Shwetha Arun Devotta takes on her trip to Kolkata, the ‘City of Joy’ lived up to its name. Read on for the sights, sounds and tastes from her experience.
Howrah Bridge – busy city life, Victoria Memorial – history, Roshogulla – food, Kumar Tuli – art, Someplace Else, Tantra, Shisha – nightlife; these are things that ring a bell when I think of Kolkata. A city complete with a plethora of things-to-do and see, sure made for the perfect holiday destination on my list. “City of Joy” – here I come!
My first visit to the city and what did I learn? Never venture out on a day when there is a political rally happening! I was stuck in the good old yellow ambassador taxi for well over 3 hours! That aside, I set out to get a true glimpse of what the city was and in fact a part of it still is, with a visit to North Kolkata (Old Kolkata as it is called). I was lucky to have been guided by a dear friend in the city, so started off with a tour of the city’s deep rooted history by taking a heritage tour of the erstwhile palatial homes. As I walked the corridors of the ancestral home of Tagore – Jorasanko Thakurbari (soon to be converted into a museum), peaked into the imposing courtyards of Bose Bari in Baghbazaar – a reflection of the homes of landlords in those times, on to the ruins of Raja Rammohan Roy’s residence and wrapped up with a visit to the Tagore Castle/Palace in Pathurighata; I realized that these are indeed some of the city’s best known jewels of an era gone by.
Continuing my journey through Kolkata’s history – I decided to dedicate a good half day to explore the historical Victoria Memorial Hall. As I made my way in, the imposing museum stood tall and proud speaking oodles about its opulent past. It’s grand fountains and elegant gardens had me in awe of its beauty. Walking through the many hallways of this majestic museum structure, it almost felt like I’ve hopped onto a time machine which was taking me through all the significant moments in history with glimpses of statues and pictures of prominent people/leaders who were part of the city’s early years. After a good 3 hours exploring the varied facets of Kolkata’s past through the corridors of the museum, my feet screamed for some rest and as I stepped out of the museum, I found just the thing I needed. My horse driven carriage ride stood right outside and I hopped on for an amazing ride around the area.
As I hopped off the buggy, my tired muscles and rumbling tummy were ready to savor the city’s gastronomical delights. I decided to dive into some authentic local cuisine and what better place to savor it than “Kewpies Kitchen”. Located along a narrow lane called Elgin in Bhawaninagar very close to the home of one of our countries greatest leaders “Subhash Chandra Bose” (Yeah, history follows you everywhere you go here!!). On recommendation from the waiter, I ordered for the good-old Thali, which looked rather appetizing as it was brought to my table. My Thali was filled with delectable delights, Shukto – a basic mixed vegetable dish to cleanse the palette, followed by puri and bhajo (vegetable side dishes), further to the quintessential Bengali delight – fish, which starts off with a delicately flavored fish Bhatura, moving on to Chingri and then on to something for my sweet tooth – Mishti Dhoi and Roshagulla which wrapped up my scrumptious Bengali meal.
After that meal, some snooze time would have been perfect! That thought buried, off I went to explore Kolkata’s vibrant art scene. Having a localite for a friend always helps and true to her recommendation, here I was at “Kumartuli”. This artisan’s street bang in the midst of bustling North Kolkata is a narrow lane lined with idol makers on both sides. This potters quarter is where the most revered deity of the Bengali’s (as people of Bengal are known) “Ma Durga” are made. I was delighted to get a rare glimpse into the process of idol making. I stood there watching the trained eyes of these potters as they carve each line, sculpted each part and the precision with which they brought the goddesses eyes to life was a sight and experience I cherish to this day. To complete my tour of the city’s art scene, I set off to see the Marble Palace Mansion near the Chorbagan area of North Kolkata. This regal palace constructed in 1835, home to an art gallery where I enjoyed several art works of renowned artists and collections of popular artists from around the world like Reynolds, Van Gogh and Rembrandt.
With history and art off my check list, I called it a day and headed to my hotel for some much needed rest. The morning sun dawned upon my sleepy eyes and I was excited for my day ahead. Today it was going to be all about architecture and of course more delish Kolkata delights to tickle my taste buds. As I headed out, my dearest mom told me to that we better get some good breakfast before we begin our touring for the day. I was spoilt for choice with the options my friend had given me. I had to choose between an appetizing spread of delectable English pastries and cookies washed down with a pot of tea and bite sized sandwiches or enjoy the “Morning walker’s breakfast” at Sourav’s the restaurant owned by the hero of cricket in the city and lastly the totally typical Bengali hearty (fatty!!) breakfast of steaming Khasta-Kachori and spicy Aloo (potato) sabzi (vegetable side dish) downed with thick-cold lassi at Sharma’s on Ballygunge Circular Road. Sharma’s it was, the delicious Kachori and Lassi had me stuffed with the goodness of Kolkata, as I headed to explore the most popular architectural marvel of the city – Howarh Bridge. Also known as Rabindra Setu, images of this iconic structure has always had me intrigued and here I was to see it for myself! This 705m long, 97m wide steel structure with 8 lanes plays host to around 2 million commuters zipping by the bridge in both directions every single day. Phew (!!), it’s like it can be called the heartbeat of the city! The bridge offers great views of the city around it and the best way to enjoy a view of the bridge itself, is from below on the edge of the Hoogly River in the evening when the bridge is glowing in its all its glory.
From the bridge it was over to Fort William. Built on the Eastern banks of the Hoogly River during the British reign in 1696, it was named after King William III of England. History has its roots in this region with references to the 1757 battle of Plassey when the original fort was attacked and destroyed which gave way to the new fort that stands here today. There is also a huge space (Maidan) which is today used for fairs and exhibitions. From here we drove down to explore, the humble abode of Lord Jesus at the St.Paul Cathedral. Standing tall among several of Kolkata’s most prominent iconic structures, it carves its own niche. This Anglican Cathedral with its Neo-Gothic architecture and intricately carved wooden pews and chairs, it is a treat to watch. The stained glass windows and mural paintings make for an exquisite sight. As I said my thanks for this beautiful day in the city, I headed out to the most exciting part of any vacation – it was time for some shopping!! So mom and me went straight to what was then called “Hogg Market” and now called “New Market”. This huge indoor market space is lined with shops in every nook and cranny, where you get everything the mind can possibly imagine shopping for. Bengal cotton materials, saris, accessories and leather goods which are the most popular buys here. One of the most unique/bizarre things I found on sale here were the varied types, colors, styles and lengths of “Wigs”! With my bags full, I realized it was time for a snack and voila (!), what better place than the “Nahoum & Sons Bakery” right in the middle of New Market. Their freshly baked cookies, cup cakes, tarts and cakes – had me spoilt for choice. I made my pick – the tart it was! Our last stop was “Adi Mohini Mohan Kanjilal” store on College Street, which boasts of the best Bengal cotton weaves. Mom wrapped up close to a dozen weaves from there and like happy shopaholics; we headed back to the hotel and called it a night.
My trip to Bengal was not going to be complete without visiting Tigers of Sunderban’s. As time was short, I decided to opt for a one night and two day trip, organized by seasoned tour operators to this region – Tour de Sundarban. Their perfectly chalked out trip began with a drive to Godkhali which was the last road point on this journey and then a cross over to the island of Gosaba which had no electricity (was quiet exciting!) and finally we reached our hotel in the village of Pakhiralaya where hot lunch was served making me a happy soul! Bird watching, performance by local musicians and a hearty dinner later – they called it a night. Having survived on oil lamps and candles, the morning light came as a relief. This was the day I had been waiting for, off we went on our cruise which took us to 3 different towers called Sajnekhalli, Dobanki and Sudhanyakhali (thankfully i noted these names in my journal, else there was no way of remembering them!!). En-route I enjoyed the varied flora-fauna on one of the largest mangroves of the world. Are you curious to know – did we spot the Tiger? Oh yes we did and boy were we excited. Our tiger was enjoying her siesta and hence we did not get a glimpse of her fierce face! Along with fellow travelers we enjoyed our freshly cooked meals on the boat and just as dusk approached we were whisked back to Kolkata.
My last night in the city and I owed to my friend to go out on a girls night out. We hit the Kolkata night scene and headed to Shisha. After a long night of dancing and fun – we were high on Kolkata’s vibrant night life. As we chatted the night away, I reflected on my wonderful trip and all the amazing things I have seen, discovered and enjoyed about this city. The few joys that set this city apart for me were – a ride in the classic yellow Ambassador car, a short ride in a pull rickshaw (just for the experience), hopping on and off a slow moving tram, savoring the “Matka cutting Chai” (Tea served in an earthen pot), Sandesh(sweet dish), Roshogulla(sweet dish) and the Shingada (the Indian Samosa) and last but not the least, my interactions with the very friendly and ever smiling locals of the city – who were so welcoming to tourists like me!
As I bid goodbye or should I say “Kolkata abar dakha hobe” (Kolkata, I hope to see you again); the city of joy brought me many a smiles.
Learn more about Shwetha Arun Devotta.