Calcutta: A Melodious Cacophony

Tripoto

Calcutta! The former British capital of India paints an image of a derelict city struggling to keep pace with the twenty first century for most people. Once a jewel in crown of the British Empire and the largest city after London in the entire British Empire, Calcutta has lost sheen with time. But first glimpses can be deceptive. Time warped Calcutta or Kolkata, as it is called now, is a feeling in itself. Not a showstopper tourist destination, even though it she has its fair share of "places of tourist interest", the treasures of the city are laid bare to the eyes of those who seek to look beyond her dilapidated facade. To see the real Kolkata, one needs all the five senses and the many layers that shroud the city will peel off to reveal a humane, intellectual, passionate and romantic living breathing cosmopolitan metropolis. Look beyond the travel guides and one will discover the romantic charm, the melody behind the daily cacophony. For once shy away from the guide books and prejudices follow me on the escapades...

Aimless Ramblings

Maidan, meaning literally open field is a large park in Kolkata. It is Calcutta's equivalent of New York's Central Park, a vast stretch of greenery right in the middle of the urban jungle. Home to numerous play grounds, including the famous cricketing venue Eden Gardens, several football stadia, and Kolkata Race Course, Maidan is often dubbed as the Lungs of Calcutta.

It a place for aimless ramblings, a place to unwind, to dream and to relax. The vast greens welcome all; vendors, lovers, poets, dreamers and aspiring players. Boys and girls from surrounding neighbourhoods come here to play. The Maidan is surrounded with places of tourist interest - the Victoria Memorial, the Birla Planetarium, the National Library, Octerlony Monument (Sahid Minar), Academy of Fine Arts and the St Paul's Cathedral.

Things to Do: It is place where one would want to go to be with the company of the loved ones or simply to be with oneself. One can visit any of the tourist hotspots around Maidan, or mingle with the folks playing, they will be more than happy to include you in their game. Tickle the taste buds at the various stalls of "jhal-muri", "phuchka" (that's what we call pani-puris) or refresh oneself at the ice candy or lemonade stalls or ride the tongas in front of Victoria Memorial.

Anecdote: One would not realize while in Maidan is that under the feet is Indian Army's headquarters of the Eastern Command. That is why Maidan is also called "The Brigade Parade Ground".

Maidan. Image Credits: From Google.

Photo of Maidan, Kolkata, West Bengal, India by Sounak Ghosh

Winter Mornings at Maidan. Image Credits: From Google.

Photo of Maidan, Kolkata, West Bengal, India by Sounak Ghosh

Maidan. Image Credits: From Google.

Photo of Maidan, Kolkata, West Bengal, India by Sounak Ghosh

Maidan during Monsoon. Image Credits: From Google.

Photo of Maidan, Kolkata, West Bengal, India by Sounak Ghosh
Photo of Maidan, Kolkata, West Bengal, India by Sounak Ghosh

Take it Easy

While in Kolkata, take it easy, don't hurry. Soak in; Feel! And no better way to that than a ride on the tramways. Winding through the streets, these relics of the Raj evokes a feeling of the bygone era, when life was more about living and not rushing.

Introduced in 1873, it is the only functional tramway in India and the oldest running tram service in all of Asia. Watch, see and smell the city as the tram cars wind through the city. Ride on one of these to feel how Calcutta goes about it way.

Explore the various routes and find more information here.

Tip: Take route # 6 from Shyambazar to Esplanade or # 36 from Esplanade to Race Course. You will know why.

Kolkata Tramways. Image Credits: From Google.

Photo of Esplanade Tram Depot, Kolkata, West Bengal, India by Sounak Ghosh

Inside a tram. Image Credits: From Google.

Photo of Esplanade Tram Depot, Kolkata, West Bengal, India by Sounak Ghosh

A tram car running through Maidan. Image Credits: From Google.

Photo of Esplanade Tram Depot, Kolkata, West Bengal, India by Sounak Ghosh

Be a Bookworm

There is an old adage, "If you do not find a book in College Street, then that book was probably never published". This is not any ordinary book store with smell of print on paper wafting from every corner of the store, nor has it any similarity to any second hand book shop. A whole block of city street, chockablock with ramshackle stalls dealing in books. Bookworms; Welcome to College Street!

College Street is home to iconic educational Institutions, The Presidency University (formerly Presidency College), The Calcutta Medical College and The Hindu School to name a few. Nicknamed "Boi Para" meaning Colony of Books, the book kisosks jostle for space on the pavements. Thronging with students, scholars, academicians, intellectuals, sellers and book lovers haggling and bargaining for prices it is every book lover's paradise. One may search for any book in any stall, and if they do not have it, they will surely get it from somewhere else; Don't Worry. Its not all second hand books though. There are numerous stores selling new books, and every possible piece of stationary imaginable.

An article in the journal Smithsonian described College Street as ...a half-mile of bookshops and bookstalls spilling over onto the pavement, carrying first editions, pamphlets, paperbacks in every Indian language, with more than a fair smattering of books in and out of print from France, Germany, Russia and England. It is the largest second-hand book market in the world and largest book market in India. One can buy rare books at throw-away prices.

Things to Do: Buy Books, that's what one is supposed to do here. Refresh at the iconic Indian Coffee House or have a glass of juice at Paramount or taste the famous "Kachoris" at Putiram.

Tip: Do not feel ashamed to bargain. And bargain hard!

College Street. Image Credits: From Google.

Photo of College Street, College Square, Kolkata, West Bengal, India by Sounak Ghosh

Indian Coffee House: Image Credits: Humanyunn Peerzaada

Photo of College Street, College Square, Kolkata, West Bengal, India by Sounak Ghosh

Indian Coffee House: Image Credits: Humanyunn Peerzaada

Photo of College Street, College Square, Kolkata, West Bengal, India by Sounak Ghosh

History Books

North Kolkata! This is where the city is at its most revealing avatar. Stroll through lanes and bylanes and one can get the intimate peek at the lives of the people from close quarters. Life here is hits you, almost at your face! The streets and alleys are flanked by ancient mansions and hand pulled rickshaws are still an (inhuman but an) integral part of life in North Kolkata. The place is warped in time, Walk through the "paras" (neighbourhoods) of Shyambazar, Baghbazar, Sovabazar, Kumortuli and Jorasanko and it will feel like stepping back in time. As if time has stood still for a century, a living museum. Old mansions and houses still predominate in this part of the city, some that have stood the test of time, others derelict and battered.

The evenings and the weekends are best times when this part comes alive. The tea stalls and local clubs throng with people, discussing and debating over every possible subject one can imagine. People are seen playing carrom or cards and everyone is welcome to participate. Though not economically the most posh, yet there is a certain nostalgia about the old world charm that is intoxicating. It's a place to feel while you walk your way through the most ancient part of the city.

Another worthwhile place to visit is the Kumorpara (Colony of potters) of Kumortuli. In dilapidated studios, artisans painstakingly craft larger than life idols of Maa Durga. Its a heaven for connoisseurs of art and photographers who get to watch the idol makers and their lives from close quarters.

Tip: Idol makers are at work from the the months of August to October, depending upon the date of Durga Puja.

Photo of Shyambazar, Bhupendra Bose Avenue, Hati Bagan, Kolkata, West Bengal, India by Sounak Ghosh
Photo of Shyambazar, Bhupendra Bose Avenue, Hati Bagan, Kolkata, West Bengal, India by Sounak Ghosh
Photo of Shyambazar, Bhupendra Bose Avenue, Hati Bagan, Kolkata, West Bengal, India by Sounak Ghosh

Image Credits: http://www.rosegallery.net

Photo of Shyambazar, Bhupendra Bose Avenue, Hati Bagan, Kolkata, West Bengal, India by Sounak Ghosh

Image Credits: http://www.rosegallery.net

Photo of Shyambazar, Bhupendra Bose Avenue, Hati Bagan, Kolkata, West Bengal, India by Sounak Ghosh

Shop till You Drop

For the shopaholics, shopping malls may be a new trend in India, but Kolkata has had its Mall since 1874. Yes, you saw it right, 1874! The Stuart Hogg Market, lovingly called the New Market. With over 2000 shops, the typical English style red brick market building is as much an architectural marvel as it is a shopping paradise. It houses every imaginable store possible, from groceries to vegetables and meat shops, from confectioneries to designer boutiques, from florists to antique shops, Hogg market has it all.

The shopping experience is not restricted only to the Hogg market. Numerous other markets have come up in the area. Even the pavements and the streets are crammed with vendors selling every imaginable piece of necessity in the world.

Tip: Bargaining is an art and beware of pickpockets. Taste the pastries at the century old Nahoum's.

New Market at Night. Image Credits: From Google.

Photo of New Market Area, Kolkata, West Bengal, India by Sounak Ghosh

New Market. Image Credits: From Google.

Photo of New Market Area, Kolkata, West Bengal, India by Sounak Ghosh

New Market. Image Credits: From Google.

Photo of New Market Area, Kolkata, West Bengal, India by Sounak Ghosh

Catch Your Breath

Let the diesel-fume polluted lungs have a respite and a chance to gasp some fresh air. Ride the Ferry from Baghbazar to Howrah and then from Howrah to Fairlie Place. The breeze from of the Ganga will rejuvenate the soul and refresh the mind. To ride the ferry on a rainy day is the one of the most heavenly experiences one can have, I promise!

Information about the ferry services can be found here.

On the ferry over Hooghly.

Photo of Fairlie Place Ghat, BBD Bagh, Kolkata, West Bengal, India by Sounak Ghosh

Howrah Bridge at Night. Image Credits: From Google.

Photo of Fairlie Place Ghat, BBD Bagh, Kolkata, West Bengal, India by Sounak Ghosh
Photo of Fairlie Place Ghat, BBD Bagh, Kolkata, West Bengal, India by Sounak Ghosh

"Ghoti" vs "Bangal"

Sports in India may be all cricket, but in Kolkata Football takes priority. It's not just a game here, it is a way of being, a way of life. A football derby is not for the faint hearted. Mohun Bagan and East Bengal battle it out for 90 minutes for bragging rights at the iconic Yuba Bharati Krirangan in Salk Lake. Support is generally (but not strictly) based on ethnic lines between "Ghotis" who root for the century old Mohun Bagan and "Bangals" who are East Bengal fanatics. "Ghotis" are people whose roots lie in West Bengal while "Bangals" are historically from the former East Bengal (after independence - East Pakistan and now Bangladesh). Rivalry is fierce, passions run high and abuses fly profusely in the stands. So passionate is the rivalry that the clubs even have their iconic fishes - the Lobsters of Mohun Bagan and the Hilsa of East Bengal. It is one of the most unique experiences which one cannot have anywhere else in India.

Tip: The I-League season starts in January and continues through to May while the Kolkata League starts in July-August. If one is interested, one may visit the city during these seasons to get a taste of this feisty battle.

Anecdote: Mohun Bagan is one of the oldest clubs in Asia having been established in 1889. The club won the historic IFA Shield in 1911 playing barefeet against the English who were all booted. The Yuba Bharati Krirangan is the one of the world's largest stadiums, having a capacity of 1,20,000. One of the derby matches had record attendance of 1,31,000.

Yuba Bharati Krirangan. Image Credits: From Google.

Photo of Yuva Bharati Kridangan, Kolkata, West Bengal, India by Sounak Ghosh

Mohun Bagan Fans. Image Credits: From Google.

Photo of Yuva Bharati Kridangan, Kolkata, West Bengal, India by Sounak Ghosh

East Bengal Fans. Image Credits: From Google.

Photo of Yuva Bharati Kridangan, Kolkata, West Bengal, India by Sounak Ghosh

Enjoy the Sunset

Seldom does one get to see sunsets in a city crammed with apartment blocks and high rises. So while in Kolkata, escape to the riverfront at Princep Ghat. Sit by the strand among manicured lawns and watch the sun slide over the horizon. The iconic Vidyasagar Setu enhances the idyllic experience. Reinvigorate yourself in the effervescent breeze of the Ganga. But please don't leave as soon as the sun sets, wait for the lights on the bridge to turn on and marvel at the beautiful scene; cliched but one should not miss the scene.

Things to Do: Take a boat ride and have a grandstand view of Kolkata.

Vidyasagar Setu at night.

Photo of Princep Ghat, Strand Road, Hastings, Kolkata, West Bengal, India by Sounak Ghosh

Sunset at Princep Ghat. Image Credits: From Google.

Photo of Princep Ghat, Strand Road, Hastings, Kolkata, West Bengal, India by Sounak Ghosh

Vidyasagar Setu or the Second Hooghly Bridge as seen from Princep Ghat. Image Credits: From Google.

Photo of Princep Ghat, Strand Road, Hastings, Kolkata, West Bengal, India by Sounak Ghosh
Photo of Princep Ghat, Strand Road, Hastings, Kolkata, West Bengal, India by Sounak Ghosh

A "Sweet" Love Story

Forget the diet charts. For once, indulge yourself in the mouthwatering delicacies one will hardly find anywhere else; Sweets! For every occasion sweets. One does not have to have a reason to have sweets in Kolkata. And sweets come in all possible shapes and sizes. So profound is the love for sweets, that the city shops have "sugar free" sweets for the diabetic patients. So, shed your inhibitions and gorge on the Rosogollas (and not Rasgullas - Rasgulla is a name, Rosogolla is a feeling !) and Pantus and Sandeshes and Misti Doi.

Some of the best sweet shops in Kolkata are here.

Image Credits: K.C. Das

Photo of Calcutta, West Bengal, India by Sounak Ghosh

Image Credits: K.C. Das

Photo of Calcutta, West Bengal, India by Sounak Ghosh

Image Credits: K.C. Das

Photo of Calcutta, West Bengal, India by Sounak Ghosh

Image Credits: K.C. Das

Photo of Calcutta, West Bengal, India by Sounak Ghosh

Information on off beat tours of Calcutta can be found here and here. Anyone interested in photographic tours may have a peek here.

Come... Fall in Love...

Photo of Calcutta: A Melodious Cacophony by Sounak Ghosh
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