One of the world’s great cities, Kolkata or Calcutta as it used to be known, has been through many incarnations.

From an obscure village on the banks of the Hooghly river, Kolkata evolved into the capital of Great Britain’s Indian empire. Today, this vibrant city with its distinct imperial flavour is the capital of the communal state of West Bengal.

The image most people have of Calcutta is one of abject poverty and misery— the residual effect of the many years the media focused on Mother Teresa’s good works. Despite this unfortunate perception, Kolkata (as the Communist-ruled West Bengal Capital became known in 2001) attracts its fair share of visitors, many of whom are pleasantly surprised by the seductive charms of this intoxicating city.

Believed to be the ethereal abode of the goddess Kali, who embodies shakti—fortitude and strength—it is home to a joyous, cerebral, and sophisticated community; some of the best Raj-era architecture in India; many of the country’s best artists; a thriving film industry; and a host of superb restaurants.

Kolkata is also the natural starting point for a trip to the Himalayan mountains of the North, where you can drink in the crystal-clear air of Darjeeling, India’s most famous hill station, imbibing the “champagne of teas” before picking up a permit to hike the tiny state of Sikkim.

Once the proud capital of the British Raj, Kolkata is deeply evocative of an era and sensibility lost in time. Established as the trading post for the East India Company on the banks of the Hooghly River by Job Charnock in 1690, it grew to be the biggest colonial trade center in Asia, earning it the name “Jewel of the East.” With its splendid Victorian buildings, ornamental pools, stone-paved footpaths, figured lampposts, and sweeping esplanade, it was entirely European in its architecture and sensibility, and the burgeoning city became the stomping ground of a new breed of sahibs and memsahibs who wore their white skins and British manners as though they were royal insignias. But Kolkata was effectively built on a disease-breeding swamp—the marshy delta of the Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers—and this, combined with the heat, humidity, and the Bengalis’ prominence in the struggle for independence, finally persuaded the British to transfer the capital. In 1911 they left for Delhi, leaving Calcutta to rot.

Today, much of the city’s architectural heritage stands crumbling and in ruins, its monumental colonial structures not nearly as well maintained as those of Mumbai. Moss and grime cover tattered buildings that should be celebrated as the city’s finest—the collapsing masonry, peeling paint, and sun-scorched woodwork testaments to the indifference of time. Unable to stem the long-term industrial and commercial decline of the city, or the flood of refugees that have continually arrived from Bangladesh since the first days of Partition, the Communist ruling parties (CPI and CPIM) struggle to adequately provide for the city’s 14 million inhabitants. The second-largest city on the subcontinent (after Mumbai), it is packed to capacity, politically beleaguered, and an entrepôt of India’s social woes.

Yet its proud citizens, who speak rapturously of its benefits over the other big Indian metropolises, fiercely tout the charms of Kolkata. In fact, meeting Bengalis is one of the best aspects of travelling here—Kolkata is the self-proclaimed capital of India’s intellectuals, home to three Nobel Prize laureates (including the revered Rabindranath Tagore, who became Asia’s first Nobel laureate in 1913) and an Oscar-winning film director (Satyajit Ray). Warm, helpful, and imbued with a great sense of humour (not to mention a famously keen appreciation for dining), the Bengalis live by the maxim that “what Bengal does today, India will do tomorrow,” and engaging in lively discussion on the benefits or drawbacks of Communism, or on the original recipe for sandesh (milk-based sweets, a Bengali specialty), is likely to be one of your more memorable experiences in India.

In some ways, the city is as frightening as you might fear, a degraded mess where squalor, filth, and the ubiquitous bustees (slums) can overwhelm the senses. Unique in India in retaining trams, and the only place in the world to still have hand-pulled rickshaws, you take your life in your hands each time you cross Kolkata’s streets. If you’re in India to enjoy the country’s softer side, don’t tarry here. Head for the Himalayan mountainscapes of Sikkim or Darjeeling, or the temples and beaches of Orissa, further south. But if you delight in eclectic city culture, spend at least 2 or 3 nights in this thrilling city. Friendlier than India’s other mega-cities, this is a city you ‘feel’ more than simply visit.

Click on one of the sections on the right for more information about Kolkata.


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