West Bengal is an Indian state on the border with Bangladesh stretching from the Himalayas and the lush jungles at its footsteps in the north, through the red-soil plains in the centre to the green, fertile lowlands and the delta of Ganges.
Despite its diversity, only a trickle of tourists reaches this region. Whether you’d like to explore the former capital of the British Raj- 15mln metropolis of Kolkata, visit Darjeeling- the British hill station known for the best quality black tea in the world, search for tigers in the mangroves of Sunderbans or rhinos in jungles of Dooars – West Bengal won’t leave you disappointed. And if you have a sweet tooth- Bengali sweets are the best in the whole of India.
What to see in West Bengal?
Unlike many other parts of India, West Bengal doesn’t have any ancient monuments. Among the oldest are intricately decoreated 17th -century terracotta temples in Bishnupur. Bishnupur is also famous for clay figurines, particularly in the shape of a horse.
Murshidabad in central Bengal was a home of the last ruler of independent Bengal, the Nawab of Bengal, Orissa, and Bihar who developed a taste for blending the local and European influences. The 18th- century palaces and mosques of his capital are worth a visit if you have more time to explore the state.
Kolkata– the first capital of the British Raj- is full of magnificent colonial buildings, sadly, most of them in various stages of dilapidation. The local Babus – rich merchants -built their splendid residences there and people from all over the continent flocked to that thriving city. Hence, you can still find here churches, synagogues, and Chinese temples and visit some of those palaces or simply get lost in the labyrinth of narrow streets among crumbling buildings
The masterpiece of the Victorian engineering – narrow-gauge Darjeeling Himalayan Railway spanning 88km from New Jalpaiguri to Darjeeling was declared a UNESCO Heritage Site. It works till this day and the shorter version of the ride (till Ghum) is a must-do in Darjeeling.
West Bengal’s only UNESCO natural heritage site is Sunderbans National Park – the vast mangrove shared with Bangladesh, covering the entire delta of Ganges. It’s a home of famous men-eating Bengal tiger but you’d have to be extremely lucky to spot it. The sight of saltwater crocodile is almost guaranteed, though, along with many species of kingfisher. The only way to explore those wetlands is by boat.
The second major draw for wildlife enthusiasts is the extensive jungles of the Dooars region in the foothills of Himalayas. Jaldapara National Park and Gorumara National Park are home to Indian rhinos, as well as elephants. Often the rhinos graze like cows on clearings but like with any wildlife, it’s a matter of luck.
Further up, in the Himalayas the Singalila National Park lures with wild rhododendrons (in bloom in March/April) and the panoramic views of the Himalayas. If you love hiking and trekking, you shouldn’t miss trek to Sandakphu (3636m a.s.l.) from where four 8 000m peaks can be seen, including Mount Everest and Kanchenjunga. If strenuous hikes aren’t your thing, walks among the tea gardens of Darjeeling are great, too.
People and culture
Kolkata might be lacking in world-class monuments but more than makes up for it with the vibe. It’s India’s capital of culture where the knowledge of poems or classical music is a point of honour. The favourite pastime of the male section of the society is adda – meeting outdoors in groups of peers for endless discussions about politics over milky chai and cigarettes. Bengalis are curious but polite and as international tourism isnt’ really a thing here, you’re unlikely to experience aggressive touting.
West Bengal is home to many indigenous communities (adivasi). A trip to Purulia- a hilly region in central Bengal on the border with Jharkand would move you back in time. People still build their huts in a traditional way, cultivate the crafts and follow their traditions, including a spectacular, acrobatic Chhau dance, featuring on the UNESCO list of the Intangible Cultural Heritage.
The Darjeeling and Kalimpong area are inhabited by the Gorkhas – ethnic Nepali people who are mostly Hindu and various ethnic groups of Tibetan origin following Mahayana Buddhism. There are also quite a lot of Christians in the region.
West Bengal has one more special community- bauls: wandering holy men-artists who rejected the modern society. Bauls play simple instruments and sing poetry blending the Hindu and Muslim elements into one esoteric, tantric whole. You can hear them during festivals (melas) such as Poush Mela held in December in Shantiniketan near Kolkata.
Like in other parts of India, women should cover their legs at least till behind the knee and cover the cleavage. You should avoid touching other people’s feet (with your own feet). You have to take the shoes off when you enter a Hindu temple. Eat always only with the right hand. The left hand is considered unclean as it’s reserved for using the toilet. Kissing, holding hands, and showing affection in public is very much frown upon.
Bengali food is mostly fish and seafood based but vegetarians and vegans won’t be disappointed, either. The iconic vegan Bengali dishes feature posto (white poppyseed) and mustard seed, excellent in combination with aubergine or potatoes. You have to try also mocha (flower of banana) and unripe jackfruit, resembling meat in texture. Sadly, those dishes aren’t widely available- you’d need to search for a restaurant serving only Bengali dishes.
The street food isn’t to be missed. Go for rolls (thick pancakes with egg, meat or cheese filling, very rarely also in vegan version) or chop (both potato and beetroot versions of those deep-fried patties are vegan).
But what Bengal is most famous for are the sweets, virtually all of them milk-based. Rasogolla (cheese balls in syrup), mishti doi (sweet yoghurt), sandesh (variously shaped solid milk sweets) are some of the most famous.
When to visit?
The most exciting time to visit West Bengal is autumn. You’d be blown away with a sheer scale and pomp of the 10-days long celebrations of the Hindu festival of Durga Puja held in September/October. The festival involves setting up thousands of temporary structures housing the figures of the goddess and immersing them in the Ganges at the end of the celebrations. Similar, but slightly less extravagant are the celebrations of Kali Puja 3 weeks after blending seemlessly with the all-India festival of Diwali.
The climate varies depending on the part of the state: it’s humid in the south lowlands, dry in the central plains and cool in the mountains. The best period to visit is from October to February when the temperatures are lower and there’s no rain. December is relatively cool, with daytime temperatures in Kolkata of around 23 degrees and night-time 15. Central Bengal could get downright cold in the winter and in the Darjeeling/ Kalimpong area you could even expect snow.
From March onwards the heat in the plains becomes a problem while mountains might be foggy, chilly, and wet. By May, weather becomes unbearable in the lowlands, reaching 35 degrees as well as high humidity. It’s a great time to go to the Himalayas, though, with blue skies, good visibility and pleasantly warm weather. The period of monsoon is to be avoided: the temperatures lower but the rainfall is huge and the waterlogging is common.
Travelling to and around West Bengal
Kolkata is the main airport of West Bengal. All of the flights from Europe arrive via Delhi or Mumbai. Direct international connections include Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok, Yangoon, Dhaka, Colombo, and a few Middle East destinations. Cheap local airlines connect to pretty much all Indian destinations.
Bagdogra airport near Siliguri is much smaller but convenient if you’re heading straight to Darjeeling or further up to the Himalayan state of Sikkim. Apart from domestic connections, they offer flights to Bangkok and Paro in Bhutan.
Kolkata has two huge railway stations: Howrah and Sealdah. You won’t have trouble finding the connection with virtually any part of the subcontinent. It’s one-night journey to Gaya (for Bodhgaya) and Varanasi to the west, north to New Jalpaiguri (if you’re heading to Sikkim or Darjeeling) and south to Bhubaneswar and Puri in Orisha.
The regular buses of West Bengal State Corporation are in poor shape. The journey from Kolkata to Murshidabad counts among one of the most traumatic I’ve experienced in India. The A/C Volvo buses do exist but for most of the destinations within West Bengal, such as Shantiniketan, Bhishnupur, Murshidabad, and Siliguri/ NJP (for Darjeeling), the trains would be more convenient.