While recent archaeological evidence shows that is origins could go back two millennia, Calcutta’s recorded history began with the arrival of its founder, Job Charnock and the East India Company in 1690. Subduing local military powers, consolidating trading opportunities and assimilating with local culture, the British imprint magnified in shape and size to make Calcutta an imperial city and capital of the British Raj until 1911. The administrative, civil, military and religious architecture make the aura of the past visibly evident today, as much as the city has declined and decayed from its position of pre-eminence after several decades of a communist government. However, its population – 15 million and growing – persists with their attachment to the city which was renamed Kolkata in 2001.
Your explorations of Kolkata begin with an early morning visit to the riverside flower market. As the city awakens to a new day, a timeless sacred ritual is bathing in the waters of the Hugli River, a tributary of the Ganges.
Babu Ghat, too, is best visited early morning. It is a major hub for commuter ferries that ply across the Hugli early morning to let night. Ferry engines splutter to life as the first hundreds of thousands of commuters set out for another day of work. An everyday sight for the locals but of great curiosity and fascination to visitors are the nearby pits where, wrestlers, smeared in oil and mud, train vigorously.
Along the riverside Strand, view the famous Eden Gardens cricket stadium before turning into Dalhousie Square, now renamed BBD Bagh, to view some of the city’s greatest architectural landmarks – Town Hall (1812), Raj Bhawan (1797), the official residence of the governor, High Court (1872), General Post Office (1864), St John’s church within which is the tomb of Job Charnock, and the formidable Writers building (1780), headquarters of the state’s bureaucracy.
Proximate to the area is Calcutta University, highlighted by College Street and the legendary Coffee House, the venue for intellectual debates and once the hotbed of anti-establishment dissent. The street and lanes are dominated by “second-hand bookstalls” that attract buyers and browsers in drovers, searching for bargains and rarities.
At Kumartuli, view the making of elaborate statues, mainly religious, with bamboo and clay by expert artisans, always busy due to the numerous festivals that fill up the annual calendar.
Quite different from it all is the once elegant and now forlorn Marble Palace, a grand and eccentric amalgam of architectural styles. Treasures within are paintings by Reynolds, Titian, Murilo and Opie.
North Calcutta is the true crowded and chaotic heart of the city. The area is dominated by the “Black Town”, as Bengali Calcutta was also known, where the natives lived. A mix of residential and commercial enclaves, buildings of hybrid design the older ones in varying stages of decay, crowded streets and markets. Several of the most influential Bengali families of the era and this perhaps was where modern Bengal originated. Within this area, visit the home of the 1913 Nobel Laureate for Literature, Rabindranath Tagore, a multifaceted intellectual who was a writer, poet, painter and playwright. The Tagore family were pivotal figures in the Bengal Renaissance, a socially and culturally driven reform movement.
Major contributors to the development and prosperity of Calcutta through trade and commerce were the Jains, a microscopic through a hugely influential community known for its uncanny understanding of complexity particularly in areas of finance and engineering. Jainism, an ancient and austere religion, is a breakaway from Hinduism. The accumulation of wealth brought in the tradition. centuries ago, of giving back, manifest in the large and conspicuous Jain temple complex at Bara Bazar that were built by Jain merchants and embellished with ceramics, mirrors and chandeliers brought back from their travels in Europe, the Near and Middle East, and the Orient.
Much like the Jains, the Marwaris of Rajasthan, the Chinese immigrants during the 17th and 18th centuries, Jewish financiers and traders from Baghdad and Levant contributed equally and vitally to the growth of Calcutta, which rivalled Shanghai and Hong Kong until 1911.
One of the best-known sites in central Kolkata is the Sir Stuart Hogg Market, popularly known as New Market with the buzz of the city very much evident as crowds flock to its shops ranging from simple to sophisticated. A few establishments, over a century old, continue to trade there, among them Nahoum & Sons (1902), a Jewish family establishment known for its delectable confectionery.
Walk along fashionable Park Street, a Calcutta showpiece, with contemporary stores and restaurants although some grand old establishments, specifically restaurants such as Blue Fox, Trincas, Mocambo and Flury’s Tea Room, and the Oxford Bookstore continue to retain their niches. The best-known institutions here are the Royal Asiatic Society of Bengal (1784), a treasure trove of historical, geographical and cultural literature from the Raj era; the Convent of Our Lady of Loreto (1842), the Royal Calcutta Turf Club (1820) and the Bengal Club (1827).
Two of the city’s greatest landmarks are undoubtedly St Paul’s Cathedral (1839), absolutely magnificent in stature, with tall stained-glass windows, and Victoria Memorial (1906), the enduring symbol of Calcutta. Completed in 1921, it is a wonderful synthesis of style and decoration and set in expansive gardens. It is particularly noted for its art galleries, one of which houses the largest collection of original works by the Daniells.
On one afternoon, drive along the Strand to board a boat at Prince Ghat for a private cruise on the Hugli for marvellous views of life and the city on both sides of the river.
Featured Image Picture Credit: British Library