Explore Kolkata & West Bengal
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,
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.
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
The amorphous area of north Kolkata, long part of the “native” town rather than the European sectors, was where the city’s prosperous nineteenth-century Bengali families created their little palaces, or raj baris, many now in advanced and fascinating states of decay.
South of the Maidan and Park Street, Kolkata spreads towards suburbs such as Alipore and Ballygunge, both within easy distance of the centre. The thoroughfare that starts life as Chowringhee proceeds south from Esplanade past Kalighat to Tollygunge, following the Metro line which terminates near the luxurious Tollygunge Club, the mansion of an indigo merchant now surrounded by immaculate golfing fairways and bridle-paths. Northeast of Tollygunge, beyond a white-tiled mosque built in 1835 by descendants of Tipu Sultan, lies the parkland of Rabindra Sarobar, known locally as the Lakes, a popular spot for early evening walks.
Bengal has a lively tradition of contemporary art, and with increased prosperity and speculation in fine art, galleries showing a high standard of work are burgeoning throughout the city. Exhibitions are listed in Cal Calling; besides the Academy of Fine Arts and the Ashutosh Museum, the following are worth checking out.
Aakriti Art Gallery
1st floor, Orbit Enclave, 12/3A, Picasso Bithi, Hungerford St t033/2289 3027, wwww.aakritiartgallery.com. A well-presented modern Indian art gallery with big name exhibitions and a shop (Mon–Sat noon–7pm; free).
Rabindranath Tagore Centre, 9A Ho Chi Minh Sarani t033/2287 2680, wwww.tagorecentreiccr.org. Occasional art and craft exhibitions in this government-run, cultural establishment (Mon–Sat 10am–7pm; free).
Birla Academy of Art and Culture
108 Southern Ave t033/2466 2843, wwww.birlaart.com. Ancient and modern art with regular exhibitions of contemporary Indian artists (Tues–Sun 4–7pm; Rs5).
(Centre of International Modern Art), 2nd Floor, Sunny Towers, 43 Ashutosh Chowdhury Ave t033/2474 8717, wwww.cimaartindia.com. Prestigious Ballygunge gallery, displaying work by contemporary artists (Tues–Sun 2–8pm; free).
28-B Shakespeare Sarani t033/2247 2274, wwww.galerie88.in. Private gallery showing contemporary Indian paintings plus specialist exhibitions and some big names. Also stocks art supplies (Mon–Sat 10am–7pm; free).
Early in the nineteenth century, Kalighat was in its heyday, drawing pilgrims, merchants and artisans from all over the country. Among them were scroll painters from elsewhere in Bengal, who developed the distinctive style now known as Kalighat pat. Adapting Western techniques, using paper and water-based paints instead of tempera, they moved away from religious themes to depict contemporary subjects. By 1850, Kalighat pat had taken a dynamic new direction, satirizing the middle classes in much the same way as today’s political cartoons. They serve as a witty record of the period, filled with images of everyday life, and can be found in galleries and museums around the world, and in the Indian Museum as well as the Birla Academy and Ashutosh Museum in Kolkata.
Beatified by Pope John Paul II on 19 October 2003, Mother Teresa, Kolkata’s most famous citizen (1910–97), was born Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu to Albanian parents, and grew up in Skopje in the former Yugoslavia. Joining the Sisters of Loreto, an Irish order, she was sent as a teacher to Darjeeling, where she took her vows in May 1931 and became Teresa. In her work at St Mary’s School in Kolkata, she became aware of the terrible poverty around her; in 1948, with permission from Rome, she changed her nun’s habit for the simple blue-bordered white sari that became the uniform of the Missionaries of Charity.
The best known of their many homes and clinics is Nirmal Hriday at 251 Kalighat Rd, a hospice for destitutes. In the face of local resistance, Mother Teresa chose its site at Kalighat – Kolkata’s most important centre of Hinduism – in the knowledge that many of the poor specifically come here to die, next to a holy tirtha or crossing-place. Mother Teresa’s piety and single-minded devotion to the poor won her international acclaim, including the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979. Subsequently she also attracted a fair share of controversy with her fierce anti-abortion stance, giving rise to accusations of fundamentalist Catholicism. She was also accused of disregarding advances in medicine in favour of saving the souls of the dying and destitute. Censure, however, seems iniquitous in the light of her immense contribution to humanity.
If you’re interested in the work of the Missionaries of Charity, they can be contacted at Mother House, near Sealdah Station at 54-A AJC Bose Rd (t033/2249 7115, closed Thurs), where there is a small museum. Although they occasionally turn casual volunteers away, they run orientation workshops (a brief introduction to their work) on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 3pm to 5pm. Nearby Shishu Bhavan, 78 AJC Bose Rd, is an orphanage and a dispensary for children.
The appalling poverty highlighted by Mother Teresa has led to a number of NGO charities developing in the city. Established in 1979, Calcutta Rescue is a non-religious organization which, with the help of worldwide support groups, runs clinics, schools and a creche in Kolkata, as well as an outreach programme to help those in need further afield in West Bengal. For more information visit them online at wwww.calcuttarescue.org or call t033/2217 5675.
The festivals of Kolkata
The festivals of Kolkata
Most of Kolkata’s Hindu festivals are devoted to forms of the mother goddess, Shakti. Kolkata’s own deity, the black goddess Kali, is an emanation of Durga, the consort of Shiva. Kali is most commonly depicted with four arms, standing on the prostrate Shiva after killing the demon Raktviya, her tongue protruding in horror; other forms include the terrifying Chinemasta (torn head), where Kali holds her own severed head and drinks her own blood. The two-week Durga Puja (Sept/Oct) is Kolkata’s most lavish festival. A symbol of victory, Durga is shown with ten arms slaying the demon Mahisasura, who assumed the shape of a buffalo and threatened the gods. Durga sits on, or is accompanied by, a lion.
In preparation for the festivals, artisans in the Kumartuli area sculpt voluptuous women from straw, papier-mâché, clay and pith (banana-tree marrow). Clothed and decorated, these lavish images of the goddesses are then carried in noisy procession to elaborate marquees called pandals. Supported by donations from businesses and local residents, with popular music blaring through loudspeakers, pandals block off small streets for days. After the puja, the images are taken to the river for immersion, a colourful scene that’s best viewed via one of the boat cruises offered by the West Bengal tourist office (see The Metro); they also offer bus tours that take in the pandals.
The major festivals
(early Jan) Commemorating Joydeb, the revered author of the Gita Govinda, and held in the village of Kendubilwa, also known as Kenduli, near Shantiniketan; the place to hear Baul minstrels in their element.
Ganga Sagar Mela
(mid-Jan) During the winter solstice of Makar Sankranti, hundreds of thousands of Hindu pilgrims and sadhus travel through Kolkata from all over India for a three-day festival at Sagardwip, 150km south where the Ganges meets the sea.
Dover Lane Music Festival
(Jan/Feb) A week-long festival in south Kolkata, attracting many of the country’s best musicians.
(Jan/Feb) Popular and important festival to the goddess of learning staged throughout Bengal.
Chinese New Year
(Jan/Feb) Celebrated with a week-long festival of dragon dances, firecrackers and fine food, concentrated around Chinatown and the suburb of Tangra.
(dates determined by the lunar calendar; see wwww.when-is.com) Shi’ite Muslims mark the anniversary of the martyrdom of Hussein by severe penance including processions during which they flagellate themselves.
(Sept/Oct) At the onset of winter, Durga Puja (known elsewhere as Dussehra) is the Bengali equivalent of Christmas. It climaxes on Mahadashami, the tenth day, when images are immersed in the river.
(Oct/Nov) Held five days after Mahadashami on the full moon, to honour the goddess of wealth.
Id ul Fitr
(dates determined by the lunar calendar; see wwww.when-is.com) Celebrating the end of the fasting month of Ramadan and heralded by the new moon, the festival is a time of joyousness when people don new clothes and sample wonderful food at the restaurants and stalls around Park Circus.
Diwali and Kali Puja
(Oct/Nov) Two weeks after Lakshmi Puja, Kali Puja is held on a moonless night when goats are sacrificed, and coincides with Diwali, the festival of light.
(Dec 25) Park Street and New Market are adorned with fairy lights and the odd Christmas tree. Plum pudding is sold, and Midnight Mass is well attended.
(late Dec) Held in Shantiniketan around Christmas, the mela attracts Bauls, the wandering minstrels who attract large audiences.
What’s in a name?
What’s in a name?
Though most of the old British street names were officially changed years ago, habits die hard and some of the original names continue to be widely used in tandem. The most important of these is Chowringhee or Jawaharlal Nehru Road (still called Chowringhee). Other name changes to note are BBD Bagh (still often referred to by its old name of Dalhousie Square or simply “Dalhousie”), Mirza Ghalib Street (Free School St), Dr Mohammed Ishaque Road (Kyd St), Muzaffar Ahmed Street (Ripon St), Rafi Ahmed Kidwai Street (Wellesley St), Ho Chi Minh Sarani (Harrington St), AJC Bose Road (Lower Circular Rd), Shakespeare Sarani (Theatre Rd), Rabindranath Tagore Street (Camac St), Lenin Sarani (Dharamtala) and Rabindra Sarani (Chitpore Rd).
Milk-based sweets such as the small and dry sandesh are a Bengali speciality. Though the white rosogulla, the brown (deep-fried) pantua and the distinctive black kalojam, all in syrup, are found elsewhere in north India, the best examples are made in Kolkata. Others worth trying are lal doi – a delicious red steamed yoghurt made with jaggery – or white mishti doi, yoghurt made with sugar. Sweetshops serve savoury snacks in the afternoons such as deep-fried pastry strips called nimki (literally “salty”); shingara, a delicate Bengali samosa; and dalpuri, paratha-like bread made with lentils.
As soon as you arrive in Kolkata, taxi drivers are likely to assume that you’ll be heading for Sudder Street, near New Market, where you’ll find a heady mix of travellers, businessmen and Bangladeshis in transit. As the main travellers’ hub in Kolkata and close to all amenities, the area is a sociable place to stay with numerous small to mid-sized hotels, most in the budget or mid-range brackets; the latter tend to be overpriced and poor value for money, and if you’re after a modicum of luxury, you may have to look further afield. If you’re booked on a night flight, you may consider the retiring rooms at the airport. Similarly, the Yatri Niwas at Howrah’s South Station is convenient for late arrivals and there are great foodhalls at both the main and the South Station.
Although locals love to dine out, traditional Bengali cooking was, until recently, restricted to the home; however some excellent restaurants now offer the chance to taste this wonderful fish-based cuisine. The most popular option for dining out is Chinese food, spiced and cooked to local tastes: the city has a rich tradition including its own Chinatown at Tangra (closes early around 10pm) on the road to the airport. You’ll also find several good south Indian restaurants, as well as rich Muslim cooking at places like Shiraz; the kathi roll, invented at Nizam’s, is now part and parcel of Kolkata’s cuisine. The coffee culture is growing with Baristas at Humayun Place and several Café Coffee Day outlets including one in Pantaloons department store on Camac Street; the Cha Bar at Oxford Bookshop and Dolly’s are purveyors of fine tea. Numerous patisseries and confectioneries like Kookie Jar and Kathleen’s work hard to keep abreast of demand. Fresh and Natural, with a branch on Russel Street, has some great ice-cream flavours including the fabulous custard apple.
Restaurants and cafés around Sudder Street cater for Western travellers staying in the local hotels, while roadside chai shops and snack vendors offer a tasty alternative. The busy environs around New Market include a Muslim quarter with several good restaurants, most with an emphasis on meat.
Drinking, nightlife and entertainment
Drinking, nightlife and entertainment
The formerly tense, all-male atmosphere of Kolkata’s bars is becoming a thing of the past, with designer-style places attracting a young, professional clientele. As well as the places below, the big hotels are a good option for a quiet drink; some of them also have discos. You’ll sometimes hear Western live music at restaurants and bars, and Kolkata’s spirited arts scene is known for its home-grown music – audiences here have a reputation as the most discerning in the country. The main concert season is winter to spring, with the huge week-long Dover Lane Music Festival, held in south Kolkata around the end of January and early February, attracting many of India’s best musicians. Other popular venues for single- and multi-day festivals include Rabindra Sadan on the junction of AJC Bose Road and Cathedral Road, and Kala Bhavan on Theatre Road (Shakespeare Sarani). One of the country’s leading North Indian classical music research institutes, Sangeet Research Academy in Tollygunge offers long-term courses in various music forms, and holds free Wednesday evening concerts.
Of the many nonreligious festivals each year, the Ganga Utsav, held over a few weeks around the end of January at Diamond Harbour, involves music, dance and theatrical events. Rabindra Sadan is Kolkata’s theatre and concert hall district, with numerous venues. Cal Calling is a useful source for listings, as are local papers.
Cinemas showing English-language films several times each day can be found along Chowringhee near Esplanade and New Market. All are air-conditioned; some, like the Lighthouse on Humayan Place, are fine examples of Art Deco. Names to look for include Inox, a modern multiplex at the Forum on Elgin Road; Elite, SN Banerjee Road; and Chaplin, Chowringhee Place. Nandan, behind Rabindra Sadan on AJC Bose Road, is the city’s leading art-house cinema with a library, archives and three auditoria.
Compared to Delhi, Kolkata has limited tourist shopping. However, there are many characterful markets, including the wide-ranging New Market, as well as local institutions such as Barabazaar to the north and Gariahat Market, with its produce market best in the early mornings, in south Kolkata. Modern shopping malls – good for books, clothes, designer labels, leather and jewellery – are cropping up all over the city including Forum, 10/3 Elgin Rd; Emami Shoppers City at Lord Sinha Road; and South City Mall, which is very popular with several good restaurants, on Prince Anwar Shah Road in South Kolkata. Typical Bengali handicrafts to look out for include metal dokra items from the Shantiniketan region northwest of the city: animal and bird objects are roughly cast by a lost-wax process to give them a wiry look. Long-necked, pointy-eared terracotta horses from Bankura, in all sizes, have become something of a cliché. Kantha fabrics display delicate line stitching in decorative patterns. Bengal boasts several good centres of cotton and silk weaving resulting in legendary saris such as the Baluchari style from Murshidabad.
Sport is enthusiastically followed in Kolkata, with football matches – especially those between the two leading clubs, Mohan Bagan and East Bengal – and cricket test matches drawing huge crowds. There are two major stadium complexes, Ranji at Eden Gardens and Salt Lake on the eastern edge of the city.
The Maidan, home to the Calcutta Bowling Club and the Ladies Golf Club, is a favourite venue for impromptu cricket and football matches, and the scene of regular race meetings in winter and spring run by the Calcutta Turf Club. Also in winter, army teams play polo on the grounds at the centre of the racecourse. The curious sport of kabadi, a fierce form of tag played by two teams on a pitch the size of a badminton court, can also be seen around the Maidan.
The Hindusthan International Hotel, 235-1 AJC Bose Rd (t033/2247 2394), allows non-residents to use their swimming pool on a daily basis (Rs500). Across the road from the superbly equipped Tollygunge Club, where (with the right connections) you might get to use the pool and tennis courts, the elite Royal Calcutta Golf Club is the world’s second-oldest golf club, after St Andrews in Scotland.