Kolkata Information

Kolkata, 'the city of joy', is the capital city f the Indian state, West Bengal.  Kolkata alias Calcutta is full of life and bustle, verging on the chaotic as traditional occupations rub shoulders with ultra modern industries.  Kolkata is India's second largest city.  It is a city with a great deal of charm - its imperial monuments, strong cultural and religious flavor leaves an indelible impression on the visitor.

The image most people have of Calcutta is one of abject poverty and misery— mostly the result of media focus 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 and fashion industry; five-star hotels; 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. One of the least-explored regions of India, Sikkim is a world apart, surrounded by jagged peaks and home to snow-fed lakes, remote Buddhist monasteries, yak-herding Tibetans, highaltitude forests, and some 4,000 varieties of wildflowers (including 600 varieties of orchid). South of West Bengal, in the coastal state of Orissa—often called the “soul of India”—you can join the pilgrims who gather by the thousands to pay homage to the Lord of the Universe, who resides at the seaside town of Puri. Within easy striking distance from here is Konark’s Sun Temple, a World Heritage Site, a testament to the technical and artistic brilliance of Orissa in the 13th century, and unreservedly one of India’s top attractions.

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 party (CPI) struggles 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 heavily polluted, an entrêpote of India’s sorriest 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 traveling 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 Oscarwinning film director (Satyajit Ray). Warm, helpful, and imbued with a great sense of humor (not to mention a famously keen appreciation for dining), the Bengalis live by the maxim that “what Bengal does today, India will do tomorrow.” 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. 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, farther south. But if you delight in eclectic city culture, spend at least 2 or 3 nights in this thrilling city.

Kolkata is a huge, sprawling city, divided into north and south, both spread along the eastern bank of the Hooghly River, which divides it from the vast suburb of Howrah, located on the western bank. Howrah is where you’ll be deposited if you arrive by train; the main station is close to the Howrah Bridge, which connects with the city proper. Just east and south of Howrah Bridge are Kolkata’s commercial and tourist hubs, centered around B.B.D. Bagh, still known by its colonial name, Dalhousie Square, and the long stretch of road once known as Chowringhee (now Jawaharlal Nehru Rd.) that runs southward, alongside the Maidan, Kolkata’s vast urban park. Many visitors base themselves around Chowringhee; nearby Sudder Street teems with budget accommodations, while Park Street has plenty of boutiques and fine restaurants. To the northeast is the rapidly expanding business district of Salt Lake City, which has few historical sites but is steadily developing a reputation for its upscale business hotels and high-tech entertainment facilities. It’s the closest district to the airport.

Kolkata General Information

Location

Kolkata is located in eastern India at 22°32 in the North and 88°22 in the East, in the Ganges Delta at an elevation of about 1.5 to 9m.

Climate

Kolkata has a tropical climate.  The monthly mean temperatures range from 19°C to 30°C.  Simmers are hot and humid, and the maximum temperatures often exceed 40°C during May and June. Winter tends to last for only about two and a half months, with seasonal lows dipping to 4°C or 12°C between December and January.  Often during early summer, dusty squalls followed by spells of thunderstorm ad heavy rains lash the city, bringing relief from the humid heat.  These thunderstorms are locally known as Kal baisakhi.

History

Actually, the name, Kalikata had also been mentioned in the rent-roll of the great mughal emperor, Akbar and also in the Manasa-Mangal, to explore the history of Calcutta.  In 1690, Job Charnock came to the bank of the Hooghly River (it's the part of the Ganges) and took the lease of the three villages Sutanuti, Govindapur and Kolikata as a trading post of the British East India Company.  The city became famous in 1756, when Siraj-Ud-Dawlah, the last independent nawab of Bengal, captured the city.  But the British regained their power in 1757, and the city was recaptured under Robert Clive.  Warren Hastings, the first Governor General of India, made the present, 'Kolkata' as the seat of the supreme courts of justice and the supreme revenue administration, and Calcutta became the capital of the British India in 1772. By 1800, Calcutta had become a busy and flourishing town.

Kolkata Tourism Information

Howrah Bridge

It is one of the three bridges on the Hooghly River, and is the most famous symbol of not only Kolkata but also the entire West Bengal.  Until 1943, the Hooghly River was crossed by a pontoon bridge which had to be opened to let the river traffic pass by.  There was considerable opposition to the construction of a bridge due to fears that it would affect the river currents and cause silting problems.  This problem was eventually avoided by building a bridge that crosses the river in a single 450m span, and there are no pylons at all within the river.

Bakkhali (130km)

It is the second most important beach of West Bengal after Digha.

Barakpur (24km)

It was once the cantonment of the British and is named after the ‘barracks’,  where troops have been stationed since 1772.  The town is associated with the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857. Mangal Pandey, the famous martyr was hanged at barrackpur’s Latbagan. A memorial to him was erected at Dhubighat.  Other attractions are, Mangal Pandey Park, Gandhi Ghat and Rani Rashmoni’s Kali Mandir.

Barddhaman (95km)

The historic site on the banks of river Damodar is named after mahavir Barddhaman, the 24th Jain tirthankar.  The main attractions are 108 Shiva shrines built in 1789 by Rani Bishnukumari; Vijay Toran or Curzon Gate; Rose Garden; Meghnad Saha Planetarium and the Science Centre of the University.

Bandel (48km)

It lies on the banks of river Hugli and was the first European settlement in Bengal.  The Portuguese Church and the Monastery were built here in 1599 and destroyed by Shah Jahan in 1640.  The church was rebuilt in 1660 and is the oldest in the State.

B.B.D. Bagh

B.B.D. Bagh For those interested in colonial architecture, this part of central Kolkata makes for very worthwhile exploration on foot. Once called Dalhousie Square, B.B.D. refers to the names of three Indian freedom fighters (Benoy, Badal, and Dinesh) who shot a British police inspector-general in 1930. At the center of the square (bagh) is Lal Dighi Tank, where locals wade and bathe in the dodgy-looking, spring-fed water. Most impressive of the surrounding monuments is the Writers’ Building, the office of the West Bengal government, which stretches along B.B.D. Bagh North Road; it was built to house the British bachelors imported to serve the East India Company. Across the road is the early-19th-century St. Andrew’s Kirk, recognizable by its tall white steeple. At the other end of B.B.D. Bagh North is the General Post Office, with a monumental rotunda; it’s thought to be the site of the notorious Black Hole of Calcutta incident (see the appendix). Southwest of the tank is the St. Martin-in-the-Fields–inspired St. John’s Church (& 033/2243-6098; daily 9am–5pm; Rs 10/25¢) and, within the grounds, the tomb of Calcutta’s founding father, Job Charnock. East of B.B.D. Bagh, to the south of Lal Bazaar, you’ll find numerous tea merchants, where teas from Darjeeling, the Dooars, and Assam are packed and exported. Nilhat House, located behind the Old Mission Church, is the oldest tea auction house in India—join the action on Monday and Tuesday mornings.

Chandannagar ( 39km)

This former French colony on the banks of the river Hugli is dotted with churches, convents and other relics of colonial past. A picturesque promenade here is ideal for strolls.  The town is also known for the Jagaddhatri Puja.

Chunchura (45km)

It was under Dutch occupation between 1656 and 1825 and the Fort Gustavus was built in 1628 by them.  Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay, composed ‘Bandemataram’, the national song or India at the Bandemataram House on Joraghat.

Diamond Harbour (48km)

This popular picnic spot near the confluence of Hugli River and Bay of Bengal is easily accessible by road and rail.  It was once the main port of East India Company and has ruins of a fort and an old lighthouse.  Cruising over the river waters is quite interesting.

Digha (174km)

This most popular beach of West Bengal is lined by Casuarina trees and is ideal for swimmers.  The Science Centre, Marine Aquarium and Amravati Lake are worth visiting.

Hugli (47km)

Historical Hugli was a flourishing trade centre of Bengal, even before Kolkata.  In 1537, the Portuguese settled here, but were driven away in 1632 by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan.  In 1651, the British East India Company established a factory here.  The relics of the colonial era can be seen in numerous old buildings, churches and graveyards.  The famous Imambara was built here in 1835, by Hazi Mohammad Mohsin.

Sabujdwip (75km)

Sabujdwip or the ‘Green Island’ wet on the confluence of the Behula and Hugli rivers is an ideal picnic spot.

Srirampur (Serampur) (24km)

This Danish Settlement from 1616 to 1845 later became a centre of English missionaries.  It also played an important role in the Bengal Renaissance.  The Old Danish buildings, including the Danish Governor’s Palace, the Roman Catholic Church and St. Olaf Church stand testimony to the bygone era.  A museum at Serampur College, houses exhibits of missionaries.

Mahesh (3km)

Mahesh is famous for an ancient Jagannath Temple.      

Nabadwip (114km)

Nabadwip, the ‘Varanasi of Bengal’ is set on the confluence of the Bhagirathi and Jalangi rivers.  It was the capital of ancient Bengal and is named after the nine islands of Jalangi River.  It was the capital of ancient Bengal and is named after the nine islands of Jalangi River.  Nabadwip is the birthplace of Sri Chaitanya (1486 – 1533), the founder of Vaishnava sect and is the seat of Vaishnava culture is Bengal.  The Raash festival held in the month of Kartik-Agrahayan is a major attraction for the pilgrims.

Mayapur

Mayapur the headquarters of ISKCON, the contemporary face of Vaishnavism lies across the river from Nabadwip.  The stupa-like white temple belongs to ISKCON.

Sagardwip (Gangasagar)

The sacred site 78km from Diamond Harbour and 128km from Kolkata lies at the confluence of Ganga River and Bay of Bengal and is considered to be one of the holiest sites of Hindu pilgrimage.  The three day annual Ganga Sagar Mela, held here in mid-January, on Makar Sankranti, attracts millions of devotees who take a holy dip at the confluence.  It is believed that Kapil Muni, a legendary sage who reduced King Sagar’s 60,000 sons to ashes had his ashram over here about 5000 year ago.  In 1947, a temple of Ganga Devi was built to mark its existence.  The shrine is visited by numerous devotees.  Scenic sagardwip is also an excellent site to view sunset and sunrise.

Brila Planetarium

This planetarium, near the government of India tourist office, is one of the largest in the world, and is located on Kolkata's Eastern Metropolitan Bypass.  There are shows in English everyday in tis planetarium.  This 21st century marvel f science, communication and environment is the first and only institution of its kind in India.  Set amidst trees and lawns, here one can find science out of doors and alive.

Indian Museum

Containing things beautiful, unusual, and ancient, the museum is known to locals as Jadu Ghar, the House of Magic. The oldest institution of its kind in the Asia–Pacific region, it holds the country’s largest repository of artifacts (over 100,000 exhibits). Among the dinosaur and mammoth skeletons and the 4,000-year-old Egyptian mummy are extraordinary Indian cultural items, including Shah Jahan’s emerald goblet, and an urn said to contain the Buddha’s ashes. Don’t miss the cultural anthropology section—accompanied by good explanations—if you are interested in India’s many tribal groups. The textiles-and-decorative-arts gallery is most impressive. It can be difficult to find, however—ask for assistance.

South Park Street Cemetery

This is Kolkata’s most famous cemetery, where monumental gravestones and lichen- and moss-covered tombstones to large numbers of ill-fated Brits buried on Indian soil provide a tranquil retreat. A really atmospheric place to wander around, the cemetery contains headstones that bear unlikely epitaphs like MAJ. GEN. C. GREEN DIED 51TH OF JULY.

Victoria Memorial

Conceived of by Lord Curzon as a monument to his queen 4 years after her death, this domed structure is Kolkata’s most recognizable landmark. It’s billed as one of the city’s top attractions, but with portraits of fairly boring-looking individuals filling many of the walls, it’s more likely to excite Rajophiles. There are 25 galleries in the central hall, and about 3,500 articles relating to the Raj on display, including the queen’s rosewood piano. Exhibits are not restricted to Raj-artifacts; the black marble throne that belonged to Siraj-ud-Daulah is impressive, as is a gigantic painting of a Jaipur royal procession, said to be one of the largest paintings in Asia.

Kalighat Kali Temple

Violent, vengeful Kali is the patron goddess of Kolkata, and this temple complex—believed to be the site where the toe of Shiva’s wife fell when her body was scattered across the earth by the gods anxious to stop Lord Shiva’s dance of destruction (see “The Dance of Destruction,” p. 525)—is a major pilgrimage center, drawing some 20,000 visitors each day. If you’re a non-Hindu, you cannot enter the inner sanctum, sticky with the rotted remains of fresh flowers offered by devotees every day, but it’s worth your while to explore the courtyards and the various stalls selling flowers, fruit, and religious paraphernalia. If you’re uneasy about the idea of animal sacrifice, avoid the enclosure to the south of the temple where at least one goat is offered to Kali every day (a ritual that allegedly replaced the ancient practice of human sacrifice). Be equally wary of the so-called priests—temple “guides” who usher you into the complex and conduct a whirlwind tour of the facilities, only to present you with a donation book that records the radically generous donations of other foreigners.

Belur Math Shrine

The headquarters of the international Ramakrishna Order, Belur Math combines the architectural elements of a church, a mosque, and a temple, symbolically embodying the teachings of the monk and seer Sri Ramakrishna Paramahansa. It was established in 1897, and the ashes of Sri Ramakrishna were placed here by his most prominent disciple, Swami Vivekananda, who also set up the Order. The location is lovely: Smaller shrines line the riverbank, and devotees and seekers of spiritual peace roam the grounds. Within the immaculate main shrine, activity is enlivened by evening aarti (musical prayers).

College Street

This stretch of road, deep in the heart of the university quarter, is famous for its 5,000 or so secondhand bookstalls, and for the renowned Presidency College, where India’s greatest filmmaker, Satyajit Ray, studied. Many of the booksellers here are semi-literate, but remarkably, each is able to recall the titles and prices of thousands of academic and technical books, the volumes typically piled meters high. Look for the bust commemorating the father of Bengali prose literature, the reformer and philanthropist Pandit Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar, who also introduced a ban on forced marriages.

Marble Palace

Up a back street, in what was once known as Black Town, stands a vast mansion—a wonder to behold—sporting a plush Romanesque veneer that incorporates at least 90 different varieties of marble. Built in 1835 by the wealthy zamindar (landowner) Raja Rajendra Mullick Bahadur, this palatial family home has seen better days, and is now the center of a bitter feud between relatives, some of whom have been accused of sneaking off with the more valuable displays. But several works attributed to Titian and Renoir remain, while Venetian chandeliers; Ming vases; Egyptian statuary; and paintings, sculptures, furniture, and antique vases accumulated from 90 countries crowd the enormous, dimly lit rooms that open off deep verandas around an inner courtyard. Get there soon, since the feuding of the Mullicks makes it uncertain which prized item might next disappear. Admission is free, but you need a pass from the West Bengal Tourist Office; alternatively, offer the gate guard a bribe (Rs 50/$1.15) for instant access. You are expected to tip your guide.

Paresnath Temple

Jain temples are generally the most beautifully adorned in India, and Paresnath, dedicated to Sithalnath—one of the 24 perfect souls (tirthankaras) of the Jain religion—is no exception. Built in 1867 by a jeweler whose love of intricate designs, mirrors, and colored glass is evident everywhere, it boasts lavishly adorned patterned marble, beautiful European chandeliers, and stained-glass windows. A quiet garden is dotted with silver statues, and the temple houses an eternal flame that’s apparently never gone out.

Festivals

Durga Puja

For four days in September-October, Kolkata comes to a standstill, as a almost everyone in the throngs its streets, visiting the pandals dressed in their festive best and feting their taste buds, with food from the stalls that spring up on the roadsides.  Incense, drumbeats, chants, laughter, and the sizzle and smell of food characterize this festival dedicated to Goddess Durga.  Durga Puja is a chance to meet old friends, rub shoulders with the young and eligible, buy new clothes, walk the streets of the city till the wee hours of the morning, and of course, admire the oeuvre of idol makers who craft beautiful idols of Durga, Lakshmi, Saraswati, Ganesh and Kartik out of Bamboo, straw, jute, clay and paint.

Rathyatra

Travel along with the Lord of Puri, Jagannath, as his chariot takes him to his midsummer vacation.  Legend has it that Jagannath, a reincarnation of Lord Vishnu, goes on this vacation with his brother Balaram and sister Subhadra.  Religious fervor runs high and the streets of Kolkata turn into a mélange of colors.  Devotees take turns to pull the gigantic chariots bearing idols of the three divinities through the narrow bylanes of the city.

Birla Mandir, Calcutta