Your Travel Guide to The City With A Soul – The Calcutta Chromosome

Kolkata (formerly called Calcutta) is the gateway to the orient. Located on the eastern bank of the Hooghly River, Kolkata had grown as an enigmatic city with its multiple paradoxes where cultural richness survives amidst savage political violence.It is often dubbed as the Cultural and Intellectual Capital of India with a distinctive history and a cherished culture. This city is an amalgamation of the East and the West, where one witnesses countless structures adorned with Gothic, Baroque, Roman, Oriental and Indo-Islamic (including Mughal) motifs.

Numerous buildings are well maintained and have been declared as heritage structures, whilst the others are in a state of ruin. The Indian Museum is the oldest museum in Asia established in 1814, which is an address to superior collections of Indian natural history and art. Its entrance houses an original Lion Capitol, the national symbol of India. Amongst the must-visit places of Kolkata is the Victoria Memorial. It’s an exquisite white-marble structure built in the memory of Queen Victoria containing a majestic collection of memorabilia’s from the British era. It’s surrounded by lush emerald lawns and pebbled pathways tread by people for their customary morning walks. The Marble Palace is a privately-owned collection of eclectic sculptures and priceless paintings by Rubens and Joshua Reynolds. The National Library of India, once known as the Imperial Library, is the largest in India containing more than two million books and manuscripts.

Other attractive tourist destinations are Howrah Bridge (the busiest and the third largest cantilever bridge in the world), Jorasanko Thakur Bari (ancestral home of the famous Tagore family), Kali Temple (Kali Ghat – pilgrims from all over throng this temple; it’s believed that name Calcutta was derived from this temple), Nakhoda Mosque (its prayer hall can accommodate a congregation of ten thousand at a time), St. Paul’s Cathedral (The Metropolitan Church of India is a magnificent Gothic edifice), Alipore Zoological Gardens (The Royal Bengal Tigers and white tigers from Rewa are the main attractions of the zoo), Birla Industrial and Technological Museum (the first science museum in Asia, has a noteworthy collection of historical industrial holdings in India; sports a vintage model of the Rolls Royce Phantom make; organizes awareness programs and astronomy observations for school children), Birla Planetarium (one of the largest of its kind in the world which recreates the night sky and the regular shows are in English, Hindi and Bengali. It also has an astronomical library and art gallery), Science City (features live bioscience exhibits; home to Kolkata’s first Omnimax theatre), Salt Lake Stadium (second largest stadium in the world, has a sitting capacity of 125,000 persons), the Indian Botanical Garden (oldest “botanics” in India and is one of the world’s most historically relevant herbariums).

The land of Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore, philosopher Ramakrishnan and eminent film director Satyajit Ray is the heart of art, literature, theatre, music and cinema. Folk theatre Jatra, the Bengali film industry Tollywood, the magic shows of the P.C. Sorcar family, exhibits of contemporary artists at The Academy of Fine Arts, musicality of Usha Uthup and melody of Rabindra Sangeet are quintessential Kolkata. Eden Gardens and Mohammedan Sporting Club are renowned for cricket and football activity while Royal Calcutta Golf Club (the first golf club in the world outside Britain), Fort William and Tollygunge Club are well-known for their golf courses.

Kolkata with its burgeoning population means different things to different people. For some, it’s the City of Joy and for the rest, it’s a city that struggles with urbanisation problems of poverty and pollution. The humanity of the people and their zest can only be experienced through visiting the warm city. Its culture milieu is diverse and discovering it by joining a local friend in a ‘para’ for a habitual ‘adda’ session discussing a wide variety of subjects can be an enriching experience.

Kolkata has hot and sultry summers where temperatures soar during May and June. Rainfall brings respite during July and August and winters are pleasant where temperatures can dip to about 10°C between December and January. Thus, the best season to visit the city is during October to March, when the weather is pleasant and one gets to enjoy the festivity and flamboyance of Durga Puja.

Kolkata is as vivacious as a festival, let alone on occasions of various festivals. Durga Puja is invariably the most sought after and most celebrated festival in Kolkata. Every street, every corner is embellished with lights and every person is dressed in the hues of merriment. More than two thousand pandals are erected trying to compete for appreciation and praise of the public. People of all age-groups go ‘pandal-hopping’ to observe the significance of slaying of the demon Mahishasura by the goddess Durga to restore peace. Md. Ali Park, Baghbazar, College Square is where some of the most illustrious pandals are  erected. Basant Panchami (Saraswati Puja, where the Goddess of learning is worshipped and cultural events are organised), Diwali, Holi (a festival to welcome the spring season by smearing colours on each other), Christmas (celebrated with gaiety by decorating Christmas trees and preparing traditional delicacies), Kali Puja (performed in the honour of Goddess of destruction, Kali who symbolises strength), Bhai Phota (Bhaiya Dooj for the North Indians, the sister prays for sound health and prosperity of her brother), Poila Boishak (Bengali New Year where people offer prayers to gods and pay regards to their family members), Poush parbon (harvest festival), Eid are the other festivals which are celebrated with gusto. Kolkata hosts a variety of fairs, film fests like Kolkata book Fair, Handloom Expo, Lexpo Fair, Crafts Bazaar, Kolkata Film Festival and National Theatre Festival.

A trip to Kolkata is incomplete without savouring the essence of Bengali Cuisine, which includes rice and Machher Jhol (fish curry), rosogolla, sandesh and mishti doi (sweet yoghurt) in desserts. Bengali food can be relished at restaurants Oh! Calcutta and Kewpie’s Kitchen. The city boasts a host of dining options to choose from. For Multi-cuisine, Bar B Q, Amber, Mocambo, Kurry Klub; for Indian, Peter Cat, Kwality, Azad Hind dhaba, Barbeque Nation (along with its hot grilled kebabs); for Chinese, Red Hot Chilli Pepper, Mainland China and a number of places in China Town like Beijing; for South Indian, Jyoti Vihar, Garden Cafe, Anand; for Biryani, Arsalan, Shiraz; for Italian, Fire and Ice, Casa Toscana, Jalapenos; for Continental, Charcoal, Flury’s Swiss confectionary; for Vegetarian cuisines which are sometimes without onion and garlic are well-liked at Gangaur, Teej, Govindas, The Guptas and Munna’s Gourmet are some of the famous restaurants in the city.

Street food is popular and has a huge repertoire of cheap and fast options. Kati rolls (flatbread roll with vegetable, chicken, mutton or egg stuffing) available at various road-side vendors at Park Street, mouth-watering Phuchkas (deep fried crêpe with tamarind and lentil sauce) available at various nooks and corners of the city and  Momos (steamed dumplings of pork, chicken, or vegetables – typically served with a clear stalk soup and often served with spicy chutneys) which is a common feature at outlets specialising in the Tibetan delicacy located at offshoots of Elgin Road.

Kolkata is a place for all kinds of shopaholics – college goers to middle-age groups, inexpensive and cool buys to expensive and chic purchases. Even with the advent of malls owing to increase in people’s purchasing power, some of the older markets like New Market still retain their identity and customer base. It has been popular for all kinds of goods – garments, leather goods, jewellery, accessories and souvenirs that are available at negotiable prices. It’s particularly vibrant around Christmas with Nahoum’s confectionaries making scrumptious pastries. Fancy Market is known for its foreign products and cheap electronic items whereas College Street is the hub for a wide array of books at discounted prices- educational to leisure, literature to non-fiction. Arcades like Forum Mall and its Courtyard, City Centre, South City Mall, Swabhumi, Mani Square and Emami Shopper’s City have revolutionised the shopping experience of an average consumer along with numerous standalone stores.

Kolkata has many hotels and guest houses for the weary voyager accommodating every income group and a well-knit transport system. Kolkata is well-connected to all the major cities in India and most of the countries outside through the various flight carriers (aerial route). The railways (there are two main railway stations, one located at Howrah and the other at Sealdah) and a thorough network of national highways interconnecting a number of cities. Other important towns like Durgapur, Kharagpur can be reached through either the train or through the numerous buses that depart from Maidan near Chowringhee or from the Bus stand at Babu Ghat, depending on the destination. Shanti Niketan, Bishnupur, Chandernagar, Raichak, Digha are superb excursion options near Kolkata for a couple of days. For local transportation, taxis are the most convenient and comfortable way of commuting. It is easily available at any time and is fairly cheap for travelling in the city. Tourists’ main attraction is the Metro, which is the oldest underground system in India since 1984 and is the lifeline of Urban Kolkata, which spans the north-south length in the city connecting DumDum to Garia. It’s an economic and faster mode of travelling through the city. Government and private buses, auto-rickshaws, cycle-rickshaws, hand-pull rickshaws (in some parts of the city like the wholesale market hub Burra Bazaar), trams have made public transportation very convenient for millions of residents of Kolkata for shorter distances.

Radhika Saraf