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Kolkata — the city of many joys

Longing to experience the madness of Indian festivities along with tantalising street food? Head to the city as it celebrates Durga Puja, the autumn fiesta to welcome the Hindu deity of power

  • The Durga idol being taken for immersion in Kolkata.Image Credit: AFP
  • Members of a lion dance troupe take part in the celebrations to mark the Chinese Lunar New Year in Kolkata.Image Credit: REUTERS
Tabloid

If you happen to be planning a trip to India around this time of the year, there can scarcely be a better place to soak up the sights, sounds and aroma of a veritable melting pot, a culture curry of sorts, than the throbbing metropolis of Kolkata.

Freeze frame: the canvas of an autumn landscape in rural Bengal, immortalised in that three-minute frame from Oscar-winning director Satyajit Ray’s seminal offering Pather Panchali (Ballad of the Road), with a steam engine puffing by the paddy fields. Or better still, jump cut to a chock-a-block thoroughfare somewhere in Central Kolkata in the middle of the night during one of those four days of the annual Durga Puja festivities.

Food connoisseur, street savvy, fashionista, culture conscious or simply a holiday freak ... there are myriad ways of living in the moment in this part of India around this time of the year.

No wonder various tour operators and travel agencies have spread out a rich fare for their prospective customers. From walking tours of the city to visits to heritage buildings such as Sovabazar Rajbari or Rani Rashmoni’s House to sampling Kolkata’s lip-smacking street food ... one can look forward to an enriching experience.

According to an estimate by the Ministry of Economics, Government of India, the total volume of retail trade and business in eastern India, and Kolkata in particular, around this time of the year is the highest recorded anywhere in the country during the entire year. And tourism is a major contributor to that end.

“The charm of the annual autumn festival in Bengal is now known all over the world. We have tourists especially from the United States and United Kingdom who book with us a year in advance to spend a few weeks in Kolkata during the month of October and experience the street carnival,” Noel Nag, partner at Dubai-based Flying Squirrel Holidays, told tabloid!.

“Despite the falling rupee, rising inflation and slowdown in the economy, the large business industries are targeting high profit margins during Durga Puja in West Bengal, which is growing at a compound annual growth rate of about 35 per cent,” a latest survey report by the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India (Assocham) said.

“The current size of the [festival] industry is about Rs250 billion [Dh14.17 billion] and is likely to touch Rs400 billion this year ....”

Starting this month and right until December-January, Kolkata will be playing host to several artists and stage performers — the city’s club culture, dating back to the colonial era, yet again proving to be a saving grace for the foot-loose and fancy-free.

John McLaughlin, one of the world’s most famous jazz and guitar artists, will be performing live in the city next month, while local bands such as Neel and the Light Bulbs will keep the hotels and night clubs rocking.

And in case if you find yourself too caught up in the hustle-bustle of city life, then just stuff that overnighter and get set for the green hills of Darjeeling, which is an overnight train trip away; or rev up that SUV engine for a three-hour drive down to the pristine beaches of Shankarpur or Mandarmoni; or simply spend a quiet weekend at Shantiniketan.

Kolkata beckons — come, fall in love! 

WALKING YOUR WAY AROUND

Kolkata is one of the few metros in India that can actually be explored by literally taking to the streets. With the north-south stretch of the city bearing a lion’s share of its iconic landmarks and tourist spots, a walking tour coupled with a few short rides on the Kolkata Metro — that connects the southern fringe with the northern suburbs — is an ideal way to soak up the city’s sights and sounds. 

Some of the must-see landmarks

Dalhousie Square and Victoria Memorial: a glimpse into Victorian-era architecture that still bears the hallmark of British rule in a city that was the capital of India until 1920.

Kalighat: home to the iconic Kali temple.

St Paul’s Cathedral: an Anglican cathedral of the Victorian age built in the heart of the city in 1847.

Indian Museum: an imposing colonial-era edifice that serves as a treasure-trove of India’s rich cultural and historical heritage.

Howrah Bridge: the iconic cantilever bridge built in 1943, connecting the twin cities of Kolkata and Howrah, is still an engineering wonder.

Mother House: headquarters of the Missionaries of Charity, which was home to Mother Teresa.

Jorasanko Thakur Bari: Rabindranath Tagore’s ancestral home.

Netaji Bhavan: a memorial and research centre dedicated to Indian freedom fighter Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose.

Birla Planetarium: the second largest in the world. It has an astronomical observatory equipped with a Celestron C-14 telescope.

Shovabazar Rajbari: Raja Nabakrishna Deb was the founder of this palace. It was here that a civic reception was organised for Swami Vivekananda on his return from the Chicago Parliament of Religion in 1897.

Bow Barracks: a locality in central Kolkata, serving as the hub of the city’s Anglo-Indian population for generations.

New Market: Originally known as Hogg Market, this Lindsay Street landmark used to be the place where the middle class and the rich-and-famous would rub shoulders, looking for the latest in fashion — until the advent of mall culture.

Netaji Bhavan: a memorial and research centre dedicated to Indian freedom fighter Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose. 

MUST-TRY EATERIES

Well, the list is actually quite long and omissions and commissions, though inadvertent, could be fodder for a lot of heart-burn. So here’s a humble offering:

Oh! Calcutta and 6 Ballygunge Place for an authentic, traditional Bengali spread.

Shiraz, Arsalan and Oudh 1590 for their mutton biryani and chaap (meat slow-cooked in thick gravy).

Mocambo for its sizzling steaks and Peter Cat for its chello kebab.

K.C. Das for the city’s iconic rosogolla (cottage cheese balls dipped in sugar syrup).

Balaram’s for its trademark aam-kheer (mango-flavoured sweet delicacy).

Flury’s, the famous tearoom serving English breakfast, rich chocolate desserts and chicken patty.

Nahoum & Sons for its cakes and pastries.

China Town eateries for authentic Chinese cuisine.

Street food: do not forget to sample fuchka (small, crisp, hollow balls filled with a mix of tamarind water and mashed potato). 

DID YOU KNOW?

The Calcutta Football League, which kicked off in 1898, is the oldest football league in the world.

The Royal Calcutta Golf Club was the first golf club in the world, to be established outside Britain.

The city’s iconic Howrah Bridge is one of the largest cantilever bridges in the world and the largest in India.

Kolkata is the only city in India where one can still find hand-pulled rickshaws.

The Birla Planetarium is the largest planetarium in Asia and the second largest in the world.

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