Kolkata or “The city of joy” is a bustling, colorful metropolis with a treasured history and a rich heritage evident in the way the city still retains the glory of its age old culture in its Victorian book stores, century old auction houses, unchanged clubs, the charming trams and the passion in its people, be it for life, mishti doi or cricket. Promoted by the rich and the intellectual, Kolkata has become a focal point for culture and cuisine.
An insignificant village, cradled between the Gangetic delta and the River Hoogly, Kolkata was transformed into an important port and trading centre when the British shifted their trade to the eastern belt post 1772. When the British moved downstream to three villages - Kolikata, Sutanuti and Gobindapur in 1686, they laid the foundations for one of the largest cities in India. The British went on to unite the three villages and build a massive post their. In 1707, Kolkata was awarded the status of a separate presidency under supervision of the directors of The East India Company. In 1717, Mughal emperor Aurangazeb's grandson Farrukh Siyar granted the Company duty-free trading rights in Bengal for an annual token amount of Rs 3,000. Over the centuries, Kolkata has experienced mutinies and wars, famines and floods, the Partition of Bengal in 1905 and the Bengal famine of 1943, many intellectual writers and artists have been born in Kolkatta. It’s seen the swadeshi movement and Gandhian Philosophy, passionate Marxists, and communists.
Built in 1758 Fort William’s foundations were laid in the maidan by the British. Around the fort a huge expanse of jungle was cut down, which has now been converted into a city facility area. The fort is well preserved and is still in use today and visitors are only allowed inside with special permission. The area cleared around Fort William became the Maidan, the green belt of modern Kolkata. This huge green expanse stretches three km north to south and is over a km wide. When Robert Clive cleared an area in the jungle to create this green lung, he had not reckoned that this would be among the largest city parks in the world. It is 400 hectares large and 3 kms from north to south.
The Victoria Memorial sits in all its glory against the backdrop of these impeccably well manicured lawns, A magnificent structure in white marble, it was built in the early 20th century in memory of Queen Victoria and was formally inaugurated by the Prince of Wales in 1921 who later became King Edward VIII of England. The regal bronze statue of the queen near the entrance, the brass canons, wrought iron street lamps, tree shaded boulevards, gardens and streets and a dancing’ Fountain of Joy' facing the memorial building transform the building into something right out of fairy tale. Another interesting part of the memorial is the Calcutta gallery, a collection of paintings that depict the history of the city. Make sure you enjoy the sound and light show held here every day.
The writers building, located in Dalhousie square is popularly called so because it has see the birth of many classics. Imposing and majestic in appearance, this building has also been witness to the beginning of freedom fights and communists.
The Indian Museum or Jadu ghar was built in 1878 on Jawaharlal Nehru Road. The museum is built in Italian architectural style and is one of the largest museums in the world and the largest in the country. The museum has been divided into six sections: Art, Archaeology, Anthropology, Geology, Zoology and Industry. The museum also houses sixty galleries within it, has a 4,000 year old Egyptian mummy, a fine set of Pala , Kalighat painting, the skeleton of a whale and some rare statues. One of the rooms has a collection of meteorites. The museum also has a one of its kind fossil collection of prehistoric animals which includes a giant crocodile and a huge tortoise. The art collection has many fine pieces from Orissa and other temples and superb example of Buddhist Gandharan art.
According to legend, when Siva's wife's corpse split, one of her fingers fell here. Since then it has been an important pilgrimage site. Kali represents the destructive side of Siva's consort and demands daily sacrifices. The Dakshineswar Kali temple was originally built by Rani Rashmoni who was instructed by the Deity to build this temple, in her dreams. The Rani immediately bought twenty five acres of land and built the temple in 1855. Unlike other temples, the focal point of this temple lies in its nine spires as opposed to the five pinnacled ones seen in Kolkata. Twelve other temples dedicated to lord Shiva surround this temple. The idol of the goddess is fierce yet so stately, goddess Kali stands on the body of lord Shiva lying on a silver lotus with a thousand petals. Goats are still sacrificed here to satisfy the goddess and keep her pleased. The temple runs a charitable open kitchen and during the day many poor people come here for a free meal. Mother Teresa's Hospital for the Dying Destitute right next door to the temple and any voluntary or financial help is much appreciated. The temple is definitely a landmark of Kolkata, a must visit during the lavish Durga puja. The puja is a rush of colors, of sentiments and religious fervor for the Bengalis. It’s a week long celebration of life and food
St Paul's Cathedral was built between 1839 and 1847 and is one of India's most important churches. Located to the east of the Victoria memorial, this impressive church has the most intricately stained glass windows that stain the room in a rainbow of colors during the day. It is peaceful and serene, one of the places to visit when you want to get away from the pollution, traffic, noise of the city.
Kolkata is famed for it's shopping, as the gateway to the orient it offers a variety of goods from South east. The city also offers just about everything from pottery to the famed Bankura horses, leather products, traditional silk saris, Dhokra metal craft, and exquisite textiles The Crawford market of Kolkatta is the Burra bazaar where you can buy any kind of embellishment for your home or your clothes, it all comes at wholesale rates. Another interesting market is the New, one of the fastest moving two floored markets that stock everything from clothes to jeweler to shoes to the works. This market is also famous for the oldest bakeries called Nahoums. The textiles and silks in Calcutta are to die for; these yards of finely woven and intricately embroidered silks are heirlooms in them selves. For Tangail and Baluchari silks as well as fine cotton textiles, try RMCA Basak at Nandi Street; Kundahar at Sarat Banerjee Road; Meera Bose at Sarat Bose Road; Toontooni at Satyen Datta Road and Ananda, at 13 Russell Street which offers stunning printed silks. Bentinck Street has a concentration of Chinese shoe shops offering a variety of designs to choose from. Morrison & Cottle at the corner of Chowringhee and Park streets is one of the city’s oldest shoemakers. It still fashions made-to-order shoes and boots. If you are interested in picking up antiques for your house Kolkata is the place to pick them up. Antiques and period-style furniture can be bought at Saroj at Camac Street and Nu-Bilt at Park Street. Doing the rounds of Sunday auctions at Chowringhee Sales, Victor Brothers on Park Street, Russell Exchange and Dalhousie Exchange on Russell Street may lead to the discovery of rare curios.
Bengali cuisine is a fusion of textures - crisp bhajas, grainy mustard sauces, oily fish head biting into juicy prawns, spicy delicious bits of Ilish, and thin, light luchis and the specialty of Bengali cuisine, the use of panchphoron, five basic spices which include zeera, kalaunji, saunf, fenugreek and mustard seeds. Bengali food is a mixture of sweet and spicy flavors, curries are sweet and succulent, softly flavored with cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg and mace. Authentic Bengali food is now a part of many restaurant menus. The Peerless Inn and Suruchi on Elliot Road dish out ladlefuls of aloo-poshto, shorshe maach, muri-ghonto and shukto, to name a few. Fish plays a significant role in the celebrations, and a meal without some sort of fish, be it prawns, lobster or shrimps, is incomplete. Lamb and chicken are also always on the table. Bengali food is distinctive from other Indian foods, both in its flavour and its colourful appearance. Popular Bengali delicacies include bhuna khichuri, beef pudina kasha, mutton lau, alu curry, chicken shorisha, pumpkin and prawn bhaja, ata roti, steamed rice, shak dal, pan-fried spicy fish, pan-fried chicken breast, saute spicy fresh vegetables and pasta with tandoori chicken. Nizam’s makes good wholesome Muslim food- fragrant mutton and chicken curries, succulent kababs and aromatic biryanis (rice cooked with meat), but their pièce de resistance is the kathi. There’s a range of stuffing you can choose from- mutton, chicken, beef etc. The greatest addition to the Indian cuisine by the Bengalis are the truly mouth watering sweets made from curdled milk, burnt milk, rasgullas, gulab jamuns, rasmalai and many more . Cottage cheese based sweets like sandesh, rosogolla and chanar payesh are very popular. Misti doi (sweetened curd) and Patali gur confectionery (date palm jaggery) are almost synonymous with Calcutta and so is nadu, a sweat meat made out of grated coconut stir fried with sugar or jaggery and then shaped into balls. If you don’t care much for Indian sweets head to the confectionery stores. Flury’s (formerly Swiss owned) on Park Street, Nahoum’s (oldest Jewish bakery) in New Market are famous.
Kolkata is full of surprises, there are many things to do here from visiting the Calcutta club to witnessing a Baul recital, and their music speaks of celestial love. Bauls are a group of mystic musicians whose music is inspired by the Hindu tantrics. You must also ride on the Tramcar; the trams are the last of the kind in India and are a charming way to see the city. The Coffee House has seen Kolkata’s metamorphosis, from Satyajit Ray who wrote in this very coffee shop to the British officers, the coffee shop has seen it all. It still remains the meeting place for the academicians of Kolkata.
When to Visit
Unlike in the other parts of the country, winters set in very early in the day, it could be pitch dark by 5 pm. Plan your trip keeping this in mind. One can also expect frequent showers in early April, during the later part of the evenings. Summers are warm, humid and sticky. Normal monsoon hits the state in the second week of June and lasts till the end of September. The winter months last from October to February, where there is a definite nip in the air post sun down. This is the best time to visit, with temperature ranging at about 25 C and can go as low as 15 C.
How to Reach
Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose Airport in Dum Dum is about 20 km from the city centre and has flight links with all other metros. Several international airlines operate flights to the US, UK, Singapore, and the Middle East.
Airport to city
From the airport, you can take the Metro, a taxi, or minibus into the city. The Metro or taxi are however the most comfortable.
Kolkata has two main railway stations - Howrah and Sealdah. Howrah is the busier of the two and is easily accessible from all over the city; Sealdah is serviced by trains plying to towns and cities within Bengal. Kolkata has rail links with almost all major cities of the country.
Station to city
If you arrive at Howrah, you can take the ferry to the city or maidan. Incidentally this would give you the best view of the second cantilevered Howrah bridge as it passes through Hoogly river and anchors at Eden Gardens.
Depending on where you come from, the journey can be either nerve racking or a complete pleasure. Please avoid the State transport buses. They are usually congested and uncomfortable.