A silent revolution is taking place in the state of West Bengal, not through terrorism but through Tantra Tourism. In complete reversal to the usual tourist trail of West Bengal covering the capital city of Kolkata with its list of must visit sites like Victoria Memorial, Maidan, Fort William, Eden Gardens, Botanical Garden etc. followed by an epigrammatic visit to Sunderban Tiger Reserve, we embarked on an exclusive week long trip to West Bengal’s Halisahar - a town nestled pictoriously by the holy Ganges river and replete with temples dedicated to Goddess Kali. Some of India’s most revered saints like Ram Prasad Sen and Srimat Swami Nigamananda Saraswati Paramahansadev have been the past residents of this “one-of-its-kind” pilgrim tourist destination.
Gone are the days of “hotel-sightseeing & back-to-the-hotel” stuff that we were so used to. Instead of being guests of centrally located star hotels, we embraced for the first time in our lives the sheer fascination of being guests or to put it more appropriately in Bengali – “Athiti” at the sprawling Ashram run by the “Assam Bangiya Saraswat Math”, which owes its existence to Srimat Swami Nigamananda Saraswati Paramahansadev whose Samadhi Mandir is to be found here.
The Air India flight from New Delhi was on time and after reaching Kolkata we drove straight to Halisahar, which is a 2 hour journey and the drive through rural Bengal was absolutely fascinating. Our guide Subhankar, who seemed to be very knowledgable in matters spiritual, explained to us the massive surge in the number of jaded international tourists from affluent countries like USA, UK, Canada, Germany, France and Australia who are hellbent on experiencing “Tantra Tourism” in West Bengal, whose presiding diety is Mother Goddess Kali.
As a proud Bengali, I was travelling to my native place after five long years and this time I found the pulse of Kolkata and Bengal to be much more frenetic then before. According to our ever smiling guide Subhankar –“Much of the West Bengal’s change of fortune is due largely to the newly appointed maverick Chief Minister – Miss Mamata Banerjee, who has promised to catapult Kolkata to London, Digha to Goa and Darjeeling to Switzerland”. Great to hear that really!
As our coach entered the Ashram premises, we saw a whole lot of cherubic children running after the coach. They were all students of the Balika Vidyalaya run by Assam Bangiya Saraswat Math. Each of us were welcomed with garlands and a divine Aarati on the banks of the ethereal Ganges river made for a truly spiritual rendezvous.
We were told that the Ashram is being thoroughly renovated in order to cater to the exacting demands of the discerning world traveler. The rooms were impeccably furnished with vernacular style architecture and matching décor. I for one liked the high ceilings and spacious verandahs to the hilt. Here at the Ashram of Swami Nigamananda Paramahansadev, the rooms may not be luxurious but one can rest assured of comfortable beds, clean linens and toilets along with round the clock water, which is so very scarce in this part of the country.
Now, a bit of Tantra Tourism for the eternal Nirvana-craving traveler to India. The sheer magnitude of the craze for “Tantra Tourism” globally baffles imagination. Although Tantra is an ancient Indian spiritual practise and due largely to sheer misrepresentation by wave after wave of backpacker vagabonds trying to inculcate “Tantrikism” into their reckless lives, many people both in India and abroad still associate Tantra to be an obscene form of worshipping god.
However, the fact of the matter is that in terms of spirituality, there is hardly any difference between Tantriks and Vedantic worshipers. What is more, Tantra is a more aggressive form of Vedanta that dates back to the 5th century AD.
Baring the holy Kamakshya Temple in the North Eastern state of Assam, most of the revered Tantrik pilgrim sites are located in the state of West Bengal. Mention may be made of Kalighat, Dakshineswar, Tarapeeth and the district of Birbhum, all of which provides the avid Tantrik tourists with that perfect environment for “Sadhana” to progress spiritually and attain that elusive Tantrik Nirvana.
A New Human Breed:
With the advent of modernity, a new human breed has emerged whose beliefs correspond very little in the heritage of their forefathers. As a consequence, religion and spirituality – the kingpins of that heritage have been marginalized, both intellectually and politically. Progress has turned into something of a nightmare. According to Huston Smith, a leading figure in the study of comparative religions, “it is discouraging to discover that not only are we no wiser than our forefathers were; we may be less wise for having neglected value questions while bringing nature to heel”. Also, it is a fact that the three hundred year old tension between science and religion shows no sign of easing; for science continues to be what modernity believes in. Science still can’t deal with values and existential meanings.
It is here that Tantra makes a difference, courtesy, its “Harmonious Approach” propounded by spiritual giants like Sri Ramakrishna Paramahansadev, Swami Vivekananda, Swami Nigamananda Paramahansadev and others of their ilk.
The Tantra tourism revolution is based on the time tested Tantrik ideal of the existence of one transcendent and ultimate Reality, which manifests in various forms, with various attributes, and even as formless, and is known by various name.
After a good night’s sleep at the ABSM Ashram, we freshened up and had traditional Bengali breakfast consisting of Luchi/Puri, Alu Dum, Samosas and Nolen Gurer Rossogollas that tasted divine. Our tour guide - Subhankar took us on a walking tour to Sati Ma’s temple at Kalyani Ghoshpara. As we walked leisurely along the tree lined avenue, an overwhelming sense of peace engulfed us. At times it felt like we were in a very fortunate place, far from the din and bustle of metropolitan India. Here we were slowly and gradually embracing nature - pure and pristine nature.
We were told that every year this part of Bengal comes alive during the annual Sati Ma’s Mela or Fair, which in itself is more than 300 years old and ranks amongst the oldest native fairs of Bengal. We were ushered to an empty room by our guide where we were shown a documentary of half an hour of last year’s Fair or Mela which he had recorded and preserved on a CD.
As we were about to leave the estate and pay our obeisance to Sati Ma at the “Amro Kunja”(Mango Orchard), a group of devotees from far away Bolpur descended. They would stay overnight and leave early next morning. Sensing an opportunity, our guide Subhankar thought that this was one great occasion for us to be acquainted with the nomadic Bauls of Bengal, who are wandering musicians and Bengal’s equivalent to the nomadic Rabari tribe of Gujarat.
With due permission from Sati Ma’s Estate, all of us were granted permission for an overnight stay and what followed was a night of revelry, intoxicating Baul music and tremendous spiritual zest. They use Marijuana to heighten their superlative spiritual obsession and so it is advisable not to fall on trap. Discretion is the byword here.
These folk musicians, we were told, very often come here in search of solitude and peace. They have a belief that spending a night or two at Sati Ma’s Estate and singing melodies in praise of her will bestow them with good “Karma”.
Back at the ABSM Ashram, we had a sumptous vegetarian meal and the resident chef prepared a special Desert – “Nolen Gurer Payasam”, much to the delight of the other members of the group.
On schedule was a face-to-face interaction with the Revered Mahanta Maharaj – Srimat Swami Gyanananda Saraswat Maharaj after the evening Aarati.
With dusk descending on Halisahar, the red molten ball was dipping on the far horizon across the ethereal Ganges river, a lonely boatman plying his oars and singing lilting Bhatiyali songs and the temple bells ringing in harmony, ushered in an unspeakable sublimity to the place as we sat crosslegged at the magnificent Natmandir, watching intently at the resident priest who was about to start the ritual Aarati with the boombasting drums for company. The 20 minutes Aarati was a grand introduction to Bengal’s chequered Tantrik heritage, which left us spellbound.
As we waited in anticipation of the arrival of Revered Swami Gyanananda Maharaj, we were served Prasadam with an assurance that revered Swamiji was on his way to the Natmandir. From a distance we could see a tall, lanky figure draped in ochre robe and flowing beards accompanied by a Brahmachari, walking briskly towards the Natmandir. We knew for sure that it was Swamiji himself coming to meet us and what a meeting it was! Absolutely mind blowing, Tantra at its best!
Apart from his soul stirring discourses on Tantra and Yoga, he seemed to be very concerned on account of the severe erosion of religious faith and beliefs as far as the people of India were concerned. According to the Revered Swami – “People are increasingly being delusioned by the prospect of heady materialism. The glory of ancient Sanatan Hinduism has evaporated. The Westernization of society and the security that mankind once knew is now long gone. The faith that knit our lives together slowly unraveled with the intrusion of science. The paradigm shift in the West’s worldview over the past century has rendered God, if not dead, at least coolly marginalized”.
However, he was particularly delighted to know that we had come all the way from the din and bustle of Delhi and he shared his happiness with all of us by singing a melodious song dedicated to “Ma Tara” and offered each one of us with chocolates as “Ashirbad” (blessings).
What really touched our heart was Revered Swamiji’s pragmatic observation that neither science nor any political, social or psychological doctrine will offer us the peace that we crave for. If there is one thing that we fear – and fear it more desperately than death itself – it is the dread of living a life without significance. According to Swami Gyananandaji “A life smaller than the sum of its parts is intolerable to the human spirit. We chase goals that evade us, disappoint us, turn to ashes in our hands. Our interior world – unexplored, uncultivated – is left barren. In search of comfort and prosperity, we have dangled ourselves over the edge of an existential cliff”. How true a summation of today’s malaised social order!
Over the next few days we were immersed in things Bengali – rich culture, heritage and custom, great culinary tradition, fascinating Bengali countryside, unputdownable folklore and Bengal’s abiding trust on Goddess Kali. Thanks to the visionary outlook of Revered Swami Gyananandaji Maharaj, he had asked his Confidential Secretary to design an itinerary that would be interesting and engrossing to us, instead of strictly adhering to the Tantrik way of life at the Ashram, which meant that every day we spent at Halisahar was fun-filled and exciting both culturally and spiritually.
On Day – 4, after a sumptuous lunch that ended with Misti Doi and Rossogolla, we were provided with the option of going on a horse driven carriage and explore the scenic country sides. Apparently, horse driven carriages are yet to make its presence felt at Halisahar and we were fortunate that two carriages, which were hired during the annual devotee’s get-together (Bhakta Sammellan) were yet to be handed over to the owner of the carriage, who hailed from Kolkata.
We started off from ABSM Ashram and as we proceeded on our leisurely jaunt, passing through picturesque locales and onwards to the Expressway, a bunch of onlookers were hilariously wondering as to the sudden and unexpected emergence of these royal horse driven carriages.
The most exhilarating part of the drive was from the bifurcation at Buddha Park all the way to the virgin and unexplored countryside surrounding the Ishwar Gupta Setu with the shimmering river Ganges for company.
The road is wide and makes for a truly invigorating drive as you pass by the quaint Bengal countryside all the way to Bandel, which is replete with narrow winding roads and a never-ending serpentine queue of shops selling anything from grocery to traditional Indian jewelery. However the talking point of Bandel is the magnificent Portuguese Church dedicated to Nossa Senhora di Rozario, built way back in 1599, which later on was bestowed with the title of “Bascilica” as well.
The hinterland we were told is a rich zone for handicrafts and handlooms. People in this part of the world lead a distinct and unique lifestyle, which is far removed from modernity. We stopped briefly at a village tea shop for light refreshments and we could see farmers tilling their soil and the womenfolk apparently taking care of the household chores.
After the day’s adventure, we retired for the night only to wake up to the chirping of the birds early next morning. Today we would spend the entire day at the global headquarters of ISKCON (International Society of Krishna Consciousness) located at Mayapur, which is a mere 3 hours journey by road from Halisahar. The Assam Bangiya Saraswat Math (ABSM) was gracious enough to have made prior arrangements for us with the ISKCON authorities and we were courteously received by the senior Swamis from ISKCON.
After going around the temple premises and short visit to Nabadweep Dham, the birth place of Chaitainya Mahaprabhu, it would perhaps be apt to state that the district of Nadia has a great spiritual past and that great spiritual heritage and tradition of thousands of years is still alive. We were told by a senior swami that ISKCON in particular has mega tourism plans for Mayapur and Nabadweep Dham and the government was effectively playing the role of a catalyst. We had sumptuous lunch (delectable vegetarian fare) and waited with bated breath for the evening arati, which was a grandiose affair. Hundreds of devotees, both Indian and foreigners danced to the “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna Hare Hare theme and the hour long arati was like having a date with Lord Krishna. So beautifully have ISKCON set up their headquarters that in terms of efficiency and commitment at the workplace, it will make global corporate entities like IBM, Wipro and Infosys pale into insignificance.
On the penultimate day of our trip, we ventured for some bird watching and fishing activities in the wetlands surrounding the Highway. In the local parlance, wetland areas are referred to as “Beels” and we found numerous small and big water bodies that are in close proximity to Halisahar. These wetland areas, we were told were also the breeding grounds for migratory birds.
The wetland areas surrounding Halisahar are a world apart. More than 40 avian species have been sighted in these wetland areas. I was particularly amazed by the ethereal sunrise and sunset views.
Although the local Municipality prohibits fishing in the wetland areas, a concession was made as we were tourists. Let me tell you - the Bengali and his fish are inseparable and a variety of fishes are reared. Historically, the boatmen of Bengal are a unique lot. Their slow, uncluttered and philosophical outlook on life has been the subject of rich Bengali folklore. A lot of films too have been produced depicting the strange lifestyle of Bengal’s boatmen / Fishermen.
All is well that ends well. All that Tantra trailing and outback touring was great fun indeed and Revered Swami Gyananandaji Maharaj had arranged for a post-dinner bonfire at the ABSM lawns with an inspiring lecture on Tantra Yoga followed by devotional songs sung by the resident monks of ABSM Ashram.
Whoever said that West Bengal is a dying state with its pot holed roads, closed down industries, trade unionism, poverty and squalor should have a second look at the resurgent West Bengal of 2013 and one great way to know the pulse of this incredible Indian state is by actually paying a visit to this landmark Tantrik town of Halisahar that reveals its captivating charm like a veil slipping out from the face of a beautiful woman.
Ecstatic we were by our Spiritual – Nature – Culture Tour of Halisahar and what will drive us in this life and beyond is the eternal assurance of His Holiness – Srimat Swami Nigamananda Saraswati Paramahansadev – “I exist and will continue to exist and will guide you in the same manner even after I leave my mortal body. I remain Guru for all times to come. I will not attain salvation until my last devotee attains salvation”.
A spiritually surcharged starlit rendezvous was exactly what the doctor ordered to finish off a truly memorable Tantrik tour of Halisahar. Memories of Halisahar will linger on for a lifetime.
Traveler’s Fact File:
The nearest international airport is the Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose International Airport at Kolkata, which is located at a distance of 50 Kms. from Halisahar. The NSCB Airport, Kolkata is well connected by international airlines’ like British Airways, Singapore Airlines, Emirates, Thai Airways, Gulf Air, Royal Druk, Air Asia, Lufthansa, United Airways etc.
Kolkata being a metropolitan city is also well connected by domestic airlines’ like Air India, Jet Airways, Jet Lite, Kingfisher Airlines, Indigo, Spice Jet etc…all of which operate routine flights connecting Kolkata to all the major cities of India.
Hired taxis are easily available at NSCB airport and the journey by road to Halisahar, covering a distance of 50 Kms. can easily be reached in 1.5 to 2 hours.
Halisahar doesn’t offer luxurious hotels. However, the Assam Bangiya Saraswat Math (ABSM) offer accommodations that are comfortable along with the prospect of leading a Yogic life with yogic food, discourses on Bhagavad Gita and the Vedas by learned scholars/monks, the art of meditation, selfless social work etc.
For further information and reservations, please feel free to contact:
Assam Bangiya Saraswat Math,
Dist: 24 Parganas North
Pin Code: 743134
West Bengal, India