Kolkata – A Tourist’s View

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I have no idea why the city is known as the “City of Joy” (I haven’t read the book) and nobody cared to explain that to me either. But it is definitely a city of many colors. The people are lovely, the places are with so much history steeped into them and of course, it has its own cuisine!

I grew up reading books and stories from so many Bengali authors and Kolkata was often mentioned in them. I’d seen it in films and a few tv series. But I didn’t know when I would be visiting this city. My parents had gone there a long time ago and besides the details of Kolkata, one other thing I remember of that trip of theirs is the huge Tsunami that ravaged Orissa as they were on their way to Puri and due to complete failure of communication and transport, I couldn’t get in touch with them for around 2 days which was quite scary! Thankfully they came back home safely. Then I’ve had friends from Kolkata whom I used to implore to bring me interesting things from Kolkata. So all in all, even though I had never been there, it felt like a familiar city.

Coming back to the present. Last year when two of my friends D and S decided to get married in Kolkata in January this year and graciously invited me too, I decided to take this opportunity even though I had originally planned to come home sometime around Holi. And surprise surprise, I didn’t feel like a stranger there! So my feeling about knowing the city wasn’t wrong. What I didn’t know was the erstwhile divided portions of the city from the British times. As it so happened, during the British Raj, Kolkata was the capital city for some time. But of course, the ruling class usually doesn’t mingle with the ruled, hence the city was divided into White Town (for themselves) and Black Town (for the natives). The White town is centered around what is called Dalhousie Square. And during the city walk, I got to know that as people from other places like China etc. came for trading, they wanted to be closer to where the trade opportunity was – the White Town, but they weren’t allowed to settle there, they squeezed themselves between the White and Black towns. Today probably Kolkata is the only city in India with a China Town, with a daily newspaper in Chinese!

So first let me tell you about the wedding – the reason why I was there in the first place. It was a beautiful wedding with all the Bengali Hindu rituals. I’ve been to so many Indian weddings in my life but never had I seen a whole set of musicians sitting beside the stage where the rituals were being held, playing beautiful music to accompany the Vedic mantras being recited by the priest. Since many of us were friends of both the bride and the groom, I missed the customary banter of bride side and groom side that is an integral part of Indian weddings ;). And I’ve written this last bit because finding flaw in the minutest of things, in the wedding function despite the best made arrangements, is the task of the wedding guests (tic).  

Thankfully, the wedding ceremony was over in a reasonable time, unlike the weddings where the “muhurt” (auspicious time) for the ceremony is somewhere between midnight and early morning. This made it easy to get back to the guest house in time to catch up on some sleep. 

The next morning I was ready to see the city of Kolkata with three other enthusiasts. I’d booked a full day taxi. Without having a fixed plan, we just decided to immerse ourselves in the sights, sounds, smells of the city as it came. The driver was good and kept explaining what we were seeing on the way, which I dutifully translated for my friends. I don’t know if it’s always like that there but it was quite hazy. I think it was dust and exhaust fumes mingled together, making it very difficult to see the actual colors of the buildings! It’s sad that we have so much pollution in our cities, and we just learn to live with it.

The first stop was – surprise surprise – New Market, which is actually the oldest market of Kolkata.

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Municipal Office somewhere near the New Market

Talk about names that are opposite of the characteristic of the named! We had stopped there as two friends wanted to exchange some currency. There we were swarmed upon by the hawkers who wanted us to come to their shops for buying stuff. It’s quite funny, although was irritating at that time, that people just assumed I was some kind of tour guide, being the one Indian with 3 foreigners. So they kept imploring me to bring the foreigners to their shops, to which I had to keep saying “later later”. Before we could get the money exchanged, the eyes of one of the friends K, were caught by the sight of some lovely Indian kurta pyjamas and she wanted to try the outfits. I went and exchanged the currency while she found what she liked. We returned to the taxi but then we felt we needed the loo. This was then again an exercise, as anybody who knows India would know that unfortunately finding a clean toilet is the toughest thing to do in an Indian bazaar, unless you’re in a modern shopping mall! So, there we were, trying to find the toilets asking people where it was. Couldn’t find. So we were guided by a man through a maze, who decided to help us in the anticipation that we would buy something from the shop where he worked. Once relieved, we returned with that guy and then one of our group members, A, found a nice silk stole in his shop which she was looking for to wear with her outfit for the wedding reception the next day. As for me, well, I found and purchased a few things that Kolkata is quite famous for – choorans – which are very delicious sweet/sour digestives made with some spices. I am crazy about those and although one must take them sparingly, I just cannot stop at one! 

Then we moved on to be at the most famous icon of Kolkata – the Victoria Memorial. 

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Victoria Memorial

It is a beautiful ornate building made of marble, in memory of Queen Victoria upon her death in 1901. Since Kolkata was the capital of the British empire in India, it made sense to the viceroy to make the memorial there. However, during the long period of construction, the capital was moved to New Delhi in 1912, making Kolkata just a province. Nonetheless, the memorial was completed and opened to public in 1921. It is an impressive piece of architecture, befitting a monarch whose empire extended far and beyond her country, what one can call a small island in Europe. Today the memorial is home to a museum as well. Unfortunately, we couldn’t see the museum, it being a Monday. So we just strolled through the beautiful gardens, which were in full bloom in end of January, with brightly colored chrysanthemums, dahlias and some others!

Then we moved on from there and as it was lunchtime, we asked the driver to take us to a South Indian restaurant. He brought us through the old British part of the city which had very impressive buildings from the 19th century, still being used today as government offices.

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A Victorian Era Building

After a nice lunch and having rested our feet, we were ready to go see some more of the city. We went towards the Howrah Bridge, which is a huge cantilever bridge on the river Hooghly and is an icon of Kolkata. Official name since 1965 is Rabindra Setu but hardly anyone uses that name.

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On the Howrah Bridge

Crossing that, we found ourselves around Howrah Junction, which is the largest railway complex in India. But we didn’t stop there and moved on towards the other bridge on the Hooghly river called, guess what, Hooghly Bridge!

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Kolkata Skyline from the other side of Hooghly River

The next stop was the Prinsep Ghat, which is one of the beautiful ghats of Kolkata where one can get down to the river, take a boat ride or just stroll on a nice promenade lined with trees and food stalls.

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Sunset at Prinsep Ghat

It was just so relaxing to be there till the time a blaring Party Boat appeared on the river! We watched the sun going behind the clouds and went further.

We hadn’t seen even one temple thus far, and my friends wanted to see one. I didn’t want to go to a crowded one, so we went to the Birla temple. It’s a beautiful, relatively new temple (opened in 1996, after a 20 year long construction).

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Birla Temple

An industrialist family – the Birlas – have commissioned several such temples in India. I liked the quiet ambiance there which is what I look for in a place of worship. But we didn’t have too much time as we were supposed to leave the taxi soon. So we proceeded and got a drop  at the mall where we wanted to get a few things. Shopped, ate a bit and then went back to our guesthouse, thus concluding our first excursion of the city of Kolkata..

Stay tuned..more to come 🙂

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