Shantiniketan in West Bengal is considered a seat of learning, boasting as it does the Visva Bharati University. The institution was largely the brainchild of Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore. It attracts students from far and wide, renowned as it is for its programmes on art, culture and languages.
Over the ages, Shantiniketan has preserved its quiet ambience, adequately doing justice to its name. As you enter the town limits, you are immediately taken by the prevailing quiet, which in no small measure, is augmented by its green foliage. In recent times, this quiet town has become a favoured getaway for city weary Kolkata residents, considering it is just about a four-hour drive from the bustling urban sprawl.
A weekend dash
In September 2018, my classmates from Kolkata suggested we do a quick weekend dash to Shantiniketan and try and immerse in some age-old history. Now any invitation from this Kolkata bunch is accorded greater priority than perhaps even close family. No sooner did I get off the call than I was already looking to make a train reservation from Siliguri to Sealdah. A train journey, I reckoned, was the best bet since it would enable me to reach Kolkata in the wee hours of the morning. This way, we could make an early start and reach our destination with ample time left to enjoy the place.
One friend had also made preparations for us to eat lunch at this iconic place called Bono Lokkhi, located just shy of Shantiniketan’s town limits. It served exquisite Bengali fare and what made it even more special was the fact that the place was run as a cooperative, entirely by women. The automobile enthusiast in me also was drawn to the dilapidated old vehicle that sat under a shed. Some suggested it belonged to Tagore himself but this was an unverified claim. The cynic in me thought this may not be the case because it was a humble Vauxhall Velox. The Vauxhalls were plebian in comparison to the Humbers and other premium marques that a man of Tagore’s ability and means, would have been ferried in.
The perfect getaway from Kolkata
Many Kolkata residents have built holiday homes in Shantiniketan. Some have even chosen to rent them out as homestays when they are not using the premises. A friend of ours, therefore, chanced up one called the Rare Earth Homestay — one that entailed traversing a pretty beaten dirt road. In fact, its location at seemed to stress one of our group members because in all fairness, the crater sized potholes along the way almost threatened to scrape his vehicle’s underbelly.
Fortunately though, we made it to Rare Earth without incident and the locale more than made up for the challenges we faced in reaching it. Once there, we learnt there was an alternate route — one that was in far better condition. But we’d reposed our faith in Google Maps than ask locals for assistance. Might we say, we weren’t all too disappointed with the mild dose of adventure offered, thanks to some California based tech company.
The homestay was essentially an old building that was built using mostly locally available wood, mud, dung and other sustainable materials. It was perfectly in sync with the current, albeit positive, trend of ensuring usage of sustainable building materials. What I also noticed was that it offered a perfect fusion of the old with the modern. It had attached washrooms with hot water provision and was outfitted with air conditioners in the bedrooms.
The entire place had a rustic feel to it and I sure was marvelling at the architecture. I am not fully sure as to the place’s year of origin but whomsoever built it, did so with great taste. The outside was mostly mud walls, the roof was layered with clay tiles and there were quaint pieces of art and pottery displayed liberally on ledges, staircases and also the rooms. One unit had a little sitting area attached to it and outside, there was a pretty gazebo. This area served as our focal point for evening banter and dinner.
Within the premise was also a large pond and adding to this picture postcard sight was a little island at its centre. There was a rickety bamboo bridge leading up to this island, which probably measured no more than 20 feet in diameter. A lone bench was placed upon it and we were ever so accommodating in cramming all of us on this tiny piece of real estate.
The Rare Earth home stay also had a designated vegetable patch. We were told guests would often want to partake in a little farming and possibly try and figure if they had a green thumb. In our case though, we were more content in just sitting in one place and catching up with one another.
The best getaways are ones where you do nothing
Now a Shantiniketan visit usually entails a little touristy outing. Visitors go ahead and take a look at the university campus, stroll by the river side and regale in some Tagore nostalgia. We really were looking forward to immersing ourselves with some of these elements but the closest we came was simply taking a drive through the streets. Even the following morning, we were unable to make it in time to see the museum on the Visva Bharati campus. But this was more than compensated for by the lunch that awaited us.
In hindsight, Shantiniketan’s slow pace is what I loved most. I wasn’t disappointed with not being able to see or experience much beyond our homestay, for I was certain I would be visiting again. The food and the company were both par excellence. In effect, I came away well recharged in mind, body and soul, built splendid memories and I feel that much closer now to the brilliant Nobel Laurate.