Wilderness Meets Urban: A Guide to Sites in West Bengal and Kolkata
Sites marked with an asterix (*) are designated UNESCO sites.
Darjeeling Himalayan Railway*
With plans set in motion from 1879, the Mountain Railways of India are today made up of the Darjeeling Himalayan, Nilgiri Mountain, Kalka-Shimla, Matheran Hill, and Kangra Railways. The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway connects the town of Darjeeling with the city of Siliguri, West Bengal. Serving as part of the largest independently run railway, the DHR has over its history withstood natural disasters, the Second World War and has become a beloved site for locals and visitors from afar. The rail is known as the ‘Toy Train’ due to its narrow tracks, just two feet wide.
Sundarbans National Park*
Stretching across the south banks of West Bengal and creeping across the borders to Bangladesh, the Subdarbans National Park is a biosphere sanctuary teeming with wildlife and houses one of the world’s largest tiger reserves. Boasting an incredibly productive natural ecosystem – ideal for supporting the diverse habitats needed for the survival of the tigers, which are at a constant threat from poachers – the park also holds the largest mangrove forest in the world. The delta of the park is incredibly important for supporting aquatic organisms and protecting the inlands from extreme weather conditions such as cyclones.
Temples at Bishnupur*
Located in the town of Bishnupur, the temples here are renowned worldwide for their interesting structure and bright orange bricks. The colours of the temples are attributed to their composition of terracotta and laterite, the latter being rich in iron oxide. Easily accessible from Kolkata, the temples generally date from around 1600 A.D. and Bishnupur’s history is said to trace back to 694 A.D. The completely unique terracotta architecture is a display of some of the most intricate architectural detailing of the time.
Neora Valley National Park*
Nestled at the foot of the Himalayan Mountains within the Darjeeling Hills, Neora Valley National Park is one of the most important wilderness zones in the Eastern District of India. This is due to its almost entirely untouched natural habitat, a rarity within today’s age of urban expansion. Although the area is one of the lesser known protected areas within India, it is incredibly important in particular due to being the habitat of the red panda, which is an endangered species. Biologically diverse, the park’s habitat ranges across many of the habitat types as recognised by UNESCO and so supports a variety of wildlife.
Situated 180 kilometres north of Kolkata, the town of Santiniketan is a place of historical importance, and today serves as a site of education with the founding of the Visva-Bharati University. The university is inspired by the ideas of historically celebrated polymath Rabindranath Tagore, whose ideals connected the importance of beauty and aesthetics to what he regarded as the true and noble aspects of life. Highly regarded in spiritual education, these ideals are held as important lessons even today. The area of Santiniketan is also visited by many in order to celebrate the arts, education and culture.
Victoria Memorial Hall
First opened in 1921 and devoted to Queen Victoria, Empress of India, the hall was initially used as a gallery: a place for the public to visit in order to view pictures and statues of historically important men. The building is notable for its exquisite architectural features, which include a central dome surrounded by figures representative of different societal attributes, and are illustrative of a combination of Islamic and European design. Today the hall houses a wonderful collection of art and authentic weaponry.
National Library of India
The largest library in the country, located on beautiful grounds stretching over 30 acres, the National Library of India was built in 1836. Its structure, posing white walls and straight lines, boast the modern European qualities that were fashionable at the time. After its opening it attracted scholars and cultural travellers from all over the globe, and today it still stands as having the largest collection of books in India – a staggering number over 2.2 million – containing varying publications from many different countries and with collections spanning several languages.
The old Marble Palace in Kolkata is particularly important when regarding its duration as the capital of the East India Company in 1772, as the architecture of the building is distinctly European. However its collection of Greek inspired statues date back over 250 years, and is a worthy place to visit for lovers of art and culture. A grand structure fronted by pillars and delicate detailing, the building shows its history by means of a museum gallery, and the old dusty walls and floors emanate the building’s chronicled past.
Kalighat Kali Temple
The busy and vibrant Kalighat Kali Temple is originally for devotees of the mother Kali, but is now also a popular tourist spot. The name Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) is believed to be derived from the word Kali-khata, meaning City of Kali, after Kali the Hindu goddess of death or ‘devourer of time’, and is the divine patron of Kolkata. Placed alongside a connecting canal to the river Hooghly, the temple holds several sacred spots and serves as the setting for worship, offerings, sacrifices, daily fire ceremonies and sometimes cremation ceremonies held on burning ghats.
Belur Math is home to followers of the Ramakrishna Movement, the prominent ideas of which promote unity and harmony between all cultures and religions, which were founded by Ramakrishna and promoted by his disciple Swami Vivekananda. These ideas of peace and global affinity have been spread worldwide since the origins of the movement in the 19th century and its translation into the Western World. Belur Math is the main temple of two within India, and its architecture is a homage to their promoted beliefs, as it features concepts and designs from across several religions and is regarded to be a site of the highest importance nationally and spiritually.
By Melissa Pearce