Shantiniketan- the abode of peace

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Shantiniketan. The abode of peace. It is a name that resonates in all Bengali hearts, the world over. Home to the great Indian& Bengali icon, Kabiguru Rabindranath Tagore, this peaceful and orderly town, situated 180 km from Kolkata, in the Birbhum district of West Bengal, is symbolic of ideals and a cultural ethos that most Bengalis readily identify with.

It was in the year 1861 that  Rabindranath Tagore’s father, Maharshi Devendranath Tagore, established  this idyllic settlement, after having received the area as a gift from the aristocratic  Sinha family. Earlier called Bhubandanga,after Bhuban Sinha of the Sinha family, this place was turned into an abode of humanistic living and learning by the Tagores. And so in 1921 ,after having stayed at Jorasanko   in North Calcutta ever since his birth, the great Nobel Laureate poet shifted base to Shantiniketan.

It was a move that would dramatically change the face of this quaint little settlement. Tagore’s central philosophy in setting up his institute of learning, which he inherited from his father,was that education is best carried out in a natural, stress- free environment. Untouched by the hustle bustle of contemporary urban life, Shantiniketan retains an old- world charm ,away from the concrete jungle, and definitely lacks urban sophistication. What it does have, are heritage buildings that are a feast for the eyes.

It’s a rainy Saturday evening in June. I can see how how Tagore’ s philosophy holds true even today. Beneath the great trees that dot the campus of Vishwa Bharati,the university that Tagore established, I can see students sitting, gossiping, studying. I can see lovers expressing themselves. I can see the outcome of an unique educational philosophy that defies the rat race , stamping its distinctive mark upon the world. This was the first open air educational institution of  modern times,and though things changed to a more conventional pattern after the establishment of Vishwa Bharati as a Central University in 1951 ,the central feature of humanistic learning and peace has  endured and will hopefully continue to do so.

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This has spilt over among the local people also. From the shopkeeper selling momos by the roadside to the rickshaw puller who doubles up as a guide, the people here are a relaxed and knowledgeable lot, far from the  urban stress and grime of Kolkata.No wonder that the hoi polloi and well-to-do of Bengali society choose to set up their second home at Shantiniketan!

I enter the Kala Bhavan, on the left side of the road. It is a yellow – coloured building, built in the traditional way. Adorning the front garden of the building are sculptures by the famed artist Sri Ramkinkar Baij, one of those who made Shantiniketan their home. Tourists linger about the post-modern sculptures, trying to make sense of it. I see a person clicking away , no doubt  hooked by the uniqueness of the structures.It seems to depict the theme of Mother Earth, and is understandably less complex than many other works of modern art.

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At the back of this building is the Sangeet Bhavan, a repository house of music. Beautiful decorations, depicting various themes from Mohenjo Daro sculptures, Egyptian motifs, Aesop’s fables to Mother Earth, adorn the building. There is a general air of happiness, and I see lovers sitting in the verandah, cooing away.

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Truly, Shantiniketan seems to be the place if you are young and  in love. The liberal arts atmosphere, serene surroundings and poetic liberty give rise to a heady atmosphere suited for romance. And this is amply demonstrated by the young couples who hang around the campus, their coquettish behaviour a feast for the eyes.

But all is not as idyllic as it seems. A poster on a wall nearby proclaims resistance to the efforts of one Anupam Hazra who is branded as a drug dealer, and implicated for the spread of drug addiction on campus. Indeed, this is a big problem these days, testimony to the changing times, as is the deterioration in the general law and order condition of the town. Modernity has spread its wings in Shantiniketan, as testified by the western attire, women driving two- wheelers and brandishing of tabs and cellphones, which are welcome, but this drug addiction problem is certainly not.

Kurta  Pajama and Saris remain the official attire for the students , and I come across a group of ladies crossing the road, grandly attired in saris. I click away to glory.

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Nearby is the  famed Chhatimtala, the pavilion under the great Chhatim tree where Maharshi Devendranath used to have his meditation sessions. It is usually off bounds for visitors, so I take pictures from  outside.

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The rains have made the campus environment green and serene . I enjoy the afternoon breeze , loitering about the campus. There is very little traffic on the roads,and what is present mainly consists of Cycle rickshaws, cycles and the curious contraptions called Totos ( which are a cross between a rickshaw van and a motorbike).

Shantiniketan was  the abode of the Brahmo religion, a faith that found its wings with the Tagore family, in reaction to the orthodoxy and excesses of the Hindu religion. It proclaims devotion to one God,who is supreme, and steers away from idolatry. Sadly, the religion lost its momentum after the demise of Tagore,and is today a largely insignificant entity. I  see a stone tablet proclaiming the greatness of Brahmoism, and  the oneness of God.

Adjacent to this  is the Vidya Bhavan, which was the school set up by Maharshi Devendranath. It is a graceful yellow- coloured building, built in the traditional style. There is  an ornate structure,complete with a tower clock , a part of the building, which was used as the meeting hall and theatre of Shantiniketan in the olden days.Students loiter about in the corridors,and there is a generally relaxed atmosphere around.

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A visit to Shantiniketan is incomplete without Rabindrasangeet, the musical creation that is central to Rabindranath ‘s identity. The strains of this melodious music waft around in the air, giving this place its distinctive flavour.

However , even in this idyllic environment , modernity does have its saving graces. I am short of change, and find an ATM nearby. And thus loaded ,I embark upon some roadside chat and momos, to quell my afternoon hunger.

For,no journey in Bengal is complete without food. I come across the dingy, dimly-lit but curiously named German Dhaba, which caters mainly to the student population,who can be found hanging around, relaxing, taking a bite and seeing life go by. I have tea and biscuits and get samosas packed.

Its evening,and time to return . After some haggling, I get a rickshaw which settles at Rs. 50,for the ride upto Prantik, where I am staying at Shishirkaku’s house. He was my violin teacher,and has now settled at Shantiniketan, with his brother and sister. The atmosphere of Shantiniketan has made it a favourite post-retirement home for people , and there are beautiful houses which are a feast for the eyes.

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I  planned to stay on for a few days and explore the place at my own leisure, but unfortunately I get a call from my office, compelling me to return the very next day. Truly, man proposes, but God disposes! Thus reluctantly, I make my way back to Kolkata , promising myself to return to the Abode of Peace sometime again in the future.

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Details about Shantiniketan

Notable places to visit:  Viswa Bharati University ,Amar Kutir, Tagore Ashram, Sriniketan,Kala Bhavan,  Sangeet Bhavan, Chhatimtala, Vidya Bhavan,Rabindra Bhavan, Ballavpur Wildlife Sanctuary

Distance from Kolkata : 180 km (  4 hrs by train )

How to get there : Bolpur is the nearest rail/ road head to Shantiniketan. A number of trains are available from Howrah/ Sealdah to Bolpur, the nearest station.Details at:

Buses are available from Durgapur station.

You can also go by road. The route map is available at :

Map of Shantiniketan:

https://www.google.co.in/maps/@23.671863,87.6843309,14z

Accomodation:

Best time to visit : September to April. The Pous Mela (Winter fair) in January ,   Basanta Utsav ( Holi) festival in March  – April , and Rabindra Jayanti ( birthday of Rabindranath Tagore) are good occasions to visit, though it gets terribly touristy and crowded. Other notable occassions are :  Barsha Mangal, Sharodutsav, Nandan Mela,  Magh Mela, Rabindra Jayanti

Temperature (deg C): Summer — max. 42.4, min. 34.3; Winter — max. 15.7, min. 8.1.

 

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