Victoria Memorial, Kolkata, India

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Kolkata & West Bengal

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Unique among Indian states in stretching all the way from the Himalayas to the sea, WEST BENGAL is nonetheless explored in depth by few travellers. That may have something to do with the exaggerated reputation of its capital, KOLKATA (CALCUTTA), a sophisticated and friendly city that belies its popular image as poverty-stricken and chaotic. The rest of Bengal holds an extraordinary assortment of landscapes and cultures, ranging from the dramatic hill-station of Darjeeling, within sight of the highest mountains in the world, to the vast mangrove swamps of the Sundarbans, prowled by man-eating Royal Bengal tigers. The narrow central band of the state is cut across by the huge River Ganges as it pours from Bihar into Bangladesh where the Farrakha Barrage controls the movement of south-flowing channels such as the River Hooghly, the lifeline of Kolkata.

At the height of British rule, in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Bengal flourished both culturally and materially, nurturing a uniquely creative blend of West and East. The Bengali Renaissance produced thinkers, writers and artists such as Bankim Chandra Chatterjee and Rabindranath Tagore, whose collective influence still permeates Bengali society a century later.

Not all of Bengal is Bengali; the current Nepalese-led separatist movement for the creation of an autonomous “Gurkhaland” in the Darjeeling area has focused on sharp differences in culture. Here, the Hindu Nepalese migration eastward from the nineteenth century onwards has largely displaced the indigenous tribal groups of the north but Lamaist Tibetan Buddhism continues to flourish. In the southwest, on the other hand, tribal groups such as the Santhals and the Mundas still maintain a presence, and itinerant Baul musicians epitomize the region’s traditions of song and dance, most often heard around Tagore’s university at Shantiniketan; Tagore’s own musical form, Rabindra Sangeet, is a popular amalgam of influences including folk and classical. Other historical specialities of Bengal include its ornate terracotta temples, as seen at Bishnupur, and its silk production, concentrated around Murshidabad, the state’s last independent capital.

Bengal’s own brand of Hinduism emphasizes the mother goddess, who appears in such guises as the fearsome Kali and Durga, the benign Saraswati, goddess of learning, and Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth. The most mysterious of all is Tara, an echo of medieval links with Buddhism; her temple at Tarapith is perhaps the greatest centre of Tantrism in the entire country.

Brief history

Although Bengal was part of the Mauryan empire during the third century BC, it first came to prominence in its own right under the Guptas in the fourth century AD. So dependent was it on trade with the Mediterranean that the fall of Rome caused a sharp decline, only reversed with the rise of the Pala dynasty in the eighth century.

After a short-lived period of rule by the highly cultured Senas, based at Gaur, Bengal was brought under Muslim rule at the end of the twelfth century by the first Sultan of Delhi, Qutb-ud-din-Aibak. Sher Shah Suri, who briefly usurped power from the Mughals in the mid-sixteenth century, developed the infrastructure and built the Grand Trunk Road, running all the way to the Northwest Province on the borders of his native Afghanistan. Akbar reconquered the territory in 1574, before the advent of the Europeans in the eighteenth century.

The Portuguese, who were the first to set up a trading community beside the Hooghly, were soon joined by the British, Dutch, French and many others. Rivalry between them eventually resulted in the ascendancy of the British, with the only serious indigenous resistance coming from the tutelary kingdom of Murshidabad, led by the young Siraj-ud-Daula. His attack on the fledgling British community of Calcutta in 1756 culminated in the infamous Black Hole incident, when British prisoners suffocated to death. Vengeance, in the form of a British army from Madras under Robert Clive, arrived a year later. The defeat of Siraj-ud-Daula at the Battle of Plassey paved the way for British domination of the entire Subcontinent. Bengal became the linchpin of the British East India Company and its lucrative trading empire, until the company handed over control to the Crown in 1858.

Up to 1905, Bengal encompassed Orissa and Bihar; it was then split down the middle by Lord Curzon, leaving East Bengal and Assam on one side and Orissa, Bihar and West Bengal on the other. The move aroused bitter resentment, and the rift it created between Hindus and Muslims was a direct cause of the second Partition, in 1947, when East Bengal became East Pakistan. During the war with Pakistan in the early 1970s that resulted in the creation of an independent Bangladesh, up to ten million refugees fled into West Bengal. Shorn of its provinces, and with the capital moved from Calcutta to Delhi in 1911, the story of West Bengal in the twentieth century was largely a chronicle of decline.

The state’s political life has been dominated by a protracted – and sometimes violent – struggle between the Congress and the major left-wing parties: the Marxist Communist Party of India, or CPI (M), and the Marxist-Leninist Naxalites (Communist Party of India (ML)). In the 1960s and 1970s, the latter launched an abortive but bloody attempt at revolution. Bolstered by a strong rural base, the CPI (M) eventually emerged victorious under the enigmatic Jyoti Basu (d.2010), weathering the collapse of world communism. The CPI (M) has seen its grip on the state crumble in recent years, especially at the peripheries, where more and more ethnic groups are calling for autonomy from Bengal. In Kolkata – booming with expatriate wealth and a surge in business confidence – the political turmoil now seems a world away.

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