Let me first clarify that this is not a mandatory schedule, or a list of top not-to-miss attractions. It is instead how I spent my 36 hours in the city of joy—as a traveller, art enthusiast, and a volunteer, and ended up falling in love with it, despite the lousy weather, crowds, and advertised poverty.
It is an attempt to see the city with very personal eyes.
Kolkata aka Calcutta is not a world city. I would not even call it an Indian city. It is Bengali where the faces are round and everyone and all road signs converse in the native tongue, under a colonial mantle.
The mix, I would like to believe, is unique to it. On one side Kolkata is deeply indigenous when it comes to deities and festivals, and the arts and music. On the other, it nonchalantly wears its monumental British legacy with ease and a stiff upper lip. Somewhere in between, the city has become synonymous with charity.
36 hours is not really enough to absorb all that it holds in its folds. But it sufficed as an engaging enough introduction for me, and maybe does for you as well. 🙂
[Note: Top image: Detail, bronze panel decorating the base of Queen Victoria’s effigy seated on a throne at Victoria Memorial.]
Day 1: Morning: Kalighat Temple
I love to kick-start a place with a visit to its protector deity. It reminds me of days of yore when travellers from distant lands paid homage to local gods.
According to legend, Kalighat was once upon a time a ghat [landing stage] associated with the goddess Kali on Hooghly river’s original course. Kali is worshipped in Hinduism as the destroyer of evil forces, Divine Mother, or Mother of the Universe. In another legend, Kalighat is regarded as one of the 51 Shakti Peethas where Sati’s various body parts are said to have fallen during her consort Shiva’s Rudra Tandava. Her toes fell here. The river has since moved its course, replaced by the canal “adi Ganga”, and Kolkata took its name from the word Kalighat.
Three-eyed with a long protruding tongue and four hands all made of gold, the image of Kali in the 200-year-old temple is one of its kind. However, like most other major temples throughout India, Kalighat too suffers from the invariable bullying of “non-local pilgrims” into buying exorbitantly priced parsad and partaking in rituals and prayers for a fee. If you can dodge your way out of it, kudos to you! If you can’t, like I couldn’t, present your wish list. 😛
Kalighat painting or Kalighat Pat, inspiration for Jamini Roy’s art, originated in the vicinity of the Kalighat Temple in the 19th Century as souvenirs. The art form later became a distinct school of Indian painting in its own right.
The temple is open from 5 am – 2 pm and 5 pm – 10:30 pm daily.
Day 1: Afternoon: Mother Teresa’s Nirmal Hriday
Whether you are a regular volunteer or not, may I suggest you spend an afternoon volunteering at Kalighat, the Home of the Pure Heart [Nirmal Hriday]—a hospice for the sick, destitute and dying—right next to the Kalighat temple. It was founded by Mother Teresa on her 42nd birthday in 1952, two years after she established Missionaries of Charity in Kolkata, then Calcutta.
Kolkata is irrevocably bound with the saint, with Nirmal Hriday often referred to as her first love. Dedicated to take care of the most destitute in the city with medical and emotional care, inmates suffer from AIDS, leprosy, malnutrition, cancer or unidentified illnesses. Despite the name, an estimated 70 percent get well and go back home.
I had one of my life’s most memorable experiences within its walls in the company of its 100-odd ailing men and women inmates as we played a pan-Indian carrom board match amidst shouts of glee and giggles, and followed it with dinner and getting to know each other, without judgement or pity.
Visiting hours for the Home is 9 am – 12 noon and 3 pm – 5.30 pm.
You can read more about my volunteering experience at the centre here.
Day 1: Evening: Belur Math
At the other end of Kolkata, on the banks across the Hooghly river is Belur Math, crux of the Ramakrishna Movement and a major player in both the Hindu reform movement and introduction of Vedanta and Yoga to the western world. If you leave Nirmal Hriday by 5:30 pm and race across the city at full speed you’ll be in time for the evening aarti at 6:30 pm.
The aarti [worship ritual] is a grand extravaganza with saffron and white muslin-robed shaven-headed monks singing Khandana Bhava–Bandhana [breaker of this world’s chain], a Bengali song composed by Swami Vivekananda, to the accompaniment of classical instruments. He wrote it at the Math in 1898 in dedication to his guru, the 19th Century Bengali mystic Ramakrishna Paramahamsa (1836-1886).
The grand edifice of the Ramakrishna Temple fusing Hindu, Christian and Islamic motifs as a symbol of unity of all religions, dim lighting and lilting sounds of the hymns are nothing short of magical, cutting across cast and creed. It was a whim of the moment to visit the Math, but am real glad I did it!
It is not all aarti at the Math though. The 40-acre complex is the headquarters of the Ramakrishna Math and Mission, founded by Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902). There are numerous temples, the main monastery of the Order, a museum, and several educational institutions sprawled over the green lawns. Photography is not allowed inside the temple.
[Note: When coming back from the Math do take the 8-laned 705-metre long Howrah Bridge route, a cantilever bridge (1943), across the Hooghly river. It is an impressive sight, more so at night. The 6th longest bridge of its type in the world, it carries a daily traffic of over 100,000 vehicles and more than 150,000 pedestrians and does not have a single nut or bolt in its construct.]
Day 2: Morning: Flurys
What better way to start a day than with brunch at Flurys!
Post a hefty dose of spirituality, poverty, and volunteerism, I asked my cab driver “Where do people hang out in Cal?” He did not understand what I meant so I repeated, “Achche achche kapde pehen ke log kahaan ghoomney jaatey hai?” [Where do people dress up and go to?] His answer: “Aah ah. Park Street!”
So come morning, albeit not snazzily dressed, I plonk myself in a deep cushioned seat at Flurys devouring the menu and wanting to order everything in it.
Its website describes it as:
“Flurys the legendary tearoom on fashionable Park Street in Kolkata was founded in 1927 by Mr and Mrs J Flurys. Presenting fine European traditional confections, it had soon become a popular meeting place for all ages. It introduced the city and many generations to authentic Swiss and International delicacies.
As the only tea room of the prosperous Britisher and the affluent Indian alike, the place was known far and wide for its exotic cakes, creamy pastries, rich puddings and perhaps the best Swiss chocolates outside the European continent, and in no small measure to the relaxed and cheerful atmosphere that it provided.”
I ordered a masala omelette, toast, hashbrowns, croissant, spinach and American corn quiche, chicken and mixed capsicum envelope, and a pot of English tea. All for just Rs. 500 per person! I was with a friend. Needless to say I could have ordered a lot more. 😀 Check out their menu.
Day 2: Afternoon: Indian Museum
The Indian Museum located just around the corner of Park Street, and built in 1878 by the British Raj, is India’s oldest and largest museum. The museum has numerous galleries, but the one I wanted to explore was its archaeological section. It came highly recommended by my culturally-way-more-savvy-than-me friends and acquaintances in Indian aesthetics.
Arranged in chronological order, it showcases 1,500 years of India’s sculpture art, from which emanate its various schools and inter-linkages, in a seamless story.
Starting with the Mauryan 23-feet high Bharhut gateway (2nd Century BC), the columned corridor took me through the Gandhara or Graeco-Buddhist and Mathura Schools which flourished under the Kushan period and Amaravati School in South India (2nd Century), the Classical Gupta Period (5th Century), and, thereafter, regional sculpture in post-Gupta Bihar and Bengal (7th to 12th Century).
The collection ends with Buddhist and Hindu sculptures from South-East Asia as a result of Indian settlement and the corresponding export of Indian art. It is also a befitting end of a rich heritage which went on to enrich those it came into contact with.
Open from 10 am – 5 pm, the entry ticket is a treat at Rs. 20 for Indians [Rs. 500 for foreigners] with photography allowed. My blog post on the collection can be read here.
Day 2: Evening 1: Victoria Memorial
If you wondering what’s with this colonial mantle and huge British Raj edifices which throng the city, the answer is simple. Way before Delhi became the capital, Calcutta, founded as an East India Company trading post in 1690 was India’s capital during the British Raj from 1773-1911—a good 138 years in total. Delhi’s association with the Raj, in comparison, is very recent and short-lived.
Dedicated to Queen Victoria (1819–1901), the Victoria Memorial, a large white Makrana marble building in the heart of the city was built between 1906 and 1921. It is now a museum. The brain child of Lord George Curzon, then Viceroy of India, he proposed on her death:
“Let us, therefore, have a building, stately, spacious, monumental and grand, to which every newcomer in Calcutta will turn, to which all the resident population, European and Native, will flock, where all classes will learn the lessons of history, and see revived before their eyes the marvels of the past.”
The total cost of construction of this monument in 1906 amounted to Rupees one crore, five lakhs, and was entirely funded by voluntary subscriptions. Designed by William Emerson in the Indo-Saracenic revivalist style, it is 103 metres by 69 metres in area and 56 metres high, and often said to be reminiscent of the Taj Mahal.
I didn’t go into the museum. A walk in the gardens in the late afternoon sun was way more tempting. 🙂
Day 2: Evening 2: St. Paul’s Cathedral
Just down the road from Victoria Memorial is the Indo-Gothic St. Paul’s Anglican Cathedral (1847). Built to provide for the growing English community in the city in the 1800s, it is the largest cathedral in Kolkata and first one built in the British Empire’s overseas territory.
St. Paul’s is very English. Stiff, upper lip, sombre; the sepia shadows and faded military orders jutting out from the walls are steeped in history. If it were not for the young Indian couples scattered within, I could have sworn I was 150 years back in time.
Day 2: Evening 3: Prinsep Ghat
And finally my last stop, to see the sun set over Prinsep Ghat and Vidyasagar Setu Bridge, over a local Bengali chat. The Palladian porch at the ghat was built in 1843 during the British Raj in memory of the eminent Anglo-Indian scholar and antiquary James Prinsep. In yesteryears, the Prinsep Ghat jetty was used by all royal British entourages for embarkation and disembarkation.
Today it stands a bit shabby, a bit forgotten, overshadowed with modern Kolkata’s achievements, the Vidyasagar Setu Bridge looming over it. Much like most of British Raj, by Modern India.
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Good Bye, Kolkata aka Calcutta. Thirty-six hours and I felt I had danced a waltz with her. Partly intimate, often smooth, now and then a whirlwind. I don’t know if I will ever return, but the 36 hours were a good enough takeaway, don’t you think so too? ❤