In 1687, the Mughals granted permission to the East India Company to set up a base at Sutanati, near the fishing village, Kalikata, on the banks of the river Hooghly. Old Fort William, built at the site in 1696, became the origin of the city of Kolkata, named after the village whose lands had become part of the settlement. Kolkata grew to become the capital of British India till 1911 when New Delhi was built and the seat of power shifted there.
Today Kolkata is India’s largest metropolis – overcrowded, alive, vibrant, with a charm all its own. It is the nerve centre of trade and industry in eastern India, and the most important city in the region. Splendid structures intended to reflect the majesty of the ‘Empire’, the buildings of Kolkata evoke a flavour of the Raj. Notable among these are the Writers Building, the seat of government; the silver-domed General Post Office and St. John’s Church, which has a memorial to the city founder Job Charnock.
Kolkata’s lungs lie in a vast expanse of lawns called the Maidan, bordered by the Hooghly river at one end and the elegant boulevard, Chowringhee, at the other. Around it are many of Kolkata’s historical landmarks – the magnificent Fort William, St. John’s Church, the Royal Kolkata Turf Club and Eden Gardens, which has a famous cricket stadium, a picturesque lake and a tiny pagoda. The imposing white marble building Victoria Memorial, built by the British in 1921 and modelled on the Taj Mahal, also lies nearby. A stately, bronze statue of Queen Victoria stands at its entrance and wrought iron street lamps light up its manicured lawns every evening, presenting a charming picture. The National Library in the stately Belvedere House to the South, with its large and very precious collection of books, completes the enchanting circle.
The Botanical Gardens, laid out in 1786, lie on the banks of the river in Howrah. There is a great variety of flora and fauna, all carefully classified. A great tourist draw is the 200-year old Banyan tree with a mind-boggling circumference of 400 meters.
Often jam-packed, Howrah Bridge is a vital link across the river Hooghly. Bright yellow taxis are driven by ‘sardarjis’ speaking chaste Bengali! You can get a better view of this huge cantilever structure, an engineering marvel of its day, if you abandon your taxi and take the faster mode of travel – your legs! A new bridge across the Hooghly, the Vidya Sagar Setu, is the longest cable-stayed bridge in India.
Kolkata’s Metro is India’s first underground rail. It rockets along, completing its journey of 16 km and 17 stations in about half an hour – a welcome change from the bumper-to-bumper crawl on the roads!
Lying to the North, the headquarters of the Ramakrishna Mission, Belur Math, is built to look like a temple, a mosque and a church from different angles.
The main religious festival is the ten-day Durga Pooja in September/October, when Goddess Durga is worshipped and the victory of good over evil celebrated. There is much excitement as people throng the specially erected ‘pandals’ in every locality where beautiful images of the goddess are installed for the ceremonies.
Weekend destinations from Kolkata are the Sundarbans Tiger Reserve (131 km); Digha beach resort (185 km); Santiniketan University founded by Tagore with its charming, pastoral, serene atmosphere; Vishnupur – 17th and 18th century terra-cotta temples.
Shopping in Kolkata
Central Cottage Industries and various State Emporia offer handicrafts and fabrics from all over the country.
Delicate fabrics like Tangail – Burra Bazaar
Exquisitely crafted gold jewellery – B.B.Ganguly Street
Leather shoes from Chinese shoemakers – Bentinck Street
Fine porcelain – Old China bazaar
New Market (the oldest market!) and Dakshinapur sell everything from flowers to jewellery.