India // Kolkata & West Bengal //

Kolkata (Calcutta) and around

One of the four great urban centres of India, KOLKATA (CALCUTTA) is, to its proud citizens, the equal of any city in the country in charm, variety and interest. As the showpiece capital of the British Raj, it was the greatest colonial city of the Orient, and descendants of the fortune-seekers who flocked from across the globe to participate in its eighteenth- and nineteenth-century trading boom remain conspicuous in its cosmopolitan blend of communities. Despite this, there has been a recent rise in Bengali nationalism, which has resulted in the renaming of Calcutta as Kolkata (the Bengali pronunciation and official new name), which has yet to be universally embraced – leading English-language paper The Telegraph continues to use Calcutta.

Since Indian Independence, mass migrations of dispossessed refugees caused by twentieth-century upheavals within the Subcontinent have tested the city’s infrastructure to the limit. The resultant suffering – and the work of Mother Teresa in drawing attention to its most helpless victims – has given Kolkata a reputation for poverty that its residents consider ill-founded. They argue that the city’s problems – the continuing influx of refugees notwithstanding – are no longer as acute as those of Mumbai or other cities across the world. In fact, though Kolkata’s mighty Victorian buildings lie peeling and decaying, and its central avenues are choked by traffic, the city exudes a warmth and buoyancy that leaves few visitors unmoved. Kolkata is expanding rapidly, with shopping arcades, restaurants and satellite towns springing up all around the city. The downside of all this development, however, is some of the worst air pollution in the world, while the increase in traffic has seen the roads become some of the most dangerous in India.

In terms of the city’s cultural life, Kolkata’s Bengalis exude a pride in their artistic heritage and like to see themselves as the intelligentsia of India. The city is home to a multitude of galleries and huge Indian classical music festivals, with a thriving Bengali-language theatre scene and a tradition of cinema brought world renown by Satyajit Ray.

Though Marxists may rule from the chief bastion of imperialism (the Writers’ Building, which has changed little over the decades), visitors still experience Kolkata first and foremost as a colonial city. Grand edifices in a profusion of styles include the imposing Victoria Memorial and the gothic St Paul’s Cathedral, while the collection at the eclectic Indian Museum, one of the largest museums in Asia, ranges from natural history to art and archeology. Among numerous venerable Raj institutions to have survived are the racecourse, the reverence for cricket and several exclusive gentlemen’s clubs.

Kolkata’s climate is at its best during its short winter (Nov–Feb), when the daily maximum temperature hovers around 27°C, and the markets are filled with vegetables and flowers. Before the monsoons, the heat hangs unbearably heavily; the arrival of the rains in late June brings relief, but usually also floods that turn the streets into a quagmire. After a brief period of post-monsoon high temperatures, October and November are quite pleasant; this is the time of the city’s biggest festival,
Durga Puja.

Kolkata’s crumbling, weather-beaten buildings and anarchic streets can create an intimidating first impression. With time and patience, though, this huge metropolis resolves itself into a fascinating conglomerate of styles and influences. The River Hooghly, spanned by the remarkable cantilever Howrah Bridge, is not all that prominent in the life of the city. Instead its heart is the green expanse of the Maidan, which attracts locals from all walks of life for recreation, sports, exhibitions and political rallies. At its southern end stands the white marble Victoria Memorial, and close by rise the tall Gothic spires of St Paul’s Cathedral. Next to the busy New Market area looms the all-embracing Indian Museum. Further north, the district centred on BBD Bagh is filled with reminders of the heyday of the East India Company, dominated by the bulk of the Writers’ Building, built in 1780 to replace the original structure which housed the clerks or “writers” of the East India Company; nearby stand St Andrew’s Kirk and the pillared immensity of the GPO. A little further out, the Armenian church stands on the edge of the frenetic, labyrinthine markets of Barabazaar, while the renowned and influential temple of Kalighat is away to the south. Across the river, south of the marvellous Howrah railway station, lies the tranquillity of the Botanical Gardens.

Brief history

By the time the remarkable Job Charnock established the headquarters of the East India Company at Sutanuti on the east bank of the Hooghly in 1690, the riverside was already dotted with trading communities from European countries. A few years later, Sutanuti was amalgamated with two other villages to form the town of Calcutta, whose name probably originated from kalikutir, the house or temple of Kali (a reference to the Kalighat shrine). With trading success came ambitious plans for development; in 1715 a delegation to the Mughal court in Delhi negotiated trading rights, creating a territory on both banks of the Hooghly of around 15km long. Later, it became entangled in the web of local power politics, with consequences both unforeseen (as with the Black Hole) and greatly desired, as when the Battle of Plassey in 1758 made the British masters of Bengal. Recognized by Parliament in London in 1773, the company’s trading monopoly led it to shift the capital of Bengal here from Murshidabad, and Calcutta became a clearing house for a vast range of commerce, including the lucrative export of opium to China.

At first, the East India Company brought young bachelors out from Britain to work as clerks or “writers” and accommodated them in the Writers’ Building. Many took Indian wives, giving rise to the new Eurasian community known as the Anglo-Indians. Merchants and adventurers – among them Parsis, Baghdadi Jews, Afghans and Indians from other parts of the country – contributed to the melting pot after the East India Company’s monopoly was withdrawn. The ensuing boom lasted for decades, during which such splendid buildings as the Court House, Government House and St Paul’s Cathedral earned Calcutta the sobriquet “City of Palaces”. In reality, however, the humid and uncomfortable climate, putrefying salt marshes and the hovels that grew haphazardly around the metropolis created unhygienic conditions that were a constant source of misery and disease. The death of Calcutta as an international port finally came with the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, which led to the emergence of Bombay, and the end of the city’s opium trade. In 1911, the days of glory drew to a definitive close when the imperial capital of India was transferred to New Delhi.

Read More
  • The Maidan, New Market and Park Street
  • Central Kolkata
  • The River Hooghly
  • North Kolkata
  • South Kolkata
  • Galleries
  • Kalighat paintings
  • Mother Teresa
  • The festivals of Kolkata
  • What’s in a name?
  • Sweetshops
  • Accommodation
  • Eating
  • Drinking, nightlife and entertainment
  • Shopping
  • Sports