3 Days in Calcutta: The City of Joy
Our weekend trip from Kolkata is taking shape alone. The destinations are presented. The road is marked and we only agree. So it happened with Calcutta. It was not in our plans. Several people had recommended it to us. Why not give it a try? We left Bodh Gaya on a hot night. We were anxious, worried, tired and not knowing what to expect.
We arrived at the Gaya train station. We got on the train and searched our seats. They were occupied by a family. It is very common in India to find your seat occupied. Many people travel without a ticket and they move among the seats that are free. This was not the case. The family tells us that those were their seats. Sure enough, we looked at our train ticket and we had been confused by the date. Our train was for the next night. All this and the train had already started for Calcutta.
Amidst the worry of not traveling all night in the corridor, the solidarity and kindness of the people appeared. A young man talked to the ticket checker and explained our situation. After several failed attempts to collect a fine, he assigned us some seats. We arrived in Calcutta confused.
After a somewhat chaotic train ride, we arrived in the morning in Calcutta. Calcutta was renamed Kolkata a few years ago. Before we were warned, again and again, Calcutta would be very chaotic and especially in the traffic, I should be careful. The city reflects the human existence from all sides and has something familiar and heartfelt.
She is gray, chaotic, desperate and at the same time colorful, warm, distinguished, intellectual, and cultured. There are chic new neighborhoods and shopping malls sprouting up everywhere. This is where tradition and modernity meet. Calcutta is the city that is most western I found of all visited so far. Not only for its physical appearance, with buildings such as the Victoria Memorial, but also for the infrastructure, its people and why not say its prices.
The Howrah station is a bit out of the way, which is why we looked for a ride into the city. In Kolkata, there is a metro, which does not stop in Howrah, nor at the airport. The bus schedules are not understandable for an outsider and so we were back in the taxi as the only option arrived. When we got out of the station building, we were also offered a ride. That was way too much for us and also our cash was a bit short.
Luckily, the police have opened a prepaid taxi stand. There we say our destination, pay for kilometers and get directly into a taxi. That way you cannot be ripped off. Although the queue was very long, our ride was written. We pass the Howrah Bridge, built in the early 1940s. It is 650m long and has eight lanes to span the river Hooghly, one of the branches of the Ganges that flows into the Bay of Bengal.
Our welcome to Calcutta could not be better. We were surprised by the monsoon rains as soon. The taxi then went to Sudder Street, the traveler's corner of the city. We got off the taxi that left us in front of the hotel that was recommended in our Lonely Planet guide, which becomes our bible during this trip. It was 8 o'clock in the morning but all cheap hostels were still closed.
It's hard to check in at some hostels, get a rickshaw or even have breakfast or a chai. My accommodation of recent visits is still closed and there is not much happening in the area. So I wait. The lodge is actually far from modern and clean, but the rooms and beds are okay for the price.
There is a nice roof terrace where you always meet interesting travelers. This is a good reason to stay here. After the lodge opened its doors, a board read: Everything is full. But when I asked it turned out that there are rooms, but they have not been cleaned. So I got a room after half an hour.
We see the metro station and tram (yes, the city has a tram). Calcutta is for that, to get lost and to be walked. To visit the neighborhoods and know the differences. All this, but without leaving aside the religious part of India. So I enjoy the next days by just walking through the city. On leaving, we see chickens who quack in their baskets closed by nets.
In the Lenin Sarani road, it is the street of tools. Here, each district has its specialty as in the Middle Ages. I enter a local restaurant for biryani and roasted tandoori chicken. It is a traditional restaurant with its separation in cabins for groups. I pass Tipu Sultan Mosque and its cupolas, but unfortunately not highlighted with its stalls around it. I come across Raj Bawan, a neoclassical palace, seat of the Bengal government with its large palm avenue leading to it.
My path leads me to the area around the BBD Bagh, the former center of power of the English and a true treasure trove of colonial architecture. Far from this din, it is the Writer's Building that I discover built in 1776 for the young employees of the East India Company. In 1882, it was transformed into a Corinthian style, with its red bricks and its baroque statue at the top. It is currently the seat of the Government of West Bengal.
I go into the fascinating and chaotic lanes of Barabazar, old Chinatown and beyond into its narrow streets and hustle and bustle past its innumerable shops, watching the permanent parade of bag-carriers on the head or on a cart, pulling, pushing through the crowd like sailboats sailing in the surf of this human tide. More life and chaos than here is not really possible. One cannot but have claustrophobia in these streets.
My hotel was on a busy street selling all sorts of food and other items. From there we could walk a bit to get into a beautiful park with a lake. Along the way, we noticed how clean the streets were and how well-groomed the traffic in Calcutta was. This was probably because there was a separate pedestrian walkway, so pedestrians and cars were less likely to get in each other's way.A taxi drove me to the neighborhood near China Market and there I started looking for the synagogue. It's not that I was so keen to find her, but I got into the game of looking for her, because when you search for something in a city you do not know well, you discover thousands of things on your way.
In fact I walked for 3 hours along the lanes around China Market, assisted by different, laughing companions, who first took me to the Greek Orthodox Church, then to the beautiful Armenian Church, inlaid with white marbles and nestled in a garden buried in a neighborhood of very old alleyways.
Then we walk pass the beautiful Nakhoda Mosque, built in red sandstone, its arcaded balconies, its porch surmounted by green cupolas like bulbs rising in the sky. I taste coconut water and fresh coconut meat that the merchant cuts me with his machete with a prompt and precise gesture. Then I noticed the red building of the synagogue in front of which I had gone 5 or 6 times. It was closed only today. I explained that I came to photograph it and that I was doing a report on the Asian synagogues. Someone made a phone call to the Rabbi of Calcutta, to explain, and ten minutes later I found myself in the synagogue, with all the chandeliers lit, and the fans running.
After the park, we visited two temples. The first is Kalighat dedicated to the goddess Kali. According to the guides, it is the most sacred place in Calcutta. We were told that every day a goat is sacrificed here. Legend has it that in antiquity sacrifices had also been made with humans. According to the importance of the temple, there was also a lot going on.
The taxi costs us 100 and leaves us very close to the temple. Before arriving at the temple we walk a few blocks from markets where they sell all kinds of flowers, stamps, precious stones and incense. All offerings for the goddess. On the road, we can already breathe energy. You do not have to enter to feel it. But we also enter.
We saw a long line of people patiently waiting their turn to be in front of the idol. We got in line. The passage was slow and the place was closed. The heat and the incenses were unbearable. Even overcrowding. The people have another concept of distance, and in a row that tries to be ordered, they are placed side by side, touching the chest with the back. All this situation did nothing but increase fatigue and perspiration.
Arriving almost ahead we see that all the people make a small donation to the priest. He blessed them and painted their foreheads with a red color. We take 10 rupees and have them on hand to keep up with the celebration. We also advance, giving 10 rupees. He grabs them, keeps them, and says it's not enough. We refuse.
We get to the subway and go to the Tourist Office (which is hidden on the other side of the city) near Victoria Memorial. There we get permission to visit the Marble Palace tomorrow and some brochures with information about Sikkim and Darjeeling.
We passed the Birla Planetarium and enter the Victoria Memorial. It was erected to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the reign of Queen Victoria. It is a white monument in English style with a dome, no less large and rooms devoted to painters and explorers. Other rooms exhibit modern art from a local school. Next door is the Queen's fortepiano and the model of a beautiful colonial sailing ship.
We see manuscripts, sacred books of Tibetan Buddhists, a letter from Tagore in 1920, posted from New York. In another room, two French canons captured during the Battle of Plassey are exhibited. In another room, we see paintings of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries landscapes and portraits of Johan Zoffary and Thomas Daniell.
The life of Calcutta is described in images and texts from the empire to independence. It tells the story of the wealth and prosperity of the East India Company. We see a beautiful fabric embroidered with elephants, horses, little characters in the round around a rose window. Rajendra Lal Dutta is considered the father of homeopathy.
Upstairs in a circular balcony, its columns and coronation frescoes, its floral motifs revolve around the dome and its sun with lily flowers. Around the monument, we walk through beautiful parks and gardens. We bought a map of Calcutta. From there we went to the Botanical Garden by taxi, crossing the new Vidyasagar Setu bridge.
This garden that serves as an urban park, is a large extension of grass and trees from different countries (almost all tropical in the northern hemisphere). It extends over many hundreds of meters and is a haven of peace. The sun plummets and there are few shadows that can be taken advantage of. So, after trying to see some curiosity, we go straight to enjoy the jewel of the garden, the Banyan Tree.
It is a variety of Bengal fig tree, which has the distinction of not having a central trunk. The whole living being is sustained by its great roots, up to 600 branches fall to the ground giving it the subjection of true vegetable pillars. It is beautiful and very curious to see since you try to discover the trunk, but there is not. The oldest part is believed to be more than two hundred years old. We return to Birla temple only after sunset, but we were lucky that it was still open and lit up.
We went for some flip-flops and we took a taxi to the planetarium. Because we did not wait for the session in English, we got into the session in Bengali. The planetarium is very austere, but I liked it a lot (it's my first planetarium and that weighs). The audiovisual does not kill but I liked the representation of the stars in its huge dome. The photo exhibition was very old. In short, it was great.
We take a taxi to the hotel. Then we went by taxi to Fairlie Place near the GPO building, next to the ferry, where they have a ticket office. We bought the tickets from Calcutta to Siliguri, on the Kamrup Express. We took this train because there were no seats on the Darjeeling Mail train. Calcutta has sidewalks, something we will find only in Delhi and Mumbai. We eat some spring rolls and two non-alcoholic beers.
Before going to the hotel, we bought two beers, in a store that is on the corner. It is an odyssey to get a beer. After coming back on the roof I was supposed to meet some interesting travelers as expected during the first day and a wild party should begin. Now I stumble into a wild party at the end of which we all end up at night in the Tantra nightclub. This is considered the best club in the city. I was amazed that we had even been let in.
Although we had all done well before but were already well drunk. Actually, the club costs a lot for Indian standards but they did not want any money from us. Here was really the party. Electronic music was mainly played on the two dancefloors. The floors were packed and everyone was wildly dancing.
This was madness by Indian standards. Especially the number of women there was impressive. I have not been to an Indian club for many years, but in the past, they were more of a men's event. Only the drinks prices frightened us off a bit. So my first evening in Kolkata should last until the morning hours. But in the next few days, I should take it easier.
The birds, the cries of the seagulls mingle with loud voices, cries, horns. We had a breakfast, good coffee and then went to the metro station 3 km away. It brings us to the northern part of the city center. After a tired, but the interesting walk of almost two hours, we arrived at the Marble Palace, a beautiful white marble palace with neoclassical architecture and Corinthian columns.
It really looks like the lair of some old earl, with old marbles and everything in the dark. A statue of Queen Victoria sits in the center, surrounded by vases from Japan, China from the Min Dynasty. We see musical instruments like tampuras, a sarod played by the famous Ravi Shankar. On the patio, besides idols of Kali and Saraswati, in the Garden, there are cages with gray parrots and a red and blue flaming.
The next room features a crystal chandelier from Czechoslovakia, a bored Venus statue, a piece of furniture made of four red velvet chairs. We see paintings of the wedding of St. Catherine of Rubens and a Madonna and the child of Sassoferrato.
We then go to the dance room with its large wall mirror, its clocks and, at the exit, we see a beautiful hookah finely decorated. The Marble Palace has the charm of an old-fashioned palace that seems to have frozen like these clocks in the days of splendor of the Maharajah. By another taxi, we go to the Girish Park metro station. After two more stops, we reached the Central metro station.
We then head to the area of College Street where stands the Boi Bazaar, the book market. We arrive on foot in this neighborhood and nothing suggests that we enter the universe of the bookstore. I pass by plumbing shops, sanitary equipment and then suddenly, at the corner of the street, the stalls of the booksellers begin. Some tiny, others vast and proud to display their longevity since 1885. The most recent ones stand directly on the sidewalks, the books acting as walls, the vendor at its center like a statue of Shiva.
This is the excitement, students mostly looking for the latest computer book or the latest law manual. It is also the place of secondhand works at unbeatable prices. In Boi Bazaar, there are also books of literature and books for the youth. Everyone finds his account provided they read Bengali, the majority language of these publications.
Between the stalls, on carts or contrite stalls, sellers sell donuts or refreshing drinks because in India food is omnipresent. Universities and schools are located in this area, like the famous Presidency College, Sanskrit College, Scottish Church College, Bethune College, Calcutta Medical College, Indian Institute of Social Welfare and Business Management, Vidyasagar College, Hindu School, Scottish Church School, Bethune School, adding if it was still needed a stone to Calcutta's reputation of intellectual city.
As for the Coffee House of College Street, it is a mythical place of rendezvous where the spirits of Tagore, Satyajit Ray, Manna Dey, Amartya Sen, Mrinal Sen still hover.
There we headed for the Chinatown of Calcutta. Arriving there, however, we discovered that there are hardly any Chinese living there anymore. As a result, the market did not look Chinese, just Indian, but that was okay. Now it is one of the Christian areas of Calcutta where you can celebrate the end of the year and Christmas. Once again, everything was sold on the market, including balloons.
Near this neighborhood, a congregation of Mother Teresa began to move. Today there is a small lot of everything. In China Town we see buildings of typical Chinese classical construction with huge gates to allow the entry and exit of elephants. Some of its streets are full of the small hand rickshaws, those of the movie "the city of joy". They remain abandoned along the walls of the buildings in very long rows.
At one of the stalls, we also got solid plastic bags. I always have the fear when flying that my backpack with a buckle gets stuck somewhere and breaks. That's why I like to pack. We got the two sacks for 30 rupees, so it does not matter if they break.
Another good walk until we take a taxi that leaves us at the hotel. I take a shower and rest a little. Once again I had no real plan for my trip. Of course, I wanted to eat good food, do some shopping, visit some friends and see something new, travel to some new region. My best food stalls are still in the same places.
I am glad to see the cooks who have been working here for many years now. Some of them were still kids when I first ate there and now they are adults. I immediately felt at home after the warm greetings. I had long had to do without Kolkata street food and could not get enough now.
We enter the Indian Museum with neoclassical architecture. Large statues at the entrance lead to the Bharhut Gallery. We pass under lintels and large porticos carved in red sandstone in with their floral and animal motifs. There is also the reconstruction of a Buddhist stupa with its drawings of women carrying a branch, hugging a tree, praying.
We reach the Gandhara Gallery, a magnificent votive stupa. We see Buddha statues sitting, rising, praying and frescoes representing the submission of King Apalala. This part comes from Afghanistan and North Pakistan. Jataka tales are described. We go to the Kushana archeological gallery. The period of Guptas, Palasenas and other regional dynasties is traced through the sculptures of these different eras.
We see carved pillars depicting Yakshis slaying demons and a colossal bodhisattva. We see a Buddha rubs bacchanal scenes, rather erotic and a statue of Ganesha. We see stupas with scenes from the Buddha with a young ephebe man. We see a bust of Brahma, the creator with three damaged heads, Rahu and the other three planets. Marici has 8 arms and three heads!
We see the goddess Tara, Vishnu on his mount, his portray Garuda. We also see different Buddhas with a lying Mahaparinirvana! We see Shiva, Vishnu, Bhairava and Ganesha in dancing poses and strange shapes like the 10th century Sardulavyala with lizard heads, and of dinosaurs. We also see Jain sculptures and others from South India. The Holi festival or festival of colors is represented.
Southeast Asian sculptures are on display. They were influenced by the Gupta and Pallava periods. Garuda is the bodily instance of the deity Vishnu. We enter the Coins Gallery. Coins are presented from the beginning of the Christian era to the present day. On their faces, are represented Gupta emperors, Mughals, Greeks, sultans.
Upstairs are other galleries with the gallery of prehistoric animals. We see a giant and strange turtle and the terracotta gallery of the Mauryan period where jars and pottery are presented. The Invertebrate Gallery shows a turtle, a deer and a giant fossil. A room is devoted to a printing exhibition on fabrics, the Safarnama and Kalamkari saris. These are contemporary paintings. These works come from a museum in Mulhouse.
After the zoo with animals from all over the world, there is a room devoted to textiles and a house facade with a carved wooden balcony. We see the 10-armed Marishusura mardini from Jaipur. Nataraja is a representation of Shiva as a cosmic dancer to prepare the creation of the world of Brahma. We see pottery, ceramic vases with blue tones of flowers and silverware with enameled silver and encrusted gold coins.
We see a reproduction of the Taj Mahal in ivory but nothing beats the truth! A room is dedicated to Egypt. A mummy of women and a pharaoh lie in the center of the room. There are statues of Akhenaton and Tutankhamun and a superb sphinx in front of his pyramid. There are many English archaeologists, explorers. I find Champollion and his hieroglyphics.
Nearby was a model of the Tower of Silence. We left the museum and continue to take a walk. I buy samosas and something to drink. I leave it and continue to the port, just to see the MV Nicobar, a large moored ship and I come back to the large cable-stayed bridge at the foot of which I discover, crossing the railroad, the Prinsep ghat. I see again the Ganges, its barges and its green branches drifting. Another invitation to travel.
At night, we sat in the rooftop bar of a chic hotel. There we had a great view over the city and we let ourselves go well with a delicious cocktail. We go to a Punjabi restaurant run by a Sikh near my hotel. We have Dal Tadka and Tandoori Roti. It is in a neighborhood of vegetable merchants and dry fruits. When I leave, I walk along SN Banerjee Road, where the Regal cinema is located. It is rather dark and not very attractive in its decaying building.
I go to the Babughat. We go across the Hooghly River. The ghats on the river are always full of life. We get a good view of the river with the big Howrah Bridge and take a ferry to Howrah on the other side of the river. Near the river and the Howrah Bridge, we visit the city's largest flower market of Mullick Ghat. It is said that this colorful market is said to be the largest in Asia.
Hundreds or even thousands of merchants sell countless types of flowers in all colors and sizes and shapes. The market spans several large and small streets and every vacant spot is seized by the traders. The traders are in the midst of huge mountains full of colorful flowers. Innumerable baskets and sacks of flowers find their way here on the minds of men.
A wild loud trade begins before these mountains disappear again on the heads of the people. These are dimensions like I did not see before. Even smaller trucks full of colorful flowers find their way through the masses. Unimaginably large quantities of these flowers, shining in all colors, change their owners here every day. Countless traders tie bouquets, weave flower chains and arrange floral arrangements.
We looked at the area around the Maidan. The Maidan is a large park, through which also run motorways. First, we visited the Indian Museum, where there was a lot to see. Below were statues from different regions, some of which were over 1000 years old. There were also stuffed animals, fossils, rocks and an exhibition about human evolution.
Especially the exhibitions about the fossils and rocks were gigantic, but almost not worked up. The exhibits simply lay side by side on shelves and showcases, in Germany this would be a museum in its own right. We felt that an expert could spend hours or even days in the room, but it was hard for us to grasp.
Next, we head to the famed New Market. I pass by the Hogg Market, a large red brick building, a complex that houses a multitude of stalls that all seem to sell the same clothes, bags, saris, and scarves. Next door there was a hall where food was sold and in which less was going on.
Going inside is like riding a roller coaster of smells, images, and sensations. From shops and suitcases that form part of the perimeter to small food stalls passing through what in my opinion is one of the most striking areas of this market is the butcher and the fishmonger.
In these two places, the smells are intense, very intense. It is possible to see flocks of goats enter that are disemboweled in just a few minutes while their companions pass over the viscera of the previous one. The fish shop is not much better. A floor full of scales and fish remains covers every square centimeter of this area of the market. The fish rest on the ground and the smell becomes unbearable.I come across a display of exotic fruits. I discover the custard, green apple, very sweet with the flesh composed of pips inside. The chiku, looks like a brown kiwi like a potato, sweet too but with more pasty, grainy flesh. The guava is like a green apple but rather taste as a tangy pear with a fragrance of kiwi.
I arrive on the esplanade of Maidan. Close by stands a tall column like a white lighthouse. It is the Ochterlony Monument or the Shaheed Minar. Along the Chowringhee Road and its congested arcades, I notice the luxurious Oberoi Grand and its Palladian style. Returning to Lindsay Street, birds fly away forming a ballet over the Shaheed Minar.
En route to the Nehru Children's Museum, I pass in front of the statue of Indira Gandhi against a backdrop of Tata Centre.
As a conclusion, we visited the St. Paul's Cathedral, a copy of Canterbury Cathedral. Inside, we appreciate this haven of peace under its immense curved dome overlooking the central nave, its windows with biblical frescoes above the altar and a monochrome green on the side walls. A girl comes to sit next to me, pray with her head in her hands.
Along the Maidan Park, the Queen Victoria Memorial appears majestic as a new Taj Mahal with its dome and white marble turrets. Through the portal adorned with two lions, we see the imposing Queen Victoria on her throne with her stern look. Opposite the monument, Edward VII's equestrian statue stands proudly in the park's central alley.
It was a momentary and magical moment. As the orange sun shifted behind the palm trees, birds roared and some piano notes flew away in the softness of the evening. We head to the Museum of Fine Arts. There are contemporary paintings, acrylic paintings on canvas depicting landscapes and portraits.
After finishing the day and tired of the trip and so much walking, we went to take a good shower and a good dinner. We enjoyed some great chicken skewers at the end of Sudder Street, although I notice that they sting a lot!
Over the course of the day, I met two funny travelers in my guest house. We decided to travel together for a weekend trip from Kolkata to the Sundarbans. We had done well with our last rupees so we could go out and dine again.I enter one to see what is behind this closed door and this blind facade. I discover a decor of the Arabian Nights with dim lights and red kitsh decor with its large mirrors, leather chairs, ceremonial chandeliers, silver peacocks. I choose a soup with tomato and fresh coriander. Families of the Indian upper middle class are comfortably settled there.
It stings with the music I barely hear. Some guitar melodies take me into the melancholy of the end of a journey as if we were approaching a shore, remembering the long and tumultuous crossing with so many beautiful encounters, alas soaring like seagulls on the boats of the Ganges.
Kolkata is one of those cities that certainly do not leave you indifferent. On the one hand, you discover the less Indian city of India since its urban structure is far from being similar to other cities of this great country and has much in common with any large European city. Sometimes you may think you are in France or the UK.