Calcutta (Kolkata) is the first stop on my third segment of the Grand Tour of the East. The capital of the province of West Bengal, and the cultural capital of Bengalis worldwide, it is a worthy first stop, and quite possibly my favourite city of all on the Grand Tour.
Calcutta was the headquarters of the East India Company from 1772, and thereafter, capital of the British Raj from 1793 till 1911, and it is fabulously old world, oozing imperial splendour and decadence with its majestic, monumental, though sadly crumbling buildings everywhere you look. At the same time, it is also a city of extremes, with abject poverty existing side by side with fabulous wealth. It provides a picture of Old India – with its streets heaving with life and with people, air perfumed with rich smells and odours; where locals play cricket on the Maidan at mid-day even though it is sweltering hot.
The city was established in 1690, when the merchants of the English East India Company, led by one John Charnock, dropped anchor at a fishing village on the banks of the Hooghly River. By 1712, the EIC had completed building Fort William – which still forms the heart of the city today. Around the Fort, they would built the city proper.
The city then and today was divided into two segregated areas: White Town, which was for the British (and other Europeans), and was centred around Dalhousie Square and Chowringhee Street; and Black Town, which was where the local Bengalis, rich and poor, resided. Both were self-contained settlements, in that they held residences, places of worship and commercial establishments.
The most spectacular sight in Calcutta is in White Town – these are the monumental buildings in and around Dalhousie Square, known as the Benoy-Badal-Dinesh, or B.B.D. Bagh today, after three Bengali independence fighters. This was the heart of the Empire. Here you will find mind-blowing Victorian and Edwardian-era buildings such as the Writer’s Building, the General Post Office (or G.P.O.) Building, the High Court Building and the headquarters of the Eastern Railway. Not far away sits that most stupendous of monuments to the British Raj – the Victoria Memorial.
Black Town is not without its own sights, being still home to spectacular villas and residences owned by the zamindars, or wealthy Bengali landowners; those proud and old families who had sold away Calcutta to the British in the first place. Black town is also home to Jorasanko, the private residence of Rabindranath Tagore, Bengal’s poet laureate supreme.
In between White and Black Town lies a “Grey Town” of sorts; a grey area where communities who weren’t either european or bengali, sunk roots. This is Bowbazar, and it is home to the city’s Chinatown, Arab/Muslim and Jewish Quarters, Parsi, Greek Orthodox, Portuguese-Eurasian and Anglo-Indian communities.
Elsewhere, in the suburbs of Calcutta, one finds its most important Hindu temples. The Kalighat, dedicated to the worship of the Hindu goddess Kali is one of them – just around the corner sits the Nirmal Hriday, famed for Mother Theresa. For here was where she had her shelter for the sick, destitute and dying. Farther afield, one finds the Dakshineshwar Temple, a surreal vision of a Temple, also dedicated to Kali and sitting on its own ghat by the Hooghly River.
Calcutta was particularly special for me as a Singaporean because from 1830 to 1867, Singapore and the Straits Settlements were ruled as part of the Bengal Presidency, the headquarters of which was at Calcutta. Being two major port cities in the British Empire, Singapore and Calcutta have many surprising similarities, not just in terms of the urban design and colonial architecture – colonial urban planning and architecture in early Singapore took Calcutta as reference – but also in that both cities are melting pots.
For a Singaporean, Calcutta will feel strangely familiar, and is thus an apt introduction to India.
As a last point to note: it is important to remember that Calcutta is still extremely poor. The streets will be full of beggars (and child beggars), touts, and impromptu roadside stalls selling everything you can possibly imagine; the city is polluted and the roads are terribly congested with traffic. But look past the immediate squalour and you will be charmed by the majesty and history that is everywhere around you, in the buildings and the streetnames and the food.
The city is perfectly safe to walk around – in fact walking is the only way you can take in the spectacular monuments around Dalhousie Square (the Old Town) and Bowbazar. The sidewalks are completely occupied by street stall and hordes of people, so do what everybody else does: walk on the street, with an eye on the cars around you.
Where possible, I took the Calcutta Metro, which is safe, runs largely on time and is remarkably cheap (5 to 10 rupees per journey depending on the distance – this is about 10 to 20 Singaporean cents!). A ten minute ride on the subway could take half an hour to forty-five minutes by taxi because of the terrible traffic.
In the next month or so, I will take you on a walking tour of the city of Calcutta, right here on Dream Of A City.