The image most people have of Calcutta is one of abject poverty and misery -- the residual effect of the many years the media focused on Mother Teresa's good works. Despite this unfortunate perception, Kolkata (as the Communist-ruled West Bengal Capital became known in 2001) attracts its fair share of visitors, many of whom are pleasantly surprised by the seductive charms of this intoxicating city.
Believed to be the ethereal abode of the goddess Kali, who embodies shakti -- fortitude and strength -- it is home to a joyous, cerebral, and sophisticated community; some of the best Raj-era architecture in India; many of the country's best artists; a thriving film industry; and a host of superb restaurants.
Kolkata is also the natural starting point for a trip to the Himalayan mountains of the North, where you can drink in the crystal-clear air of Darjeeling, India's most famous hill station, imbibing the "champagne of teas" before picking up a permit to hike the tiny state of Sikkim. One of the least-explored regions of India, Sikkim is a world apart, surrounded by jagged peaks and home to snow-fed lakes, remote Buddhist monasteries, yak-herding Tibetans, high-altitude forests, and some 4,000 varieties of wildflowers (including 600 varieties of orchid).
South of West Bengal, in the coastal state of Orissa -- often called the "soul of India" -- you can join the pilgrims who gather by the thousands to pay homage to the Lord of the Universe, who resides at the seaside town of Puri. Within easy striking distance from here is Konark's Sun Temple, a World Heritage Site, a testament to the technical and artistic brilliance of Orissa in the 13th century, and unreservedly one of India's top attractions.
To cover all three eastern states, you will need a minimum of 9 days, ideally flying directly to Bhubaneswar, capital of Orissa, to visit Puri and Konark, then heading northward to West Bengal to visit the capital, Kolkata, and the state's idyllic hill station, Darjeeling. End your tour in laid-back Sikkim before flying back to Delhi from nearby Bagdogra Airport. Set aside extra time for trekking in Sikkim or a tribal tour in Orissa.
The Dance of Destruction -- For Hindus, India is a holy land, with thousands of tirthas -- celestial "crossover" points where mortals can access the world of the gods. Legend has it that these were created after Lord Shiva's wife, Sati, jumped into a fire in an act of shame because her father, Raja Daksha, had neglected to invite Shiva to an important ritual. Unable to bear the loss, the grief-struck Shiva -- carrying Sati's body -- began to pace India in a tandava nritya, or "dance of destruction." Terrified that his fury and pain would destroy the universe, Brahma, Vishnu, and Shani dispersed her body across the vast plains and peaks of India, and wherever a body part fell, this became a tirtha. Many of these are important pilgrimage sites Hindu believers must visit at least once in their lifetime, such as those at Varanasi. One of Sati's toes also fell in a dense forest in southwest Bengal. Today, this site -- now Kalighat Temple -- is one of India's most important pilgrimage centers, where the goddess is worshipped as Kali. The toe is supposedly housed in a chamber of the temple. Every year in June, as part of a secretive ritual, the toe is bathed.