I am often called communist by some of my friends. It may be that they do not know the real meaning of the term. Whether I support communism or not doesn’t matter now. The purpose of this article is to share the experience of the so-called communist's first visit to the land of comrades - Kolkata. (Forgive me Didi, I hope you wouldn't mind if I still call Kolkata as the land of comrades.:-))
Since my childhood, I have read and heard all too often that this eastern metropolis is one of the dirtiest cities. Hence, my expectation as a traveler with destination Kolkata was very limited. However, after I visited the city I realized that the statement is only partially correct. The city is as good as any other major Indian city.
Kolkata, which was called Calcutta till a few years back, is truly a city with strong religious, cultural and literary flavor. Here, you can find BMWs as well as the human powered rickshaws. It is full of narrow congested lanes as well as well planned townships such as Salt Lake City. Only in this city can you still find trams in India while side by side you also have India's first underground railway. You can meditate peacefully in places like Belur Math while losing it all in the places like the Kali temple. The choice is yours. The city, which was once the capital of India, is full of diversity. Let me explore some of the important tourist sites of this ancient yet ever-growing mammoth.
When I was wondering where to start, I was told about "Maidan" by one of my Kolkata friends. (The word "maidan" in Indian languages means open ground.) I was wondering! How can merely an open ground be considered a tourist spot? As a regular traveler I have visited varieties of sites - palaces, forts, parks, forests, temples, lakes, beaches, amusement parks, temples, and a lot more. However, this was to be the first time visiting just an open ground touted as an attraction.
After I visited the maidan, I realized why this place means so much to the people of Kolkata. It is located at the heart of the city, flanked by many important tourist sites as well as Government buildings such as Victoria Memorial, Eden Garden, Birla Planetarium, Raj Bhavan, etc. It is definitely a green oasis in the middle of an otherwise super-congested city. It also has the necessary historical significance to earn the status of a tourist site. During the British period, a fort was built to avoid antagonistic invasions. After building the structure, the British cleared the area surrounding the fort. The cleared area became what is now called the maidan. This huge open ground has also witnessed a lot of historically important political rallies after independence.
When I was standing in front of Victoria Memorial Hall, I could feel the grandeur of British architecture.
At the same time, I could also sense some bit of Mughal architecture. The awesome marble facade of the structure is an excellent example of Mughal influenced British architecture. I have seen many British constructions in Chennai, Mumbai, Delhi and other Indian cities. But, I am sure no other building comes close to this splendid Victoria Memorial.
The extraordinary marble structure, the magnificent statue of Queen Victoria near the entrance, the well maintained park around the white edifice, the vintage lamp posts and the brass canons made me feel as if I was standing somewhere in the Great Britain. The memorial houses a lot of interesting artifacts and photographs related to Rabindranath Tagore and Mother Teresa. My favorites in this museum are the statues and paintings of British Viceroys and British royal family. It is unfortunate that photography is not allowed inside the building, so the interiors of the memorial has to be captured in the recesses of memory..
St. John's Church:
St. John's Church, which is located at Council House Street near the maidan area, is definitely worth visiting. It is unfortunate that not many people visit this place and even most of the locals are unaware of this peaceful church. I don't know how many people know that the mausoleum of Job Charnock, the founder of Kolkata, is located in this church. The monument commemorating those who died in the 'Black Hole of Calcutta' is also located in this church.
Although the largest museum of India located in Kolkata is named "Indian" Museum, the architecture is very Italian. The Museum is certainly one of the places to hang around in the city. Like any other big museum in India, this too has various sections displaying a lot of art collections and rare exhibits. The section displaying the skull of mammoths and dinosaurs definitely attracts a lot of visitors. The Egyptian section with a real mummy can be considered to be the highlight of this museum. To my knowledge, no other museum in India has a mummy.
Shaheed Minar, a monumental tower, is an important landmark of Kolkata. It is located near the bus stand in the Maidan area. I heard that many processions and rallies traditionally start here. But, I hardly find anybody who considers this as a tourist site. It's really sad to find the poor state of this site. If it is promoted by Government and supported by locals, it can become as popular as Qutb Minar of Delhi.
It’s most recent claim to fame has been as the site of the current chief minister Mamata ‘Didi’ Banerjee’s famed fast.
Marble Palace, the elegant 19th century mansion, is a unique building in Kolkata. As the name indicates, the building is built completely of marble. The three storey structure has open courtyards, tall pillars, ornamented verandahs and decorated roofs. There is not even a small space in the entire palace which is without any artifacts. Hundreds of objects, be it Chinese and Japanese chandeliers, urns, old clocks, huge mirrors, busts of British royal families and importantly a lot of paintings - some bynotable painters. I even saw a big clock made completely out of gold and a giant mirror. To be frank, most of the paintings and small marble statues depict naked/half-naked women.
I heard there is a small zoo located outside the palace. However, I couldn't visit that. Which may have been for the good after all, since I am informed now that at the age of eight, Scroll co-editor Arunabha was bitten on his cheek by a runaway monkey of this very same institution, a fact no doubt reflected in some of his vitriolic writings.
It's not very easy to visit this privately held museum. One has to get permission at least one day in advance. Photography is strictly prohibited even from outside the building. The most atrocious fact is that one cannot wander around the palace on his own. The guide from the palace will definitely accompany the visitor whether he likes it or not, and he will ensure that the visitor doesn't spend his time exploring the objects. :(
I personally feel this place should be made easily accessible to the public. For me it was a lonely tread, almost as if on some brave mission in a haunted palace.
One theory is that the city got its name from the famous Kalighat Kali temple. It is one of the most popular temples dedicated to the mother Goddess in all of India. The temple is small but always crowded. The crowd is poorly managed and most often in a total mess. If you are not a dedicated devotee or a compulsive traveler like me who wants to visit almost all the places, I would suggest skipping this site.
I swear I would not have been satisfied with my visit to Kolkata if I had not visited this peaceful and serene place. The big temple dedicated to Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and the other smaller shrines of Sarada, Vivekananda and other disciples of Ramakrishna are ideal places for meditation. The huge complex of the math situated on the banks of the river Ganga is indeed a tranquil site. I wish I could have spent my entire evening in the math on the banks of the river. Unfortunately, I had to rush more places. I envythose who stay near this place and can visit the premises often.
I found the huge temple of Kali named Dakshineshwar to be very organized and neatly maintained. From Belur Math, I crossed the river to reach the campus. Apart from Kali, this temple houses a lot of other shrines and idols including 12 Jyotir Lingas. Similar to Belur Math, I found this temple to be ideal for contemplation and meditation. There is a room in this temple where Ramakrishna Paramahamsa used to stay. The bhajans that are still conducted in this room make the environment more serene. After Belur math, this is the place which I enjoyed most in Kolkata.
Apart from all the places I have written about, there are a lot more to see in Kolkata. Birla Planetarium, St. Paul's Church and Howrah Bridge to name just a few.
I guess I could successfully cover Kolkata to a great extent in just two days. I also had to get enough of mishti doi, sandesh and rasgulla.
I would love to visit Bengal again and share my experience with all of you.
Born a Gujrati and brought up in Tamil Nadu, KK says he fits nowhere. He is a man in search of an identity who looks for it everywhere, ending up travelling around the world and documenting the experiences in the form of travel guides in http://indiancolumbus.