Shantiniketan or Santiniketan – the university town immediately brings out an image of Rabindranath Tagore writing from this quaint town. It has been on my wishlist for a long time. I had goosebumps when I got down at the Bolpur station – something that I experience every time I finally manage to be.
History of Shantiniketan or Santiniketan
Shantiniketan was set up by Maharishi Devendranath Tagore sometime around the 1860s. The land always belonged to the Tagore family but it was probably inhabited by dacoits. It was even named after one of them – Bhuban Dakat. Devendranath while passing by this landscape was enticed by the beauty of the red soil and the Chhatim trees. He decided to build himself a house here and called it Shantiniketan. Little did he knew that the name would become a cultural icon one day. Over a period of time, the whole place would take the name – Shantiniketan. Literally, it means the abode of peace.
This home took the form of an Ashram that was open to people who wanted to come and meditate or pursue their spiritual quests. It played an important role in the Brahmo Samaj movement of Bengal.
Devendranath’s son Rabindranath Tagore started Patha Bhavan – a small school with just 5 students. His idea was learning in the natural environment rather than an artificial classroom. The system came to be known as the Ashram system. I think it is a good blend of ancient Guru-Shishya system and modern classroom system. Even today you can see the classes being held under the giant trees.
This school would later grow into the Viswa Bharti University.
Things to See at Shantiniketan
You can do most of Shantiniketan in a day. Here is a brief guide to things to see there.
Rabindra Bhaban Museum or Tagore Museum
Housed in one of the many houses in the Uttarayan complex, this is a small but interesting museum. The whole of the museum is all about Tagore. The biggest attraction of this museum – the noble prize medallion of Tagore was stolen a few years back. This has made the staff extra vigilant. I was surprised at the number of people posted in the museum – probably more than the visitors at any point in time.
Museum tour begins with the Tagore family genealogy. Family’s personal items on display like – utensils, combs, pooja articles, medicine boxes. There are collectibles like gifts received from China, French & Japanese porcelain, Roman vases. There are personal artifacts of Tagore like his paint brushes and colors.
Passport of Tagore in the form of a letter is intriguing. Wonder when they started the booklets we have now.
There are various portraits. The one I remember most clearly is the portrait of Tagore himself while painting. There is a documentation of his meetings with Gandhi, Einstein, Freud, Bernard Shaw, Hellen Keller, Bose, Nehru & many other stalwarts of the era. There are many letters on display.
Everything written only in Bengali turned out to be my barrier at the museum and in rest of Uttarayan complex. I wish there was at least an English or a Hindi Translation.
Photography is strictly prohibited.
This is a complex of various houses built by the Tagore family. They are named Udayana, Konark, Shyamali, Punascha, and Udichi. On the face of it, houses look simple in their pale yellow and white exteriors with red floors. However, the displays there make them special. There is a printing machine outside one house. A garage has the car owned by Rabindranath Tagore. Some houses have exquisite wood-carved panels. Others have a well laid out Diwan with tasteful upholstery.
Gardens have sculptures and plants competing for your attention.
There is an open portico called Mrinmoyee.
A big Banyan tree with its uncountable branches looms large. I looked at the tree and it said – you know I have seen this place since the time it was a mere hut.
The famous sculpture of a Santhal family stands in one of the grounds.
There are artworks on display in the compounds and in the open spaces between the houses. I would later discover that art is very much a part of the Shantiniketan culture. Wherever you stand in the town, you just cannot miss an artwork around. Some of them belong to the illustrious names like Nand Lal Bose but most of them belong to students of Shantiniketan.
Walk around the Viswa Bharti
We started this tour from Brahma Mandir or the Upasana Griha. Behind the metal gate is a marble plaque with a Sanskrit verse.
In the middle of a garden stands an ornate glasshouse, the kind you see in most gardens left behind by the British. This is in fact, the Brahma Mandir. It opens on specific dates and is closed most of the days of the year.
A little walk inside from here, we met the open-air classrooms. Low circular benches surroundings the old trees. A bell hangs on a red frame that looks like the simplified arches of Sanchi Stupa.
The university buildings, though simple still carries the distinct markers of Indian and Indo-Islamic architecture. Our guide pointed the girl’s hostel where Indira Gandhi lived for some time. Some of the buildings have exquisite paintings. Some of the original paintings that were done by prominent artists of the time are still preserved.
It is the design school of Viswa Bharti that blew my mind. The building in black with murals in white can take your breath away. Another building next to it has relief sculptures in black again.
To add to the aura, current students of the university were busy creating their own works of art. I chatted with a few of them and it was wonderful to see creativity all around inspiring more creativity.
A silk shade building had verses in Bengali written all over it. How I wish I could read Bengali, then.
Sculptures replicating some of the scenes from Ellora adorned another wall.
Small huts are given a makeover by the student artists. I loved the one that had colorful mirror work on it.
Aura of Tagore
Walking around Shantiniketan is like walking in the India 100 years ago. You almost feel that Tagore is going to walk out of one of his houses, or maybe one of the schools and talk to you. He does speak to you from every corner of the space he created.
In the month of May, the yellow laburnums were adding the golden color to the campus, making it look bright and shiny.
Come to think of it how many spaces can claim that they have been designed by a poet and a thinker.
Few km’s away from the Viswa Bharti is this art village that celebrates the tribal heritage of India. There are tribal murals and other artworks on display from most tribal regions of India.
I will probably do another post on the wall murals of Srijini Shilpagram.
You can spend 1-2 hours here depending on your interest in tribal art, particularly wall murals.
I guess this is a space that is still work-in-progress.
Amar Kutir is a handicrafts shop where you can buy handmade artifacts of Shanti Niketan. Good items to buy include garments, linen, Dhokra art, coconut shell jewelry & leather work.
Music of Bauls
The region of Bengal where Shantiniketan falls is known for Baul singers. We were lucky to meet a Baul singer near Amar Kuti singing under a tree. Listen to him singing Tagore’s song – Ekla Chalo Re
I was so inspired by him that I wrote a full post in Ekla Chalo Re…
Travel tips for Shantiniketan, Bolpur, Bengal
Shantiniketan is well connected by rail and road with Kolkata. Bolpur is the station to reach, which is hardly any distance from Shantiniketan. In fact, at Bolpur station itself, you see the first glimpse of Shantiniketan.
We stayed at West Bengal Tourism Lodge at Shantiniketan – it is at the walkable distance from most places. Battery operated rickshaws or Tuk Tuks are available everywhere.
Recommend you read following travel blog on places to visit in Bengal.