Getting to grips with the amazingly vibrant and diverse Indian city of Kolkata and its plethora of monuments, landmarks, museums, magnificent buildings, mosques, temples and other sites of interest requires full-throttle tourism and a dedicated itinerary. The massive metropolis holds over 16 million people, 25 per cent of whom live in the teeming slums, with the rest scattered over the sprawling central districts and suburbs. A city of ethnic, religious, economic and political diversity, Kolkata is one of the most fascinating visitor destinations on the planet.
Founded over two thousand years ago, its remarkable growth commenced from the 18th century beginnings of the British Colonial era and is still ongoing. The glorious marble monuments from the period aren’t old by Western standards but are spectacular in their size and grandeur. Fabulously wealthy members of the Bengali royalty and elite vied with colonial cash to create memorials to this unique time in their country’s history, with the city the capital of the Raj until 1911 when it was supplanted by Delhi due to political unrest.
Known as India’s educational, artistic and literary heart, everything from music and dance to the commercial art galleries here reflect the city’s strong creative spirit, mirroring the wide use of varied architectural styles both Western and Indian in its central districts and Old City. A wealth of traditionally styled mosques and Hindu temples contrasts with the huge governmental and private palaces and the heritage churches and cathedral of the colonial faithful.
Radiating outwards from the post-1947 central business hub and the many hotels in Kolkata City Centre are the districts of Esplanade, including Old Kolkata, and the riverside quarter of Chowringhee with its grand colonial piles and huge Maidan Urban Park containing the well-preserved 5 sq km expanse of the British army’s Fort William. The city’s central square, BBD Bagh, is the place to begin exploring, with its sides lined with colonial heritage structures including two iconic churches and the Writers’ Building.
A short distance away in Maidan is the iconic Victoria Monument’s Britain’s answer to the glories of the Taj Mahal, sculpted in marble and extremely large, but without the romantic ambience of the original. The park leads down to the banks of the Hooghly River, a holy tributary of the mighty Ganges, with its bathing ghats crowded with Hindus making floral offerings to the river god. Several spectacular temples are set along the river, and Mother Teresa’s mission, monument and grave is close by - an essential visit during any stay in the city.
Many of the important heritage buildings here are also museums to the city’s history, with the magnificent Marble Palace set on Muktaram Babu Street a prime, yet unusual, example. Built in the early 19th century for Raja Rajendra Mullick Bahadur, it contains his priceless collection of Western Art, ancient Egyptian treasures and exquisite Chinese Ming dynasty porcelains. The family still owns the entire, fabulous creation, set in lush, landscaped gardens.
Whilst impossible to describe as an attraction, at this point a guided visit to one of the city’s slums might rebalance visitors suffering an overdose of splendour and 19th century conspicuous consumption. Several tour companies in the city run carefully-crafted visits to areas tourists don’t normally see, focusing on the sub-cultures below the mainstream radar. Another option during a longer stay would be to volunteer for a short time at either Mother Teresa’s foundation or a similar NGO.
One of the unique aspects of Kolkata is that it’s the vengeful, evil-tempered Hindu goddess Kali’s exclusive territory. Two of the most famous temples dedicated to the deity are Kalighat Kali Temple and Dakshineswar Kali Temple. Kalighat Kali is a famous pilgrimage destination drawing up to 20,000 worshippers daily and Dakshineswar Kali is a lovely nine-spire classic Bengali structure, elaborately decorated and set along the river bank.
Lek Boonlert is an editor and content reviewer at DirectRooms and is responsible for all Melaka City Centre Hotels content.