Kolkata – A city that connotes rich culture, good food and impeccable emotions
“So in the streets of Calcutta I sometimes imagine myself a foreigner, and only then do I discover how much is to be seen, which is lost so long as its full value in attention is not paid. It is the hunger to really see which drives people to travel to strange places.” – Rabindranath Tagore
Being a hardcore bong (as Bengalis are referred by Non-Bengalis in India) and an ardent traveller, I took the words of the Nobel Laureate rather seriously who by the way I totally admire and explored every nook and corner of the city to get the feel of its true spirit – art and culture, heritage, history and great food. Having spent almost two decades of my life in this incredible city of joy, I can assure you that besides Howrah Bridge, Yellow Taxis and Rasgullas (all that Bollywood movies can think of!) this city has lots more to offer. It is a city that flows with the never ending river of honking traffic, daily businesses, amazing street food and its share of fabulous tourist stops and attractions.
COLLEGE STREET – THE LITERARY STOP
Ever heard of a bunch of lanes stocked with nothing but books? If not, then you should pay a foremost visit to the captivating College Street – the social and intellectual hub of Kolkata. Although a ‘street’, it is more like a library out in the open which off course doesn’t come with the board of ‘Maintain Silence’. It’s like a melting pot of cultures. From rare first editions to signed copies, from used to new publications, from manuscripts to biographies, from Satyajit to Sheldon– one can dig deep to find any sort of gems here. It’s a street treat for book lovers. And then there is the renowned Coffee House. No the place doesn’t offer fancy air-conditioned atmosphere like our modern day cafes. But it does impart an intellectual aroma like no other. With an irresistible menu of mutton chop and chicken cutlet, the place offers a comfortable couch to emerging artists, poets and musicians for exchanging ideas, hopes and carefully grilled dreams.
VICTORIA MEMORIAL–THE HERITAGE STOP
If anything can strongly remind us of the British Raj in India then it has to be this place. Located on the plains on the banks of the River Hoogly, Victoria Memorial was built between 1906 and 1921 to commemorate Queen Victoria’s 25-year reign in India. Spread over 64 acres of land, there are as many as 25 galleries in this building which display various antiquities and artefacts. This massive white-marble museum is constructed by using the top quality Makrana marbles, transported all the way from Rajasthan. An elegant effigy of Queen Victoria at the centre of the memorial, a giant Victorian building that adorns a white fairy at its crown, the stone paved arenas, the lush greeneries, the statues, everything around reminds you of an era that you have left behind many many years ago. The memorial opens its gates for visitors who want to take a walk through those memorable lanes.
KUMARTULI – THE ARTISTIC STOP
Kolkata’s Durga Puja is world famous. It’s a festival of one of its kind. But besides the colours, the glamour, the themes, the rituals involved in this festival, the astounding art has a world of its own. A world that resides in the quaint district of Kolkata named Kumartuli. Here the artisans sculpt out beautiful effigies of the Gods and Goddesses with a hand that is much experienced and as we say God-gifted. The shutterbugs can easily capture the magic that these artisans create just out of straw and clay. The tireless practice of the craft, the endless lines of idols lit by light bulbs, a flowing river alongside give away a splendid sight that is even brighter than the grand ceremony itself.
KALIGHAT TEMPLE – THE SPIRITUAL STOP
This ancient Kali temple is one of the most sacred places and also the most visited Hindu shrine in the city. The temple is adorned with floral and peacock-motif tiles that look more Victorian than Indian. The temple is an attraction to thousands of Hindu pilgrims and devotees every day. And like any other religious places in our country, you can expect the place to be over-crowded, Pandits offering you to help fulfil your dreams and desires, long queues etc. But once you bravely cross all of them and make your way through the jostling crowd just to catch a glimpse of the powerful three-eyed Goddess, you will be thrilled. You will not only be able to uplift your spirits but will realize that the goddess who has been worshipped since time immemorial continues to reign over this nexus of power where the ancient and modern worlds intersect.
NEW MARKET – THE SHOPPING STOP
Now exploring any city or country remains quite incomplete without a bit of shopping – be it for the purpose of collecting souvenir or to satisfy the impulsive shopper in you. Either way it is a must. And thus when you are in Kolkata, make sure to pay a visit to the historical Sir Stuart Hogg Market or commonly known as New Market. The market is a Victorian Gothic shopping arcade which came into existence during the colonial era and enjoys widespread patronage even to this day. It’s a heritage and is arguably one of Kolkata’s best shopping centres. What is really amazing about the place is that it is the chaos that surrounds the market on all sides. And there’s nothing that the market cannot offer. From amazing restaurants to local street food stalls, from affordable juttis (shoes) to branded mozis (socks), roadside hawkers to pushy shopkeepers, you canget it all under one roof. The all-day busy market, the crowd of the sellers, the hustle bustle of shoppers create a diverse fair. You can see and observe from far or soak in for some real time action.
STREET FOOD OF KOLKATA – THE SAVOUR STOP
There are numerous things to do and see in Kolkata, but the joy of exploring becomes double when you munch on the city’s exquisite street food; also when it happens to be one of the country’s friendliest cities for street food lovers. And the good news is you don’t have to specifically visit a spot to savour all of this. Vendors are everywhere serving everything from chats to pani puri (phuchkas as we call it), from Kathi rolls to momos, from chowmein to full meals of rice, curries and fish. Your appetite will be in an active rejoicing mode the whole time. If I have to specifically share my favourites, then the foremost spot would be Vivekananda Park. From papri chat to dum aloo, from dahi phuchkas to chumur, this place simply offers tangy mouthfuls of heaven. Kolkata street food hopping isn’t complete without a trip to New Market.
Both vegetarian and non-vegetarian street food here is simply awesome, with a little smattering of branded retail food joints being present on either side. The phuchka and chats are drool-worthy, desi Chinese food like Chopsuey and Schezuan chicken, various milkshakes and juice centres and not to forget the delightful bakeries around will offer you truckload of joy. Even if you’re full, don’t forget to try Kolkata’s chai (tea) in a“bhaanr” (earthen cup), that’s a personal favourite. And what better than the Balwant Singh Eating House. The city’s culture of tea can be aptly observed by just one visit to this place. While their tea, which comes in different bhaanr sizes is the absolute best, this isn’t the only reason why it is so well loved. A unique offering called the doodh cola is available here, which is cola married to milk in a most joyous union. One of a kind!
With so much to offer in heritage, culture and contradictions, Kolkata is one city, which leaves a long-lasting impression on a first-time visitor. To me it is a city that has an old world charm, its warmth and sincerity captivate the heart of every visitor. It’s the most luxurious lazy boy that refuses to grow up. It has a soothing ear for Rabindrasangeet and loves to steam the political discussion with a hot cup of Cha. A city that loves to wake up early, take an afternoon nap and bid the night with a hope of a brighter tomorrow. And in the midst of all this, it doesn’t forget to greet its visitors with hand-folded Nomoskar!