Think India, and it’s likely you’ll think of the Taj Mahal, the palaces of Rajasthan and the beaches of Goa or Kerala. But West Bengal and its capital Kolkata? Not so likely.
And when travellers are putting together their India itineraries, it’s the beauty of the Golden Triangle, the chaotic spirituality of Varanasi and the relaxed vibe of the spice-scented Malabar Coast that tend to take priority. The city formerly known as Calcutta rarely gets a look-in.
It seems strange that the capital of India from 1772 to 1911, once the jewel in the crown of the British Empire, has fallen so out of favour. But then it doesn’t have the palaces and romantic vistas of other more exotic destinations in India. And it has long been tarred with the name of the “Black Hole”- a term that actually refers to a small dungeon in the city’s Fort William.
But the reality is that the city, although of dwindling importance, is vibrant, crazy and fascinating.
We take a look at why you should consider adding this historic city to your India itinerary.
Art and culture are thriving in this haphazard city, but that’s nothing new. Some of India’s greatest minds have hailed from Kolkata, with many of the city’s residents priding themselves on this intellectual pedigree. Rabindranath Tagore is one such hero. The famed poet won the 1913 Nobel Prize for literature. Then there’s Satyajit Ray – the highly acclaimed filmmaker who was awarded an honorary Academy Award for lifetime achievement in 1992.
But while you won’t be bumping into either chap on the streets of Kolkata, you can visit Tagore’s family mansion, now a museum devoted to the poet. Then you can pop into one of the many art galleries or museums, or visit the bookshops of the university areas – literally stacks upon stacks of volumes sold from stalls set along the paving stones.
The Victoria Memorial is perhaps the most famous of Kolkata’s sights. The marble building, completed in 1921, is a glimmering homage to the Queen of the Empire. Now it houses a collection of Victorian memorabilia, including the Queen’s own piano.
But there are many other ways to experience the enduring legacy of the Raj. A visit to the Park St Cemetery offers a glimpse into history with the dusty gravestones telling tales of the Calcutta of old.
Or head for one of the prestigious clubs such as the Bengal Club, where the upper echelons of society rub shoulders over a G&T, or the Tolly Club where you can indulge in a spot of golf, or the Saturday Club for badminton by day and whiskies by night. But be warned, these relics of colonial times often have a strict dress code.
Even teatime at one of the old hotels, like the luxurious Oberoi, can offer visitors a taste of the opulence of colonial times with a little modern creature comfort such as air conditioning thrown in for good measure.
Think Indian food
, and you might start daydreaming of chicken tikka masala, pork vindaloo and a rogan josh. But there is so much more to Indian cuisine than these mainstays of the Indian restaurant menu. Bengali cuisine makes good use of fish and prawns, both from the sea and river, with mustard oil and seeds commonly used in their preparation. Then there are street snacks like the fluffy prawn cutlets and delicious kathi rolls – spiced chicken wrapped in a buttery paratha. And, of course, there are the sweets. The Bengali sweet tooth has given rise to a whole host of sugary, milk-based confections such as sandesh that are all worth a try.
Indian festivals are a riot of colour and celebration. Holi
and Diwali are well known around the world, but there’s another lesser known festival that takes Kolkata by storm each year around the months of September and October. Known as Durga Puja, the celebration is the largest festival of the year for Bengali Hindus and sees elaborate life-size idols of the goddess created out of clay. Temporary temples called pandals are constructed out of bamboo and cloth to house the idols which are worshipped for five days before being carried to the river where they are immersed, symbolising her reunion with Shiva
The sacred river has long been a massive tourist drawcard because of its immense significance – both spiritual and practical – to the people that live along it. But the vast majority of visitors keen to have an encounter with the river god tend to head to the city of Varanasi to glimpse its grey waters and the throng that surrounds it. But this arm of the river, called the Hooghly, is just as fascinating.
Take a cruise along the water and pray for a sighting of one of the river’s resident Gangetic dolphins as you take in the crumbling edifices of the British Raj, the Howrah Bridge, the funereal burning ghats, and temples such as the Dakshineswar Kali Temple.