India’s second-biggest city is a daily festival of human existence, simultaneously noble and squalid, cultured and desperate, decidedly futuristic while splendid in decay. By its old spelling, Calcutta readily conjures images of human suffering to most Westerners – although that's not a complete picture of this 350-year-old metropolis. Locally, Kolkata is regarded as India’s intellectual, artistic and cultural capital. Although poverty is certainly apparent, the self-made middle class drives the city's core machinery, a nascent hipster culture thrives among its millennial residents and its dapper Bengali gentry frequent grand, old colonial-era clubs.
As the former capital of British India, Kolkata retains a feast of colonial-era architecture contrasting starkly with urban slums and dynamic new-town suburbs with their air-conditioned shopping malls. Kolkata is the ideal place to experience the mild yet complex tang of Bengali cuisine. Friendlier than India’s other metropolises, this is a city you ‘feel’ more than simply visit.
1. Kumartuli Idol-makers
Image: Arko Sen/Getty Images
Countless clay effigies of deities and demons immersed in the Hooghly during Kolkata’s colourful pujas (offering or prayers) are created in specialist kumar (sculptor) workshops in this enthralling district, notably along Banamali Sarkar St, the lane running west from Rabindra Sarani. Craftsmen are busiest from August to October, creating straw frames, adding clay coatings, and painting divine features on idols for Durga and Kali festivals. In November, old frameworks wash up on riverbanks and are often repurposed the following year.
An artist painting the Ganesh Idol ahead of the festival season (Google Image)
Photography is widely allowed, and for a small tip, it's even possible to sit in at a studio and observe the idol-maker immersed in his work. Apart from gods and (vanquished) demons, you'll often see statues of Victorian figurines, popular historical figures and local legends being constructed, as these are often used to decorate puja pandals.
2. Mullik Ghat Flower Market
Near the southeast end of Howrah Bridge, this flower market is fascinatingly colourful virtually 24 hours a day. However, if you visit at daybreak, you'll see wholesellers arrive with huge consignments of flowers that are then auctioned to retailers. Many workers live in makeshift shacks, bathing in the river behind from a ghat with sunset views of Howrah Bridge. At around 7am, local wrestlers practise their art on a small caged area of sand set slightly back from the river.
3. Victoria Memorial
The incredible Victoria Memorial is a vast, beautifully proportioned festival of white marble: think US Capitol meets Taj Mahal. Had it been built for a beautiful Indian princess rather than a colonial queen, this domed beauty flanking the southern end of the Maidan would surely be considered one of India’s greatest buildings. Commissioned by Lord Curzon, then Viceroy of India, it was designed to commemorate Queen Victoria’s demise in 1901, but construction wasn’t completed until 20 years after her death.
Inside, highlights are the soaring central chamber and the Calcutta Gallery, an excellent, even-handed exhibition tracing the city’s colonial-era history. Even if you don’t want to go in, the building is still worth admiring from afar: there are magnificently photogenic views across reflecting ponds from the northeast and northwest. Or you can get closer by paying your way into the large, well-tended park, open from dawn to dusk. Entrance is from the north or south gates (with ticket booths at both). The east gate is exit-only by day, but on winter evenings, enter here for the 45-minute English-language sound & light show. Tickets available from 5pm. Show seating is outside and uncovered. There are no shows in summer.
4. Dacres Lane
A series of food stalls selling a unique combination of Creole cuisine is interspersed by a few somewhat dodgy bar-restaurants, whose fairy lights add some warmth to the narrow and dingy lane. Choose from quick-and-easy bites, including paratha (Indian-style flaky bread) and curry, toasted bread with mutton, papaya and carrot stew, vegetable fritters, wok-fried noodles and chicken curry with rice.
5. Marble Palace
Built in 1835 by a raja from the prosperous Mallick family, this resplendent mansion is as grand as it is curious. Arguably one of India's best-preserved royal homes, its marble-draped halls are overstuffed with dusty statues of thinkers and dancing girls, much Victoriana, ample Belgian glassware, game trophies of moose heads and fine paintings, including supposedly original works by Murillo, Joshua Reynolds and Rubens. Admission is free, but you need prior written permission from West Bengal Tourism.
Of particular note within the building is the music room, lavishly floored with marble inlay, where Napoleons beat Wellingtons three to one. The ballroom retains its vast array of candle chandeliers with globes of silvered glass to spread illumination (original 19th-century disco balls!). There's also a private menagerie on the mansion's grounds, dating back to the early years, which is home to a few monkey and bird species.
To find Marble Palace from MG Rd Metro, walk north and turn left at the first traffic light – 171 Chittaranjan (CR) Ave. From the east, it's on the lane that leaves Rabindra Sarani between Nos 198 and 200.
Part 2 of the travel story coming next week.
Content: Lonely Planet
Images: Google & Travel pages