Of India, they say Mumbai is its glamour, Delhi its political Disneyland, and Calcutta in many ways, its soul. This is a city whose history, heritage and culture are redolent of art. It retains the reputation of being the most cultured of India’s metropolises. And at least two Nobel Prize winners – Rabindranath Tagore and Amartya Sen – are from Kolkata.
While Delhi and Mumbai embraced prosperity with gusto setting up expressways, malls, and other would be iconic architecture, Kolkata nursed its history and heritage and welcomed change, albeit slow. This January, Indian President Pranab Mukherjee inaugurated the city’s long overdue swanky new airport, adding a feather to the city’s cap. The new terminal is currently being used only for international flight operations and domestic airliners will shift their facilities to the new one in a phased manner over the next couple of months. That is good news for travellers.
For long known as Calcutta with its residents who loved to be addressed as ‘Calcuttans’, this capital city of West Bengal, became known as Kolkata officially in January 2001. The history of Kolkata is not as old as Delhi. In 1690, Job Charnok, an agent of the East India Company chose this place for a British trade settlement, according to Calcuttaweb.com. The site was carefully selected, being protected by the Hooghly River on the west, a creek to the north, and by salt lakes about two and a half miles to the east. Till 1912, Calcutta was the capital of India, when the British moved the capital city to Delhi. In 1947, when India gained freedom and the country got partitioned between India and Pakistan, Calcutta was included in the Indian part of Bengal, West Bengal. Calcutta became the capital city of the state of West Bengal. Interesting then that a lot of Kolkata’s artistic and literary heritage also came during this time with the influence of European and Indian culture, the upheaval of the sense of nationalism and the growth of a creative fervour among its people. If you are exploring Kolkata today you get a taste of both – an emerging modern city surrounded by a rich past.
Things you don’t want to give a miss when in the city of joy.
Victoria Memorial: Built in memory of Queen Victoria in the early 20th Century, this majestic structure in white marble was modelled on Taj Mahal. It is located in the southern end of the Kolkata Maidan close to the Jawaharlal Nehru Road. Set in the middle of the beautiful garden grounds, the Victoria Memorial of Kolkata has a large bronze statue of the Queen Empress. There is a moving angel on the top facing the Calcutta Maidan. A well-maintained heritage structure, the Victoria Memorial is a great tourist spot.
Kalighat Kali Temple: Dedicated to the Hindu Goddess Kali, the temple in its present form is only about 200 years old. Kalighat was a Ghat (landing stage) sacred to Kali on the old course of the Hooghly river (Bhāgirathi) in the city of Calcutta. The name Calcutta is said to have been derived from the word Kalighat. The river over a period of time has moved away from the temple and is now on the banks of a small canal called Adi Ganga which connects to the Hooghly. The temple attracts thousands of pilgrims and other Hindu devotees each day.
Mother Teresa House: Mother Teresa founded the Missionaries of Charity, a Roman Catholic religious congregation, which in 2012 consisted of over 4,500 sisters and is active in 133 countries. Kolkata was where the base of her charitable work began. Her former home and charity in Kolkata is now known as the Motherhouse, and inside is Mother Teresa’s tomb. A small museum showcases her personal belongings and a flight of stairs lead you to the room where she sat at her desk and wrote letters, prayed, and lived.
Indian Museum: Founded in 1814, Indian Museum is the earliest and the largest multipurpose Museum not only in the Indian subcontinent but also in the Asia-Pacific region. Through the years, the museum has magnificently developed and comprises sections devoted to geology, zoology, industry, archaeology, art, and ethnology. The coin room contains the largest collection of Indian coins in the world.
Belur Math: Founded by Swami Vivekananda, the temple is located on the banks of the Hooghly River. It is the headquarters of the Ramakrishna Math and Mission. Its uniqueness also lies in the fact that the architecture fuses Hindu, Christian and Islamic motifs as a symbol of unity of all religions. Its vast campus also houses a museum.
Walking History: One can go for a private walking tour or join a group for a glimpse into the fascinating history of the city. Some of the highlights are the Shree Ram Arcade, the Stuart Hogg Market, Hawker’s Market, spice markets, and jewellery shops. The heritage building tour covers Dalhousie Square, St. Andrew’s Church, Old Fort William, Lal Dighi, and St. John’s Church. Or one can walk along College Street and through residential alleys on the tour of the book shops. The Shobhabazar Rajbari, a beautiful mansion in the northern part of Kolkata is worth exploring and so is the Jorasanko Thakur Bari, the ancestral home of the Tagore family.
Tangra Chinatown: Just 5 km from the city centre, Tangra was once home to 20,000 Chinese residents. The numbers are fast waning but people still flock here for the traditional Chinese and Indo-Chinese food.
• Kolkata is the tenth largest city in the world
• It is the world’s longest-running democratically-elected Communist government
• Kolkata has the largest number of heritage buildings
• The Royal Calcutta Golf Club, established in 1829, is the oldest golf club in India, and the first outside Great Britain
• The Grand Trunk Road (National Highway No. 2) is one of the oldest road routes in India and it runs from Howrah to Kashmir
• Birla Planetarium is one of the oldest planetariums in India. The only planetarium in the country, whose dome houses a collection of projectors and optical equipments expensively imported from East Germany
• The first newspaper of India was published from Kolkata. “Bengal Gazette”, a weekly newspaper published by James Augustus Hickey in January 1780 was the first paper to go into print from our country
• India’s first cellular telephone service was started in Kolkata in July 31, 1995
• One of the friendliest cities for street food lovers, street food trade has shed its disorganized, lower-class image and is becoming a viable, important informal-sector industry