Calcutta is the capital of the Indian state of West Bengal which is the only state of India that spans from the Himalayas to the ocean, which means that you could be trekking in the highest mountains in the world or taking in the sun in one of the beaches of the Bay of Bengal in a matter of a few hours.
9 UNESCO World Heritage Sites (6 in India and 3 in Bangladesh) are located within the range of a short flight or an overnight train journey from Calcutta. These include the Sundarbans National Park in India, located downriver from Calcutta and easily reached as part of very popular river cruises that depart the city) and the Sundarbans of Bangladesh, that together comprise the largest estuarine delta in the world and one of the largest extant rainforest covers around the globe as well and are both homes to the celebrated Royal Bengal Tiger (Panthera tigris) and the Gangetic alligator (Gavialis gangeticus). If looking for tigers from a boat is not exciting enough for you, head to the Manas Wildlife Sanctuary in the neighboring state of Assam and take an elephant safari through a tiger reserve, or perhaps you would be interested in following the great Indian one-horned rhinoceros (Marco Polo had taken it to be the unicorn when he saw one) at the Kaziranga National Park also in Assam, both UNESCO world heritage sites. And if you are more interested in Indian archaeology, may we suggest a short train ride to Gaya in the neighboring state of Bihar to see the Mahabodhi Temple, a 6th century brick temple that is one of the oldest extant specimen of temple architecture in India, built near the site where the Nepalese price Gautama Siddhartha, after having renounced his home and having drifted in the search of true knowledge, sat under the bodhi tree and obtained enlightenment to become the Buddha. Or perhaps, you could take the overnight train or one of the many short flights to Bhubaneswar and on to Konark, to see the huge Sun Temple, hewn out of rocks in the 13th century, in the shape of a chariot with intricate and artistic carvings, especially its 16 wheels. If you are exhausted after a few hectic days in the city, what better than a refreshing cup of Darjeeling, especially if it is Darjeeling itself? Take an overnight train to New Jalpaiguri or a flight to Bagdogra and board the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, a narrow gauge mountain railway built in 1881, one of only two railway systems to make it to the UNESCO World Heritage list in the world. Take the 9-hour relaxed joyride through the tea gardens that make Darjeeling world-famous, not to mention the orange orchards, cardamom plantations and a myriad species of orchids that grow on the hillside, while a steam engine built in 1892 huffs and puffs its way over the many wide loops and backtracks, as it rises 2100 meters (7000 feet) on its 80-kilometer (50 miles) journey. One can also visit the historic mosque city of Bagerhat in the Khulna district of Bangladesh, built in the 15th century by the invading Turkish general Ulugh Khan and the ruins of the Buddhist viharas in Paharpur in the Rajshahi district of Bangladesh across the mighty Padma river from Murshidabad, which is a short train journey from Calcutta.
Nor are the UNESCO World Heritage sites the only places of tourist interests in West Bengal. For example, 152 kilometers (95 miles) from Calcutta and easily reached by train or bus is Bishnupur, home to the famous 17th century terracotta temples, known for their intricate carvings and ornamentation that are probably unparalleled. Bishnupur is also home to terracotta artisans as well as the weavers of the Baluchari silk saris. 213 kilometers (132 miles) from Calcutta is the serene university town of Shantiniketan reached by train from Calcutta in about 4 hours, where Rabindranath Tagore founded his famous university in 1921, and where he spent a good portion of his life. Right next door to Shantiniketan is the birthplace of Jayadeva, the first known Bengali poet who composed the famous Gita Govinda in the 9th century. 340 kilometers from Calcutta, and easily reached by train or bus is the town of Maldah, famous for its rich harvest of mangoes, which is also the point to visit two of the oldest cities in Calcutta. These are the ruins of Gaur, about 16 kilometers (10 miles) from Maldah, built in the 8th century by the Buddhista Pala kings, and served as their capital until it changed hands in the 12th century, when the Palas were ousted by the Sena dynasty, the last Hindu dynasty to rule Bengal. Gaur fell to the Moslem rulers of Delhi in the 14th century and was eventually sacked by another Moslem ruler of Delhi in the 16th century. Practically none of the architecture from the Buddhist or Hindu periods remain since most of the buildings were made of bricks and the Moslem conquerors reused the same to build many beautiful mosques, which stand to this day. In the 14th century, the Moslem sultans of Bengal moved their capital a few miles north of Malda (18 kilometers/11 miles to be precise) to the settlement of Pandua, now a creeper-covered archaeological site with the ruins of many a mosque and mausoleum.
If you want to see both the Indian rhinoceros and the tiger in one shot (on film only that is) and Kaziranga and/or Manas seem too far away, you can consider the Jaldapara Wildlife Sanctuary that has both, and is located about 200 kilometers from Siliguri, the railhead on the plains of the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway. Also, as part of your ride along the enchanted mountain railway, consider a stop halfway at secluded and quiet Kurseong, a little tea garden town known for its natural beauty, and for the 18-kilometer (11-mile) hike to Mirik through tea estates, cardamom plantations and orange orchards and quaint little villages, with spectacular views of the valley. And while in Darjeeling, stay at the Windamere Hotel, a heritage hotel that got time warped in the days of the Raj, where open fires heat the lounge as a string quartet plays and maids in starched aprons serve finger sandwiches and Darjeeling tea and the balcony opens out to a spectacular view of Mount Kanchenjunga, the highest peak in India and the 3rd highest in the world at 8598 meters (28,209 feet).
Darjeeling is sandwiched both geographically and culturally between Nepal, Bhutan, Bengal and Tibet, although it originally was culturally dominated by Sikkim. The British acquired the place from Nepal as bounty after the war of 1817 and soon started rushing to the place in droves to escape the oppressive Calcutta summers. They also discovered tea soon, although legend goes that long before that a Tibetan monk had once set out in the quest for the finest tea in the world and upon tasting the tea in Darjeeling he proclaimed that he needed to go only thus far and no further, which in Tibetan translates to Runglee Rungliot. Today this Tibetan phrase has been copyrighted by the Duncan Tea Company Limited of Calcutta, who apparently own a tea estate at the very same spot that the Tibetan monk had mentioned, and their finest Darjeeling tea brand is called by the same name.
North of Darjeeling is the state of Sikkim, which was a Himalayan kingdom like Nepal and Bhutan until 1975 when they held a plebiscite and chose to join India, something that has still not sat well with Chinese further north in Tibet, until recently. Sikkim is a hiker's paradise with magnificent views of the Himalayas and is also littered with Buddhist monasteries and is haven for a tibetologist who is unable to go to Tibet. If you think Sikkim has been contaminated by union with India and is no longer Shangri La, consider taking a bus from Darjeeling to Phuntsholing in Bhutan and then on to the rest of this amazing kingdom that holds on to its age-old Himalayan and Tibetan traditions while maintaining a UN membership. The only catch with the trip to Bhutan is that they do not allow blue jeans into the country. You could conveniently fly back from Bhutan's only airport at Paro to Calcutta aboard a Druk Air flight, the only airline allowed to operate to and from Bhutan, or perhaps fly the same airline to Katmandu, Nepal, which gives you a breathtaking view of some of the highest peaks of the Himalayas (and therefore, of the world) including Everest and Kanchenjunga, and then back to Calcutta.
Southwest of Calcutta is the state of Orissa, with a very large variety of historic as well as natural sites. Most of them are located a short distance from the capital city of Bhubaneswar, which is located about 480 kilometers (300 miles) from Calcutta, and very conveniently connected by train, bus and air. Bhubaneswar is famous for its superb Hindu temples, 400 of which remain from the 7000 that once stood in this city. Most of these temples were built in the 10th and 11th centuries. The Sun Temple at Konark mentioned above is also located 64 kilometers (40 miles) from Bhubaneswar. 8 kilometers (5 miles) away is Dhauli from where the Emperor Ashoka had witnessed the bloody battle of Kalinga in 260 BCE, which caused him to convert to Buddhism and work for its spread across the world, to Sri Lanka and East Asia, otherwise, the fate of Buddhism could well have been the same of Christianity without the saints Peter and Paul. 60 kilometers (37 miles) from Bhubaneswar is Puri, home to a 12th century temple that is one of the four holiest shrines for Hindus, as also to one of the most magnificent beaches in the world. Puri was a powerful kingdom from 4th century BCE to the 14th century and derived its wealth from maritime trade with the Indonesian islands of Java, Sumatra and Bali, and this is from where Hindu philosophy traveled to Bali and Cambodia.
To the northwest of Calcutta is the state of Bihar, which is home to Bodh Gaya, described above. About 60 kilometers (40 miles) from Gaya are the ruins of the Buddhist university of Nalanda, the first university in the world, established in the 3rd century BCE, which had over 5000 international students and scholars at any given time and a library of nine million manuscripts. In the early 7th century, the Chinese scholar Hieun Tsang, the Chinese scholar-monk came to Nalanda and spent 12 years here both as a student and teacher. He returned to China with a load of manuscripts and settled in Xian where he translated the Buddhist scriptures into Chinese. The university flourished until 1199 when it was looted and destroyed by the Turkish invader Bakhtiar Khilji. Today, the only manuscripts that survived the destruction are the ones in China that Hieun Tsang took back with him.
Buddhist pilgrims visit their four holiest shrines - Lumbini (the birthplace of the Buddha), Bodh Gaya (where the Buddha attained enlightenment), Sarnath (where he preached his first sermon) and Kushinagar (where he breathed his last). All four places are conveniently connected to Calcutta. Lumbini (which is in Nepal) and Kushinagar are located near Gorakhpur which is only a short flight from Calcutta. Bodh Gaya is linked by air to Calcutta, but it is so close to Calcutta and has so many fast and convenient trains that taking the flight is almost moot. Sarnath, located in Varanasi, is conveniently connected by several overnight trains to Calcutta.
The so-called Indian Northeast consists of the seven states of Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland and Tripura. Other than Assam and Tripura, the rest of the states border Tibet and Burma and have strong cultural influences from across the border. Unlike the rest of India where people are largely caucasian, people in these states are of mongoloid stock and have very diverse and colorful cultures. Also, the northeast is unique in India that while rail and road access is limited due to the dense vegetation and the mountainous terrain, the area has very good air links with Calcutta, largely due to the large number of airfields built during the Hump operation in World War II. Assam is dominated by the majestic Brahmaputra river, which is so broad that one cannot see the other bank of the river. Assam has some very fine Buddhist and Hindu temple architecture, tea gardens (which produce the bulk of Indian tea) and some of the richest wildlife sanctuaries in India including Kaziranga and Manas which have been mentioned above. Arunachal Pradesh is home to the Tawang Monastery, the largest Buddhist monastery in India and one of the largest in the world, as well as the superb Namdapha National Park, the only place in the world where all four big cats of the Himalayas - tiger, leopard, clouded leopard and the rare snow leopard are found. Meghalaya's capital, Shillong, with its mist-shrouded hills, pine forests, lakes and waterfalls, mock-Tudor bungalows, churches, polo ground and a beautiful 18-hole golf course goes by the well justified sobriquet of "Scotland of the East", and is famous for its orange groves. The town of Cherrapunji in Meghalaya is regarded as the wettest place in the world and is surrounded by orange and banana groves and is famous for its orange blossom honey. The state of Tripura was ruled by a maharajah until India's independence in 1947 and is culturally part of eastern Bengal. Its capital, Agartala has some beautiful palaces and temples and is easily reached by air from Calcutta. Aizawl, the capital of Mizoram, is perched along a ridge, with its houses and churches standing out against the verdant hillside makinga very pretty picture, and is conveniently reached from Calcutta by air. One of the most enchanting places in the northeast is the Loktak Lake, located about 48 kilometers (30 miles) from Imphal, the capital of Manipur. Almost two-thirds of this lake is covered by unique floating islands of reed and humus that are home to a group of fishermen. The southern tip of this lake is the Keibul Lamjao National Park where these islands form the natural habitat of the endangered Manipur brow-antlered deer. Imphal is reached by very convenient flights from Calcutta. Kohima, the capital of Nagaland, was the scene of a decisive battle between the Allied and Japanese forces in 1944, that stopped the advance of the Japanese into India. The nearest airport to Kohima is located 74 kilometers (46 miles) away at Dimapur, which has very good connections with Calcutta.
A 2-hour flight away from Calcutta are the Andaman & Nicobar Islands, which are in a way to India what Hawaii is to the United States. Located in the southeastern corner of the Bay of Bengal, these emerald colored tropical paradises are closer to Burma, Indonesia, Malaysia or Thailand than they are to the Indian mainland. However, the Andaman & Nicobar Islands has tremendous biodiversity and is home to some of the oldest indigenous cultures in the world (including the smallest tribe in the world), which is why tourist activities have been severely restricted in this area. Only a small portion of the islands have limited access to tourists, and Calcutta is one of two airports on the mainland that have a flight connection with the islands. Also there is a passenger liner service between Calcutta and Port Blair, the administrative headquarters of the islands. Port Blair is open to tourists and is a haven for water sports, snorkeling and eco-friendly scuba diving. The Andamans have two national parks and is also the only part of the India that was temporarily lost during World War II, having been under Japanese occupation from 1941 to 1944.
Calcutta serves as an excellent base to explore the rest of India, near or far. After exploring Calcutta, it is easy to hop on a flight or a train to visit whatever you thought your dream visit to India would include. Take a flight north to Delhi to see the son et lumiere show at the Red Fort in Delhi and watch the 17th century Mogul court come alive, then take a fast train or bus to Agra and watch the Taj Mahal in the moonlight (we hope that if you have not brought the love of your life to this legendary monument of love, you will return in the future to do the same). After having had your fill of the magnificent Mogul monuments in Agra, perhaps you would like to live in one of the real maharajah's palaces in the many towns of neighboring Rajasthan for a day or two, all reachable by comfortable trains from Agra (or if you want to give Agra and Delhi a miss, although we would not recommend it, you could fly from Calcutta to Jaipur, the capital of Rajasthan). You could fly west to Bombay (now renamed Mumbai) and see the other great colonial city of India, then continue to Goa, with its celebrated beaches and unique Portuguese culture (Goa was a Portuguese colony nearly a hundred years before the British arrived in India until 14 years after they left). Or you could fly to Chennai (formerly Madras) where St. Thomas the Apostle lies buried, then see the ancient temple architecture of southern India in Kanjeevaram, visit the quaint town of Mysore, with its famous palaces and temples or visit Cochin, the crossroads of cultures from around the world, as depicted by the scattering of Chinese fishing nets, Dutch and Portuguese palaces, Jewish spice traders, Indian maharajahs and a boat ride through the backwaters, islands and lagoons.
© Focus Calcutta Initiative, Inc. Contents may be used for non-commercial purposes without malicious intent. Last modified December 10, 2003