Kolkata or Calcutta, the present capital of Bengal and the old capital of India is also known as the city of palaces for the presence of numerous buildings of colonial origin and is the second Indian city after Mumbai in size and population. It was Asia's largest colonial city, the capital of British India until 1911, and its imperial past preserves imposing architectural remains. In 1911 the capital was shifted to New Delhi. As Calcutta, was the seat of British rule in India, it was a place of great villas and splendid offices.
Calcutta even today gives an immediate sense of the metropolis, less pretentious than Delhi and less snobbish than Bombay, preserved by the Bengali culture and the beautiful shadow of the British Raj.
But above all, Calcutta in many ways and it still is, thanks to its refined literature, modern art galleries, film production and a list of intellectuals of world stature raised in the city from the poet and novelist Tagore, to directors like Satyajit Ray, awarded in all festivals the world and in Hollywood with an Oscar for lifetime achievement in 1992, and you get up to Amartya Sen, Nobel Laureate in Economics in 1998, and Amitav Ghosh, contemporary writer translated all over the world.
Kolkata is beyond the cliché of City of Joy by Dominique Lapierre. Rather, the perception of Calcutta has been somewhat distorted by Lapierre, but the error of the West lies in confusing the part with the whole. Kolkata is a vibrant city, full of attractions that runs like a high-speed train and is one of those in the usual tourist routes that still has a maintained a remarkable cultural tradition and has remained at the center of the industrial and cultural activities of the country along with the tram network, the only in India.
A trip to Calcutta is often not easy. Yet if you visit this city you will quickly realize that it has more to offer and conceals jewels not found in the Lonely Planet guide. In addition, it is a city that has a very special atmosphere that often pleases the tourists. When you arrive in Calcutta it is a real leap in time, not so much for the airport that is modern but as soon as you see the famous yellow taxis, and spent the first few kilometers. Even at 7 in the morning, Calcutta is already a cute town with early street markets, food stands, and clanking trams.
The modern city of Calcutta developed and spread at the end of the seventeenth century by grouping three nearby towns of Kalikata, Gobindapur, and Sutanuti under the aegis of Job Charnock, an English merchant of the East India Company.
The colonial period still bear several testimonies like the Maidan, the vast green expanse, which houses the Victoria Memorial, that preserves the remains of Queen Victoria and collection of objects and documents from the period, the Raj Bhavan, the residence of the Governor and Fort William, the army barrack and sumptuous Government House of the eighteenth century, which was the residence of the Viceroys.
Today, the Maidan functions as a large open space for ad hoc cricket matches, grazing animals, political and military parades, demonstrations, while around the city life screams and cackles. Kolkata today is a wonderful, kaleidoscopic jumble. And in addition to its chaotic dizzy charm, it offers a great sense of adventure.
We walked aimlessly in the first direction that came to us and land at the Kolkata Municipal Corporation Headquarters, a municipal building dating back to 1876, which, as the name suggests, is home to the city's administrative services and infrastructure management.
In the Esplanade and Chowringhee area is also see the Grand Hotel, one of the most famous buildings in the city, which is now owned by the Oberoi chain, with a typical British air in this palace. Visiting the city it is difficult to resist the many stalls in the large square of the Esplanade which sell dosa, typical local snacks like pancakes made to eat lentils with coconut chutney, the pure, warm and swollen luchi or fried bread and nimboo pani or salted lime juice.
The variety of architectural styles present in Calcutta is indicative of the rest, like the Town Hall built in Roman Doric style, a showy General Post Office with the silver dome and nearby is the Parsi Fire Temple and numerous synagogues in Ezra Street and an Armenian church in Barabazar. The Marble Palace is really nice but complicated enough to get in.
The Armenians and Portuguese had occupied Govindapur and Sutanuti before the arrival of the English. The dome of the General Post Office is located on the site of the first Britannic fort of the notorious Black Hole of Calcutta, the neighborhood where British troops in 1756 were involved in an uprising. The Nakhoda Mosque, built in 1926 is an example of the Mughal architectural style. A little further north is actually the birthplace of the Indian bureaucracy in Dalhousie, later renamed as BBD Bag, where the employees of the East India Company had their offices.
The elegant Writers Building, built in red robe, which was also the earlier seat of government, the imposing High Court, and the nineteenth-century neo-gothic St. Paul's Cathedral Cathedral, the St. John's Church. the remarkable church of St. John is a copy of the St Martin church in London. The plans and paintings were followed by a British military engineer, Lieutenant James Agg, in 1787. The church is located in an enclave of neglected greenery, with its cemetery containing the grave of Job Charnock, the colorful professional.
In Park Street is also a large British cemetery that was saved and recovered from a mass of vegetation. This haunting memorial of the imperial past is full of domes, columns, urns and mausoleums and the poet Henry Derozio was buried here on 26 December 1831, at the age of 22 years.
Just north of the South Park Street Cemetery, there is an abrupt change of pace and perspective as you enter College Street. This is the hub consecrated by time, the Bengali intellectual life and it is here that most of the approximately 600 book shops are located. Small kiosks lining the road sell anything from second-hand bestsellers to epics and works of literary heroes of Calcutta.
The Indian Museum is one of the prime attractions of the city and is the oldest exhibition center in Asia. Founded in 1814, it preserves the documents on the different historical phases of the city.
To the east of the Howrah Bridge in the northern part of the city is the colorful flower market at Mullickghat. Here every morning thousand of flower sellers assemble from different parts of the countryside of Bengal, and the flowers are intended for offerings in temples, festivals and weddings and the market becomes a meeting place for people of every age. Another interesting bridge to photograph is the Vidyasagar Setu with a vague semblance of the Brooklyn Bridge.
You cannot avoid a visit to the area Kumartuli, known as the potters quarter with the entire neighborhood is a maze of alleys and huts, where potters dedicate themselves to the construction of idols of gods and goddesses with straw and mud, which are used at festivals. In the eastern part of the city is Tangra Chinatown, the home to the Chinese.
Here the restaurants are also very popular with its authentic Chinese cuisine prepared by Chinese locals and chefs that serve the typical dim sum. Whether you opt for a roll of shrimp and water chestnuts, the chicken wrapped in Chinese cabbage leaf with Szechuan sauce or Indian sea bass with daikon, freshness, and elegance are in the fork tip or chopsticks.
For a very different angle on Bengali life, we headed south to the most sacred place of the city, the Kalighat Kali Temple. Every sense of the colors, aromas, hand-pulled Rickshaws, carts, cows, Ambassador taxis and even more is both fascinating and disconcerting. We joined the crowds of pilgrims who buy flowers and cakes at the entrance of the temple and then wandered through the outer courts, seeing the image of Kali in a coterie, happy to have missed a recent sacrifice of a goat, apparently undertaken with a bang of a knife.
After this, the juxtaposition, the life of a fashionable city could not have been greater. An afternoon of shopping has led us into another world. For shopping in Kolkata, you will be spoiled for choice with its variety of local and international chains, where you can get pendants, fabrics, carpets, traditional clothing and exciting terracotta handicrafts.
New Market or Sir Stuart Hogg Market in Lindsay Street is the popular shopping area with cinemas, restaurants and trendy boutiques. The architecture of the market dates back to the seventeenth century and is good even if, like most good things in the city, this too has undergone a change with the growing number of tourists. It is still a fantastic experience, as you can find everything and at all prices from gold, jewels, silks, saris, spices, tea and even food.
The crowded streets around the New Market are dotted with small shops that serve a refreshing lassi, the sweet or sour yogurt drink flavored with fruit or salted and in summer you can also get a glass of aam pora sharbat, salty and spicy mango juice. And if you let yourself be seduced by the intricacies of this market that is said to be haunted by the ghost of Sir Stuart Hogg, fall into temptation at the Jewish bakery of Nahoum & Sons, with its many sweet iced kosher preparation.
Then when you seem to have found an interesting thing shopkeepers will make you sit, offer you the chai, the hot tea prepared with milk and then start the long exhausting deal. You never know if the price paid is a bargain for you or the seller. Take it with joy and spend a nice day from all points of view.
Mirza Ghalib Street, barabazar, and bowbazar are popular for local crafts, with products ranging from elegant silk tapestry, bedspread and jewelry.
For those who are interested in the game of cricket (and if you're lucky) you can witness it at the Eden Gardens stadium, which also house a Burmese pagoda, while the Indian Coffee House on the corner of Bankim Chatterjee Street at College Street will answer an intellectual pause, where waiters in white turban served us cups of coffee, while the fan in the ceiling circle the humid air. Here are held numerous meetings of poetry, literature, politics, along with the coffee, which is very popular.
Finally, the botanical garden, located south of the city, on the west bank of the Hooghly River, is home to two of the oldest specimens of banyan and fig trees in the world.
Calcutta also has a theatrical and cinematic tradition, a place where the Jatra is still popular, which lasts 3-4 hours and belong to a form of popular musical theater with comedians, who are predominantly male. The city is also known for its cinema, and artistic Bengali films are shot in Tollywood in the Tollygunge area. Here the Indian auteur cinema has its seat. Nandan is a modern center of movie studios where is held every year an international film festival. The Academy of Fine Arts is a great showcase for the new artists.
Calcutta is the birthplace of Rabindranath Tagore, who got the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913. There are numerous addresses offering cultural evenings, and his home at Jorasanko can also be visited. The city is also linked to the figure of Mother Teresa of Calcutta and her Missionaries of Charity, the work for which she won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979. Nirmal Hriday is the house in Kalighat, which she founded, that is located next to the Temple of Kali.
Among the events, during the Durga Puja that takes place between September and October, the city takes a completely different shape and colour as millions of people from all over Bengal come to the city to throng the hundreds of puja pandals, which are temporary structures created with bamboo, thermocol and other stuff, that resemble different popular buildings to major events in the world. Some of the popular ones in the last few years were the Hogwarts palace of Harry Potter, the Tower of liberty and countless monuments of the world.
In Calcutta, it is also a foodies paradise with its range of street food from biryani, Kathi roll made with bread wrap and different fillings of vegetables, chicken or other meat and is similar to tacos, Mughlai paratha, made with paratha, egg and accompanied with aloo dum.
There is also beguni, a kind of fried zucchini croquettes, also made with different fillings like potato and onion, Kachori, Singara or samosa, the phuchka, a fried crepe ball served with a paste of boiled potato and spices, dipped in tamarind and lentil sauce, lassi, a yogurt drink along with the countless fresh cheese based sweets and desserts.
And in this regard, it is worth remembering that Calcutta is known in India for its pastries and it's cake shops like KC Das, Putiram, Bancharam and Ganguram, as well as Haldiram are legendary sweet shops.
These the best places where to try the Sandesh, a sweet made of fresh cheese, rose water, pistachios and cardamom, the Kaju Barfi, sweet wrapped in silver leaf that is popular during Diwali, the festival of lights that, at the turn of October and November, here plays an importance comparable to Christmas and New Year together, the mishti doi, red yogurt steamed with jaggery, the laddoo, dough balls in ghee, and rosogolla, curdled milk balls.
The Bengalis love sweets, but it is not only a sin of gluttony and the sweetness takes on a spiritual value and devotion, as it is offered to the deity. During Kali puja, the great feast of the Goddess, devotees wait for hours at the entrance of the temple with arms full of flowers and sweets.
Flurys is the eponymous tea room founded in the second half of the 1920s and is one of the best in the city. This soon became a gathering place for people of all ages who are thus introduced to Swiss and international delicacies. The fame soon exceeded the city limits and also domestic ones, probably by virtue of what is widely regarded as the best Swiss chocolate outside the European borders.
The tearoom in Park Street, in the center of Calcutta, still remains a popular meeting place, due to the relaxing atmosphere with retro furnishings which contribute with its good pastry especially chocolate desserts.
The dinner that evening showed us around and gave another aspect of fashion in Kolkata. The main elements of the kitchen that you can taste in Calcutta are rice and Macher Jhol (fish curry), with some sweets like rasgulla and mishti doi (sweet yogurt). Among the most popular dishes are also the bhapa ilish or steamed hilsa in mustard sauce. The food is tasty with lots of reliable addresses. Later we dived into the Calcutta nightlife in the hotel and in some other place where Indian-Latin-American hybrid groups play in front of rapt audiences.
The classic backpackers' area is Sudder Street. Most of the hotels in the Sudder Street area is popular among foreigners. If you are female and traveling solo, it's better not to stay out late at night (except during Durga Puja). And, again if you are alone, maybe a trip to Sonagachi is not a good idea, which is the largest red light district in all of Asia. Park Street is the preferred route by night owls.
For a Hooghly river cruise along the Ganges, you can start from the Millennium Park located near Dalhousie, in the heart of the city. In a suburban train, you can to go to Dakshineswar Kali Temple and the Ramakrishna Mission at Belur Math in the north. There is a religious center bordering the river, surrounded by palm trees and a lawn created by Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, a sage of the nineteenth century that preached the unity of all religions.
Howrah station is the famous renowned train station in Calcutta. There are of course several stations in the city like the Sealdah station but it is by Howrah that you have the most chances to arrive. This station takes its name from this famous bridge that borders the station. Be careful because Howrah is really a huge station and there are people everywhere. Do not be impressed by the crowd and just leave the station where the demographic pressure is less important.
Pohela Boishakh is the Bengali New Year and marks the beginning of the crop cycle. On this day many Bengali weddings take place and new businesses start as they believe this day to be very lucky. The Muharram procession called Ashura festival is held in the city. This procession is led by snow white horses go to areas like Metiabruz and Khiderpore.
Joydev Mela at Kenduli is a festival cum fair that takes place in the month of January. The festival lasts three days when Baul minstrels and city slickers get out on the streets. Bhai Phota festival celebrates family ties. Women still fast in the morning. Fasting is completed by putting a small amount of sandalwood on the forehead of their brothers. They wish for the good health of their brethren and also offer sweets.
As for the ice skating rink in Calcutta, it is considered a fun way to deal with the cold and join the sea of people, whose skating will make you feel part of the city.
It's easy to fall in love with Calcutta. You will find the world in Kolkata if you have the eyes to see it. Calcutta is silent in the midst of so much noise and there is everything in the streets filled with people and children and that's the beauty of Calcutta with the streets with children! Their smiles, their availability, their sweetness and their love and you can understand why a city is called the CITY OF JOY.