By Sharell Cook
India's cultural cauldron of West Bengal combines the arts, the city, the countryside, mountains, and nature. Whether you're intellectually inclined and want to be amongst writers and wandering minstrels, or adventurous and want to be amongst elephants and rhinoceroses, these top West Bengal tourist places offer it all.
The West Bengal capital of Kolkata, officially known by its British name of Calcutta until 2001, has undergone a dramatic transformation over the last decade. No longer identified with slums, destitution, and the inspiring work of Mother Teresa, Kolkata has grown into the cultural capital of India. It's a vibrant yet intimate city, full of captivating soul. In addition, Kolkata is only city in India to have a tram car network, which adds to its old-world charm.
Darjeeling, famous for its lush tea gardens, is one of India's top 10 hill stations. It's blessed with a stunning view of Mount Kanchenjunga, the world's third highest peak. Some of Darjeeling's most popular attractions include monasteries, botanical gardens, a zoo, and the Darjeeling-Rangeet Valley Passenger Ropeway cable car (the longest cable car in Asia). Darjeeling is a wonderful place to walk around, and explore the tea estates, villages, and markets. Don't visit during the monsoon season though -- the region is one of the wettest places in India!
The Sunderbans, one of the top five national parks in India, is a magnificent tangle of mangrove jungle that’s the only one of its kind in the world. It's spread over 54 islands and extends into neighboring Bangladesh. The Sundarbans is only accessible by boat and exploring it this way is a thrilling experience that shouldn't be missed. Cruising down the Hooghly River from Kolkata is the most memorable way of getting there. Don’t be hopeful of seeing any tigers though. They're very shy and usually remain well hidden in the reserve.
The quaint university town of Shantiniketan (meaning Abode of Peace) is located just over 200 kilometers from Kolkata. Noble Laureate poet Rabindranath Tagore founded a school there in 1901, which later developed into the Visva Bharati University with an emphasis on humanity's relationship with nature. One of the main attractions in Shantiniketan is the Uttarayan complex where Tagore lived. It now has a museum and art gallery. Shantiniketan is also a well regarded center for traditional handicrafts such as batik, pottery, weaving, and embroidery. The best time to visit is during one of the many festivals such as the three day Poush Mela (usually in late December), with its live Bengali folk music, and Holi (celebrated as Basanta Utsav).
If you can't make it all the way as far as Kazaringa National Park in Assam to seen the rare one horned rhinoceros in the wild, don't despair. Jaldhapara Wildlife Sanctuary has around 40 of these creatures, and you can see them close up on an elephant safari. The sanctuary is located in the Himalayan foothills of West Bengal, close to Bhutan. If you stay at the Forest Department operated Hollong Forest Bungalow (book through West Bengal Tourism. Ph: (0353) 2511979) deep inside the national park, you'll be blessed with the sight of animals wandering to the nearby creek and salt lick -- rhinos included! The sanctuary is open from October through May. The best months for rhino watching are March and April, when the new grass comes up.