No visit to India is complete without some time spent in West Bengal; this cultured corner of the subcontinent has added immeasurably to India's overall identity.
Kolkata is considered by many to be the country's cultural hub. Many visitors have a preconceived idea of this oft-maligned city, but a little time spent here is often enough for those ideas to be rapidly dispelled and gives a fascinating glimpse of the way in which more than 14 million people live together. From rich to poor and educated to illiterate, Kolkatans melt together in a way that isn't seen in other cities.
Travelling north takes you through a land that has been left wonderfully fertile by both the ever-shifting course of the great Ganga River and by run-off from the Himalaya. Intensely populated and cultivated, the area contains treasures such as the terracotta temples at Bishnupur, Shantiniketan, home of the great Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore, and Murshidabad, the delightful old capital of the Nawabs of Bengal.
Darjeeling is synonymous with tea the world over. Made popular by the British, the hill station has always been a holiday destination, particularly during the summer months, when the cool mountain air provides relief from the heat of the plains. With large Tibetan and Nepali populations, Darjeeling and the region around it have a very different feel from the India of the plains. The monasteries and prayer flags give a taste of the land and its peoples that lie deeper within the Himalaya.
If the mountains are too cold, head south from Kolkata to the Sunderbans. A World Heritage Site, these mangrove forests are home to a large Bengal tiger population.
This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF