Monday, February 23, 2009


Kolkata - India's cultural kingpin

Kolkata, aka Calcutta, is the West Bengal Capital, third largest urban agglomeration in India, fourth-largest Indian city, a British capital for monitoring the sub-continent till 1911. Some tags attached, but these don't interest a tourist, do they!

The vengeful Kali (Lord Shiva's consort) is the patron Goddess here and the same passion, runs through the life and blood of the Bengalis. Be it the sacrifices at the pyre of nationalist struggle, the compulsive call of their sweet-tooth, a Rabindrasangeet (Rabindranath Tagore songs), political confabulate, film-making - the zeal is just enviably perfect. And before we head further, some legendary products this 'City of Joy' owes to the nation and perhaps, the world - Rabindranath Tagore (artist), Jyoti Basu (politician, CM for 23 years), Satyajit Ray (film-maker), Sushmita Sen (Miss World 1994), Mother Teresa (Missionary nun), Subhas Chandra Bose (nationalist), Ilish-masheer-bhappa (a fish curry), the Rôshogolla (a sweet), and a legion of writers, film-makers and what not. Come here to feel India painted in a different hue from what Delhi, Mumbai and the likes are!

Tale of the City

A part of the decolonization spree (that turned Madras - Chennai, Bombay - Mumbai) is Calcutta becoming 'Kolkata' derived from 'Kalikata'(called so before the British came), in turn, is an anglicized version of Kalikshetra (Land of the goddess Kali). During the colonial period it was called 'the City of Palaces'.


Victoria Memorial: It is Lord Curzon's white marbled memorabilia for Queen Victoria, resonates the colonial era with its house of artifacts and impressive Western style architecture. Its 25 galleries, house about 3,500 articles relating to the Raj, plus the black marble throne of Siraj-ud-Daulah and the mammoth painting of a Jaipur royal procession (perhaps the largest in Asia). Don't miss the Light and Sound Show held everyday, except Mondays, when the Museum remains closed.

Howrah Bridge (Rabindra Setu): The third largest cantilever bridge in the world and an engineering marvel completed in 6 years, the gracious Howrah Bridge of Kolkata has a world record of being the third largest cantilever bridge. Its 71ft wide road has 8 lanes of traffic and 2 footpaths on both sides. As you travel, along with the 2 million that reportedly crosses the bridge daily, its 500 meters with no pillars in the middle, gives the spine a strange chill.

Birla Planetarium: Just near the crossing of the Theater Road and Chowringhee Road is one of world's most famous planetarium with an astronomical library and art gallery, an otherwise landmark (its dome shape) for tourists who feel lost and confused in this bustling city. Daily shows are held in English, Hindi and Bengali as the planetarium's gigantic projector recreates the night sky.

Eden Gardens: Now the name here is a confusion of sorts. Incase your mind is racing already, this place has got nothing to do with the Biblical Eden. And its fame as a garden is passe, considering its roaring popularity as a site for the international cricket matches. However, it still offers a quiet stroll along the banks of the Hoogly River, add to it a short cruise down the river with the Vidyasagar Setu Bridge silhouetted in the background.

BBD Bagh: The popular Dalhousie Square is just another one to come under the renaming spree. Benoy-Badal-Dinesh Bagh, after the three martyrs of Bengal, is the city's administrative hub with famed historical buildings like the Writers' Building, Raj Bhavan, State Legislative Assembly, Kolkata High Court, St John's Cathedral, GPO and Reserve Bank of India.

Botanical Gardens: Banking Hoogly, south of Howrah and sprawling a vast 270 acres, is this world famous herbarium with some 50,000 species of plants, the Botanical Survey of India, a 250 year old and 98 ft tall banyan tree, is the oldest botanics in India founded in 1786.

Dakshineswar Kali Temple: Flanking the mighty Ganges River, on the Kalighat Road, north of Kolkata is this sprawling temple with a Goddess Kali shrine in the center, surrounded by 12 of Lord Shiva. The great religious thinker Ramakrishna Paramahamsa is believed to have achieved spiritual nirvana, here and today pilgrims from around the world visit the temple to bask in its ethereal serenity. The goat sacrifice ritual everyday (that allegedly replaced the ancient practice of human sacrifice), however might leave one with a bad taste if sighted.

Paresnath Temple: This Jain temple at the Badridas Temple street, dedicated to Sitalnathji (the 10th of the 24 Jain tirthankaras or perfect souls), is more of an architectural orchestra with mirror-inlay pillars, marble floors with floral motifs, chandeliers from Paris and Brussels, blocks of glass mosaics and European statues painted in silver, gold-gilded dome and what not.

Marble Palace (former 'Palace of Arts'): If you have already had a dekko of Hyderabad's Salar Jung Museum, you will be amazed at the exactitude of this similar structure. Located in north Calcutta at Muktaram Babu Street, the conglomeration of some hundreds of marble varieties from across the world, pristine fountains from Rome, original painting masterpieces by Rubens and Joshua Reynolds, glass chandeliers and much more await your vision. A large pool near the small granite bungalow has ducks, peacocks and ostriches. It remains closed on Mondays and Thursdays.

Hangouts: The Park (despite its micro dance-floor), Someplace Else, Tantra are where you can shake a leg with Kolkata's hippest nocturnals. The evenings can be flavored with a visit to one of the many theatrical performances and cultural gatherings that are staged almost everywhere in the city. The local newspapers or your know-it-all travel agent will furnish the required information about venues et al. The Birla Academy of Art and Culture (108-109 Southern Avenue), the Centre for International Modern Art (Sunny Towers, 43 Ashutosh Chowdhari Avenue/Sun closed), the Academy of Fine Arts (2 Cathedral Rd.) are perfect retreats for connoisseurs of art.


Home to some of India's best designers, the designer buys here are really worth the splurge. Some names to mug-up are Sabyasachi Mukherjee (one of India's bests), Kiran Uttan Ghosh and Shabari Datta.

Bengal's famous Tangail sarees can be had from Kundahar (10, Sarat Banerjee Rd.) and Ananda (Russell St.) For Bengali handicrafts, visit Dakshinapan or the Bengal Home Industries (11 Camac St.) or Sasha (27 Mirza Ghalib St.). The Central Cottage Industries Emporium in Chowringhee is where you must go if you want to pick different ethnic Indian stuff, not necessarily Bengali.

New Market, the erstwhile Hogg's Market, is Kolkata's oldest and most renowned shopping arcade on Lindsay Street. Right from leather goods, fancy silverware, jewelery, garments, fabrics, garment to dry fruits, poultry products, fish, meat, flowers - here is where everything can be bought right. Park Centre, on Park Street is the fashion hub with a wide variety of apparel, especially ladies' garments, cosmetics and electronic gadgets.


If you have a sweet-tooth, Kolkata is a paradise of a sort. Rasgollas (cottage cheese balls in sugar syrup) and mishti doi (curd sweetened with molasses) are almost religiously sought favorites. Others Bengali staples include curious names like sandesh, chanar payesh, and khir kadom, and more delicately sweetened gulab jamuns and halwas of North India. Try these at Ganguram Sweets (41 Bipin Behari Ganguly Street), K C Das (11A&B Esplanade East), Mithai (48B Syed Amir Ali Ave.), and Bhim Nag (Bidhan Sarani). And good news is, sweet-tooth or none, Kolkata is a gourmets Shangri-La. Sententiously put, the Bengali kitchens are where the gastronome is allowed to indulge in spicy, fried, tasty food, especially varieties of fish delights.Kolkata-Mughlai palate is what results when the Persian spices fall for the East Indian herbs and fish. Try Nizam's (1 Corporation Place) where the kathi kebab roll (kebabs wrapped in fried bread) was born. Shiraz is another option for similar flavors. The murgh mussalam (chicken) and the mutton chanps tikiya (chops) of the Royal Indian Hotel (147 Rabindra Sarani) are legendary. Kolkatans have a panache for Chinese platters and some toothsome flavors can be sampled at Mainland China (Uniworth House, 3A Gurusadary Rd.) and Taj Bengal's in-house Chinese restaurant, Chinoiserie.


The Rôshogolla lore: Defying the popular belief, the Rasgulla is originally a Puri (in Orissa) product. The art was eventually transferred to Kolkata, and during the Bengal renaissance, and finally it was Nobin Chandra Das of Bagbazar (Kolkata) who evolved its 'spongy' form and threw it right at the international gourmets table. A popular limerick goes hence: "Bagbazar's Nobin Das, Rossogolla's Columbus".

Rabindranath Tagore: Asia's first Nobel laureate, Tagore - the avante garde poet, writer, philosopher, playwright, novelist - is a cult figure in Bengal. The English translation of his poetry collection Gitanjali was published under Yeats' auspices, and the Nobel Prize followed in 1913. The poems also appeared in Ezra Pound's magazine Poetry. The British crown's Knighthood was repudiated by this humble nationalist in 1919, in protest of the Jallianwalabagh Massacre (Punjab).


Shantiniketan (212 km): Founded in 1901 by Rabindranath Tagore, a noted poet, writer and nationalist, this university resonates the Gurukul system of learning, where student and teachers reside together and learn the various aspects of life through practical experience and classes are held mostly in the open air, under trees. Noted alumni include India's ex-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.

Digha (185 km): A classic fishing hamlet with an exotic beach on the east coast sum up for a perfect weekend getaway from the city hum-drum.

Malda (365 km N): Also called English Bazaar from the cenruries old British factory here, is a base for heading to the archaeological sites of Gaur and Pandua. Gaur has been the capital to three dynasties - Buddhist Palas, the Hindu Senas and the Muslim Nawabs. Pandua has the third largest concentration of Muslim monuments in Bengal.

Vishnupur (200 km): This slice of 17th-18th century with terracotta temples should not be missed. The endemic 'Bankura horse' is a popular handicraft item across the nation and once there you can buy some of its terracotta pieces to adorn your walls.

Location :
In West Bengal, East India

Go there for :
Museums, Art Galleries, Sweets

Climate :
38°-41.7°C (Sum); 16°-29°C (Win)

When to Go:

Local Tongue:

Literacy :

STD Code :
+91 - 33

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this nice post...

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