Nolen Gur, the ambrosia of Bengal
What ambrosia was to the Greeks, nolen gur is to Bengalis. And if you are in Kolkata in winter, you cannot miss the sweets and delicacies prepared with this freshly date-palm jaggery as a sweetener. In its liquid form, it is used to prepare a variety of traditional sweets, including the rosogolla and the sandesh. Go for the jolbhora sandesh with its hollowed-out heart filled with the liquid gur. The regular rice-kheer or payesh turns tastier with the addition of patali, the solid form of the jaggery. The liquid jaggery is also used to make a lot of seasonal delicacies, such as pithe and joynogorer moa. Inventive chefs even use the traditional sweetener to give a twist to their creations, from souffles to chicken wraps, and from biscuits to ice-creams. If you are wandering how to carry this gur back home, go for the solid patali sold in the local markets or a tube of the liquid gur sold at the Biswa Bangla outlets. Remember the quality of the gur depends on the weather–the colder the weather, the better the gur.
Christmas Carnival, Park Street
Park Street (renamed as Mother Teresa Sarani) has always been the traditional heart of Christmas and New Year festivities. Over the past few years, the state government has been holding a Christmas Carnival on a section of the road just off Chowringhee that extends to New Year's Day. The entire street is lit up with fairy lights and the tiny Allen Park is decorated with Christmas installations and cribs. There are musical programmes in the evening. Local Anglo-Indian, Parsi and Chinese families set up food stalls, selling home-made savouries. Local bakeries, including the famous Flurys teashop, also set up stalls along the pavement.
Kolkata Church Tour
Kolkata is home to churches belonging to different Christian sects and dating back to the Colonial days. Besides the major Protestant and Catholic churches, there are lesser known ones belonging to the Armenian, Syrian and Greek Orthodox orders. Since they are scattered all over the city, you can join a group tour or chart out an itinerary of your own. St. John’s Church, built in 1787 and modelled after St. Martin-in-the-Fields of London, stands on Council House Street in the middle of the central business district–Dalhousie Square or BBD Bagh. Don’t miss the Last Supper painted by Johan Zoffany here. Not far from St. John's is the Scottish St. Andrew’s Kirk that was opened for worship in 1818. Note the tall spire, its Grecian faÃ§ade with Doric pillars and its elegant porticoes. The Portuguese Church, which was originally built in 1700, was shut down by the British in 1757 and then reopened in 1796, stands at the crossing of Brabourne Road and Canning Street. Note the circular stained glass windows, among other architectural flourishes. From here you can drive down to the St. Stephen’s Church in Kidderpore. Opened to the public in 1846, its rocket-shaped steeple is a curious detail. It is said that the steeple was meant to be designed like a ship’s lantern, probably an idea that evolved because of its proximity to the docks. To the east of the city lies the St. James Church (1868), which is popularly known as the Jora Girja. Built in typical Gothic style, its twin spires are joined by a pediment. The St. Paul’s Cathedral and the St. Thomas Church can be squeezed into the itinerary when you are visiting the Victoria Memorial or in Park Street. Take the Metro to the Kalighat station for a peek at the Greek Orthodox Church (1925) which lies very near the famous Kalighat Temple.
Boat-ride on the Hooghly
The lifeline of Kolkata, the Hooghly river, as the Ganga is known on its final stretch of the journey to the sea, is at its prettiest during winter afternoons. A fiesta-like atmosphere envelops the Outram Ghat on the river bank, with people thronging the area, while the balloon-sellers, chaiwalas and the chana-walas try to draw the attention of the visitors. Hire a row boat (charges depend on the crowd and your bargaining skills but you can expect to pay around Rs 400 for a one-hour ride) and set off. Catch a glimpse of the Kolkata skyline as your boat moves between the two bridges (the Howrah Bridge and the Vidyasagar Setu) that span the river. Watch the sun go down over the horizon, its rays gilding the water, much like an Impressionist painting.
There are other options for boating too. There is a boat that leaves at regular interval from the Millenium Park jetty (not far from Outram Ghat) for nearly an hour-long cruise on the Hooghly. You can also pre-book a seat in the daily cruises offered by Vivada (http://vivadacruises.com/), including an Evening Cruise that packs in a visit to the Belur Math. West Bengal Tourism Development Corporation (WBTDC; www.wbtdc.gov.in) has plans to operate a luxury boat cruise on New Year's Eve. Called the 'Welcome 2017' package, it will cost Rs 2,999 per head.
Darjeeling Tea: The Vintage Drink
The chill in the air and the holiday rush around you are excuse enough to repair to some of the city’s pleasant tearooms for a sip of the vintage brew, Darjeeling tea. Flury's on Park Street, which started as a tea-room, is still favoured by many people. But the wait to get a seat can be long. The Oxford Bookstore on the opposite pavement has a little cafÃ©, Cha Bar, which serves some very fine seasonal Darjeeling teas and a range of savouries to go with it. If you are looking for a silver service, then visit The Tea Lounge at the heritage Lalit Great Eastern. You can also go for a paid heritage walk inside the hotel, which includes high tea at the Tea Lounge. Dolly’s tea shop, tucked inside the Dakshinapan shopping complex, is the place to go to if you want to fill up on your knowledge of Darjeeling tea and drink it too. Owner Dolly Roy is India’s first woman tea taster and is said to be the first woman tea auctioneer in the world.
Midnight mass at St. Paul’s Cathedral
Kolkata ushers in the Yuletide in its true spirit, with people of all faiths attending midnight masses at some of the oldest churches in Kolkata. The St. Paul’s Cathedral, a massive Gothic edifice, located near the south-end of the Maidan, is one of the most popular churches, as it can accommodate a large number of people. The Roman Catholic St. Thomas Church on Middleton Row is also known for its midnight mass. Irrespective of the church, plan to be there a little early to beat the crowd.
WBTDC will operate two special tours during Christmas. On Christmas eve, there will be bus tour (priced at Rs 1,050 per head) covering select churches of Kolkata, including midnight mass at St James Church. There will also be a bus tour (Rs 1,250 per head) covering select churches in Kolkata, ending in a midnight mass at the famous Bandel Church, known for its Portuguese legacy.
Winter is the best time to travel in Kolkata. But be prepared to stand in queues for places that have ticketed entry. Some of the most popular winter draws are the Alipore Zoo, the Victoria Memorial, the Indian Museum, and St. Paul’s Cathedral. Go beyond the city limits to visit the Botanical Garden in Shibpur, the Dakshineswar Kali Temple beside the Hooghly and the headquarters of the Ramakrishna Mission at Belur Math, all three lying across the river in Howrah and connected by road to Kolkata. You can also take the regular ferry from Chandpal Ghat to Shibpur and from Baghbazar to Belur. Note that the ferries run only on weekdays.
Tram Ride Along the Maidan
Riding a tram car in Kolkata is like touching a slice of history itself. The British had introduced trams in many cities in India, including at Delhi, Mumbai and Chennai. But only in Kolkata has the streetcar survived. But how long this will last is anybody's guess. So, taking a tram ride in Kolkata has become a must-do. The most picturesque route is the one that goes past the city’s green lungs, the Maidan. Board a Kidderpore-bound tram from Esplanade or do the route in reverse. The road and the traffic outside the window is replaced by verdant greens and great views of central Kolkata skyline. As the slow-moving streetcar chugs along the reserved track, catch a glimpse of the city enjoying its tryst with the winter sun in the Maidan, people out for a stroll, young people playing cricket and football and families resting in between their hectic sightseeing schedule.
A day at the Races
Horse racing in Kolkata is another British legacy that the city has gently preserved in all its glory. People turn up in huge numbers for the New Year's Day races at the turf located on the southern end of the Maidan. The well-heeled and the privileged members in their sartorial best occupy the magnificent stand that dates back to 1905. The Royal Calcutta Turf Club, which dates back to 1847, governs the racing calendar. The Army Cup on Christmas Eve and the Derby on the second Sunday of January are also two very popular fixtures in winter.
Go Birding: Meet the feathered friends
Winter is also the best time to birding in and around Kolkata. Not only the weather is pleasant but it is also the time for migratory birds that visit the city's extensive wetlands. Head for the Chintamoni Kar Sanctuary in Narendrapur on the southern limits of Kolkata. Spread over 17 acres, it is part of a larger abandoned orchard that went in the name of Kayaler Bagan. Mango trees dominate the landscape, interspersed with jackfruit, coconut palm, tamarind, guava, ficus and others trees. The checklist provided by a group called Kolkata Birds (kolkatabirds.com) names more than 170 species of birds that frequent this place. One may also find jungle cats, civets, mongoose, monitor lizards, etc. Unfortunately, the Alipore zoo does not attract the migratory birds like it used to in the past. But thanks to a local conservation society, the Santragachhi Jheel (just off the Santragachi railway station on the South-Eastern local train line from Howrah) plays host to many migratory birds.