Eastern India boasts some of the most spectacular and diverse landscapes in the subcontinent, and a cultural life as vibrant and distinctive as any in Asia. Its two dominant natural features are the vast chain of Himalayan peaks rising to the north, and the mighty river delta to the south where the silt-laden Ganges and Brahmaputra flow into the Bay of Bengal. Between the two unfolds the alluvial plain of West Bengal itself, whose fecundity and strategic position, exploited by a string of powerful regional dynasties in medieval times, first enticed European traders to settle in India.
It is to admire the grandiloquent piles left behind by the Raj on the banks of the Hooghly at Calcutta, where the British established their first capital in India, that most foreigners venture east today. But the remains of much older kingdoms survive upriver, languishing amid the rice fields and fringes of small towns where, if you’re lucky, you might encounter troupes of wandering Baul musicians performing at country fairs, or on the trains trundling north towards the Himalayas.
To the southeast of Kolkata, Odisha is today a relative backwater, but in ancient times was the heartland of a powerful empire built on maritime trade. Some of India’s finest carved stone temples bear witness to the wealth and sophistication of ancient Kalinga, and the medieval kingdoms that followed in its wake.
A wealth of vibrant crafts traditions have for centuries been sustained by the region’s shrines, including palm-leaf manuscript art, appliqué, ‘lost wax’ metal casting and sculpture. Another reason to visit this culturally fascinating region are the indigenous and tribal minorities who inhabit the interior forests.
Whichever itinerary you follow in eastern India, you’re guaranteed a journey with frequent surprises, great variety, world-class monuments and glimpses of traditions that are fast disappearing.