The name Kolkata is woven into the history of India. Formerly known as Calcutta, and once the capital of the British Raj, this sprawling city is located in the north-eastern state of West Bengal, close to the border with Bangladesh, and buzzes with energy and life.
Kolkata has a reputation for extreme poverty and overwhelming sensation. Whilst the former is definitely true – poverty is everywhere in India, but somehow especially in-your-face in this unapologetic city – whether you find Kolkata overwhelming is open to interpretation. I love the chaos of India, the busyness of the streets and the openness of the people. The city is fascinating and yet, strangely, not at all claustrophobic. But why not visit Kolkata and find out for yourself?
If you have a two-day stopover, read on for the best places to visit in Kolkata; they are spread some distance apart, so use the network of Ambassador taxis and rickshaws to get yourself from A to B and really soak up the vibe of the city!
This extravagant monument to the former British monarch and Empress of India is a must-visit for both foreign and Indian tourists alike. The memorial was built between 1906 and 1921, and the huge marble building now houses a museum. Pride of place in front of the memorial is a statue to Queen Victoria herself, set amongst lush gardens and sparkling water. It’s a lovely spot for a break from the bustling city.
Mullik Ghat flower market
Down by the banks of the River Hooghly, a branch of the mighty Ganges as it winds its way towards the sea, the Mullik Ghat flower market is lively, chaotic and colourful all at once. Watch local ladies as they sort the blooms and thread them into the long, delicate garlands which are such a feature all over India, while the men help with the selling. Marigolds are a feature of Indian floral decoration, but roses and many other flowers abound. Any market in India is a wonderful place to people-watch, with all the eccentricities of Indian life laid out on full display. Remember to keep a close hold on your valuables in crowded areas, but don’t be afraid to laugh and chat with the locals – one of the many joys of India.
Mother Teresa’s House
Saint Teresa of Calcutta was an iconic figure in her lifetime, and continues to be so after her death. Born in what is now Macedonia in 1910, she came to India in 1929 and never left, arriving in Kolkata in the 1930s and dedicating the rest of her long life to helping the city’s poor. The order of the Missionaries of Charity is still based at the motherhouse where she lived, and the building is open to visitors. A small museum about her life is housed in a side room, as the sisters go about their day-to-day life outside, wearing the distinctive blue and white sari which Mother Teresa made famous. And the woman herself has her final resting place within the motherhouse, the tomb garlanded with flowers and messages of reverence.
St John’s Church and the Black Hole monument
In the city centre of Kolkata stands St John’s Church. A fine example of an Indian church, dark and slightly care-worn but a haven of peace and coolness compared with the heat and noise outside, it is well worth a visit. One notable feature of all Indian churches seems to be the British legacy, and here it is no different; plaques adorn the walls commemorating the colonial men and who lived and died here, and the exotic details of their lives and deaths make fascinating – and often colourful – reading. St John’s Church also contains a fine reproduction of the Last Supper.
The church grounds contain several memorials, of which the most famous is the Black Hole memorial. Built in 1901 to replace an earlier memorial on the site of the massacre itself (now the GPO building), the obelisk commemorates the horrific night during the siege of Calcutta in June 1756, when 146 British prisoners were locked into a 14×18 foot room in the searing heat of the Indian summer. 123 of them were dead by morning.
Dalhousie Square forms the colonial heart of Kolkata. Admire the Writers Building, the former seat of the British Government in India, a handsome red brick building 150m in length which fills an entire city block. Close by, you can also check out the GPO building (built on the site of the Black Hole of Calcutta tragedy), St Andrew’s Church, and the waters of the enormous Lal Dighi tank.
The Maidan is the largest urban park in the city, and provides a breath of fresh air for locals and visitors alike. A huge open green space, it is home to many venues including the world famous Eden Gardens cricket ground, football stadiums and a race track. In the Maidan you will also find St Paul’s Cathedral, the Christian seat of the Diocese of Calcutta. The Victoria Memorial is also located on its outskirts.
Parshwanath Jain Temple
If you’ve never visited a Jain temple, prepare to be dazzled. A far cry from the atmospheric chaos of a Hindu temple with its icons, incense and teeming crowds, the Parshwanath Temple is a haven of tranquillity with its stately buildings and manicured lawns. The Jain community tends towards the wealthy end of Indian society, and the temple reflects this in dazzling style, as gold paint, colourful mosaics and inlaid semi-precious stones have the visitor’s eyes popping.
Kumortuli craft district
A stroll around the district of Kumortuli in northern Kolkata is a crash course in Indian religious decorations. Working mainly in straw and plaster, craftsmen painstakingly recreate images of Hinduism’s many gods, many of which are the height of human beings. The models are then plastered and painted in ornate style for use in religious ceremonies. Wandering the alleyways of this historic district is a real journey back in time, as you watch the craftsmen working in methods that have not changed for centuries, handed down from father to son.
Have you been to Kolkata? Do you have any favourite sights? Let me know in the comments below!
If you, like me, are fascinated by colourful and chaotic India, why not check out my other posts?
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