The birth of Calcutta (as Kolkata was known for eons before getting rechristened in the late 1990s) was entirely due to the dogged determination of an administrator of the British East India Company—Job Charnock. He persuaded the reluctant council that Sutanuti (one of the three villages that constituted Calcutta in the last years of the 17th century, along with Gobindapur and Kalkatta) on the banks of the Hooghly was the ideal place to establish the headquarters in Bengal, because of its naturally fortified location protected by the Hooghly river to the west, a creek to the north and salt lakes to the east. The river, close to its confluence with the Bay of Bengal, also offered deep-water anchorage for the British fleet. Thus, on August 24, 1690, a city was born; to steadily flourish over the years; to be known as the city of cities, and eventually become the capital of British India in 1772.
A City Of Palaces
Richard Wellesley, the Governor-General over 1797–1805, was mostly responsible for the development of the city and its public architecture, which led to the description of Kolkata as the ‘City of Palaces,’ dotted with majestic architectural monuments and sprawling palatial mansions belonging to wealthy Englishmen and native merchants. Kolkata still boasts of a cityscape adorned with an eclectic architectural fusion of Gothic, Baroque, Roman, Oriental and Indo-Islamic motifs. Most of these 18th and 19th-century mansions are located in the wonderfully chaotic North Kolkata neighborhoods, where hand-drawn rickshaws jostle with brightly painted yellow taxis to negotiate the labyrinthine network of narrow lanes. This was the playground of Kolkata’s urban rajas with their extravagant lifestyles, and the grand mansions bear brilliant testimony of the rivalries between the families to outsmart one another.
One of the most excellent examples is the Marble Palace. The grand white facade, built in European classical style and closely resembling London’s Burlington House, looms suddenly out of a dingy lane and the ornate gates, flanked by guards with long spears, seem incongruous amid the whirlwind of chaos around. The majestic mansion sports more than 90 varieties of imported marble (hence the name). The expansive gardens with ornamental stone seats, marble statuettes and fountains are Baroque in style. The colonnaded verandahs and the cavernous rooms house Venetian mirrors, Bohemian goblets, Dresden figurines, and French ormolu clocks. The star of the vast collection of paintings is a Rubens.
A stone’s throw away is the Jorasanko Thakur Bari—the home of the Tagores. A fountainhead of artistic inspiration, this house produced creative thinkers who were leading lights in the Bengal Renaissance of the 19th century. The most famous scion of the family was, of course, Rabindranath Tagore, Asia’s first Nobel laureate. Compared to other grand houses of Kolkata, the Tagore house is not architecturally unique, but the rich cultural legacy of the family who lived there sets it apart. There are many more heritage houses tucked deep into the folds of the crowded bylanes of North Kolkata like the majestic homes of the Laha family, the Duttas of Thanthania and Hatkhola, or the Shovabazar Rajbari. The ornate archways lead to huge courtyards hemmed in with latticed balconies, and the plush interiors tell a nuanced tale of a bygone era where Mughal motifs blended seamlessly with painted English glass, Venetian crystal chandeliers and French doors.
The Clay District
If you are visiting the city during August and September, a walk through the maze of alleys that runs off the Chitpore Road is a must. A legion of clay effigies of deities and demons is in various stages of completion in the numerous sculptor workshops in this fascinating district, notably along Banamali Sarkar Street, the lane running west from Chitpore Road. This is Kumartuli, where idol-makers for Kolkata’s legendary Durga Puja live and work. In the small, dingy studios littered with cardboards, strips of cloth, bottles of glue and paint boxes, with stacks of straw neatly piled in the corners, craftsmen are busiest from August to October, creating straw frameworks, adding multiple coats of clay, and finally painting godly features on idols for the Durga and Kali pujas in late autumn. Photography is widely permitted, and it is even possible to sit in a workshop and observe the craftsmen engrossed in their work. Apart from gods and vanquished demons, you will often see statues of Victorian marionettes and sculptures of eminent historical personalities getting meticulously fashioned as life-size figures, as these are commonly used to embellish the puja pandals.
An evening by the Hooghly river is the favorite unwinding spot for the Calcuttan, especially on weekends. A leisurely stroll along the leafy promenade offers stunning vistas of the vast expanse of the river with its landmark bridges and a myriad country boats and ferries plodding through its grey, placid waters. Of the string of atmospheric ghats along the river banks, the majestic Prinsep Ghat with its colonnaded porch, surrounded by greenery and overlooked by the Vidyasagar Setu (bridge) remains the favorite recreational spot.
Come October, and the entire city of Kolkata becomes a magical celebration, an exuberance of spirit. From humble homesteads to luxurious condominiums to working-class neighborhoods, everyone gears up to welcome Ma Durga in their own way. Durga Puja in Kolkata is a religious festival, and much more. The metropolis transforms itself into an open-air art gallery dotted with impossibly decorative pandals (temporary structures that house Ma Durga and her children during the five days of the puja) cast with canvas, clothes, and bamboo. The interiors are often decked up in art-deco style, and pandal-hopping is the best way to soak in the artistic spirit during these five days.
At the other end of the spectrum, far away from the sheen and vibrancy of the neighbourhood festivals, the blue-blooded households (or ‘Bonedi Bari’ as we call them in Bengali) still preserve the orthodox ways of worship, starting from folklore to offerings in the expansive ‘Thakur Dalan’ or ‘Durga dalan’ (corridor of worship). In the 150-odd bonedi baris of Kolkata, Durga Puja heralds an annual reunion of friends and family and quite a few of them welcome curious visitors to have a glimpse of the traditional rituals and festivities of their centuries-old puja.
The crescendo of the carnival spirit reaches its climax on the final day of Durga Puja—Bijaya Dashami—with gala processions heading towards the Ganga for the immersion of the idols in her holy waters. It is a fervent culmination of the festive spirit preceded by a beautiful ritual when women smear red vermilion powder on the face of Ma Durga with a whispered farewell and a prayer for the return of the goddess the next year.
If you take the underground Metro, get off at Mahatma Gandhi Road station, walk down the busy street for about five minutes and turn left—you are in historic College Street—India’s largest books market. It has an endearing nickname, Boi Para—“The Book Town.”
Along the uninterrupted corridor of used book stalls lie some of the oldest and most elegant of Kolkata’s (and India’s) academic institutions—the University of Calcutta, Sanskrit College, Presidency College, Calcutta Medical College, to name a few. Dating from the early years of the 19th century, these institutions turned the mile-long stretch of road into a real sanctuary for the city’s cognoscenti.
The avenue, bisected by a lazy tramway, is dotted with hundreds of bookstores, some belonging to reputed publishing houses and others dealing in used books from tiny makeshift stalls made from metal sheets or even propped up with bamboo poles and canvas.
It is said that if you cannot find a book title on College Street, it probably never existed! Rare books are often sold at throwaway prices, but bargaining skills come in handy on this stretch of noisy street for bibliophiles. And the iconic Indian Coffee House stands on a dusty side street brewing a cauldron of creative energy for more than 70 years, during which it has remained on the itinerary of every visitor. From a young, beatnik Allen Ginsberg who, in the summer of 1962, spent most of his afternoons here hollering with Jack Kerouac and a firebrand group of city poets to Gunter Grass, who was a regular during his five-month sojourn in the 1980s—this place with its unpretentious high ceilings and mildewed walls have seen it all.
Victoria Memorial & Maidan
The domed edifice, built to commemorate Queen Victoria’s death in 1901 (though the construction was completed in 1921) is a vast, beautifully proportioned monument of white marble. Flanking the southern tip of the Maidan, Victoria Memorial is undoubtedly one of India’s most beautiful structures. From across the manicured gardens and adjacent water bodies, in which the reflections of the monument lie clear in the soft morning light, the grand edifice looks stunning. The towering central chamber and the galleries inside trace the city’s colonial past in a vast collection. The 45-minute son-et-Lumiere show is worth the money for history enthusiasts. In recent years, the Kolkata Lit Meet is an annual winter feature against the spectacular backdrop of Victoria Memorial.
A full stretch of green in the midst of Kolkata’s concrete matrix, the Maidan is often referred to as the city’s lungs, which the residents utilize for morning walks, cricket and football matches, horse-carriage rides, family day-outs, and rendezvous with the beloved, not necessarily in that order! A tram line lazily plods through the grasslands and the slow ride is best enjoyed on winter mornings with horses and cattle ambling about in the thin layer of mist hovering over the verdant tract. The three-km-long park was created in 1758 so that the cannons of Fort William, the walled army base, could have a clear line of fire.
The city retains the grand relics of Dalhousie Square, long renamed BBD Bagh after three young Bengal revolutionaries who, on a wintry December morning in 1930, committed the daring act of entering Writers’ Building and murdering the Inspector General of the British Indian Police, known for his brutal oppression of political prisoners. Built around the large water body called Lal Dighi (Red Lake), the area that was the seat of British governance of their Indian Empire from the brick red Writers’ Building still has grand Raj-era edifices like the Currency Building, the GPO (General Post Office), Royal Insurance Building and Central Telegraph Office. The square is best explored on Sunday mornings when the noisy and chaotic business district takes its weekly off.
Before the ubiquitous Metro lines were introduced, the south and north of Kolkata had a profound and sharp social and cultural divide. The vibe is more urbane in the quiet neighborhoods of Bhowanipore and Rashbehari and on the leafy stretch of Southern Avenue dotted with artsy teahouses, cultural, and boutiques. If one of the high points of the southern zone of Kolkata is Rabindra Sarovar—the large lake hemmed in with forested parks that house swimming and rowing clubs, yoga and music sessions and morning walkers briskly striding down the paved pathway— the other is the Nandan-Rabindra Sadan-Academy complex where people congregate for film and theatre shows and art exhibitions. The celebrated Kolkata Film Festival is held every November here amid much flourish and fanfare.
In its not-so-long history, Kolkata has always been a religious melting pot. One of the most sacred shrines is the Kalighat Temple, one of the 51 Shakti peethas. The Belur Math, on the northern fringes of the city, was founded by Swami Vivekananda and is a beautiful architectural fusion with Hindu, Islamic and Christian motifs, signifying religious unity. The Pareswanath Temple, an impressive structure with its mirror-inlaid pillars and stained glass windows, is one of the essential Jain shrines of India. The Nakhoda Masjid, the largest mosque in the city, was inspired by the mausoleum of Emperor Akbar at Sikandra. Built-in 1926 in Chitpore, the interiors of the shrine are exquisitely ornamented.
There are a few beautiful cathedrals and churches in the central and northern quarters of the city. Built in 1787, St John’s Church is near the Governor House (Raj Bhavan) and the Armenian Church, where Christmas is still celebrated on January 7 according to Armenian tradition, lies next to it. St James’ Church, with its twin spires, is a visual delight as one passes through APC Road. On the southern edge of the Maidan stands the majestic edifice of St Paul’s Cathedral, the first cathedral built in the overseas territory of the British Empire.
The Culinary Map
The strongest connect a traveler has with a city is through its cuisine, and Kolkata’s legendary culinary circuit is as variedly mouth-watering as it gets. The lip-smacking street food tickles the taste buds of the itinerant foodie, be it the phuchkas (stuffed with mashed potatoes with a burst of spices, and then generously filled with tamarind chutney, phuchka is the zest Bengali version of panipuri), or the spicy and tangy aloo kabli (where boiled potatoes are tossed with tamarind pulp, onions, tomatoes, chilies, chickpeas, and a combination of secret spices). The peripatetic traveler must indulge in the crispy, fried delight of telebhaja (prepared with besan or cornflour batter covering, deep-fried in mustard oil with a stuffing of either onion rings or brinjal or potato. The more imaginative joints whip it up with pumpkin, coriander leaves or even with raw mangoes). And the signature street food of the City of Joy is the Kathi roll (flaky flour paratha rolled up with the chosen stuffing of omelets, succulent chicken or mutton pieces, minced meat or paneer chunks and laced with sauces, capsicum, and onion with a dash of pepper, chilies, and lime).
At the other end of the spectrum lies the unique dining experience at the members-only Bengal and Calcutta Clubs where white-gloved waiters politely serve the age-old Anglo-Indian cuisine like railway mutton curry, vindaloo, and mulligatawny soup. If you are not a member or a guest of a member, trying these delicacies at the homely Anglo-Indian stalls on Park Street during Christmas is a delightful option. And Park Street is the traditional food hub of Kolkata teeming with trendy restaurants, but the star attraction is still Flury’s, the elegant tearoom since 1927—a patient queue waiting at the front door to get a breakfast table and take home a couple of plum cakes.
The mild yet complex flavors of typical Bengal cuisine can be savored at a few city restaurants like Kewpies’ in Bhowanipore, and 6 Ballygunge Place or Oh! Calcutta in the upmarket neighborhoods of Ballygunge. For a less expensive but equally authentic experience, the unassuming hotels tucked in the folds of the city are great to whet your palate.
A typical Kolkata food experience is not complete without its biryani—delighting the palate with its mild spice textures, tender meat and, curiously, adding a big, slightly browned potato that sits lightly on the aromatic rice. The old favorites are Royal in Chitpore, Shiraz in Park Circus and Aminia in Dharamtala.
The complex that has defined shopping in Kolkata is its iconic Raj-era market that houses everything from clothing and jewelry to fish and meat, flowers and savories—all under one roof. Operative since 1874 on Lindsay Street in central Kolkata, the New Market, previously known as Hogg Market, is a one-stop arena for the city’s shoppers.
A wide range of government emporia selling ethnic wear, artifacts and handmade jewelry can be found in the rather drab-looking Dakshinapan complex at Dhakuria. Winter is a shoppers’ delight in Kolkata with indigenous artisans and craftsmen flocking from remote villages to the handicrafts fairs held on the eastern fringes of the metropolis, adding color and vibrancy to the wintry days. However, the city malls, burgeoning in all corners of the city, with their futuristic designs and multinational brands, are slowly metamorphosing the urban landscape of Kolkata.