When I was working in Kolkata one of my colleagues was an older gentleman, I think in his ‘70’s. He was older in years but not in groove. His ring tone was ‘Nothing’s Gonna Change My Love for You’, and his phone rang a lot. Not mentioning any names. Mr Ghosh. In deference we made the tune our match day anthem, and when the venue team headed off in the morning to get ready for a cricket match we sang along.
Kolkata is a city that should be experienced rather than visited. If you visit for two or three days and tick off the ‘ten things that you have to see’, you won’t do it justice.
It is called ‘The City of Joy’. This name was hijacked for a while by the book of the same name written by Dominique LaPierre. Its a great book and a famous one, and it has had the flow on effect of making Kolkata synonymous with poverty. ‘City of Joy’ is literally an English translation of the name of the one of the slums in Kolkata – Anand Nagar. The poverty certainly exists, as it does everywhere in India but so does the warmth, the eccentricity and the colour.
These are some of the ways that you can experience the city.
There are three big markets that are good for visiting and for taking pics. I’ve written about two of them before – Newmarket and the Flower Markets. The third is Bara Bazar, or Burra Bazar, or the Big Market. Bara Bazar is the place where you can buy everything – even the eye of a tiger, so the saying goes (but why would you, I hasten to add). It is an area in the city where there are markets within markets. The Flower Market is on the edge of it. Go early and take a wander around.
Word is that the government is on the verge of doing away with the trams, so if you do visit Kolkata before they disappear you should definitely try to fit in a tram ride. These creaky old things look as if they have been around since the British and probably have. If not a tram ride then you should certainly try the rickshaws around Newmarket. These are not just for tourists but a form of transport used regularly albeit less so these days. Likewise a ride in an Ambassador taxi is something to be experienced. I’m a bit obsessed by them and have a whole catalogue of photos of them including the one below with grass growing on the roof. No air conditioning (cooled by grass), the windows mostly open, and a lot of rattling. They generally cost more than an Uber, but it is worth paying a bit more to get amongst it.
3. Colonial architecture
Kolkata was briefly the capital of colonial India, and for three hundred years was an important commercial centre for the immensely wealthy East India Trading company.
There is a lot of architecture remaining from this period. The most notable is the Victoria monument. Other buildings include the National Library (if its National, shouldn’t it be in Delhi?), Lalbazar Police station & precint, the Indian Museum & the Raj Bhavan. The Raj Bhavan is the Governor’s house. Some of the buildings are in good condition and some less so. Lalbazar police station is still a HQ for the Kolkata Police and I visited quite often for work purposes (she says mysteriously).
4. The Arts
Bengali film director Satyajit Ray, and Kolkata local who died in 1992 is one of India’s most awarded film makers. Ray received many major awards in his career, including the inaugural Best Human Document award at the 1956 Cannes Film Festival, 32 Indian National Film Awards , and an Academy Honorary Award in 1992.
Nobel Prize laureate and Kolkata native, Rabindranath Tagore won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1913 – he wrote novels, stories, songs, dance-dramas, and essays and founded an ashram and a university, and championed the cause the ‘Dalit’ untouchable class.
One of my more low-brow favourite authors is Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay with his Detective Byomkesh Bakshi series of books, and his population of Banerjees, Chaterjees, Mukherjees and Das’s. The books have been the subject of a popular TV series and a film. A more recent author and commentator who wrote about Kolkata is Ashok Mitra who wrote The Opium Wars.
It all points to the important part that literature and the arts plays in the life of Kolkata. Visit the Oxford bookshop on Park St to pick up some local and international books. There are any number of galleries, theatres and libraries to be explored.
5. Mother Theresa’s
Hopefully no introduction needed for Mother Theresa – a bona-fide saint and another winner of the Nobel Prize – this time for Peace. I’m a bit sketchy about her Home, not having visited. I’m a bit uneasy about going anywhere to stare at poor people and was nervous that this would be the case here. But I needn’t have worried – a friend visited and she said that the tour is mainly to do with the life of Mother Theresa. So I regret not visiting.
6. Kumortuli and Festivals
Any excuse for a festival in West Bengal. Durga Puja is the biggest – a ten day festival that takes place around September or October each year. Statues are built of clay and straw; stages or pandals are erected in some of the city’s parks and maidans and the colourful festival continues throughout the ten days. On the tenth day the statues are taken to the river and ‘returned’ (dissolved in the river).
Komortuli is a village inside Kolkata where the sculptures and stages are made year round in preparation for the festival. It is worth a visit at any time, but is extra photogenic the closer it is to Durga Puja.
7. Howrah Train Station
Howrah Train Station is the main station for trains coming into Kolkata. It featured in the movie ‘Lion’ as the end point for the child’s journey. Next to Howrah Station is the Howrah Bridge which crosses over the Hooghly river which is a branch of the Ganges that bisects the city. On the other side the bridge from the train station is the Flower Market.
There are a number of jetties along the Hooghly where you can jump onto a ferry either to go across or further up or down the river.
Other big stations are Sealdah and Park Circus. You’ll need to buy a ticket to get onto the platform even if you are not getting on a train.
Here I have to declare the fact that I am a lazy tourist, the queues to get in to the temples are often quite long so while I have visited Dadshineshwar and Belur Math I havn’t been inside.
Four of the best known and most visited are Dakshineshwar and Belur Math that are both on the river, Birla Mandir, and the colourful Parashnath Jain temple. There are also any number of churches, mosques and synagogues. Kolkata is a melting pot of religions.
What I did enjoy is the trip by boat between them on the river.
9. Cricket – Eden Gardens and the maidans
Wow, what can I say. Skip over this bit if you have never heard of cricket. You won’t get it. Eden Gardens is the spiritual home of cricket in India. Indian’s will tell you it is the ‘Lords’ of India and perhaps it is. Australian’s say that the MCG is the Lords of Australia and neither Eden Gardens nor the MCG is much like Lords except it is round and there is grass. But having been to many matches at Eden Gardens I agree that there is something almost spiritual about it. People love watching cricket there and players love playing there. Cricketers told me that while their form was woeful, their memory of walking out onto the field at Eden Gardens to play cricket will stay with them forever.
Around Eden Gardens are the maidans. Slightly further afield is the Park Circus maidan. On any given afternoon there are hundreds of people either playing cricket with their mates or playing cricket or football for sporting associations that are dotted throughout.
Kolkata is known for its street food, and on my visits I’ve only scratched the surface. If you ask, people will recommend bars and restaurants on Park Street. I found Park Street a bit ‘ho, hum’, albeit with a couple of good bars. Off Park Street, a visit to 6 Ballygunge is worthwhile as much for the ambience as for the local food. Its quite upmarket. We took out a bankdraft and ate a Bengali Thali at the Oberoi, and that was an experience that I would recommend.
But my favourite food was at the canteen at work – each day we ate what was on offer – a veg curry, non veg curry, watery dal, a mountain of rice and some slices of cucumber, washed down with some chai. Often the non veg curry was fish, which Bengali cuisine is known for. Sometimes the veg curry was jackfruit, which is quite strange, and has the texture of an unidentifiable meat. If you were in their good books they might throw in a hard boiled egg and some fried, cracked crisps, as they grin and sweep away the flies. Throughout the day chai was available as was toast with butter and either black pepper or sugar.
It is not something that is available to everyone unfortunately and if you can’t have that then there is a tie for either the Russel Street Punjabi Dhaba, or Nizam’s for a kathi roll. Sanjha Chulha was the place that we ate from almost every night because they deliver, and I’ve never had better India food. Try the dhaba dal, it will blow your head off. Mix it with a plain roti or a paratha. But not too much paratha or you’ll get fat.
Finish it all off with Mishti Doi. It’s a dessert but not too heavy and not too sweet.
Kolkata seems to be riddled with ghosts and the West Bengalis are a very superstitious group of people. Lets start our ghost tour with the Oberoi Grand Hotel. A beautiful building in the centre of the city. One of my visiting colleagues was staying there and I asked him what the hotel was like. He said that it was lovely but he couldn’t get the room he wanted because that section of the building ‘had too many ghosts’ and they wouldn’t let people stay there. I organised a dinner at the restaurant so that we could check it out. There is indeed a whole wing of the building bricked up. I was too scared to go to the closed off section, naturally, but the boys went up and told us that it was closed ‘for renovations’. Yeah right, I wonder how long those renovations have been going on.
Then the stories kept coming. We drove past the race course and of course it is said to be haunted by a ghost horse. The National Library is apparently so haunted that even the security guards are too scared to stay overnight.
Fort William so the stories go, has tunnels leading from it to the river which is an impressive distance. But these tunnels had to be closed because … too many people were being murdered !! After I’d heard this I happened to be working with some Army people and wanted to ask them about the tunnels, but they were so impressive with their turbans and air of quiet authority I didn’t want to them to think badly of me. So I didn’t.
Thanks to PK for this slightly spooky photo of the Oberoi.
There is already too much for one blog. This is not an exhaustive list, but each of these experiences is fascinating in its own right. Kolkata is one of countless places to visit and experience in Incredible India.
Other blogs about Kolkata:
Cricket – the passion of a nation
Mullick Ghat – Flower market
Unexpected Places – the Manual scoreboard at Eden Gardens
Making a Difference – Freeset and Dharavi Reality Tours
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