Despite being so centrally located, it’s elusive," said our friend, as he drove us towards the Hijli Detention Camp at the heart of the sprawling campus of the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Kharagpur. “And even those who do know about it, rarely come to visit."

My husband and I hadn’t expected to land in the middle of a history lesson on this weekend trip. The original plan of meeting friends had morphed into an exploratory trip into a poignant past.

Our friend, a professor on campus, pointed to a rectangular building with a watchtower in the middle. “This place was dense jungle at one point," he said. “A small patch was cleared and a handful of buildings were constructed to accommodate political prisoners during the early 20th century, at the peak of the independence movement. The forest added a convenient additional layer of security and isolation."

Decades after independence, a plaque was installed outside the building that had served as the camp’s administrative centre, in memory of two Indians who were shot and killed there; others died of natural causes. I saw the dates of birth and death etched on the marble plaque and couldn’t help calculating how young Santosh Kumar Mitra and Tarakeswar Sengupta had been when they were killed. The building, later named Shaheed Bhavan, opened to the public in 1997.

Outside Shaheed Bhavan, a row of outdoor prison cells marks the women’s section of the detention camp. Each cell has a tablet with short histories of local landlords, chieftains, and revolutionaries who resisted British rule and were incarcerated in Hijli. We strolled around the complex till the annual exhibition of a photography club in one of the corridors brought us back to the present.

In the early 1950s, the empty buildings of the detention camp started housing the offices and classrooms of the first IIT in the country. The imagination that went into transforming a place of confinement into a space for learning is impressive. The campus expanded over time. In 1990, the ground floor of the camp’s administrative building was given over to the Nehru Museum of Science and Technology.

Next morning, we visited the Kurumbera Fort, with its exposed red bricks and green courtyards. Built in the 15th century by an Odiya king, it went on to become a melting pot of architectural styles with additions from the Mughal period, taking on the various roles of a fort, a mosque and a congregation spot.

We stepped further into the past at the Moghalmari excavation museum, 20km from the fort. Artefacts from the sixth century revealed the presence of Buddhist monasteries in the region. We had previously associated Kharagpur only with its IIT—not with the wealth of heritage around.

Kolkata to Kharagpur

Distance: 139km

Top tip: World War II buffs can visit the historic Dudhkundi airfield, 20km west, which hosted the United States Army Air Force 444th Bombardment Group before it was deployed.

Weekend Vacations offers suggestions on getaways that allow for short breaks from metros.

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