Asia specialist, Kate, has spent over ten years exploring the vast and varied country of India, falling under the spell of its culture, cuisine and irresistible charm. On her most recent trip, she visited the bustling city of Calcutta for the first time, delving into the rich history of India’s cultural capital.
As I walked off the plane in Calcutta I was met by the balmy Indian air of winter that felt so familiar to me; just like a brilliant summers day in England but with an incredible fragrant smell. It was late November, the perfect time to visit India’s evocative and once colonial capital. The monsoon hits this part of India with quite a force over the summer, so visit over the winter months between October and April and you’ll be rewarded with greenery, blue skies and soothing temperatures in the late twenties. Ideal for exploring.
I’ve been travelling to India for over 10 years, ever since I lived in Bangalore after leaving university. It gets deeply under your skin, persuading you to return time and time again, much like a recently opened chocolate bar -yet even more rewarding. Although I visit India most years, I’d never made it to Calcutta – though it had been on my list for what felt like forever. The journey there felt like the night before Christmas does for a child -this was 10 years in the making for me and I couldn’t wait to get off the plane to see what all the fuss was about.
The journey from the airport to my hotel in central Calcutta was enough to know I’d come to the right place; despite my jet lag, looking out of the window was intoxicating and enticing, alive with the hubbub of street vendors at every corner. It seemed chaotic but sophisticated and definitely felt different to other cities I had visited in India. As soon as I got to my hotel, I was back out exploring the streets to find myself a cup of chai. I was immediately met by beautiful architecture and bustling streets; I had never seen so many amazing colonial buildings in one place.
For over 200 years, until 1911, Calcutta was the capital of British India, or the Raj. It was here that it all started with the East India Company back in the 1600s. Towering over tiny chai stalls, tucked behind overgrown gardens and housing government offices are India’s most beautiful and ornate colonial buildings, all gracefully peeling at the edges. Calcutta was once known as ‘The Paris of the East’ and I could see why. Passing by the Victoria Memorial and St John’s Church, was clear evidence of it’s wonderful regal past.
It’s easy to imagine the grandeur, wealth and sophistication that once made Calcutta one of the greatest cities in Asia. Unlike Delhi and Rajasthan that was dominated by Mughal emperors for centuries, there was little history before the European’s arrived in the 1600s; Calcutta was simply a few brilliantly located villages that were ripe for global trading. It quickly become one of the wealthiest and most powerful cities in the East.
More so than Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore, Calcutta has always had a reputation for academia and politics. Calcutta is to India what Oxford is to England and Boston is to the US. There is a genteel feel about the place and learning is part of its soul. A trip to College Street, lined with hundreds of book sellers and famous coffee houses is just one small example of how deeply rooted politics and education is to the people of Calcutta. Wandering through the streets near College Street was one of the most memorable parts of my stay; I passed countless tiny shops bursting with books piled high, filling every nook and cranny. Whilst it is where students get their goods, it is also said to be the place to come for rare finds. After exploring its fascinating streets, a coffee at Calcutta Coffee House is a must. This old establishment, utilitarian in appearance, is where people come to discuss anything and everything from daily politics to botany. People watching at its best.
Despite the beautiful crumbling architecture, Calcutta is not about sights. There is no Taj Mahal or Humayans Tomb, it’s the people and the intricacies of their culture that makes the city so unique. Calcutta is like the whole of India wrapped up in one city, yet it’s so different, and for a return visitor to the country, it’s all about unravelling the complexities of one of India’s greatest cities and getting under its skin. Everywhere you turn, you will be greeted by its incredible warmth and colour.
For me this is what I loved. I also loved the street life. Nowhere in India had I seen such fantastic alleyways, abuzz with street vendors frying snacks and serving up steamy chai in toy size terracotta cups. Surrounding them were often smartly dressed men, some in formal attire. All I could think was ‘this is India’. It was raw and authentic yet graceful and respectful.
Nowhere was this more evident than in the markets. Having seen more markets in Asia than many have had hot meals, from Vietnam to Japan and from India to Bhutan, I thought I’d seen every type of market. And yet, how glad I was to go. These were by far the most exhilarating and extraordinary markets I’ve ever visited. If markets are your thing – Calcutta is definitely the place to go. Home to the largest flower wholesale market (Malik Ghat) in India, along with the most impressive wholesale fruit and vegetable market I’d been to, Calcutta feeds India for miles around. With my photography guide Manjit to hand, we chatted about anything and everything whilst we captured the people and the kaleidoscopic colours around us. This is what they mean when they talk about the colours of India. Forget Rajasthan and rainbow coloured saris and turbans; it’s all about Calcutta, it’s here where you really find the colour.
Over the last decade I had followed India’s development; large scale shopping malls, IT districts, bars and clubs, as well as fine dining restaurants. Even though this exists in Calcutta, it is far more discreet and definitely less contemporary than other major cities in India. Despite this, Calcutta felt more forward thinking – I didn’t feel hassled or bothered at all. For a young woman travelling on her own, this was brilliant and very liberating.
For those returning to India, and visiting Calcutta, I’d highly recommend a walking photography tour. Contemporary and immersive, these tours take you around the city on foot. Explore markets such as Malik Ghat flower market, Kolaty vegetable market as well as Kumartuli where whole villages are crafted in statues. These ancient traditions and forms are fascinating. Whilst not for the faint-hearted, our walking tours truly get you under the skin of the city and bring Calcutta to life.
Where to next?
Combine Calcutta with the rest of the Northeast for a truly remarkable journey. You easily fly from Calcutta to Bagdogra before heading to Kalimpong and Sikkim. Here you’ll find beautiful village walks and Buddhist monasteries. During the months of November and December we’d also recommend visiting Nagaland for the Hornbill Festival.