Until silting rendered it impractical for large ships, the River Hooghly, a tributary of the Ganges, was responsible for making Calcutta a bustling port. The ghats lining the river’s east bank serve as landings and places for ritual ablutions; unlike those at Varanasi, however, they have no mythological significance. Around 1.5km north of Howrah Bridge, Nimtolla Ghat, one of the city’s main cremation grounds, is sealed off from public gaze. Further north, behind Kumartuli Ghat, a warren of lanes is home to a community of artisans who make the images of deities used for the major festivals. In the days leading up to the great pujas, especially that of Durga, Kumartuli is a fascinating hive of activity. As you walk north, you come next to Baghbazaar Ghat, where overloaded barges of straw arrive for the craftsmen of Kumartuli. Baghbazaar, the Garden Market, stands on the original site of Sutanuti, its grand but decaying mansions epitomizing the long-vanished lifestyle of the Bengali gentry, the bhadra log (lampooned by Kipling in The Jungle Book, whose monkey troupe he called the “bandar log”).
South of Howrah Bridge, in its shadow, set behind the busy flower market of Mullick Ghat, the Armenian Ghat is most animated at the first light of dawn, when traditional gymnasts and wrestlers, devotees of Hanuman the monkey god, come to practise. As the Strand – separated from the river by the Circular Railway line – heads south, it passes several warehouses, Millennium Park and Fairlie Place and comes to another cluster of ghats. Frequent ferries (7.30am–8pm) from Chandpal Ghat provide an easy alternative to Howrah Bridge. Babu Ghat, identified by its crumbling colonnade, is used for early morning bathing, attended by pujaris (priests) and heavy-handed masseurs. Nearby, messy and busy Babu Ghat Bus Stand is one of Kolkata’s main cross-country terminuses. Further south towards Princep Ghat, between Fort William and the river, the Strand comes into its own as a leafy promenade, pleasant during the early evening with a café, food stalls and boat rides from the small jetty near Scoops café (around Rs150/hr).
The Botanical Gardens at Shibpur lie 10km south of Howrah Station on the west bank of the Hooghly. Populated by countless bird species, the huge gardens are best seen in winter and spring, and early in the mornings, before the heat of the day sets in. Their most famous feature is the world’s largest banyan tree, 24.5m high and an astonishing 420m in circumference.
One of Kolkata’s most famous landmarks and officially Rabindra Setu, though few use this new name, Howrah Bridge (whowrahbridgekolkata.gov.in) is 97m high and 705m long, spanning the river in a single leap to make it the world’s third-longest cantilever bridge. It was erected during World War II in 1943 to give Allied troops access to the Burmese front, replacing an earlier pontoon bridge that opened to let river traffic through. With its maze of girders, it was the first bridge to be built using rivets, and is still used by millions of commuters. Despite the removal of the tramlines, its eight lanes are still perpetually clogged with vehicles, and in the 1980s became so worn out that a man pushing his broken-down car is said to have fallen through a hole and disappeared. Don’t let that put you off; the bridge has undergone major repairs in recent years, and joining the streams of pedestrians who walk across it each day is a memorable experience. Vidyasagar Setu, the second Hooghly bridge built 3km south to relieve the strain, was 22 years in the making. It’s a vast toll bridge with spaghetti-junction-style approaches high enough to let ships pass below. Through sheer incompetence, the agency in charge of managing the tolls posted a loss of over $7 million in 2006; it has since been privatized.