India’s north-eastern regions are often overlooked by many tour operators. While you may not have heard of the so-called ‘Seven Sisters’ (the seven far-flung states bordering Tibet, Myanmar and Bangladesh), great cities like Kolkata and hill stations such as Darjeeling are likely to offer at least a superficial familiarity.
The gateway to this strikingly varied part of the country is West Bengal, among India’s most populous states. No other state touches both ocean (the Bay of Bengal) and mountain (Darjeeling and Kalimpong nestle firmly in the Himalayan foothills), and there’s enough here to easily fill a week’s travel as distinctive as other more visited parts of India. I recently attended the 9th edition of Destination East, a travel trade show designed to showcase and promote the region’s best offerings and hotels, as part of a press trip organised by Window To Luxury.
Kolkata, of course, is the area’s most practical and best connected entry point. It’s the northeast’s – and one of India’s – largest cities whose importance today belies its humble origins as an obscure riverside fishing village. It’s also a worthy destination, akin to Delhi or Mumbai: a place to linger for a couple of days rather than just pass straight through. Bengalis are famed for their cuisine, sweets in particular, and cultured Kolkatans take pride in a notably liberal outlook.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of the city is its enduring Raj-era streetscapes. Ranks of aging yet mostly still-handsome buildings from its days as the capital of British India have survived and remain in use. The imposing General Post Office remains just that while the Writers Building still thrums with bureaucrats and clerks. Quiet Anglican churches retain their tranquil gardens and myriad memorials to long-forgotten grandees and soldiers, and the extraordinary white-marble Victoria Memorial looks almost as neat and tidy as it was when completed in 1921.
Yet overlaying all this heritage is modern Kolkata with its frantic markets, tumultuous bazaars and an immaculate metro. The astonishing Howrah Bridge with its intricate ironwork and huge girders hosts an almost biblical flow of people and traffic across the Hooghly River. Of the city’s thousands of Hindu temples and shrines, perhaps none evoke India’s enigmatic and profoundly religious traditions more than Kalighat’s Kali Temple. Here barefoot devotees deliver coconuts, flowers and other blessed offerings to a goddess who is both revered and feared in almost equal measure.
If or when the city gets a bit too frenetic, one of the best escapes is to its outermost rural fringes. Rajbari Bawali is a recently restored 250-year-old mansion oriented around a grassy courtyard framed by classical pillars. Once belonging to wealthy landowners, by the early 2000s the good times had long gone and the place was falling to pieces. Its bold if not brave restoration has involved architectural salvage, specially-made bricks and re-learning traditional techniques. Today it’s a stylish retreat with topical gardens, a swimming pool and fine food.
Barely three hours’ drive south of Kolkata, the Sunderbans is a world apart. Here the mouths of five main rivers including the Ganges and the Brahmaputra reach the Bay of Bengal. Their combined deltas form a complex web of channels, tidal streams, islands and mudflats almost entirely cloaked in the world’s largest tract of mangrove forest. Shared between India and Bangladesh, whose villages and hamlets nibble at its fringes, about 10,000km² is largely unpopulated.
Yet it is inhabited. Apart from its vast skies and tranquil waterways, one of the Sunderbans’ chief draws is the tiger. Surveys and camera traps suggest an estimated 87 live here and they have a reputation for being India’s strongest and fiercest specimens. Why? The tough terrain and relative lack of prey means just about anything – and anyone – is prey. These tigers will happily swim across rivers and channels because they simply have to. And they’ll think nothing of attacking villagers who stray into the wilds to collect honey or fish or find crabs.
From Sunderban Tiger Camp we set off in a small cruiser for a full day amidst the mangroves. Turning into a long broad channel, all semblance of the modern world fell away and it wasn’t long before we encountered the other ‘star’ resident species: enormous saltwater (or estuarine) crocodiles sunning themselves on sandbanks. Some were skittish, sliding away into the river at first sight or sound of our approach, while others remained dead-still and seemingly oblivious to our presence.
Yet tigers remained elusive. There was fleeting excitement when one of our on-board naturalists shushed as all saying “Alarm call!…” As the boat’s engine died we repeatedly heard the distinctive urgent grunt of a macaque somewhere nearby in the forest. And later we saw fresh muddy tiger-paw prints heading down one riverbank and straight up the other side. Winding in and out of channels, across more open stretches of water and then into another narrow watery braid, the only constants were dazzling sunshine and a clear blue sky, not to mention idyllic summer-like temperatures.
At its other northern extremity, West Bengal ends just short of some really muscular Himalayan peaks. Only tiny Sikkim stands between it and Tibet. Long famed for its distinctive tea, Darjeeling first came to the attention of the British in the early 1800s because of a regional conflict and its spectacular location. Initially developed as a sanatorium, it soon became an exotic hill station with a vibrant social scene centred on stuffy colonial clubs.
Today Darjeeling remains as popular as ever and for Bengalis it’s still the pre-eminent hill station with fresh mountain air and fine views. Completed in 1881, the celebrated ‘toy train’ is arguably the most charming (though certainly not the quickest) way to reach town. Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, its 88km of narrow-gauge track wind up through the hills repeatedly crossing the main road and often passing just feet from line-side buildings.
Darjeeling is centred on car-free Chowrasta and The Mall. Overlooking both is pine-clad Observatory Hill, still home to Windamere, the town’s oldest and most famous hotel where meals are served by white-gloved waiters and afternoon tea comes with crackling wood fires in wood-panelled rooms.
You might be diverted by the Natural History Museum or the Botanical Gardens but the museums attached to the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute help underpin the town’s main attraction – superb views of the Himalayas. Among the seemingly endless line of peaks even Everest is faintly visible though it’s 28,000ft-high Kanchenjunga (the world’s third-highest mountain) on the nearby Nepal-Sikkim border which really commands the eye.
Although most of these mountains are visible from town, many visitors typically opt for a short pre-dawn drive up to Tiger Hill (which is around 1500ft higher) and its viewing tower for incredible much-celebrated 360° vistas.
Spend any time in Darjeeling and you can’t help but notice maroon-robed Tibetan monks in its streets and shops. They’re part of a significant Tibetan community which has built several Buddhist monasteries and temples in and around town. The small yet beautiful Ghoom Monastery is well worth visiting but it’s the huge Dali Monastery and its numerous halls and outbuildings that gives a stronger flavour of monastic life.
Many of the surrounding hillsides are carpeted with picturesque tea plantations producing the famous fine-flavoured tea synonymous with Darjeeling. Some estates encourage visitors and you’ll very likely be shown several stages of the tea-producing process which has changed little in over a century. It’s still plucked by hand (mostly by women) and two-leaves-and-a-bud remains the pluckers’ mantra.
Now, anyone for tea?
© Amar Grover 2019 (words and images)
Amar was a guest on the Window to Luxury press trip to Destination East, organised by director Sanjay Mechery. For further information about programming this destination and the hotels reviewed, please contact Sanjay Mechery.
Amar Grover is a London-based travel writer and regular visitor to India. His articles have appeared in most of the UK’s broadsheet newspapers and quality travel magazines.