There is a black hole in Calcutta, a historical fact which gave place, in part, to the reputation of this misunderstood city thankfully, unwittingly rebranded as the ‘City of Joy.’ Calcutta has created her own black hole in my mind she is indescribable. I visit time and again, determined to capture her soul, her essence, her mood and yet every time she wins before I begin. She is an enigma that doesn’t want to be captured, she is far too multifaceted to become merely words on a page. She teases and tantalises and keeps too many steps ahead of the game. I head out into her streets with a firm plan in mind, notebook in hand, camera at the ready, determined to keep focused, and to capture her one facet at a time. But this is Calcutta, each moment, with each step taken, on each corner she is a profusion of colours, people, happenings, moments of lives, of death, of tastes and rhythms, the rhythms of this city, a beat one can never keep in time to. She is a profusion of profusion. Too much! And yet never quite enough.
She stands in her own place in time, seemingly moving neither backwards nor hurtling forwards towards western concepts and modernisation other Indian cities have fallen prey to. But you see, whilst this is a city that one can’t keep time to, she also can’t be rushed. The gradual decay of the colonial era, the clinging onto its uniqueness, the gentle soulfulness of her people, their seemingly ingrained wisdom, all amalgamate to ensure that Calcutta is it’s own world in a time of its own.
Again, I find myself speaking in metaphors and similes, unable to nail down specifics. For that, I need to step back into tour operator mode, list the things that you should try to see, without being distracted by everything else that you will bare witness to. But give yourselves time, my first visit was three days, it wasn’t enough, the next was five, and I still left feeling short changed. I upped the game but once my work is done, the official sights and monuments and places I am meant to see, I want to head back to discover the things that weren’t mentioned to me, China Town for example, is hardly ever mentioned. Why does Calcutta have a China Town, what brought these people to the city, why did they remain? I’ve since read books on this and know the story, but whilst trying to appreciate a morning tour, she threw this at me and it stopped me in my tracks. Always so much to discover, always too many distractions, and maybe one too many kathi rolls too, did you know they were invented in Calcutta, at Nizams?
So, below, I will list the places you should try to see when you visit and see how many you complete before being distracted away by this city of myriad distractions.
Sightseeing should include the following:
A visit to the flower market in the early morning when it is in full swing. Wholesalers arrive and auction off the flowers, which are collected for temples (certain ones for certain gods) and by events managers and hotels florists too.
Dalhousie Square Heritage Walk: A morning Heritage Walk in Dalhousie Square to marvel at the British architecture of this 2km square area which formed the nucleus of the pomp and show of British India. It was named after James, Marquess of Dalhousie, who served as the Governor-General of India from 1847 to 1856. Needless to say, it houses grand buildings and India’s first Parish Church, St Johns.
Kumartuli or the Potters Colony is in complete contrast and is like stepping back in time in India, where huge clay idols are crafted and elaborately decorated to be worshipped during certain festivals, it is a hive of activity before Durga Puja.
The incredible Victoria Memorial is a vast, white marble building more akin to a palace than a memorial: think US Capitol meets Taj Mahal. Which should perhaps be considered one of India’s greatest buildings. Commissioned by Lord Curzon, then Viceroy of India, it was designed to commemorate Queen Victoria’s demise in 1901, but construction wasn’t completed until 20 years after her death.
If you still have energy left, then visit India’s first and largest museum, aptly named the Indian Museum and Sisters of Charity’s Headquarters Motherhouse, former home of Mother Teresa.
Visit the Marble Palace; a wonderful example of a resplendent mansion which takes you back to an era of glamour, opulence and eccentricity and gives a wonderful insight as to what life might have been like for the well-heeled of the city.
Other activities, see what I mean about 3 days not being enough and 5 being a push?
Boat Cruise on River Hoogly. Having discovered Calcutta by road, a boat ride offers the chance to see a different side of Calcutta. This was how the merchants and traders would have first arrived here and would have been intrigued by the life playing out on the ghats, much of which continues unchanged today. The evening is a lovely time to do this, as the sun starts to set.
Lunch at Bomti’s. Bomti is one of Calcutta’s socialites and art collectors who lives in an apartment in what was one of the oldest and finest department stores in Asia (Think Harrods) which sold items imported from Paris, London and other European Cities to the expat community living in Calcutta. Bomti delights in welcoming visitors to his charming flat and serving authentic and home-cooked Bengali cuisine finished with hot cups of fresh Darjeeling tea and stimulating insights into life in Calcutta and the Bengali Art Scene.
Weavers studio: Calcutta is famous for its textiles ranging from jutes to handcrafted silks and intricate embroidery work. Visit some of these craftspeople whose skills have been handed down from generation to generation.
Photo Tour: Calcutta is a photographer’s dream, every aspect of the city has the ability to provide that perfect shot which encapsulates one aspect of the city. Whether a professional photographer or someone who is setting out to learn some new camera skills, a photo tour of the city with a professional, certainly won’t disappoint.
Christmas in Calcutta: It’s meant to be a great place to experience Christmas, definitely one that is still on my wish list.
There’s also Park Street, China Town as mentioned, College Street, the world’s largest second hand book market which is a haven for bibliophiles and bargain hunters, the hauntingly beautiful (no pun intended) Park Street Cemetery, pick the right day and head to the races, ride a tram, visit the botanical gardens, a tea auction the list goes on. They say the only certainties in life are death and taxes, I’ll add to that, a visit to Calcutta, oh okay, I’ll acquiesce at this stage, Kolkata, will never end.
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