• Sun
  • Aug 31, 2014
  • Updated: 4:19pm

Calcutta

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 April, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 April, 2008, 12:00am

A potpourri of religions and cultures, this Indian city will flood your senses with its chaotic streets, teeming humanity and remnants of the British Raj.

1. The Maidan

You have not experienced Calcutta unless you have visited this expansive public park. Lying southwest of Central, it serves as a recreational and sports reserve (especially for budding cricketers), a training ground for soldiers, a venue for circus performers and a pasture for herders with their goats. Within the precinct stands Fort William. Built in 1758, you might think the fort would have graduated to museum status by now. Not so; it still serves as headquarters of the Eastern Command of the Indian Army.

2. Victoria Memorial

This palatial marble monolith, built in the Italian Renaissance style with more than a touch of Moghul, stands to the east of the Maidan. Opened in 1921, it was built to rival the Taj Mahal - and almost does. The museum it houses is both a tribute to its creators, the British Raj, and a frank expose of that system's considerable excesses. Daybreak sees the memorial gardens visited by throngs of mostly middle-class locals who come here for a bracing promenade. The museum is open from 10am to 5pm, Tuesday to Sunday.

3. Two Hindu temples

Both are dedicated to Kali, the city's none-too-comely patron goddess. The wonderful Dakshineswar Kali Temple (below) stands on the eastern bank of the Hooghly River in the northern district of Kumartuli. It is topped by nine curvilinear Bengali-style turrets. But the city's real spiritual epicentre is in the south, in Kalighat. The Kali temple here is the scene of some extravagant displays of devotional fervour and is attended by a multitude of beggars, street children, flower-garland hawkers and sadhus (holy men).

4. Two Christian churches

St Paul's Cathedral stands across from the Victoria Memorial on Cathedral Road. Completed in 1847, the church's soaring spires and cavernous interior epitomise a style known as Indo-Gothic. It serves as the headquarters of the Church of North India. Some 70 years its senior is sober old St John's. Set within a large walled garden compound on Council House Street, in Central, the time-worn church strives vainly to match the grace of London's St Martin in the Fields, on which it was loosely modelled.

5. Sudder Street

Hang out for a while in the street where the serious 'travellers' stay. It has a good selection of budget hotels, internet cafes and air-conditioned restaurants and bars. In steamy old Calcutta, air-conditioning's a must, especially before the monsoon, when the temperature can soar to 45 degrees Celsius. They do some mean cuisine - muesli for breakfast (with yogurt instead of milk) and a decent ham and eggs (with toast). You'd die for - or maybe die without, in the heat - the fruit shakes and lassis (a beverage made with yogurt).

6. Babu Ghat

This is one of a number of communal bathing sites on the banks of the Hooghly. Bathers merrily brave the river's acrid black slush. Outside the entrance of the ghat (a Hindi word meaning 'steps leading down to water') stands a collection of clay and straw effigies of Hindu deities. These await the annual Durga Festival, when they will be ceremoniously dunked in this none too pristine stream.

7. The Flower Market (bottom right)

Located near Howrah Bridge, here you will see Calcuttans at their spontaneous friendly best. The quiet traffic-free streets and the flower-scented air have a salutary effect on vendors and customers. Many of the garlands are temple bound, where they will serve as offerings to the gods.

8. The old colonial quarter

The impressive array of British buildings is fastidiously maintained. The standout is the High Court, with its striking Indo-Gothic brick facade. The Romanesque Town Hall next door houses a multimedia museum and Government House permits only its stately Tuscan portico to show from behind garden shrubs and trees. The imposing Writers' Building houses - not surprisingly - the government secretariat. It is one of many 1850s office blocks that boast impressive ornamental brick facades.

9. Chitpur Road

The commercial centre of 'white' Calcutta was in Chowringhee, located in southeast Central. 'Black' Calcutta, as it was known, had its commercial hub as well: Chitpur Road, which runs off to the north. Chinatown was here (its remnants still are), as were a number of princely palaces and the city's grandest mosque: Nakhoda (below centre). The street looks more antiquated than most other parts of town and you half expect an ox wagon to draw up next to the hand-pulled rickshaws and the old decrepit tram.

10. Parasnath Jain Temple (below)

Built in 1867, it is dedicated to Lord Sheetalnath, the 10th of 24 Jain prophets. This stunning temple is set in a meticulously manicured ornamental garden, studded with statues. It dazzles and bewitches with its porches and interiors clad entirely in a fine mosaic of mirrors, glass and colourful stones. The temple complex lies about 4km northeast of Central on Canal West Road and is open from 6am to 11am and 3pm to 7pm.

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