Simultaneously noble and squalid, the 300-year-old city of Kolkata, once called ‘Calcutta’, was built on the banks of the Hooghly. Now unhurriedly sloughing of its old skin under a Communist-led government, Kolkata has been awarded with many sobriquets, each portraying a distinct feature of its physical environment, lifestyle or ambience, all destined to create a unique appeal for visitors to experience.
City of the Raj
After being picked by Englishman Job Charnock in 1686, the British developed this obscure coastal settlement with such urban sophistication, it was almost like London with stately buildings, wide boulevards, gothic churches and formal gardens. It became the second city of Queen Victoria’s empire and remained the capital of British India till 1911, gaining repute as the “City of the Raj”. Eminent novelist Emily Eden fell so deeply in love with Calcutta during her stay in the 19th century, that she pronounced it as the finest place in the world and most generously bestowed her name to the city’s world-famous cricket ground, Eden Gardens.
After six decades of independence, the legacy of the empire has faded, but the ensemble of quality colonial architecture and lifestyle still survives. Embellished with cricket, cocktails, curries and cakes, Kolkata is still identified as a place of near pilgrimage to admirers of the Raj who reminisce about the remnants of this imperial viceroyalty. They meander in the Esplanade, a bustling quarter surrounded by colonial architecture, stroll along the riverside Strand, glimpse British-made red edifices such as the expansive Writers’ Building – now the headquarters of the West Bengal government – and relish art and history inside the Victoria Memorial, a structure that looks like the Taj Mahal. They frequent one of several grand old gentlemen’s clubs for a gin and tonic, back horses at the race track or play a soothing round of Golf at the Royal Calcutta Golf Club, India’s equivalent of Scotland’s St Andrews.
City of Palaces
During the British Raj, a number of impressive palaces graced the city as homes of viceroys, regal imperialists and Bengali Rajas and zamindars (landowners), earning Kolkata her title of “City of Palaces”. Many of them are now in decrepit conditions and are gradually making space for new generation dwellings, but a few still survive for visitors to glimpse and testify to their glory. Like the Raj Bhaban, current home of the State Governor which was built in 1803 on 27 acres of land on the lines of Kedleston Hall in Derbyshire, and which was the viceroy’s home. The National Library, an Italian Renaissance-styled grand edifice, was built in 1836 as the residence of the British Administrator. The Marble Palace built by Raja Rajendra Mullic around the same time as his family home is another notable structure.
City of Clubs
When English dwellers in Kolkata increased, it was inevitable that they would try and find a place of their own to play sport and socialise in the same way they would have done at home. That gave rise to the idea of clubs and the first to be established, not just within the city but in the entire subcontinent, was the Calcutta Cricket and Football Club, built in 1792. Next followed the Calcutta Racquet Club in 1793, the oldest squash club in the world that still exists at the same location where it opened its doors two centuries ago. The Bengal Club, which is compared to the esteemed Oriental Club in London, was the first social one to emerge on the scene in 1827. Many more followed – clubs for golf, tennis, swimming, rowing and the list went on with several local additions coming later. Thus was Kolkata dubbed the “City of Clubs”. Today these clubs are the playground for the elite, and their style, tradition and etiquette may not be found anywhere else in the world.
City of Bazaars
Kolkata was founded as a trading place and required the establishment of several markets and bazaars to deal with a variety of merchandise. This led to its being christened as the “City of Bazaars”, with some early suburbs like Burrabaazar, Bowbaazar and Shyambaazar deriving their names from this notion. Today glittering shopping malls add their glamour; however it is those vibrant street bazaars that offer visitors a high-energy and buoyant experience for which Kolkata is famous. Some of the best examples can be found in the early morning flower auction market, located by the riverside just under the city’s landmark Howrah Bridge where the quantum of blossoms and zing of countless traders will prepare you for a truly effervescent day. There is the Dudh Mandi where daily auctioning of giga litres of milk still fascinate; the College Street second-hand book market said to be the world’s largest – where finding an out-of-print edition of a literary masterpiece can still overwhelm a collector, and the Raat Bazaar, a midnight-to-dawn street market selling second-hand clothing where the carnival-type atmosphere even in those hours can surprise and refresh. Last is the city’s favourite New Market, though built in 1865, where if you cannot find something, then it has yet to be created!
City of Art and Culture
The 19th century Bengali Renaissance movement introduced a great cultural awakening that has, over the years, made this city the cultural capital of India and since then, it is often referred as the “City of Art and Culture”. Hardly anyone can deny this; the city has bred Nobel Prize winning poet Rabindranath Tagore, spoken of Oscar-winning film director Satyajit Roy, hosted the nation’s largest book fair, and still sells countess copies of Vikram Seth, Amitav Ghosh, Rana Dasgupta and Jhumpa Lahiri, all of who have enduring links with Kolkata. It showcases dance, music, art exhibitions and theatres at various venues located in every nook and corner of the city on a daily basis.
City of Processions
Kolkata became the “City of Processions” in the 20th century during the Freedom Movement when thousands of men and women marched along its streets in defiance of British rule. The parade still continues after six decades of independence, but for different reasons which could be anything from protesting against a government decision, to celebrating India’s win in cricket against Australia, to immersing the Goddess Durga into the holy waters of the Hooghly after the four days of Durga Puja celebrations. It has become a part of Kolkata’s life, and you have to be unlucky if you do not encounter at least one procession during a visit to the city.
City of Dreadful Night
Not all the names given to Kolkata are flattering. Kipling called it the “City of Dreadful Night” and wrote of its unspeakable poverty when he visited during a dreadful famine that hit Bengal in the 1940s.
While poverty certainly remains in your face, the daily festival of human existence in this city of 15 million today is something that still captures visitors and makes them fall in love with Kolkata. Round the clock, something jaunty is being played on its buzzing streets, making one humanly feel that life is not dull, but full of excitement. It’s said you can touch life in Kolkata and perhaps that legend locked the English in the city for three centuries. Perhaps it inspired a Macedonian Catholic nun Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu to make Kolkata her home and become Mother Teresa. It has enticed literary intellectuals Allen Ginsberg and Gunter Grass to repeat visits, touched Steve Waugh to associate himself with Udayan, a home for the unfortunate, and enthused novelist Dominique Lapierre to name it “City of Joy”, the one sobriquet which all Kolkatans proudly hold close to their warm hearts.
Getting there Fly Singapore Airlines (www.singaporeair.com) from Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth to Kolkata via Singapore.
Getting Around No shortage of public transport, from yellow Ambassador taxis, buses, trams, three wheelers, hand-pulled rickshaws to an efficient underground train system
Accommodation Located in the city’s greenest precinct within close proximity of key tourist attractions is the Taj Bengal Hotel (www.tajhotels.com). It is very reminiscent of the British Raj, epitomises a blend of legendary traditions and contemporary conveniences to make your Kolkata visit memorable. Don’t miss out dining at two of their top restaurants, Sonargaon for Indian cuisine and Chinoiserie for Chinese.
Local Sightseeing Victoria Memorial, Zoological Garden, National Library, Indian Museum, Tagore’s Ancestral House at Jorasako, Marble Palace, Kali Temple, St Pauls Cathedral, Nakhoda Mosque and Mother Teresa Home
Currency Rupee is the local currency, with 1 AUD = Rs 40
Visa Australian Nationals require a visa to enter India
More information Check www.incredibleindia.org