Kolkata (Calcutta) is not on most people’s bucket list but it should be. It is one of the most interesting cities in India. It is a colorful, vibrant city that is on its way to regeneration.
The perception of Kolkata for those who have not yet visited the city, is a place with overpopulation, extreme poverty, lack of clean water, cattle roaming free, political riots and sickness. Kolkata is all of that and more: it is also the cultural capital of India, home to 33 museums, 27 daily newspapers and 6 Nobel Laureates.
Unlike Agra or Delhi (see post), or Khajuraho (see post) whose reputations boast some of the world’s iconic landmarks, Kolkata can only be discovered if you look beyond its reputation. You will not be disappointed.
“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new lands but in having new eyes!” – Marcel Proust
Calcutta (pronunciation in Begali is Kolkata) is the seventh most populated city in India, with a population of 14.5 million residents. In 2001 the government of West Bengal decided to officially change its capital city’s name to Kolkata to reflect its original Bengali pronunciation.
Kolkata is nicknamed the City of Joy, after a book written by Dominique Lapierre in 1985. It was adapted as a film by Roland Joffe in 1992. The title for the novel was derived from the name of one of the city’s worst slums “Anand Nagar”, so called by a mill owner who had brought workers there. He told them they were in “the city of joy” at a moment of wishful thinking. The slum in the novel “Anand Nagar” is actually located in its twin city of Howrah and not Kolkata proper and is called Pilkhana.
Kolkata’s neighbourhood markets
Kolkata has world famous markets, where you can get anything from fish and fowl to flowers (purchased by locals for their daily offerings to the Hindu gods).
The iconic Malik Ghat flower market is one of scents and colours. Millions of blossoms are woven together and sit in the streets and buildings along the banks of the Hooghly river. It is a place you want to wonder about for a few hours, a treat for the senses.
Make sure you go up stairs and walk across the Howrah Bridge and then walk over to see Howrah train station, the largest in India. Howrah Bridge is a notable bridge with a suspended span over the Hooghly River. The bridge links the two cities of Howrah and Kolkata.
The Hogg Market neighborhood area is a huge indoor and outdoor shopping area with over 2,000 stores where you can buy anything from food to textiles, as well get as a shave and a hair cut. The local vendors here get very persistent when trying to sell you their wares, even though you make it very clear you are not going to purchase anything. There are agents who follow you around and collect a commission for bringing you to a store, which can get very annoying, but they are harmless.
The Chinese market or Tiretta Bazaar is known for its breakfast offerings. The momos or dumplings stuffed with beef, pork, chicken, seafood or vegetables are very popular with the locals. These are either steamed and served with clear soup or fried to a crisp and served with a sauce. The city had a bustling Chinese Indian population since the early 19th century, which at some point was 20,000 strong but now has dwindled to about 2,000.
Kolkata’s Kalighat area
Kolkata’s name comes from Kali, the goddess of the black divinity of death and destruction.
Much of Indian literature on Kolkata contains imagery whereby the myth of the Goddess is used as a metaphor for the city itself. In fact, in the west the city is depicted as a ‘metropolitan nightmare’.
The dark narrative associated with its name is kept alive in Kalighat, a historical site in Kolkata where the symbolic link between the city and the goddess was developed.
A concrete urban space was used to house photographs and videos to explain the metaphorical link between the goddess and the city. Here, Kolkata’s negative imagery is explored. It is also the site of the Kalighat Temple, Kolkata’s most ancient temple and icon dedicated to the Hindu goddess Kali.
In this area, you will find a statue in honor of Mother Teresa. North of Kolkata’s Kalighat neighborhood is the headquarters of the Missionaries of Charity, founded by Mother Teresa, whose tomb is on site.
As one of Calcutta’s most famous residents, Mother Teresa was an Albanian-Indian Roman Catholic missionary who lived in the city for most of her life. She remains a controversial character with many admiring her charitable work while others finding fault with the manner in which she recruited/converted people to Catholicism.
We spoke to many Kolkata residents who confided to us that they do not like the remnants left by the British Raj. When The British left India in 1947 they left behind what have become antiquated customs. For instance, some social clubs still require jacket-and-ties, totally unsuitable for Indian weather. They also told us that the game of cricket, although popular is not as popular as it used to be and other games are taking over. They would also like to get rid of the English and Anglicized names of streets and squares, something the government has started to do.
Kolkata is the only city in the world that continues to operate licensed hand-pulled rickshaws (called tana rickshaw in Bengali) as a mode of public transport. According to All Bengal Rickshaw Union, it is estimated that more than 14,000 unlicensed and more than 5,000 licensed rickshaws are currently operational in Kolkata, mostly pulled by Muslims, we are told.
The government has been trying to remove them from Kolkata since 2006, when the state government tried to ban rickshaws by the passing of the Calcutta Hackney-Carriage (Amendment) Bill, but it was never implemented.
With our guide as interpreter, an older man who had been pulling rickshaws for decades told us that other forms of transportation are making it much less convenient for passengers to get on a pulled rickshaw.
Their numbers are declining and they are being relegated to history. They have been taken over by powered tuktuks, Kolkata’s signature yellow taxis and modern conveniences like Uber. Some cannot imagine the streets of Kolkata without the iconic rickshaw.
The key difference between a traditional rickshaw and a tuk-tuk is motorization. Traditional rickshaws are carts with 2 or 3 wheels pulled by a person on foot. Later, cycle rickshaws were invented, in which the driver towed the cart with a pedal bicycle.
Tuk-tuks or auto rickshaws are modern vehicles based on rickshaws with an engine.
Kolkata street food
When we travel we love to explore the local street food, to experience the customs around food, and often ask for recipes that we try later at home.
The street food in Kolkata was plentiful and looked delicious. The local momos or dumplings are stuffed with vegetables, chicken, pork, and fish, they are steamed or fried buns can be had for breakfast, lunch, dinner or as just a snack.
The ghugni chaat consists of peas cooked along with a range of vegetables and spices and is served in little bowls ready for you to devour them on the go.
Puchkas are one of the best Kolkata street foods. They are stuffed with mashed potatoes, sprinkled with spices, and then filled with tamarind chutney, pickled water, pudina, and lime. They are the most unique of all the street foods.
The Kati roll, delicious and hearty flatbread rolls stuffed with assorted savoury fillings are now popular worldwide. They are said to have been founded at Kolkata’s historic Nizam Restaurant, where in its original form, it included kebab meat.
Kolkata’s Hooghly (Hugli) River
The Hooghly (Hugli) River in Kolkata is approximately 260 kms (160 mi) long river and is formed from water diverted from the Ganges River via a man made canal. And because its source is the diverted Ganges, Hindus believe that the river is a giver of life, a destroyer of evil, and purifier of the soul so many locals drink, bathe and wash their clothes here. It is a serene experience to watch the water cleansing rituals at sunset and early morning.
Kolkata used to be one of the most water-abundant cities of India. The city was lucky to have the Ganges flowing beside its western end, traditionally huge groundwater reserves and a wide wetlands area.
Within the city today, most urban residents depend on a mix of water sources including treated surface water from the Hooghly river, deep tube or bore wells, and hand pumps. Since the 1980’s many high-rise apartment buildings serving the middle-class rely on underground water lifted by deep tube wells.
These wells are often constructed by building developers or by private companies. It is presumed that water extracted from great depths through deep-bore wells poses minimal chances of contamination. The groundwater extraction from these bore wells is so pervasive that it wreaks havoc with the water table, causing groundwater contamination.
Another negative effect related deep-bore wells is that Kolkata’s aquifers only run 50 to 300 metres deep, and the aquifer sits below a thick layer of compressible clay. With the wells removing so much groundwater, the water table can drop which then reduces the pressure required to hold up the upper layers. In lower-income areas, public taps are vital.
Considering its water shortage problem, we were surprised to see many spigots gushing water as we drove by, as seen above. Our guide told us that many neighborhoods have residents without running water in their apartments. Therefore the neighborhood opens the spigots for an hour in the morning and afternoon for those residents to come and bathe and wash clothes.
The Port of Kolkata is India’s oldest operating port and its sole major river port.
Kumartuli or Potter’s quarter on the Hooghly River – potters make statues of gods and goddesses for various celebrations.
Kolkata Durga Puja
Durga, a Hindu goddess is celebrated every year from the 6th to the 10th day of a bright lunar night as per the Hindu calendar. It usually falls between the months of September and November.
Kolkata is said to have one of the best celebrations of Durga Puja in India. The streets are lit up with LED lights and the whole city glows. More than 45,000 Durga pandals (temporary structures) are set up in the streets to venerate the goddess. All of them are uniquely decorated.
Street vendors make the most of this festive season by setting up small roadside stalls that serve the street food. The traffic literally comes to a standstill and most people prefer pandal-hopping on foot.
The vibe of this festival is said to change the city during this time. We purposely did not come during the Durga Puja festival. It reminded us of the water festival we stumbled upon in Bangkok. Interesting for a few hours (if that) but not for a few days.
Calcutta, the East India Company and its aftermath
The East India Trading Company was an English Company established by a group of businessmen with the consent of the Queen. The taxation and land rights to the 3 villages that today comprise the city of Kolkata were transferred to the East India Company in 1698.
It traded mainly in spices and textiles, initially between India and South East Asia and later with China. By the late 18th and 19th century, the city was a centre of the East India Company’s opium trade. After the Company was dissolved in 1874, the British government machinery in India assumed its functions.
A new class of urban Indians emerged from the union of British and Indian culture, creating the Bengal Renaissance and increased sociocultural sophistication. This new class included literate bureaucrats, professionals, newspaper readers, and Anglophiles who previously only belonged to upper-caste Hindu communities.
Calcutta became a much less hospitable place for the British when Bengal was partitioned along religious lines in 1905 and eventually the capital was moved to New Delhi in 1911.
From the mid 1900s, Calcutta started to experience an economic downturn. The prime minister Rajiv Gandhi’s proclaimed in 1985 that Calcutta was a ‘dying city’. Its power shortages, strikes and violent Marxist-Maoist movement contributed to its demise. There was also a massive influx of thousands of refugees from the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971 that made overcrowding worse.
West Bengal (and Calcutta) was governed by the world’s longest serving democratically elected communist government from 1977 to 2011, when the Left Front was defeated.
Since 2000, the information technology services sector as well as its manufacturing base has revitalized Kolkata’s stagnant economy. A massive clean up campaign has led to a much more appealing city. Its name was changed to Kolkata in 2001.
Mondisti Calcutta (Kolkata) trip tips
- In spite of its dark reputation, Kolkata is a vibrant, safe and interesting city.
- The markets in Kolkata are world famous and supply everything from food to flowers to wares.
- Take a picture of a hand operated rickshaw, the only place on earth where you can still see one.
- Visit the Chinese market at breakfast time.
- Spend some time along the Hooghly River. It is a serene experience.
- Walk across the Hawrah Bridge and go to the Hawrah train station, the largest in India.
- Do hire a guide and driver to take you around the city. The traffic is treacherous and you need a guide to save time and make the trip much more enjoyable.
- A visit to Kolkata is highly recommended, two to three days are great but you can linger longer.
- Unless you’re British royalist, relics of the British Empire (memorial to Queen Victoria or Dalhousie Square) are not that meaningful.
- Its nickname as City of Joy is derived from a book and a bit contentious.