Kolkata to Santiniketan: Land of red earth

A Bengal town that has many earthy stories to tell


The entrance to Tagore’s ashram in Santiniketan. Photo: Amrita Das
The entrance to Tagore’s ashram in Santiniketan. Photo: Amrita Das

If I had to pick one colour that defines Santiniketan, it would be the deep red of the soil that it stands on. The one that is saturated by sunlight, softened by the moisture in the air and textured by the coarse rubble of village trails. This is the red that paves each path in this central Bengal town.

Bolpur, about 164km from Kolkata, is the main junction for Santiniketan. Having been fascinated by Visva-Bharati, the “global university” founded by polymath Rabindranath Tagore, since my teenage years, I had always wondered if this university, which sees tourists throughout the year, was as soulful as its reputation.

When I reached the railway station, the jumble of travellers, vehicles and cycle rickshaws left me underwhelmed and disoriented.

It was a trusted set of spokes that resuscitated my curiosity about the place. I deposited my things at the guest house and hopped on to a cycle, hired for Rs.100. Choosing what is the preferred mode of transportation by students, I decided to orient myself with the university area on the first day and reserve the second for other attractions close by.

Single-storeyed buildings, narrow tarmacked streets criss-crossing between them, students on two-wheels, and old yet flourishing trees coalesced to make the scene atmospheric. 

The main attraction in the university premises was the Uttarayan Complex, which is home to the Rabindra-Bhavana museum, galleries, prayer halls and houses of Rabindranath Tagore, separated by large gardens and sculptures dotting them. The museum displays the events of Tagore’s life chronologically, in the form of old photographs, original letters, manuscripts of his writings, and the artefacts he owned.

I walked around the complex and visited Udayan—the house built by his son, Rathindranath; Konark—the red veranda where Tagore held poetry reading sessions; Punascha—the beautiful house Tagore moved to in 1936; and Udichi—the last house where he lived till his death in 1941. The floors of the verandas and most of the rooms are painted in red, a degree brighter than the earth outside.

Later, I pedalled for about 6km to the Khoai Mela in Sonajhuri. Also called the Sonibarer Haat or Saturday market, this is a flea market where craftsmen from neighbouring villages sell their wares. As I walked around, I left my heart and currency with many things. There were saris, patchwork bedcovers, Kalamkari apparel, bags, Baul musical instruments, Dokra jewellery and artwork on slate and wood. 

The next morning, I biked for 6km to the Boner Pukur Danga village. Here, the tribal mud houses have wall sculptures of human figures. Other villages in India generally use white, or, in some cases, bright colours to embellish the walls. This village has full sculptures.

I also wanted to visit the pottery studio of Lipi Biswas and Bidyut Roy, visual artists who base their work on themes from village life. They work on a two-way collaboration with the local potters, learning from them and teaching them new methods to glaze or fire their pots. Biswas and her team make and sell a variety of earthen glazed creations—from kitchen crockery to home decor products. I sat on the floor of the earthen store, admiring the creations, before taking a quick look at the attached space that is their workspace. I made a mental note that I should keep a few more days the next time, and sign up for the pottery courses here.

On the way back to the guest house, I parked my bicycle near a tea stall. A few minutes ahead of sunset, the sky was a warm tinge of red. I noticed how the colour dominated the scene—the sun, the tea cup and the earth beneath my feet. A colour that I will always associate with Santiniketan.

Weekend Vacations offers suggestions on getaways that allow for short breaks from metros. The writer tweets at @Amrita_Dass.

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