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.