One of the four great urban centres of India, KOLKATA 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). This 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 stand 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 malls, restaurants and satellite towns springing up all around the city. The downside of all this development, however, partly resulting from the huge increase in traffic, is some of the worst air pollution in the world, with some of the most chaotic road systems in the country.
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 cinematic tradition brought world renown by director Satyajit Ray.
Visitors still experience Kolkata first and foremost as a colonial city with the chief bastion of imperialism at its heart – the Writers’ Building, the seat of state government – little changed over the decades. Grand edifices in a profusion of styles litter the old city and several venerable Raj institutions continue to survive, such as the racecourse, the reverence for cricket and several exclusive gentlemen’s clubs. Kolkata’s crumbling, weather-beaten buildings and anarchic streets can create an intimidating first impression. With time and patience, though, this huge metropolis unravels its secrets, providing 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 eclectic Indian Museum housing one of the largest collections in Asia, ranging from natural history to art and archeology. 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 that housed the clerks or “writers” of the East India Company; nearby stand St Andrew’s Kirk and the pillared immensity of the GPO. The city’s old Chinatown, a short walk north of BBD Bagh, is a sad reminder of a once flourishing community, while on the edge of the frenetic, labyrinthine markets of Barabazaar, synagogues and the Armenian church are remnants of a once thriving cosmopolitan trade. The renowned 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.
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.Read More
The dramatic white marble Victoria Memorial at the southern end of the Maidan, with its formal gardens and watercourses, continues to be Kolkata’s pride and joy. Other colonial monuments and statues throughout the city have been renamed or demolished, but attempts to change the name of the “VM” have come to nothing. This extraordinary hybrid building designed by Sir William Emerson, with Italianate statues over its entrances, Mughal domes in its corners, and elegant open colonnades along its sides, was conceived by Lord Curzon to commemorate the empire at its peak, though by the time it was completed in 1921, twenty years after Victoria’s death, the capital of the Raj had shifted to Delhi.
The main entrance, at the Maidan end, leads into a tall chamber beneath the dome. The 25 galleries inside still contain mementoes of British imperialism including statues of Queen Mary, King George V and Queen Victoria. Well worth seeing, the Calcutta Gallery provides a fascinating insight into the history and life of the Indians of the city and the Independence struggle through paintings, documents and old photographs.
Eden Gardens, the imposing site of the world-famous cricket ground (officially known as the Ranji Stadium), lies near the river close to Chandpal Ghat and has been described as the “Coliseum of Cricket”. Watching a test match here is an unforgettable experience as the 100,000-seat stadium resounds to the roar of the crowd. Next to the stadium, towards the river, the pleasant palm-fringed gardens are a picture of tranquillity with a Burmese pagoda set against a little lake.
A short walk north of Shobabazar Ghat on the River Hooghly, lies the warren of Kumartuli, where a community of kumars or “potters” hand-craft lavish statues of voluptuous goddesses used for the city’s religious festivals. In the days leading up to the great pujas, especially that of Durga, Kumartuli is a fascinating hive of activity. Statues take form from straw and river clay before being spray-painted and then clothed in all their finery. Although pith (banana tree marrow) is still used to decorate the statues, modern materials have made an impact. The community is also accessible from Shobabazar Metro Station – emerge from the west exit and walk west along a lane to Rabindra Sarani and an entrance to Kumartuli.
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.
Beatified by Pope John Paul II on October 19, 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. While working in Kolkata, she was moved by the terrible poverty around her; in 1948 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, a hospice for destitutes. Despite local resistance, Mother Teresa chose its site by Kalighat temple in the knowledge that many poor people 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, and she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979. Subsequently she also attracted a fair share of controversy with her fierce anti-abortion stance and was also accused of disregarding advances in medicine in favour of saving souls. 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. Mother Teresa is buried here, and along with her tomb there is a small museum dedicated to her life. They run orientation workshops (a brief introduction to their work) on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at nearby Shishu Bhavan, which 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 that runs clinics, schools and a crèche in Kolkata, as well as an outreach programme to help people in need further afield in West Bengal.
An organization dedicated to the welfare and rehabilitation of street and slum children, Hope relies on volunteers and donors for its many projects throughout the city and further afield.