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 rise in Bengali nationalism over the last twenty years, and in 2001 the city was officially renamed as Kolkata (its precolonial Bengali name). This is not universally embraced – leading English-language paper The Telegraph continues to use Calcutta, as do many of its citizens.
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 sells the city short. Although it undoubtedly faces huge challenges, they are no greater than in other cities of comparable size in India and around 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, hip cafés and 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 one 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. It also has an enviable literary tradition, hosting a world-famous book fair and producing a string of award-winning authors.
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 slightly 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.
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.
Built in 1868 on the site of the original Fort William – destroyed by Siraj-ud-Daula in 1756 – the GPO on the west side of the square hides the supposed site of the Black Hole of Calcutta. On a hot June night in 1756, 146 British prisoners were forced by Siraj-ud-Daula’s guards into a tiny chamber with only the smallest of windows for ventilation; most had suffocated to death by the next morning. By all accounts, the guards were unaware of the tragedy unfolding and, on hearing the news, Siraj-ud-Daula was deeply repentant. A memorial to the victims that formerly stood in front of the Writers’ Building was moved in 1940 to the grounds of St John’s Church, south of the GPO.
Canonized by Pope Francis in September 2016, Mother Teresa (1910–97) is undoubtedly Kolkata’s most famous citizen. Born Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu to Albanian parents, she 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.
If you’re interested in the work of the Missionaries of Charity, they can be contacted at Mother House, near Sealdah Station at 54A AJC Bose Rd. Mother Teresa is buried here, and along with her tomb there is a small museum dedicated to her life. 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 nonreligious organization that runs clinics, schools and a creche 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.
As soon as you arrive in Kolkata, taxi drivers are likely to assume that you’ll be heading for Sudder St, 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 hotels, though if you’re after more luxury, you may have to look further afield. Note that budget hotels in Kolkata are generally pretty poor quality: it is well worth spending a bit more here to avoid the grottiest rooms.
Although locals love to dine out, traditional Bengali cooking was, until relatively recently, restricted to the home; however, some excellent restaurants now offer the chance to taste this wonderful fish- and seafood-based cuisine; Kewpie’s is a great place to get an overview. Chinese, spiced and cooked to local tastes, is also popular: the city has a rich tradition including its own Chinatown at Tangra on the road to the airport. You’ll also find several good south Indian restaurants, numerous joints offering varying standards of Western cuisine, as well as rich Muslim cooking and the not-to-be-missed kati roll (sometimes referred to as “kathi roll” or just “roll”; they are parathas stuffed with chicken, mutton, paneer, egg or spiced potato, spiked with chilli and lime, and rolled in a sheaf of paper), which is an integral part of Kolkata’s cuisine. Coffee culture is growing with the usual chain cafés throughout the city and there is a handful of purveyors of fine tea. Numerous patisseries and confectioneries work hard to keep up with demand. Restaurants and cafés around Sudder St cater for Western travellers while roadside chai shops and street food stalls around BBD Bagh are extremely popular for lunch.
The climate of Kolkata is at its best during the short winter (Nov–Feb), when the daily maximum temperature hovers around 27°C, and the markets are filled with fresh vegetables and flowers. Before the monsoons, however, 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.
She has no temple but the two-week Durga Puja is Kolkata’s most lavish festival (Sept/Oct). A symbol of victory over evil, the ten-armed Durga is commonly depicted sitting on a lion slaying the demon Mahisasura who assumed the shape of a buffalo. During the celebrations images of the goddess are placed in elaborate marquees called pandals, supported by large donations and the local communities, which block off small streets for days. After the puja, the images are taken to the river for immersion, before being quickly fished out again with cranes to avoid pollution caused by the materials and paints used in the statuary. Pandals worth visiting during Durga Puja, beside the popular one at Kumartuli, include those at Mohammed Ali Park near Chittaranjan Avenue, MG Marg crossing and the nearby College Square. Baghbazaar’s pandal is the oldest, and renowned for its simple elegance.
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.
The commercial and administrative hub of both Kolkata and West Bengal is BBD Bagh, which die-hard Kolkatans still refer to as Dalhousie Square. The new official name, in a fine piece of irony, commemorates three revolutionaries hanged for trying to kill Lieutenant-Governor General Lord Dalhousie.
Beyond the headquarters of Eastern Railways on Netaji Subhash Road, you come to the heart of Kolkata’s commercial district, clustered around the Calcutta Stock Exchange at the corner of Lyon’s Range, which started out as a gathering of traders under a neem tree in the 1830s. The warren of buildings houses all sorts of old colonial trading companies, including some still bearing Scottish names.
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 66,000-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.
Until silting rendered it impractical for large ships, the River Hooghly, a distributary of the Ganges, was responsible for making Calcutta a bustling port. The ghats that line the river’s east bank serve as landings and places for ritual ablutions but, unlike in Varanasi, hold no mythological significance. Around 2km north of Howrah Bridge, beyond the cremation grounds of Nimtolla Ghat, lies Kumartuli Ghat and its community of artisans and sculptors. A short distance further north lies Baghbazaar Ghat where overladen barges of straw arrive for the artisans 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 Rudyard Kipling in The Jungle Book, whose monkey troupe he called the “bandar log”).
A short walk north of Shobabazaar 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 Shobabazaar Metro Station – emerge from the west exit and walk west along a lane to Rabindra Sarani and an entrance to Kumartuli.
One of Kolkata’s most famous landmarks (officially called Rabindra Setu, though few people use this new name), Howrah Bridge is 97m high and 705m long, spanning the river in a single leap to make it the world’s third longest cantilever bridge. Erected with a maze of girders during World War II in 1943 to give Allied troops access to the Burmese front, it was the first bridge to be built using rivets. 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.
South of Kolkata down to the coast, the Hooghly fringes one of the world’s largest estuarine deltas, the Sundarbans, a 10,000-square-kilometre expanse of mangrove swamp and forested islets formed by silt swept down from the Himalayas and home to the world’s largest population of tigers. Closer to the city, the former colonial port of Diamond Harbour is a popular weekend break and lies en route to Sagardwip, a sacred island where the Ganges reaches the sea. The expansive beaches of the delta provide quiet respite and are within easy reach of Kolkata.
The cluster of mangrove-covered islands known as the Sundarbans or “beautiful forest”, lie in the Ganges Delta, stretching east from the mouth of the Hooghly to Bangladesh. They are home to the legendary Royal Bengal tiger, which has adapted remarkably well to this watery environment, swimming from island to island and covering distances of as much as 40km in one day. The region has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site and its abundant wildlife also includes saltwater crocodiles, Gangetic dolphins, otters and monitor lizards. All the half-million or so people sharing this delicate ecosystem, regardless of religion, worship Bonbibi, the goddess of the forest, and her Muslim consort Dakshin Rai, supreme ruler of the Sundarbans. (Amitav Ghosh’s excellent novel The Hungry Tide brings this world vividly to life.)
Along with a crocodile and turtle hatchery, the Project Tiger compound at Sajnekhali also houses a shrine to Bonbibi. There is a watchtower here, but others like Dobanki, where an aerial walkway skirts the top of the mangroves, and Netidhopani, which sits near the ruins of a 400-year-old temple, are far more attractive. As getting to the Sundarbans on your own is a laborious process, you might want to opt for an all-inclusive package tour. Be aware, though, that tiger sightings are rare.
Top image: Victoria Memorial in Kolkata, India © PHOTO BAZAR INDIA/Shutterstock