It’s pretty much a cliché to note that Kolkata, under its old name of Calcutta, doesn’t have the best image: Mother Teresa of and Black Hole of being the probable winners of the word association game. Given this, it’s perhaps not surprising that Kolkata doesn’t appear to be on many backpackers’ Indian itineraries; there are hardly any hostels around, and during our four days wandering in the city we spotted very few obvious foreigners.
Well, all I can say is that people are missing out. Kolkata is, unsurprisingly, frenetic and chaotic, but it has a real sense of history and character. From the monuments of Empire to the crumbling backstreets where industry of every kind seemed to thrive, it was a fascinating, and visually arresting, city to walk around. And while there was the ever-present vigilance required to avoid getting crushed on the Indian road, the people were very welcoming, and we felt safe wherever we wandered.
Walking: The Best Way to Explore
My friend Jon had joined me in India for two weeks to explore West Bengal and Sikkim, and given that he’s as keen as I am on walking and wandering, we ended up exploring lots of the city on foot – apparently on the first day we covered 20km, and on the second 22 km, simply by mooching around various parts of the city. From the leafy surroundings of Alipore to the frenetic bustle of the markets there was always something to see. Below are a few areas we particularly enjoyed exploring:
- New Market – the covered Stuart Hogg Market is the heart of Kolkata’s shopping district, with over 2,500 stalls. We managed to actually miss going into the market somehow, but the area around was a bustle of colourful and busy trading streets that were fantastic to explore. We loved how streets had definite specialisms; the street where our hotel was, for example, had many traders all selling plumbing supplies.
- College Street – the university district and traditional centre for the city’s intelligentsia, College Street boasts the world’s largest second hand book market, as well as the iconic Indian Coffee House.
- Mechhua Fruit Market – we stumbled across this frenetic wholesale market entirely by accident on our way to the Howrah Bridge. It was like nothing I’d ever seen; there was barely room to move between the piles of fruit, bargaining tradesmen and porters carrying heavy loads. I didn’t manage to really capture it in pictures amidst the hustle, but it was one of the most fascinating places I saw in the city.
- Howrah Bridge and the Hooghly River – it is definitely worth strolling across Kolkata’s stand out architectural monument – it actually felt surprisingly calm after the bustle of the nearby Mechhua Fruit Market. Further South, we also enjoyed walking along the peaceful surroundings of Prinsep Ghat, where you could see traditional boats rowing alongside larger commercial vessels.
- Kalighat – a fascinating neighbourhood in the south of the city around the Kalighat Kali Temple.
Kolkata’s history is intimately bound up with the era of British India. Founded by Job Charnock in the late 17th century (or was it?) it served as an East India Company trading base in the 18th century. Following the deaths of British prisoners in the infamous ‘Black Hole,’ however, the East India Company took revenge by defeating the Nawab of Bengal, Siraj-ud-daulah, at the 1757 Battle of Plassey. Although they established a puppet ruler for a time, after the deposition of Siraj the East India Company essentially governed Bengal – thus beginning the gradual and piecemeal establishment of the Raj.
Calcutta, as it was known until 2001, then served as the capital of the Raj until 1911, and colonial echoes are still all around – the city is fascinating for those interested in the history of this era.
Victoria Memorial and St Paul’s Cathedral
The Victoria Memorial is a particularly grand example of a monument to Empire. Built, as the name suggests, in memory of the long-lived Queen Empress, it is certainly an impressive showpiece of late imperial grandeur.
The well-preserved memorial now houses an interesting museum looking at the history of Kolkata in the colonial period, with a lot of focus on the social and cultural life of the city under the Raj, including the Bengali Renaissance and the influence of figures such as Rabindandrath Tagore.
We also crossed to road to nearby St Paul’s Cathedral, a gothic mid-19th century pile that would not look out of place back home. Sadly they didn’t allow photos inside, but there was a peaceful atmosphere, as well as numerous interesting memorial plaques to long-dead colonists. The church still operates today as part of the Anglican Communion, and is apparently a focal point of the city’s Christmas celebrations.
South Park Street Cemetery
Our favourite glimpse into the colonial history of Kolkata, however, was South Park Street Cemetery, which Jon had come across on Atlas Obscura. This was the original 18th century burial ground used for the many East India Company soldiers and their family members who succumbed to disease or misfortune during their time in India. It was a fascinating place to poke around, the mausoleums evident both to the ambition of the early colonists and to the risks that were involved in these perilous journeys east.
They certainly went in for imposing stonework and maudlin inscriptions. There was lots of bad poetry, but I particularly liked the reference below to ‘this inclement clime:’
The nearby Scottish Cemetery, used in the nineteenth century, is also worth a quick visit. It’s in a much worse state of repair, but has a particular charm – and would make a great set for a film featuring a zombie apocalypse.
Temples: Dakshineswar, Belur Math and Kalighat
We visited the city’s main temples when we returned to Kolkata after our trek in Sikkim, taking a taxi up to Dakshineswar Kali Temple and then the ferry to Belur Math before visiting Kalighat the following morning. Dakshineswar was super busy and felt a little too frenetic; we both preferred the peaceful Belur Math. Belur Math is the headquarters of the disciplines of Sri Ramakrishna, a nineteenth century visionary who preached the harmony of world religions, and the building is suitably syncretic. Around it are peaceful gardens as well as the surrounding river.
Our definite favourite, however, was Kalighat Kali Temple. Also devoted to the dark goddess Kali, who seems to be particularly popular in West Bengal, Kalighat is located in the south of the city. Although the present building is around 200 years old, a temple devoted to Kali has reportedly been located here for centuries; indeed, the city’s name is thought by some to derive from ‘Kalighat.’ It is also believed to be one of the 52 Shakti Peetha, where the body parts of the goddess Sati fell after her sacrifice and husband Shiva’s dance of destruction through the universe.
No photos were allowed in the central temple, but the streets around were just as fascinating, with stalls full of kumkum powder, puja flowers and other offerings for devotees. There was a particularly interesting street where craftsmen made idols of Kali, which you could see in various states of completion.
All of the walking we did of course required sustenance, and that generally meant sampling some of Kolkata’s fantastic street food. The city’s signature dish is the kathi roll – invented at Nizam’s in New Market around a century ago – a kathi roll is a fried and rolled paratha that comes filled with deliciousness: meat or paneer marinated in secret spices with chilli, salt and lime.
We went to Nizam’s in New Market to sample them, and they were absolutely delicious – one of my favourites in India so far! We also had a very posh version a week later at the Taj Bengal, where we’d splurged on a night of luxury after our Sikkim trek:
Elsewhere we just stopped and tried things, from pav bhaji at Prinsep Ghat to jal muri and pani puri – not to forget salted lime sodas and ghulab jamun. I wish I’d been more assiduous about taking pictures, as everything was delicious!
City of Joy
Although outsiders may associate it with poverty and misery – and we certainly did see that side of the city – there’s much, much more to Kolkata than that. If you are interested in history. culture and delicious food, then West Bengal’s ‘City of Joy’ is definitely worth a visit.