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Monday, October 09, 2000

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Where the mind stays high


Shona Adhikari

We visited Tagore's Santiniketan one weekend during summer. It was certainly not the best time to go -- although monsoon clouds hovered overhead, there was not a drop of rain during our stay. But this weather was just perfect as it brought to mind all of Tagore's lyrical poems on the monsoon clouds.

Located in Bolpur, Santiniketan's origins date back to the time when the land belonged to the zamindars of Surul. Rabindranath Tagore's father, Debendranath had found peace here. A marble seat under a `chatim' tree marks the spot where Debendranath sat and decided on building a temple which would be open to all. The temple borrowed freely from various architectural styles -- circular in shape, it has windows with coloured panes and looks like an unusual cottage. Debendranath also bu ilt a guest house and planted an orchard before naming the place Santiniketan or `abode of peace'. That was all of 40 years before his son, the poet laureate, established his dream school at Santiniketan in 1921. The rest is history.

Santiniketan lies 2 km from the Bolpur railway station. My earliest memories of Santiniketan are of a village with no hotels or restaurants. Transport was limited to cycle-rickshaws used only by the old and infirm, while everyone else either w alked or cycled.

We were a group of six, including two children, who had travelled down from Calcutta on the Santiniketan Express -- a journey of just over two hours. Coming out of the tiny station, we were accosted by a horde of cycle-rickshaw and taxi drivers.

We negotiated with a cheerful-looking young man who agreed to take all of us in his Ambassador car. We piled in and soon discovered that the car had only one gear! We piled out quickly and, finally, settled for three cycle-rickshaws which to ok us to the charming, red-tile roofed BonPulok Guest House. We were late by an hour and our hosts had almost given up on us.

Bolpur is rich in red earth and the region is filled with a profusion of flowers and other foliage. The Santhalis are the local tribals who can be seen moving around with their upright figures and burnished complexions. All the Santhali wo men wear flowers in their hair.

There are three terracotta temples in Bolpur which are built in the traditional style, one with a `Gaur' roof and the rest with spired roofs. The exteriors have fine engravings with scenes from the legend of `Mahishasura Mardini' -- the fearsome batt le waged by Goddess Durga on the asuras.

Any visit to Santiniketan would be incomplete without a glimpse into the local handicrafts. We visited Amar Kutir, a society for rural development which was started as an ashram or commune for political prisoners. The ashram has been transformed into a design centre for saree printing, kantha-work and leather craft. Crafts of the region are also displayed and sold here.

Our visit to Santiniketan was all too short -- we couldn't see the several other temples in the region which are under the care of the Arachaeological Survey of India and INTACH. There is more to see at Viswa-Bharati University, the campus-world wh ere life proceeds at an unhurried pace.

January would be ideal for visits during the `Paus Mela' (Jan-Feb) where you can sample the best of food and the finest handicrafts. You can also bargain for the unique tribal jewellery sold by the Santhalis.

Fact file

Getting there: From Howrah station, you can take the Santiniketan Express to Bolpur (200 km).

Accommodation:

Camellia (Phone: 54778)

A/c deluxe -- Rs. 950 a night and a/c suite -- Rs. 1,500 plus luxury tax.

Mark Meadows (Phone: 53578)

A/c double room -- Rs. 850 a night and a/c single -- Rs. 495 plus luxury tax

BonPulok Guest House (Phone: 731235)

Non-a/c double room -- Rs. 300 a night and non-a/c single - Rs. 250. Extra bed -- Rs. 100.

Pic.: The unique structure created by Ram Kinkar Baij and his students at the Kala Bhawan.

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