'Joy' of the City of Joy – Kolkata
One of my closest friends was getting married last year in Deoghar (Jharkhand). He was my batchmate in MBA and over the years we have developed a special bond and hence I had to make the journey to his hometown for the marriage. This was the first time I was traveling to the Eastern part of India. In fact, I have traveled to more than twenty states in India with East being the only exception. This was my perfect opportunity.
Kolkata is just about 4 hours away via a train journey from Deoghar and I had already made up my mind to explore it before I even left for Deoghar. After the ceremonies and rituals of marriage throughout the night, I reached Jasidih station, which is the closest railway station to Deoghar. I wasn’t able to successfully procure a confirmed reservation in the early morning trains to Kolkata hence I decided to purchase a general ticket and board the first going to it.
I reached Kolkata in the afternoon and the weather, for once, was as forecasted. I was greeted by a thunderstorm and it was raining heavily. I checked in a hotel at Park Street as it is centrally located and all the major attractions are more or less equidistant from it.
Kolkata or as it was spelled, Calcutta till 2001 is also referred to as the ‘Cultural capital of India’. Kolkata is celebrated for its cultural heritage, literature, food, festivals, arts, theatre and above all its people. The city is also known as the ‘City of Joy’ because of its seamless amalgamation of food, festivities, and people. French author Dominique Lapierre gave this name after he wrote a novel with the same title. People from every walk of life find their place and space in this jam-packed city.
The British East India Company arrived in Kolkata around 1690 and made it the capital of British India in 1772 till it was replaced by Delhi in 1911. They also constructed the Fort William in 1702 but I was denied the permission to visit it as it is currently under Indian Army jurisdiction.
During the 18th century, it was truly a cosmopolitan city with multiple cultures flourishing here. In fact, the city still has India’s only Chinatown because of Chinese migrants during that era.
ABOUT THE CITY
Kolkata is the third largest city in India with approx. 15 million people after Mumbai and Delhi and is situated on the east coast of India. It is the capital of the state of West Bengal.
The fifth busiest airport in India and with three major railway stations – Kolkata railway station, Howrah Jn and Sealdah railway station, connect it.
Climate: It has a tropical climate and usually hot, wet and extremely humid during summers and comparatively cooler during winters.
Best time to visit: November to February.
Getting around: Kolkata is well connected through public transport. There is a good network of metros, local city buses, local taxis and others like rickshaws and auto rickshaws. Kolkata has upgraded to app-based taxis also – Ola and Uber are operational throughout the city.
The old heritage tram system is still operative but the coverage has come down drastically and it is only there as a tribute to the city. Don’t forget to take any random ‘Tram Ride’ just for the sake of experience. It is considerably cheap. Other striking notable things when it comes to transport are ‘Yellow Taxis’ and ‘Hand-pulled’ rickshaws. Kolkata’s streets are filled with these Ambassador yellow taxis. Most of them have “No Refusal” written on them – to signify no driver can refuse any ride. But be prepared to test your bargaining skills.
As the city is growing and modernizing, the number of yellow taxis is reducing at a faster pace and it is being replaced with an air-conditioned white one with blue stripe; most of which are Maruti Suzuki Dzires.
I didn’t like the concept of hand pulled rickshaw and it reminded me of slavery and hence avoided it completely.
I decided to stay back in the hotel and catch up on some sleep and waited for the thunderstorm to pass. In the evening I took an auto rickshaw to the college street to visit the Indian Coffee House.
Indian Coffee House
It is an old café with immense heritage attached to it. Also known as College Street Coffee House, this place was one of the locations where a lot of freedom fighters and eminent personalities used to gather before independence. To the credit of Indian Coffee House they have been able to maintain that old rustic charm and if you go by the prices on the menu you will feel they are pre-independence era too. You can get a plate of cutlets and a cup of coffee for a meager sum of Rs. 30. It is crowded by narrow lanes from all sides and is in close vicinity of the Presidency College and the University of Calcutta.
Note: It closes fairly early so make sure to reach there before 6 pm for your tea.
I decided to head back to park street as places start closing early in Kolkata.
The next morning it was already raining by the time I got up. I decided to give up the plan of taking a taxi from one place to another and instead, hired a cab for a full day. I had a lot of places to visit and this would have surely helped in saving time considering the rain too.
I began the day with Victoria Memorial.
The British built the Victoria Memorial in the memory of Queen Victoria and it was completed in 1921. It is made of white marble and currently serves as a museum and houses collection majorly from the colonial period. This is the closest they ever came of Taj Mahal, something they wanted to make in white marble.
Location: Southern end of Maidan along the banks of Hooghly river.
Timings: Closed on Mondays; Tues to Sun – 10 am to 5 pm
The Maidan region of Kolkata is a huge open space under the control of the Army but is open for public for sports and leisure. All around the Maidan, there are prominent monuments that can be covered on foot. The same stretch has Eden Gardens and St. Paul’s Cathedral.
St. Paul’s Cathedral
St. Paul’s Cathedral was the first Cathedral built in the overseas territory of British Empire. It is the seat of Diocese of Calcutta and is famous for its Indo Gothic Architecture. It was completed in 1847 and suffered massive damage during the earthquake of 1897. The Cathedral complex has a library and a display of plastic art forms and memorabilia. It gives you a European feel and is a captivating sight the moment you enter the complex.
Location: Southern end of Maidan – walkable from Victoria Memorial
I headed to the Indian Museum, which is about 1.5 kms from St. Paul’s Cathedral.
The Indian museum
The Indian Museum is the earliest and largest museum not only in Indian but also in the whole of Asia Pacific region. It was founded in 1814 and has a huge collection of antiques, fossils, ornaments, paintings etc. Make sure you have a complete day if you really want to visit each and every section of the museum. One of the special attractions is a real well-preserved Dinosaur egg.
Location: 27, Jawaharlal Nehru Road, Park Street, Kolkata
Timing: Mon-Fri 10AM-6:30PM Sat-Sun 10AM-8PM
I tried to cover as much as possible in the time I had. My driver informed me that Marble palace and Jorasanko Thakur Bari are close to each other and they were our next stops.
Jorasanko Thakur Bari
It is the ancestral home of first non-European Nobel laureate Gurudev Rabindra Nath Tagore. Thakur Bari is the Bengali name for ‘House of Thakurs’. It is now converted into a museum and depicts all the important events of Gurudev’s life. The more you explore the more you realize that their whole family was full of intellectuals and creative people. The house even has a separate segment where it highlights Tagore’s deep connection with the Japanese.
Location: Rabindra Bharti university campus, Jorasanko.
Timings: 10:30 am to 4:30 pm – Monday closed.
Marble palace and Thakur Bari are only 400 meters apart. Raja Rajendra Mullick, a rich Bengali merchant, built it in 1835. It is like a palace and is also made up of white marble and hence the name. The decedents of the family still occupy a portion of the palace while the rest is open for the public as a museum. There is a catch while visiting the Marble Palace. It requires a special permit issued by tourist bureau and photography is strictly prohibited even from the outside. I didn’t have the permit but was able to work my way around by having a word the guards. Though it is highly unadvisable to do so.
Location: 46, Opp Ram Mandir, Muktaram Babu Street, Jorasanko.
Timings: 10 am to 4 pm – Monday & Thursday closed.
My next stop was Dakshineshwar Kali temple.
Dakshineshwar Kali Temple
Rani Rashmoni founded it on 31st May 1855. It is one of the most famous and largest temples in Kolkata and is built in the Navaratna style of architecture. It is believed that the famous religious thinker Rama Krishna Paramhamsa attained spiritual vision here. The Ramakrishna mission takes care of all the operations of the temple. After the darshan, I strolled down to the ghat. It was a mesmerizing sight of the bridge, lights and the calm river.
Location: Dakshineshwar – It is situated on the Eastern bank of Hoogly River about 20 kms from city center alongside the Vivekanand Bridge.
Timings: It is separate for summers and winters and opens twice a day. Do check before going.
Speaking of Ramakrishna mission my next stop was Belur Math.
Belur Math is the headquarters of the Ramakrishna mission and math founded by Swami Vivekanand in 1897. There is a temple in the center of the math surrounded by lots of trees and gardens. It is about 4.5 kms from Dakshineshwar Kali Temple is on the Howrah side of the twin cities. You can reach there by crossing the Vivekanand Bridge.
Location: Belur, Howrah.
Timings: Separate timings for Summers and winters; opens twice a day and closes early.
It started getting late and for my last stop, I headed to the Kalighat Kali Temple passing the Howrah Bridge.
The moment you think of Kolkata the first that comes to mind is of Howrah Bridge. This is the most iconic feature on Kolkata’s landscape. It connects the twin cities of Howrah and Kolkata and is built on Hoogly River. In 1965 it was renamed Rabindra Setu. The traffic isn’t allowed to halt on the bridge that makes it really difficult for a view and take photographs. I will forever be in debt of my driver that he took me to a spot from where I could get a full view of the Bridge.
Kalighat Kali Temple
Kalighat Temple is the older of the two famous Kali temples in Kolkata. It is one of the 51 ‘Shakti Peethas’. It is of more historical importance than the other temples in Kolkata but currently, the locale around it has become overcrowded. Be prepared to be surrounded by pundits and shopkeepers who will swarm upon you for getting some or the other puja is done for you at some expensive price.
Timings: 5:00 am to 2:00 pm & 5:00 pm to 10:30 pm
Other noteworthy places to visit, which I wasn’t able to cover, are:
Mother Teresa home – The home of Mother Teresa – the tomb of Mother Teresa is also kept there.
Kumartuli – it is famous for sculpting clay idols for festivals. It is particularly a great sight during the Durga Puja days.
South Park Cemetery – visiting a cemetery isn’t a normal thing but it is famous for its colonial history
Old Chinatown – famous for its Chinese breakfast and other oriental cuisines.
Mullik Ghat Flower Market – for its colorful array of flowers at the display.
FOOD & STAY
Food is an equally significant part of Kolkata’s heritage dominated predominantly by Bengali cuisines. Bengali sweets are a must try – Rosogulla, Sandesh and Mishti Doi. Do try their peculiar Biryani, which is cooked with a whole potato in the middle of it. Baked Rosogulla is the latest craze and I found it absolutely amazing, as Gulab Jamun is my favorite sweet delicacy.
I can personally vouch for these places:
Balaram Mullick – for baked rosogulla and other Bengali sweets.
6 Ballygunge Place – a chain of restaurants for authentic Bengali cuisine.
Bhojohari Manna – typical Bengali meal but at a nominal cost.
Arsalan Restaurant and Shiraz Golden on Park street for non-veg.
Kolkata has no shortage of places to stay – you can choose as per your needs. But if you want to cover most parts then Park Street is the best centrally located region. It has good restaurants as well as nightlife options with awesome connectivity.
New Market – ironically it is one of the oldest markets in Kolkata, built by the British in 1874. If you are good at bargaining then this is your heaven. It is closed on Sundays if you are travelling on weekends to Kolkata.
Garihat Market – It is another paradise for shopaholics. The street market is full of options. Wherever I travel I make it a point to buy a saree for my mother. The market is famous for its ‘Tant’ saree, a traditional Bengali saree and ‘Sakha Paula’ – the handsomely crafted shell and coral bangles usually worn as a combination of red and white.
Kolkata has very aptly played its part in the history of India and no Saga of India’s heritage is complete without Kolkata featuring in it.
For all those who love traveling,
For all those who love Bengali sweets,
For all those who love Kolkata
For all those who find the ‘Joy’ in the city of joy…
It’s not a goodbye,
But it’s a GOOD BYE.
Manas ‘Sameer’ Mukul