Who knew that within a week there will be complete chaos in the country, who knew it would be the last trip for many months to come. My trip to Santiniketan was in March when COVID-19 had already spread across the world it was almost certain that it was in India too. I was there in Santiniketan to see the annual Dol Jatra which takes place a day before Holi. Something which I always wanted to capture with my camera.
It was a mixed trip as during that time there is a big cultural (Nabanna Utsav) fair that takes place any the company where I work puts up a stall there every year. So it would be both a photography trip as well as a trio to encourage my team members.
Surprisingly there are just two ways you can reach Santiniketan one is to take a train to Bolpur (Bolpur Shantiniketan BHP) and then from there take a short e-rickshaw ride to Santiniketan or to take your vehicle be it a car or a motorcycle from Kolkata on a long drive. There are no known direct bus services to Santiniketan from Kolkata. Many hotels and resorts in Santiniketan facilitate parking of vehicles thus this can be a quick and comfortable way to reach Santiniketan.
I initially wanted to take my motorcycle but then I saw that the weatherman had predicted heavy rains thus opted to take the train from Howrah to Bolpur. Being peak season I could not get the fastest train instead took a slower train which takes around five hours to reach Bolpur. In between the train got delayed further due to the predicted heavy rain. To make matters worse my train coach roof was leaking and the compartment floor was full of water.
By the time the train reached its final destination, Bolpur rains had stopped but it was water everywhere. Once you step outside the station there you will find several e-rickshaws which are locally referred to as Toto willing to take you to your hotel anywhere around Bolpur or Santiniketan. They charge somewhere between Rs. 80 to Rs. 150 depending on the time of the day for a fully reserves Toto.
Staying at Santiniketan
Several options are available ranging from cheap hotel rooms, guesthouses, and expensive resorts. This place has every budget level accommodations. Keep in mind that this place is a quick weekend destination from Kolkata thus weekends and extended holidays always have sell-out rooms thus plan and book in advance.
If you have booked your hotel or resort online from the aggregator site make sure to call the hotel once before arriving as many hotels have stopped accepting these bookings and I have seen many guests being refused entry. There are some payment related issues with the aggregator sites thus many hotels have refused accepting online bookings.
If you are traveling with family or friends then you have the option of renting full bungalows where you can cook also thus have a fun weekend.
From the station when you are booking your Toto to your hotel make sure the driver knows the hotel location and double-check with him if required.
What to eat at Santiniketan
Trust me you get almost everything out here considering the small town size. There are hundreds of restaurants and most hotels have attached kitchen ready to serve your meal directly to your room. Apart from restaurants if you are adventurous then do check out the street food especially around Nabanna Utsav.
Places to visit around Santiniketan
Visva Bharati University
The most obvious place which anyone visits during their trip to Bolpur is Santiniketan Campus which comes under Visva Bharati University and a place of historic and cultural significance due to the obvious connection with Rabindranath Tagore.
There are many historic buildings, museums to see around the campus. Make sure to have a full day reserved for this if you want to explore all the significant places around the campus. You can do this on foot if the weather is fine or else can hire a Toto to take you around all the important landmark places.
Unfortunately for me the day I was supposed to visit the Santiniketan campus that very day the government had declared all government-owned public spots to shut down due to COVID-19. I could not enter the museum and some university buildings but could take a look around the main campus section.
Some of the heritage structures within this complex are Amarakunja, Chaiti, Chhatimtala, Deer Park, Dwija Viram, Ghanta Tala, Gour Prangana, Kalo Bari, Kuthi Bari, Mandir, Pratichi, Santiniketan Griha, Singha Sadana, Tala Dhwaja, Tin Pahar, and Uttarayana/Rabindra Bhavana.
There are no entry tickets for the Santiniketan complex. Tickets only required for Rabindra Bhavana Museum which includes Santiniketan Griha. There are no official guides as such and you will find many people offering guide service for a fee, please negotiate and understand what all places will be covered before availing such services.
Adults – Rs. 50
Children & Student – Rs. 10
Foreigners – Rs. 300
Museum remains closed on Wednesday and Thursday along with other government holidays.
Apart from Visva Bharati University, there are other prime attractions around Santiniketan which you must visit to get the flavor of this place.
This is like an artificial village setup showcasing the culture of Bengal and its different village life especially that of the various scheduled tribes that reside around this region. This place is an open enclosure with water bodies, artificial huts, and home, museum, open-air gallery, and a place where you can buy local handicraft items directly from the local manufacturers.
Adults – Rs. 10
Children (up to 12 years) – Rs. 5
Still Camera – Rs. 10
Video Camera – Rs. 500
This place is a cooperative society for artisans and local handicraft makers. The main building features two-storied showrooms from where you can buy leather, wood, and clothes items at a fixed and very reasonable rate. Must buy items would be batik print products, shola art, traditional musical instruments like ektara, lac bangles, notepads, etc. There is an open stage right next to this showroom complex where you can hear some live traditional Baul songs.
There is no entry fee for this place. Photography is not allowed inside the showroom but allowed elsewhere. The Baul singers and performers expect a tip if you listen to their songs and click photographs.
This small river is located right next to Amar Kutir and you just need to follow the unpaved mud road towards the river bank. This is a popular picnic spot and don’t be surprised to see groups of tourists cooking in the open and enjoying a day off.
Don’t be disappointed by the size of the river and you will hardly find any water in the dry season however during the monsoon this small river swells up and often spreads well over its original path.
Take some time out and rest under a tree shade and enjoy the view while the streams of water slowly move on.
Amar Kutir Heshel Ghor
This is a restaurant situated within the leather workshop of Amar Kutir complex. This place is located around two hundred meters from the showroom complex. I would personally recommend the food out here and is best to have a full meal and add on non-vegetarian items. You will be served in traditional brass plates and the taste of the food is simply delicious.
This is a small and beautiful park located near Amar Kutir. There was once a boating facility but now the boats are non-functional. This is more of a couple’s park and is covered with trees and ponds. Only mobile photography is allowed inside the park for free.
Adults & Children – Rs. 20
Boating – Rs. 20
Still Camera – Rs. 300 per hour
10 AM to 5 PM
Buddha Statue and Stupa
There is a Buddha status are two stored high along with two small stupas which one can visit. This place is still under construction and is being expanded. This place has been built by Santiniketan Ambedkar Buddhist Welfare Mission.
This is a nature art museum with displays in the open as well as in uniquely styled buildings. The basic theme of this place is to use natural stones and tree bark and give it a shape to resemble an object or animal. For that matter, some are open to interpretation as per your imagination.
There are a rock sculpture courtyard and four galleries situated in two double storied buildings. You will also find metal sculptures in one of the galleries.
Adults & Children – Rs. 30
Still Camera – Rs. 30
This is possibly the most famous stop one has to take while touring Santiniketan. This place is also called Sonajhuri Sonibarer Haat which literary means Sonajhuri Saturday Open Market. If you are visiting during Holi then this place is open every day else during the off-season this place only operates as the name suggests on a Saturday.
This place is the place for all your shopping needs, you will get everything locally made and sold by local villagers. Don’t forget to bargain but keep in mind that these are local villagers who make these things at home and avoid squeezing out a lot.
You should not be surprised to see traditional Santhali dance being performed, if you are adventurous do shake your hips along with them.
This place is also referred to as Khoai Sonibarer Haat or Khoai Haat.
This restaurant is located right within Sonajhuri Haat with a fantastic view of the market from the top floor which has open sides. Check out their delicious thali meal and do not forget to try the Kosha Mangsho (mutton).
This place is located right next to Sonajhuri Haat and it’s a Sal forest. On a beautiful spring morning with blue skies and yellow-green leafy Sal trees, this place looks simply beautiful.
Made popular by the Bengali TV Serial Ishti Kutum which was shot around this forest and the nearby tribal village this place is slowly becoming a major tourist attraction. The local villagers have marked the spot where the protagonist Bahamoni had her wedding.
Boner Pukur Danga
This is a Santali Adivasi village located near Sonajhuri Forest. A trip to this village will give you a sneak peek at a typical Santali village life. The houses have beautifully decorated outer walls and every house is different from each other. These traditional art and wall painting style are done by the members of the house only.
Marang Buru Temple
This is a Santali temple located at Boner Pukur Danga village. The Santali people belong to the Adivasi community thus for them Marang Buru is the supreme deity the creator of everything. The temple remains empty and only during the festivity does this place becomes the center of village activity.
The location of this temple is a bit far from the main Santiniketan town and takes around 30 – 40 minutes to reach in a Toto. One reason you should not miss visiting this temple is due to the fantastic view of the Kopai River.
This is a small temple but of great significance since this is a Shakti Peeth. This means that according to mythology the bones from the corpse of Sati Devi fell here when Shiva was carrying here. The word Kankal in Bangla means skeleton and since her bones had fallen here thus the name Kankalitala.
Ballabhpur Wildlife Sanctuary and Deer Park
This is a small reserves forest and is home to hundreds of various types of deer. If you visit them early morning when they are fed then you will be stunned to see their sheer number. There are watchtowers around the sanctuary from where you can get a panoramic view of the park.
Adult – Rs. 50
Children (Below 12) – Rs. 5
Students – Rs. 5
This is the annual Folk Art and Craft Fair that takes place at Santiniketan. Every evening there is a musical performance at the grand stage. Along with local art, you can check the food stalls out there. Overall there is a fairground like atmosphere out here thus making the place very lively.
All these places can easily be covered in two full days but it also depends on the season you are visiting. Winter and early summer months are popular high tourist times at Santiniketan thus prices of Toto tours, hotels, and the cost of items that are being sold also increases. If you want to travel during Holi then plan at least two months else getting a decent hotel room becomes impossible also train tickets become waitlisted.
If you are photographing Baul singers please do tip them as that is the only way for them to earn a living. While traveling around Santiniketan Campus do remember that this is a prestigious world-famous institution where you have students from all over the world thus avoid becoming too intrusive in the daily activities of the students.
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