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Kolkata - Off the beaten track


A good boy cleans his teeth in Chowringhee

Botanical Gardens

Situated 4km (2.5mi) west of central Kolkata, the haven of Kolkata's Botanical Gardens is a welcome respite from the choking noise and crowds. The gardens were founded in 1786 and extend along the west bank of the Hooghly River. It was in these gardens that the Assam and Darjeeling teas were first developed. The prime attraction is a 250-year-old banyan tree, offering plenty of merciful shade with a circumference of 400m (1300ft). The palm house in the centre of the garden is also worth a look. Open from dawn until dusk, the gardens are accessible by ferry from Babu Ghat (near Eden Gardens) - otherwise it's a long, hot walk down the other side of the Hooghly.

Nabadwip & Mayapur

There is an important Hare Krishna pilgrimage centre at Nabadwip, 114km (70mi) north of Kolkata. The town attracts throngs of devotees to its many temples and is an ancient centre for Sanskrit culture. The last Hindu king of Bengal had his capital here. Across the river at Mayapur is the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (Iskcon), where cheap accomodation can also be found. There are tours here from Kolkata during the winter.

Shantiniketan

Inland and 200km (125mi) northwest of Kolkata is the peaceful town of Shantiniketan, famed for its Visvabharati University with its emphasis on humanity's relationship with nature. The university was set up by Bengal's revered poet, writer, artist and nationalist Rabindranath Tagore in 1901. The city draws admirers of art, culture, the humanities and those with a keen interest in the works of Tagore. The museum and art gallery within the Uttarayan complex where Tagore lived pioneered the style of mural on display. Cultural diversions aside, Shantiniketan has three great festivals: Magh Mela (6-8 February), Vasantotsava in March (Spring) and the Paush Mela festival in December, featuring folk music, dance, singing and theatre to tap along to.

Sunderbans Wildlife Sanctuary

The innumerable mouths of the ganges form the world's largest delta, and part of this vast mangrove swamp makes up the Sunderbans Wildlife Sanctuary, which stretches well into Bangladesh, covering 2585 sq km (1008 sq mi). Mangrove swamps may not sound overly exciting but the sanctuary is a World Heritage site and has one of the largest tiger populations of any park worldwide (estimated to number just under 300 in 2000). The notoriously shy tigers may not give you much of a look-in but sighting the big cats in their natural habitat is an exhilarating experience. The sanctuary is otherwise blissfully peaceful after the mayhem of Kolkata, with plenty for the senses to absorb, from birdlife to monkeys and even a wild pig or two.

Although barely 100km (62mi) from Kolkata, the journey to Sajnekhali can seem a world away, with India's version of planes, trains and automobiles - known as bus, boat and cycle-rickshaw - involved in getting you to the Sajnekhali visitors' centre (a six-hour journey - if you're lucky). It is easiest to organise a tour from Kolkata through the West Bengal Tourist Centre (WBTC) which includes the return journey (one or two nights), permits, food and accommodation. A small entry fee is charged at Sajnekhali visitors centre, where boats through the mangroves depart.



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