4 days in Kolkata during Durga Pooja: overwhelming heritage walks and overcrowded ghats in India’s most in intensive city

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The former home of mother Teresa, the Albanian nun and missionary who lived in Kolkata (Calutta) and rescued, fed the underprivileged, is one of the most intense cities I’ve ever visited. Immediately after our arrival I noticed that a significant percentage of this populated city – with approximately over 15 million, is India’s third largest city and a significant of the population are actually living on the streets. Families, often with very small children, live and sleep on the sidewalks, often earning some money by begging at the traffic lights. Despite the poverty and the more than occasional dirt on the streets, we’ve always enjoyed our stay here. After we got acclimatised by having a small drink and a bite in one of the poshest hotels in the city, we went out and fell in love with the former cultural capital of India.

History and some fast facts: 15 million people in a male-dominated city. Before the Capital of the city moved to Delhi in 1911, Calcutta had been the capital of India for some time. The city, to many who considered this as the ‘Cultural capital of India’, has a history that goes back to the 17th century and a lot of buildings in the city will remind you of that period. With a population of approximately 15 million (metro, 2011), Calcutta is the third largest city in India. Like many other cities in India, the primary religion in the city is Hinduism. However, the city hosts a significant group of Muslims, almost 20% of the city’s population is Muslim. Surprisingly, the male to female ratio is different when compared to other cities in India. There are only 899 females for every 1000 males. These numbers are mainly driven by men who come to the city for work. The location of the city, in the northern part of India and close to the sea and the Bangladesh-border, fuels the weather conditions with high temperatures and a (often unbearable) high humidity.

Orientation: the North is the traditional part, the South is the posh part. Like any other city in India – big or small – Calcutta has an MG Road, the centre point of orientation in almost each city in the Indian Subcontinent. But unlike many other cities, Calcutta’s MG road is not the place where all the action would take place. The upscale area in Calcutta is centred on and around Park street, a wide road that stretches between the green Maidan, Kolkata’s lungs and green park, and a big road that will lead to the monastery that was once the home of Mother Teresa. We went to the monastery, a very modest but peaceful place, to pay respect to the nun who was declared a Saint by the Vatican after a lengthy process. Sitting down next to her tomb felt special, she had been a remarkable figure, a real modern Icon.

One of the iconic landmarks of this intense city is definitely the Howrah bridge, an Eiffel-tower-like construction, which connects the east to the west. It is said to carry over 100.000 cars and 150.000 pedestrians daily. Very close to the Howrah bridge is Kolkata’s wholesale flower market, a messy but fascinating labyrinth of lanes with flower sellers. It claims to be Asian’s largest flower market and it’s worth visiting. The actual name of the market is ‘Malik Ghat Flower Market’, and Indian people and/or regular western visitors will immediately understand it’s location: alongside the water. A ghat is a place along a (holy) river, with concrete steps that lead into the water. The Calcutta ghats that we had seen during our visit were very busy, with people bathing or prying. Further north, approximately 3 kilometres from the Howrath bridge, is a neighbourhood called Kumartuli. This must-visit place is home to Calcutta’s clay artists. They mainly work on creating the famous clay-idols for the various festivals. We had spent more than an hour in this very tranquil area, which is full of proud and committed labourers working in small family-run Idol-factories. We walked back to the hotel, an enriching walk with passing through colourful markets and Kolkata’s colonial district; a lot Victorian-era constructions are in this part of the city, the block north of the city’s Maidan is a must-visit place for everyone who is interested in architecture.

Transportation in Calcutta: It offers cycle rickshaws and the occasional (human pulled) rickshaws. Would you object to the occasional use of a cycle rickshaw? Wait until you visit Calcutta! Not only will you find a cycle rickshaw in every corner of the city, but the human pulled rickshaw is still in use. Mainly around the markets and in older parts of the city, older men offer this prehistoric service to anyone who wants to travel a short distance, paying no more than a few rupees. I don’t object to the cycle rickshaw, but have had some reservations with this undiscovered means of transportation. Luckily there are many other transportation options. Uber is – ofcourse – a very welcoming and easy way to reach your destination, whereas the yellow-coloured Ambassador-taxi’s are a charming but polluting sight which contributes to the colonial-era feeling of the city. We haven’t used the metro system, which seems to work very well.

Our stay at the Oberoi Grand: 7 star service in a 5 star hotel. Initially, our plan was to visit the city with friends. They intended to book a room at the Oberoi. I went online to find out about the pricing. 10.500 INR (approximately 156 Euro inclusive of taxes) for a night in a fancy 5-star hotel is affordable, but we tend to spend a little less on hotels in other parts India. Our friends pushed us to book at the Oberoi and I didn’t regret it at all. Unfortunately, our friends couldn’t make it to Kolkata, so we needed to indulge ourselves at the Oberoi without company. And I need to say this; it was one of the best hotel-experiences that I’ve ever had. The hotel was built in 1910 and the heritage of the hotel felt extraordinary. Lifts with wooden panels, marble floors, chandeliers, and the greeting by a Maharaja-like security guard at the front door are just some of the elements why this hotel is so good. This is where presidents and CEO’s of Fortune 500 companies spend their days. The old grandeur has been modernised over time and comes with an overwhelming excellent service. I’ve never had my room cleaned twice a day, nothing – and I really mean nothing – is an issue and everything is possible; our tray of ice cubes in the room had been refilled every evening. The breakfast, served in the all-day dining area, was presented as a buffet, but a lot of items could be ordered from the kitchen. I’d ordered the best French toast I ever had in India, twice.

Best planning: Being there during Durga Pooja. Some of the festivals in India – Diwali, Holi – are celebrated on the same date and time across the country. Something that I didn’t know before we arrived in India two years ago was the immense number of local festivals. The largest festival in Maharashtra, my home state, is The Ganesha festival and it’s only celebrated in a couple of states in India. After we booked our flight and hotel room for the stay in Calcutta, one of my team mates told me about this ‘very big’ festival’ in the city. ‘You are in Kolkata during Durga Pooja, he told me and I went online to find out more about this. The 5-day festival came to its closing during our weekend in the city and we decided to completely embrace it. The Key objective of the festival is the worshipping of the goddess Durga, one of the key symbols in the Hindu religion. At the end of the festival, families immerse the idol – a clay built version of the warrior – at one of the many ghats in and around the city. Advised by the hotel staff about how we could see these events, we went for a cruise during the evening with live music and a dinner. It felt a bit silly, like boarding the love boat or a Rhein cruise with a lot of elderly people, but it was fun to spend an evening on deck of this boat. However, we couldn’t wait to disembark after the ship came back to his initial location and we immediately went to one of the busiest ghats in the city. What we found there is hard to describe and it has made a huge impression on me. Even at 11.30pm in the evening, hundreds of trucks were waiting in line, having the idols and families waiting on the platform at the back of the truck. The Idols, sizing up to meters in height, were being carried towards the water by strong men. Immersing the idols in the water is a point of debate in this country and the local authorities have implemented a lot of activities to avoid damaging the environment. Right after the people immersed the idols, a very big crew removed the idols out of the water with big trucks and heavy equipment

Heritage buildings is a key attraction of this city. I always prepare myself before visiting a new city. However, I didn’t want to plan ahead too much. My main preparation was to understand the city’s most important neighbourhoods. Where is the market? Where is the best place to find a good bar or restaurant? Kolkata has much to offer but the main thing is undoubtedly the fascinating heritage buildings. I’ve addressed this before in this blog, but I want to emphasize a bit more on this. Comparing it to other big cities in India, the good thing about Calcutta is the widespread availability of beautiful architecture. You can find the heritage buildings all across the city. The north, an area with a lot of narrow streets, has a lot of small residential-like heritage buildings. Further south, in the colonial districts or in the posher neighbourhoods south of the Maidan, one could see larger heritage buildings. One of the most fascinating Kolkata buildings is definitely Victoria Memorial, but we picked the worst time – a Sunday afternoon – to visit the building; it was literally packed with people, we even had to stand in line to enter. The Writers building in the Colonial district is beautiful but run down. The construction of this building started in 1777 and it housed the Chief Minister of West Bengal up until 2013. We didn’t visited the Marble Palace, Calcutta High Court, the Indian Museum and many other buildings so we will come back very soon.

The gritty sights of the poor. It’s not a coincidence that Mother Teresa had settled with her people in Kolkata. The city is poor, very poor. I’ve seen a few places in India, but I hadn’t seen so many poor people in one place. Having lived in India for almost two years now, I’ve built a personal prevention shield to avoid getting too emotional. Unfortunately, Kolkata grabbed me a couple of times. While we went to visit the fascinating flower market near the Howrah bridge, had to pass a dark tunnel. The tunnel was filled with dirt, rats were looking for food while pigs were walking amongst sleeping men. Just before the end of the tunnel I noticed something that reminded me of a heart-breaking passage from a book about Afghanistan; young men and even a couple of women were smoking heroin. The smell of burning heroin, combined with the dirt hit me, especially after I had been approached by a heavily disabled man without legs. The unfortunate sight of hungry and begging children on the streets, combined with the devastating heat and the surrounding dirt hit me a couple of times during our stay.

Conclusion: a must visit to Calcutta. Despite the poverty and the dirt, Calcutta has its own charm. In fact, it prides itself with a top position on our list of places we would like to revisit. If you love India, you should definitely visit Calcutta. However, if you’re planning to come you definitely need to take the poverty and dirt into consideration.

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