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Sunday, December 9, 2012

Kolkata: A Quick Tour of the City of Joy

Howrah railway station viewed from Howrah bridge
The place: Kolkata, capital of the Indian state of West Bengal. Third biggest Indian city after Mumbai and New Delhi, most prominent city in east India. Capital of India till 1911.

Why would one want to visit: Historic city; relic of the British rule; fish cuisine; center of activities of Mother Teresa, Rabindranath Tagore, Swami Vivekananda.

Kolkata had been sitting unshaken in my 'places to visit' list (just like The Shawshank Redemption on no.1 spot of the IMDB top 250 list) for a very long time.
I knew a lot of people who went to every other part of the country and the world for work or visit but not to Kolkata. This may be due to its distance from my state, alien language or some other reason. The 'city of joy', as it is nicknamed, had always been a mystery. Then came up a perfect opportunity - a dear friend's wedding. I signed in without a second thought. I love hills and mountains, so included Darjeeling also in the plan. About my Darjeeling experiences, I'm writing a separate post.

For some reason, I was in a mood to make a lone travel, something I had never done before. I thought about it a bit, calculated that it would bring the expenses a little bit up but I had reasons to convince myself that it was worth the extra pennies. The freedom, thrill in doing everything all by myself from A to Z, all voted in favor. So it was decided - this time, alone.

Then came the planning stage. As much as I love travelling, I love planning a travel too. Internet has always been the most helpful guide. Indiamike provided a lot of useful information. Lonely Planet helped me in finalizing what to see and where to stay.

Done with planning, ready for the travel. On May 1st,  I took the 11:00 am flight from Bangalore and reached Kolkata by 01:30 pm. The moment I was out of the airport, I got the feel of the weather. 'Humid' was the key word. I started sweating in the first minute. 'Buddy, you have come to this city at the wrong time', I heard this comment like a million times in the following days. So for those who plan to visit Kolkata in May - it is hot and humid then. At 6 am, one feels the humidity while still on the bed. While going out, let it be day or night, one has to carry/buy a lot of water.

[Tip] Kolkata is well connected to other parts of India by air and rail. If you plan your journey and book flight tickets at least two months prior to the travel, they will cost you around Rs 10,000. The late you are, the more you will have to pay. The place has four major railway stations - Kolkata, Howrah, Sealdah and Shalimar connecting it to major Indian cities and towns.

Right from the airport, I boarded a bus to Deshapriya Park, South Kolkata, where the wedding house was. There are air conditioned low floor Volvo buses available from the airport to different parts of the city. As the bus moved, my eyes met with the Kolkata city sights for the first time. It was an amalgam of old and new. There were modern fancy buildings and old structures that lost their shine, luxury cars and century old tram system, multiplexes and super crowded street markets. Soon I came to my senses, that this is purely Indian. Every big city has its own share of the surviving past, that looks dull from outside but rich in stories an culture, still holding its fort against modern development. It only adds to the colours and flavours of the place.

I reached my destination in an hour. Met the bride's family, I received a warm welcome and a delicious lunch right away. There was fish curry, something which is not easily available in most parts of India. Kolkata is famous for its fish cuisines. After the lunch, it was the 'meet the people' session. Most of them were quite surprised to learn that I don't speak Bengali, their mother tongue. But I was surprised to learn that they were surprised because India has 22 scheduled languages, most of them spoken by millions of people. For the next couple of days, my Hindi skills were put to test. English also works, in most of the places.

By evening, I gathered some idea of the city and was ready to go out and explore some places.

The yellow Ambassador taxis that can be found in every frame of the city were the first to catch my attention. Taxi is the comfortable medium of exploring the city, you will find them in plenty and are affordable. They charge approximately Rs 100 for a 20 minute drive. Shared auto rickshaw is a cheaper option, more suitable for short distance travel.

Kolkata street flooded with the trademark yellow taxis
[Tip] Taxis have electronic meters that print the amount you have to pay at the end of the travel. If the driver asks you to pay more than that, you have every right to decline. Taxi drivers can be a little oversmart at times. Just make it clear that you are not going to pay anything more and life is cool.

I started with the legendary Kolkata Metro. It is first of its kind in India, started in 1984. Kalighat was the nearest station from the marriage house which was at a 10 minutes walk. Boarded a train to Park Street. I was surprised to see how cheap the ticket fare was, just Rs 3 for the 15 minutes journey. My train arrived in less than a minute. Sadly, photography is strictly prohibited in the Metro stations. Didn't want to make things messed up in a totally alien environment, so I kept my camera safe inside. Even though the Metro system is more 28 years old, it is well maintained. The trains and platforms are neat and clean. Most of the trains are non AC but as this is an underground system, the temperature is quite fine.

Park Street is the happening place of the city, like the MG road of Bangalore, a typical Indian city street. You might not find it interesting if you have previous experiences with big cities. But if you have a taste for variety and something new interests you, this place is worth a visit. The street houses a large number of restaurants, the Asiatic Society and the Oxford book store among many other landmarks. A 20 minute walk to explore a stretch of road will be ideal.

Park Street at night
As night already fell, I could not manage time to visit any more places. On the way back to the station, spotted the Birla planetarium and St. Paul's cathedral. As  he last program of the day at the planetarium begins at 06:30 pm, I could not make it to enter. Did not regret it heavily as I have many times watched programs at the planetarium at Thiruvananthapuran, Kerala. So headed back to the wedding house, where I spent the night.

My accommodation was arranged at the marriage house itself, so didn't get a chance to check out any Kolkata hotels. About the wedding house, it was a huge multi-storied building, something like a hotel. It has rooms that suit the Bengali wedding style; separate rooms for the bride and groom to sit to receive well wishes and blessings from the invitees, rooms for the poojas (traditional religious prayers and customs), dining hall, rooms for guests and wash rooms.

Marriage house
The next day was entirely spent with the bride's family, helping them with some of the wedding preparations (read buying soft drinks and sweets). The wedding event started at late evening with the arrival of the groom and party and went on till 2 am. It was the first time I attended a Bengali wedding; it was a sublime experience. Where I come from, weddings happen around noon and lasts for a couple of hours. So this one was totally new to me.

One conversation I had was interesting. Seeing my sandals which had pictures of Che Guevara on them, one of the bride's relatives warned me against going out with them. He reminded me that West Bengal is predominantly a communist place and if someone sees me with pictures of one of the iconic symbols of the Communists, I might run into some big trouble. I obeyed, without a second thought.

Next day started with a visit to the historic Howrah Bridge (officially named as Rabindra Setu). It is across the Hoogly river and is the first thing that pops up in mind about Kolkata for most of the people from my place. The steel structure looks mighty. I crossed it in a taxi but took a walk back to the middle of the bridge to enjoy the lovely view of the river. The legendary Howrah railway station is very near to the bridge, on the banks of Hoogly. There were a few fruit vendors on the bridge but not enough to obstruct my walk or cause any annoyance.

Howrah bridge
Then I headed to the Victoria Memorial Hall, which is at a 15 minutes drive from Howrah, again taking a taxi. The Victoria memorial, inaugurated in 1921 is dedicated to Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom. It houses a large collection of manuscripts and paintings from the British era. The memorial offers a memorable walk through of the history of Kolkata, from its early ages, to the British occupation, to the present time. As I walked from one corridor to the next, admiring the rich collection, the entire history of India in general and Kolkata in particular unfolded in front of my eyes. Unsurprisingly, photography was not allowed inside. Completely exploring the memorial's collections will definitely take 3-4 hours, so be prepared with enough stock of drinking water. But I would say, the white marble monument will not disappoint you, if you have a thing for history or art.

Victoria memorial hall
It was time to get back to my accommodation, as I had to get ready for my journey to Darjeeling. Spent some time admiring the sights that were totally new to my eyes. The tram was one of those. I was amazed to know that it is the oldest operating electric tram in the whole of Asia. If you are a Harry Potter fan, you might get the feel of the Hogwarts express coming whistling to platform 9 3/4 when you see a tram making its way.  

Another eye catchy sight was hot tea being served in small mud cups. In a world full of plastic, this is indeed a message. I learned that they are not re-used but still economic for the vendor when compared with plastic/steel/glass cups. They cost just Rs 3 for a cup and taste really good.

Tea served in mud cup
 My Kolkata exploration ended there. As I was very strict on my schedule, I missed a lot of major attractions such as the Belur Math (headquarters of Ramakrishna Mission), Writer's building (houses the state secretariat), Armenian church, Asiatic society etc. But before leaving the city, I made a promise to myself that I will come back and visit all those beautiful places I missed.

Feeling like making a visit to Kolkata? I would say, go ahead. Just make sure you do it at the right time of the year. Avoid summer. October - December would be ideal. In October, you could be a part of the famous Durga Pooja celebrations there.