Kolkata was my first port of call in West Bengal, a start to an eleven-day trip covering Kolkata, Darjeeling and Gangtok. I arrived from Kuala Lumpur close to midnight and woke up the next morning to catch the tail end of the Durga Puja festival. In between the festivities, my host Amrita and I planned our activities for the next two days, after which I would head off to Darjeeling.
Kolkata is a densely populated city of 14 million, thus there are numerous places to visit and things to do. I’m a heritage buff, so the first thing I always look out for in a city is anything related to history, heritage and architecture. Since I had only 48 hours in the city, I’d thought I share with you what I did during my stay, and perhaps that could help you too when you plan for a trip to Kolkata.
The first thing we did was to visit one of the famous landmarks of Kolkata – Victoria Memorial. Made of Rajasthani white marble, the Victoria Memorial is a grand, imposing building with a museum and gardens. The building was constructed in honour of Queen Victoria, an idea envisaged by the former Viceroy of India, Lord Curzon who, after the death of the Queen, wanted a stately memorial dedicated in her memory.
According to Wikipedia, Lord Curzon stated the following:
“Let us, therefore, have a building, stately, spacious, monumental and grand, to which every newcomer in Calcutta will turn, to which all the resident population, European and Native, will flock, where all classes will learn the lessons of history, and see revived before their eyes the marvels of the past.”
Construction of the building began in 1906 and it took 15 years to complete. Ironically, halfway through the construction, the capital of India moved from Calcutta (former name of Kolkata) to New Delhi, thus the memorial was looking majestic but in a provincial city rather than a capital.
There are 25 galleries inside the building, however, not all are opened to the public. We saw galleries exhibiting the history of the construction, the history of Calcutta and collections of oil paintings of India by notable painters. In the central hall stands a marble statue of the Queen, and frescoes of scenes from her life.
Victoria Memorial Hall
– Opening Hours: 10am – 5pm daily except (Monday and national holidays)
– Ticket Price: INR20 for Indians; INR200 for foreigners
– Photography inside the museum building is prohibited.
Victoria Memorial Gardens
– Opening Hours: 5:30am – 6:15pm daily (including public holidays)
– Ticket Price: INR10. Garden ticket does not entitle entry to the museum building.
St. Paul’s Cathedral
Just a short walk from Victoria Memorial is the Anglican church and largest cathedral in Kolkata – St. Paul’s Cathedral. Built in Indo-Gothic architectural style, St Paul’s Cathedral was the first cathedral built in the overseas territory of the British Empire.
Opening Hours: 10am – 6pm daily
Photography inside the cathedral is prohibited.
Park Street area
By the time we exited St. Paul’s Cathedral, it was already midday and we were feeling peckish. It was time for lunch and after much discussions, we decided to go to Suruchi on Elliot Road. We could have taken the metro from Maidan Station to Park Street Station and then walk to Elliot Road but we chose to walk along Jawaharlal Nehru Road (formerly known as Chowringhee Road), then on to Park Street, the prime commercial district of Kolkata.
We walked past shops, commercial buildlings, eateries and hotels. Street food stalls were also set up especially on J.N. Road, and since it was already past noon, we saw office workers coming out to have lunch by the stalls.
Suruchi is an old eatery serving Bengali food and is run by the destitute women of The All Bengal Women’s Union. I have read that the establishment is simple and is open only for lunch. Sadly, after that long walk from J.N Road, we arrived to find it closed because of Durga Puja festival. If you get a chance to eat at Suruchi, do share with me your experience!
We quickly hopped on to an auto rickshaw and headed back again to Park Street. We walked to Mocambo Restaurant but only to find a long queue outside the restaurant. In the end, we settled for lunch at One Step Up cafe.
Magen David Synagogue
After lunch, we took a taxi to Brabourne Road to search for Jewish synagogues in the central quarter of the city. I have always wanted to visit a synagogue ever since I learnt about the legacy of the Sassoon family in Bombay who were Baghdadi Jews and prominent philantropists during the mid 19th century. The Sassoon family built a synagogue for their community, and that synagogue is called the Knesset Eliyahoo Synagogue, a stone’s throw away from the David Sassoon Library in Colaba district. However, during my visit to Mumbai in 2014, I could not enter that synagogue as it was heavily barricaded by the police.
The Baghdadi Jews also came and settled in Calcutta in the early 19th century when Calcutta was the capital of India during the British Raj rule. The number of Jews was 6,000 at one point but has now declined to 20. Five synagogues were built in the city but now only two are in use.
We were in search of Magen David Synagogue but upon arrival at the bustling Brabourne Road, it was a little difficult to locate the synagogue amidst vendors and makeshift stalls. Finally, we located a synagogue which turned out to be Beth El synagogue instead. The caretaker was about to close the synagogue when we walked in but we pleaded with him to let us enter for 10 minutes.
Here’s the interesting facts about the Kolkata synagogues:
– There are no more regular services conducted on Saturdays but only one person from the Jewish community comes to the synagogues every Friday evening to light a candle.
– The caretakers of the synagogues come from a generation of Muslim families who have been helping to maintain the synagogues for more than 50 years.
Read: Mumbai Diaries – Part 2
And one of the last remaining Jews in Kolkata owns a bakery in New Market – Nahoum’s – apparently the bakery holds a special place in Kolkata confectionery and Nahoum’s is known for their fruit cake, pastries and bread. We had planned to go to New Market but we were told many shops were closed because of Durga Puja festival, thus we didn’t get the chance to taste pastries from Nahoum’s.
View of Howrah Bridge at the Ghat
The sun was about to set and one of the iconic landmarks of Kolkata which I did not want to miss was the Howrah Bridge. Since we were coming from Brabourne Road, the best place to capture Howrah Bridge over the Hooghly River was from the river ghats. We walked to Armenian Ghat which was incidentally right in the Flower Market, and took this photo.
Indian Coffee House
After we left the ghats, it was already dark but there was one more place that I wanted to go before leaving the city for the suburbs. It’s the Indian Coffee House on College Street.
In the 1940s and 1960s, the Coffee House was a well-known meeting place for poets, artists, scholars, writers, and it is said that several ideas of political and cultural movements were conceived during debates held in this coffee house. The establishment is now a regular hang-out place for students of the Presidency College of University of Calcutta.
If you are a heritage buff like me who do not mind a cup of (bad) coffee, non-air conditioned loud environment, poor lighting, then go to the Coffee House to sit there for the heck of it and imagine what it was like back in the day.
Kolkata is a sprawling city and admittedly, it is tough to decide which place to visit within a short period of time. In fact, we had planned to visit a few more places for the first day but many establishments were closed and with the increased levels of traffic during the festive season, it was not possible to see all the places on our list.
However, there was still another day left in Kolkata, and I signed up for a half-day walking tour with Calcutta Walks which is one of the best walking tours in the city. To read more about the walking tour, look out for the next post!
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