The whole trip started with my cousin and me getting bored with our lives and desperately seeking a break from it. So here are two girls taking a few days off and setting out to the land of the Bongs. The plans were made and changed then and there. Thanks to IRCTC, Oyo Rooms and Paytm bus booking for making all of these damn easy.
Kolkata, the second largest city in India is regarded as the cultural and intellectual capital of India. As the first capital of British India, Calcutta became the hub of construction activities, testimony of which can be witnessed in different European styled structures, most of which are in various stages of wear and tear and others are now famous heritage structures. The City of Joy is also the centre of Indian arts and literature and the birthplace of Indian national movement and the great Rabindranath Tagore. The best thing about Kolkata is that each street has a flavour. Every nook and corner is scented with freshly sautéed Indian spices. All of these make Kolkata a must visit.
Kolkata has a typical tropical wet and dry climate. The best time to visit Kolkata is between October and March when the weather is pleasant and is the time for festivals. Now, the above mentioned girls set out on the trip during January and thankfully had packed their woollens. Once you have reached Kolkata, there are several ways of commuting within Kolkata. There are Hand pulled rickshaws, Cycle rickshaws, Bike rickshaws and Auto rickshaws which take you for short trips and there are yellow ambassador cabs and air conditioned cabs in addition to Uber and Ola. Among the cabs, I think the yellow cabs are the cheapest if they run on meter. The only trouble is at times they don’t and they are not very used to the idea of digital navigation. We had the privilege of introducing this path breaking technology to a couple of cab drivers. The bus connectivity is great and Kolkata is home to the first metro rail, the only tram service in India and the Kolkata Suburban Railway. Like that was not enough, Kolkata also provides ferry services across the River Hooghly. Make sure you explore all these rides. Most of the people here can speak Hindi and are very helpful and quite nice. Only thing is they might be a little short tempered, especially in the trains.
We reached Kolkata via train and took a cab from Shalimar railway station to Hotel Marina, near Park Circus, where we had made our reservation with Oyo Rooms. It was time for us to walk around the city and for our first day in Kolkata we decided to explore Central Kolkata. This region considered as “the island of attractions” consists of parklands with various monuments and landmarks in and around.
The bridge famously called Second Hooghly Bridge as it was second to Howrah Bridge built across Hooghly River, is the longest cable stayed bridge in India extending to a length of 823 metres. It was named after the Bengali educationist reformer Pandit Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar. With a width of 35 metres, divided into six lanes this bridge receives an average daily traffic of 55000 vehicles. We saw this toll bridge on our way to the hotel. The bridge is free for bicycles and has footpaths on both sides.
St. Paul’s Cathedral
St. Paul’s Cathedral is recognized as the first Episcopal church of the eastern world. The construction of which was completed in 1847, eight years after the cornerstone was laid. For the consecration ceremony Queen Victoria sent ten pieces of silver-gilt plate for the cathedral. The church was built in Victorian Gothic style with a chancel, a sanctuary, chapels and a 61 metres tall spire. The life and work of St Paul is depicted in pictures on the walls. The Gothic stained glass windows, intricate mural wall paintings and artistically carved chairs provide a tranquil atmosphere inside. If you like churches this is a must visit. Birla Planetarium stands near the entrance to the church.
To the left of the church is this most famous white marble monument (Dint I tell you everything just stood there looking at each other). Victoria Memorial was constructed in memory of Queen Victoria after her demise. It was built in a unique blend of Mughal and British architectural styles. This royal museum has 25 galleries that house oil paintings by well known British artists, rare books and various other antiquities and artefacts. A vast garden that spreads across 64 acres with ponds surrounding the museum makes it the perfect place to relax. A large number of families had their share of the garden occupied with blankets and picnic baskets.
Shaheed Minar is 2.8 kilometres from Victoria Memorial. One can either take the Indira Gandhi Sarani which has parks on either side or the Jawaharlal Nehru Road. The Indian Museum which is one of the largest and oldest museums in India is situated along the Jawaharal Nehru Road. You may also use this opportunity to ride in the oldest metro rail in the country. I suggest one to start from Rabindra Sadan Metro Station and get down at Esplanade Metro Station from where you can walk to Shahid Minar or better yet take cycle rickshaw.
Shaheed Minar was constructed in the year 1848 to honour Major General Sir David Ochterlony, Commander of British East India Company for his triumph against the Gurkhas in the Anglo-Nepal War and was then named the Ochterlony Monument. In 1969, the monument was rededicated to Indian freedom fighters who sacrificed their lives in the Indian National Movement and was given its present name. The architecture of this 48 metre high monument is a blend of Egyptian, Syrian and Turkish style of design. A flight of 218 steps would take you to the top of the minar which provides a bird’s eye view of Kolkata city which sadly is closed since 1997 after a tourist jumped from one of its balconies.
Next on our list is every girl’s favourite. New Market is every bargain shopper’s paradise. Contrary to its name, it is one of the oldest and most famous markets in Kolkata. With over 2000 stalls, New Market sells merchandise from garments to electronics, fish to cheese, and antiques to vegetables. It is open from 10 am to 8 pm on weekdays and until 2 pm on Saturdays and remains closed on Sundays. By around 7 pm the surrounding area comes alive with lights everywhere and several eat outs open up to treat your taste buds the royal way. The famous Nizam’s, the inventor of the kebab kati rolls are situated right in this area. You do not want to miss out on this. The mere thought of Nizam’s paratha, Fish Amritsari and the Double chicken rolls is enough to make my mouth water. The music from a Dargah en route to Nizam’s elevates the whole ambience of the place. It is definitely a must visit.
After the most ambitious day in Kolkata we decided to call it a day.
Our second day in Kolkata was dedicated to Western Kolkata, the part of Kolkata on the western side of River Hooghly. Unlike the eastern part, this area has narrow, crowded roads, mostly chaotic and we witnessed a completely different face of Kolkata from what we saw the previous day. We chose to explore the bus routes which was a lot cheaper and offers great connectivity.
We took a bus from Park Circus to Howrah and then a bus to Belur Math from Howrah. There are train services from Howrah to Belur Math. The Math situated on west bank of River Hooghly is not just the headquarters but also the heart and soul of Ramakrishna Mission. It is a hub of pilgrimage from all over the world. The 40 acre campus consists of temples dedicated to Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, Swami Vivekananda and Sarada Devi, a museum, Samadhi Mandhir of Swami Vivekananda and his disciples and many educational institutions affiliated with Ramakrishna Mission. The architecture of the temple is the amalgamation of architectural styles of different religious faiths making it a symbol of universal faith. If you are interested you may take a ferry ride from here to the Kali temple or the other way around.
Acharya Jagdish Chandra Bose Indian Botanical Garden
A bus from Howrah towards Shibpur region dropped us right in front of the botanical garden. The Acharya Jagdish Chandra Bose Indian Botanical Garden founded in the year 1786 is the first ever botanical garden in India. Kolkata sure has a lot of firsts and largests. The garden contains around 12,000 living trees and shrubs from different parts of the world including Nepal, Java, Sumatra, Brazil and Malaysia, a herbarium housing 2,500,000 dried plant specimens and a number of lakes. It is mostly known for The Great Banyan which is more than 1200 years old and was the widest tree in the world. It was from this garden that the tea grown in Assam and Darjeeling was developed. I felt a bit cheated at the poor maintenance of the garden. The boating service on the Serpentine Lake was not functional during my visit.
We pushed Howrah Bridge for the evening so that we would be there towards sunset. Howrah Bridge also known as Rabindra Setu after the Bengali poet and Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore, was opened in the year 1943 in its present form. It was the first (get used to it already) of its kind in India and is now the sixth largest cantilever bridge in the world. With a total length of 705 metres and a width of 21.6 metres, divided into eight lanes and 4.6 metres wide footpaths on either side, the bridge receives average daily traffic of 100,000 vehicles and 150,000 pedestrians. Photography is strictly prohibited on the bridge which has been featured in numerous movies in Hindi, Bengali, Malayalam and Tamil. (You see the irony, don’t you?)
Below the eastern main tower of the bridge is the Malik Ghat Flower Market which becomes alive right before sunrise and then again during sunset. A sensory overload of fresh marigolds, beautiful roses, toiling vendors, spellbound tourists with their heavy SLRs and a heap of decaying old flora in a corner. We spend a lot of time clicking pictures and talking to the vendors, one of whom even gave us an extra garland when we bought two.
We spend a lot of quality time just standing on the bridge and simply watching the sunset, the people and eating a lot of puchka.
On our third and last day in Kolkata, we just walked around, ate a lot and basically chilled out. We went to Park Street. Also known as ‘The Food Street’ and ‘The Street that Never Sleeps’, this is the most vibrant part of Kolkata with numerous eating joints, nightclubs, bookstores and shops. The street has an old colonial charm that fails to leave us.
Later that day, we took a bus to Esplanade and had lunch at Bhojohari Manna. We ordered a Bhojohorir Thala and topped it with Bhetki Kalia (eastern style spicy fish curry). After the lunch we headed straight to KC Das for dessert. These are two must trys once you are in Kolkata and they have a number of branches in West Bengal. Bhojohari Manna serves an enchanting assortment of authentic Bengali cuisine and the KC Das is famous among sweet toothed people like me.
It was hard to leave a place as such that treated us so well and promised to do so till the end of time. But we knew our little jaunt was over. After paying a last visit to the famous Howrah Bridge and bidding adieus to Hooghly, we left for the station where our train dragged us away from this beautiful experience back to our daily lives.