Calcutta

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 26 April, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 26 April, 2006, 12:00am
 

1 Flower power


Marigolds in the form of Mala garlands, gladioli, dahlias, roses and sunflowers form part of an eye-catching kaleidoscope of colour at Calcutta's Mullick Ghat Flower Market. Situated below the Howrah Bridge - one of only two that cross the wide Hooghly River - it's a wholesale market where shopkeepers go to stock up on fresh flowers from the countryside. Jostle your way through the crowds, honking trucks and men balancing large baskets of flowers on their heads. Men and women cut, arrange and sell colourful blooms while the older workers, in the shade of rusty roofs on faded wooden shacks, weave blossoms into long garlands for religious offerings .


2 On the move


Jump into an Ambassador taxi and participate in the frenetic traffic scrum on the Howrah Bridge during rush hour. Cars, motorised rickshaws, bullock carts, bicycles, buses and pedestrians stream over the Hooghly, which flows through the centre of Calcutta and is West Bengal's main tributary from the Ganges. In the 15th and 16th centuries the river attracted Dutch, French, Portuguese and British traders. The hand-pulled rickshaw is on the verge of extinction and a ride in one through the old part of town is a mesmerising experience. Or you can submit to another of Calcutta's quintessential transport experiences by taking a ride on a rickety old tram. At the other end of the scale, Calcutta also has a modern underground train system (www.kolmetro.com).


3 Mirrors and stones


Located in the old section of Calcutta, the Pareshnath Jain temple was built in 1867 by Ray Badridas Bahadur, a wealthy art connoisseur. The temple is decorated with an elaborate collection of mirrors, coloured stones and glass mosaics. Inside, an eternal lamp burns with ghee. Surrounded by gardens with statues, plants and fountains, it's a serene refuge from the hustle and bustle of the city. Jainism is one of the oldest living religions of India. Based on cosmic laws, it doesn't condone the concept of a superhuman god as creator of the universe.


4 Ten-armed goddess


Wander through the side streets of Kumartuli, the artisans' quarter where temple statues and wedding finery are made in a warren of tiny workshops. The best time to visit is September or October, when potters are busy creating idol statues for the Durga Puja festival. Durga Puja portrays Calcutta as the City of Joy, when organised worship of the goddess Durga takes place. Brightly illuminated makeshift structures - often shaped like landmarks such as the White House or Taj Mahal - are erected and installed with images of the 10-armed deity. Presents are exchanged and feasts prepared. On the last day of the festival you can follow the crowds and the frantic drumbeats to watch the larger-than-life images being immersed in the river (www.wbtourism.com).


5 Memories of the British Raj


Stroll through one of the largest city parks in the world, the Calcutta Maidan. At 400 hectares and 3km in length, the Maidan is larger than New York's Central Park. At one end stands the Victoria Memorial, built in honour of Queen Victoria with white marble from the same source used to build the Taj Mahal. The queen is represented by a large outdoor statue, and a museum comprising 24 galleries holds a collection of Raj memorabilia, including a piano Queen Victoria played as a child and a collection of paintings depicting the history of the city, a former capital of India.


6 St John's Church


Established in 1787, St John's Church was one of the first public buildings to be erected by the East India Company after Calcutta became the capital of British India. Like many British churches in the country, it's based on James Gibbs' St Martin-in-the-Fields, London, and contains a stained-glass panel of the Last Supper, in which the 12 disciples bear the faces of British personalities in Calcutta at the time. Near the church is the mausoleum of Job Charnock, an English merchant credited with founding Calcutta in 1690.


7 Luxury hotels and shopping


Jawaharlal Nehru Road was a fashionable promenade during the Raj, when it was known as Chowringhee Road. At one end stands the five-star Oberoi Grand Hotel (www.oberoicalcutta.com), the city's most elegant hotel. Behind the Oberoi is the busy shopping area of New Market, with its warren of stalls selling an assortment of souvenirs such as carpets, fine jewellery, bronze statues and pashmina scarves.


8 Mother Teresa


Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity is an eye-opener. When the late Albanian nun (1910- 1997) set up the order of the Missionaries of Charity, little did she know that it would become one of the symbols of the city. Her coffin resides at Motherhouse, which also has a small museum in her honour. If you feel like giving a child a cuddle, head next door to the orphanage. You'll find no shortage of overseas volunteers willing to use some of their time (often several months at a go) playing with and caring for these underprivileged children.


9 Spot the tiger


Sunderbans Tiger Reserve (www.india-wildlife-tours.com), the world's largest delta and mangrove swamp, is a World Heritage Site formed by the merging of three rivers - the Ganges, the Brahmaputra and the Meghna. This wildlife sanctuary is part of Project Tiger - a government plan to save the rapidly disappearing species - and is spread over a series of forested islands and saline water channels that also hide spotted deer, wild pigs, monkeys, kingfishers, herons, white-bellied eagles and royal Bengal tigers. Cruise the mangroves on a boat and, if you're lucky, you may glimpse one of these majestic animals.


10 Sweet treats


Calcutta has a vast number of mishtir dokan (sweet shops) selling distinctive, pastel-coloured pyramids of milky Bengali specialities. Must-tries include rasgulla (cream cheese flavoured with rosewater and sticky syrup), a popular fried creation called the Lady Keni (named after the wife of Lord Canning, former governor-general of India), sandesh (dry sweetened curds formed into diamond shapes and topped with edible silver), nadu (grated coconut stir-fried with sugar and shaped into a ball), and pitha (Bengali pancakes made from powdered rice or flour).


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