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The Countless Charms of Kolkata

The Countless Charms of Kolkata
19 Min Read

There is a lot more you can do in the City of Joy during Durga Puja than just pandal-hopping

Charming tram rides, colonial mansions, unique settlements, beautiful Bengal sarees and natural beauty. If you are in the city for Durga Puja, here’s a guide to some very Kolkata things you just can’t miss out on.

Spend An Evening At The Ghats

You can’t say you have done Kolkata if you haven’t spent time by the Hooghly river that threads through the city. The best way to experience it is to walk the ghats. Situated along this storied river (that the British used to string together the three villages of Kalikata, Sutanuti and Gobindapur to create the bustling metropolis of Kolkata) are a series of ghats.  The most beautiful among these is Prinsep Ghat built in 1843 in the memory of James Prinsep, an English scholar and officer of the East India Company famous for deciphering the Brahmi script on the stone edicts of Emperor Ashoka in 1837. The picturesque white memorial with its majestic Gothic columns, beautiful Greek inlays, Palladian entrances and fluted Ionian columns served as a backdrop in a Hindi film Parineeta. The view is truly mind blowing from here with the shimmering river flowing in front, and the Vidyasagar Setu towering above. To the right is the iconic Howrah Bridge. You can also take a ride on the Circular Railway, which goes right by the ghats. A few minutes away, along Outram Ghat, you will find a series of street food stalls — puchkas, bhel puri, jhaal muri and chaat with roadside tea for company.

Discover The Maidan And Check Out Queen Victoria On A Throne

The iconic Victoria Memorial

Give yourself a gentle introduction to the city by exploring its beloved gem, the Maidan. A year-round destination for locals and visitors, the 3-km-long Maidan is a vast expanse of green where Kolkata residents take morning walks, have picnics and family outings, couples have dates, youngsters play cricket and football, and the Kolkata mounted police carry out exercises on their horses. To the south is Victoria Memorial and St Paul's Cathedral and to its west is the Hooghly riverbanks. From time to time, you will see a tram gently chugging along its borders. You can take joy ride on a horse-drawn carriage (called Victorias) which circle the park. If you walk around, you will see that the Maidan is dotted with several green bungalows. These are club houses belonging to sports clubs - some dating back to pre-Independence era. The big names of Kolkata football are here — Mohun Bagan, East Bengal, and Mohammedan Sporting. As are various cricket clubs, the Kennel Club and Press Club. 

A stone’s throw away, adjacent to it is the city's most celebrated landmark, Victoria Memorial. It was built in memory of Queen Victoria after her death. The domed structure was built between 1906 and 1921 with Makrana, the same marble used for the Taj Mahal. The design is in the Indo-Saracenic revivalist style which uses a mixture of British and Mughal elements. Some elements — like the dome - echo the design of Taj Mahal. Crowning the central dome is the 16 ft figure of the Angel of Victory. Mounted on large ball bearings, the figure rotates with the wind. On the marble staircase at the entrance of the memorial is a bronze statue of Victoria wearing the robes of the Star of India. Look out for the fascinating allegorical sculptures around the dome and above the north porch (including art, architecture, justice, charity, motherhood, prudence and learning). It is primarily a museum now, with 25 galleries spread over two floors with a fascinating selection of Raj memorabilia. The Calcutta Gallery houses oil paintings and watercolours of the city's history including a life-size diorama of Chitpur road in the late 1800s. Victoria Memorial is the venue for some interesting talks and exhibitions through the year.  For instance, it had recently hosted a talk on Durga Puja through Foreign by Martin Hribek, Professor of Bengali and Indian Studies, at Prague’s Charles University.

A Boat Ride On The River

A lovely sunset by Hoogly

The riverbank has been beautified by the state government and is a major attraction for tourists. You can take one of the weekend evening cruise by WBTDCL (https://www.wbtdcl.com.). This three-and-half- hour cruise starts from New Babughat and travels to Belur Math and Dakshineswar and back. It is an exceptional experience on the river Hooghly at dusk and has impressed the tourists, especially foreigners who visit Kolkata. Hire a boat for a slow ride on the Hooghly passing barges, boats, and old warehouses towards the magnificent Howrah Bridge. Sail into the sunset or get some great shots as the sun goes down and both the bridges flank you on either side. The ancient ghats, old houses and temples along the river will make you feel like you are in an old travelogue.

Flower Power

At the Mullick Ghat Flower Market

Head to the 130-year-old Mullick Ghat flower market by the river. One of the biggest flower markets in Asia, it’s a popular place for photography enthusiasts who come here for ‘Insta’-worthy shots of effervescent colours and the jaw-dropping view of the Howrah Bridge which is right behind it. Search on Google, and you will come across snapshots by several famous photographers (such as Swiss photographer Sylvain Savolein) of this place. Next to it is Jagannath Ghat, known for its European architecture style.

Savour A Slice Of The Raj Era

The interior of a courtyard inside a traditional house in North-Kolkata

Kolkata is the only city in India which has still held on to a huge number of old buildings dating back centuries. Take a walk along areas like Harish Mukherjee Road (or even more contemporary areas like Hindustan Park) and you will come across many such structures. Many of these are being sold off to real estate developers prompting people like award-winning writer Amit Chaudhuri to begin a project called C.A.L. (Calcutta Architectural Legacies) to help conserve them. You can also visit Pathuriaghat in old Kolkata. Once home to the Bengali rich, it is replete with colonnaded mansions like Sovabazar Rajbari, and Mallick Bari or the ‘Marble Palace’ which is like a surreal museum with an assortment of urns, busts, chandeliers and paintings. Nearby is Jorasanko Thakurbari, Rabindranath Tagore’s ancestral house.

Pick Up Jewish Sambusak At New Market

A busy street in the city

For a slice of old Kolkata and to stock up on one-of-a-kind kitchen provisions, head to the Gothic-style New Market which was built in 1874 for the British haut monde. It’s a fascinating place full of shops selling virtually everything from delicate lace and silver to the best steak cuts and exotic vegetables. You must pick up a Jewish cheese samosa at the iconic 1902 bakery, Nahoum and Sons established by Iraqi-Jew Nahoum Israel who came to Kolkata from Baghdad. Other popular items here are the brownies and the freshly-baked biscuits. The garlic bread here is to die for! And it would be criminal not to pair that with the amazing smoked Bandel cheese and Kalimpong cheddar from J. Johnsons store, just a two-minute walk from here. In adjoining Free School Street, you can buy Hungarian sausages from Kalman, a cold storage established by a Hungarian trapeze artist before World War II.

Take A Tram Ride

Trams are a common sight on the busy roads of Kolkata

Which other city in India still has trams? Kolkata’s is the oldest operating electric tram in Asia, running since 1902 and the only tram network operating in India. Trams have been rumbling through the streets of Kolkata for over 140 years now! Horse-drawn trams were introduced in Kolkata in 1873 and electric locomotive trams begun running from 1882. A life-size replica of a horse-drawn tram can be seen at City Centre Mall in Salt Lake. 

Incidentally, on September 27th (Saptami) and  29th (Navami), the 133-year-old Calcutta Tramways Company (CTC) will run both AC and Non AC trams for Puja Parikrama (puja tours). Seats can be booked online here (http://www.ctconlinebooking.in). 

Apart from the Puja Parikrama, you can also enjoy delicious meals on an AC tram throughout the year at the tram that is stationed at the Esplanade depot. More recently, another tram restaurant has opened up in 'Benu Bana Chaya' park, an initiative by the Kolkata Metropolitan Development Authority. The city has some private tram restaurants too! 

More than 200 trams operate throughout the city on different routes. It is highly recommended that you hop on one that takes you to North Kolkata traversing the streets with gorgeous old houses and buildings. You can get up on one from the depot at Esplanade. Or take a tram that will go through the vast green stretch of the Maidan. You can check out routes here (calcuttatramways.com). 

Visit Eco Park For A Family Outing

The New Town Eco Park in Rajarhat

If you want to spend a day having fun with your family, head to Eco Park. Spread over 480 acres and with a 104 acres waterbody with an island in the middle, it is the largest park in Asia. The park is so big that in order to explore it from one end to the other you can rent a bicycle or an electric car, or board the electric toy train.

And yes, it is even bigger than Hide Park in London, which is spread over 350 acres (140 ha). It is the largest park in Asia. You will need to a whole day to properly explore the place. It is divided into six zones. which includes a children’s park and a recreational zone (both on land and water). It has a tropical and mixed-moist deciduous forests too!

Here’s a sample of the games and sports you can try out here: Go kayaking on the waterbody (Rs 150 for half an hour), zip around the waters in a speedboat, take a ride on a Kashmir-style shikara, or practice your sharp-shooting skills at the ranges for aspiring archers (from Rs 50). Ever tried your hand at zorbing? You can roll on land or float on water in a giant transparent ball (about Rs 150). There’s a skating rink as well (Tuesdays to Fridays, 3pm to 8pm). You can even jump on trampolines, go cycling or boating, or unwind at the Ayurvedic spa and your day will be sorted. Once you are done with the activities, head to the Japanese restaurant for a scrumptious meal. If you are in the mood for coffee, try Ekant Cafe in the middle of the lake, which also serves the quintessential Bengali fusion dessert - nolen gurer ice cream. You can pick up the best souvenirs and gifts from Biswa Bangla - the state handicrafts showroom. The place also has an artisans’ and a designer’s enclave with stores by city designers and stalls set up by craftspersons where they also give demos.

Stock Up Your Pantry From India’s Only Chinatown

A man plays Mahjong in Chinatown

The only Chinatown in India was in Tangra in east Kolkata which at one time housed a large number of tanneries owned by people of Hakka Chinese origin. The tanneries have all shut down but several well-known Chinese restaurants still remain. As does the very old and auspicious Kali temple near Kim Fa restaurant which is visited by both Chinese and Hindu devotees. It is from Tangra the Hakka Chinese cuisine so loved by Indians originated. This distinct variety of traditional Hakka Chinese cuisine adapted to Indian palates spread around India from this area in Kolkata. 

You can taste the community’s food at the early morning breakfasts across town in Tiretti Bazaar, another Chinese neighbourhood in the eastern part of the city. The area once was home to around 20,000 Chinese Indian nationals most of who came to the city during the Brit era. Now the population has dropped to less than 2,000. The area still has a few Chinese grocery stores and restaurants, and a handful of Chinese shoemakers who create handmade, customised shoes. Tiretti wakes up early with stalls selling an array of momos, baos, soups and Chinese sausages for breakfast (from 6.30am to 8.30am). The area has a few Chinese grocery stores where you can stock up on special kitchen provisions like dried fungus, shiitake mushrooms, Chinese spice powders, sun-dried fish, prawn wafers, therapeutic teas and balms. You can also pick up bamboo and ceramic steamers, teapots and mugs.

Have A Cuppa And Adda At The Coffee House

Forget Barista and Starbucks, the Indian Coffee House in College Street (a Kolkata legend) was around much before they came along. It’s located close to Presidency College and when you walk in, you will see a crowd of youngsters and several professors chilling over cups of coffee. This was once the hangout place for many of Bengal’s freedom fighters, revolutionaries, writers and artists (we are talking pre-Independence). Who knows, you may be sitting in the same spot as Rabindranath Tagore, Subhas Chandra Bose, Satyajit Ray, or even Manna Dey! You could spot Amartya Sen sitting here, devouring a plate of the famous mutton kabiraji cutlet or the awesome chicken sandwiches and fish fingers.

Go On A Heritage Walk

A woman walking past an old building in the city

One of the best ways to discover the city is via a walk organized by any one of the several walking tour companies in the city. Want to know more about the Brit era? Try a three-hour walk by one of the famous groups that takes you through Dalhousie Square. Or sign up with another tour that will take you through South Kolkata and uncover its hidden secrets and beauties. In over two-and-a-half hours, you will dig deep into the rich history and unique architecture of the sites and temples of Tollygunge and neighbouring areas, walk along both the banks of Adi Ganga, learning about temples, Boro Rasbari, Choto Rasbari, Chandra Temple Complex and more interesting, ancient sites.

Visit the Government Handloom Stores For Authentic Bengali Sarees

A Tant saree being woven

Bengal is known for its gorgeous handwoven sarees — from the lightweight Tangail and Dhonekhali cottons to intricate Jamdanis, Kantha, Baluchari and Murshidabad silks. The best places to buy an authentic saree is at the government handloom stores like Manjusha, Tantuja and Biswa Bangla where you will be assured of the quality and the value for money of your purchases. Dakshinapan, the state emporia complex, in Dhakuria has these outlets, as does Park Street, New Market and New Town. 

You must visit the Biswa Bangla stores which bring Bengali creativity under one roof - from handloom and handicrafts to music and literature. This initiative by the state government is getting top Kolkata artists and designers to work with them. 

You will a range of Bengal’s treasures here — sarees and contemporary clothing using Bengal’s celebrated handlooms, handcrafted products for your home and personal use, food items like Darjeeling tea and Sunderbans honey, Shantiniketan leather, Bengali books, music and films, and much more. Biswa Bangla showrooms can be found on Park Street, the airport (both domestic and international), at Dakshinapan Shopping Complex, and Rajarhat. 

Check Out The Night Life At Park Street

In the evening, head out to Park Street, the perfect place to wrap up your day. It was the centre of Kolkata’s nightlife in the swinging ’60s with live music and the best of pubs and restaurants in the city. You can relax with a drink at any of the pubs or bars and a string of new and contemporary restaurants that have opened up here. Plus there are the old favourites which are Kolkata institutions. A Kolkata must-do is high tea or breakfast at Flury’s, a Kolkata institution which has been around since 1927. If you are looking for some great books on Kolkata, Oxford Bookstore has a good collection. This wood-panelled store dates back to 1902.

Take A Selfie With Stars

The Mother’s Wax Museum in New Town-Rajarhat is modelled along the lines of Madame Tussaud’s in London. Spend some time here marvelling at the amazing likeness of the life-size models of legends — from Mahatma Gandhi, Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose to Manna Dey and Lata Mangeshkar, and even scientists like Jagdish Chandra Bose. Fans of the Harry Potter series love to take selfies with the model of Daniel Radcliffe. Other popular figures are football legend Diego Maradona, cricket star Sourav Ganguly and Rabindranath Tagore, and international celebrities including Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt, Bruce Lee and Julia Roberts among many others.

See wbtourismpuja.in & wbtourism.gov.in for more details and download the Sharadotsav App by the Dept of Tourism available on Google Play Store

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