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India: West Bengal: Darjeeling, Gangasagar, Kolkata
Kolkata, West Bengal, India: Sea of humanity
by Prakash Bang, Editor in Chief
Formerly known as Calcutta, Kolkata is also called The City of Joy. To be honest, I wonder why? Over 15 million people live in this metropolis and its suburbs, making it one of the most congested metros of the world. Most of the population just crams in the city and its public transportation system. While new development happening on the outskirts is world-class, the life in the city leaves much to be desired.
Kolkata served as the capital of India during the British Raj until 1911, when its perceived geographical disadvantages and a growing nationalism in Bengal led to the shift of the capital to New Delhi. The city is noted for its vibrant political culture. It was a center of the Indian struggle for independence and remains a hotbed of contemporary politics. Once the center of modern education, science, culture, and politics in India, Kolkata witnessed economic stagnation in the years following India's independence in 1947. However, since the year 2000, economic rejuvenation has led to acceleration in the city's growth. Like other metropolitan cities in developing countries, Kolkata continues to deal with contemporary urban problems such as pollution and traffic congestion.
Kolkata was the last leg of my 10-day trip of Eastern India. We were 2 couples travelling together. We landed in Kolkata at 3:30 PM. We were on the flight from Bagdogra. We would be in Kolkata for 3 days, of which one day was reserved for a trip to Gangasagar, a major Hindu pilgrimage centre about 120 kms from Kolkata. With 2 days on hand, we need to manage to scan the city and some shopping too (our wives were with us).
As compared to other metros in India, taxis were not expensive at all. Speaking of taxis, all taxis in Kolkata are Ambassadors and are painted bright yellow. However, during our stay in Kolkata, it made more sense for us to have a private taxi. I used the services of Grewal Cars. They had a good fleet of cars. We chose an Innova. Our driver, named Pintu, was pretty good with his job.
We were booked at Taj Bengal, one of the fine hotels in Kolkata. Itís located in Alipore, an up market neighbourhood and within easy reach of many Kolkata attractions. Thanks to me being in the travel business, we were upgraded to a suite. That was cherry on the topping. Like always, Tajís hospitality was at its best.
By the time we checked in it was 5PM. Being winter months, it was already dark. We decided to drive the neighbourhood to get our bearings in order. Our drive went around the race course, Victoria Memorial and Park Street. That was good for the day. Dinner that night was at Sonargaon, one of the restaurants in the hotel that offered a good selection of Indian cuisine with special emphasis on delicacies from Bengal.
Post breakfast the next morning at 10AM we were ready for our city tour. Our first stop was indeed the Victoria Memorial.
On the death of Queen Victoria in January 1901, Lord Curzon, who was then Viceroy of India, placed before the public the question of setting up a fitting memorial to the Queen. He suggested that the most suitable memorial would be a stately, spacious, monumental and grand building surrounded by an exquisite garden. This was to be a historical museum where people could see before them pictures and statues of men who played a prominent part in the history of this country and develop a pride in their past. The princes and people of India responded generously to his appeal for funds and the total cost of construction of this monument amounting to rupees ten million, was entirely derived from their voluntary subscriptions.
The memorial was designed by Sir William Emerson using Indo-Saracen style, incorporating Mughal elements in the structure. Lord Redesdale and Sir David Prain designed the gardens. The foundation stone of the memorial was laid down in the year 1906. White Makrana marbles were used in the construction of Victoria Memorial Hall and the building was inaugurated in the year 1921. The massive hall is 338 feet by 228 feet and rises to a height of 184 feet. The monument was intended to serve as a tribute to the success of the British Empire in India. Thereís an entry fee of Rs 10 for Indian nationals to visit the memorial. The hall exhibits lithographs, paintings, artifacts and statues from the era gone by. Topical exhibitions are also held from time to time. We spent an hour in the hall and in the sprawling gardens.
Driving through the crowded streets including Chowrangee (a famous square and thoroughfare of Kolkata) we reached on the banks of River Hooghly.
Hooghly River is an approximately 260 kms long distributary of the Ganges River. It splits from the Ganges as a canal in Murshidabad District at the Farakka Barrage. The river was an important transportation channel in the early history of Bengal, and later with the colonial trading ports. The river's presence is one of the reasons chosen by the British to settle there at Calcutta. The Dutch / French colony at Chandannagar on the Hooghly was once the rival of British Calcutta. The river banks hosted several battles and skirmishes towards the start of the colonial era, including the Battle of Plassey Palashi, as well as earlier wars against Maratha raiders.
The Hooghly river system is an essential lifeline for the people of West Bengal. It is through this river that the East India Company sailed in to Bengal and established their trade settlement - Calcutta, which later grew up to be one of the greatest cities of the world and capital of the erstwhile British India. People from other countries like French, Dutch, Portuguese, etc. all had their trade settlement by the banks of this river.
Hooghly River is considered very auspicious as it has links with River Ganges. On the banks of Hooghly, devotees offer prayers and also perform last rites for the departed souls to rest in peace. From the location that I was standing, on my left I could see the mighty Vidyasagar Setu (Bridge) and to my right was the famous Howrah Bridge. Heavy fog had diminished the visibility to a great extent.
Vidyasagar Setu is also known as the Second Hooghly Bridge. It links the city of Kolkata to Howrah. The bridge is a toll bridge for all vehicles. At a total length of about 823 metres, it is the longest cable-stayed bridge in India and one of the longest in Asia. The bridge is named after the 19th century Bengali educationist reformer Pandit Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar.
To reach our next stop which was Mother Teresa Home, we negotiated the roads so as to drive past the majestic Eden Gardens and Dalhousie Square.
Established in 1864, Eden Gardens currently holds 90,000 people. It is the home of the Bengal cricket team and the Indian Premier League's Kolkata Knight Riders. It is the largest cricket stadium in India by seating capacity. It is widely acknowledged to be the most iconic cricket stadium in the country and in the world.
Dalhousie Square today is called B B D Bagh. Lord Dalhousie was Governor General of India from 1847 to 1856. B B D stands for three young Indian independence activists - Benoy, Badal and Dinesh, who on 8 December 1930 shot dead the Inspector General of Prisons, N.S. Simpson, in the balconies of Writers' Building. B B D Bagh continues to be like the heart of Kolkata and many famous buildings housing important businesses and banks are located here. The Writers Building - secretariat of West Bengal Government, Royal Exchange, General Post Office, Telephone Bhawan, Saint John's Church are all situated around the square. The place is locally known as the Office Para - meaning the locality of offices.
Mother Teresa Home is closed for visitors from 12 noon to 3PM. Unfortunately, we reached only at 12:30. However, the sisters were kind to show me around. There are many Mother Teresa Homes around the world. This one in Kolkata served the orphans.
Just near to Mother Teresa Home stands the famous Birla Mandir. Unfortunately, that too was closed and would reopen only at 4PM. Since we did not have time on hand, we paid our respects from outside the temple premises and drove to our next stop Ė the Kali Temple.
Kalighat Kali Temple is a Hindu temple dedicated to the Hindu goddess Maa Kali. It is one of the 51 Shakti Peethas. Kalighat was a Ghat (landing stage) sacred to Kali on the old course of the Hooghly River. The name Kolkata is said to have been derived from the word Kalighat. The river over a period of time has moved away from the temple. The temple is now on the banks of a small canal called Adi Ganga which connects to the Hooghly.
The temple is visited by pilgrims from all over India irrespective of sectarian differences. The thousands of pilgrims who flock daily to the Kalighat temple treat Kali very much like a human mother, bringing her their domestic problems and prayers for prosperity, and returning when their prayers are fulfilled to express their gratitude. Their attitude towards the Goddess is guided by their religious traditions and training, their spiritual and intellectual capacities, and the guidance of their temple priests.
I would like to warn the visitors to the temple to be vary of the priests around who are also known as Pandas. As I experienced, their sole motive is to play with the human sentiments to extract maximum amount of money. Though the lines are long, these priests manage to sneak in devotees through the back-door. Money talks!
After making our way through throngs of people in the temple by lanes, we reached our waiting taxi. Than plan now was to visit Park Street (now renamed as Mother Teresa Sarani). The road is one of the most happening in Kolkata with hotels, restaurants and shops on both sides.
It was nearly 3 PM. A bite was indeed due. And what better place than to visit the 150 year old bakery and eatery called Flurys. The outlet offers excellent food depending upon the time of your visit. Sandwiches are all day long and have my recommendation. I could see many of their customers come in to pack a variety of cakes, pastries and breads. I guess their milk-bread made them famous.
After a nourishing snack, men and women from our group decided to split. We went back to the hotel and the women decided to stay back to shop on Park Street. I took a taxi back to the hotel and thatís when I realized that the fares were quite reasonable.
We lazed for the rest of the evening in the lounge. With drinks and canapťs around, time just flew by. When our better halves came back, we enjoyed our dinner at the hotelís Chinese restaurant.
We retired early. Early next morning we would leave for Gangasagar. You may want to refer to my experience out there.
By the time we came back from Gangasagar it was 8PM. For dinner we stopped at Peerless Innís authentic Bengali restaurant named Aheli. The food was quite expensive but the taste was simply out of the world.
The next day my flight home was scheduled at 8PM. That gave us almost a day to explore more of Kolkata. We requested for a late check-out. The plan was to move around town till 5PM. Come back to the hotel, pack-up and leave for the airport.
Our first stop next morning was the famous Howrah Bridge. I got down on one side of the bank and walked across the bridge. That way, I had better access to things happening around. The Howrah Bridge is a cantilever bridge that spans the Hooghly River. Commissioned in 1943, the bridge was originally named the New Howrah Bridge, because it links the city of Howrah to its twin city, Kolkata. On 14 June 1965 it was renamed Rabindra Setu, after Rabindranath Tagore a great Bengal poet and the first Indian Nobel laureate. However it is still popularly known as the Howrah Bridge.
Before the making of the Vidyasagar Setu, traffic snarls was everyday affair. The Howrah Railway Station sits just across the bridge. It was very common for travelers to miss their trains due to traffic jams. Well, thereís still a rush hour but things do move albeit slowly.
Struggling through traffic, I reached my next destination Ė the Belur Math. Sadly, the gates were closed for visitors. I was not aware that visitors are not allowed from 12 noon until 3PM. My mistake; I should have done some research.
Belur Math is the headquarters of the Ramakrishna Math and Mission, founded by Swami Vivekananda, a chief disciple of Ramakrishna Paramahamsa. It is located on the west bank of Hooghly River and is one of the significant institutions in Kolkata. The temple is notable for its architecture that fuses Hindu, Christian and Islamic motifs as a symbol of unity of all religions.
Few kms from Belur Math stands Dakshineshwar Kali Temple. The Dakshineswar Kali Temple is located on the eastern bank of the Hooghly River. The spires are clearly visible from far and the Bally Bridge that connects the two banks. The presiding deity of the temple is Bhavatarini, an aspect of Kali, meaning, 'She who liberates Her devotees from the ocean of existence'.
The temple was built by Rani Rashmoni, a philanthropist and a devotee of Kali in 1855. The temple is famous for its association with Ramakrishna a mystic of 19th Century Bengal. The temple compound, apart from the nine-spired main temple, contains a large courtyard surrounding the temple, with rooms along the boundary walls. There are twelve shrines dedicated to Shiva- Kali's companion- along the riverfront, a temple to Radha-Krishna, a bathing ghat on the river and a shrine dedicated to Rani Rashmoni. The chamber in the northwestern corner just beyond the last of the Shiva temples is where Ramakrishna spent a considerable part of his life.
Looking at the chaotic traffic, we turned back. It was 3PM by the time I reached the city centre. With 2 more hours on hand, we decided to spend time in few famous markets namely The Airconditioned Market and The Vardaan market. These markets are well known for selling sarees, garments, fabrics, imitation jewelry, flavoured suparis (mouth freshners), etc. Whilst there make it a point to try some local roadside snacks notably Mudhi, Chillas and Puchkaas.
Well, it was time to say goodbye. Things thereafter worked for us as planned. Home was calling.
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