a while the capital of Bengal until the British shifted the capital to Calcutta in 1773. It was in this region, in 1757, that Nawab Siraj-ud-Daula was defeated by Robert Clive of the East India Company in the Battle of Plassey, which paved the way for British rule in India. The chief attraction in Murshidabad is the Hazarduari Palace built in 1837. It has been converted into a museum.

In the western region of the State lie Bankura and Purulia. Bishnupur in Bankura district has a rich past, which is evident in its architecture, handicraft and music. The place is famous for its musical heritage and magnificent terracotta temples. To the south-west of Bishnupur, at the confluence of the Kangsabati and the Kumari, stands Mukutmanipur, famous for its stunning natural beauty. It is a big tourist attraction.

The undulating forests of Purulia is one of the 16 Mahajanapadas mentioned in the Jain Bhagavati Sutra. The famous tourist attraction here is the Ayodhya Hill, frequented not only by rock climbers but also those interested in mythology, for it is believed that Rama and Sita stayed here during Ramas 14-year exile.

For those interested in cultural tourism, Shantiniketan in Birbhum district is a must in their itinerary. In 1901, Rabindranath Tagore founded an open-air school here called Patha Bhavan. This has grown into the Visva Bharati University, the first of its kind to treat the fine arts of music, dance and painting as subjects of serious study. Shantiniketan also hosts a number of popular annual festivals such as Poush Mela and Basant Utsav.

Festivals in West Bengal are unique in their colour and gaiety, the most spectacular being Durga Puja. For four days every year, the entire State, Kolkata in particular, bursts forth in a riot of colours; lavish pandals redecorate the face of the city; and Kolkata forgets to sleep.

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