Wonderful carving at a terracotta temple of Bishnupur.
Wonderful carving at a terracotta temple of Bishnupur.
They are unique to Bengal and you can’t miss them on. I was on a 9 days tour of West Bengal exploring the weaving traditions of the region.Uncut, often coiled hair, long, usually with a flowing beard, their saffron robe with a necklace of beads made of basil stems, crooning about love and compassion in ecstasy. It was straight from the heart and there was a hint of melancholy as well. The first time I heard a Baul singing was at Shantineketan. I was there at the weekly fair held every Saturday. Although there were many things, all vying for my attention, I was rooted in that spot listening to him.There is a soul connection between the musical Bauls and the soil of Bengal.
Baul roots are not only deep, they are ancient. Baul is an oral tradition passed on by a mentor to his disciple to be remembered as in storytelling. In the olden days Bauls used to roam from village to village and were offered alms for passing on the knowledge through song and dance to villagers about spirituality, art and science of life, how to be in deep love with nature and remove the shackles that
bind us. Begging for alms is a way Bauls enforce the fact that they should be happy with whatever comes to them. In each village there was a special house set aside for them to stay in and they would stay as long as they pleased. The language of their music is often called the ‘Twilight language’; the time of the day when boundaries blur with their songs having multiple interpretations with metaphors, codes and signs. Just like the sacred texts of Vajrayana Buddhism of the Tibetan tradition. But Bauls are non-conformists. Their simple, natural and direct approach to God has elements from devotional Hinduism, Tantric Buddhism and Sufi Islam.
“We sing songs of joy, love and longing for mystical union with the divine and believe love for humankind leads to love for God” says Anand Gopal Das Baul. I met him at his ashram in Shantineketan; a small place with a central courtyard. “Bauls are simple but it is not simple to be a true Baul. You have to do years and years of sadhana (spiritual practice) under a Guru, who has the gift or the key to pass it on to you so that you can pass it on to others ” says Anand Gopal Das Baul. He led a life of an ascetic with his Guru for 10 years where 5000 songs were passed on orally as seeds of higher philosophy. Speaking to him I sensed that he was at peace and someone who had infinite patience. Leaving the ashram I thought if only there were more Bauls in the world, there would be less hatred and more peace all around.
Here is a sneak peak at the exciting possibilities including combining this itinerary with the river cruise on the Hugli
Find yourself in a Weaver’s Village
Soumya recommends that we stop at Phulia, perhaps the most renowned sari weaving centre of West Bengal. It’s fascinating to see looms in almost every house and listen to the lulling sound of wooden shuttles catapulting between the threads. There are an amazing 70,000 looms in this village itself. Weavers here trace their lineage to the great Bengal handloom saree weaving centre of Tangail near Dhaka (Bangladesh). They have evolved their own weaving style called ‘Fulia Tangail’. The Fulia Tangail incorporates vibrant colours and large, intricate designs woven in double jacquard. These sarees are also being woven in mulberry and tassar silk apart from cotton.
Spend time watching silk being extracted from silkworm cocoons and spun into fine thread for weaving. The fields of yellow cocoons drying in the sun are a sight worth seeing. If you feel up to the challenge, try your hand at finding the end of the silk thread to be spun into threads. Later we visit a palace of 1000 Doors of the Nawabs of Murshidabad; a treasure trove of valuable historical exhibits.
Treat yourself to good food and learn about the Open-Air Education
As any Bengali would agree, they live for good food. Relish a delicious home cooked Bengali meal at Vanalakshmi – a small farm just outside Shantiniketan where they use traditional methods to grow their produce. Later visit Visva Bharati – Rabindranath Tagore’s experiment with the open-air system of education as opposed to being cloistered in the four walls of a classroom. Rabindranath Tagore was a poet, writer, musician and playwright and the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. See the wonderful open air art installation around Kala Bhavan (Art Faculty) of Ramkinkar the pioneer of modern Indian sculpture, experimenting with abstract sculptural forms.
Spend time with the ladies of Amar Kutir and at the Saturday fair
Amar Kutir an instance of self-sufficiency based on Tagore’s ideals. Apart from visiting their retail outlet which sells pretty handicrafts and locally made goods, slip into their workshop of embossed leather goods. If you have time drop in the ladies of Amar Kutir busy stitching kanta. Kantha originally was a poor man’s wrap consisting of old clothes patched up and sewn into a single garment. The idea was to utilize torn cloths and rags by sewing them together with close stitches and embroidering them for household purpose, so that not a single piece of cloth in the house was wasted. Come evening, every Saturday Shantineketan is host to weekly fair selling beautiful handmade products. The fair also attracts ‘Bauls’ a music unique to West Bengal where the songs are of joy, love, and longing for mystical union with the divine.
Terracotta Temples- Stories in Stone
The sleepy little town of Bishnupur is dotted with stunning Terracotta Temples. Art in West Bengal was mainly religious in nature, and was expressed through the medium of temples. Local materials, bricks and terracotta, and features like the curved “Bangla” roof (which you can still see in the traditional sathal tribal houses) blended with the Muslim domes and Islamic multi-lobed arches. This distinctive architecture also assimilated styles from the neighbouring regions. Spot interesting carvings on bricks. The motifs vary from the epic battles of the Mahabharata, the Ramayana, demons, and the life of Krishna. Secular themes included warriors, hunters, musicians, tradesman, birds and animals.
Visit a Potter’s Village
Why not get your hands dirty playing with clay? Panchmura village, a half an hour drive from Bishnupur is a potters’ village. There are close to fifty families creating terracotta horses with its elongated neck.
Put your fingers to work
Try your hand at Kantha embroidery and block printing in Kolkata. See how the traditional weaves of Phulia which you saw earlier are getting new avatars with the help of some young entrepreneurs. Print your own scarfs, shawls or stoles.
We can reverse this itinerary (Kolkata- Bishnupur- Bolpur- Baharampur) and after Baharampur drive to Farakka (2 hrs) to embark on a downstream river cruise (click here) on the Hugli which ends in Kolkata. (7-day itinerary)
Just so you are aware
* Kolkata – Baharmpur: 5hrs/30mins
* Baharmpur – Bolpur: 5hrs
* Bolpur – Bishnupur: 4hrs/30mins
* Bishnupur – Kolkata: 5hrs/30mins
Get in touch with me for more information.