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Eastern India’s greatest urban center and a city of 12 million people, Calcutta / Kolkata draws passionate reactions from almost every visitor. The sidewalks are jigsawed apart and populated by bookstands, beggars and men selling squeaky toys. One can’t just walk down the street in Kolkata - one must step into, over, and around it, breathing in layers of snot-blackening soot. Humans trot through the traffic by day, hauling the world’s last fleet of hand-pulled rickshaws; families, by the thousands, roll up to sleep on the pavement at night. Yet the same people of Kolkata who lament their city’s traffic jams, power cuts, and crowded slums also sing of their hometown as a swarm and compassionate metropolis, a “City of Joy”. Kolkata churns out poets, painters and saints and from the rain on its mouldy pavement to its magnificent parks and palaces, it musters an exuberance no other Indian city can match.

Kolkata was founded by the East India Company agent Job Charnock, who bought three villages, Sutanuti, Gobindopur and Kolkata, on the bank of the Hooghly River to set up a trading post in 1690. The original name of Kolkata was distorted in British pronunciation and the name Calcutta emerged. In the recent past the city has officially changed its name back to its original Kolkata.

Bengal, rich in rice and textiles and far from the Mughal emperor, made an ideal base for early European merchants. By 1750 the British “factory” at Kolkata had swollen into a city of over 100000, complete with a fort. This upstart success irked the Nawab of Bengal, Siraj-ud-Daula, who attacked Kolkata in 1756. The following year the British retaliated, sending Robert Clive to defeat Siraj at the Battle of Plassey. Bengal became the first large chunk of India to be ruled directly by the East India Company. In 1773 Kolkata became the capital of all British lands in India.

As the British plundered Bengal, they transformed Kolkata into India’s main commercial center, filling its ships with opium and indigo and fanning railroads out to the rest of eastern India. They crammed Kolkata with gardens and mansions, making it into a place of sahibs to dine and duel. Meanwhile, the natives of the capital got more than their share of the blessings and betrayals of British rule. An elite group asserted themselves in the 19th century Bengal Renaissance pushing for social and religious reform. Kolkata’s upper class hosted a revolution in literature, music, dance, and painting, culminating in the work of Rabindranath Tagore. Kolkata also became a center for virulent anti-British politics.

Getting There

Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose Airport, commonly known as the Dum Dum Airport is about 45 minutes drive from city centre. The airport has been renovated and the new terminal opened in 2013. It is the most important International airport in Eastern India. The airport has direct flights all over India and also to major international destinations all over the world.

Kolkata has two major stations, Sealdah and Howrah. The two stations are located at a distance of about 5 kms from one another. Train connections to all major cities in India are available from here. More long distance trains originate and terminate at Howrah; whereas Sealdah is more commonly used for local trains of suburban network.

The city sits on the east bank of the Hooghly River and hugs the Maidan, a huge and conspicuously spacious central park near the river. Most of Calcutta’s main thoroughfares run north-south, east or north of the Maidan.

The most important road is Chowringhee Lane, which forms the Maidan’s east edge. Most of Calcutta’s tourist hotels, shops and restaurants are in the Chowringhee area.

To See

From Raj-era administrative buildings to delicate palaces, crowded museums to secluded parks, Kolkata’s sights are beautiful and plentiful, but the city distinguishes itself because the monuments are not simply monuments but a fundamental part of the city. Intertwined between the neo-Gothic and Palladian architectural eye-pleasures, Kolkata’s urban life pulses.

The Maidan and Chowringhee

At the center of Kolkata is the Maidan, one of the world’s largest urban parks. In this perpetually public place, aging Krishna devotees do their morning meditations, young courting couples speak softly to each other, exuberant children kick soccer balls around, and hardened herdsmen parade their skinny cattle. The race course and polo grounds are here, and parades take place on Red road, which runs through the middle of the Maidan. The park is subdivided by large roads that cross through it. At the north end are the Eden Gardens with a small pond and a Burmese pagoda. The gardens dwell in the shadow of Ranji Stadium, where cricket matches are played. Curzon park, on the Chowringhee side, has colonies of communist statues. The tram lines all stop here. Nearby is the tall, cylindrical Ochterlony Monument, renamed as Shahid Minar.

Fort William, built by the British when they recaptured Calcutta in 1757, is submerged like an iceberg on the west side of the Maidan, occupying a large spiky swath of land. The fort is now an Indian army base and tourist visit inside is not allowed.

The south end of the Maidan is the domain of the Victoria Memorial, Kolkata’s greatest flower of imperialism. The British spent 15 years building this, their Taj Mahal for their beloved queen. Four minarets surround a central dome of white marble. But unlike Agra’s great white monument, this one is shaped by the angles and spheres of the Italian Renaissance, with a bronze winged statue of Victory on top of the memorial. A statue of an aging Queen Victoria waits at the entrance to the complex, greeting the crowds who come to wander through her gardens and pools. Inside the building there is a museum chock full of British war memorabilia and state portraits. One small air conditioned section, the Calcutta Gallery, has one of the most comprehensive exhibits in all of India’s museums.

In the east of Maidan, the Chowringhee area, also has its fair share of sights including the Indian Museum, which is India’s largest and oldest museum. Many of the greatest works of Indian art have been transported here. The anthropology gallery has wonderfully stereotyped life-sized models of people from all over India.

At the south end of Chowringhee, opposite the Victoria Memorial is St. Paul’s Cathedral, the cavernous and friendly center of Anglican metropolitan Kolkata. The academy of fine arts next door holds exhibitions of local artist woks. The area of Nandan is the cultural nerve centre of Kolkata with intellectuals, film makers, writers, poets and artists meeting for perennial Bengali “Adda” in the evening.

BBD Bag and Central Kolkata

Most of Kolkata’s historic buildings are located near the BBD bag area which is north of Maidan area. The misty Lal Dighi (Red Tank), a big square of water, sits in the center. Spanning the north side is the prickly red-brick caterpillar of the Writers’ Building. Which till recently was headquarter of the government of West Bengal. On the West side is the silver domed GPO. Other important buildings in the area include St. John’s Church, the oldest British church in Kolkata. The Raj Bhawan or the Governer’s house is a palatial building south of BBD Bag. In the vicinity are state legislature and the gothic High court building. This is an interesting area for taking guided walking tours.

Howrah Bridge

A rugged steel frame that waves about the Hooghly with the rush of traffic. Built for weapons going to Burma in 1943, it is the world’s longest single span cantilevered bridge, and also it is the busiest. Although a second bridge over the river has been built a few years back, the Howrah Bridge remains a principal attraction for tourists and heavily trafficked any time of day.

Dakshineshwar Temple

The Dakshineshwar Kali temple lies quite far north of the city and is about an hours drive from central Kolkata. The spiritual teacher Sri Ramakrishna was a priest here when the temple was first opened in the 19th century. It was here that Ramakrishna had his vision of the unity of all religions. Not surprisingly, non-Hindus are allowed into this temple. Ramakrishna’s bedroom is a shrine inside the temple complex.

The ancient and sacred Kali temple at Kalighat, is a very important religious site of Kolkata. According to mythology, Kalighat is where the goddess sati’s toe fell when she was cut apart by Vishnu. Pilgrims come here to make offerings to the goddess Kali. The present temple was built in 1809. Chains of flower and image shops surround the temple complex, and priests happily lead visitors around. Humans were supposedly sacrificed in the temple’s courtyard, but today only goats are sacrificed, during Durga Puja and Kali Puja. The main temple, devoted to Kali, has a thatch-like Bengali curved roof.

Missionaries of Charity

Born Agnes Goixnha Bejaxhiu to Albanian parents in Macedonia, Mother Teresa began her religious vocation as a teenager, coming to India at age 18 as a missionary. In 1946, she returned to Kolkata, inspired by god to devote herself to the poor. In 1950, she set up the missionaries of Charity here. The Charity has set up hundreads of hospitals for the sick, the dying, and the orphaned and Mother Teresa received the Nobel Peace Prize for her contribution.

Map of Kolkata

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