When I hear the word Kolkata, the first thing that comes to mind is ‘literartis’ and I visualise men and women dressed traditionally in Bengali cotton, sipping coffee, pouring over books or holding deep conversations or debates. It may be a scene from a movie portraying India Coffee House on College Street, I don’t know, but this is how Kolkata is etched in my mind 🙂 As luck would have it, even now on my second visit to Kolkata I was not able to visit College Street to see for myself if there was any semblance between reality and the visual in my head 😦
I went to Kolkata with family for the first time in 2017 and then again now in Oct 2021 with the better-half who visits Kolkata on work from time to time. Between us we have managed to visit most places of interest. For this trip, we drew up a list that included some old, some new, few repeats and some unique things to do.
We took a yellow-cab ride (I wish the yellow ambassador cab was given the iconic status like the London Taxi) to our hotel from the airport.
After checking in and filling our tummies with a wholesome breakfast we decided to visit Victoria Memorial (I wish there was a guided tour of the Victoria garden and Memorial). When we got there, we found out that only the gardens are open on Mondays. So we took a leisurely stroll and discovered, much to our amusement, branches shaped like a sine-wave, a very large leaf of the breadfruit tree, a huge tree which the gardeners told me was ‘Sapota’ but I am quite sure it was something else; and statues, there are many of them in the garden! We circumambulated the Victoria Memorial from the outside, something we probably would not have done otherwise.
Once we were done with the garden we went across to visit St. Paul’s Cathedral. Calcutta (as it was known before being renamed Kolkata) already had a church when in 1832 Bishop Daniel Wilson arrived to become Calcutta’s 5th Bishop. He envisioned a cathedral for Calcutta and it was built under his guidance and consecrated in 1847. It is a simple but tall house of prayer with stained glass altar and windows.
The church building is very gothic in its architecture as well as in the styling of the alter, pews and benches. Crests of several dioceses (Lahore, Karachi, Nagpur, Colombo, Lucknow, Barrackpore, Madhya Kerala, Tirunelveli to name a few) that were under this mother church can be found along the walls. There are several plaques in memory of someone who drowned in the Hoogly, someone who died in the war of 1857, someone who died as a consequence of the war of 1857 (a woman and her child), someone who worked for the Great Eastern Railway, a ‘hindoo who converted to Christianity’, and there were a Dalrymple or two as well. And oh yes, the clock on the church tower actually works even though it looks like it is in a state of neglect 🙂
In the evening, we went to Hogg Market (New Market Area) in search of Bandel Cheese and Nahoum’s Jewish Bakery which I had read about before the trip. Hogg Market appeared to be another colonial building sitting in the middle of a big shopping area. With the festival of Diwali right around the corner, the place was bustling with people busy shopping. The market itself is like a maze, with rows and rows of small shops selling everything from pins to cushions.
Bandel Cheese is a cow cheese that was introduced by the Portuguese and is made in a small town called Bandel that was a Portuguese Colony. It comes in two varieties – the fresh cheese with a short shelf-life and the long lasting smoked cheese. They are sold as small round discs. We tasted the brown smoked cheese (very salty, too salty! Needs to be soaked in water overnight before use) and wanted to carry some back home. But the crowds put us off and sadly we didn’t go back to pick up some.
By the time we got to Nahoum’s Jewish Bakery (one of the few surviving Jewish bakeries in this side of India) which is a few doors away from the cheese shop, their shelves were already empty. So we tried their fruit bun and cheese samosa. The Cheese, fruit bun, samosa and some puchka (pani puri) outside Hogg Market made sure we couldn’t have dinner that night 🙂
The following day saw us wake up early to go for a walk in the maidan area. A lovely large green expanse in the middle of Kolkata. On our path we saw sections that were now home to the offices of the Territorial Army Officer’s Institute, several football & other sporting clubs, the NCC and many many statues! What’s with Kolkata and statues I wonder! We walked all the way to Eden Garden – the one that lent it’s name to the famed Cricket Club next door. The garden was closed due to COVID, as was the cricket stadium.
We walked further all the way to the Hoogly hoping to walk along the promenade. Only certain short sections of this walkway were open. When we were on the foot-over-bridge in Babu Ghat, down below we could see idols of gods at the edge of the water, people paying obeisance to the ones that have passed on – both in the river and on its banks, and a masseur at work kneading and stretching a man and two others waiting their turn.
We made our way back to our hotel via the Town Hall, the Legislative Building and the Raj Bhavan (Governor’s House).
After a satiating breakfast, (all that walking made us ravenous) I walked over to the India Museum. It is a wonderful building with a large collection of artefacts, textile, coins, paintings from different eras, including a real Egyptian mummy (yes! You do not have to go all the way to Cairo to see one) and Buddha’s bone relics (two tiny ones placed in a casket). But like most museums in India this one too lacks in its ability to keep the visitor engaged due to very little or no information on the items on display. The Museum book shop is oriented more toward the scholarly than the regular visitor. So I felt a little let down at the end of the visit that was quickly forgotten about after a veggie sizzler lunch at the nearby Peter Cat restaurant. I thought the servers were a bit stiff…but its ok….the food more than made up for them!
In the evening, we went back to the Victoria Memorial only to find that the entire place has now been dedicated to Subhas Chandra Bose as his birth centenary is coming up next year. A small room with a few company paintings was all there was to see from the time period that we hoped to take a second look at 😦
The next morning was dedicated to a visit to Jorasanko Thakurbari – the ancestral home of Rabindranath Tagore – this was also where he breathed his last. The red and green mansion has been converted to a museum that showcases his life and work. The Rabrindra Sangeet that plays in the background sets the right mood as you walk from room to room. I must add here that this is the ONLY place among all those that we visited that took down our contact details and asked for proof of vaccination which we thought was a very responsible thing to do.
Before visiting here, we walked the length of Howrah Bridge – probably one of the better-half’s favourite manmade structures in India and he kept muttering, ‘so much steel was used! look at the rivets…’ We tried to see if we could access the river from another ghat but we weren’t in for much luck. So we walked out to the Armenian Ghat and that was about all we could do.
We didn’t do much else, other than a late lunch at Trinca’s which is an iconic place that I would highly recommend to all. And oh what yum food (crispy salt & pepper corn, veg manchurian & mushroom fried rice)! On reaching the hotel, I realised that I had I left my phone behind at Trincas. I rushed back with my heart in my mouth. It was heartening and also a big relief to see the staff at the main door waiting for me and they had even sent another one of their people to scour the length of Park Street in the hope of finding me!
The last day of our stay was also when the better half had a client visit. So I decided to walk the length of Park Street. Commercial establishments make up the street and as a tourist I recognised the iconic eateries like Kusum Rolls, Flurrys, a branch of the famour Radharam Mullick & Balaram Mullick sweet shop, and many more pubs & restaurants. I walked past the South Park Street Cemetery making a mental note of wanting to visit there when I turned back. I spent more time than I thought I would at this cemetery. More about it in another post. I found myself in Trinca’s again for lunch (Paneer Irani Chelo Sizzler) and this time I promised them that I would not leave my phone behind and get them in a tizzy 😉
It was now time to leave for home. Kolkata has so much to offer! It’s a great place if you are a foodie – take your pick – Chinese, Bengali, chaats and sweets! It is also a shoppers paradise – saris and jewellery and traditional handicrafts, an art lovers haven, and if you are inclined towards history, there’s so much to see and learn! After seeing the casual attitude of the people about masking I stayed away from some places which were expected to be in crowded locations.
Did you know that Kolkata is home to synagogues and Buddhist monasteries and a Tipu Sultan mosque as well? To know more about what else you can do in Kolkata, read this blog. It is written by Rangan Datta, a resident of Kolkata who loves to travel. I owe him my thanks and buckets of gratitude for shedding light on some of the lesser known places that one can visit in Kolkata. Even though I didn’t visit them this time, I am as always optimistic about visiting Kolkata again, so until next time!