Shantiniketan is known world over for its contribution to education, arts, and literature, but Rabindranath Tagore’s town is much more than that. With quirky instagrammable spots, quiet bookstores, quaint cafés, colourful bazaars, sparkling rivulets and golden forests, there is a lot to do and see in the seemingly small town. Here’s how you can make the most of your trip to the University town.
Getting in and around
Shantiniketan is well connected by rail and road from Kolkata. The train journey is short and scenic, and is best taken in a non-ac coach – it enables you to enjoy the local food, music, and, sometimes, shopping too. It is best to reserve your seats a few weeks in advance. Best trains: Ganadevta Express –13017, Kavi Guru Express – 13016.
The road from Kolkata to Shantiniketan is well laid and it takes about three hours to get here should you decide to drive.
Within the town, e-rickshaws, also called Totos, take you everywhere. They can be found easily and are quite reasonable. Most offer to show you around and stay with you for the whole day (Rs.500-600). You could also hire a bike and peddle around the town and onward to Khoai Forest and Kopai River. Walking is a great way of exploring the town too. It helps you explore daily life of small town India that you’d otherwise pass by without noticing.
Things to do & see.
Begin your day at Uttarayan Complex where Udyan, Konark, Shyamali, Punasche, and Udichi – five houses built during different phases of Rabindranath Tagore’s life – stand proud. The sixth, built by his son, serves as a museum. Fascinated tourists peeping through the glass and discussing Tagore’s life with great passion are also a sight to behold.
Visva Bharti University campus, the most important place in town, opens for visitors after 1:00 PM. There are no guides but some students do offer to show you around for a small fee. They also have the best stories and trivia, and are experts in having intellectually stimulating conversations.
Chhatimtala, the birthplace of Shantiniketan, Upasanagriha, a prayer house made with Belgium glass and marble floor, Shantiniketan, the original home built by Debendranath Tagore, and Amrakunja, open air class rooms, are some interesting places to see inside the campus. The arts department, Kala Bhavan, is also a must visit: wandering through its dusty path you can witness works of some of India’s most renowned artists and watch students engrossed in creating their own masterpieces.
Where to shop.
Home to an amazing variety of handicrafts, Shantiniketan is a shoppers paradise. Leather bags, jewellery, pottery, terracotta, stoneware, books – the list of things you find here is extensive, the prices unbelievable.
Subarnarekha, a bookstore as beautiful as its name, is highly recommended for soulful browsing of old and new books. Aalcha, a boutique set in a beautiful house, is home to an array of handmade products: apparel, bags, home décor, stationary, and other knick-knack. Lipi’s Pottery Studio, close to the Kopai river, is hard to locate but worth getting lost for. Run by Lipi Biswas in her mud and thatch home, it is home to exquisite modern stoneware made entirely by the locals. Khoai Boner Annya Haat, the Saturday market by the river in Sonajhuri Forest, is a must visit too. Every Saturday craftsmen from adjoining villages collect and display their wares. It is a great place to shop directly from artisans at throwaway prices and is high on local experience.
Where to eat.
Banalakshmi, located a few kilometers off the main town, is quite popular for its authentic Bengali menu and makes for a good day trip. Kasahara, located inside the Sangeet Bhavan in Vishva Bharti campus, is a great choice for lunch. Set up by an expat who fell in love with Shantiniketan, the café serves everything from Bengali meals to Chinese, and every single item on the menu is lipsmackingly good. Tanzil Café, on the mail Bolpur road, is a delight to hang out in the evenings and has a beautiful boutique attached to it. Chhaya Ghar, and Alcha café, located near Alcha boutique, serve good food with a rustic vibe.
Best time to go.
Shantiniketan is popular all year round; the best time to go however is between September to March. This is also when the town hosts fairs and festivals and its narrow streets are filled with travelers, tourists and students. Craftsmen, musicians, singers and artists assemble from all over Bengal to showcase their skills and trains full of Tagore’s devotees make way into the town.
Poush mela is celebrated between the months of December and January, and the Basant Festival, happens in March on Holi.
Where to stay.
Shantiniketan has something for everyone—quaint home-stays, government run tourist houses, small budget hotels, and quiet guesthouses. Most are reasonably priced and are available for booking online.
Rater Tara Diner Robi has clean rooms, in-house dining, and a genteel manager. The large iron swing set amidst flowers and the birds on the terrace come free of cost. Ask for a room on the first floor and you can have your morning tea in the balcony overlooking the rising sun and blooming flowers. (http://santiniketantour.com/). Nayana’s Homestay is perhaps the most beautiful homestay in Shantiniketan. Replete with artifacts and bric-a-brac from all over the country, it should be your go to place if you love great conversations, good food, and a well stocked bar. (http://nayanashomestay.in/). Santisudha Guesthouse in Sonajhuri Palli has sprawling lawns and large balconies, parking and in-house dining. (http://www.thesantisudha.com/). Santiniketan Tourist Lodge run by WBTDC is newly built with independent cottages and is located right opposite the Vishva Bharti. It comes with parking, meals, and spacious sunlit rooms. (https://www.wbtdcl.com).
A version on this story was first published in CondeNast Traveller.